True Perfection Is Opposites Complementing Each Other

“Perfectly complete it seems deficient
yet it never wear out
perfectly full it seems empty
yet it never runs dry
perfectly straight it seems crooked
perfectly clever it seems clumsy
perfectly abundant it seems impoverished
active it overcomes cold
still it overcomes heat
those who know how to be perfectly still
are able to govern the world”

(Taoteching, verse 45, translation by Red Pine)

WU CH’ENG says, “To treat the complete as complete, the full as full, the straight as straight, and the clever as clever is mundane. To treat what seems deficient as complete, what seems empty as full, what seems crooked as straight, and what seems clumsy as clever, this is transcendent. This is the meaning of Lao-tzu’s entire book: opposites complement each other.”

LU NUNG-SHIH says, “What is most complete cannot be seen in its entirety, hence it seems deficient. What is fullest cannot be seen in its totality, hence it seems empty. What is straightest cannot be seen in its perfection, hence it seems clumsy.”

SU CH’E says, “The world considers what is not deficient as complete, hence complete includes worn out. It considers what is not empty as full, hence full includes exhausted. The wise, however, do not mind if what is most complete is deficient or what is fullest is empty. For what is most complete never wears out, and what is fullest never runs dry.”

HAN FEI says, “Ordinary people employ their spirit in activity. But activity means extravagance, and extravagance means wastefulness. Those who are wise employ their spirit in stillness. Stillness means moderation, and moderation means frugality.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “We keep warm in winter by moving around. But sooner or later, we stop moving and become cold again. We keep cool in summer by sitting still. But sooner or later, we stop sitting still and become hot again. This is not the way of long life. This is how what is complete becomes deficient, what is full becomes empty, what is straight becomes crooked, and what is clever becomes clumsy. Those who seek balance should look for it in perfect stillness. Perfect stillness is the essence of the Tao. Those who achieve such balance are free from hot and cold.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Activity overcomes cold but cannot overcome heat. Stillness overcomes heat but cannot overcome cold. Perfect stillness or effortlessness doesn’t try to overcome anything, yet nothing in the world can overcome it. Thus is it said that perfect stillness can govern the world.”

CONFUCIUS says, “Those who govern with virtue are like the North Star, which remains in its place, while the myriad stars revolve around it” (Lunyu: 2.1).

It seems deficient. It seems empty. It seems crooked. It seems clumsy. It seems impoverished. And, no doubt, some may dismiss all of Lao-tzu’s teachings because they seem mundane. But, that is to look only at the surface of things, at the fiction of existence. And, if you can see beyond this, transcending the mundane, until you find what is perfectly real, you will never confuse them with the mundane, again.

Thank you Wu Ch’eng for making it so plain in your commentary on today’s verse. This is the meaning of Lao-tzu’s entire book: opposites complement each other. That is complement with an e, not compliment with an i.

Oh, I had my own difficulty with understanding, as I was reading along, what constitutes perfection. Though it seems deficient, it never wears out. Though it seems empty, it never runs dry. Though it seems crooked, it is perfectly straight. Though it seems clumsy, it is perfectly clever. Though it seems impoverished, it is perfectly abundant. What does this mean? What does this mean?

But, as always, Lao-tzu explains himself quite well, if only I am paying attention. He explains: When it is active, it overcomes cold. When it is still, it overcomes heat. Yes, but that is rather mundane. We already know this. Don’t interrupt. Be still. Just wait for it.

Those who know how to be perfectly still are able to govern their world.

There it is! The answer that transcends the mundane. True perfection is opposites complementing each other. Perfect completeness, perfect fullness, perfect straightness, perfect cleverness, perfect abundance, perfect stillness. These all involve a balancing with their opposites. To be complete, or perfect, they must have their complement. Yin and yang need each other

So it seems deficient, it won’t wear out. So it seems empty, it won’t run dry. In contrasting straight with crooked, clever with clumsy, abundant with impoverished, we aren’t seeing the “complete” picture. Don’t just see the mundane. Look beyond that. Transcend it!

Perfect stillness doesn’t just overcome cold, it also overcomes heat. It works perfectly with both yin and yang. It is in perfect balance, and the result is harmony.

We can apply this to how we wish our world was governed. But, because I believe in self-government, I know that means me. The onus is on us. And, Lao-tzu makes it quite plain. To be able to govern the world, we need to be perfectly still. We need to be willing to let both yin and yang have their turns. Without trying to force things, without trying to control. Don’t intervene. Don’t interfere. Be perfectly still.

Regret Comes Too Late

“Which is more vital
fame or health
which is more precious
health or wealth
which is more harmful
loss or gain
the deeper the love
the higher the cost
the bigger the treasure
the greater the loss
who knows contentment
thus suffers no shame
and who knows restraint
encounters no trouble
while enjoying a long life”

(Taoteching, verse 44, translation by Red Pine)

HUANG MAO-TS’AI says, “What the world calls fame is something external. And yet people abandon their bodies to fight for it. What the world calls wealth is unpredictable. And yet people sacrifice their bodies to possess it. How can they know what is vital or precious? Even if they succeed, it’s at the cost of their health.”

SSU-MA KUANG says, “Which is more harmful: to gain wealth and fame and lose one’s health or to gain one’s health and lose wealth and fame?”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “Heroes seek fame and merchants seek wealth, even to the point of giving up their lives. The first love fame because they want to glorify themselves. But the more they love fame, the more they lose what they would really glorify. Hence, the cost is high. The second amass wealth because they want to enrich themselves. But the more wealth they amass, the more they harm what they would truly enrich. Hence, the loss is great. Meanwhile, those who cultivate Virtue know the most vital thing is within themselves. Thus, they seek no fame and suffer no disgrace. They know the most precious things is within themselves. Thus, they seek no wealth and encounter no trouble. Hence, they live long.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “If we love something, the more we love it, the more it costs us. If we treasure something, the more we treasure it, the more it exhausts us. A little of either results in shame. A lot results in ruin. And regret comes too late. People who are wise are not like this. They know that they have everything they need within themselves. Hence, they do not seek anything outside themselves. Thus, those who would shame them find nothing to shame. They know their own limit, and their limit is the Tao. Hence, they don’t act unless it is according to the Tao. Thus, those who would trouble them find nothing to trouble. Hence, they survive, and surviving, live long.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Excessive sensual desire exhausts our spirit. Excessive material desire brings us misfortune. The living keep their treasures in storerooms. The dead keep their treasures in graves. The living worry about thieves. The dead worry about grave robbers. Those who know contentment find happiness and wealth within themselves and don’t exhaust their spirit. If they should govern a country, they don’t trouble their people. Thus, they are able to live long.”

