Some Things Are Simply Bad

“Those who tiptoe don’t stand
those who stride don’t walk
those who consider themselves don’t appear
those who display themselves don’t shine
those who flatter themselves achieve nothing
those who parade themselves don’t lead
travelers have a saying
too much food and a tiring pace
some things are simply bad
those who possess the Way thus shun them”

(Taoteching, verse 24, translation by Red Pine)

TE CH’ING says, “People raise themselves up on their tiptoes to see over the heads of others, but they cannot stand like this for long. People take longer strides to stay in front of others, but they cannot walk like this very far. Neither of these is natural.”

WU CH’ENG says, “To tiptoe is to lift the heels in order to increase one’s height. To stride is to extend the feet in order to increase one’s pace. A person can do this for a while but not for long. Likewise, those who consider themselves don’t appear for long. Those who display themselves don’t shine for long. Those who flatter themselves don’t succeed for long. And those who parade themselves don’t lead for long.”

SU CH’E says, “Anyone can stand or walk. But if those who are not content with standing tiptoe to extend their height or those who are not content with walking stride to increase their speed, their stance and their pace are sure to suffer. It’s the same with those who consider themselves, or display themselves, or flatter themselves, or parade themselves. It’s like eating or drinking. As soon as you’re full, stop. Overeating will make you ill. Or it’s like manual work. As soon as you’re done, quit. Overwork will only exhaust you.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Selfless and free of desire is the mind of the sage. Conniving and clever is the mind of the common person. Observing themselves, displaying themselves, flattering themselves, and parading themselves, they hasten their end, like someone who eats too much.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Those who cultivate the Tao yet still think about themselves are like people who overeat or overwork. Food should satisfy the hunger. Work should suit the task. Those who keep to the Way do only what is natural.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “Why should Taoists avoid things? Doesn’t the Tao dwell in what others avoid? [see verse 8]. Taoists don’t avoid what others hate, namely humility and weakness. They only avoid what others fight over, namely flattery and ostentation. Hence, they avoid some things and not others. But they never fight.”

CHANG TAO-LING says, “Who follows the Way lives long. Who loses the Way dies early. This is the unbiased law of Heaven. It doesn’t depend on offerings or prayers.”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “Those who straddle two sides are unsure of the Way.” [In line two, k’ua (stride) can also mean “straddle”].

A couple verses back, Lao-tzu specifically urged us to not consider, display, flatter, or parade ourselves. And he repeats the admonition in today’s verse. Those who do these things, don’t appear, don’t shine, achieve nothing, and don’t lead. Why not? Because, while these might be the way of Humankind, it isn’t the Way. It just isn’t natural. Like standing on tiptoe to see over the heads of others. Or taking long strides to stay in front of others. What has Lao-tzu been teaching us with these verses this week? Things can’t last. We need to accept the natural waxing and waning.

And there is another thing that Lao-tzu teaches in today’s verse: Some things are simply bad. This may sound obvious to my readers. Or, some of you may have become so brainwashed by those who would tell you that everything is relative. There are no absolutes. There is nothing good, and nothing bad.

Even Lao-tzu has talked before about our subjective opinions of good and bad, saying there really isn’t a whole lot of difference between what is good and what is bad. And, by calling this good, this becomes bad.

But let’s not misunderstand Lao-tzu. Then, he was talking about the subjective. Today, he is talking about the objective. And there is objective good and bad. The Virtue, he has talked about previously, the te in Taoteching, is obviously good. And, some things are bad. Like not following the Tao. Or, like he notes in recalling the travelers’ saying, “Too much food and a tiring pace.”

If we are going to possess the Tao, we need to shun these bad things.

In Whatever You Do, Be One With It

“Whispered words are natural
a gale doesn’t last all morning
a squall doesn’t last all day
who creates these
Heaven and Earth
if Heaven and Earth can’t make things last
how much less can Humankind
thus in whatever you do
when you follow the Way be one with the Way
when you succeed be one with success
when you fail be one with failure
be one with success
for the Way succeeds too
be one with failure
for the Way fails too

(Taoteching, verse 23, translation by Red Pine)

WU CH’ENG says, “‘Whispered’ means not heard. ‘Whispered words’ mean no words. Those who reach the Tao forget about words and follow whatever is natural.”

WANG CHEN says, “Whispered words require less effort. Hence, they conform to the natural Way.”

LU NUNG-SHIH says, “Something is natural when nothing can make it so, and nothing can make it not so.”

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “If the greatest forces wrought by Heaven and Earth cannot last, how can the works of Humankind?”

SU CH’E says, “The words of sages are faint, and their deeds are plain. But they are always natural. Hence, they can last and not be exhausted.”

TE-CH’ING says, “This verse explains how sages forget about words, embody the Tao, and change with the seasons. Elsewhere, Lao-tzu says, ‘Talking only wastes it / better to conserve the inside’ [verse 5]. Those who love to argue get farther from the Way. They aren’t natural. Only those whose words are whispered are natural. Lao-tzu uses wind and rainstorms as metaphors for the outbursts of those who love to argue. They can’t maintain such a disturbance and dissipation of breath very long. Because they don’t really believe in the Tao, their actions don’t accord with the Tao. They haven’t learned the secret of how to be one.”

CHIAO HUNG says, “Those who pursue the Way are natural. Natural means free from success and hence free from failure. Such people don’t succeed and don’t fail but simply go along with the successes and failures of the age. Or if they do succeed or fail, their minds are not affected.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “Those who pursue the Way are able to leave their selves behind. No self is the Way. Success. Failure. I don’t see how they differ.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Those who are one with success enjoy succeeding. Those who are one with failure enjoy failing. Water is wet, and fire burns. This is their nature.”

