Cultivating the Body

“All the world knows beauty
but if that becomes beautiful
this becomes ugly
all the world knows good
but if that becomes good
this becomes bad
have and have not create each other
hard and easy produce each other
long and short shape each other
high and low complete each other
note and noise accompany each other
first and last follow each other
sages therefore perform effortless deeds
and teach wordless lessons
they don’t look after all the things that arise
or depend on them as they develop
or claim them when they reach perfection
and because they don’t claim them
they are never without them”

(Taoteching, verse 2, translation by Red Pine)

LU HSI-SHENG says, “What we call beautiful or ugly depends on our feelings. Nothing is necessarily beautiful or ugly until feelings make it so. But while feelings differ, they all come from our nature, and we all have the same nature. Hence, sages transform their feelings and return to their nature and thus become one again.”

WU CH’ENG says, “The existence of things, the difficulty of affairs, the size of forms, the magnitude of power, the pitch and clarity of sound, the sequence of position, all involve contrasting pairs. When one is present, both are present. When one is absent, both are absent.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “These six pairs all depend on time and occasion. None of them is eternal. Sages, however, act according to the Immortal Tao. Hence, they act without effort. And because they teach according to the Immortal Name, they teach without words. Beautiful and ugly, good and bad don’t enter their minds.”

WANG WU-CHIU says, “Sages are not interested in deeds or words. They simply follow the natural pattern of things. Things rise, develop, and reach perfection. This is their order.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “Sages create but do not possess what they create. They act but do not depend on what they do. They succeed but do not claim success. These all result from selflessness. Because sages are selfless, they do not lose themselves. Because they do not lose themselves, they do not lose others.

SU CH’E says, “Losing something is the result of possessing something. How can people lose what they don’t possess?”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Lao-tzu’s 5,000 word text clarifies what is mysterious as well as what is obvious. It can be used to attain the Tao, to order a country, or to cultivate the body.”

HO-SHANG KUNG titles this verse: “Cultivating the Body.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Those who practice the Way put an end to distinctions, get rid of name and form, and make of themselves a home for the Way and Virtue.”

Yesterday, we walked through the door, beginning the journey through the Taoteching, again. In that first verse Lao-tzu told us that the Immortal Way isn’t something that changes. It doesn’t become. And, names of things that change, can’t be the Immortal name. This is very important for us to understand. I said, yesterday, the Immortal Way isn’t about what will become, but of what is and what is not.

In today’s verse, Lao-tzu explains this “what is and what is not,” further. And this, also, is very important for us to understand. We act as if our universe is only made up of what is. But that is a delusion, if we think it. The Immortal Way, or Eternal Reality, is made up of both what is and what is not. You simply can’t have one without the other. It is yin and yang. As soon as “that” becomes beautiful to you, “this” becomes ugly. If “that” becomes good to you, “this” becomes bad.

Try as you might to imagine it otherwise, there is no such thing as beautiful without ugly, or good without bad. Have and have not create each other. Hard and easy produce each other. Long and short shape each other. High and low complete each other. Note and noise accompany each other. First and last follow each other. You can’t have the one without the other.

But, it goes deeper still. We need to talk about the importance of Lao-tzu’s “that” and “this” in today’s verse. What is that? And, what is this? Why does “that” become beautiful and good at the expense of “this” becoming ugly and bad?

It should be easy to understand that “that” is something external to you. It is over there. You don’t think you have it. But you want it. Why has “that” become beautiful and good? Because you have turned your eyes to it and desire it. Meanwhile, “this” is internal. It is what you already have, what you should be satisfied with,

Ah, but the moment you look outside yourself and set your eyes on “that,” “this” becomes ugly and bad to you. It is all subjective. Don’t worry. If “that” ever becomes “this,” and “this,” becomes “that,” you will only find yourself spinning around in circles with changing desires. And, if you keep on looking outside yourself, it is no telling how many times what is beautiful and good, and ugly and bad, will change.

And that isn’t the Immortal Way, the Eternal Reality. We already covered that. What changes can’t be the Eternal Reality. But, it certainly seems to be your eternal reality. Doesn’t it? However, it doesn’t have to be this way. You can break that cycle. You can “wake up.”

Notice how sages do it. They don’t look after all the things that arise. Nor do they depend on them as they develop. And, when they reach completion, sages never claim them as their own. Now watch it. Because they don’t claim them, they are never without them.

Instead of focusing on what is outside of themselves, sages cultivate what is inside of themselves. And, being content with “this,” they are never without “that.”

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

LU HSI-SHENG (FL. 890). High official and scholar known for his wide learning. His commentary reflects the view that Lao-tzu and Confucius were the spiritual heirs of Fu Hsi (ca. 3500 B.C.), with Lao-tzu emphasizing the yin and Confucius the yang aspects of the Way of Heaven. Tao-te-chen-ching-chuan.

FU HSI (CA. 3500 B.C.). Sage ruler of ancient times and the reputed inventor of the system of hexagrams on which the Yiching is based.

WU CH’ENG (1249-1333). One of the great prose writers of the Yuan dynasty, surpassed only by his student Yu Chi (1272-1348). His commentary shows exceptional originality and provides unique background information. It is also noted for its division of the text into sixty-eight verses. Tao-te-chen-ching-chu.

LU HUI-CH’ING (1031-1111). Gifted writer selected by Wang An-shih to help draft his reform proposals. His commentary, presented to the emperor in 1078, is quoted at length by Chiao Hung. Tao-te-chen-ching-chuan.

WANG WU-CHIU (FL. 1056). Scholar-official. He gave up a promising official career in order to devote himself to studying and teaching. Lao-tzu-yi.