HUAI-NAN-TZU says, “Long ago Chih Po-ch’iao attacked and defeated Fan Chung-hsing. He also attacked the leaders of the states of Han and Wei and occupied parts of their territories. Still, he felt this wasn’t enough, so he raised another army and attacked the state of Yueh. But Han and Wei counterattacked, and Chih’s army was defeated near Chinyang, and he was killed east of Kaoliang. His skull became a drinking bowl, his kingdom was divided among the victors, and he was ridiculed by the world. This is what happens when you don’t know when to stop.”

Another of my favorite verses, I had a tough time choosing between two different titles for it. Along with the title I chose, I considered, “This Is What Happens When You Don’t Know When to Stop.” Lao-tzu begins with three rhetorical questions, and the first two, at least, seem so easily answered (I guess that would be what makes them rhetorical); but, don’t be fooled by how easy you may think they are to answer.

Of course we know health is more vital than fame, that health is more precious than wealth, right?

Do we? I don’t know about you, but I happened to live a good number of my years in which what I said I believed, and what I was actually doing in practice, didn’t exactly line up. Cognitive dissonance, anyone?

And, regret comes too late. I have talked before about a little book in the Bible, Ecclesiastes, in the Old Testament, being one of my favorite ones. I think it is just twelve chapters long, you ought to read it. In it, “the Preacher” tells about getting to the end of his life and discovering it was all “vanity.” Even when I was a young man, I knew I didn’t want that to be my fate. Though I didn’t quite know how to avoid his fate. Later, I talked quite a bit with my own father who was nearing the end of his own life; and, he talked of his own regrets. Damn! That was hitting closer to home.

The good news, for me, is I let the lessons of “the Preacher” and my own father, as well as Lao-tzu, really take hold in my own heart. I cultivated them. I am still cultivating them. And my regrets (yes, I still have some of those) came at a much younger age (maybe midlife, rather than nearer the end).

I happen to know that a majority of my followers on Tumblr are much younger than me. It is the nature of social media. And, I hope all you young souls will learn the lessons, I learned, much younger than me. It will be so much better for you.

Every one of the commentators, today, have so much wisdom to share about today’s verse. I hope you will reread them all, again and again. Let them take root!

But the story Huai-nan-tzu tells is particularly poignant to me. If I was to bother to send a letter to President Trump, and, for that matter, any leader in the world, I think it would just be a retelling of this little story. Alas, I see it as a prophetic voice of what the end will be of US foreign policy.

I happen to be typing this up the same day as Trump is speaking for the first time at the UN. Yeah, I know I am about two weeks ahead on my blog posts. And, while I don’t have all the details yet, I assume Trump is reassuring the world he is going to be continuing the status quo.

I am become quite cynical these days. I don’t expect anything great out of our elected rulers. Let me rephrase that. I do expect something great. Great loss. Regret comes too late. We should have known when to stop.

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

HUANG MAO-TS’AI (FL. 1174-1190). Scholar and military official. Lao-tzu-chieh.

SSU-MA KUANG (1019-1086). One of the most famous writers and political figures of the Sung dynasty and adversary of Wang An-shih. His multivolume history of China remains one of the most thorough treatments of China’s past up through the T’ang dynasty. His commentary interprets Lao-tzu’s text using Confucian terminology and neo-Confucian concepts. Tao-te-chen-ching-lun.

Help Comes With No Effort

“The weakest thing in the world
overcomes the strongest thing in the world
what doesn’t exist finds room where there’s none
thus we know help comes with no effort
wordless instruction
effortless help
few in the world can match this”

(Taoteching, verse 43, translation by Red Pine)

LAO-TZU says, “Nothing in the world is weaker than water / but against the hard and the strong / nothing outdoes it” (Taoteching: 78).

WANG TAO says, “Eight feet of water can float a thousand-ton ship. Six feet of leather can control a thousand-mile horse. Thus does the weak excel the strong. Sunlight has no substance, yet it can fill a dark room. Thus, what doesn’t exist enters what has no cracks.”

Concerning the first two lines, HUAI-NAN-TZU says, “The light of the sun shines across the Four Seas but cannot penetrate a closed door or a covered window. While the light of the spirit reaches everywhere and nourishes everything.” Concerning the second couplet, he says, “Illumination once asked Nonexistence if it actually existed or not. Nonexistence made no response. Unable to perceive any sign of its existence, Illumination sighed and said, ‘I, too, do not exist, but I cannot equal the nonexistence of Nonexistence’” (Huainantzu: 12).

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Things are not actually things. What we call ‘strong’ is a fiction. Once it reaches its limit, it returns to nothing. Thus, the weakest thing in the world is able to overcome the strongest thing in the world. Or do you think the reality of nonexistence cannot break through the fiction of existence?”

WANG PI says, “There is nothing breath cannot enter and nothing water cannot penetrate. What does not exist cannot be exhausted. And what is perfectly weak cannot be broken. From this we can infer the benefit of no effort.”

