The Way of a Long and Lasting Life

“In governing people and caring for Heaven
nothing surpasses economy
economy means planning ahead
planning ahead means accumulating virtue
accumulating virtue means overcoming all
overcoming all means knowing no limit
knowing no limit means guarding the realm
and guarding the realm’s mother means living long
which means deep roots and a solid trunk
the Way of a long and lasting life”

(Taoteching, verse 59, translation by Red Pine)

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Outside, we govern others. Inside, we care for Heaven. In both, nothing surpasses economy. Those who are economical are economical in everything. They are watchful within and on guard without. Only if we are still, does virtue have a place to collect.”

MENCIUS says, “The way we care for Heaven is by guarding our mind and nourishing our nature” (Mencius: 7A.1).

WANG TAO says, “‘Caring for Heaven’ means preserving what one receives from Heaven. It means cultivating oneself.”

Linking this with the previous verse, SU CH’E says, “Economy is the reason the edges of sages don’t cut, their points don’t pierce, their lines don’t extend, and their lights don’t blind. Economy means possessing without using.”

WANG PI says, “Economy means farming. Farmers cultivate their fields by weeding out different species and concentrating on one. They don’t worry about pulling out the withered and diseased. They pull out the causes of withering and disease. Above, they accept the will of Heaven. Below, they nourish others.”

HAN FEI says, “Most people use their mind recklessly. Recklessness means waste, and waste means exhaustion. Sages use their mind calmly. Calmness means carefulness, and carefulness means economy. Economy is an art born of an understanding of the Tao. Those who know how to govern others calm their thoughts. Those who know how to care for Heaven clear their opening. When their thoughts are calm, old virtue remains within. When their openings are clear, new breath enters from without.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Someone whose virtue knows no limits can guard the gods of the realm and bring happiness to the people.”

THE LICHI says, “Those who guard the realm are ever careful” (27).

LI JUNG says, “When rulers maintain the Tao, their countries are at peace. When they fail to maintain the Tao, their countries are in chaos. Their countries are the offspring. The Tao is their mother.”

WU CH’ENG says, “The realm here is a metaphor for the body. Breath is the body’s mother. Breath that has no limit can preserve the body. Those who fill themselves with breath can conquer the world and remain unharmed. Breath rises from below as if from the roots of a tree. By nourishing the roots, the roots grow deep. Breath flourishes above just as the trunk of a tree does. By nourishing the trunk, the trunk becomes firm. Thus, the tree doesn’t wither.”

LU NUNG-SHIH says, “The roots are in the dark, and the trunk is in the light. The roots refer to life, and the trunk refers to nature. What nothing can fathom is deep. Only life can match this. What nothing can topple is firm. Only nature can match this.”

What Red Pine translates as “economy” both Stephen Mitchell and Robert Brookes (who both have translations I have used in the past) translate as “moderation.” But economy is at least as good a word to use, as long as we understand what Lao-tzu means by the word. And for that, I think we have to read through basically the whole verse to get a grasp on the word. Then, I appreciated the various commentators for shedding further light on it.

Economy can’t be surpassed as the Way of a long and lasting life. First, Lao-tzu says it means planning ahead. But then he goes on to explain what he means by planning ahead. It is accumulating virtue. And by accumulating virtue he means overcoming all. And by overcoming all he means knowing no limit. And by knowing no limit he means guarding the realm (which Wu Ch’eng explains is a metaphor for the body). Here, Lao-tzu talks about guarding the realm’s mother (which is the Tao) as meaning living long. And that means deep roots and a solid trunk. Deep roots and a solid trunk refers to both the seen and the unseen, as Lu Nung-shih says, “The roots are in the dark, and the trunk is in the light. The roots refer to life, and the trunk refers to nature.”

It took going through the entire verse to really understand what he means by economy. It means the cultivation of virtue. Which happens through living modestly. Think economy verse luxury cars. Live simply. Don’t seek happiness in outward things. Cultivate it deep within you.

And, when you are governing others, be a pattern (pattern just happens to be another way the word economy could be translated) for the others you are governing. Content yourself with being a pattern for them. Don’t try to force happiness upon them. As we talked about in the previous verse, you will only cultivate misery.

Accept that the way things are is the way things are. Or, as Wang Pi puts it, “Accept the will of Heaven.” Nourish others by being a pattern of how to follow the Way.

Han Fei puts it so well. “Most people use their mind recklessly. Recklessness means waste, and waste means exhaustion. Sages use their mind calmly. Calmness means carefulness, and carefulness means economy. Economy is an art born of an understanding of the Tao. Those who know how to govern others calm their thoughts.”

That, my friends, is the virtue of economy in a nutshell. It is the Way of a long and lasting life. And, it promises to be a good one.

Nothing Is Direct

“Where the government stands aloof
the people open up
where the government steps in
the people slip away
happiness rests in misery
misery hides in happiness
who knows where these end
for nothing is direct
directness becomes deception
and good becomes evil
the people have been lost
for a long long time
thus the sage is an edge that doesn’t cut
a point that doesn’t pierce
a line that doesn’t extend
a light that doesn’t blind”

(Taoteching, verse 58, translation by Red Pine)

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “To stand aloof is to be relaxed and unconcerned. To open up is to be simple and honest. The ruler who governs without effort lets things take care of themselves.”

WANG PI says, “Those who are good at governing use neither laws nor measures. Thus, the people find nothing to attack.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “When the government makes no demands, the people respond with openness instead of cleverness. When the government makes demands, the people use every means to escape. The government that stands aloof leaves power with the people. The government that steps in takes their power away. As one gains, the other loses. As one meets with happiness, the other encounters misery.”

WANG P’ANG says, “All creatures share the same breath. But the movement of this breath comes and goes. It ends only to begin again. Hence, happiness and misery alternate like the seasons. But only sages realize this. Hence, in everything they do, they aim for the middle and avoid the extremes, unlike the government that insists on directness and goodness and forbids deception and evil, unlike the government that wants the world to be happy and yet remains unaware that happiness alternates with misery.”