WANG AN-SHIH (1021-1086). One of China’s most famous prime ministers. His attempt to intorduce sweeping reforms directed against merchants and landowners galvanized Chines intellectuals into a debate that continues to this day. He was also one of China’s great poets and prose writers. His commentary has been reedited from scattered sources by Yen Ling-feng. Lao-tzu-chu.

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING (FL. 1700). Taoist master and seventh patriarch of the Dragon Gate sect of the Golden Lotus lineage. His commentary on the Taoteching was a favorite of Emperor K’ang-hsi (r. 1662-1722). Tao-te-ching chiang-yi.

The Door to All Beginnings

“The way that becomes a way
is not the Immortal Way
the name that becomes a name
is not the Immortal Name
no-name is the maiden of Heaven and Earth
name is the mother of all things
thus in innocence we see the beginning
in passion we see the end
two different names
for one and the same
the one we call dark
the dark beyond dark
the door to all beginnings”

(Taoteching, verse 1, translation by Red Pine)

TU ER-WEI says, “Tao originally meant ‘moon.’ The Yiching [see hexagrams 42 and 52] stresses the bright moon, while Lao-tzu stresses the dark moon” (Lao-tzu-te yueh-shen tsung-chiao, pp. ii-iii).

CONFUCIUS says, “The Tao is what we can never leave. What we can leave isn’t the Tao” (Chungyung: 1).

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “What we call a way is a moral or political code, while the Immortal way takes care of the spirit without effort and brings peace to the world without struggle. It conceals its light and hides its tracks and can’t be called a way. As for the Immortal Name, it’s like a pearl inside an oyster, a piece of jade inside a rock: shiny on the inside, dull on the outside.”

CH’ENG CHU says, “Sages don’t reveal the Way because they keep it secret, but because it can’t be revealed. Thus their words are like footsteps that leave no tracks.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Things change but not the Tao. The Tao is immortal. It arrives without moving and comes without being called.”

SU CH’E says, “The ways of kindness and justice change but not the way of the Tao. No-name is its body. Name is its function. Sages embody the Tao and use it in the world. But while entering the myriad states of being, they remain in non-being.”

WANG PI says, “From the infinitesimal all things develop. From nothing all things are born. When we are free of desire, we can see the infinitesimal where things begin. When we are subject to desire, we can see where things end. ‘Two’ refers to ‘maiden’ and ‘mother.’”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “‘Two’ refers to ‘innocence’ and ‘passion,’ or in other words, stillness and movement. Stillness corresponds to nonexistence. Movement corresponds to existence. Provisionally different, they are ultimately the same. Both meet in darkness.”

THE SHUOWEN says, “Hsuan [dark] means ‘black with a dot of red in it.’” This is how the darker half of the yin-yang symbol was traditionally represented. In Shensi province, where the Taoteching was first written, doors were, until recently, painted black with a thin line of red trim. And every road begins with a door.

TE-CH’ING says, “Lao-tzu’s philosophy is all here. The remaining five thousand words only expand on this first verse.”

And RED PINE adds, “During Lao-tzu’s day, philosophers were concerned with the correspondence, or lack of it, between name and reality. The things we distinguish as real change, while their names do not. How then can reality be known through names?”

I have a friend, who has encouraged me to write more of my own commentary with this cycle through the Taoteching. I told him that I really just wanted what these sages had to say on the verse to take root, first. But, maybe it is time to do a little more watering.

Te-ch’ing says “Lao-tzu’s philosophy is all here. The remaining five thousand words only expand on this first verse.” That may be so, but I am certainly glad that Lao-tzu went on to expand on this first verse. It is the one verse that, even after all these times through, still gives me plenty of trouble. He leaves so much unsaid. But, then again, I think that is the whole point. Don’t be attached to words. The lessons sages teach are wordless lessons.

Even now, I am anticipating what will come. The last line of the previous paragraph is from verse 2. But, Lao-tzu stops me right there. “The way that becomes a way is not the Immortal Way.” It isn’t about what will become, but of what is and what is not. We get so caught up in becoming. But, what can and does change, with time or circumstance, isn’t the Immortal Way.

And, Red Pine reminds us, name and reality don’t always correspond. “How then can reality be known through names?” Lao-tzu, I think, would tell us to be still. For it is only in stillness we will come to understand. Here, Lao-tzu is already introducing the perfect balance of yin and yang, of innocence and passion, of stillness and movement, of maiden and mother. Two different names for one and the same. The One we call Dark. The Dark beyond dark. The Door To All Beginnings.

“And,” the Shuowen says, “Every road begins with a door.” In other words, every journey begins by first walking through a door. Te Ch’ing says in his commentary on verse 71, “The ancients said that the word understanding was the door to all mysteries as well as the door to all misfortune.” The “door to all beginnings” here, in verse 1, certainly qualifies as the door to all mysteries. But, here is your caveat: It can also be the door to all misfortune. As Te Ch’ing continues, “If you realize that you don’t understand, you eliminate false understanding. This is the door to all mysteries. If you cling to understanding while trying to discover what you don’t understand, you increase the obstacles to understanding. This is the door to all misfortune.” Understanding, then, can result in either transcendence or affliction. Which will it be?

For my part, I plan to keep on reminding myself of how much I don’t know. And so, onward through the door we go.

Who was Lao-tzu? There is a lot of disagreement over this question. Lao-tzu means “Old Master.” He was a legendary figure in history, and the reputed author of the Taoteching. Some place him as early as the 6th century B.C.E., others as late as the 4th century B.C.E.. I happen to like reading the many legends associated with him. Much mystery surrounds him.

