Category Archives: Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching

To Understand or Not to Understand?

“To understand yet not understand
is transcendence
not to understand yet understand
is affliction
the reason sages aren’t afflicted
is because they treat affliction as affliction
hence they aren’t afflicted”

(Taoteching, verse 71, translation by Red Pine)

CONFUCIUS says, “Shall I teach you about understanding? To treat understanding as understanding and to treat not-understanding as not-understanding, this is understanding” (Lunyu: 2.17)

TE-CH’ING says, “The ancients said that the word understanding was the door to all mysteries as well as the door to all misfortune. 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.”

WU CH’ENG says, “Those who understand yet seem not to understand are the wisest of people. They protect their understanding with stupidity. Those who don’t understand yet think they understand are, in fact, the stupidest of people. They think blind eyes see and deaf ears hear. This is what is meant by ‘affliction.’”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “If people understand, but out of humility they say they don’t, then reality is superior to name. Hence, we call it transcendence. If people don’t understand but say they do, then name surpasses reality. Hence, we call this affliction. Those who are able to understand that affliction is affliction are never afflicted.”

SU CH’E says, “The Tao is not something that can be reached through reasoning. Hence, it cannot be understood. Those who do not yet understand do not understand that there is no entrance. And if they do understand, and then they think about their understanding, they become afflicted by understanding.”

CHIAO HUNG says, “Anything that is understood is a delusion. Anything that is a delusion is an affliction. Understanding is not the affliction. It is the understanding of understanding that becomes the affliction. To understand what is the affliction is to cure the illness without medicine.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Understanding depends on things. Hence, it involves fabrication. Not understanding returns to the origin. Hence, it approaches the truth. Those who can understand that not understanding approaches the truth and that understanding involves fabrication are transcendent. If they don’t understand that understanding involves fabrication and vainly increase their understanding, they use the affliction as the medicine. Only by understanding that understanding is affliction can one be free of affliction. This is why sages are not afflicted.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “To understand the Tao yet to say that we don’t is the transcendence of virtue. Not to understand the Tao and to say that we do is the affliction of virtue. Lesser people don’t understand the meaning of the Tao and vainly act according to their forced understanding and thereby harm their spirit and shorten their years. Sages don’t suffer the affliction of forced understanding because they are pained by the affliction of others.”

Te-Ch’ing’s commentary is particularly helpful in “understanding” today’s verse. Understanding that understanding is both the door to all mysteries, and the door to all misfortune. To understand you don’t understand is to enter the door to all mysteries. To cling to your own understanding, thinking you already understand, is to encounter increasing obstacles to actual understanding. It is to enter the door to all misfortune.

Our understanding of our understanding can either result in transcendence or affliction. When we think we know, when we don’t know, we suffer affliction. And that affliction doesn’t just afflict the afflicted. When scrolling through any social media platform, the affliction of presumption is rampant, and apparently quite contagious. I doubt I am alone in spending a lot of time just shaking my head at my computer screen. It is maddening, really. And while Lao-tzu lived long before the likes of Facebook and Tumblr, Lao-tzu knew affliction where he saw it, and called it out for what it is. That is why, throughout his Taoteching, he taught the practice of not-knowing (knowing you don’t know) to transcend the affliction.

I want to be more like those sages of whom Lao-tzu was always referring. I want to transcend the madness. To be above and beyond it. A quote sometimes attributed to Mark Twain, though I don’t think he actually ever said it, comes to my mind here. “Never argue with stupid people, they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.” That has happened far too often to me. I need to rise above this.

And the only way to do this is to know that I don’t know. It is a simple truth. The truth often is. If we aren’t so pig-headed we fail to grasp it. That is what the sages understood. Their practice was treating affliction as affliction. And by treating affliction as affliction they weren’t afflicted. They transcended it. And we can, too.

What You Conceal Has More Value Than What You Reveal

“My words are easy to understand
and easy to practice
but no one understands them
or puts them into practice
words have an ancestor
deeds have a master
the reason I am not understood
it’s me who isn’t understood
but because so few understand me
thus am I esteemed
sages therefore wear coarse cloth
and keep their jade concealed”

(Taoteching, verse 70, translation by Red Pine)

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “Nothing is simpler or easier than the Tao. But because it’s so simple, it can’t be explained by reasoning. Hence, no one can understand it. And because it’s so near, it can’t be reached by stages. Hence, no one can put into practice.”

WANG P’ANG says, “Because sages teach us to be in harmony with the course of our lives, their words are simple, and their deeds are ordinary. Those who look within themselves understand. Those who follow their own nature do what is right. Difficulties arise when we turn away from the trunk and look among the branches.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “The Tao is easy to understand and easy to put into practice. It is also hard to understand and hard to put into practice. It is easy because there is no Tao to discuss, no knowledge to learn, no effort to make, no deeds to perform. And it is hard because the Tao cannot be discussed, because all words are wrong, because it cannot be learned, and because the mind only leads us astray. Effortless stillness is not necessarily right, and action-less activity is not necessarily wrong. This is why it is hard.”

SU CH’E says, “Words can trap the Tao, and deeds can reveal its signs. But if the Tao could be found in words, we would have only to listen to words. And if it could be seen in deeds, we would only have to examine deeds. But it cannot be found in words or seen in deeds. Only if we put aside words and look for their ancestor and put aside deeds and look for their master, can we find it.”

WU CH’ENG says, “The ancestor unites the clan. The master governs the state. Softness and humility are the ancestor of all words and the master of all deeds.”