SU CH’E says, “If we control the strong with the strong, one will break, or the other will shatter. But if we control the strong with the weak, the weak will not be exhausted, and the strong will not be damaged. Water is like this. If we use existence to enter existence, neither is able to withstand the other. But if we use nonexistence to enter existence, the former will not strain itself, while the latter will remain unaware. Spirits are like this.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “‘What doesn’t exist’ refers to the Tao. The Tao has no form or substance. Hence, it can come and go, even where there is not any space. It can fill the spirit and help all creatures. We don’t see it do anything, and yet the ten thousand things are transformed and completed. Thus, we realize the benefit to Humankind of no effort. Imitating the Tao, we don’t speak. We follow it with our bodies. Imitating the Tao, we don’t act. We care for ourselves, and our spirits prosper. We care for our country, and the people flourish. And we do these things without effort or trouble. But few can match the Tao in caring for things by doing nothing. Lao-tzu’s final ‘in the world’ refers to rulers.”

YEN TSUN says, “Action is the beginning of chaos. Stillness is the origin of order. Speech is the door of misfortune. Silence is the gate of blessing.”

TE CH’ING says, “Words mean traces. Traces mean knowledge. Knowledge means presumption. Presumption means involvement. And involvement means failure.”

One day CONFUCIUS said, “I would rather not speak.” Tzu-kung asked, “If you do not speak, what will we have to record?” Confucius replied, “Does Heaven speak? The seasons travel their course, and creatures all flourish. What does Heaven say?” (Lunyu: 17.19).

Lao-tzu has said it so many times, and in so many ways,“The weakest thing in the world overcomes the strongest thing in the world. What doesn’t exist finds room where there’s none.” Thus, Lao-tzu establishes the primacy of non-existence. And, I especially like the rhetorical question Li Hsi-chai poses: “…do you think the reality of nonexistence cannot break through the fiction of existence?”

If we can just understand this, what benefit there will be for all the world. Ho-shang-Kung says, ““What doesn’t exist’ refers to the Tao.” We don’t see it do anything, neither do we hear it. Yet, the ten-thousand things are transformed and completed. Through this, we realize the benefit to Humankind of no effort.

Understand this: Effort equals something. It exists. No effort equals nothing. It is non-existent. And the reality of non-existence breaks through the fiction of existence, just like the weakest thing in the world overcomes the strongest.

But, Lao-tzu doesn’t just want us to understand this. He wants us to imitate the Tao, as Ho-shang Kung goes on to say: “Imitating the Tao, we don’t speak. Imitating the Tao, we don’t act.” Speaking and acting, once again, is something. It exists. But, non-existence trumps that.

“Action is the beginning of chaos,” says Yen Tsun. “Stillness is the origin of order. Speech is the door of misfortune. Silence is the gateway of blessing.” And, Te-ch’ing echoes that when he says, “Words mean traces. Traces mean knowledge. Knowledge means presumption. Presumption means involvement. And involvement means failure.”

We talk and we talk. And we do and we do. Where does it end? In failure. But those who are silent and still, offering wordless instruction and effortless help, they prevail.

Lao-tzu says few in the world can match this. But, as Lao-tzu taught us in verse 33, it is the one thing we should strive hard to cultivate in ourselves.

This Becomes My Teacher

“The Tao gives birth to one
one gives birth to two
two gives birth to three
three gives birth to ten thousand things
then thousand things with yin at their backs
yang in their embrace
and breath between for harmony
what the world hates
to be orphaned widowed or destitute
kings use for their titles
thus some gain by losing
others lose by gaining
what others teach
I teach too
tyrants never choose their death
this becomes my teacher”

(Taoteching, verse 42, translation by Red Pine)

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “The Tao gives birth to the beginning. One gives birth to yin and yang. Yin and yang give birth to the breath between them, the mixture of clear and turbid. These three breaths divide themselves into Heaven, Earth, and Humankind and together give birth to the ten thousand things. These elemental breaths are what keep the ten thousand things relaxed and balanced. The organs in our chest, the marrow in our bones, the hollow spaces inside plants all allow these breaths passage and make long life possible.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “The yang we embrace is one. The yin we turn away from is two. Where yin and yang meet and merge is three.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “Dark and unfathomable is yin. Bright and perceptible is yang. As soon as we are born, we all turn our back on the dark and unfathomable yin and turn toward the bright and perceptible yang. Fortunately, we keep ourselves in harmony with the breath between them.”

THE YUNCHI CHICHIEN says, “When breath is pure, it becomes Heaven. When it becomes turgid, it becomes Earth. And the mixture of the breath between them becomes Humankind.”

TE-CH’ING says, “To call oneself ‘orphaned,’ widowed,’ or ‘destitute’ is to use a title of self-effacement. Rulers who are not self-effacing are not looked up to by the world. Thus, by losing, they gain. Rulers who are only aware of themselves might possess the world, but the world rebels against them. Thus, by gaining, they lose. We all share this Tao, but we don’t know it except through instruction. What others teach, Lao-tzu also teaches. But Lao-tzu surpasses others in teaching us to reduce our desires and to be humble, to practice the virtue of harmony, and to let this be our teacher.”

CHIAO HUNG says, “Those who love victory make enemies. The ancients taught this, and so does Lao-tzu. But Lao-tzu goes further and calls this his own ‘teacher.’”

KAO HENG says, “According to the Shuoyuan (10.25), ‘Tyrants never choose their death’ was an ancient saying, which Confucius attributed to the Chinjenming. This is what Lao-tzu refers to when he says ‘what others teach.’”

WANG P’ANG says, “Whatever contains the truth can be our teacher. Although tyrants kill others and are the most hated of creatures, we can learn the principle of creation and destruction from them.”

Lao-tzu finished up yesterday’s verse by saying of the Tao, “It knows how to start and how to finish.” And, today, Lao-tzu explores this “starting and finishing” further.

“The Tao gives birth to one.” Ho-shang Kung says this one is the beginning. “One gives birth to two.” This would be yin and yang. “Two gives birth to three.” This would be the harmony between them as they bring balance to the ten thousand things.

How does this balance and harmony come to pass? Is there something we must do?

The “ten thousand things with yin at their backs” and “yang in their embrace.” But the harmony, is the balance between them.