And RED PINE adds, “Success, failure, both lead to the Way. But the path of failure is shorter.”

In yesterday’s verse, Lao-tzu told us to hold on to just one thing. And, one of the reasons for this, must be because things can’t last. Lao-tzu illustrates this for us in the first half of today’s verse where he explains that Heaven and Earth can’t make things last. It is so obvious! Yet, Humankind doesn’t seem to get it. That is why we try so hard to make things last.

We need to learn the lessons all of nature teach us. And today’s lesson is things can’t last. So stop trying to make them last. Instead, in whatever you do, follow the Way of nature. Be one with it. Be one with its successes, for you will succeed. And, be one with its failures, for you will fail.

I will admit that every time I read the last line of today’s verse, it makes me pause. Does the Way (the Tao) fail too? Am I okay with this? I would be lying to you if I told you I wasn’t bothered by this.

And, it isn’t because I don’t know it is true. It is because, being human, I want to always succeed. So, naturally, I want this Way I believe in to always succeed, too. But, here, I need to do a little pondering about what Lao-tzu actually means by success and failure.

He is talking, again about the Tao’s waxing and waning. The Tao waxes. But, it also wanes. And we are going to wax and wane, as well. We can’t always be waxing. And, if we thought about it just a little while, we would be quite content with waning, too. It is, after all the Way of all nature.

Becoming Whole Depends on This

“The incomplete become whole
the crooked become straight
the hollow become full
the worn-out become new
those with less become content
those with more become confused
sages therefore hold on to one thing
and use this to guide the world
not considering themselves they appear
not displaying themselves they shine
not flattering themselves they succeed
not parading themselves they lead
because they don’t compete
no one can compete against them
the ancients who said the incomplete become whole
came close indeed
becoming whole depends on this”

(Taoteching, verse 22, translation by Red Pine)

CHUANG-TZU says, “Lao-tzu said everyone else seeks happiness. He alone saw that to be incomplete was to become whole” (Chuangtzu: 33.5).

WU CH’ENG says, “By exploring one side to its limits, we eventually find all sides. By grasping one thing, we eventually encompass the whole. The caterpillar bends in order to straighten itself. A hollow in the ground fills with water. The renewal of spring depends on the withering of fall. By having less, it’s easy to have more. By having more, it’s easy to become confused.”

WANG PI says, “As with a tree, the more of it there is, the farther it is from its roots. The less of it there is, the closer it is to its roots. ‘More’ means more distant from what is real. ‘Less’ means closer.”

WEI YUAN says, “One is the extreme of less. But whoever uses this as the measure for the world always finds more.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “Only those who find but one thing can act like this. Thus to have less means to be content. The reason most people cannot act like this is because they have not found one thing. Thus, to have too much means to be confused.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “The reason sages are able to be chief of all creatures is because they hold on to one thing. Holding on to this one thing, they never leave the Tao. Hence, they do not observe themselves but rely instead on the vision of others. They do not talk about their own strength but rely instead on the strengths of others. They stand apart and do not compete. Hence, no one can compete against them.”

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “Not observing themselves, they become whole. Not displaying themselves, they become upright. Not flattering themselves, they become complete. Not parading themselves, they become new.”

TZU-SSU says, “Only those who are perfectly honest can realize their nature and help others do the same. Next are those who are incomplete” (Chungyung; 22-23).

MENCIUS says, “We praise those who don’t calculate. We reproach those who try to be whole” (Mencius: 4A.21).

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Those who are able to practice being incomplete keep their physical body whole. Those who depend on their mother and father suffer no harm.” (Mother is Tao. Father is Te or Virtue).

And Red Pine adds, ‘Lao-tzu’s path to wholeness is through incompleteness, but an incompleteness so incomplete that he is reduced to one thing.”

We ended last week with Lao-tzu talking about the waxing and waning, waning and waxing of the Tao. In today’s verse, Lao-tzu reveals what I would call the great secret. If you want to become whole, you must first be content with being incomplete. By being content with being incomplete, first, you open yourself up to the Tao’s waxing and waning. And, by opening yourself to the waxing and waning of the Tao, you put yourself in a place to become whole.

This is the Way of the Tao. The crooked become straight. The hollow become full. And, the worn-out become new.

The way of Humankind has things completely upside down. We want more, always more. We are never content with less. But, the pathway to true contentment only comes from being incomplete. It is those with less who become content. Those with more are never content. They never have enough. They always want more. This can only result in confusion.

So, there it is. How to become whole. Content yourself with less. Lao-tzu said, just hold on to one thing. Let everything else go. What is that one thing? I don’t think it is anything material. Material things, after all, come and go. They would be impossible to hold on to.

If you are going to be content with holding on to just one thing, Lao-tzu has some guidance for you.

First, don’t consider yourself. Second, don’t display yourself. Third, don’t flatter yourself. And fourth, don’t parade yourself. The way of Humankind tries to appear, shine, succeed, and lead, by putting themselves first. Lao-tzu would have you understand that you will appear, shine, succeed and lead by putting yourself last.

Don’t compete with others! That is huge! Oh, how we love to compete. But, if you don’t compete, no one can compete against you. That is the summation of everything Lao-tzu is saying in today’s verse. Make that your one thing, and you will come out on top.

Yes, this is counter to the way of Humankind. As we have been saying for quite some time now, you are different, you are choosing to be different, and you will be alone. But becoming whole depends on this.

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

TZU-SSU (D. 483 B.C.). Grandson of Confucius and author of the Chungyung.