Category Archives: Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching

If You Want to Be Great…

“A great state is a watershed
the confluence of the world
the female of the world
the female uses stillness to overcome the male
in order to be still
she needs to be lower
the great state that lowers itself before the small state
governs the small state
the small state that lowers itself before the great state
is governed by the great state
some lower themselves to govern
some lower themselves to be governed
the great state’s one desire
is to unite and lead others
the small state’s one desire
is to join and serve others
for both to fulfill their desires
whichever is greater needs to be lower”

(Taoteching, verse 61, translation by Red Pine)

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

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “To lead a great state, we should be like the sea. We should be at the bottom of a watershed and not fight even the smallest current. A great state is the meeting place of the high and the low. The female refers to everything yin, everything that is weak, humble, yielding – what doesn’t lead.”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “The female is the mother. All creatures revere their mother. The sage recognizes the male but upholds the female. Hence, all creatures turn to the sage.”

SU CH’E says, “The world turns to a great state just as rivers flow downstream. If a great state can lower itself, small states will attach themselves to it. If a small state can lower itself, a great state will take it under its care. A great state lowers itself to govern others. A small state lowers itself to be governed by others.”

WU CH’ENG says, “The female doesn’t make the first move. It is always the male who makes the first move. But to act means to lose the advantage. To wait means to be lower. The great state that doesn’t presume on its superiority gains the voluntary support of the small state. The small state that is content with its inferiority enjoys the generosity of the great state. The small state doesn’t have to worry about being lower, but the great state does. Hence, the great state needs to be lower.”

WAG AN-SHIH says, “To serve someone greater is easy. To serve someone smaller is hard. Because it is hard, Lao-tzu says, ‘whichever is greater needs to be lower.’”

MENCIUS says, “Only a virtuous ruler is able to serve a smaller state. Only a wise ruler is able to serve a greater state” (Mencius: 1B.3).

WANG PI says, “By cultivating humility, each gets what it wants. When the small state cultivates humility, it preserves itself, but that is all. It can’t make the world turn to it. The world turns to the great state that cultivates humility. Thus, each gets what it wants. But it is the great state that needs to be more humble.”

Once again we have managed to come to the end of another week with, yet another, great verse to finish up our theme for the week.

I hope my readers never grow weary of the same refrain from Lao-tzu. If you want to be great, practice humility. This is true, we know, when it comes to individuals. But, Lao-tzu insists, what is true for individuals is true for states as well.

Well before Donald Trump was campaigning to “Make America Great, Again!” we were going through these verses where Lao-tzu taught, to whoever would listen, the means to greatness. Lao-tzu understood, as many of us understand, it isn’t the end which justifies the means, but the means which determine the end.

If a great state wants to be “great, again” it had better understand this. And to help in our understanding, perhaps it would be good to go over some vocabulary words.

The first being, watershed. When Lao-tzu says, “A great state is a watershed,” what does he mean? Thankfully, Lao-tzu has been using water for a metaphor of the Tao all along. Water is very important here. A watershed is a region or area bounded peripherally by a divide and draining ultimately to a particular watercourse or body of water (thank you, Merriam-Webster). The watercourse Lao-tzu had in mind is the Way of Nature. And the body of water is the Tao.

Notice, the great state isn’t likened to the body of water, or even the watercourse. A great state only borders it, peripherally. With that said, the position of the great state has to be lower than all others.

Secondly, confluence. Confluence, also, has water connotations. It is where streams come together. A meeting point. “A great state is…the confluence of the world” because it is only when the great state humbles itself to a point where others will come to it, meet with it, that it can be great.

It should be noted, here, that intransigence concerning this is not conducive to ever being great.

Thirdly, female. Do I really need to define female? Why, yes, I think I do. Female, for Lao-tzu, refers to anything yin, as opposed to the male yang. “A great state is…the female of the world” means a great state will always be more yin than yang. The female uses stillness to overcome the male.

In order to be still, she needs to be lower. This is how she overcomes the male. Oh, the male, yang, may boast of his strength. But the female, yin, will always prevail, through her stillness, through her humility.

And anyone who denies this, hasn’t been paying much attention to the way things are.

It is especially important for those inclined to be mostly yang, that they be mostly yin. That is, if they want to overcome, if they want to be great.