LU NUNG-SHIH says, “Only those who are free of directness can transcend the appearance of good and evil and eliminate happiness and misery. For they alone know where they end. Meanwhile, those who cannot reach the state where they aren’t direct, who remain in the realm of good and evil, suffer happiness and misery as if they were on a wheel that carries them farther astray.”

TE-CH’ING says, “The world withers, and the Tao fades. People are not the way they once were. They don’t know directness from deception or good from evil. Even sages cannot instruct them. Hence, to transform them, sages enter their world of confusion. They join the dust of others and soften their own light. And they leave no trace.”

WU CH’ENG says, “A sage’s non-action is non-action that is not non-action. Edges always cut. But the edge that is not an edge does not cut. Points always pierce. But the point that is not a point does not pierce. Lines always extend. But the line that is not a line does not extend. Lights always blind. But the light that is not a light does not blind. All of these are examples of non-action.”

RED PINE notes that Wu Ch’eng combines this verse with the previous verse. He also notes that line fourteen also appears in the Lichi: “The gentleman compares his virtue to that of jade: pointed but not piercing.” And, line fifteen recalls verse 45: “perfectly straight it seems crooked.”

Wu Ch’eng combines today’s verse with our previous one, which I posted this past Friday. In that verse, Lao-tzu first talked about directness and deception, “Use directness to govern a country / and use deception to fight a war.” I said, then, it seems like our rulers have this backwards. They use directness to fight a war, and deception to rule us.

In today’s verse Lao-tzu explains why this is, “for nothing is direct / directness becomes deception.” This is why Lao-tzu says to use non-action to rule the world. But, what exactly is non-action? Lao-tzu explains this in today’s verse

It is standing aloof, rather than stepping in. As Hsuan-tsung says, “The ruler who governs without effort lets things take care of themselves.”

We simply must free ourselves of directness in order to transcend the appearance of good and evil and eliminate happiness and misery, as Lu Nung-shih says. Otherwise, happiness and misery alternate like the seasons, as Wang P’ang says. Thus, sages know to avoid extremes, unlike the government that insists on directness, which becomes deception.

Lao-tzu doesn’t just say that directness becomes deception, he goes on to say “good becomes evil / the people have been lost / for a long long time.” What can be done about this?

Well, we already know directness doesn’t work. That was sort of the point of our previous verse. Yet, we keep doing the same things, expecting different results.

Instead, we should be like the sage Lao-tzu talks about in the last four lines of today’s verse: Be an “edge that doesn’t cut / a point that doesn’t pierce / a line that doesn’t extend / a light that doesn’t blind.” Wu-ch’eng says, “All of these are examples of non-action.” And, “A sage’s non-action is non-action that is not non-action.”

Say what? Don’t be alarmed. Lao-tzu uses language like this throughout the Taoteching. The point Wu-ch’eng, and Lao-tzu, is making is to avoid extremes, aim for the middle. Edges always cut. Points always pierce. Lines always extend. Lights always blind. Thus, you want to be the edge that is not an edge, the point that is not a point, the line which is not a line, the light which is not a light.

Trying not to act, or to act without effort, requires effort. You defeat your own purpose. That is why Lao-tzu says, just stand aloof. Let things take care of themselves. They don’t need your intervention. And when you step in, people will just slip away, anyway. Since the people have been lost for a long long time, already, you surely don’t want them slipping even farther astray.

Directness won’t work. Because nothing is direct. Directness becomes deception. And deception doesn’t work, either. Good becomes evil, and evil becomes good. Happiness and misery alternate like the seasons. Don’t resist it. Just let it be.

When It’s a Choice Between Action and Non-Action

“Use directness to govern a country
and use deception to fight a war
but use non-action to rule the world
how do we know this works
the greater the prohibitions
the poorer the people
the sharper their tools
the more chaotic the realm
the cleverer their schemes
the more common the bizarre
the better their possessions
the more numerous the thieves
thus does the sage declare
I make no effort
and the people transform themselves
I stay still
and the people correct themselves
I do no work
and the people enrich themselves
I want nothing
and the people simplify themselves”

(Taoteching, verse 57, translation by Red Pine)

SUN-TZU “In waging war, one attacks with directness, one wins with deception” (Suntzu Pingfa: 5.5).

WANG AN-SHIH says, “Directness can be used in governing, but nowhere else. Deception can be used in warfare, but that is all. Only those who practice non-action are fit to rule the world.”

SU CH’E says, “The ancient sages were kind to strangers and gentle to friends. They didn’t think about warfare. Only when they ahd no choice did they fight. And when they did, they used deception. But deception can’be used to rule the world. The world is a mercurial thing. To conquer it is to lose it. Those who embody the Tao do nothing. They don’t rule the world, and yet the world comes to them.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “How do we know we can rule the world by means of non-action? Because we know we cannot rule the world by means of action.”

TE-CH’ING says, “Prohibitions, tools, schemes, possessions, all of these involve action and cannot be used to rule the world.”

WANG PI says, “Prohibitions are intended to put an end to poverty, and yet the people become poorer. Tools are intended to strengthen the country, and yet the country becomes weaker and more chaotic. This is due to cultivating the branches instead of the roots.”

WANG P’ANG says, “Prohibitions interfere with the people’s livelihood. Thus, poverty increases. Sharp tools mean sharp minds. And sharp minds mean chaos and confusion. Once minds become refined, customs become depraved, and the monstrous becomes commonplace.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “In cultivating the Tao, sages accept the will of Heaven. They don’t change things, and the people transform themselves. They prefer not to talk or teach, and the people correct themselves. They don’t force others to work, and the people become rich at their occupations. They don’t use ornaments or luxuries, and the people emulate their simple ways.”

CONFUCIUS says, “The virtue of the ruler is like wind. The virtue of the people is like grass. When the wind blows, the grass bends” (Lunyu: 12.19).

And RED PINE adds, “My mother used to say, ‘If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.’”

The verses that have been giving me so much trouble these last few days have all been leading up to today’s verse, and the many more which will follow beginning next week. I love these verses where Lao-tzu talks about the art of governing, because it was these verses, so libertarian, that I found so attractive about philosophical Taoism.

