Adrift, Unrestrained, Free

“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”

-Lao-tzu-
(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.

Be Content and Strive Hard to Endure

“Those who know others are perceptive
those who know themselves are wise
those who conquer others are forceful
those who conquer themselves are strong
those who know contentment are wealthy
those who strive hard are resolved
those who don’t lose their place endure
those who aren’t affected by death live long.”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 33, translation by Red Pine)

SU CH’E says, “‘Perception’ means to distinguish. Wisdom means to remove obstructions. As long as our distinguishing mind is present, we can only know others, but not ourselves.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Perception is external knowledge. Wisdom is internal knowledge. Force is external control. Strength is internal control. Perception and force mislead us. Wisdom and strength are true. They are the doors to the Tao.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “If someone can conquer others, it is only by using force. If someone can conquer their own desires, no one in the world can compete with them. Hence, we call them strong.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “The strength of those who conquer themselves is of ten kinds: the strength of faith, the strength of charity, the strength of morality, the strength of devotion, the strength of meditation, the strength of concentration, the strength of illumination, the strength of wisdom, the strength of the Way, and the strength of Virtue.” (Note the similarity of this list to Buddhism’s paramitas, or perfections).

WU CH’ENG says, “Elsewhere, Lao-tzu extols simple-mindedness and weakness over wisdom and strength. Why then does he extol wisdom and strength here? Wisdom and strength are for dealing with the inside. Simple-mindedness and weakness are for dealing with the outside.”

WANG P’ANG says, “The natural endowment of all beings is complete in itself. Poverty does not reduce it. Wealth does not enlarge it. But fools abandon this treasure to chase trash. Those who know contentment pay the world no heed. This is true wealth. Mencius said, ‘The ten thousand things are within us’ (Mencius 7A.4). How could we not be wealthy?

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “Although the Great Way might be far off, if we persevere without pause, we advance. We get closer and closer, until suddenly we become one with the Way. Whoever has a goal can do anything. Outside, be content with your lot. Inside, focus on the Way. Those who do this cannot help but live long.”

WANG PI says, “Those who strive with devotion reach their goal. Those who examine themselves and work within their capacity don’t lose their place and are able to endure. Although we die, the Tao that gave us life doesn’t perish. Our body disappears, but the Tao remains. If our body continued to survive, would the Tao not end?”

TE-CH’ING says, “Our ‘place’ is like the position of the North Star. It refers to our nature.”

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).

LU NUNG-SHIH says, “Before we distinguish life and death, they share the same form, the ten thousand things dwell in the same house. Our body is like the shell of a cicada or the skin of a snake: a temporary lodging. The shell crumbles but not the cicada. The skin decays but not the snake. We all have something real that survives death.”

KUMARAJIVA says, “Not to live in living is to endure. Not to die in dying is to live long.”

And RED PINE adds, “Although the ch’iang-hsing (striving hard) of line six seems at odds with Lao-tzu’s dictum of wu-wei “doing nothing/effortlessness,” commentators are agreed that here it refers to inner cultivation and not to the pursuit of worldly goals.”

As I have read through today’s verse what has stood out to me is how readily we settle for less than we can be. It isn’t that we are content with being less. It is that we are seemingly content with being discontent.

We think ourselves clever because of our knowledge of others, “Look at how perceptive we are!” Yes, good for us, but true wisdom comes from knowing ourselves.

We especially like being able to conquer others. Exhibiting our force all over the globe. But one thing we never seem to be able to do is conquer our own ambitions, our desires, ourselves. Yet, that is where true strength lies.

If we knew true contentment we would know just how wealthy we are. Not to flaunt it, for true wealth isn’t something which can be flaunted. It isn’t something external. True contentment is focused on our inner selves, and the wealth that lies within.

What this all points to is the need to cultivate ourselves, rather than concentrating outside of ourselves, toward others. Lao-tzu has made such a point of stressing the practice of doing nothing, his teaching to strive hard, in today’s verse, seems almost contradictory.

But it isn’t a contradiction. When it comes to others and things, outside of ourselves, we should have a hands-off, non-intervention, non-interference, don’t force, don’t try to control, do nothing, approach. But when it comes to ourselves you better believe we need to strive hard.

The way of Humankind is stacked against us. Everyone and everything seems to insist on dragging us into the fray of doing something about just about everything going on outside of us. And those who dare to go against that tide? Well, it is going to take a whole lot of resolve.

But, if we don’t lose our place (that is, our nature), and stand firm, we will endure.

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

KUMARAJIVA (344-413). Native of the Silk Road kingdom of Kucha and greatest of all translators of Buddhist scriptures into Chinese.