Who is Red Pine? Red Pine is the pen-name Bill Porter, an American author (born October 3, 1943), uses as a translator of Chinese texts, primarily Taoist and Buddhist, including the translation of the Taoteching I am presently using for our journey.

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

TU ER-WEI (1913-1987). Scholar of Chinese religion and comparative mythology and proponent of the view that Taoism had its origin in the worship of the moon. Lao-tzu-te-yueh-shen tsung-chiao. He was a major influence for Red Pine in his translation of the Taoteching.

YICHING (BOOK OF CHANGES). Ancient manual of divination based on a system of hexagrams invented by Fu Hsi (ca. 3500 B.C.). with judgments attributed to Duke Wen and the Duke of Chou (c. 1200-1100 B.C.), and commentaries added some 600 years later, reportedly by Confucius.

CONFUCIUS (551-479 B.C.). Who hasn’t heard of Confucius? He was China’s most revered teacher of doctrines emphasizing the harmony of human relations. His teachings, along with those of certain disciples, were compiled into the Lunyu (Analects), the Chung-yung (Doctrine of the Mean), and the Tahsueh (Great Learning) and until recently formed the basis of moral education in China.

CHUNGYUNG (DOCTRINE OF THE MEAN). Attributed to Tzussu, the grandson of Confucius. It forms part of a larger work known as the Lichi, or Book of Rites.

HO-SHANG KUNG (D. CA. 159 B.C.). Taoist master who lived in a hut beside the Yellow River – hence his name which means Master Riverside. His commentary emphasizes Taoist yoga and was reportedly composed at the request of Emperor Wen (r. 179-156 B.C.). It ranks next to Wang Pi’s in popularity. Some scholars think it was compiled as late as the third or fourth century A.D. by members of the Taoist lineage that included Ko Hung (283-343). There is at least one English translation: Edward Erkes, Artibus Asiae (Switzerland), 1950. Lao-tzu-chu.

CH’ENG CHU (1078-1144). Scholar-official and fearless critic of government policies. Lao-tzu-lun.

LI HSI-CHAI (FL. 1167). Taoist master, practitioner of Taoist yoga, and noted Yiching scholar. His commentary extends Lao-tzu’s teachings to the state as well as the individual. Tao-te-chen-ching yi-chieh.

SU CH’E (1039-1112). He, his father, and his brother are counted among the eight great prose writers of the T’ang and Sung dynasties. Although his commentary reflects his own neo-Confucian sympathies, it is also treasured by Buddhists and Taoists. Tao-te-chen-ching-chu.

WANG PI (226-249). Famous for the quickness of his mind as well as the breadth of his learning. He grew up with one of the best private libraries of his time. Although he died of a sudden illness at the age of twenty-four, he was among the first to discuss Taoism as metaphysics rather than religion. As a result, his commentary has been preferred over that of Ho-shang Kung by Confucian scholars. At least two English translations exist: Paul Lin, University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies, 1977; Ariane Rump, University of Hawaii Press, 1979. Lao-tzu-chu.

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG (FL. SUNG DYNASTY: 960-1278). Taoist nun about whom I have found no other information. Lao-tzu-chu.

SHUOWEN Greatest of China’s early etymological dictionaries. It was compiled and first published by Hsu Shen in A.D. 121 and revised and updated with new materials in the T’ang, Sung, and Ch’ing dynasties.

TE-CH’ING (1546-1623). One of the greatest Buddhist writers of the Ming dynasty and responsible for revitalizing the practice of Zen in China. His commentaries on Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu are among the best ever written and are used by Taoists as well as Buddhists. Lao-tzu tao-te-ching-chieh.

Helping Without Harming, Acting Without Struggling

“True words aren’t beautiful
beautiful words aren’t true
the good aren’t eloquent
the eloquent aren’t good
the wise aren’t learned
the learned aren’t wise
sages accumulate nothing
but the more they do for others
the greater their existence
the more they give to others
the greater their abundance
the Way of Heaven
is to help without harming
the Way of the Sage
is to act without struggling”

(Taoteching, verse 81, translation by Red Pine)

HUANG-TI says, “There’s a word for everything. Words that are harmful we say aren’t true” (Chingfa: 2).

TE-CH’ING says, “At the beginning of this book, Lao-tzu says the Tao can’t be put into words. But are its 5,000-odd characters not words? Lao-tzu waits until the last verse to explain this. He tells us that though the Tao itself includes no words, by means of words it can be revealed – but only by words that come from the heart.”

SU CH’E says, “What is true is real but nothing more. Hence, it isn’t beautiful. What is beautiful is pleasing to look at but nothing more. Hence, it isn’t true. Those who focus on goodness don’t try to be eloquent. And those who focus on eloquence aren’t good. Those who have one thing that links everything together have no need of learning. Those who keep learning don’t understand the Tao. The sage holds on to the one and accumulates nothing.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “True words are simple and not beautiful. The good cultivate the Tao, not the arts. The wise know the Tao, not information. Sages accumulate virtue, not wealth. They give their wealth to the poor and use their virtue to teach the unwise. And like the sun or moon, they never stop shining.”

CHUANG-TZU says, “When Lao Tan and Yin Hsi heard of people who considered accumulation as deficiency, they were delighted” (Chuangtzu: 33.5). Lao Tan was Lao-tzu’s name, and Yin Hsi was the man to whom he transmitted the Taoteching.

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “People only worry that their own existence and abundance are insufficient. They don’t realize that helping and giving to others does them no harm but benefits themselves instead.”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “The wealth that comes from giving generously is inexhaustible. The power that arises from not accumulating is boundless.”

WU CH’ENG says, “Help is the opposite of harm. Wherever there is help, there must be harm. But when Heaven helps, it doesn’t harm, because it helps without helping. Action is the start of struggle. Wherever there is action, there must be struggle. But when sages act, they don’t struggle, because they act without acting.”

