Regret Comes Too Late

“Which is more vital
fame or health
which is more precious
health or wealth
which is more harmful
loss or gain
the deeper the love
the higher the cost
the bigger the treasure
the greater the loss
who knows contentment
thus suffers no shame
and who knows restraint
encounters no trouble
while enjoying a long life”

(Taoteching, verse 44, translation by Red Pine)

HUANG MAO-TS’AI says, “What the world calls fame is something external. And yet people abandon their bodies to fight for it. What the world calls wealth is unpredictable. And yet people sacrifice their bodies to possess it. How can they know what is vital or precious? Even if they succeed, it’s at the cost of their health.”

SSU-MA KUANG says, “Which is more harmful: to gain wealth and fame and lose one’s health or to gain one’s health and lose wealth and fame?”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “Heroes seek fame and merchants seek wealth, even to the point of giving up their lives. The first love fame because they want to glorify themselves. But the more they love fame, the more they lose what they would really glorify. Hence, the cost is high. The second amass wealth because they want to enrich themselves. But the more wealth they amass, the more they harm what they would truly enrich. Hence, the loss is great. Meanwhile, those who cultivate Virtue know the most vital thing is within themselves. Thus, they seek no fame and suffer no disgrace. They know the most precious things is within themselves. Thus, they seek no wealth and encounter no trouble. Hence, they live long.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “If we love something, the more we love it, the more it costs us. If we treasure something, the more we treasure it, the more it exhausts us. A little of either results in shame. A lot results in ruin. And regret comes too late. People who are wise are not like this. They know that they have everything they need within themselves. Hence, they do not seek anything outside themselves. Thus, those who would shame them find nothing to shame. They know their own limit, and their limit is the Tao. Hence, they don’t act unless it is according to the Tao. Thus, those who would trouble them find nothing to trouble. Hence, they survive, and surviving, live long.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Excessive sensual desire exhausts our spirit. Excessive material desire brings us misfortune. The living keep their treasures in storerooms. The dead keep their treasures in graves. The living worry about thieves. The dead worry about grave robbers. Those who know contentment find happiness and wealth within themselves and don’t exhaust their spirit. If they should govern a country, they don’t trouble their people. Thus, they are able to live long.”

HUAI-NAN-TZU says, “Long ago Chih Po-ch’iao attacked and defeated Fan Chung-hsing. He also attacked the leaders of the states of Han and Wei and occupied parts of their territories. Still, he felt this wasn’t enough, so he raised another army and attacked the state of Yueh. But Han and Wei counterattacked, and Chih’s army was defeated near Chinyang, and he was killed east of Kaoliang. His skull became a drinking bowl, his kingdom was divided among the victors, and he was ridiculed by the world. This is what happens when you don’t know when to stop.”

Another of my favorite verses, I had a tough time choosing between two different titles for it. Along with the title I chose, I considered, “This Is What Happens When You Don’t Know When to Stop.” Lao-tzu begins with three rhetorical questions, and the first two, at least, seem so easily answered (I guess that would be what makes them rhetorical); but, don’t be fooled by how easy you may think they are to answer.

Of course we know health is more vital than fame, that health is more precious than wealth, right?

Do we? I don’t know about you, but I happened to live a good number of my years in which what I said I believed, and what I was actually doing in practice, didn’t exactly line up. Cognitive dissonance, anyone?

And, regret comes too late. I have talked before about a little book in the Bible, Ecclesiastes, in the Old Testament, being one of my favorite ones. I think it is just twelve chapters long, you ought to read it. In it, “the Preacher” tells about getting to the end of his life and discovering it was all “vanity.” Even when I was a young man, I knew I didn’t want that to be my fate. Though I didn’t quite know how to avoid his fate. Later, I talked quite a bit with my own father who was nearing the end of his own life; and, he talked of his own regrets. Damn! That was hitting closer to home.

The good news, for me, is I let the lessons of “the Preacher” and my own father, as well as Lao-tzu, really take hold in my own heart. I cultivated them. I am still cultivating them. And my regrets (yes, I still have some of those) came at a much younger age (maybe midlife, rather than nearer the end).

I happen to know that a majority of my followers on Tumblr are much younger than me. It is the nature of social media. And, I hope all you young souls will learn the lessons, I learned, much younger than me. It will be so much better for you.

Every one of the commentators, today, have so much wisdom to share about today’s verse. I hope you will reread them all, again and again. Let them take root!

But the story Huai-nan-tzu tells is particularly poignant to me. If I was to bother to send a letter to President Trump, and, for that matter, any leader in the world, I think it would just be a retelling of this little story. Alas, I see it as a prophetic voice of what the end will be of US foreign policy.

I happen to be typing this up the same day as Trump is speaking for the first time at the UN. Yeah, I know I am about two weeks ahead on my blog posts. And, while I don’t have all the details yet, I assume Trump is reassuring the world he is going to be continuing the status quo.

I am become quite cynical these days. I don’t expect anything great out of our elected rulers. Let me rephrase that. I do expect something great. Great loss. Regret comes too late. We should have known when to stop.

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

HUANG MAO-TS’AI (FL. 1174-1190). Scholar and military official. Lao-tzu-chieh.