We try, how we try, to force harmony. Kings will say they are orphaned, they are widowed, they are destitute, in an attempt to show they don’t have their backs turned to yin. No! They are embracing it. We have discussed this pretentious show before (verse 39). And, Lao-tzu said then, “This isn’t the basis of humility. They try to hide their jade, and fail. What is their end? “Tyrants never choose their death.”

“Some gain by losing, others lose by gaining.” The Tao knows how to start, and how to finish. The Tao gives birth to one, then two, then three, and then ten thousand things. Balanced, harmonious, by yin giving way to yang and yang giving way to yin. All without any effort on the part of the ten thousand things. Don’t fight it. Don’t force it.

Breathe in, and then breathe out, and then breathe in and out again. Let that breath happen naturally. Like the beating of your heart. What others teach, I teach too. And, this becomes my teacher.

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

YUNCHI CHICHIEN An anthology of Taoist writings edited by Chang Chun-fang (fl. 1017-1021). One of the most influential such compilations, it is also called the Shorter Taoist Canon.

KAO HENG (1900-?). Classical scholar and advocate of using grammatical analysis to elucidate textual difficulties in the Taoteching. Many of his insights have been borne out by the texts discovered at Mawangtui. Lao-tzu cheng-ku.

Not What We Expected, Name and Reality Are Often at Odds

“When superior people hear of the Way
they follow it with devotion
when average people hear of the Way
they wonder if it exists
when inferior people hear of the Way
they laugh out loud
if they didn’t laugh
it wouldn’t be the Way
hence these sayings arose
the brightest path seems dark
the path leading forward seems backward
the smoothest path seems rough
the highest virtue low
the whitest white pitch-black
the greatest virtue wanting
the staunchest virtue timid
the truest truth uncertain
the perfect square without corners
the perfect tool without uses
the perfect sound hushed
the perfect image without form
for the Tao is hidden and nameless
but because it’s the Tao
it knows how to start and how to finish”

(Taoteching, verse 41, translation by Red Pine)

CONFUCIUS says, “To hear of the Tao in the morning is to die content by nightfall” (Lunyu: 4.8).

LI HSI-CHAI says, “When great people hear of the Tao, even if others laugh at them, they can’t keep them from practicing it. When average people hear of the Tao, even if they don’t disbelieve it, they can’t free themselves of doubts. When inferior people hear of the Tao, even the ancient sages can’t keep them from laughing. Everyone in the world thinks existence is real. Who wouldn’t shake their head and laugh if they were told that existence wasn’t real and that non-existence was?”

TE-CH’ING says, “The Tao is not what people expect. Hence, the ancients created these twelve sayings, which Lao-tzu quotes to make clear that the Tao has two sides.”

SU CH’E says, “These twelve sayings refer to the Tao as it appears to us. Wherever we look, we see its examples. The Tao as a whole, however, is hidden in namelessness.”

LI JUNG says, “The true Tao is neither fast nor slow, clear nor obscure. It has no appearance, no sound, no form, and no name. But although it has no name, it can take any name.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “Name and reality are often at odds. The reality of the Tao remains hidden in no name.”

LU HSI-SHENG says, “Tools are limited to the realm of form. The Tao is beyond the realm of form.”

YEN TSUN says, “The quail runs and flies all day but never far from an overgrown field. The swan flies a thousand miles but never far from a pond. The phoenix, meanwhile, soars into the empyrean vault and thinks it too confining. Where dragons dwell, small fish swim past. Where great birds and beasts live, dogs and chickens don’t go.”

THE CHANKUOTSE says, “Those who know how to start don’t always know how to finish” (31).

In yesterday’s verse, Lao-tzu taught us the Tao moves the other way, in a way most people don’t expect. It works through weakness, rather than strength. And, while all the things of this world come from something, that “something” comes from nothing.

That the Tao isn’t what people expect, continues as the theme of today’s verse. But, as I promised in my commentary yesterday, Lao-tzu has some more clues which can help us.

The brightest path can seem dark. The path leading forward can seem backward. The smoothest path can seem rough. The highest virtue appears low. The whitest white appears pitch-black. The greatest virtue can seem wanting. The staunchest virtue can seem timid. The truest truth can seem uncertain. The perfect square, as if it is without corners. The perfect tool seems to be without uses. The perfect sound is hushed. The perfect image is without form.

What is it Lao-tzu is teaching here, today. These twelve sayings, Su Ch’e tells us, “refer to the Tao as it appears to us.” These are what is manifest to us of the Tao. But the Tao itself, remains “hidden in namelessness.”

And Te-ch’ing teaches, “Lao-tzu quotes [these twelve sayings] to make clear the Tao has two sides.”

“Name and reality are often at odds,” says Lu Hui-ch’ing. “The reality of the Tao remains hidden in no name.”

Name and reality are often at odds because the Tao has two sides: Yin and yang. It drifts left and right (verse 34).

This is why it takes a superior person to hear of the Way and follow it with devotion, while the average person hears of the Way and is filled with doubts, and the inferior person (Stephen Mitchell translates that “fool”) laughs out loud.

Lao-tzu is unaffected by the fool who laughs. “Why, it wouldn’t be the Tao, if the fool didn’t laugh.” The wise aren’t affected by the fool’s laughter, either. As Li Hsi-chai says, the fool’s laughter can’t keep them from practicing the Tao. But, they also can’t keep the fool from laughing.

I am going to go out on a limb and say that my followers, like me, aren’t fools. But most of us, again like me, don’t qualify as truly wise, either. Instead, you have doubts. I know I have had my own share. And what Li Hsi-chai says about the average person not being able to free themselves of doubts, might be a bit disconcerting. It hits a little too close to the mark.

The truth of the matter is you can’t free yourself of doubts. Been there, done that. I tried and tried. Doesn’t work.

What did work for me was to stop trying, and start letting. Letting go of effort, I opened myself up to letting the Tao prove itself to me.