CHIAO HUNG says, “The previous 5,000 words all explain ‘the Tao of not accumulating,’ what Buddhists call ‘nonattachment.’ Those who empty their mind on the last two lines will grasp most of Lao-tzu’s text.”

WANG CHEN says, “The last line summarizes the entire 5,000 words of the previous eighty verses. It doesn’t focus on action or inaction but simply on action that doesn’t involve struggle.”

And RED PINE concludes the commentary by saying, “At the beginning and at the end of the Taoteching, Lao-tzu reminds us not to become attached to the words. Let the words go. Have a cup of tea.”

What lessons might we glean from this concluding verse? Perhaps, we might consider whether our priorities are what they should be. Truth or beauty? Goodness or eloquence? Being wise or being learned? And, what’s with our need to accumulate things? What are we doing for others? What more could we give? If we would follow the Way we would master the art of helping without harming. And, saving the most important one for last, if we could understand that the central tenet of philosophical Taoism wei wu wei isn’t a choice between action and inaction but of acting without struggling.

Don’t take life so seriously. You worry too much. Let the words go. Have a cup of tea.

We have come to the end of yet another cycle through the Taoteching. I never cease to be amazed at how quickly these 81 days fly by. And, I can hardly wait to begin with verse 1 again, tomorrow. I find myself understanding, more, with each time I go through it with you all. And, it is because I believe I am understanding things so much better that I am always delighted to begin the journey again. I hope you all are enjoying the journey with me.

Join me tomorrow, I will be using Red Pine’s translation again, with all of these wonderful sages inspiring me with their commentaries. I wonder what new insights to be shared are in store.

Where Is This Place?

“Imagine a small state with a small population
let there be labor-saving tools
that aren’t used
let people consider death
and not move far
let there be boats and carts
but no reason to ride them
let there be armor and weapons
but no reason to employ them
let people return to the use of knots
and be satisfied with their food
and pleased with their clothing
and content with their homes
and happy with their customs
let there be another state so near
people hear its dogs and chickens
but live out their lives
without making a visit”

(Taoteching, verse 80, translation by Red Pine)

HUANG-TI says, “A great state is yang. A small state is yin.”

SU CH’E says, “Lao-tzu lived during the decline of the Chou, when artifice flourished and customs suffered, and he wished to restore its virtue through doing nothing. Hence, at the end of his book he wishes he had a small state to try this on. But he never got his wish.”

YAO NAI says, “In ancient times, states were many and small. In later times, they were few and great. But even if a great state wanted to return to the ancient ways, how could it?”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “When sages govern great states, they think of them as small states and are frugal in the use of resources. When the people are many, sages think of them as few and are careful not to exhaust them.”

HU SHIH says, “With the advance of civilization, the power of technology is used to replace human labor. A cart can carry thousands of pounds, and a boat can carry hundreds of passengers. This is the meaning of ‘labor-saving tools.’”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “When the people are content with their lot, they don’t concern themselves with moving far away or with going to war.”

THE YICHING CHITZU says, “The earlier rulers used knots in their government. Later sages introduced the use of writing” (B.2).

WU CH’ENG says, “People who are satisfied with their food and pleased with their clothes cherish their lives and don’t tempt death. People who are content with their homes and happy with their customs don’t move far away. They grow old and die where they were born.”

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “They are satisfied with their food because they taste the Tao. They are pleased with their clothing because they are adorned with virtue. They are content with their homes because they are content wherever they are. And they are happy with their customs because they soften the glare of the world.”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “Those who do their own farming and weaving don’t lack food or clothes. They have nothing to give and seek nothing. Why should they visit others?”

Red Pine wonders, “Where is this place?” And, I would have to echo him. In his penultimate verse, Lao-tzu is done (not literally, but figuratively). Lao-tzu imagined a better world for us all. One where people are content. Don’t get too caught up in the description, your mind may start raising all sorts of objections. And, Lao-tzu wasn’t interested in arguing. Lao-tzu’s point, I think, is that all these things, we don’t think we can live without, have failed in their purpose to make us content. Does Lao-tzu have a problem with labor-saving tools? Not at all. He says, “Let them be.” He just thinks we would be much happier if we had them, but never saw the need in using them. Boats and carts (in his time) had made life so much better. Look at how much easier it is to move people and products from place to place! Look at all your choices regarding food, regarding clothing, regarding homes, and even customs… You have so much! Yet, you don’t know how to enjoy them. Lao-tzu isn’t meaning to limit our choices. He is wanting us to be happy. Wouldn’t it be far better to have armor and weapons with no reason to ever employ them, than to live in a constant state of war? Lao-tzu did seem to think his dream of a people content could never be realized in a large state. This is why he envisioned a small one. The lesson I draw from today’s verse, “The reason you aren’t content isn’t because you have too many choices, it is because you aren’t satisfied with all that you have.”

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

HUANG-TI (27TH C. B.C.). Known as the Yellow Emperor, he was the leader of the confederation of tribes that established their hegemony along the Yellow River. Thus, he was considered the patriarch of Chinese civilization. When excavators opened the Mawangtui tombs, they also found four previously unknown texts attributed to him: Chingfa, Shihtaching, Cheng, and Taoyuan.

YAO NAI (1732-1815). One of the most famous literary figures of the Ch’ing dynasty and advocate of writing in the style of ancient prose. His anthology of ancient literary models, Kuwentzu Leitsuan, has had a great influence on writers and remains in use.