“She needs to be lower.” While I am certain there will be plenty of those out there who will complain that this is just Lao-tzu promoting the subjugation of women, it is clear they don’t understand Lao-tzu, at all. That Lao-tzu recognized the primacy of the female, of the yin, throughout his teachings.

And a great state, he refers to as “she.” She has to be lower. Why is this so important? Smaller states know their place. It is greater ones that need reminding. They need to understand they are a watershed. They are the confluence of the world. They are the ones who have to be “female.”

Smaller states lower themselves quite naturally. They seek to join and serve others. But, greater states don’t understand how vitally important it is for them to lower themselves, if they want to unite and lead others. If both are to fulfill their desires, the greater needs to be lower.

This will ever be my answer to anyone who wishes to be great, to anyone who wants America to be great, again. It is Lao-tzu’s teaching on the vital importance of humility. The greater ones have the greater responsibility. If they don’t get it right, we are all doomed.

Too Much Government Makes Those Below Rebel

“Ruling a great state
is like cooking a small fish
when you govern the world with the Tao
spirits display no powers
not that they have no powers
their powers don’t harm the people
not that their powers can’t harm
the sage keeps them from harming
and neither harms the other
for both rely on Virtue”

(Taoteching, verse 60, translation by Red Pine)

In a poem bemoaning the absence of virtuous rulers, the SHIHCHING SAYS, “Who can cook fish / I’ll wash out the pot” (Kuei: 4).

LI HSI-CHAI says, “For the sage, ruling a state is a minor affair, like cooking a small fish.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “If you cook a small fish, don’t remove its entrails, don’t scrape off its scales, and don’t stir it. If you do, it will turn to mush. Likewise, too much government makes those below rebel. And too much cultivation makes one’s vitality wither.”

HAN FEI says, “In cooking a small fish, too much turning ruins it. In governing a great state, too much reform embitters the people. Thus, a ruler who possesses the Way values inaction over reform.”

TE CH’ING says, “A cruel government brings calamity down on the people. The people, however, think their suffering is the work of ghosts and spirits and turn to sacrifice and worship to improve their lot, when actually their misfortune is caused by their rulers.”

THE TSOCHUAN says, “If the state is meant to flourish, listen to the people. If the state is meant to perish, listen to the spirits” (Chuang: 32).

WANG CHEN says, “The government that takes peace as its basis doesn’t lose the Way. When the government doesn’t lose the Way, yin and yang are in harmony. When yin and yang are in harmony, wind and rain arrive on time. When wind and rain arrive on time, the spirit world is at peace. When the spirit world is at peace, the legion of demons can’t perform their sorcery.”

WANG PI says, “Spirits don’t injure what is natural. What is natural gives spirits no opening. When spirits have no opening, spirits cannot act like spirits.”

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “Spirits dwell in the yin, and people dwell in the yang. When both accept their lot, neither injures the other.”

SU CH’E says, “The inaction of the sage makes people content with the way they are. Outside, nothing troubles them. Inside, nothing frightens them. Even spirits have no means of using their powers. It isn’t that spirits have no powers. The have powers, but they don’t use them to harm people. The reason people and spirits don’t harm each other is because they look up to the sage. And the sage never harms anyone.”

WU CH’ENG says, “The reason spirits don’t harm the people is not because they can’t but because the sage is able to harmonize the energy of the people so that they don’t injure the energy of the spirit world. The reason neither injures the other is due to the sage’s virtue. Hence, both worlds rely on the virtue of the sage.”

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “‘Neither’ here refers to spirits and the sage.”

LI JUNG says, “Spirits and sages help people without harming each other. One is hidden, the other manifest. But both rely on virtue.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Spirits are spirits because they respond but can’t be seen. Sages are sages because they govern but don’t act. The virtue of sages and the virtue of spirits is the same.”

In Lao-tzu’s day and for a long time after Lao-tzu’s day, the people were very superstitious. The people blamed spirits on just about any bad thing that happened to them. And, they sought to appease these spirits through sacrifices and worship, to avoid trouble, and otherwise improve their lot in life. But, Te Ch’ing, in his commentary on today’s verse, points out an important truth, which is true in all ages: It is cruel government which bring down calamity on the people. If you are suffering some misfortune, it may just be caused by your rulers.

Now, I believe, we live in a less superstitious age. Yet, we still don’t dare blame our calamities, our misfortunes, on those who govern us. Or if we do, we believe that we can appease these spirits with the next election.