Those Who Know Restraint Avoid Trouble

“The Tao remains unnamed
simple and though small
no one can command it
if a lord upheld it
the world would be his guest
when Heaven joins with Earth
they bestow sweet dew
no one gives the order
it comes down to all
the first distinction gives us names
once we have a name
we should know restraint
who knows restraint avoids trouble
to picture the Tao in the world
imagine a stream and the sea”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 32, translation by Red Pine)

WANG P’ANG says, “The Tao has no body. How could it have a name?”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “We call it ‘simple’ because it hasn’t been cut or polished. We call it ‘small’ because it’s faint and infinitesimal. Those who can see what is small and hold on to it are rare indeed.”

CHIAO HUNG says, “‘Simple means the natural state. When it expands, it’s everywhere. When it contracts, it isn’t as big as the tip of a hair. Hence, even though it’s small, it’s beyond anyone’s command.”

WANG PI says, “If people embrace the simple and work without effort and don’t burden their true nature with material goods or injure their spirit with desires, all things will come to them on their own, and they will discover the Tao by themselves. To discover the Tao, nothing is better than embracing simplicity.”

JEN FA-JUNG say, “In terms of practice, if people can be serene and natural, free themselves from desire, and put their minds at rest, their yin and yang breaths will come together on their own and penetrate every artery and organ. Inside their mouths, the saliva of sweet dew will appear spontaneously and nourish their whole body.”

LU HUI-CHING says, “When a ruler acts, the first thing he does is institute names.”

HSUN-TZU says, “Now that the sages are gone, names and reality have become confused” (Hsuntzu:2).

TE-CH’ING says, “What is simple has no name. Once we make something, we give it a name. But name gives rise to name. Where does it end? Hence, Lao-tzu tells us to stop chasing names.”

LI JUNG says, “The child who depends on its mother suffers no harm. Those who depend on the Tao encounter no trouble.”

WU CH’ENG says, “The Tao has no name, but as Virtue it does. Thus, from nothing we get something. But Virtue is not far from the Tao. If we stop there, we can still go from something back to nothing and return to the Tao. Thus, the Tao is like the sea, and Virtue is like a stream, flowing back into the Tao.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Although Heaven and Earth are high and low, they join together and send down sweet dew. No one makes them do so. And there is no one who does not benefit. Although the Tao separates into things, and each thing has a name, the Tao never abandons anything. Thus, the breath of rivers eventually reaches the sea, and the breath of the sea eventually reaches rivers.”

LAO-TZU says, “The reason the sea can govern a hundred rivers / is because it has mastered being lower” (Taoteching: 66).

We finished up last week by talking about the need to practice self-control. In today’s verse Lao-tzu compares the unnamed with the named; and says, once we have a name we should show restraint. Those who know restraint avoid trouble.

But how can we know restraint? Lao-tzu, uses metaphors to describe it, but it really goes back to the unnamed. The Tao, simple and small. The Tao, simple and small, though no one can command it. If we could uphold it, if we could just uphold it, then we would know restraint. We would know restraint before the first distinction gave us names.

So, let’s talk a bit, again, about the Tao. To picture the Tao in the world, says Lao-tzu, imagine a stream and the sea. Things are so ordered that all streams run into the sea. Just as when Heaven is joined with the Earth, we are bestowed with sweet dew. No one gives the order.

No one gives the order. That is essential to understand. It comes down to all, spontaneously, and without force.

To know restraint is to acquiesce to the natural order. The natural order that doesn’t need us to intervene, interfere, to force things, or try to control.

It is simple really. Like the Tao. But it is sure hard to realize when you have so-called leaders talking about who has the bigger button, threatening to annihilate us all.

Dispassion is the Best

“Weapons are not auspicious tools
some things are simply bad
thus the Taoist shuns them
in peace the ruler honors the left
in war he honors the right
weapons are not auspicious tools
he wields them when he has no choice
dispassion is the best
thus he doesn’t praise them
those who praise their use
enjoy killing others
those who enjoy killing others
achieve no worldly rule
thus we honor the left for happiness
we honor the right for sorrow
the left is where the adjutant stands
the commander on the right
which means as at a funeral
when you kill another
honor him with your tears
when the battle is won
treat it as a wake”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 31, translation by Red Pine)

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “In times of decadence and disorder, we use weapons to defend the people.”

SU CH’E says, “We take up weapons to rescue the distressed and not as a matter of course.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “The system of ritual devised by the ancient kings treated the right as superior and the left as inferior. Being superior, the right represented the Way of Victory. Being inferior, the left represented the Way of Humility. But victory entails death and destruction. Hence, those on the right were in charge of sad occasions, while those on the left were in charge of happy events.”