YEN TSUN says, “Wild geese fly for days but don’t know what exists beyond the sky. Officials and scholars work for years, but none of them knows the extent of the Way. It’s beyond the ken and beyond the reach of narrow-minded, one-sided people.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “The reason the Tao is esteemed by the world is because it cannot be known or perceived. If it could be known or perceived, why should it be esteemed? Hence, Lao-tzu is esteemed because so few understand him. Thus, sages wear an embarrassed, foolish expression and seldom show anyone their great and noble virtue.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “The reason people don’t understand me is because my virtue is dark and not visible from the outside.”

CONFUCIUS says, “I study what is below and understand what is above. Who knows me? Only Heaven” (Lunyu: 14.37).

WANG PI says, “To wear coarse cloth is to become one with what is ordinary. To keep one’s jade concealed is to treasure the truth. Sages are difficult to know because they do not differ from ordinary people and because they do not reveal their treasure of jade.”

In our first verse this week, verse 67, Lao-tzu said, “The world calls me great, great but useless.” In today’s verse, Lao-tzu ties together being esteemed with being misunderstood.

Though Lao-tzu’s words are easy to understand, and easy to practice, no one understands them or puts them into practice. Lao-tzu had esteem issues. Not self-esteem, but world-esteem. The world esteemed him. But that was only because they misunderstood him. Or to put it in a different way, it is only because so few understand him, he is esteemed.

I like what Su Ch’e has to say in his commentary. “Only if we put aside words and look for their ancestor, and put aside deeds and look for their master, can we find [the Tao].”

But because so few understand this, sages dress in coarse cloth, keeping their jade concealed. What? Did you not think it is better to practice virtue than for others to understand you?

This is something I am beginning to put into practice more of in my own life, particularly on social media, where I am not nearly so eager to jump into the fray trying to outshine others with my own virtue-signaling. Perhaps we could all don coarse cloth more, and show off our jade less. What you conceal has more value than what you reveal.

The Remorseful One Prevails

“In warfare there is a saying
rather than a host
better to be a guest
rather than advance an inch
better to retreat a foot
this means to form no ranks
to put on no armor
to brandish no weapons
to repulse no enemy
no fate is worse than to have no enemy
to have no enemy is to lose one’s treasure
thus when opponents are evenly matched
the remorseful one prevails”

(Taoteching, verse 69, translation by Red Pine)

WANG CHEN says, “In warfare, we say the one who mobilizes first is the host and the one who responds is the guest. Sages only go to war when they have no choice. Hence, they are the guest.”

CHIAO HUNG says, “This was a saying of ancient military strategists.” If so, they remain unnamed. Sun-tzu, meanwhile, calls the invading force the k’o (guest) (Suntzu Pingfa: 2.20).

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “According to the Tao of warfare, we should avoid being the first to mobilize troops, and we should go to war only after receiving Heaven’s blessing.’

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “The host resists, and the guest agrees. The host toils, and the guest relaxes. One advances with pride, while the other retreats in humility. One advances with action, while the other retreats in quiet. Those who meet resistance with agreement, toil with relaxation, pride with humility, and action with stillness have no enemy. Wherever they go, they conquer.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “In warfare, sages leave no tracks. They advance by retreating.”

WU CH’ENG says, “Those who go to war form themselves into ranks, equip themselves with weapons, and advance against the enemy. But when sages go to war, they act as if there were no ranks, there were no armor, there were no weapons, and as if there were no enemies.”

SUN-TZU says, “Generals who advance with no thought of fame, who retreat with no fear of punishment, who think only of protecting their country and helping their king are the treasures of the realm” (Suntzu Pingfa: 10.24).

SU CH’E says, “Sages regard compassion as their treasure. To treat killing lightly would be to lose the reason for compassion.”

TE-CH’ING says, “When opponents are evenly matched and neither is superior, the winner is hard to determine. But whichever one is remorseful and compassionate will win. For the Way of Heaven is to love life and to help those who are compassionate to overcome their enemies.”

WANG PI says, “Those who are remorseful sympathize with their opponents. They try not to gain an advantage but to avoid injury. Hence, they always win.”

WANG P’ANG says, “To be remorseful is to be compassionate. Those who are compassionate are able to be courageous. Thus, they triumph.”

LIN HSI-YI says, “Those who attack with drums and cheer the advent of war are not remorseful. They are remorseful who do not consider warfare a pleasure but an occasion for mourning. In this verse, warfare is only a metaphor for the Tao.”

LAO-TZU says, “When you kill another / honor him with your tears / when the battle is won / treat it as a wake” (Taoteching: 31).

And RED PINE notes that lines ten and eleven may seem strange when we read them for the first time. I know they always trip me up. I keep thinking “to have no enemy” would be great. It just goes to show how little I know. But, Red Pine says, “The import [of these lines] would seem to be that without an enemy, we would have no recipient of our compassion and thus no reason to practice it.”

I have been thinking a lot about war in the last several days. The US Senate may actually vote as early as this Friday on ending America’s involvement in the Saudi war on Yemen. I am keeping my fingers crossed. Lao-tzu actually had plenty to say about warfare in the Taoteching. In today’s verse, for example he talks about, what in his day was already an ancient saying, about warfare. “Rather than a host, better to be a guest.” While there is some disagreement among our various commentators, I think I am assuming correctly when I agree with Wang Chen that it is the one who mobilizes first who is the host, while it is the one who responds who is the guest. This isn’t the first time Lao-tzu has said, you should only use force when “forced” to.