Yet, Lao-tzu had it right when he said, “Ruling a great state is like cooking a small fish.” Stephen Mitchell, in his translation, adds “you spoil it with too much poking.”

And that is what gets those so-called spirits so pissed off! When a sage governs, they keep spirits from harming the people, and the people from harming spirits. These “spirits” are just another name for “bad shit happens when you don’t follow the natural order.” “Spirits” don’t respond when the sage, governing, doesn’t act [contrary to nature].

And because the inaction of the sage makes people content with the way they are, the virtue of the people is the same as the virtue of the sage. They both rely on the same Virtue. And those pesky spirits are ever kept at bay.

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

SHIHCHING (BOOK OF SONGS). Collection of some 300 poems from China’s earliest historical period, between the twelfth and seventh centuries B.C. Arranged by style and region, it was reportedly compiled by Confucius from a larger corpus of over 3,000 poems. It remained an essential part of traditional education until the twentieth century. There are half a dozen English translations.

TSOCHUAN (ANNALS OF TSO). First comprehensive account of the major political events of the Spring and Autumn Periods (722-481 B.C.). It was compiled during the fourth century B.C. by Tso ch’iu-ming about whom we know nothing else.

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.”

The Way of a long and lasting life. What is it? Well, Lao-tzu teaches, “In governing people and caring for Heaven, nothing surpasses economy.” Be economical in everything you do. Don’t do things to excess. Practice moderation in all things.

Economy means planning ahead. It means taking the time to consider the consequences, both those you may intend and those you don’t. What is going to happen if I do such and such? Not just what I want to happen, but what might happen, as a consequence. Maybe I would be better off to wait and see how things play out. Maybe intervening isn’t such a good policy after all.

This planning ahead, Lao-tzu teaches, means accumulating virtue. Why is this the Way to accumulate Virtue? For the very reason that the principle of non-action, of not-doing, not interfering, not intervening, not using force in an effort to control, is virtuous. Virtue is going with the natural flow, letting things run their course. Things arise, they come; and things go. Let them. Let them be. This is Virtue. And by practicing this virtue, you accumulate more virtue.

Accumulating virtue means overcoming all. But, how is is that we overcome anything when we don’t seek to overcome, if we just let things be? Ah, my friends, it is through this not trying to overcome, that we do in fact overcome. Those who try to overcome, fail. Time, and time again, they fail. Even when they succeed, their success soon turns to failure. This is simply the Way things are. But when you don’t try to succeed, you never fail.

Overcoming all means knowing no limit. How can this be? Because those who practice this virtue of economy, of moderation in all things, transcend the boundaries of life and death. And having transcended these boundaries, you know no limits.

Knowing no limit means guarding the realm. And guarding the realm brings us back to the art of governing Lao-tzu has been talking about for several verses, now. It is what he was talking about as he opened today’s verse saying, “In governing people…nothing surpasses economy.” If you want to govern your realm (in other words, your body) effectively, nothing surpasses this practice of moderation.

And you will live long, having deep roots and a solid trunk. How else does one expect to live long and prosper?

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.”

In yesterday’s verse, Lao-tzu contrasted directness with deception. In today’s verse, he teaches that nothing is direct: directness becomes deception. This is why the art of governing requires non-action.

Where the government stands aloof, the people open up. (If only….)

But where the government steps in, the people slip away. This is a truism. It has always been true. It will always be true. Yet, they keep stepping in; apparently thinking that doing the same thing, and doubling down with their efforts, will somehow produce different results.

What they don’t understand is that happiness rests in misery, and misery hides in happiness. And who knows where these end? You can’t force people to be happy. You only make them miserable. But if, when they were miserable, you took a step back, and stood aloof, happiness would soon result.

Talk all you want about your good intentions, and I will tell you good becomes evil. Nothing is direct. Directness becomes deception. Always. It is just the way things are.

Then you will tell me, “Ah, but the people have been lost for a long, long time.” I won’t disagree with you on your diagnosis. But your prescription is all wrong. You want to intervene, to step in.

Non-action is the better way. 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.

“You just want me to do nothing.”


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.’”

There is a thread which runs its way throughout the Taoteching; and that thread is most visible in the verses we will be looking at this week. This thread is the art of governing, following the principle of non-action. It is a principle Lao-tzu teaches in the hope that not only our rulers, but everyone, would use it to rule their world.

