The Master doesn’t try to be powerful;
thus he is truly powerful.
The ordinary man keeps reaching for power;
thus he never has enough.
The master does nothing,
yet he leaves nothing undone.
The ordinary man is always doing things,
yet many more are left to be done.
The kind man does something,
yet something remains undone.
The just man does something,
and leaves many things to be done.
The moral man does something,
and when no one responds
he rolls up his sleeves and uses force.
When the Tao is lost, there is goodness.
When goodness is lost, there is morality.
When morality is lost, there is ritual.
Ritual is the husk of true faith,
the beginning of chaos.
Therefore the Master concerns himself
with the depths and not the surface,
with the fruit and not the flower.
He has no will of his own.
He dwells in reality,
and lets all illusions go.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 38, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu continues identifying the paradox that separates the eternal reality of the way things are from what is only mere illusion. As I have said before, whenever we encounter paradox, we are faced with a choice, between holding onto the illusion and accepting what is reality. It is the ability to let go of the illusion and, instead, dwell in reality that separates the truly extraordinary person from one who is merely ordinary.
Throughout this chapter Lao Tzu compares the Master with the merely ordinary. Keep in mind, that even though I call the Master extraordinary, this person could be anyone of us, and even all of us. We don’t have to settle for being merely ordinary. The Master is simply someone who is in perfect harmony with the way things are. And any of us can dwell in the center of the Tao.
The Master doesn’t try to be powerful. There it is again, that word, powerful. Lao Tzu refers to the powerful repeatedly in the Tao Te Ching. If only they could (or would) heed his words. And why don’t they? It seems that the most likely reason is that they are merely ordinary. They keep reaching for power. And they never have enough. Lao Tzu tells us, stop trying to be powerful and you will be truly powerful. That is the paradox. As long as we are reaching and grasping for it, we never will have enough.
And the paradox stretches on throughout the chapter. The Master does nothing, yet leaves nothing undone. While the ordinary person is always doing things, yet many more are left undone. I was thinking of this yesterday when I kept seeing posts on tumblr from people who felt truly powerless in the face of the tragedy which is happening in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere. We want to do something. We are always looking for something to do.
I am not knocking wanting to do something. It is a very natural response when faced with the kinds of tragedies we see on constant display throughout the world. But please understand the paradox; because when you see and understand the paradox, you too, can leave nothing undone.
Kind people want to do something. Yet, something always remains undone. Just people want to do something and leave many things to be done. And moral people, they are the most determined of all; when they do something, and no one responds, they’ll roll up their sleeves and use force.
This, to me, is why it can never be a good idea for there to be a monopoly on the use of force. It is why I am always skeptical when people in uniforms, and wearing badges, want to tell other people what to do. They believe they have the moral authority to apply force whenever things don’t go their way. And sadly, the people that wield that kind of authority are some of the most ordinary people. And people die.
I know that we have reached the point in the narrative of what is happening in Ferguson, Missouri where the aggressor is going to be portrayed as a good, kind, just, and moral guy. And the victim? Well, he will be vilified. You know, he probably robbed that convenience store, don’t you? Yeah, he was a thug.
Now don’t misunderstand me here. I am not saying we should fall for the narrative. We are, after all trying to separate illusion from reality. The question on my mind is why it matters? We live in the United States of America. And the last time I checked, the accused were supposed to be afforded due process. And even if Michael Brown was the vile person some will come to believe, it would seem to me, that being ordinary is not enough for the good, kind, just, and moral, to be. But because there is a monopoly on the use of force, being ordinary is enough. There isn’t any competition. And the ordinary can go on being ordinary.
But Lao Tzu didn’t write this chapter for those that are content to be merely ordinary. He writes it for those that would be extraordinary. That is where our journey is taking each of us. But still, we need to see the illusion for what it is. Or we will never let it go, and dwell in reality.
We can see it so very clearly when the Tao is lost. It is in what is left when the Tao is lost. There is goodness. Until that is lost. Then morality. Until that is lost. Finally, there is only ritual. And that is only the husk of true faith. And, it is the beginning of chaos. But things didn’t have to spiral out of control like this.
The Tao is the eternal reality, the way things are, the natural order of the Universe. But we have exchanged what is real for what is only illusion. We fear the depths, and keep to the surface. Instead of seeking out the fruit, we delight ourselves with only the flower. And we are willful in our disregard for what is true.
How merely ordinary of us. And how very different is the Way of the Master.
If we want to be extraordinary, we will need to concern ourselves with what the extraordinary concern themselves. Those depths we have irrationally feared. The fruit which offers us so much more than the simple delights of mere flowers. And we can’t have a will of our own. As long as we are holding onto our own will, we can’t begin to embrace the Tao. We must let all illusions go. We must dwell in reality.