In reading through today’s verse, I couldn’t help myself, I began comparing and contrasting Lao-tzu’s teachings on the art of governing with how we are being governed, today.

Those first two lines, for just one example. It would seem our rulers, today, have those turned around. They use directness in fighting a war, and deception to govern us. It is almost (but that couldn’t be, could it?) like our rulers are treating their own people as enemies.

And to think, we even have the great Sun-tzu, who knew a thing or two about the art of war, as one of our commentators for today’s verse.

No one considers that when it’s a choice between action and non-action, the right course is not to act. Oh no! We dare not do nothing!

We must intervene. We must interfere. We must try to control. We must use force. People need greater and greater prohibitions. The police must be given sharper tools. Why, the only reason we haven’t seen the results we were hoping for is because our schemes weren’t clever enough. But, if we can just lull the people into complacency… I know, let’s give them access to lots of stuff they don’t really need. Let’s convince them they need the latest gizmos and gadgets. That their happiness depends on things. Yeah! That will do the trick…

Friends, we already know this doesn’t work. People have only become poorer. The realm has become more chaotic. The bizarre is more common. Thieves want your things.

Even if the motivation for action was a pure one (and I am not willing to concede that), action has been proven to not result in the desired effect.

Can we please give non-action a chance to prove itself?

Imagine, just imagine, what it might be like….

I am imagining a leader ( a sage) who makes no effort. And the people transform themselves. This leader stays still. And the people correct themselves. This leader does no work. And the people enrich themselves. This leader wants nothing. And the people simplify themselves.

I am not naive enough to really believe we are going to have a leader like this come along any time soon.

But, I am not just going to throw up my hands and declare the situation in my world hopeless, either.

Instead, I am going to rule my own world through non-action. And, I don’t think anyone is going to confuse me with Alexander the Great. For, I am not bent on conquering anything outside of myself. I just know non-action works. How do I know? Easy. Because the folly of action has been made so clear.

What Does It Mean to Be Balanced?

“Those who know don’t talk
those who talk don’t know
seal the opening
close the gate
dull the edge
untie the tangle
soften the light
and join the dust
this is called the Dark Union
it can’t be embraced
it can’t be abandoned
it can’t be helped
it can’t be harmed
it can’t be exalted
it can’t be debased
thus does the world exalt it”

(Taoteching, verse 56, translation by Red Pine)

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “”Those who know, value deeds not words. A team of horses can’t overtake the tongue. More talk means more problems.”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “Those who grasp the truth forget about words. Those who don’t practice what they talk about are no different from those who don’t know.”

SU CH’E says, “The Tao isn’t talk, but it doesn’t exclude talk. Those who know don’t necessarily talk. Those who talk don’t necessarily know.”

HUANG YUAN-CHI says, “We seal the opening and close the gate to nourish the breath. We dull the edge and untie the tangle to still the spirit. We soften the light and join the dust to adapt to the times and get along with the world.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “By sealing the opening, we guard the exit. By closing the gate, we bar the entrance. By dulling the edge, we adjust the inside. By untying the tangle, we straighten the outside. By softening the light, we focus on ourselves. By joining the dust, we adapt to others. What is devoid of exit and entrance, inside and outside, self and other, we call the Dark Union.”

WANG TAO says, “The Dark Union unites all things but leaves no visible trace.”

WANG PI says, “If something can be embraced, it can be abandoned. If something can be helped, it can be harmed. If something can be exalted, it can be debased.”

TE-CH’ING says, “Those who know transcend the mundane and the superficial, hence they cannot be embraced. Their utter honesty enables others to see. Hence, they cannot be abandoned. They are content and free of desires. Hence, they cannot be helped. They dwell beyond life and death. Hence, they cannot be harmed. They view high position as so much dust. Hence, they cannot be exalted. Beneath their rags they harbor jade. Hence, they cannot be debased. Those who know walk in the world, yet their minds transcend the material realm. Hence, they are exalted by the world.”

WEI YUAN says, “Those who seal the opening and close the gate neither love nor hate. Hence, they don’t embrace or abandon anything. Those who dull the edge and untie the tangle don’t seek help. Thus, they suffer no harm. Those who soften the light and join the dust don’t exalt themselves. Thus, they aren’t debased by others. Forgetting self and other, they experience Dark Union with the Tao. Those who have not yet experienced this Dark Union unite with ‘this’ and separate from ‘that.’ To unite means to embrace, to help, and to exalt. To separate means to abandon, to harm, and to debase. Those who experience Dark Union unite with nothing. From what, then, could they separate?”

And RED PINE adds, “Knowing comes before talking. And the Dark Union comes before knowing. It’s called the Dark Union because it precedes the division into subject and object.”

I said yesterday that these verses are something of a challenge for me to add any commentary. To talk about them, or not to talk about them? And, what does he mean by balanced?

I have said it before, and it bears repeating: You can’t force this virtue. But we try, how we try. I just know that if I can get this perfect balance between yin and yang, all will be right in my world.

But, in yesterday’s verse he uses the metaphor of a newborn child, who can’t do a thing to be virtuous, to exemplify those with an abundance of virtue. And, in today’s verse, he makes it even plainer (if I am understanding him at all).

Perfect balance is the result of what he calls the Dark Union. Dark means it is hidden, unseen. As Wang Tao says, “The Dark Union unites all things but leaves no visible trace.”

And, then the rest of the commentators, today, beginning with Wang Pi, explain the problem with our trying to be balanced, and how to transcend the problem.

Wang Pi says anything that can be embraced, can be abandoned. Anything that can be helped, can be harmed. And anything that can be exalted, can be debased.

But the Dark Union transcends this, since it can’t be embraced or abandoned, it can’t be helped or harmed, and it can’t be exalted or debased.

Te-ch’ing says that those who know transcend the mundane and the superficial. Though they walk in the world, and interact with the world, their minds transcend the material realm.

