The Master doesn’t try to be powerful;
thus he is truly powerful.
The ordinary man keeps reaching for power;
thus he never has enough.
The Master does nothing,
yet he leaves nothing undone.
The ordinary man is always doing things,
yet many more are left to be done.
The kind man does something,
yet something remains undone.
The just man does something,
and leaves many things to be done.
The moral man does something,
and when no one responds
he rolls up his sleeves and uses force.
When the Tao is lost, there is goodness.
When goodness is lost, there is morality.
When morality is lost, there is ritual.
Ritual is the husk of true faith,
the beginning of chaos.
Therefore the Master concerns himself
with the depths and not the surface,
with the fruit and not the flower.
He has no will of his own.
He dwells in reality,
and lets all illusions go.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 38, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Just yesterday, we were talking about being free of desire and content with our simple, everyday lives. Lao Tzu said that would happen all by itself, if only powerful men and women would center themselves in the Tao. The reason he puts the onus on them is because it is they who hinder this. Their will to power is always running counter to the Tao. Their program incites desires. If we are going to be free of desires, if we are going to learn to be content with our simple, everyday lives, the powerful won’t be of any help to us.
So, knowing that, it seems like a tall order, indeed. It has been a daily challenge for me for some time now. I think I am making headway. But, I still find myself not quite rid of desires. That is why I encourage myself every day with the idea that it isn’t the destination, but the journey. The journey is something I take one day at a time. Some days are triumphs. Some days there are setbacks. But I cannot be discouraged. I have the rest of my life for this journey.
And, anyway, just as Lao Tzu reminded us, yesterday, we shouldn’t be striving to do anything. The Tao doesn’t strive. It doesn’t do anything, at all. And it still accomplishes everything. I just want to be more and more like the Tao with each passing day.
Today, Lao Tzu separates the Master from the ordinary person. Remember, the Master is simply anyone who is in harmony with the Tao. The ordinary person doesn’t get what the Master is about. The Master is centered within the Tao. How does the Master accomplish this centering? Without trying. Without striving. Without effort. That sounds, well, nigh impossible. How do you accomplish anything without trying to? Without striving to be your very best? Without putting some effort into it?
The Master has got a secret. He has learned how to tap into true power. How? By not trying to be powerful. That is so simple, so profound, that the ordinary person is confounded by it. Oh, the ordinary person wants power. They keep reaching for it. But they never can get enough.
This is key, friends. It is realizing the way things are is the way things are. Anything that you are reaching for, you will never get enough of. Why? Because anything you have to reach for is only an illusion. True power isn’t something to be taken. That is why you won’t see the Master trying to take it. True power isn’t taken, it is given. And, it is given freely. But only to those who aren’t reaching for it. Trying to be powerful is never the way to attain true power. True power is something that powerful men and women will never have. All they have is the illusion of power. How do I know their power isn’t actually real? Because they never have enough. True power isn’t like that. It never leaves you wanting more. Just like the Tao, it is inexhaustible. You will never need more.
Like I said, this is a secret. But it is only a secret to those who have blinded their own eyes. The Master taps into this secret power by not doing anything at all. Yet, the Master leaves nothing undone. The Master’s actions are effortless. There is never any striving. That is what Lao Tzu means by doing nothing. It is doing not-doing. Ordinary people can’t wrap their heads around this doing not-doing. They always must be doing something. They must always be busy, busy, busy. Always striving. Exhausting themselves with effort. And what does that get them? Well, look at the results. Look at all the things that are left undone. That is why the ordinary person is always complaining there are not enough hours in the day. Not enough days in the week. Time is a constant concern, because they never have enough.
We encounter ordinary people in every profession. They are everywhere. Many of them are kind. And, because they are kind, they occupy themselves with doing kind things. But, no matter how many kind things they do, and believe me they do plenty of kind things, there are still plenty of things that remain undone. And, you will find many ordinary people who are quite motivated to be just. Everywhere they turn, they are working to accomplish justice. Yet, no matter how many works of justice they perform, many more are left to be done. They never can do enough. Is Lao Tzu telling us that we shouldn’t waste our time being kind or just? That there is something wrong with being kind or just? If we can’t possibly get everything done through our random acts of kindness or our many works for justice, should we just resign ourselves to the hopelessness of our cause?
Don’t give into hopelessness just yet. There is a better way. One that actually works. And, for those of us who are kind and just, what are our motives really? I like to think the best of people. I just always have wanted to believe the very best of people. So I want to believe that we are kind and seek justice because we want the world to be filled with kindness and justice. That is certainly a much better motive than simply to be seen as kind or just. There is a huge difference between wanting to make the world a better place for everyone, and wanting to put on a good show for everyone.
Even so, as much as I want to make the world a better place for everyone, I also know that we have already been warned about trying to improve the world. Lao Tzu says the world is sacred. We need to be careful. Our efforts to improve it, may be interfering with the Tao. That is how things got messed up in the first place. But that doesn’t mean that we have a hopeless situation, either. We can, and should, be a pattern for how we want our world to be. That is what being in harmony with the Tao is all about. Being a pattern. Notice, that isn’t doing; it is being. Just like the Master doesn’t do anything. The Master is a pattern. And, all things do get done.
Oh, but just look at the moral person over there. They can see all that is wrong in the world and they know just how to fix things. So, they start applying their fixes; and, when no one responds, in other words, things don’t happen just like they wanted them to, they reveal their true nature: They roll up their sleeves and use force to accomplish their objectives. How very ordinary they are. They can’t get anywhere by reaching, so they turn to the use of force. True power never apples force. It never has to. Because unlike the illusion of power, it has nothing to prove. And, when the facade starts to crumble, more and more force is brought to bear.
This was a long chapter; so much was said, and my commentary is going long, as well. How do I bring this to a close? The Tao is everything. That is why it does nothing. When the Tao is lost, which means our connectedness to everything is lost, we seemingly can’t get away with doing nothing. That is why we start substituting other things for the missing Tao. We’ll try goodness. But goodness can be lost, too. So, we substitute morality. Because, if people can’t be good, naturally, we can always force them to be good. So, what happens when morality is lost? Then, all that is left is ritual. The Tao has been lost. Goodness has been lost. Even morality is lost. Goodness isn’t something that comes naturally to us, anymore. We aren’t even being forced to be good, anymore. But, we can put on a good show. That is what ritual is. A good show. An act. It is only the husk of the real thing, true faith. That, my friends, is the chaos that we are living today.
Everyone fears chaos. At least they fear the imaginary kind of chaos. But they seem quite satisfied with the very real chaos that they are living. I tell people there is a better way. But they are so filled with fears of the imaginary, they won’t turn their backs on what they have brought on themselves. Ordinary people can’t see beyond the surface, to the depths. They concern themselves with the flower, instead of the fruit. It is time, my friends. It is time to let go of desires, to have no will of your own. It is time to dwell in reality and let go of all illusions. You can be imagining far better things.