In today’s verse, Lao-tzu begins by first contrasting governing a country using directness with using deception to fight a war. Most of us are aware, by now, that we are always in a state of war when it comes to our being governed. Our rulers don’t use directness to govern us, they use deception. Why? It is obvious they consider us, at the very least, potential enemies. Of course, those of us who oppose the State’s monopoly on the use of violence and force are enemies. We will always be at enmity with those who set themselves up as above and before us. And, they will always be at enmity with us.

But Lao-tzu teaches a better way to combat their deception. This better way is the principle of non-action. Non-participation.

But how will we ever “rule the world” by doing that?

The better question might be how do we really expect to rule our world without doing it. Do prohibitions work? No, the greater the prohibitions, the poorer the people. Do sharp tools work? No, the sharper the tools, the more chaotic the realm. Do clever schemes work? No, the cleverer the schemes, the more common the bizarre. How about having better possessions? No, the better the possessions, the more numerous the thieves.

All these actions fail in their mission. We should know, by now, they don’t work. But, how do we know the principle of non-action works? This is the lesson Lao-tzu (the sage) declares:

When I make no effort, the people transform themselves. When I stay still, the people correct themselves. When I do no work, the people enrich themselves. When I want nothing, the people simplify themselves.

When Lao-tzu says this is how to rule the world, he isn’t talking about ruling by force. He is talking about ruling by letting things happen naturally. Ruling by force doesn’t bring order, it brings chaos. It doesn’t produce wealth, it produces poverty.

Left alone, people will sort themselves out. That may not be something our so-called rulers will ever be interested in implementing. But we need not wait around for them to change their ways. Rule your own world following this principle of non-action. As I said earlier, this non-action means non-participation. You can stop participating in the present bankrupt system. Govern yourself according to this Way, and the world will follow along.

This is Called the Dark Union

“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.”

In our verses this week, we have been talking a lot about the need for balance, for the practice of doing nothing. And today’s verse is a nice culmination, a nice verse for us to end the week on.

What does Lao-tzu mean by balance? And what does doing nothing have to do with it?

Well, those who know don’t talk, and those who talk don’t know. That is somewhat similar to saying, If I told you, I would have to kill you.

No, seriously, how do we put this balance, this doing nothing into practice?

Seal the opening. Close the gate. That really does mean exactly what it sounds like it means. It means stop talking. And stop going out doing things. Dull the edge. Untie the tangle. We really need to stop, and take all the time it will take to get all the tangles unraveled. Because all our prior interventions have made a fine mess of things. Soften the light. Join the dust. Dust, to me, symbolizes disuse. Dust settles on things that aren’t being regularly employed.

This is what Lao-tzu calls Dark Union, this joining with the dust. Being still. Refraining from action. Letting the dust settle. Being one with the dust.

When everywhere around you, you are hearing a call to action, Lao-tzu is calling you to inaction.

Why? Because anything that can be embraced, can be abandoned. And anything that can be helped, can be harmed. And anything that can be exalted, can be debased. Our interventions have unintended consequences. We want to help, and we end up harming.

But, inaction, the practice of doing nothing, brings about a whole different balance. What can’t be embraced, can’t be abandoned. What can’t be helped, can’t be harmed. What can’t be exalted, can’t be debased.

This is what “the world” would exalt, if we only put it into practice in our lives.

Those Who Possess Virtue in Abundance Know How to Be Balanced

“He who possesses 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).

Ah, the wonders of a newborn child! In my commentary on yesterday’s verse we were talking about cultivating virtue in ourselves, first. Today’s verse is the realization of that practice. Those who possess virtue in abundance resemble a newborn child: wasps don’t sting them, beasts don’t claw them, birds of prey don’t carry them off.

Lao-tzu demonstrates, in the verse today, just how enamored with newborns he was. They were a metaphor for an abundance of virtue. And, just in case we need reminding, newborns don’t “do” much of anything. Their virtue isn’t something they do, it is simply what they are.

Lao-tzu juxtaposes the newborn with those who become old. The differences between them couldn’t be more explicit. The newborn is balanced. While the old have grown out of balance. They have lengthened their life, and tempted luck, through force. This is the exact opposite of the newborn, who does nothing. But, once things mature, they become old. This isn’t the Way, says Lao-tzu, and what isn’t the Way ends early.