JEN FA-JUNG says, “‘Left’ refers to the east and the power of creation, while ‘right’ refers to the west and the power of destruction.”

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “When Tibetans, Huns, or other tribes invade our borders, the ruler has no choice but to respond. But he responds as he would to a gnat. He does not act in anger. The greatest victory involves no fighting. Hence, dispassion is the best policy.

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Sun-tzu discussed in detail the use of strengths and weaknesses and of direction and indirection in warfare. But he did not understand their basis (Suntzu Pingfa: 5-6). Lao-tzu says dispassion is the best policy, because it secures victory without a display. This might seem odd, but dispassion means rest, and rest is the root of victory. Meanwhile, passion means to act, and action is the basis of defeat.”

KING HSIANG OF LIANG asked Mencius, “How can the kingdom be pacified?” Mencius answered, “The kingdom can be pacified by uniting it.” King Hsiang asked, “But who can unite it?” Mencius answered, “One who does not delight in killing others can unite it” (Mencius: 1A.6).

LI JUNG says, “The ancients used weapons with compassion. They honored them for their virtue and disdained them as tools. Once the enemy was defeated, the general put on plain, undyed clothes, presided over a funeral ceremony, and received the mourners.”

It probably needs saying. While Lao-tzu (in both yesterday’s verse and today’s) has taken aim at the use of weapons, first saying don’t use them to rule the land, and then saying they aren’t auspicious tools (not once, but twice), I think it would be a misunderstanding of Lao-tzu, and I know it is a misunderstanding of me, to think guns should be banned, or there should be some kind of gun-control. Just for the record, I am for self-control, just as I believe Lao-tzu taught.

However, this also needs saying. Whenever Lao-tzu repeats himself, I think it behooves us to perk up our ears and take notice. In today’s verse, he actually repeats himself twice. He tells us weapons are not auspicious tools twice in today’s verse. And he repeats what he said back in verse 24, some things are simply bad and should be shunned. These two things were important enough to Lao-tzu to emphasize, so I think we should consider them carefully.

First off, let’s remember what he was talking about in verse 24, when he said some things are simply bad and should be shunned. What he was talking about is anything that isn’t natural. And, the use of force, while it certainly seems to be the way of Humankind (if human history has anything to teach us) is not the Way of Nature. We talked about that in yesterday’s verse.

Secondly, in today’s verse, when he twice says, “Weapons are not auspicious tools,” he follows up by saying, while the Taoist shuns them, he does wield them when he has no choice. He does wield them, should settle any questions regarding the use of weapons as tools. No, they aren’t auspicious. In other words, their use doesn’t bode well. Yet, use them, some times we must. As I said in my commentary on yesterday’s verse, there are defensive purposes which are legitimate.

The key, I believe, is self-control. Keeping the use of weapons to their legitimate defensive purposes. As Li Jung said in his commentary on today’s verse, “The ancients used weapons with compassion. They honored them for their virtue and disdained them as tools.” Why disdain them as tools? Because they are tools of fear and violence, because they aren’t auspicious tools. This is why, “Once the enemy was defeated, the general put on plain, undyed clothes, presided over a funeral ceremony, and received mourners.” But, then, why honor them for their virtue? What virtue do these inauspicious tools have? Their virtue is they can bring an end to conflict; and as long as we have practiced self-control in their use, they can save lives.

But the cost is great! That is why self-control is so important. That is why using them for offensive purposes is so dreadful. That is why once a battle is won, it isn’t time for celebration, but mourning.

Somehow we have forgotten that. We glorify war, and pin medals on those who have shed the most blood. We erect statues, and hold parades honoring them. I am told over and over again I must support our troops and honor our veterans. What I can’t understand is why I should support weapons being used for offensive purposes, and honoring those who wield them in that way. I know better. It isn’t auspicious. Some things are simply bad. And I rightly shun them.

What if we wept instead of rejoicing? Who delights in killing others? And why would we want them leading us?

No, weapons don’t need to be banned. But we shouldn’t be proud about our use of them. We should be sad that any conflict came to that. That we couldn’t win without resorting to force.

Lao-tzu, in today’s verse, basically lays the fault for all of this at our passions. We haven’t practiced self-control. Dispassion is the best! That is what he says. And that is what he expects from each one of us. Don’t let your passions rule you. You can do better.

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

KING HSIANG (FL. 4TH C. B.C.). Ruler of the small state of Liang (now Kaifeng) and son of King Hui.