THE YICHING CHITZU (APPENDED JUDGMENTS ON THE BOOK OF CHANGES). Attributed to Duke Wen. The YICHING (BOOK OF CHANGES). Ancient manual of divination based on a system of hexagrams invented by Fu Hsi (ca. 3500 B.C.) with judgments attributed to Duke Wen and the Duke of Chou (c. 1200-1100 B.C.), and commentaries added some 600 years later, reportedly by Confucius.

How Can This Be Good?

“In resolving a great dispute
a dispute is sure to remain
how can this be good
sages therefore hold the left marker
and make no claim on others
thus the virtuous oversee markers
the virtueless oversee taxes
the Way of Heaven favors no one
but it always helps the good”

(Taoteching, verse 79, translation by Red Pine)

TE CH’ING says, “In Lao-tzu’s day, whenever the feudal rulers had a dispute, the most powerful lord convened a meeting to resolve it. But the resolution of a great dispute invariably involved a payment. And if the payment was not forthcoming, the dispute continued.”

WANG PI says, “If we don’t arrange a contract clearly and a dispute results, even using virtuous means to settle it won’t restore the injury. Thus, a dispute will remain.”

SU CH’E says, “If we content ourselves with trimming the branches and don’t pull out the roots, things might look fine on the outside, but not on the inside. Disputes come from delusions, and delusions are the product of our nature. Those who understand their nature encounter no delusions, much less disputes.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Murderers are killed, and criminals are punished according to their crime. But those who inflict such punishments offend their own human feelings and involve innocent people as well. If even one person sighs, we offend the Heart of Heaven. How can resolving disputes be considered good?”

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “If someone lets go of both sides but still clings to the middle, how can he be completely good?”

CHENG LIANG-SHU says, “In ancient times, contracts were divided in two. In the state of Ch’u, the creditor kept the left half, and Lao-tzu was from Ch’u. In the central plains, this was reversed, and the creditor kept the right half.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Seeking to make peace with others is the Way of Humankind. Not seeking to make peace but letting things make peace by themselves is the Way of Heaven. Despite action and the expenditure of energy, energy and action seldom bring peace. Sages therefore hold the left marker because the rely on nonaction and the subtlety of letting things be.”

CHIANG HSI-CH’ANG says, “If one does not make demands of others, disputes cannot arise. If one constantly takes from others, great disputes cannot help but occur.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “Those concerned with taxes cannot avoid making claims on others and thus cannot prevent disputes. This is why they lack virtue.”

MENCIUS says, “The rulers of the Hsia dynasty exacted a tribute [kung] on every five acres of land. The rulers of the Shang exacted a share [chu] on every seven acres. The rulers of the Chou exacted a tax [ch’e] on every ten acres. In reality, what was paid was a tithe of 10 percent” (Mencius: 3A.3; see also Lunyu: 12.9).

LU TUNG-PIN says, “Those who are good cultivate themselves. They don’t concern themselves with others. Once you concern yourself with others, you have disputes. The good make demands of themselves. They don’t make demands of others. The Way of Humankind is selfish. The Way of Heaven is unselfish. It isn’t concerned with others. But it is always one with those who are good.”

And RED PINE adds, “The Way of Heaven always helps the good because the good expect nothing. Hence, they are easily helped. The last two lines were a common saying. In the Shuoyuan: 10.25, they conclude an exhortation to keep still. They also appear in slightly different form in the Shuching and in Ch’u Yuan’s Lisao: ‘High Heaven favors no one / but it helps the virtuous.’”

I absolutely love today’s chapter for how well it explains the futility of intervening in disputes. It is the very reason why the notion that the US needs to police the whole world is so utterly insane. It reminds me so of the definition of insanity, which is attributed to Albert Einstein. We keep repeating the same actions expecting a different result. I used to wonder, “How can they not know?” But, after so long, I can no longer justify the insanity with a claim of ignorance. They have to know exactly what they are doing! It isn’t ignorance, it is a lack of virtue.

Red Pine introduces the following sage in today’s verse:

CHENG LIANG-SHU (B. 1940). Classical scholar and a leading authority on the Mawangtui texts.

This Is Something Everyone Knows…

“Nothing in the world is weaker than water
but against the hard and the strong
nothing outdoes it
for nothing can change it
the soft overcomes the hard
the weak overcomes the strong
this is something everyone knows
but no one is able to practice
thus do sages declare
who accepts a country’s disgrace
we call the lord of soil and grain
who accepts a country’s misfortune
we call the ruler of all under Heaven
upright words sound upside down”

(Taoteching, verse 78, translation by Red Pine)

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “The nature of water is to stay low, to not struggle, and to take on the shape of its container. Thus, nothing is weaker. Yet despite such weakness it can bore through rocks. Rocks, however cannot wear down water.”

LI HUNG-FU says, “The soft and the weak do not expect to overcome the hard and the strong. They simply do.”

HSI T’UNG says, “You can hit it, but you can’t hurt it. You can stab it, but you can’t wound it. You can hack it, but you can’t cut it. You can light it, but you can’t burn it. Nothing in the world can alter this thing we call water.”

CHU TI-HUANG says, “We can alter the course and shape of water, but we can’t alter its basic nature to descend, by means of which it overcomes the hardest and strongest things.”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “The reason people know this but don’t put this into practice is that they love strength and hate weakness.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Spies and traitors, thieves and robbers, people who have no respect for the law, disloyal subjects and unfilial children, these are disgraces. Excessive drought and rain, epidemics and locusts, untimely death, famine and homelessness, ominous plants, and misshapen animals, these are misfortunes.”

PO-TSUNG says, “Rivers and swamps contain mud. Mountains and marshes harbor diseases. The most beautiful gem has a flaw. The ruler of a state suffers disgrace. This is the Way of Heaven” (Tsochuan: Hsuan.15).