Most of us, are somewhere in between newborn and old and if we don’t want to end early, we should practice the virtue of the newborn, rather than the force of the old.

Be perfectly balanced. Like the newborn. For if we know how to be balanced, we will endure. And knowing how to endure is wisdom.

Not the wisdom which comes from a lifetime of regrets, but the wisdom that comes from being perfectly 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.”

After yesterday’s verse, we might be thinking there must be something we can do. But Lao-tzu throughout his Taoteching has promoted doing nothing. What? Do nothing? How can that be right? Hold on there, cowboy. The nothing Lao-tzu wants us to do never fails to accomplish everything which needs to be done. So, don’t go wandering off on byways (see yesterday’s verse), stick with the straight Way.

What is the nothing we can all be doing? “What you plant well can’t be uprooted / what you hold well can’t be taken away.” What Lao-tzu is talking about is self-cultivation of the Tao. That is the nothing we can do. That is the nothing we must do.

Notice what Chuang-tzu says in his commentary: “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.” I love Chuang-tzu! His way with words is unparalleled. Don’t go down those byways being concerned with things outside of you, outside of your control. Cultivate the Tao in your own self; and then, watch what happens in your world.

It is only when you cultivate it in yourself that it becomes real. It is only when you cultivate it in your family that it grows. And having done that, then cultivate it in your village and watch it multiply.

Too slow, too slow… We want shortcuts. But where do shortcuts invariably get us? In trouble, my friends.

No. We must start with planting it well in ourselves. Then our families. Then our villages. Before we can move on to the State, and the world. That is, if we want it to abound, and be everywhere.

View others through yourself.

If we would just do that, virtue in the world would grow exponentially. The reason virtue is so sorely lacking is because we don’t view others through our selves. Take care of your self. Treat others as you do your own self.

Others aren’t so very different from you. Other families aren’t so different from your family. Other villages aren’t so different from your village. Other states aren’t so different from your state. And even other worlds, imagines Lao-tzu – they aren’t so different from ours.

But the only way for you to “know” this is through this one.

Taxation is Theft, and Other Taoist Memes

“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 not 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.”

If only we were sufficiently wise… If the only thing we feared was going astray…

The Great Way is smooth, but people have always loved byways. How do I know this is true? 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, my friends, is a picture of decadence in every age. It was true in Lao-tzu’s age, just as it has been true since Lao-tzu’s day, all the way to today. It is the sign of a culture in decline. One whose collapse isn’t just impending, it is already happening. It is robbery, says Lao-tzu, and robbery is not the Way.

Note what Li Jung has to say about robbers. “A robber is someone who never has enough and who takes more than he needs.” And Wang Pi, “To gain possession of something by means other than the Way is wrong. And wrong means robbery.”

I especially like what 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 not 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.”

Yes, “Taxation is Theft.” Gaining possession of anything by means other than the Way is robbery.

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.

Which Path Will We Choose?

“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.”

Lao-tzu’s use of maiden and mother in today’s verse takes us back to the opening verse where Lao-tzu said “the maiden of Heaven and Earth has no name / the mother of all things has a name” I believe that refers to how the unknowable Tao can only be known through its manifestations. A mother is a mother because she has children (manifestations). It is through these children we find the mother; therefore, to know the child is to know the mother.

This is the only way to “know” the Tao, through its children. So, it is vital for us to see the Tao in each other.

Where we see those who block the opening, who close the gate, we see those who live without trouble. That sounds good, but what does “block the opening” and “close the gate” refer to? The answer is revealed when we consider the next three lines, where we see those who unblock the opening, who meddle in affairs, we see those who live without hope.

Blocking the opening and closing the gate means we don’t run our mouths and meddle in others’ affairs. But, as it is often said, there are all kinds of people, and all of them are manifestations of the Tao.

In other words, there is something for us to know about the Tao in both kinds of people.

The Tao, after all, is simply the natural law of the universe at work in our lives. And because it is the Tao, the paths we choose lead us inexorably to their conclusion.

Which path will we choose?

It isn’t those who see the great who have vision, but those who see the small. It isn’t those who protect the strong who have strength, but those who protect the weak.

And those who use their light can trust their vision, and live beyond death. Once again, Lao-tzu isn’t referring to our physical lives, here. Though our physical lives are a metaphor for it. He is talking about transcending the boundaries of life and death while we yet live.

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.