This is How Thing Have Repercussions

“Use the Tao to assist your lord
don’t use weapons to rule the land
such things have repercussions
where armies camp
brambles grow
best to win then stop
don’t make use of force
win but don’t be proud
win but don’t be vain
win but don’t be cruel
win when you have no choice
this is to win without force
virility leads to old age
this isn’t the Tao
what isn’t the Tao ends early”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 30, translation by Red Pine)

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “A kingdom’s ruler is like a person’s heart; when the ruler acts properly, the kingdom is at peace. When the heart works properly, the body is healthy. What enables them to work and act properly is the Tao. Hence, use nothing but the Tao to assist the ruler.”

LI HSI-CHAI, quoting Mencius (7B.7), says, “‘If you kill someone’s father, someone will kill your father. If you kill someone’s brother, someone will kill your brother.’ This is how things have repercussions.”

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “The external use of soldiers and arms returns in the form of vengeful enemies. The internal use of poisonous thoughts come back in the form of evil rebirths.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “Humankind’s retribution is clear, while Heaven’s retribution is obscure. Where an army spends the night, brambles soon appear. In an army’s wake, bad years follow. This is the retribution of Heaven.”

WANG CHEN, paraphrasing Suntzu Pingfa (2.1), says, “To raise an army of a hundred thousand requires the daily expenditure of a thousand ounces of gold. And an army of a hundred thousand means a million refugees on the road. Also, nothing results in greater droughts, plagues, or famines than the scourge of warfare. A good general wins only when he has no choice, then stops. He dares not take anything by force.”

MENCIUS says, “Those who say they are great tacticians or great warriors are, in fact, great criminals” (Mencius: 7B2-3).

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “To win means to defeat one’s enemies. To win without being arrogant about one’s power, to win without being boastful about one’s ability, to win without being cruel about one’s achievement, this sort of victory only comes from being forced and not from the exercise of force.”

SU CH’E says, “Those who possess the Tao prosper and yet seem poor. They become full and yet seem empty. What is not virile does not become old and does not die. The virile die. This is the way things are. Using an army to control the world represents the height of strength. But it only hastens old age and death.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Once plants reach their height of development, they wither. Once people reach their peak, they grow old. Force does not prevail for long. It isn’t the Tao. What is withered and old cannot follow the Tao. And what cannot follow the Tao soon dies.”

WU CH’ENG says, “Those who possess the Way are like children. They come of age without growing old.”

LAO-TZU says, “Tyrants never choose their death” (Taoteching: 42).

And, RED PINE adds, “It isn’t the Tao that ends early, for the Tao has no beginning or end.”

In today’s verse, Lao-tzu reminds us of something that should be obvious to each one of us; indeed, it is an elementary lesson of physics: Force is met with force. Yet, force is not the natural Way. It most certainly is the way of Humankind. But we have talked already of the myriad ways the way of Humankind is contrary to the Way of nature. In today’s verse, Lao-tzu enjoins us to not use weapons (in other words, force) to rule the land. Instead, use the Tao.

Resorting to the use of force has repercussions. You may appear to win. Humankind’s retribution is clear, as Wang An-shih says in his commentary, while Heaven’s retribution is obscure. Where armies camp brambles grow. Making use of force results in desolation. And not just our enemies’.

But, oh, how we glorify the use of force! Look at our strength, our prowess! Who can stand against us! We are proud. Vain. Cruel. This is not the Tao. And whatever is not the Tao ends early. Our virility will only lead to a premature old age.

I was reading somewhere, in the last few days, of the plans some in the US have been making to celebrate our 250th anniversary as an independent nation. That will be in 2026. I remember, well, when we celebrated our bicentennial, our 200th anniversary, in 1976. But even then, the seeds of our own destruction had already been planted. They were planted in ripe soil. And we have carefully watered and nurtured them, since. Will we, as a nation, make it to our 250th anniversary? It is 2018 now, so just 8 years to go, and I have serious doubts.

To avert our own destruction, some things have got to change. The way we look at things has got to change. The way we do things has got to change. We have got to stop making use of force.

We can win without the use of force. Our weapons could be returned to defensive purposes, rather than offensive ones. We could forego our pride, vanity, and cruelty, replacing them with humility, modesty, and kindness.

The adage the best offense is a good defense is something we haven’t practiced in a good long while. Instead, we have been behaving like the best defense is a good offense. But, if we could reverse our thinking again, if we could go back to our humble beginnings, and win only because we had no choice, then we would win without force, and 2026 could be a great celebration.

Red Pine introduces a sage, in today’s verse, with which we may already be somewhat familiar:

SUN-TZU (FL. 512 B.C.). Master of military tactics and strategy. His Pingfa (Art of War) has been much studied and admired ever since it came to the attention of King Ho Lu of the state of Wu, who subsequently became Sun’s patron.