Wei Yuan says, and this is important, that they neither love nor hate, they neither help nor harm, and because they don’t exalt themselves, they can’t be debased by others.

Red Pine says this Dark Union precedes the division into subject and object. There is the difficulty. We can’t very well go back to being newborns again.

As Wei Yuan continues, forget self and other, and you will experience Dark Union with the Tao. As long as we divide things into “this” and “that” we will want to unite with “this” and try to separate ourselves from “that.” But unite means to embrace, help, and exalt; and separate means to abandon, harm, and debase. To experience Dark Union is to unite with nothing, and therefore separate from nothing.

So, what does it mean to be balanced? Instead of thinking of it as just the right amounts of yin and yang, think about it as neither yin nor yang.

Those Who Possess Virtue in Abundance Know How to Be Balanced

“He who possess virtue in abundance
resembles a newborn child
wasps don’t sting him
beasts don’t claw him
birds of prey don’t carry him off
his bones are weak and his tendons soft
yet his grip is firm
he hasn’t known the union of sexes
yet his penis is stiff
so full of essence is he
he cries all day
yet never gets hoarse
his breath is so perfectly balanced
knowing how to be balanced we endure
knowing how to endure we become wise
while those who lengthen their life tempt luck
and those who force their breath become strong
but once things mature they become old
this isn’t the Way what isn’t the Way ends early”

(Taoteching, verse 55, translation by Red Pine)

WANG P’ANG says, “The nature of Virtue is lasting abundance. But its abundance fades with the onset of thoughts and desires.”

SU CH’E says, “Once we have a mind, we have a body. And once we have a body, we have enemies. If we did not have a mind, we would not have enemies and could not be harmed. The reason a newborn child isn’t harmed is because it has no mind.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “A newborn child doesn’t harm anyone, and no one harms it. In an age of perfect peace, Humankind knows neither noble nor base. Even wild beasts do people no harm.”

TE CH’ING says, “Those who cultivate the Tao should first focus their mind. When their mind doesn’t stray, they become calm. When their mind becomes calm, their breath becomes balance. When their breath becomes balance, their essence becomes stable, their spirit becomes serene, and their true nature is restored. Once we know how to breathe, we know how to endure. And once we know how to endure, we know our true nature. If we don’t know our true nature but only know how to nourish our body and lengthen our life, we end up harming our body and destroying our life. A restless mind disturbs the breath. When our breath is disturbed, our essence weakens. And when our essence weakens, our body withers.”

HSUN-TZU says, “Everything must breathe to live. When we know how to breathe, we know how to nurture life and how to endure” (Hsuntzu: 17).

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “The basis of life rests on this breath. If people can nourish the pure and balanced breath within themselves for fifteen minutes, they will discover the principle of Heaven and Earth’s immortality. If they can do this for half an hour, they will enter the gate of eternity. But if they try to extend their life or force their breath, they will create the womb of their own destruction.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “Life cannot be extended. But people keep trying and thus incur misfortune.”

MOU-TZU says, “Those who attain the Way don’t become active and don’t become strong. They don’t become strong and don’t become old. They don’t become old and don’t become ill. They don’t become ill and don’t decay. Thus, Lao-tzu calls the body a disaster” (Moutzu: 32).

In today’s verse, and tomorrow’s, Lao-tzu describes those who have an abundance of virtue. And, I am just going to say, right from the get-go, these are difficult verses for me to add my own commentary. In tomorrow’s verse, Lao-tzu basically instructs me to quit talking. “Those who know, don’t talk, and those who talk don’t know.” Well, I know I don’t know, so I shouldn’t dare talk. But, here I go, anyway…

What of those who possess this virtue, Lao-tzu has been talking about, in abundance?

They resemble a newborn child. This is a metaphor, and Lao-tzu seems to be intimately acquainted with newborn children.

They harm no one and no thing. And nothing can harm them.

They are weak and soft. Yet, they possess a hidden strength.

They know nothing of what begets life, yet they are full of the essence of life.

They can cry all day without ever getting hoarse. This, Lao-tzu says, shows the perfect balance of their yin and yang breath. Hsun-tzu says, “Everything must breathe to live. When we know how to breathe, we know to nurture life and how to endure.”

Knowing how to be balanced we endure. Knowing how to endure we become wise. But you can’t force it. As Wang An-shih says, “Life cannot be extended. But people keep trying and thus incur misfortune.” Try to force things, and your supposed strength will mature until you become old.

And what becomes old, dies. It ends early. That isn’t the Way, says Lao-tzu.

Now, with tomorrow’s verse we will hopefully get a better understanding of what it means to be balanced.

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

MOU-TZU (FL. 3RD C.) High official and author of the Lihuolun, the earliest known work that addresses the conflicts arising from Buddhist practice and Chinese tradition.

The Cultivation of Virtue and How You View Others

“What you plant well can’t be uprooted
what you hold well can’t be taken away
your descendants will worship this forever
cultivated in yourself virtue becomes real
cultivated in your family virtue grows
cultivated in your village virtue multiplies
cultivated in your state virtue abounds
cultivated in your world virtue is everywhere
thus view others through yourself
view families through your family
view villages through your village
view states through your state
view other worlds through your world
how do you know what other worlds are like
through this one”

(Taoteching, verse 54, translation by Red Pine)

WU CH’ENG says, “Those who plant something well, plant it without planting. Thus, it is never uprooted. Those who hold something well, hold it without holding. Thus, it is never taken away.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “What we plant well is virtue. What we hold well is oneness. When virtue flourishes, distant generations give praise.”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “First improve yourself, then reach out to others and to later generations bequeath the noble, pure, and kindly Tao. Thus, blessings reach your descendants, virtue grows, beauty lasts, and worship never ends.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “In ancient times, ancestral worship consisted in choosing an auspicious day before the full moon, in fasting, in selecting sacrificial animals, in purifying the ritual vessels, in preparing a feast on the appointed day, in venerating ancestors as if they were present, and in thanking them for their virtuous example. Those who cultivate the way likewise enable later generations to enjoy the fruits of their cultivation.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “We cultivate the Tao in ourselves by cherishing our breath and by nourishing our spirit and thus by prolonging our life. We cultivate the Tao in our family by being loving as a parent, filial as a child, kind as an elder, obedient as the younger, dependable as a husband, and chaste as a wife. We cultivate the Tao in our village by honoring the aged and caring for the young, by teaching the benighted and instructing the perverse. We cultivate the Tao in our state by being honest as an official and loyal as an aide. We cultivate the Tao in the world by letting things change without giving orders. Lao-tzu asks how we know that those who cultivate the Tao prosper and those who ignore the Tao perish. We know by comparing those who don’t cultivate the Tao with those who do.”