There are plenty of us who are good starters, but not good finishers. As the Chankuotse says, “Those who know how to start don’t always know how to finish.” But, because it’s the Tao, it knows how to start and how to finish, moving back and forth from yin to yang and from yang to yin. Maybe it isn’t what we expected. But then again, name and reality are often at odds.

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

CHANKUOTZE: A collection of narratives, some historical, some fictional, based on the events of the Warring States Period (403-222 B.C.). Compiled by Liu Hsiang (ca 79-6 B.C.). and reedited by later scholars.

The Contrary Way

“The Tao moves the other way
the Tao works through weakness
the things of this world come from something
something comes from nothing”

(Taoteching, verse 40, translation by Red Pine)

LIU CH’EN-WENG says, “Once things reach their limit, they have to go back the other way.”

WEI YUAN says, “The Tao moves contrary to how most people look at things.”

CHAO CHIH-CHIEN says, “To go back the other way means to return to the root. Those who cultivate the Tao ignore the twigs and seek the root. This is the movement of the Tao: to return to where the mind is still and empty and actions soft and weak. The Tao, however, does not actually come or go. It never leaves. Hence, it cannot return. Only what has form returns. ‘Something’ refers to breath. Before things have form they have breath. Heaven and Earth and the ten thousand things are born from breath. Hence, they all come from something. ‘Nothing’ refers to the Tao. Breath comes from the Tao. Hence, it comes from nothing. This is the movement of the Tao.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “The reason the Tao works through weakness is because it is empty. We see it in Heaven blowing through the great void. We see it in Earth sinking into the deepest depths.”

TE-CH’ING says, “People only know the work of working. They don’t know that the work of not working is the greatest work of all. They only know that everything comes from something. They don’t know that something comes from nothing. If they knew that something came from nothing, they would no longer enslave themselves to things. They would turn, instead, to the Tao and concentrate on their spirit.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “The ten thousand things all come from Heaven and Earth. Heaven and Earth have position and form. Hence, we say things come from something. The light and spirit of Heaven and Earth, the flight of insects, the movement of worms, these all come from the Tao. The Tao has no form. Hence, we say things come from nothing. This means the root comes before the flower, weakness comes before strength, humility comes before conceit.”

LI JUNG says, “‘Something’ refers to Heaven and Earth. Through the protection of Heaven and the support of Earth, all things come into being. ‘Nothing’ refers to the Tao. The Tao is formless and empty, and yet it gives birth to Heaven and Earth. Thus, it is said, ‘Emptiness is the root of Heaven and Earth. Nothingness is the source of all things.’ Those who lose the Tao don’t realize where things come from.”

SU CH’E says, “As for ‘the things of this world,’ I have heard of a mother giving birth to a child. But I have never heard of a child giving birth to its mother.”

WANG PI says, “Everything in the world comes from being, and being comes from non-being. If you would reach perfect being, you have to go back to non-being.”

HUANG YUAN-CHI says, “Those who cultivate the Way should act with humility and harmony. The slightest carelessness, any action at all, can destroy everything. Those who cultivate Virtue look to themselves for the truth, not to the words of others. For those who understand that what moves them is also the source of their lives, the pill of immortality is not somewhere outside.”

And RED PINE adds, “The moon can’t keep up with the sun, but as it gets farther and farther behind, the darkness of nothing gives rise to the light of something.”

Nestled in the middle of the Taoteching is this shortest verse, just four lines long. Some commentators read it as a continuation of verse 39, which preceded it. Others combine it with verse 41, which we will get to tomorrow. Yet, I am content with it being smack dab in between these two. And, I think it is one of the most important verses in the Taoteching. The commentators, today, seem to agree with me. Just look at the number of words they have devoted to this shortest verse.

I entitled my commentary on today’s verse, The Contrary Way, and I almost didn’t. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that being contrary, for the sake of being contrary, is the Way of the Tao. But, the Tao does act contrary to the way most people expect. It moves contrary. It moves the other way. Not the way we think it would. I expected it to move left, it moved right. Or, I expected it to move right, and it moved left. Yeah, contrary.

It can confound even the wisest. But, Lao-tzu does tell us the Tao gives us a few clues, as to which way it will go, lest we begin to think it is just being contrary for the sake of being contrary, and it doesn’t really wish for us to follow it.

He tells us the Tao works through weakness, rather than strength. That is a huge clue! It is soft, rather than hard. It yields, rather than bulldozing its way through. Picture water, the softest thing in the world. It will act like water, seeking the lowest place.

And, if we are going to follow it, if we hope to keep up with it, we need to keep these clues in mind. We need to be like water, too.

Oh, before I forget, here is another huge clue revealed in today’s verse. While everything in the world comes from something (and we all know this), what we fail to realize is something comes from nothing.

Maybe, just maybe, the difficulty we have been having with following it, with keeping up with the Tao, is simply a matter of trying to hard. Something comes from nothing means the practice of wei-wu-wei, doing without doing. If we are going to follow the Tao it requires effortless action. That is the nothing that something comes from.

If that only whet your appetite, but you require something more, come back tomorrow. There, Lao-tzu will give us twelve more clues showing “the other way” the Tao moves.

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

LIU CH’EN-WENG (1232-1297). Poet and essayist. He held several official posts but spent most of his life in obscurity, if not seclusion. Lao-tzu tao-te-ching p’ing-tien.

CHAO CHIH-CHIEN Quoted by Chiao Hung.