It is the lesson I wish my own country’s government would take to heart when it comes to warfare. For some years now, at least since the 2001 AUMF (drafted 3 days after 9/11) authorizing then President George W. Bush to fight terrorists wherever he could find them. I only recently came to realize just how narrow that 2001 AUMF actually was.

I say that now, knowing the Congress has spent roughly 17 years ducking their constitutional duty when it comes to war, and president after president (first Bush, then Obama, now Trump) , using that 2001 AUMF to attack sovereign nation after sovereign nation. Can you name all the countries we have bombed since September of 2001? Each one of those countries’ bombings were justified using that 2001 AUMF. Interesting, since it actually was a pretty narrow allowance.

Only those responsible for the 9/11 attacks, or those aiding or harboring those responsible for the 9/11 attacks. That is why Bush had to lie about Iraq being somehow responsible for the 9/11 attacks to justify that war in Iraq. By the time Obama became president all pretense of ever needing to tie a country we wanted to bomb to the 9/11 attacks went out the window. No need to do that anymore. Congress wasn’t about to do their duty and demand that the president cease and desist until Congress gave their approval.

That may all change starting this week. Anti-war progressives who were deafeningly silent for the eight years the Nobel peace-prize winning President Obama was killing innocent men, women, and children, even American citizens without due process, are now beginning to raise a ruckus again. Having Trump doing the bombing doesn’t sit well with them. Good! Welcome back. Better late than never.

I am cautiously hopeful that something good is going to come out of this. This war on Yemen has been horrendous. I have heard some good rhetoric coming out of Washington, at last. But don’t think for a moment, I will be satisfied with only empty rhetoric.

The truth is, just as Lao-tzu taught. Just more of that ancient saying about warfare. “Rather than advance and inch, better to retreat a foot.”

Don’t be the first one to form ranks, to put on armor, to brandish weapons. Be the last. Only do it, because you have no choice. Having to repulse an enemy should repulse you.

Lao-tzu does say something in today’s verse that never fails to throw me, each time I read it. He says, “No fate is worse than to have no enemy.” Every time I read that I think I must be misreading it. Doesn’t he mean “have an enemy”? But Lao-tzu goes on to say, “To have no enemy is to lose one’s treasure.” And I agree with Red Pine that what Lao-tzu is meaning is how having no enemy would mean having no one upon whom we could practice compassion. Like not bombing the living daylights out of their country’s infrastructure.

Anyway, that is about all I wanted to say about today’s verse. Except maybe this. It is the remorseful one who will prevail, in any armed conflict. We have plenty of reason, right now, to feel remorse about what we have done to the people of Yemen. May those who do, prevail.

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

LIN HSI-YI (FL. 1234-1260). Scholar-official who produced commentaries to a number of classics. His commentary on the Taoteching is noted for its clarity. Lao-tzu k’ou-yi.

This Is the Virtue of Non-Aggression

“In ancient times
the perfect officer wasn’t armed
the perfect warrior wasn’t angry
the perfect victor wasn’t hostile
the perfect commander acted humble
this is the virtue of non-aggression
this is using the strength of others
this is uniting with Heaven
which was the ancient end”

(Taoteching, verse 68, translation by Red Pine

CHIAO HUNG says, “In ancient times, officers went into battle in chariots. They were dressed in mail, and there were three to a vehicle: one on the left armed with a bow, one on the right armed with a spear, and one in the middle in charge of the reins., the flag, and the drum. Below and arrayed around every chariot were seventy-two foot soldiers.”

SUN-TZU says, “A ruler must not mobilize his armies in anger. A general must not engage the enemy in wrath. Anger can turn to joy, and wrath can turn to gladness. But once a state is destroyed, it cannot be restored. And once a person is dead, he cannot be reborn” (Suntzu Pingfa: 12.18-21). Sun-tzu also says, “To win every battle is not supreme excellence. Supreme excellence is to conquer without fighting” (3.2).

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Those who honor the Way and Virtue are not fond of weapons. They keep hatred from their hearts. They eliminate disaster before it arises. They are angered by nothing. They use kindness among neighbors and virtue among strangers. They conquer their enemies without fighting and command through humility.”

LIEH-TZU says, “Those who govern others with worthiness never win them over. Those who serve others with worthiness never fail to gain their support” (Liehtzu: 6.3).

WANG CHEN says, “You must first win others’ hearts before you can command them.”

KUMARAJIVA says, “Empty your body and mind. No one can fight against nothing.”

WU CH’ENG says, “Even though our wisdom and power might surpass that of others, we should act as if we possessed neither. By making ourselves lower than others, we can use their wisdom and power as our own. Thus, we can win without taking up arms, without getting angry, and without making enemies. By using the virtue of nonaggression and the power of others, we are like Heaven, which overcomes without fighting and which reaches its goal without moving.”

TZU-SSU says, “Wide and deep, they are able to support others. High and bright, they are able to protect others. Those who are wide and deep unite with earth. Those who are high and bright unite with Heaven” (Chungyung: 26.4-5).

TE-CH’ING says, “Heaven is yang and Earth is yin. But if Heaven and Earth remain stationary, everything stops, and nothing comes into existence. Only when yang descends and yin arises does everything flourish. Thus, heaven’s position is to be above, but its function is to descend. When sages are above the people, and their hearts are below, we call this uniting with Heaven. This was the polestar of ancient rulers.”

