If you over-esteem great men,
people become powerless.
If you overvalue possessions,
people begin to steal.
The Master leads
by emptying people’s minds
and filling their cores,
by weakening their ambition
and toughening their resolve.
He helps people lose everything
they know, everything they desire,
and creates confusion in those
who think that they know.
and everything will fall into place.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter three, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Yesterday, we talked about the Tao as the great equalizer. Bringing all into balance through the loving and complementary relationship of yin and yang. We also talked about the Master’s relationship with the Tao. The Master is any one who is in perfect harmony with the Tao. Near the end of the last chapter, Lao Tzu was describing the dance between the Tao and the Master. The Master lets the Tao lead throughout the dance. The first component of that dance is that the Master acts without doing anything. I didn’t say much about that then. And, I didn’t want to begin going through the list that follows, the different components of the dance, because we are going to be covering them so thoroughly in the days and weeks ahead. My commentary tends to get overly long. I don’t want to discourage my readers with too much information.
That concept of acting without doing anything is something we are going to begin to talk about today. But first, Lao Tzu has plenty more to say about the need to keep things in balance.
Let’s just be clear right from the get go. There is nothing wrong with holding great men and women in esteem. That is, as long as the scales are well-balanced. It is when we start tipping the scales, when we start over-esteeming them, that the problem of duality arises. The more you tip the scale, the greater the problem. The powerful become more and more powerful, while other people, of necessity, become powerless.
Lao Tzu will have plenty to say about possessions. In the previous chapter, he said that the Master has but doesn’t possess. The problem with possessions is in overvaluing them. Everyone and everything has value. The things we have have value to us. But when we overvalue having things then the scales, once again, are tipped. Our possessions, and even lack of them, becomes something not in keeping with the Tao, which keeps all things in balance. Those overvalued possessions become the target of thieves.
Understanding all of this, through his dance with the Tao, the Master leads by emptying people’s minds and filling their cores. This is still a balancing act. Emptying people’s minds means teaching them knowing not-knowing. That is a teaching that we will cover more in the days and weeks ahead. Today, to keep today’s commentary as short and sweet as I possibly can, it just means teaching people to know that they don’t know. As long as people think they know, their ambition will know no bounds. The Master wants to help people lose everything they think they know. He wants to weaken their ambition. Ever keeping things in balance. Those that think they know will easily get confused right here.
While emptying their minds, the Master fills their cores. I have read a variety of different translations that have “bellies” for cores. Filling their bellies sounds like they are having their minds emptied and their stomachs filled. The end result being very fat ignoramuses. But that certainly isn’t Lao Tzu’s intent, here. I think “cores” is a better word than bellies because what Lao Tzu seems to be talking about is something a lot more significant than our stomachs. That would be the heart. The very core of our being. The Master is filling hearts, toughening resolve. For those of you that wonder what is wrong with ambition, you might consider that resolve is a much better thing for keeping things in balance.
Finally, we get to the last sentence of today’s chapter. Where Lao Tzu once again brings up acting without doing anything. This is part of the Master’s dance with the Tao. Lao Tzu wants each and every one of us to practice not-doing. And for those of you that are new to philosophical Taoism this may seem a very strange practice. What? We aren’t supposed to do anything? That is what he seems to be saying. But things are not always what they seem to be. This is wu-wei. Which means doing not doing. Yes, we are going to do. We are going to act. But our actions, our doings, are going to be effortless. They are going to flow with the Tao, instead of at odds with it. Much like the Master in his dance with the Tao. The Tao leads. The Master follows. The Master leads the people by following the Tao. We follow the example of the Master. We are going to learn how to never interfere with the Tao. We are going to learn not to force things. We are going to learn how to follow the Tao. Until we, too, are in perfect harmony with the Tao.
If you don’t quite understand doing not-doing just yet, don’t worry. This is going to be a major component of the dance. We will be talking more and more about this in the coming days and weeks.