SSU-MA KUANG (1019-1086). One of the most famous writers and political figures of the Sung dynasty and adversary of Wang An-shih. His multivolume history of China remains one of the most thorough treatments of China’s past up through the T’ang dynasty. His commentary interprets Lao-tzu’s text using Confucian terminology and neo-Confucian concepts. Tao-te-chen-ching-lun.

Help Comes With No Effort

“The weakest thing in the world
overcomes the strongest thing in the world
what doesn’t exist finds room where there’s none
thus we know help comes with no effort
wordless instruction
effortless help
few in the world can match this”

(Taoteching, verse 43, translation by Red Pine)

LAO-TZU says, “Nothing in the world is weaker than water / but against the hard and the strong / nothing outdoes it” (Taoteching: 78).

WANG TAO says, “Eight feet of water can float a thousand-ton ship. Six feet of leather can control a thousand-mile horse. Thus does the weak excel the strong. Sunlight has no substance, yet it can fill a dark room. Thus, what doesn’t exist enters what has no cracks.”

Concerning the first two lines, HUAI-NAN-TZU says, “The light of the sun shines across the Four Seas but cannot penetrate a closed door or a covered window. While the light of the spirit reaches everywhere and nourishes everything.” Concerning the second couplet, he says, “Illumination once asked Nonexistence if it actually existed or not. Nonexistence made no response. Unable to perceive any sign of its existence, Illumination sighed and said, ‘I, too, do not exist, but I cannot equal the nonexistence of Nonexistence’” (Huainantzu: 12).

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Things are not actually things. What we call ‘strong’ is a fiction. Once it reaches its limit, it returns to nothing. Thus, the weakest thing in the world is able to overcome the strongest thing in the world. Or do you think the reality of nonexistence cannot break through the fiction of existence?”

WANG PI says, “There is nothing breath cannot enter and nothing water cannot penetrate. What does not exist cannot be exhausted. And what is perfectly weak cannot be broken. From this we can infer the benefit of no effort.”

SU CH’E says, “If we control the strong with the strong, one will break, or the other will shatter. But if we control the strong with the weak, the weak will not be exhausted, and the strong will not be damaged. Water is like this. If we use existence to enter existence, neither is able to withstand the other. But if we use nonexistence to enter existence, the former will not strain itself, while the latter will remain unaware. Spirits are like this.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “‘What doesn’t exist’ refers to the Tao. The Tao has no form or substance. Hence, it can come and go, even where there is not any space. It can fill the spirit and help all creatures. We don’t see it do anything, and yet the ten thousand things are transformed and completed. Thus, we realize the benefit to Humankind of no effort. Imitating the Tao, we don’t speak. We follow it with our bodies. Imitating the Tao, we don’t act. We care for ourselves, and our spirits prosper. We care for our country, and the people flourish. And we do these things without effort or trouble. But few can match the Tao in caring for things by doing nothing. Lao-tzu’s final ‘in the world’ refers to rulers.”

YEN TSUN says, “Action is the beginning of chaos. Stillness is the origin of order. Speech is the door of misfortune. Silence is the gate of blessing.”

TE CH’ING says, “Words mean traces. Traces mean knowledge. Knowledge means presumption. Presumption means involvement. And involvement means failure.”

One day CONFUCIUS said, “I would rather not speak.” Tzu-kung asked, “If you do not speak, what will we have to record?” Confucius replied, “Does Heaven speak? The seasons travel their course, and creatures all flourish. What does Heaven say?” (Lunyu: 17.19).

Lao-tzu has said it so many times, and in so many ways,“The weakest thing in the world overcomes the strongest thing in the world. What doesn’t exist finds room where there’s none.” Thus, Lao-tzu establishes the primacy of non-existence. And, I especially like the rhetorical question Li Hsi-chai poses: “…do you think the reality of nonexistence cannot break through the fiction of existence?”

If we can just understand this, what benefit there will be for all the world. Ho-shang-Kung says, ““What doesn’t exist’ refers to the Tao.” We don’t see it do anything, neither do we hear it. Yet, the ten-thousand things are transformed and completed. Through this, we realize the benefit to Humankind of no effort.

Understand this: Effort equals something. It exists. No effort equals nothing. It is non-existent. And the reality of non-existence breaks through the fiction of existence, just like the weakest thing in the world overcomes the strongest.

But, Lao-tzu doesn’t just want us to understand this. He wants us to imitate the Tao, as Ho-shang Kung goes on to say: “Imitating the Tao, we don’t speak. Imitating the Tao, we don’t act.” Speaking and acting, once again, is something. It exists. But, non-existence trumps that.

“Action is the beginning of chaos,” says Yen Tsun. “Stillness is the origin of order. Speech is the door of misfortune. Silence is the gateway of blessing.” And, Te-ch’ing echoes that when he says, “Words mean traces. Traces mean knowledge. Knowledge means presumption. Presumption means involvement. And involvement means failure.”

We talk and we talk. And we do and we do. Where does it end? In failure. But those who are silent and still, offering wordless instruction and effortless help, they prevail.

Lao-tzu says few in the world can match this. But, as Lao-tzu taught us in verse 33, it is the one thing we should strive hard to cultivate in ourselves.