I See This Not Succeeding, Therefore Avoid Extremes

“Trying to govern the world with force
I see this not succeeding
the world is a spiritual thing
it can’t be forced
to force it is to harm it
to control it is to lose it
sometimes things lead
sometimes they follow
sometimes they blow hot
sometimes they blow cold
sometimes they expand
sometimes they collapse
sages therefore avoid extremes
avoid extravagance
avoid excess”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 29, translation by Red Pine)

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “We can’t control something as insignificant as a mustard see. How can we control something as big as the world?”

TE-CH’ING says, “Those who would govern the world should trust what is natural. The world cannot be controlled consciously. It is too big a thing. The world can only be governed by the spirit, not by human strength or intelligence.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Spiritual things respond to stillness. They cannot be controlled with force.”

LU-HUI-CH’ING says, “The world as a thing is a spiritual thing. Only the spiritual Tao can control a spiritual thing. Spiritual things don’t think or act. Trying to control them with force is not the Way.”

WANG CHEN says, “‘Force’ refers to the mobilization and deployment of troops. But the world’s spirit cannot be controlled with weapons.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Sages consider their body as transitory and the world as its temporary lodging. How can they rule what is not theirs and lose the true and everlasting Way?”

SU CH’E says, “The interchange of yin and yang, of high and low, of great and small is the way things are and cannot be avoided. Fools are selfish. They insist on having their own way and meet with disaster. Sages know they cannot oppose things. They agree with whatever they meet. They eliminate extremes and thereby keep the world from harm.”

WU CH’ENG says, “How do those who gain control of the world keep the world from harm? Sages understand that things necessarily move between opposites but that there is a way to adjust this movement. Things that prosper too much must wither and die. By keeping things from prospering too much, they keep them from withering and dying.”

WANG PI says, “Sages penetrate the nature and condition of others. Hence, they respond to them without force and follow them without effort. They eliminate whatever misleads or confuses others so that their minds become clear and each realizes their own nature.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “Resting where you are eliminates extremes. Treasuring simplicity eliminates extravagance. Being content with less eliminates excess.”

LU NUNG-SHIH says, “Sages get rid of extremes with kindness. They get rid of extravagance with simplicity. They get rid of excess with humility. By means of these three, sages govern the world.”

HSUEH HUI says, “What Lao-tzu means by ‘extremes,’ by ‘extravagance,’ and by ‘excess’ is not what people mean nowadays. Lao-tzu means whatever involves an increase in effort beyond what is easy.”

I am writing my commentary on today’s verse on the last day of 2017, when it posts we will be more than a week into 2018. As seems to always be the case with these verses written so very long ago, they only seem to become more relevant to our current times. I am thinking of US foreign policy in our world. Those who wish to govern us make grandiose promises which suggest they know the problems inherent in trying to govern the world with force, but one year later, we see that they still don’t understand.

But Lao-tzu did understand: I see this not succeeding. The world can’t be forced. To force it is to harm it. To control it is to lose it. How can they not see this? The reason is simple my friends. They aren’t perfectly blind. They see things to do, people to conquer. They see places to intervene. Things to interfere with. They want to be exert control. They need to exert control.

If only they understood… Sometimes things lead, sometimes they follow, sometimes they blow hot, sometimes they blow cold, sometimes they expand, sometimes they collapse. This is just the way things are. They can’t be avoided. Resistance really is futile.

So what can we do? Well, what do sages do? They avoid extremes. They avoid extravagance. They avoid excess. And Wang An-shih explains how they accomplish this. “Resting where you are (stillness) eliminates extremes. Treasuring simplicity eliminates extravagance. Being content with less eliminates excess.

I joke all the time with a friend of mine over how “lazy” I am. I avoid anything that involves an increase in effort beyond what is easy.

Recognizing That, Hold On to This

“Recognize the male
but hold on to the female
and be the world’s maid
being the world’s maid
don’t lose your Immortal Virtue
not losing your Immortal Virtue
be a newborn child again
recognize the pure
but hold on to the base
and be the world’s valley
being the world’s valley
be filled with Immortal Virtue
being filled with Immortal Virtue
be a block of wood again
recognize the white
but hold on to the black
and be the world’s guide
don’t stray from your Immortal Virtue
not straying from your Immortal Virtue
be without limits again
a block of wood can be split to make tools
sages make it their chief official
a master tailor doesn’t cut”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 28, translation by Red Pine)

TE-CH’ING says, “To recognize the Way is hard. Once you recognize it, holding on to it is even harder. But only by holding on to it can you advance on the Way.”

MENCIUS says, “The great person does not lose their child heart” (Mencius: 4B.12).