Today’s verse is a tough one. It is always tough to talk about what would be ideal, what is perfection. There will always be some naysayer who will complain that we are allowing the perfect to become the enemy of the good. I would argue back that unless we have perfection, the ideal, ever present in our minds, and as our end goal, we never can hope to achieve it.

To Lao-tzu, you would have to look back to ancient times to discover the perfect, the ideal. And that is saying a lot, since what was ancient to Lao-tzu in his day, had to have been quite ancient to us today.

What Sun-tzu said in the commentary which bears his name intrigues me. “To win every battle is not supreme excellence.” In other words, the highest perfection. “Supreme excellence is to conquer without fighting.” That, my friends, is true perfection. To conquer without fighting. That was the ancient end. It must be our end, today.

Violence only begets more violence. Intervening, and using force in an effort to control, will never bring us one step closer to our goal. But it will take us that much further from our goal.

Lao-tzu says something in today’s verse which is easy to misunderstand. In referring to the virtue of non-aggression, he says, “This is using the strength of others.” What does he mean by that? Who are these others? Thankfully, Lao-tzu always answers these questions if we will just read and understand the lines surrounding it. He says that this using the strength of others is, “uniting with Heaven.”

Uniting with Heaven, which was the ancient end, and must be our end today, is acquiescing to Nature’s Law. Heaven’s yang must be met with the Earth’s yin. This is the only way, says Te-ch’ing, for everything to flourish. It brings everything into balance and harmony. And it sure beats constantly being at war with nature, as we are today.

Great, But Useless

“The world calls me great
great but useless
it’s because I am great I am useless
if I were of use
I would have remained small
but I possess three treasures
I treasure and uphold
first is compassion
second is austerity
third is reluctance to excel
because I’m compassionate
I can be valiant
because I’m austere
I can be extravagant
because I’m reluctant to excel
I can be chief of all tools
if I renounced compassion for valor
austerity for extravagance
humility for superiority
I would die
but compassion wins every battle
and outlasts every attack
what Heaven creates
let compassion protect”

-Lao-tzu- (Taoteching, verse 67, translation by Red Pine)

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Lao-tzu says the world calls his virtue ‘great.’ But if his virtue were great in name alone, it would bring harm. Hence, he acts foolish and useless. He doesn’t distinguish or differentiate. Nor does he demean others or glorify himself.”

WANG PI says, “To be useful is to lose the means to be great.”

SU CH’E says, “The world honors daring, exalts ostentation, and emphasizes progress. What the sage treasures is patience, frugality, and humility, all of which the world considers useless.”

TE-CH’ING says, “‘Compassion’ means to embrace all creatures without reservation. ‘Austerity’ means not to exhaust what one already has. ‘Reluctance to excel” means to drift through the world without opposing others.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “Through compassion, we learn to be soft. When we are soft, we can overcome the hardest thing in the world. Thus, we can be valiant. Through austerity, we learn when to stop. When we know when to stop, we are always content. Thus, we can be extravagant. Through reluctance to excel, we are surpassed by no one. Thus, we can be chief of all tools. Valor, extravagance, and excellence are what everyone worries about. And because they worry, they are always on the verge of death.”

LIU SHIH-P’EI says, “To be chief of all tools means to be the chief official.” (For “chief of all tools,” see verse 28.)

CONFUCIUS says, “The gentleman is not a tool” (Lunyu: 2.12).

WU CH’ENG says, “Compassion is the chief of the three treasures. The last section only mentions compassion because it includes the other two. All people love a compassionate person as they do their own parents. How could anyone oppose their parents? Hence, those who attack or defend with compassion meet no opposition.”

MENCIUS says, “Those who are kind have no enemy under Heaven” (Mencius: 7B.3).

And RED PINE adds, “To be a tool means to be limited. To have no limits means to be chief of all tools. Among compassion, austerity, and reluctance to excel, only compassion has no limits. Hence, Lao-tzu ranks it first.”

Lao-tzu, referring to his teachings, said, “The world calls me great. Great but useless.” And with that, they dismiss Lao-tzu and his teachings. But hold on there. Is it possible that uselessness is a good thing? Lao-tzu seemed to think so. He went on to say, “It’s because I am great I am useless. If I were of use I would have remained small.” I don’t know whether I can really convey the significance of that last statement.

What Lao-tzu values and what the world values are opposed to each other. The world values valor, extravagance, superiority. And Lao-tzu values compassion, austerity (simplicity), and reluctance to excel (humility). Oh, the world pays lip service to notions of compassion, simplicity, and humility, but they don’t dare practice what Lao-tzu treasures. They are, as far as the world is concerned, great but useless. And of what use can the useless be?

The answer, my friends, is more than we may think.

Because I am compassionate, I can be valiant. Because I’m austere, I can be extravagant. Because I’m reluctant to excel, I can be “chief of all tools.” To be a tool is to be limited. A tool is useful. But there is a limit to its usefulness. The chief of all tools is without limitations. Lao-tzu’s uselessness, then, is what makes him great. His uselessness means his life knows no limits.

Lao-tzu contrasts compassion with valor. What does he mean by that? He goes on to refer to compassion winning every battle, and outlasting every attack. But it isn’t the compassionate that are awarded medals. They don’t have ticker-tape parades for those who were compassionate. So much for the world’s opinion. Says Lao-tzu, “If I renounced compassion for valor, I would die.”