SHUN says, “If I commit an offense, it has nothing to do with my people. If my people commit an offense, the offense rests with me” (Shuching: 4C.8).

CHUANG-TZU says, “Everyone wants to be first, while I alone want to be last, which mean to endure the world’s disgrace” (Chuangtzu: 33.5).

MENCIUS says, “If the rulers of a state are no kind, they cannot protect the spirits of the soil and grain” (Mencius: 4A.3).

SU CH’E says, “Upright words agree with the Tao and contradict the world. The world considers suffering disgrace shameful and suffering misfortune a calamity.”

LI JUNG says, “The world sees disgrace and innocence, fortune and misfortune. The follower of the Tao sees them all as empty.”

KAO YEN-TI says, “The last line sums up the meaning of the abstruse phrases that occur throughout the Taoteching, such as to ‘act without acting.’ The words may contradict, but they complement the truth.”

This is something everyone knows, but no one is able to put into practice, We all know the properties of water. It is what it is. Nothing in the world is weaker than it. But, against the hard and the strong, nothing outdoes it. Nothing can change it.

We all know it. But, how to put it into practice? That evades us. Why is that? Because, in spite of what we know of water (that being soft, it overcomes the hard; and being weak, it overcomes the strong) we simply aren’t willing to be soft and weak. We want to be hard and strong.

We don’t even want to be perceived as soft and weak. Those who are soft and weak are terrorized by those who are strong and hard, after all.

Those who are soft and weak don’t know their own power, though. They are like water; they just don’t know it, and they don’t know how to use it.

This is what gets us. We think there must be some magic formula to use. But, water is just water. It doesn’t try to be soft and weak, it merely is soft and weak. What a country considers disgrace and misfortune, that is the very thing we should accept and emulate.

But, be careful here, trying to accept and emulate isn’t the same as accepting and emulating. You can expend a whole lot of effort trying to be like water, when what you should do is simply be like water.

Red Pine introduces the following sages with today’s verse:

CHU TI-HUANG (1885-1941). Ch’ing dynasty official and early revolutionary. After fleeing China, he returned to devote himself to Buddhism and philosophy.

PO-TSUNG (FL. 8TH C. B.C.). Minister at the court of Chin. His views are reported in the Tsochuan: Hsuan.15.

SHUN (CA. 2250-2150 B.C.). Early sage ruler noted for his filial piety and noninterference in public affairs.

KAO YEN-TI (1823-1886). Classical scholar and member of Hanlin Academy. In addition to providing several unique interpretations of his own, Kao’s commentary cites passages of the Taoteching that appear in other ancient texts.

Unlike the Way of Humankind

“The Way of Heaven
is like stringing a bow
pulling down the high
lifting up the low
shortening the long
lengthening the short
the Way of Heaven
takes from the long
and supplements the short
unlike the Way of Humankind
which takes from the short
and gives to the long
who can take the long
and give it to the world
only those who possess the Way
thus do sages not depend on what they develop
or claim what they achieve
thus they choose to hide their skill”

(Taoteching, verse 77, translation by Red Pine)

KAO HENG says, “In stringing a bow, we pull the bow down to attach the string to the top. We lift the bow up to attach the string to the bottom. If the string is too long, we make it shorter. If the string is too short, we make it longer. This is exactly the Way of Heaven.” My reading of line two, which agrees with Kao Heng’s, is based on the Shuowen, which says, “Chang means to attach a string to a bow.”

TU ER-WEI says, “Not only the Chinese, but the ancient Greeks and Hindus, the Finns, the Pawnee, and the Arapaho all likened the moon to a bow. Thus the Way of Heaven is like a bow.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “The Way of Heaven is so dark, we need metaphors to understand it. To prepare a bow for use, we string it by pulling down the top and lifting up the bottom. Likewise, the Way of Heaven is to take from the strong and give to the weak.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “The Way of Heaven does not intentionally pull down the high and lift up the low. It does nothing and relies instead on the nature of things. Things that are high and long cannot avoid being pulled down and shortened. Things that are low and short cannot avoid being lifted up and lengthened. The full suffer loss. The humble experience gain.”

TE CH’ING says, “The Way of Heaven is to give but not to take. The Way of Humankind is to take but not to give.”

WANG P’ANG says, “The Way of Heaven is based on the natural order. Hence, it is fair. The Way of Humankind is based on desire. Hence, it is not fair. Those who possess the Way follow thee same Way of Heaven.”

SU CH’E says, “Those who possess the Way supply the needs of the ten thousand creatures without saying a word. Only those who possess the Way are capable of this.”

LU HSI-SHENG says, “Who can imitate the Way of Heaven and make it the way of Humankind by taking what one has in abundance and giving it to those in need? Only those who possess the Way. The Yiching [41-42] says, ‘To take means to take from the low and give to the high.’ And ‘to give means to take from the high and give to the low.’”

LI JUNG says, “Although sages perform virtuous dees, they expect no reward and try to keep their virtue hidden.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “The skill of the sages is unfathomable and inexhaustible. How could it be revealed?”

And RED PINE notes, “When Lao-tzu refers to ‘the Way of Heaven,’ he is not simply referring to the sky above but to everything that lives and moves.”

The difference between the Way of Heaven and the Way of Humankind couldn’t be more stark. What do we get for all our meddling? It isn’t just unintended consequences, though it is that, too. But, what is even worse is that our meddling only compounds the problem we insist we are trying to solve. “Who can take the long and give it to the world? Only those who possess the Way.” So, how do we possess the Way? It isn’t so hard, really. As Lao-tzu has said earlier, “It is easy to understand and easy to put into practice.” But, it does require virtue. Humility.