What We Can Infer From This

“Of those that became one in the past
Heaven became one and was clear
Earth became one and was still
spirits became one and were active
valleys became one and were full
kings became one and ruled the world
but from this we can infer
Heaven would crack if it were always clear
Earth would crumble if it were always still
spirits would dissipate if they were always active
valleys would dry up if they were always full
kings would fall if they were always high and noble
and the high is founded on the low
thus do kings refer to themselves
as orphaned widowed and destitute
but this isn’t the basis of humility
counting a carriage as no carriage at all
not wanting to clink like jade
they clunk like rocks”

(Taoteching, verse 39, translation by Red Pine)

WANG PI says, “One is the beginning of numbers and the end of things. All things become complete when they become one. But once they become complete, they leave oneness behind and focus on being complete. And by focusing on being complete, they lose their mother. Hence, they crack, they crumble, they dissipate, they dry up, and they fall. As long as they have their mother, they can preserve their form. But their mother has no form.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “It’s because Heaven becomes one that it graces the sky with constellations and light. It’s because Earth becomes one that it remains still and immovable. It’s because spirits become one that they change shape without becoming visible. It’s because valleys become one that they never stop filling up. It’s because kings become one that they pacify the world. But Heaven must move between yin and yang, between night and day. It can’t only be clear and bright. Earth must include high and low, hard and soft, and the five-fold stages of breath. Spirits must have periods of quiescence. They can’t only be active. Valleys must also be empty and dry. They can’t only be full. And kings must humble themselves and never stop seeking worthy people to assist them. They can’t only lord it over others. If they do, they fall from power and lose their thrones.”

CHENG LIANG-SHU says, “In ancient times, kings used carriages as metaphors for the wealth and size of their kingdoms. To refer to one’s carriages as no carriages was an expression of self-deprecation.”

SU CH’E says, “Oneness dwells in the noble, but it is not noble. Oneness dwells in the humble, but it is not humble. Oneness is not like the luster of jade (so noble it cannot be humble) or the coarseness of rock (so humble it cannot be noble).”

And RED PINE reminds us, “One is the number between zero and two.” This is to remind us we need to move between zero and two, yin and yang, to be one.

In today’s verse, which is a continuation of the previous one in theme, Lao-tzu talks about those that became one in the past. This is the goal, to become one. It is to practice the Higher Virtue, Lao-tzu was talking about yesterday. And he tells us there is something we can infer from those that became one in the past.

What can we infer?

The first thing we can infer is that being one isn’t something we can maintain by trying to maintain it. They, and we, must move between yin and yang. Yin, you will recall, is what got us to the place of becoming one. Yang was the result. But we can’t just stay yang.

Here, Lao-tzu talks about what is noble being based on the humble, and what is high being founded on the low.

This is where we need to be careful. And the lower virtues we talked about yesterday, particularly ritual, is relevant to our discussion.

As you will recall, ritual is all about keeping up appearances. It is more about virtue-signaling. It speaks of humility and harmony. But, it trades the spirit, for the letter.

This is how kings, and pretty much all of us, try to maintain our nobility, our highness. We refer to ourselves as orphaned, widowed, and destitute. We will say our carriages are no carriages at all. This self-deprecation is about appearances. Instead of the spirit of humility, we try to follow the letter.

But, it doesn’t work. While we try to hide the clink of our jade, we clunk like rocks.

That is what comes of trying to force things.

Being true to our original nature is what got us to oneness, and being true to our original nature is the way to continue to be one. Let yourself move from yin to yang, and from yang back to yin. And so on and so forth. This is the natural way. You don’t dare force it, for you can’t control it.

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

CHENG LIANG-SHU (B. 1940). Classical scholar and a leading authority on the Mawangtui texts. His presentation of differences between the Mawangtui and other editions appears in Ta-lu tsa-chih vols. 54-59 (April 1977-October 1979). His study of Tunhuang copies of the Taoteching is also excellent: Lao-tzu lun-chi.

Thick Over Thin, Fruit Over Flower, This Over That

“Higher Virtue isn’t virtuous
thus it possesses virtue
Lower Virtue isn’t without virtue
thus it possesses no virtue
Higher Virtue involves no effort
or the thought of effort
Higher Kindness involves effort
but not the thought of effort
Higher Justice involves effort
and the thought of effort
Higher Ritual involves effort
and should it meet with no response
then it threatens and compels
virtue appears when the Way is lost
kindness appears when virtue is lost
justice appears when kindness is lost
ritual appears when justice is lost
ritual marks the waning of belief
and the onset of confusion
augury is the flower of the Way
and beginning of delusion
thus the great choose thick over thin
the fruit over the flower
thus they pick this over that”

(Taoteching, verse 38, translation by Red Pine)

HAN FEI says, “Virtue is the Tao at work.”

WANG PI says, “Those who possess Higher Virtue use nothing but the Tao. They possess virtue, but they don’t give it a name.”

YEN TSUN says, “Those who embody the Way are empty and effortless, yet they lead all creatures to the Way. Those who embody virtue are faultless and responsive and ready to do anything. Those who embody kindness show love for all creatures without restriction. Those who embody justice deal with things by matching name with reality. Those who embody ritual are humble and put harmony first. These five are the footprints of the Tao. They are not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is not one, much less five.”

WANG P’ANG says, “Kindness is another name for virtue. It differs, though, from virtue because it involves effort. The kindness of sages, however, does not go beyond fulfilling their nature. They aren’t interested in effort. Hence, they don’t think about it.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “Higher kindness is kindness without effort to be kind. Kindness is simply a gift. Justice is concerned with the appropriateness of the gift. Ritual is concerned with repayment. When ritual appears, belief disappears and confusion arises.”

SU CH’E says, “These are the means whereby sages help the people to safety. When the people don’t respond, sages threaten and force them. If they still don’t respond, sages turn to law and punishment.”

FAN YING-YUAN says, “‘Augury’ means to see the future. Those in charge of rituals think they can see the future and devise formulas for human action, but they thus cause people to trade the spirit for the letter.”

WU CH’ENG says, “The Tao is like a fruit. Hanging from a tree, it contains the power of life, but its womb is hidden. Once it falls, it puts forth virtue as its root, kindness as its stem, justice as its branches, ritual as its leaves, and knowledge as its flower. All of these come from the Tao. ‘That’ refers to the flower. ‘This’ refers to the fruit. Those who embody the Tao choose the fruit over the flower.”

RED PINE adds, “And yet the plastic flowers of civilization still deck a billion altars.”