Lao-tzu contrasts austerity with extravagance. Austerity is a word which is used by governments to describe their cost-cutting measures to balance their budgets. But Lao-tzu isn’t talking about what governments impose on us. He is talking about the practice of individuals, cultivating the Tao in their own body. Austerity is simplicity, it is moderation, it is living within your means. Extravagance lives like the bill will never come due. Like how Congress spends our money. And yet again, Lao-tzu says, “If I renounced austerity for extravagance, I would die.”

Lao-tzu contrasts reluctance to excel (humility) with superiority. And understand that Lao-tzu is talking about attitudes here. I don’t think I am superior to or better than others. I place myself below and behind them. If I did otherwise, if I renounced humility for superiority, says Lao-tzu for the last time, I would die.

What if we would value these treasures like Lao-tzu did? What if we saw the value in uselessness? What if we realized that uselessness makes us great?

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

LIU SHIH-P’EI (1884-1919). Adds to the work of Wang Nien-sun and others in locating ancient usages of the Taoteching. Lao-tzu-chiao-pu.

It Is Because They Don’t Struggle

“The reason the sea can govern a hundred rivers
is because it has mastered being lower
thus it can govern a hundred rivers
hence if sages would be above the people
they should speak as if they were below them
if they would be in front
they should act as if they were behind them
thus when sages are above
the people aren’t burdened
when they are in front
the people aren’t obstructed
the world never wearies
of pushing sages forward
and because they don’t struggle
no one can struggle against them”

(Taoteching, verse 66, translation by Red Pine)

YEN TSUN says, “Rivers don’t flow toward the sea because of its reputation or its power but because it does nothing and seeks nothing.”

TE-CH’ING says, “All rivers flow toward the sea, regardless of whether they are muddy or clear. And the sea is able to contain them all because it is adept at staying below them. This is a metaphor for sages, to which the world turns because they are selfless.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “When sages possess the kingdom, they speak of themselves as ‘orphaned, widowed, and impoverished’ or ‘inheritor of the country’s shame and misfortune.’ Thus, in their speech, they place themselves below others. They do not act unless they are forced. They do not respond unless they are pushed. They do not rise unless they have no choice. Thus, in their actions, they place themselves behind others.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “When sages rule over the people, they don’t oppress those below with their position. Thus, the people uphold them and don’t think of them as a burden. When sages stand before them, they don’t blind them with their glory. Thus, the people love them as parents and harbor no resentment. Sages are kind and loving and treat the people as if they were their children. Thus, the whole world wants them for their leaders. The people never grow tired of them because sages don’t struggle against them. Everyone struggles against something. But no one struggles against those who don’t struggle against anything.”

SU CH’E says, “Sages don’t try to be above or in front of others. But when they find themselves below or behind others, the Tao can’t help but lift them up and push them forward.”

YANG HSIUNG says, “Those who hold themselves back are advanced by others. Those who lower themselves are lifted up by others” (Fayen: 7).

LI HSI-CHAI says, “The people aren’t burdened when sages are above them, because the people aren’t aware they have a ruler. And the people aren’t obstructed when sages are before them, because sages aren’t aware the people are their charges.”

WANG CHEN says, “Through humility sages gain the approval of the people. Once they gain their approval, they gain their tireless support. And once they gain their tireless support, struggling over rank naturally comes to an end.”

We finished up last week with Lao-tzu teaching on the need for humility, if you want to be great. And, to finish up this week of verses, Lao-tzu is back to talking about the need for humility, returning once again to his favorite of metaphors for the Tao, water.

How is it the sea can govern a hundred rivers? It isn’t its reputation or its power, says Yen Tsun in his commentary, it is because it does nothing and seeks nothing. Lao-tzu says that is because the sea has mastered being lower.

Sages are like this, too. They don’t seek to be above or in front of the people. They have become masters at being below and behind them. And because they have mastered being lower, they find themselves above and before them. But though they are above and in front, they neither burden nor obstruct the people.

This is the result of mastering humility in governing. The world will never grow weary of pushing sages forward. Why? Because sages through their humility have gained the approval of the people, says Wang Chen in his commentary, and having gained their approval, they gain their tireless support. And having gained their tireless support, struggling over rank naturally comes to an end.

This is the vital lesson to be learned in mastering humility in governing. When you don’t struggle with others, no one will struggle against you. What a transforming life!

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

YANG HSIUNG (53 B.C.-A.D. 18). Gifted philosopher and writer of courtly odes. Known for his view that man is neither good nor bad by nature but wholly subject to his environment. A number of his odes are preserved in the literary anthology known as the Wenhsuan. The Fayen contains his philosophical maxims.

Who Understands the Difference?

“The ancient masters of the Way
tried not to enlighten
but to keep people in the dark
what makes people hard to rule
is their knowledge
who rules the realm with knowledge
is the terror of the realm
who rules without knowledge
is the paragon of the realm
who understands the difference
is one who finds the key
knowing how to find the key
is what we call Dark Virtue
Dark Virtue goes deep
goes far
goes the other way
until it reaches perfect harmony”

(Taoteching, verse 65, translation by Red Pine)

WU CH’ENG says, “To make the people more natural, the ancient sages did not try to make the people more knowledgeable but to make them less knowledgeable. This radical doctrine was later misused by the First Emperor of the Ch’in dynasty, who burned all the books [in 213 B.C.] to make the people ignorant.”

CHUANG-TZU says, “When the knowledge of bows and arrows arose, the birds above were troubled. When the knowledge of hooks and nets proliferated, the fish below were disturbed. When the knowledge of snares and traps spread, the creatures of the wild were bewildered. When the knowledge of argument and disputation multiplied, the people were confused. Thus are the world’s troubles due to the love of knowledge” (Chuangtzu: 10.4).

