“The Tao drifts
it can go left or right
everything lives by its grace
but it doesn’t speak
when its work succeeds
it makes no claim
it has no desires
shall we call it small
everything turns to it
but it wields no control
shall we call it great
it’s because sages never act great
they can thus achieve great things”
(Taoteching, verse 34, translation by Red Pine)
HSUAN-TSUNG says, “To drift means to be unrestrained. The Tao is neither yin nor yang, weak nor strong. Unrestrained, it can respond to all things and in any direction. It isn’t one-sided. As Chuang-tzu says, “The Tao has no borders’ (Chuangtzu: 2.5).
CHUANG-TZU says, “Those who are skilled toil, and those who are clever worry. Meanwhile, those who do not possess such abilities seek nothing and yet eat their fill. They drift through life like unmoored boats” (Chuangtzu: 32.1).
WANG PI says, “The Tao drifts everywhere. It can go left or right. It can go up or down. Wherever we turn, it’s there for us to use.”
LI HSI-CHAI says, “The Great Way is a watery expanse that extends to the eight horizons. But when we use it, it’s as close as our left or right hand. There is nothing that doesn’t depend on it for life, and yet it never speaks of its power. There is nothing that doesn’t happen without its help, and yet it never mentions its achievements.”
SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Outside of the Tao there are no things. Outside of things there is no Tao. The Tao gives birth to things, just as wind creates movement or water creates waves.”
TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “Although living things might be infinite in number, the Tao creates them all through the mystery of doing nothing. It doesn’t mind making so many. And it creates them without thinking about its power.”
WANG P’ANG says, “When the Tao becomes small, it doesn’t stop being great. And when it becomes great, it doesn’t stop being small. But all we see are its traces. In reality, it is neither small nor great. It can’t be described. It can only be known.”
CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “The Tao produces all things, and all things turn to it. It’s like the sea. All streams empty into it, and yet it doesn’t control them.”
Commenting on lines eight and eleven, WU CH’ENG says, “Even though there are no question indicators, these are questions and not statements, just as in verse 10. If we can call something great, it isn’t the Tao.”
SU CH’E says, “Those who are great and think themselves great are small.”
LU HUI-CH’ING says, “The Tao hides in what has no name, and sages embody it through what has no name. They don’t consider themselves great, and yet no one is greater, for they can go left or right. Hence, they are neither small nor great. And because they are neither small nor great, they can do great things.”
Today’s verse strikes me as perhaps the scariest of verses within the Taoteching. I hadn’t really thought of it like this before, it is just the way it struck me this time around. Maybe I am empathizing more with the way I perceive others may be thinking. But what is more likely is I am becoming more in tune with how Lao-tzu’s teachings affect me to the very core of my own being.
So, why scary? Well, consider the Tao adrift. It can go left or right, up or down. It can’t be pinned down. It is unrestrained. Totally free. The Tao, as Hsuan-tsung says, is neither yin nor yang, weak nor strong. Unrestrained, it can respond to all things and in any direction. It isn’t one-sided; or, as Chuang-tzu has said, “The Tao has no borders.” You can’t control it. You can’t even always predict where it is going. You only know you can expect it to always be returning, and returning you, to the Source.
Okay, maybe that isn’t so scary. But consider this: It isn’t just the Tao which is drifting. We, ourselves, are drifting too. That, I think is scary. Chuang-tzu went on to say, “Those who are skilled toil, and those who are clever worry. Meanwhile, those who do not possess such abilities seek nothing and yet eat their fill. They drift through life like unmoored boats.”
“Like unmoored boats.” Do we dare? Most won’t. They would rather remain moored. Content to be discontent. Relying on their skill and cleverness to toil and worry, afraid to let go, and more to be let go. Adrift. Unrestrained. Free.
That state of freedom, scary yes, but the Tao is there wherever we turn; whether left or right, up or down, it is there for us to use.
Who is us? Those willing to be free, to be unrestrained, to be adrift. Like the Tao.
Like the Tao, which doesn’t speak or make any claim, though everything lives by its grace, and its work succeeds. Like the Tao, which has no desires and wields no control, though everything turns to it.
Shall we call it small or great? The Tao is neither, and both.
And what of us? Shall we be small or great? Moored, yet striving to be great, we would forever be small. But unmoored, unrestrained, free — though we never act great, we can thus achieve great things.