WANG TAO says, “Sages recognize ‘that’ but hold on to ‘this.’ ‘Male’ and ‘female’ mean hard and soft. ‘Pure’ and ‘base’ mean noble and humble. ‘White’ and ‘black’ mean light and dark. Although hard, noble, and light certainly have their uses, hard does not come from hard but from soft, noble does not come from noble but from humble, and light does not come from light but from dark. Hard, noble, and light are the secondary forms and farther from the Way. Soft, humble, and dark are the primary forms and closer to the Way. Hence, sages return to the original: a block of wood. A block of wood can be made into tools, but tools cannot be made into a block of wood. Sages are like blocks of wood, not tools. They are the chief officials and not functionaries.”

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “What has no limits is the Tao.”

CONFUCIUS says, “A great person is not a tool” (Lunyu; 2.12).

CHANG TAO-LING says, “To make tools is to lose sight of the Way.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Before a block of wood is split, it can take any shape. But once split, it cannot be round if it is square or straight if it is curved. Lao-tzu tells us to avoid being split. Once we are split, we can never return to our original state.”

PAO-TING says, “When I began butchering, I used my eyes. Now I use my spirit instead and follow the natural lines” (Chuangtzu: 3.2).

WANG P’ANG says, “Those who use the Tao to tailor leave no seams.”

In yesterday’s verse, we talked about going back to our original nature, that is, before our parents were born. This, Lao-tzu said, is good. It is to be perfectly blind. Today he continues on this theme, as “the good” is referred to as “Immortal Virtue.” And, going back to our original nature is referred to as being “a block of wood again.”

To do this requires a progression (or is it a regression) of steps. Each of them requires recognizing “that,” while holding on to “this.” “That” is yang: the male, the pure, the white. Recognize those things in your life, but hold onto, and embrace, what is yin: the female, the base, the black. Holding onto this means being the world’s maid, innocent, so you won’t lose your Immortal Virtue. It means being a newborn child again, once again innocent, so you can be the world’s valley, empty, and able to be filled with Immortal Virtue. It means being a block of wood again, so that you won’t stray from your Immortal Virtue. It means being without limits again.

Being without limits again, that block of wood can be anything, anything at all. But once it is split, then it there are limits. We want to go back to being that block of wood again. Back to our original nature.

The difficulty lies, as Wang Tao says, in how to go back to being that block of wood again. A block of wood can be made into tools, but tools cannot be made into a block of wood. The master tailor in today’s verse, and the master butcher in Chuangtzu’s writings reveal the Way. They are both perfectly blind. They no longer see with their eyes, but with their spirit. Don’t be a tool!

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

PAO-TING, the knife-wielding cook of Chuangtzu: 3.2.

On Being Perfectly Blind

“Good walking leaves no tracks
good talking contains no flaws
good counting counts no beads
good closing locks no locks
and yet it can’t be opened
good tying ties no knots
and yet it can’t be undone
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
and the bad learn from the good
not honoring their teachers
or cherishing their students
the wise alone are perfectly blind
this is called peering into the distance”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 27, translation by Red Pine)

LU TUNG-PIN says, “‘Good’ refers to our original nature before our parents were born. Before anything develops within us, we possess this goodness. ‘Good’ means natural.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Those who are good at walking find the Way within themselves, not somewhere outside. When they talk, they choose their words. When they count, they don’t go beyond one. When they close, they close themselves to desire and protect their spirit. When they tie, they secure their mind.”

TE-CH’ING says, “Sages move through the world with an empty self and accept the way things are. Hence, they leave no tracks. They do not insist that their ideas are right and accept the words of others. Hence, they reveal no flaws. They do not care about life and death, much less profit and loss. Hence, they count no beads. They do not set traps, yet nothing escapes them. Hence, they use no locks. They are not kind, yet everyone flocks to them. Hence, they tie no knots.”

WANG PI says, “These five tell us to refrain from acting and to govern things by relying on their nature rather than on their form.”

WU CH’ENG says, “The salvation of sages does not involve salvation, for if someone is saved, someone is abandoned. Hence, sages do not save anyone at all. And because they do not save anyone, they do not abandon anyone. To ‘cloak’ means to use an outer garment to cover an inner garment. If the work of salvation becomes apparent, and people see it, it cannot be called good. Only when it is hidden is it good.”

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “The good always cloak their light.”

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “The good are like water. Free of impurity and without effort on their part, they show people their true likeness. Thus, they instruct the bad. But unless students can forget the teacher, their vision will be obscured.”

SU CH’E says, “Sages do not care about teaching. Hence, they do not love their students. And the world does not care about learning. Hence, people do not honor their teachers. Sages not only forget the world, they make the world forget them.”