WANG PI says, “When you rouse the people with sophistry, treacherous thoughts arise. When you counter their deceptions with more sophistry, the people see through your tricks and avoid them. Thus, they become secretive and devious.”

LIU CHUNG-P’ING says, “Those who rule without knowledge turn to Heaven. Those who rule with knowledge turn to Humankind. Those who turn to Heaven are in harmony. Those who are in harmony do only what requires no effort. Their government is lenient. Those who turn to Humankind force things. Those who force things become lost in the Great Inquisition. Hence, their people are dishonest.” Liu’s terminology here is indebted to Chuangtzu: 19.2 and Mencius: 4B.26.

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “‘Difference’ refers to ‘with knowledge’ and ‘without knowledge.’ Once you know that knowledge spreads evil and lack of knowledge spreads virtue, you understand the key to cultivating the self and governing the realm. Once you understand the key, you share the same virtue as Heaven. And Heaven is dark. Those who possess dark Virtue are so deep they can’t be fathomed, so distant they can’t be reached, and always do the opposite of others. They give to others, while others think only of themselves.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Because it is so deep, you can’t hear it or see it. Because it is so distant, you can’t talk about it or reach it. Dark Virtue differs from everything else. But it agrees with the Tao.”

SU CH’E says, “What the sage values is virtue. What others value is knowledge. Virtue and knowledge are opposites. Knowledge is seldom harmonious, while virtue is always harmonious.”

LIN HSI-YI says, “‘Perfect harmony’ means whatever is natural.”

In yesterday’s verse we talked about how often Lao-tzu’s teachings are taken out of context and used to promote the very opposite of what Lao-tzu was teaching. Probably the most quoted saying of Lao-tzu, certainly the one most misrepresented, is the one about a journey of a thousand miles beginning with your first step. People use that to encourage you to act. But what Lao-tzu was talking about when he talked about that long journey was the importance of not acting. Today’s verse was also, and is also, misunderstood.

It is misunderstood because people are willfully ignorant of what Lao-tzu means by knowledge in his teachings. It should be noticed that whenever he talks about the practice of not-doing, he soon talks about the practice of not-knowing. The two go together, so ignorance of what he means by one, will obviously result in ignorance of what he means by the other.

Knowledge, or “knowing,” for Lao-tzu, in today’s verse and throughout the Taoteching, refers to presumption or “presuming to know.” The ancient masters weren’t trying to keep the people ignorant, far from it, they wanted the people to know that they don’t know. That is the only way to combat presumption. And notice, this didn’t just apply to the people. Even the rulers were subject to this need to know they don’t know. As Lao-tzu says, “Who rules the realm with knowledge is the terror of the realm. Who rules the realm without knowledge is the paragon of the realm.”

The key, here, is to understand the difference. To understand you don’t know what you think you know. Presuming you know will have you acting, when you shouldn’t dare to act.

But this is Dark Virtue and few understand, or “find,” this key. Still, this should be our goal. To go deep, to go far, to go the other way, until perfect harmony is reached.

They Dare Not Act

“It’s easy to rule while it’s peaceful
it’s easy to plan for before it appears
it’s easy to break while it’s fragile
it’s easy to disperse while it’s small
act before anything exists
govern before anyone rebels
a giant tree grows from the tiniest shoot
a great tower rises from a basket of dirt
a thousand-mile journey begins at your feet
but to act is to fail
to control is to lose
sages therefore don’t act
thus they don’t fail
they don’t control
thus they don’t lose
when people pursue a task
failure occurs near the end
care at the end as well as the start
means an end to failure
sages thus seek what no one else seeks
they don’t prize hard-to-get goods
they study what no one else studies
they turn to what others pass by
to help all things remain natural
they dare not act”

(Taoteching, verse 64, translation by Red Pine)

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “We should act before anything exists, while things are peaceful and latent. We should govern before anyone rebels, while they are weak and few. But to act before anything exists means to act without acting. To govern before anyone rebels means to govern without governing.”

SU CH’E says, “To act before anything exists comes first. To govern before anyone rebels comes next.”

KUAN-TZU says, “Know where success and failure lie, then act” (Kuantzu: 47).

HUAI-NAN-TZU says, “A needle creates a tapestry. A basket of earth makes a wall. Success and failure begin from something small” (Huainantzu: 16).

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “From a sprout, the small becomes great. From a basket of earth, the low becomes high. From here, the near becomes far. But trees are cut down, towers are toppled, and journeys end. Everything we do eventually results in failure. Everything we control is eventually lost. But if we act before anything exists, how can we fail? If we govern before anyone rebels, how can we lose?”

WANG P’ANG says, “Everything has its course. When the time is right, it arrives. But people are blind to this truth and work to speed things up. They try to help Heaven and end up ruining things just as they near completion.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Others seek the ornamental. Sages seek the simple. Others seek form. Sages seek Virtue. Others study facts and skills. Sages study what is natural. Others learn how to govern the world. Sages learn how to govern themselves and how to uphold the truth of the Way.”

HAN FEI says, “The wise don’t fill their lessons with words or their shelves with books. The world may pass them by, but rulers turn to them when they want to learn what no one else learns.”

WU CH’ENG says, “The sage seeks without seeking and studies without studying. For the truth of all things lies not in acting but in doing what is natural. By not acting, the sage shares in the naturalness of all things.”

