If you over-esteem great men,
people become powerless.
If you overvalue possessions,
people begin to steal.
The Master leads
by emptying people’s minds
and filling their cores,
by weakening their ambition
and toughening their resolve.
He helps people lose everything
they know, everything they desire,
and creates confusion in those
who think that they know.
and everything will fall into place.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 3, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
In chapter one, Lao Tzu introduced what he calls the Tao. The Tao is the infinite and eternal reality, the Nature of things, the Way things are. Tao could simply be translated, Way. In chapter one, he also introduced the problem of desire as the cause of our difficulties in realizing the mystery of the Tao. Caught in desire, we can only see its manifestations.
In chapter two, Lao Tzu began to explain exactly what the problem of desire is, it is how we see things; and, what a wise and virtuous person would do to overcome, and be free of, their desire. We also talked of yin and yang. These are manifestations of the Tao. I covered what yin and yang are, quite thoroughly, in my commentary on chapter two, so instead of rehashing all of that, I hope you will go back and read it.
What you specifically need to know is yin and yang is how the Tao brings balance to our Universe. How we see things, some things are beautiful and good, while other things are ugly and bad, traps us in a finite and temporal reality. To free ourselves from desire, we need to see things differently. Behold, yin and yang at work in our Universe, bringing about balance, harmony, and order. Then, you see the infinite and eternal reality, the Nature of things, the Way things are. You, then, can begin to harmonize yourself with the Tao.
As I promised, yesterday, today’s chapter begins by talking further about the problem of desire. If you over-esteem great men, people become powerless. If you overvalue possessions, people begin to steal. The problem of desire, here, is focused on how we put things out of balance. There can’t be beauty, without ugliness. There can’t be good, without bad. The Tao always works to bring about balance. When we over-do anything, like over-esteeming or over-valuing, it creates an imbalance. With that excess, there comes deficiency. You can’t have excess, without deficiency. It makes no difference whether or not we like that this is the reality, this is just the way things are.
Now, this is where things start to get interesting. People start to get all sorts of ideas in their minds on how to deal with this problem of excess and deficiency. Those who are more ambitious will set out to do something about the problem. But, hold on there! The problem of excess and deficiency is not any of your business to deal with. The Tao will take care of adjusting excess and deficiency. Don’t intervene, don’t interfere, practice not-doing, and everything will fall into place.
This is our first real introduction to the practice of Wei Wu Wei, doing without doing, a central tenet of philosophical Taoism. And, that not intervening, and not interfering is exactly what it is about. Leave it to the Tao, to adjust excess and deficiency. If you intervene, if you interfere, no matter how “good” your intentions may be, you will only bring things further out of balance. That, too, is just the Way things are. It is something I really wish I could impress on all would-be leaders.
And, speaking of would-be leaders, Lao Tzu talks, in today’s chapter about what a wise and virtuous leader would do, in the face of reality.
A wise and virtuous leader, is going to practice doing without doing, yes. But, there is more to it than that. A wise and virtuous leader shows the people how to be in harmony with the Tao. They accomplish this, by working with both yin and yang. First, all those heady notions that something can and must be done about this excess and deficiency have got to go. So, empty your mind of that. Your ambition to intervene and interfere, also, has got to be weakened. The emptying and weakening is yin. Now, all we need is some yang to bring about balance. While emptying the people’s minds, they fill their cores. While weakening their ambition, they toughen their resolve. Filling and toughening are yang. While our outer being needs emptying and weakening, our inner being, the core of our being, needs filling and toughening. If you want to be a wise and virtuous leader, help people lose everything they know, everything they desire, and create confusion in those who think they know. Now, the Tao can bring about balance, without any interference.
Well, I think that should just about cover things for today. Lao Tzu has dealt with the problem of desire for the last two chapters. Tomorrow, he will return to talking about the Tao.