Last week in verse 24, Lao-tzu said, some things are simply bad. In today’s verse he lists some things that are good. And the good things in today’s verse are good in the same way the bad things, in verse 24, are simply bad. It is objective good and bad, not subjective good and bad that Lao-tzu is talking about. As the objective “bad” meant doing what is “unnatural,” the objective “good” is doing what is “natural.” It is following your original nature.

What is this original nature? Lu Tung-pin says it is our nature before our parents were born. In other words, it precedes our existence. That means our original nature doesn’t need us to do anything. Doing anything would be going beyond our original nature.

Notice how Lao-tzu describes good walking, good talking, good counting, good closing, and good tying. It leaves no evidence of you having been there. He says sages are good at saving others. But given the criteria for good “anything,” sages don’t try to save anyone; therefore, they abandon no one. Nor, do they abandon anything of use.

This, Lao-tzu calls “cloaking the light,” which results in “perfect blindness.” It takes perfect blindness not to see the myriad ways to intervene, to interfere; and, overcome with desire, to force things in an attempt to control them. Perfect blindness enables you to acquiesce to, or accept, the way things are. As Te-ch’ing says, sages move through the world with an empty self. That empty self, perfectly blind, doesn’t dare to act, instead simply letting things be.

Lao-tzu calls this “peering into the distance,” which is a wonderful phrase given they are perfectly blind. What do they see as they peer into the distance?

I would think they see the end from the beginning. All the unintended consequences of intervention are readily apparent to the perfectly blind. They see beyond the outward, and indeed, aren’t swayed by outward circumstances. Their focus is inward, on the roots, rather than the leaves and twigs.

And by their example, the good instruct the bad, and the bad learn from the good.

The Antidote for Restlessness

“Heavy is the root of light
still is the master of restless
thus a lord might travel all day
but never far from his supplies
even in a guarded camp
his manner is calm and aloof
why would the lord of ten thousand chariots
treat himself lighter than his kingdom
too light he loses his base
too restless he loses command”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 26, translation by Red Pine)

HAN FEI says, “‘Heavy’ means to be in control of oneself. ‘Still’ means not to leave one’s place. Those who are heavy control those who are light. Those who are still direct those who are restless.”

WANG PI says, “Something light cannot support something heavy. Something small cannot hold down something large.”

CONFUCIUS says, “A gentleman without weight is not held in awe, and his leaning is not secure” (Lunyu: 1.8).

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “Roots are heavy, while flowers and leaves are light. The light wither, while the heavy survive. ‘Still’ means tranquil, and ‘restless’ means excited. Excitement is subject to birth and death. Tranquility endures. Hence, the still rule the restless.”

TE-CH’ING says, “‘Heavy’ refers to the body. ‘Light’ refers to what is external to the body; success and fame, wealth and honor. ‘Still’ refers to our nature. ‘Restless’ refers to our emotions. People forget their body and chase external things. They forget their nature and follow their emotions. Sages aren’t like this. Even though they travel all day, they don’t leave what sustains them.”

KUAN-TZU says, “Those who move lose their place. Those who stay still are content” (quoted by Chiao Hung).

WU CH’ENG says, “When a lord travels for pleasure, he rides in a passenger carriage. When a lord travels to battle, he rides in a war chariot. Both of these are light. And behind these come the heavier baggage carts. Even though a lord might travel fifty kilometers a day in a passenger carriage or thirty kilometers a day in a war chariot, he does not hurry so far ahead that he loses sight of the baggage carts behind him.”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “‘Supplies’ means the precious commodities with which we maintain ourselves and without which we cannot exist for a second.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “A lord who is not heavy is not respected. A plant’s leaves and flowers are light. Hence, they are blown about by the wind. And its roots are heavy. Hence, it lives long. A lord who is not still loses his power. A dragon is still. Hence, it is able to constantly transform itself. A tiger is restless. Hence it dies young.”

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “Traditionally, the Son of Heaven’s fief included one million neighborhoods with a tax revenue of 640,000 ounces of silver, one million cavalry horses, and ten thousand war chariots. Hence, he was called ‘lord of ten thousand chariots.’”

SU CH’E says, “If the ruler is light, his ministers know he cannot be relied upon. If the ministers are restless, the ruler knows their minds are bent on profit.”

Can you see it? Can you feel it? People are antsy, restless. They know things are out of sorts, but they can’t quite put their finger on the root cause, or understand exactly what it would take to fix what ails us.

In today’s verse, Lao-tzu says you might travel all day, but never go far from your supplies. That is in direct contrast to what we see happening in the world today. People are flitting about, moved by restlessness, having lost touch with their base, their roots. The antidote isn’t more activity, it is stillness. We aren’t practicing self-control. And we wonder why we aren’t in control.