Today’s verse continues where we left off yesterday with the interplay of yin and yang, easy and hard. Remember, Lao-tzu’s counsel, “Think everything hard,” as he talks about when things are easy.

Probably the easiest thing for anyone to do is misunderstand Lao-tzu’s teachings regarding acting without acting. In today’s verse, he says, “Act before anything exists,” but he goes on to say, “To act is to fail,” and finally, about sages, “They dare not act.” So, should we act, or not?

That is exactly the question we should be asking ourselves every time we are tempted to act. Too often we already have made up our minds to act. Not acting isn’t even a consideration. And that is why we fail. What we need to master is acting without acting.

The lesson Lao-tzu teaches today about acting is that timing is everything. You want to act before anything exists. It has to be before. After is too late. He says, “Govern before anyone rebels.” This is when it is easy to rule, while it is peaceful. If your actions have brought on rebellion, further acting is only going to aggravate the situation more. Make your plans before it (i.e. a rebellion) appears. What you should be concerned with is two-fold, both how easy it is to break what is fragile (i.e. the peace), and how easy it is to disperse a rebellion while it is small. Your actions can be such that you can avoid rebellion and maintain peaceful rule. But, and this is a huge but, it depends on you acting without acting. If you fail here, if you act by acting, if you try to control, you will fail, and you will lose.

Lao-tzu offers three metaphors today to teach this lesson. The first being how a giant tree grows from the tiniest shoot. The second being how a great tower rises from a basket of dirt. And the third being how a thousand-mile journey begins at your feet.

He uses these as an admonition not to act. Too often we misread this as encouragement to act. That is completely taking them out of their context. To act is to fail. That giant tree, that huge tower, don’t bode well for you. Better it would be to not have them reach those heights. And that thousand-mile journey? A thousand-mile journey may not seem like much in our day and age. But in Lao-tzu’s day, that meant a whole lot of wandering, and all of it, far off course. It begins at the ground beneath your feet. The steps you choose to take matter. Where will they lead you? They might lead you a thousand miles off course. That is the admonition.

That is why sages don’t act. They don’t dare to. And because they don’t act, they don’t fail. They don’t control, so they don’t lose.

Here it is, our lesson for the day in a nutshell: When people pursue a task, failure occurs near the end. If we only put as much care at the end, as we did at the start, we would see an end to failure. What does care at the end mean, then?

Understand what Lao-tzu means by the end, here. He is referring to our purpose, our goal. This task we are pursuing, what is our end? What is our goal, our purpose? What are we seeking? That is where we fail. We seek what everyone else seeks. But, sages seek what no one else seeks. They don’t prize hard-to-get goods. They study what no one else studies. They turn to what others pass by.

Are you understanding what Lao-tzu is saying about our ends? Why they are doomed to failure? How sages avoid failure is by acting without acting, by only helping all things remain natural. In all other things they dare not act.

Think Everything Hard and Nothing Will Be Hard

“Act without acting
work without working
understand without understanding
great or small many or few
repay each wrong with virtue
plan for the hard while it’s easy
deal with the great while it’s small
the world’s hardest task begins easy
the world’s greatest goal begins small
sages therefore never act great
they thus achieve great goals
who quickly agrees is seldom trusted
who thinks things easy finds them hard
sages therefore think everything hard
and thus find nothing hard”

(Taoteching, verse 63, translation by Red Pine)

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “To act without acting means to do only what is natural. To work without working means to avoid trouble by preparing in advance. To understand without understanding means to understand the meaning of the Tao through meditation.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “When we act without acting, we don’t exhaust ourselves. When we work without working, we don’t trouble others. When we understand without understanding, we don’t waste anything.”

WANG TAO says, “What people do involves action. What sages do accords with the Tao of non-action. ‘Work’ refers to the conditions of action. ‘Understanding’ refers to meaning of action.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “To act without acting, to work without working, to understand without understanding is to conform with what is natural and not to impose oneself on others. Though others treat sages wrongly, the wrong is theirs and not the sages’. Sages respond with the virtue within their hearts. Utterly empty and detached, they thus influence others to trust in doing nothing.”

CHIAO HUNG says, “Action involves form and thus includes great and small. It is also tied to number and thus includes many and few. This is where wrongs come from. Only the Tao is beyond form and beyond number. Thus, sages treat everything the same: great and small, many and few. Why should they respond to them with anger?”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “If we repay wrongs with kindness, we put an end to revenge. If we repay wrongs with wrongs, revenge never ends.”

HAN FEI says, “In terms of form, the great necessarily starts from the small. In terms of duration, the many necessarily starts from the few. Wise rulers detect small schemes and thus avoid great plots. They enact minor punishments and thus avoid major rebellions.”

DUKE WEN OF CHIN told Kuo Yen, “In the beginning, I found it easy to rule the kingdom. Now I find it hard.” Kuo Yen replied, “If you consider something easy, it is bound to become hard. If you consider something hard, it is bound to become easy” (Kuoyu: Chin.4).

WANG CHEN says, “If rulers disdain something as easy, misfortune and trouble are sure to arise from it. If they do not pay attention to small matters, eventually they will overwhelm even the greatest virtue. Thus, sages guard against the insignificant lest it amount to something great. If they wait until something is great before they act, their action will come too late.”

TE-CH’ING says, “When I entered the mountains to cultivate the Way, at first it was very hard. But once I learned how to use my mind, it became very easy. What the world considers hard, the sage considers easy. What the world considers easy, the sage considers hard.”

Today’s verse is full of great lessons that we would all do well to heed.