YEN TSUN says, “Let your person be the yardstick of other persons. Let your family be the level of other families. Let your village be the square of other villages. Let your state be the plumb line of other states. As for the world, the ruler is its heart, and the world is his body.”

CHUANG-TZU says, “The reality of the Tao lies in concern for the self. Concern for the state is irrelevant, and concern for the world is cow shit. From this standpoint, the emperor’s work is the sage’s hobby and is not what develops the self or nourishes life” (Chuangtzu: 28.3).

CONFUCIUS says, “The ancients who wished to manifest Virtue in the world first ordered their states. Wishing to order their states, they first harmonized their families. Wishing to harmonize their families, they first cultivated themselves. Wishing to cultivate themselves, they first perfected their minds. Wishing to perfect their minds, they first rectified their thoughts. Wishing to rectify their thoughts, they first deepened their knowledge” (Tahsueh:4).

And RED PINE notes that the last seven lines of today’s verse is similar to that of the line in the poem “Carving an Ax Handle” in the Book of Songs: “In carving an ax handle, the pattern is not far off.”

As I have mentioned previously, I am about two weeks ahead on the writing of my blog posts on these verses. And the reason for this is not just to keep my blogging free of the stress of meeting deadlines. More importantly, I have found that as I come to later verses I end up getting new insight into previous ones, and I have time to go back to revise earlier ones. In fact, I just did that with yesterday’s verse.

Lao-tzu has been talking about virtue for some time. In yesterday’s verse he came down hard on those who lacked virtue, saying their actions amounted to robbery. In today’s verse the subject is again, virtue, specifically the cultivation of virtue. And, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that virtue is defined as how you view others.

What may come as a surprise is what Lao-tzu means by how we view others. Remember, with yesterday’s verse, where Lao-tzu called our lack of virtue robbery? But he never identified the “others” we have robbed. I said, then, it is because we are the ones we have robbed.

To say that how we treat others is the measure of our virtue, would be to think that virtue is some external thing. Wait! Doesn’t how we treat others show either an abundance or a lack of virtue? Isn’t it universally acclaimed that treating others well is deemed virtuous, while no one ever claims treating others poorly is virtuous? When Lao-tzu calls us out for robbery, we know he isn’t commending us for our virtue.

What Lao-tzu wants, though, is for us to cultivate virtue in ourselves, in our families, in our villages, in our states, in our world. It is an internal thing. What you plant well, can’t be uprooted, what you hold well can’t be taken away. But, there is more to it than that. That is only a promise that the virtue we cultivate can’t be uprooted or taken away from us.

How we view others will have an external manifestation, it will be reflected in how we treat others. But, that is an end, not the means. If we view others as the means, if we view others as separate from ourselves, we are going to get it all backwards.

True Virtue, Lao-tzu proclaims, is viewing others through ourselves. You contain the ten thousand things within you. Others aren’t out there. Separate from us. That is an illusion. If you want to cultivate virtue in others, you have to cultivate it in yourself.

View others through yourself. View families through your family. View villages through your village. View states through your state. View other worlds through your world.

Lao-tzu isn’t talking about external other worlds, here. Raising the question of whether life exists on other planets. The other worlds refer to each of us containing our own world within us. How do you know what other worlds are like? Through the world you contain within you.

Chuang-tzu’s commentary makes it so very clear. The reality of the Tao lies in concern for the self. It is an internal thing. Concern for external things is irrelevant. It is cow shit. The emperor’s work (meddling in external affairs) is not what develops the self or nourishes life. Thus, sages don’t occupy themselves with external things. The external is merely a hobby. It is treated as secondary.

The line, which Red Pine recalls, from the poem “Carving an Ax Handle” puts it quite well. “In carving an ax handle, the pattern is not far off.” The pattern is the virtue you cultivate in yourself. It isn’t far off. It is close at hand. It is what is planted well in your own heart.

Only Fear Going Astray

“Were I sufficiently wise
I would follow the Great Way
and only fear going astray
the Great Way is smooth
but people love byways
their palaces are spotless
but their fields are overgrown
and their granaries are empty
they wear fine clothes
and carry sharp swords
they tire of food and drink
and possess more than they need
this is called robbery
and robbery is not the Way”

(Taoteching, verse 53, translation by Red Pine)

KU HSI-CH’OU says, “The Tao is not hard to know, but it is hard to follow.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Lao-tzu was concerned that rulers of his day did not follow the Great Way. Hence, he hypothesized that if he knew enough to conduct the affairs of a country, he would follow the Great Way and devote himself to implementing the policy of doing nothing.”

LU HSI-SHENG says, “The Great Way is like a grand thoroughfare: smooth and easy to travel, perfectly straight and free of detours, and there is nowhere it doesn’t lead. But people are in a hurry. They take shortcuts and get into trouble and become lost and don’t reach their destination. The sage worries only about leading people down such a path.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “A spotless palace refers to the height of superficiality. An overgrown field refers to an uncultivated mind. An empty granary refers to a lack of virtue.”

HAN FEI says, “When the court is in good repair, lawsuits abound. When lawsuits abound, fields become overgrown. When fields become overgrown, granaries become empty. When granaries become empty, the country becomes poor. When the country becomes poor, customs become decadent, and there is no trick people don’t try” (Hanfeitzu: 20).