Perhaps we are more interested in controlling others, our focus is outside of ourselves. We let external circumstances agitate us. We need to detach ourselves from external things. Be still. Be calm and aloof. Let it be. Let them be. Calm your mind. Calm your body. This is the antidote.

The Great Imitates

“Imagine a nebulous thing
here before Heaven and Earth
subtle and elusive
dwelling apart and unconstrained
it could be the mother of us all
not knowing its name
I call it the Tao
forced to describe it
I describe it as great
great means ever-flowing
ever-flowing means far-reaching
far-reaching means returning
the Tao is great
Heaven is great
Earth is great
the ruler is also great
the realm contains Four Greats
of which the ruler is but one
Humankind imitates Earth
Earth imitates Heaven
Heaven imitates the Tao
and the Tao imitates itself”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 25, translation by Red Pine)

WU CH’ENG says, “‘Nebulous’ means complete and indivisible.”

SU CH’E says, “The Tao is neither pure nor muddy, high nor low, past nor future, good nor bad. Its body is a nebulous whole. In Humankind it becomes our nature. It doesn’t know it exists, and yet it endures forever. And within it are created Heaven and Earth.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “It dwells apart but does not dwell apart. It goes everywhere but does not go anywhere. It’s the mother of the world, but it’s not the mother of the world.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “The Tao does not have a name of its own. We force names upon it. But we cannot find anything real in them. We would do better returning to the root from which we all began.”

Standing beside a stream, CONFUCIUS sighed, “To be ever-flowing like this, not stopping day or night!” (Lunyu: 9.16).

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “Although we say it’s far-reaching, it never gets far from itself. Hence, we say it’s returning.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “The Tao is great because there is nothing it does not encompass. Heaven is great because there is nothing it does not cover. Earth is great because there is nothing it does not support. And the king is great because there is nothing he does not govern. Humankind should imitate Earth and be peaceful and pliant, plant and harvest its grains, dig and discover its springs, work without exhaustion and succeed without fuss. As for Earth imitating Heaven, Heaven is still and immutable. It gives without seeking a reward. It nourishes all creatures and takes nothing for itself. As for Heaven imitating the Tao, the Tao is silent and does not speak. It directs breath and essence unseen, and thus all things come to be. As for the Tao imitating itself, the nature of the Tao is to be itself. It does not imitate anything else.”

WANG PI says, “If Humankind does not turn its back on Earth, it brings peace to all. Hence it imitates Earth. If Earth does not turn its back on Heaven it supports all. Hence, it imitates Heaven. If Heaven does not turn its back on the Tao, it covers all. Hence, it imitates the Tao. And if the Tao does not turn its back on itself, it realizes its nature. Hence, it imitates itself.”

And RED PINE adds, “The character for ‘ruler’ (wang) shows three horizontal lines (Heaven, Humankind, Earth) connected by a single vertical line. Lao-tzu’s point is that the ruler, being only one of the four great powers of the world, should not be so presumptuous of his greatness, for he depends on the other three.”

In today’s verse, Lao-tzu asks us to imagine a nebulous thing. Wu Ch’eng says “nebulous” means complete and indivisible. And, I think, whether or not we can imagine this nebulous thing sets the course of our lives.

We have said it so many times before, the way of Humankind is not the Way of the Tao. The Tao is that nebulous thing we have been challenged to imagine. The way of Humankind can’t wrap its mind around something complete and indivisible. We, instead, want something that needs us to complete, something we can divide (and attempt to conquer).

Alas for us, for the Tao is subtle and elusive. It dwells apart and is unconstrained. Try as we might to constrain it, it cannot be constrained. Lao-tzu explains the struggle as both forcing names on the Unnameable (it could be the mother of us all), and forced descriptions of it (I describe it as great: great means ever-flowing, ever-flowing means far-reaching, far-reaching means returning). I think you can see the dilemma.

While we try to constrain the Tao, it is we who are constrained. And we just keep doing the same thing, though it has been proven time, and time again, that this way doesn’t work.

So, what to do? Well, we need to return to what he said at the beginning of the verse: Imagine a nebulous thing. And, having imagined it, stop trying to constrain it. Instead, we need to let go of that desire. If we are going to be great, and Humankind can be one of the four great powers, we need to practice imitating. In other words, go with the flow, rather than struggling against it. It is the way of Humankind to struggle against it. And we can see just how well that is working out for us. At least I hope my readers are seeing that. But it is only through seeing that, imagining a better Way, and practicing the virtue of following (imitating) it, that the course of our lives can be turned for good.