Acting without acting, working without working, understanding without understanding, these are all admonitions to practice the art of not-doing, effortless action, only doing what is natural, so you don’t exhaust yourself, or trouble others, or waste anything.

Whether they be great or small, many or few, repay each wrong with virtue. There is that “golden rule” which is so important to follow. Whether they be great or small, many or few – these distinctions can get us into trouble in a hurry. Plan for the hard while it’s easy. Deal with the great while it’s small. These aphorisms are too easily passed over as elementary lessons. I can already hear someone out there saying, “I know, I know.” I used to have that kind of attitude, as well. It got me into plenty of trouble. All of my own making.

The truth is the world’s hardest task does begin easy. The world’s greatest goal begins small. And we are too quick to dismiss it because it is easy, it is small. And soon we are overcome by the enormity of the problem we now have before us.

So, would-be sages, what should we do?

Sages never act great. And thus they achieve great goals.

“I know, I know.” Yes, and do you also know that they who quickly agree can seldom be trusted?

For the truth of the matter is, when you think things are easy, you will soon find them hard.

The sage therefore thinks everything hard, and finds nothing hard.

Think everything hard, and find nothing hard is a great summary of all of Lao-tzu’s teachings. If you think everything hard, you will be less inclined to want to interfere, to intervene, to want to do something. When you let nature take its course, when you let things be, when you convince yourself it would just be too hard to meddle, and you only do what is natural, and not try to force things in an effort to control them, how easy it will be to be content with your life.

In today’s verse, Red Pine introduces the following:

DUKE WEN OF CHIN (FL. 7TH C. B.C.). Ruler of the state of Chin and hegemon of the central states.

KUO YEN (FL. 7TH C. B.C.). Chief minister of the state of Chin during the reign of Duke Wen.

How Can We Abandon People Who Are Bad?

“The Tao is creation’s sanctuary
treasured by the good
it keeps the bad alive
beautiful words might be the price
noble deeds might be the gift
how can we abandon
people who are bad
thus when emperors are enthroned
or ministers installed
though there be great disks of jade
followed by teams of horses
they don’t rival one who sits
and offers up this Way
the ancients thus esteemed it
for did they not proclaim
who seeks thereby obtains
who errs thereby escapes
thus the world esteems it”

(Taoteching, verse 62, translation by Red Pine)

THE HSISHENGCHING says, “The Tao is the sanctuary of the deepest depth and the source of empty nothingness.”

WU CH’ENG says, “‘Sanctuary’ means the most honored place. The layout of ancestral shrines includes an outer hall and an inner chamber. The southwest corner of the inner chamber is called ‘the sanctuary,’ and the sanctuary is where the gods dwell.”

SU CH’E says, “All we see of things is their exterior, their entrance hall. The Tao is their sanctuary. We all have one, but we don’t see it. The wise alone are able to find it. Hence, Lao-tzu says the good treasure it, but the foolish don’t find it. Then again, who doesn’t the Tao protect? Hence, he says it protects the bad. The Tao doesn’t abandon people. People abandon the Tao.”

WANG PI says, “Beautiful words can excel the products of the marketplace. Noble deeds can elicit a response a thousand miles away.”

TE-CH’ING says, “The Tao is in us all. Though good and bad might differ, our nature is the same. How, then, can we abandon anyone?”

LAO-TZU says, “Sages are good at saving others / therefore they abandon no one / nor anything of use / this is called cloaking the light / thus the good instruct the bad / the bad learn from the good” (Taoteching: 27).

WANG P’ANG says, “Jade disks and fine horses are used to attract talented people to the government. But a government that finds talented people yet does not implement the Tao is not followed by its subjects.”

CHIANG HSI-CH’ANG says, “In ancient times, the less valuable presents came first. Hence, jade disks preceded horses.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Better than disks of jade followed by teams of horses would be one good word or one good deed to keep people from losing sight of the good.”

LU NUNG-SHIH says, “If words and deeds can be offered to others, how much more the Tao.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “There is nothing that is not the Tao. When good people seek it, they are able to find it. When bad people seek it, they are able to avoid punishment.”

We finished up last week with a verse where Lao-tzu compared a great state to a watershed, to the confluence of the world. Yes, he was talking about the need for humility. But more importantly, he was talking about how closely we proximate ourselves to the Tao, that great body of water.

In today’s verse he begins by calling the Tao creation’s sanctuary. It isn’t surprising, to me, then, that all of creation had their origins in water.

Water is a sanctuary for us. We don’t want to be too far from it. There is a reason most of the world’s population dwells close to a great body of water. Even those of us who live farther inland have springs, lakes, and rivers we have close to our dwellings.

And the Tao is like this. Thus, it is treasured by the good, and it keeps the bad alive. Now, some of us might be questioning why we would want to keep the bad alive. So, in today’s verse, Lao-tzu poses a rhetorical question designed to get us to question exactly why we wouldn’t want to keep the bad alive: How can we abandon people who are bad?

How can we abandon people who are bad? What does it cost us? Lao-tzu teaches, “Beautiful words might be the price. Noble deeds might be the gift.” Thus, there is both a price, and a gift, in not abandoning people who are bad.

Is it too high a price? But what of the gift? Those who seek obtain, and those who err escape. Thus, the world esteems this Tao.

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

HSISHENGCHING (BOOK OF THE WESTERN ASCENSION). Taoist work apparently composed during the first centuries of the Christian era. It is one of several texts that recount Lao-tzu’s reappearance in India following his transmission of the Taoteching to Yin Hsi.