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “When the court ignores the affairs of state to beautify its halls and interrupts farm work to build towers and pavilions, the people’s energy ends up at court, and fields turn to weeds. Once fields turn to weeds, state taxes are no paid and granaries become empty. And once granaries are empty, the country becomes poor, and the people become rebellious. The court dazzles the people with its fine clothes, and threatens the people with its sharp swords, and takes from people more than it needs – this is no different from robbing them.”

LI JUNG says, “A robber is someone who never has enough and who takes more than he needs.”

WANG PI says, “To gain possession of something by means other than the Way is wrong. And wrong means robbery.”

Red Pine adds, in his explanatory notes, “The standard version of line three reads ‘only fear acting.’” That isn’t a bad translation. Lao-tzu certainly has devoted a lot of his Taoteching warning against acting. But, Red Pine notes, Wang Nien-sun sees a problem with that translation in today’s verse, suggesting shih (act) is a mistake for yi (go astray), and Red Pine agrees. I do, too. I think the context of following the Great Way, which is smooth, and contrasting it with people loving byways, makes it clear we don’t fear going astray as we ought. And the result, readily apparent to all, is superficiality, an uncultivated mind, a lack of virtue.

Lao-tzu names it with just one word: robbery. And Red Pine points out that that is a pun: “The words for robbery and Way are both pronounced tao.

Robbery is an apt description of what has taken place as we have loved byways rather than following the Way, though I have another word for it: Decadence.

Let’s look at the downward spiral again. Their palaces are spotless, but their fields are overgrown. Their fields are overgrown, while their granaries are empty. They wear fine clothes and carry sharp swords, yet they tire of food and drink. They possess more than they need. Yes, robbery. Yes, decadence.

If only we were sufficiently wise. If only we feared going astray. Why do we love those byways? Well, Lao-tzu already answered that question. It is because we aren’t sufficiently wise. It is because we don’t fear going astray. The Great Way is smooth. It will get you where you’re going, without any trouble. Wisdom cries out, “Don’t be foolish! Don’t go astray!” But we are fearless with regards to the only thing we should fear, while we instead fear what? Not being superficial enough?

Let’s be honest with ourselves. We already possess far more than we need. And it is through what amounts to robbery that we haveobtained it. But, this requires further clarification. Who exactly have we robbed? Lao-tzu doesn’t mention others at all in this verse. Oh, we might read between the lines and assume that Lao-tzu must mean the less fortunate don’t have enough because we aren’t giving enough out of our abundance. We do possess more than we need. Others don’t. So there is that.

But, I don’t think we should be assuming anything, here. We don’t want to be the proverbial ass. I think we are better off not trying to read between the lines. Lao-tzu doesn’t mention others because he is only concerned with ourselves. We have robbed ourselves!

This will be further explained in tomorrow’s verse on the cultivation of virtue within ourselves, our families, our villages, our states, and our world.

For today, let it be sufficient that we realize it is time to go back to following the Great Way. Are we sufficiently wise? And, do we sufficiently fear going astray?

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

KU HSI-CH’OU (FL. 1600-1630). Scholar-official. His is one of several commentaries incorrectly attributed to the T’ang dynasty Taoist, Lu Tung-pin. Tao-te-ching-chieh.

Holding On to the Constant

“There’s a maiden in the world
who becomes the world’s mother
those who find the mother
thereby know the child
those who know the child
keep the mother safe
and live without trouble
those who block the opening
who close the gate
live without toil
those who unblock the opening
who meddle in affairs
live without hope
those who see the small have vision
those who protect the weak have strength
those who use their light
and trust their vision
live beyond death
this is called holding on to the crescent”

(Taoteching, verse 52, translation by Red Pine)

LAO-TZU says, “The maiden of Heaven and earth has no name / the mother of all things has a name” (Taoteching: 1).

KUAN-TZU says, “The ancients say, ‘No one understands a child better than its father. No one understands a minister better than his ruler’” (Kuantzu: 7).

LI HSI-CHAI says, “The Way is the mother of all creatures. All creatures are the children of the Way. In ancient times, those who possessed the way were able to keep mother and children from parting and the Way and all creatures together. Since creatures come from the Way, they are no different from the Way, just as children are no different from their mother. And yet people abandon other creatures when they search for the Way. Is this any different from abandoning the children while searching for the mother? If people knew that all creatures are the Way, and children are the mother, they would find the source in everything they meet.”

CONFUCIUS says, “Things have their roots and branches. Those who know what comes first and last approach the Tao” (Tahsueh).

TUNG SSU-CHING says, “People are born when they receive breath. Breath is their mother. And spirit dwells within their breath. When children care for their mother, their breath becomes one and their spirit becomes still.”

WU CH’ENG says, “‘Opening’ refers to the mouth. ‘Gate’ refers to the nose. By controlling our breath to the point where there is no breath, where breath is concentrated within, we are never exhausted.”

WANG P’ANG says, “When the opening opens, things enter. And the spirit is exhausted trying to deal with the problems that then develop. Once we are swept away by this flood, who can save us?”

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “Those who can see an event while it is still small and change their behavior accordingly we say have vision.”

WANG PI says, “Seeing what is great is no vision. Seeing what is small is vision. Protecting the strong is not strength. Protecting the weak is strength.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “Light is the function of vision. Vision is the embodiment of light. If we can use the light to find our way back to the source, we can live our lives free of misfortune and become one with the Immortal Way.”

RED PINE says, “This verse reminds me of Confucius’ words: ‘When I was young, historians still left blanks’ (Lunyu: 15.25). Not being a historian, I have proceeded despite uncertainty.”

“Holding on to the crescent”? What does that mean? Red Pine, in his explanatory notes, admits the word ch’ang normally means “constant.” But because ch’ang is also the name for the crescent moon, he decided to translate it ‘crescent.” Again, this is one of those few times where I choose to differ with Red Pine. I understand how much he has been influenced by Tu Er-wei in his interpretations. And, I think this has sometimes clouded his judgment. While the moon can sometimes be a fitting metaphor for the Tao, I would prefer to not take these metaphors so literally. For my own commentary, I am reading ch’ang as it normally means, “constant.” Hence the title of my commentary today, “Holding On to the Constant.”