To practice this virtue, this humility, we need to not depend on what we develop (our machinations and schemes), nor lay claim to what we achieve. Keep it hidden. Like jade, hidden inside ordinary rock. Let things evolve naturally. Yin and yang naturally follow each other. Let them.

They Don’t Understand Virtue

“When people are born
they are soft and weak
when they perish
they are hard and stiff
when plants shoot forth
they are supple and tender
when they die
they are withered and dry
thus it is said
the hard and stiff are followers of death
the soft and weak are followers life
when an army becomes stiff it suffers defeat
when a plant becomes stiff it snaps
the hard and stiff dwell below
the soft and weak dwell above”

(Taoteching, verse 76, translation by Red Pine)

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “When people are born, they contain breath and spirit. This is why they are soft. When they die, their breath ceases and their spirit disappears. This is why they are hard.”

WU CH’ENG says, “Seeing that the living are soft and the dead are hard, we can infer that those whose virtue is hard and those whose actions are forceful die before their time, while those who are soft and weak are able to preserve their lives.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Although the soft and weak aren’t the same as the Tao, they approach its absence of effort. Hence, they aren’t far from the tao. Although the hard and stiff aren’t outside the Tao, they involve effort. Hence, they lead people away from it.”

LIEH-TZU says, “The world has a path of perennial victory and a path of perennial defeat. The path of perennial victory is weakness. The path of perennial defeat is strength. These two are easy to recognize, but people remain oblivious to them” (Liehtzu: 2.17).

LAO-TZU says, “The weak conquer the strong” (Taoteching; 36).

WANG CHEN says, “It isn’t hard for an army to achieve victory. But it is hard to hold on to victory. There is no great army that has not brought on its own defeat through its victories.”

HSI T’UNG says, “When a plant becomes stiff, it loses its flexibility and becomes easy to break.”

WANG P’ANG says, “In terms of yin and yang, yin comes before and yang comes after. In terms of Heaven and Earth, Heaven is exalted and Earth is humble. In terms of Virtue, the soft and weak overcome the hard and stiff. But in terms of material things, the hard and stiff control the soft and weak. The people of this world only see things. They don’t understand Virtue.”

SU CH’E says, “As long as it contains empty breath, the body does not suffer from rigidity. As long as they reflect perfect reason, actions are not burdened by severity. According to the unchanging principle of things, the refined rises to the top, while the coarse sinks to the bottom. The refined is soft and weak, while the coarse is hard and stiff.”

LI JUNG says, “The living belong above. The dead belong below.”

And Red Pine concludes, “How different this world would be if our leaders spent as much time in their gardens as they do in their war rooms.”

They simply don’t understand virtue. Perhaps, as Red Pine suggests, they would come to understand it, if only they spent as much time in their gardens as they do in their war rooms. I can testify to the difference it has made in my own life that I spend so much time in my own little garden. What have I learned in my garden? The virtue in being soft and weak instead of being hard and stiff. Nature doesn’t force anything. It always yields. To yield is to live, to force is to die.

Doing Nothing to Live

“The reason people are hungry
is that those above levy so many taxes
this is why they are hungry
the reason people are hard to rule
is that those above are so forceful
this is why they are hard to rule
the reason people think little of death
is that those above think so much of life
this is why they think little of death
meanwhile those who do nothing to live
are more esteemed than those who love life”

(Taoteching, verse 75, translation by Red Pine)

DUKE AI approached YU JUO: “The year is one of famine, and my revenues are wanting. What am I to do?” Yu Juo replied, “Return to the 10 percent rate of taxation.” Duke Ai said, “But I cannot get by on 20 percent. How will I survive on 10 percent?” Yu Juo replied, “When the people don’t want, why should the ruler want. When the people want, why should the ruler not want?” (Lunyu: 12.9).

WANG PI says, “The people hide and disorder prevails because of those above, not because of those below. The people follow those above.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “If those above take too much, those below will be impoverished. If those above use too much force, those below will rebel. This is a matter of course. When people think their own life is more important, and they disregard the lives of others, why should others not treat death lightly? Sages don’t think about life unless they are forced to.”

TE-CH’ING says, “Robbers and thieves arise from hunger and cold. If people are hungry and have no means to live, they have no choice but to steal. When people steal, it’s because those above force them. They force people to turn to stealing and then try to rule with cleverness and laws. But the more laws they make, the more thieves appear. Even the threat of the executioner’s ax doesn’t frighten them. And the reason people aren’t frightened by death is that those above are so concerned with life.”

SU CH’E says, “When those above use force to lead the people, the people respond with force. Thus do complications multiply and the people become hard to rule.”

WANG CHEN says, “‘Forceful’ refers to the ruler’s love of might and arms. But once arms prevail, disorder is certain.”

HUAI-NAN-TZU says, “The reason people cannot live out their allotted years and are sentenced to death in midlife is that they think so much of life. Meanwhile, those who do nothing to stay alive are able to lengthen their lives” (Huainantzu: 7).

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Only those who do nothing to stay alive, who aren’t moved by titles or sinecures, who aren’t affected by wealth or advantages, who refuse to serve the emperor or run errands for lesser lords – they alone are more esteemed than those who love life.”

YEN TSUN says, “The Natural Way always turns things upside down. What has no body lives. What has a body dies. To be alive and to seek advantages is the beginning of death. Not to be alive and to get rid of advantages is the beginning of life. Those who don’t work to live live long.”

WANG TAO says, “The meaning of the last two lines is: If I didn’t have this body of mine, what worries would I have?”

WANG P’ANG says, “If you understand only one of these three, you can understand the other two.”