We finished up last week saying, “Let the world fix itself!” It was an admonition to rulers, and all of us, really, not to intervene, not to interfere, not to use force, not try to control. That gives us a strong indication of what Lao-tzu is explaining in today’s verse regarding virtue. For, in today’s verse, Lao-tzu teaches there is virtue, and then there is Virtue.

As I was reading through today’s verse, I was reminded of what Lao-tzu said previously. “All the world knows good. But if that becomes good, this becomes bad. The coexistence of have and have not … is endless.”

The highest Virtue, with a capital V, is a virtue that is virtuous without being virtuous. If that seems odd, consider all of Lao-tzu’s teachings regarding the practice of wei-wu-wei. Doing without doing. Knowing without knowing. Competing without competing. And he does go on to explain this is exactly what he means by a virtue that isn’t virtuous. It doesn’t involve any effort. Not even the thought of effort. It is a natural virtue, an effortless virtue.

He contrasts that with Lower virtues. Lower virtues take effort. They are virtues that strive to be virtuous. The lower virtues could be further explained as what we perceive as virtue, as contrasted with Higher Virtue which isn’t perceptible.

Here, Lao-tzu talks about three different perspectives on what is virtuous: Kindness. Justice. Ritual.

Each of these “virtues” have their advocates.

I happen to be pretty big on kindness. Often wondering to myself, “Why can’t people just treat people like they want to be treated?”

For many, justice is the be all and end all virtue. This virtue focuses on what is right and what is wrong. And how wrongs can be made right.

Then, there are those for whom ritual is the most important virtue. This virtue is all about the appearance of virtue. It speaks of humility and harmony. Today, I think the name for it is virtue-signaling. It trades the “spirit” for the “letter,” in an effort to keep up appearances.

Of course, what is most common is that we advocate for some combination of these three virtues.

Lao-tzu takes them one by one, however, and seems to suggest a kind of hierarchical order to them, as well. But keep in mind, these virtues, however high they might be, are all much lower than the Higher Virtue Lao-tzu talked about first.

Kindness is perhaps the highest of the lower virtues. It involves effort, but without giving a thought to the effort involved in being kind. Hence, my constant wonder of why it isn’t easier for people to practice.

Justice involves effort, and it is always thinking about the effort it involves. What is right? Once, you start naming what is right, what is wrong surely follows.

And then there is ritual. I am just going to go ahead and say it. Ritual is the ugliest of the lower virtues. Quite frankly, I find it difficult to call it a virtue. That is kind of what I was feeling as I was reading Su Ch’e’s commentary on today’s verse. Should we really be calling “Su ch’e’s sages” sages? They certainly don’t seem to possess any virtue, given Lao-tzu’s definitions in today’s verse. Yes, ritual requires effort. And, when it doesn’t meet with the expected response, “Watch out!”

The lower virtues only appear because the Great Way has been lost. Remember, the highest form of Virtue? The natural kind, the one which doesn’t involve any effort at all, the one that is a virtue without trying to be virtuous? Well, that is only going to be realized as a result of following the Tao.

Kindness appears when Virtue disappears. Justice appears when kindness is lost. Ritual appears when justice is lost. When things have spiraled downward to where all you have left in the way of virtue is ritual, that is the mark of just how far our belief in the Tao has waned. It is the onset of confusion. Ritual thinks it can see into the future by dwelling on what is past. But that is nothing but the flower of the Way. It is the beginning of delusion.

Thus, choose the thick over the thin, the fruit over the flower: Pick this over that.

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

FAN YING-YUAN (FL. 1240-1269). One of the first scholars to examine variations in pronunciation and wording in the Taoteching. Lao-tzu tao-te-ching ku-pen-chi-chu.

Let the World Fix Itself

“The Tao makes no effort at all
yet there is nothing it doesn’t do
if a ruler could uphold it
the people by themselves would change
and changing if their desires stirred
he could make them still
with simplicity that has no name
and stilled by nameless simplicity
they would not desire
and not desiring be at peace
the world would fix itself”

(Taoteching: verse 37, translation by Red Pine)

CHUANG-TZU says, “The ancients ruled the world by doing nothing. This is the Virtue of Heaven. Heaven moves without moving.” (Chuangtzu:12.1).

WU CH’ENG says, “The Tao’s lack of effort is ancient and eternal and not simply temporary. Although it makes no effort, it does everything it should do. If rulers could uphold this Tao of effortlessness, without consciously thinking about changing others, others would change by themselves.”

LAO-TZU says, “I make no effort / and the people transform themselves” (Taoteching: 57).

TE-CH’ING says, “If nobles and kings could only uphold the Tao, all creatures would change by themselves without thinking about changing. This is the effect of upholding the Tao. When creatures first change, their desires disappear. But before long, their trust fades and feelings well up and begin to flow until desires reappear. When this occurs, those who are adept at saving others must block the source of desire with nameless simplicity.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “‘Nameless simplicity’ refers to the Tao, which all creatures use to transform themselves and which nobles and kings use to pacify those who engage in cleverness and deceit.”

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “When people first change and begin to cultivate the Tao, they think about reaching a goal. Once this desire arises, it must be stilled with the Tao’s nameless simplicity.”

SU CH’E says, “Sages have no thought of embracing simplicity, nor do they show any sign of doing so. If the thought of becoming simple existed in their hearts, they would miss the mark completely.”

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “Once rulers use nameless simplicity to still the desires of the people, they must then give it up so that the people don’t follow its tracks and once again enter the realm of action. Once our illness is cured, we put away the medicine. Once we are across the river, we leave the boat behind. And once we are free of desire, we must also forget the desire to be free of desire. Serene and at peace, the ruler does nothing, while the world takes care of itself.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Other creatures follow their natures without creating chaos or disaster. They change by themselves without seeking change. People, meanwhile, race through the realm of existence and never know a quiet moment. They abandon their original innocence and don’t practice the true Tao of doing nothing. They don’t care about their lives, until one day they offend and retribution arrives.”

And RED PINE adds, “Name takes sides. Complexity limits options. Hence, those who uphold nameless simplicity don’t take sides and keep their options open.”