Holding on to the constant has Lao-tzu comparing maiden with mother, “maiden” in verse one, is the metaphor for no-name, while the metaphor of name is mother. Naming, is something Lao-tzu has been talking about since verse one. And, always, he has warned us of the consequences. Once you open that gate, the naming never ends. The child, here, is the consequences. Find the mother, the name, and you will know the child. But, once you know the child, you will keep the mother safe. That is the only way to live without trouble.

Holding on to the constant has Lao-tzu comparing opening and closing, blocking and unblocking. It may seem odd that Lao-tzu is advocating blocking and closing, as opposed to unblocking and opening. Shouldn’t we want to be open?

Ah, let’s see if we can understand the nuance of what Lao-tzu is saying here. What does he mean by “unblock the opening”? It helps that he tells us with the very next line. Those who unblock the opening are those “who meddle in affairs.” In other words, the need to block the opening and close the gate has to do with keeping ourselves from going out and interfering.

Here, he then promotes the need to see the small. Those that do have vision. Protecting the weak means you are strong. Holding on to the constant means using your light, trusting your vision.

This is to live beyond death. This takes us back a couple verses, where we talked about transcending change, transcending life and death. By holding on to the constant we transcend change, and having transcended change, the immortal thing inside each of us, which we are cultivating, will live beyond death.

That might seem motivation enough to not want to meddle in affairs, to block the opening and close the gate. But the truth is, it isn’t enough. We simply don’t fear going astray as we ought. What are the possible reasons for this? Well, that will be the topic of our next verse, and that will have to wait until next week, on Monday. See you then…

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

TUNG SSU-CHING (FL. 1246-1257). Taoist master and compiler of Taoist texts in the Lingpao tradition. His commentary includes extensive quotes from T’ang and Sung dynasty commentators as well as his own comments. Tao-te-chen-ching chi-chieh.

A Respect and Honor That Is Simply Natural

“The Way begets them
Virtue keeps them
matter shapes them
usage completes them
thus do all creatures respect the Way
and honor Virtue
their respect for the Way
and honor of Virtue
are not conferred
but simply natural
for the Way begets and keeps them
raises and trains them
steadies and adjusts them
maintains and protects them
but it doesn’t possess what it begets
or depend on what it develops
or control what it raises
this is called Dark Virtue”

-Lao-tzu- (Taoteching, verse 51, translation by Red Pine)

WU CH’ENG says, “What is begotten is sprouted in spring; what is kept is collected in fall; what is shaped is raised in summer from sprouts grown in spring; what is completed is stored in winter from the harvest of fall. Sprouting, raising, harvesting, and storing all depend on the Way and Virtue. Hence, the ten thousand creatures respect the Tao as their father and honor Virtue as their mother. The Way and Virtue are two, but also one. In spring, from one root many are begotten: the Way becomes Virtue. In fall, the many are brought back together: Virtue becomes the Way. The Way and Virtue are mentioned at the beginning of this verse, but only the Way is mentioned later [in line eleven]. This is because Virtue is also the Way.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, ‘What the Way and Virtue bestow, they bestow without thought. No one orders them. It is simply their nature. It is their nature to beget and their nature to keep. It is their nature to raise and train, to steady and adjust, to maintain and protect. And because it’s their nature, they never tire of begetting or expect a reward for what they give. This is what is meant by ‘Dark Virtue.’”

LU HSI-SHENG says, “To beget is to endow with essence. To keep is to instill with breath. To raise is to adapt to form. To train is to bring forth ability. To steady is to weigh the end. To adjust is to measure the use. To maintain is to preserve the balance. To protect is to keep from harm. This is the Great Way. It begets but does not try to possess what it begets. It develops but does not depend on what it develops. It raises but does not try to control what it raises. This is Dark Virtue. In verse 10, Humankind is likened to the Way and Virtue. Here, the Way and Virtue are likened to Humankind. The expressions are the same, and so is the meaning.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “The Way does not beget the myriad creatures to possess them for its own advantage. The actions of the Way do not depend on a reward. And the Way does not raise or maintain the myriad creatures to butcher them for profit. The kindness performed by the Way is dark and invisible.” Where Ho-shang Kung reads “butcher,” Lu Hsi-sheng reads “control.” Red Pine followed Lu.

WANG PI says, “The Way is what things follow. Virtue is what they attain. ‘Dark Virtue’ means virtue is present but no one knows who controls it. It comes from what is hidden.”

As I am writing my commentary on today’s verse, on a schedule some two weeks ahead of when it will post, I am still reeling from the events of the previous weekend, where my friends and family on Facebook have been quite vocal in lambasting NFL players for taking a knee during the National Anthem, and so, according to them, disrespecting and dishonoring the flag, the country, and the men and women who have served in the armed forces. How timely, then, was it for me to come to today’s verse where Lao-tzu talks about what he calls “Dark Virtue,” where he talks of a respect and honor which is not conferred, but simply natural.

I have refrained, so far, from responding, though I have been thinking all along of some previous verses in the Taoteching, where Lao-tzu talked of the virtue of ritual. Ritual, you may recall, if you have been an avid reader of my posts, is one of the lower virtues Lao-tzu talks about. I don’t have much use for it, actually. But, it certainly does represent what I have witnessed on Facebook the last several days. This is the virtue, that when it doesn’t get the expected response, rolls up its sleeves and resorts to force.

Rather than this “light virtue” that wants to be seen, Lao-tzu is much more interested in Dark Virtue. One that is hidden. Dark and invisible. It isn’t ordered or controlled. And it doesn’t force or try to control. It isn’t conferred. It is simply natural.

Doing what is according to your nature. Natural. Up until this past weekend I actually thought that kneeling was a sign of respect and honor. Now I am being expected to believe it is a sign of dishonor and disrespect. And our Republican President Donald Trump tweeted that it was time football fans act. Interesting. That is why I thought it was also timely that I came across a certain quote by Albert Jay Nock, just before I began typing up this commentary:

“Republicanism permits the individual to persuade himself that the State is his creation, that State action is his action, that when it expresses itself it expresses him, and when it is glorified he is glorified. The republican State encourages this persuasion with all its power, aware that it is the most efficient instrument for enhancing its own prestige. Lincoln’s phrase, “of the people, by the people, for the people” was probably the most effective single stroke of propaganda ever made in behalf of republican State prestige.”