Every time I come to today’s verse I find myself thinking to myself, this is just common sense. It is self-evident, really. But, as I am often fond of saying, “Common sense isn’t all that common.” What seems self-evident to me, seems to evade many others. So, in the interest of enlightenment, let’s just take Lao-tzu’s points one by one; for, as Wang P’ang says, “If you understand only one of these three, you can understand the other two.”

Why are people hungry? It is because those above them levy too many taxes on them. Why are people hard to rule? It is because those above them rely too much on force.
Why do people think so little of death? It is because those above think so much of life.

Lao-tzu is emphatic about this, repeating the reason twice in each case. The people are forced by those above them to act the way they do. They are hungry, so they steal. Those above have robbed them of “legitimate” means for their livelihood. The more force is applied from above, the more the people slip through their fingers. I don’t know whether Duke Ai ended up following Yu Juo’s sage advice. Why are those above so concerned about their own lives when the people below them are suffering? That only increases their suffering. So, the people think less and less of death, because their lives have no meaning beyond toil, and for what? If those above stopped being so concerned with their own lives, they would be more esteemed than those who love their lives.

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

DUKE AI (FL. 5TH C. B.C.). Ruler of the state of Lu and interlocutor of Lunyu: 12.9.

YU JUO (FL. 5TH C. B.C.). Disciple of Confucius known for his resemblance to the sage as well as for his love of antiquity. After Confucius’ death, many of his disciples wanted to render to Yu Juo the same observances they had conferred on Confucius. But this was opposed by Tseng-tzu.

Punishment Is Not the Answer

“If people no longer fear death
what good is threatening to kill them
if people truly fear death
and some act perverse
and we catch and kill them
who else would dare
as long as people fear death
the executioner will exist
to kill in the executioner’s place
is to cut in the carpenter’s place
those who cut in the carpenter’s place
seldom escape with hands intact”

(Taoteching, verse 74, translation by Red Pine)

YIN WEN says, “Lao-tzu asks, if people are not afraid to die what good is threatening to kill them? If people are not afraid to die, it is because punishments are excessive. When punishments are excessive, people don’t care about life. When they don’t care about life, the ruler’s might means nothing to them. When punishments are moderate, people are afraid to die. They are afraid to die because they enjoy life. When you know they enjoy life, then you can threaten them with death” (Yinwen: 2).

LI HSI-CHAI says, “This implies that punishments cannot be relied upon for governing. If people are not afraid of death, what use is threatening them with execution? And if they are afraid of death, and we catch someone who breaks the law, and we execute them, by killing one person we should be able to govern the rest. But the more people we kill, the more people break the law. Thus, punishment is not the answer.”

MING T’AI-TSU says, “When I first ascended the throne, the people were unruly and officials corrupt. If ten people were executed in the morning, a hundred were breaking the same law by evening. Being ignorant of the Way of the ancient sage kings, I turned to the Taoteching. When I read, ‘If people no longer fear death / what good is threatening to kill them,’ I decided to do away with capital punishment and put criminals to work instead. In the year since then, the burdens of my heart have been lightened. Truly, this book is the greatest teacher of kings.”

WU CH’ENG says, “‘Perverse’ means ‘unlawful.’ If those who act perverse and break the law do not meet with misfortune at the hands of Humankind, they will certainly be punished by Heaven.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “If rulers teach according to the Tao and people respond with perversion instead, rulers are within their rights to arrest them and kill them. Lao-tzu, however, was concerned that rulers should use the Tao first before turning to punishment.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “The meaning of ‘the executioner will exist’ is the same as ‘the Net of Heaven is all-embracing / its mesh is wide but nothing escapes’ [verse 73]. The executioner is Heaven.”

SU CH’E says, “Heaven is the executioner. If the world is at peace and people engage in perversity and rebellion, then surely they have been abandoned by Heaven. If we kill them, it is Heaven who kills them and not us. But if we kill those whom Heaven has not abandoned, we take the executioner’s place. And anyone who takes the executioner’s place puts themselves within reach of his ax.”

THE LUSHIH CHUNCHIU says, “A great carpenter does not cut” (1.4).

MENCIUS says, “The wise are not alone in desiring something greater than life and hating something greater than death. This is true of everyone. But the wise don’t forget it” (Mencius: 6A.10).

Last week, our verses were on what happens when people no longer fear authority; and Lao-tzu put the blame squarely on the shoulders of our rulers when people no longer fear authority. In today’s verse, Rulers are still having difficulty with controlling the people. Why? Because they are still trying to control them. Lao-tzu teaches rulers to stop trying to control, and simply trust the Tao. When people act “perverse,” in other words, when they don’t act according to the way their rulers would have them to, rulers are told to not take the place of the executioner. The executioner, here, is the same as Heaven’s Net in the previous verse. As long as people fear death, that executioner will exist. But, when rulers try to take the executioner’s place, making the lives of the people miserable, the people will welcome, rather than fear, death,

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

YIN WEN (350-284 B.C.). Eclectic philosopher of the state of Ch’i and author of a book of discourses that bears his name.

MING T’AI-TSU (1328-1398). Grew up in a family of destitute farmers, became a Buddhist monk, joined the rebellion against the Mongols (who had occupied the throne since 1278), and founded the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). His commentary, which he wrote without the help of tutors, was completed in 1374.

LUSHIH CHUNCHIU (THE SPRING AND AUTUMN ANNALS OF MR. LU). Commissioned by Lu Pei-wei (d. 235 B.C.), this was probably the first Chinese text written with a unified plan. It purported to contain all that anyone needed to know of the world and was Taoist in conception. Not to be confused with The Spring and Autumn Annals of Master Yen or with The Spring and Autumn Annals written in the state of Lu and attributed to Confucius.