Today’s verse is another of my favorites. And, I hope you go back and reread what the various commentators had to say about it. So much wisdom!

Lao-tzu once again holds up the Tao: “Without exerting any effort, there is nothing it doesn’t do.” Yet, our rulers don’t hold this up as Virtue. They want to control things.

Oh, this isn’t just a rant about our rulers. We elected them, ourselves. They came out from us. They are really just like us. We want to be in control, too. In fact, if there is one common thread which will emerge when just about anyone is complaining about their rulers, it will be how much they can’t wait until their “guys” gets elected next go around. All that is wrong with the world can be summed up as the wrong people are in power. And the solution is to get the right people in power.

The world has a problem, and we need to fix it. Lao-tzu may have felt pretty much alone in his day, I know I sometimes feel very much alone, in believing the world can and would fix itself, if it was just left alone.

Instead, we expend so much effort. Trying. Trying. We must intervene. We must interfere. We must exert force. We must be in control.

The notion that people by themselves would change, seems a silly notion. Naive. And, even if it were true, much too slow a process. We need rulers!

Who needs rulers? Lao-tzu had strict guidelines for rulers. He wanted them to be content just being an example of Virtue. Hold up the Tao. Trust the people. Leave them alone. It was a hands-off approach: Let the people change themselves. Let the world fix itself. When desires stir, still those by demonstrating the stilling of your own desires.

Don’t take sides. Don’t limit your options. Keep it simple. Then, they would not desire, and they would know peace, and the world would fix itself.

What? Without any help from me? Without my efforts? Without me making a name for myself? But, what if I don’t much care for this natural order? What if I want to put my own twist on things? Nature could use some help. And I know just how to help it.

Enough. You are exactly the wrong person for the job of ruler. And, who needs a ruler, anyway? Let the world fix itself!

This Is Called Hiding the Light

“What you would shorten
you first should lengthen
what you would weaken
you first should strengthen
what you would topple
you first should raise
what you would take
you first should give
this is called hiding the light
the weak conquering the strong
fish can’t survive out of the depths
a state’s greatest weapon
isn’t meant to be shown”

(Taoteching, verse 36, translation by Red Pine)

TE-CH’ING says, “Once things reach their limit, they go the other way. Hence, lengthening is a portent of shortening. Strengthening is the onset of weakening. Raising is the beginning of toppling. Giving is the start of taking. This is the natural order for Heaven as well as for Humankind. Thus, to hide the light means the weak conquer the strong. Weakness is the greatest weapon of the state. But rulers must no show it to their people. Deep water is the best place for a fish. But once it is exposed to the air, a fish is completely helpless. And once rulers show weakness, they attract enemies and shame.”

LU HUI-CHING says, “To perceive shortening in lengthening, weakening in strengthening, toppling in raising, taking in giving, how could anyone do this if not through the deepest insight? This is the hidden light. Moreover, what causes things to be shortened or lengthened, weakened or strengthened, toppled or raised, taken or given is invisible and weak. While what is shortened or lengthened, weakened or strengthened, toppled or raised, taken or given is visible and strong. Thus, the weak conquer the strong. People should not abandon weakness, just as fish should no leave the depths. When fish leave the depths, they are caught. When people abandon weaknesss, they join the league of the dead.”

WU CH’ENG says, “‘Hiding the light’ is the same as ‘cloaking the light.’” (See verse 27)

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “According to the way of the world, the weak don’t conquer the strong. But Lao-tzu’s point is that the weak can conquer the strong by letting the strong do what they want until they become exhausted and thus weak. Those who cultivate the Tao speak softly and act with care. They don’t argue about right or wrong, better or worse. They understand the harmony of Heaven and Earth, the Way of emptiness and stillness, and become adept at using the hidden light.”

CHANG TAO-LING says, “The Tao is like water. People are like fish.”

CHUANG-TZU says, “The sage is the world’s greatest weapon but not one that is known to the world” (Chuangtzu: 10.3).

HAN FEI says, “Rewards and punishments are the state’s greatest weapon.”

Te Ch’ing says, “Weakness is the greatest weapon of the state.” Chuang-tzu says, “The sage is the world’s greatest weapon…” And, Han Fei says “Rewards and punishments are the state’s greatest weapon.” Which one of them is right? Can they all be right?

Lao-tzu doesn’t really say. Saying instead, “A state’s greatest weapon isn’t meant to be shown.” I think this “hiding the light” is the whole point of what Lao-tzu is saying in today’s verse. And, Wu Ch’eng is quite right to remind us, “hiding the light” in today’s verse is the same as “cloaking the light” in verse 27. There, Lao-tzu was talking about the good and the bad coexisting together; the good, instructing the bad, and the bad, learning from the good. The point of “cloaking the light” being, the need to be “perfectly blind.”

In today’s verse, “hiding the light” demonstrates how shortening and lengthening, weakening and strengthening, toppling and raising, and taking and giving, coexist together. And, for what reason: This is the natural order.

As things currently appear, and they appeared this way in Lao-tzu’s day as well, the strong still rule the day. Hence, our need for “perfect blindness.” The weak can and do conquer the strong, Whether or not it appears that way. How do we do it? Sung Ch’ang-hsing explains, “By letting the strong do what they want until they become exhausted, and thus weak.

That is Lao-tzu’s point in teaching those of us who wish to shorten, or weaken, or topple, or take something; to forego that, in favor of the natural order: Let the long be lengthened, let the strong be strengthened, let the high be raised, give first; until it is ripe for the taking. Wait until things reach their limit. Once they reach their limit, they will go the other way.

As Sung Ch’ang-hsing teaches us, “Speak softly and act with care. Don’t argue about right or wrong, better or worse. Understand the harmony of Heaven and Earth, the Way of emptiness and stillness, and become adept at using the hidden light.”

If the Tao is like water and people like fish, as Chang Tao-ling says, then we need, like fish, to stay in the depths to survive.