Yes, I think that quote taken from Nock’s Our Enemy, the State, is particularly apt for the moment. And, I must add how disheartened I am by the number of Christians (since I was raised Christian) who have posted things like “I stand for the flag, I kneel at the cross.” Really? Whatever happened to “Thou shalt have no other Gods”?

But, then, I must admit I knew the Church was in great distress when I first noticed the U.S. Flag being included center stage along with the Christian Flag (naturally) with an altar between them.

I apologize if any of you think I am a bit off topic with today’s commentary. It is just that sometimes current events are so telling. I will attempt to get back on topic with tomorrow’s verse.

Transcending the Boundaries of Life and Death

“Appearing means life
disappearing means death
thirteen are the followers of life
thirteen are the followers of death
but people living to live
move toward the land of death’s thirteen
and why is this so
because the live to live
it’s said that those who guard life well
aren’t injured by soldiers in battle
or harmed by rhinos or tigers in the wild
for rhinos find nowhere to stick their horns
tigers find nowhere to sink their claws
and soldiers find nowhere to thrust their spears
and why is this so
because for them there’s no land of death”

(Taoteching, verse 50, translation by Red Pine)

CH’ENG CHU says, “Of the ten thousand changes we all experience, none are more important than life and death. People who cultivate the Tao are concerned with nothing except transcending these boundaries.”

RED PINE adds an explanatory note about the “thirteen” in lines 3, 4, and 6, saying, “The phrase shih-yu-san has long puzzled commentators. HAN FEI says it means “three and ten,” or thirteen, and refers to the four limbs and nine orifices of the body, which can be guarded to preserve life or indulged to end it.”

TU ER-WEI says the numerical significance of thirteen here refers to the moon, which becomes full thirteen days after it first appears and which disappears thirteen days after it begins to wane.”

WANG PI says it means “three in ten” and refers to the three basic attitudes people have toward life. Wang An-shih summarizes these as: “Among ten people, three seek life because they hate death, three seek death because they hate life, and three live as if they were dead.” Leaving the sage, who neither hates death nor loves life, but who thus lives long.”

RED PINE notes that the Mawangtui texts, which he has followed here, word lines five and six in such a way as to make Wang Pi’s interpretation unlikely, if not impossible. As for choosing between Han Fei and Tu Er-wei, he thinks Professor Tu’s interpretation comes closer to what Lao-tzu had in mind.

WANG PI also says, “Eels consider the depths too shallow, and eagles consider the mountains too low. Living beyond the reach of arrows and nets, they both dwell in the land of no death. But by means of baits, they are lured into the land of no life.”

SU CH’E says, “We know how to act but not how to rest. We know how to talk but not how to keep quiet. We know how to remember but not how to forget. Everything we do leads to the land of death. The sage dwells where there is neither life nor death.”

TE-CH’ING says, “Those who guard their life don’t cultivate life but what controls life. What has life is form. What controls life is nature. When we cultivate our nature, we return, we return to what is real and forget bodily form. Once we forget form, our self becomes empty. Once our self is empty, nothing can harm us. Once there is no self, there is no life. How then could there be any death?”

CHIAO HUNG says, “Those who are wise have no life. Not because the slight it, but because they don’t possess it. If someone has no life, how can they be killed? Those who understand this can transcend change and make of life and death a game.”

This is one of those few times where I completely disagree with Red Pine on his interpretation. Perhaps, for no other reason than Wang Pi’s interpretation, along with Wang An-shih’s, was the first one to which I was exposed. But, in addition to that, I just think theirs fits more with what Lao-tzu says throughout the Taoteching. So, leaving aside the interpretations of Red Pine, Han Fei, and Tu Er-wei, I want to get to the actual meat of the verse.

Ch’eng Chu speaks of the ten thousand changes we all experience, life and death being paramount among these myriad changes. Saying, “People who cultivate the Tao are concerned with nothing except transcending these boundaries.”

That has certainly been my purpose in the years I have been reading through the Taoteching, and sharing my own commentary with my followers.

And, just so you know, my purpose has nothing to do with wishing to extend my physical life. I think that is a common misconception of Taoism. That somehow we are hoping to never die (physically).

Transcendence, though, means so much more. It is speaking of something beyond the physical realm. Indeed, the physical realm is largely a delusion. And often, Lao-tzu references it only in metaphorical terms. Physically, I am going to die. I was born, therefore, I am going to die. That is settled. What I am concerned with is something in me that was never born, and thus can never die. That is what I want to cultivate in me.

Being as Red Pine was mostly dismissive of Wang Pi’s interpretation, along with Wang An-shih’s, I want to go back once again to what they had to say: Three in ten people seek life because they hate death. Three in ten seek death because they hate life. And, three in ten live as if they were dead. We all know these people. They are us. Notice I am not excluding myself, here. We have all been there, done that. But, if you did the math, as I did, you know, that still leaves one in ten people. I want to be, and I think you do too, the one in ten that neither hate death, nor love life.

Wang Pi goes on to talk of eels and eagles, metaphorically, to explain how to live long. For eels, the boundaries of life and death are in the depths. For eagles, the boundaries are in the heights.

What we are seeking is to transcend those boundaries, to go deeper, or to go higher. To go beyond life and death. Su Ch’e has something to say about this very thing. He says the problem lies with not knowing yin like we do yang. If we were to know both yin and yang we would dwell where there is neither life nor death.

And Te-Ch’ing is particularly helpful: By cultivating what controls life, our nature, we return to what is real and forget bodily form, then our self becomes empty, then nothing can harm us. No self = no life. And no life = no death.

Finally, Chiao Hung concludes: Understanding this is the key to transcending change. My physical body is still going to die. Just like yours. But what I am cultivating on the inside of me, will live on.