Shall We Call It Small or Great?

“The Tao drifts
it can go left or right
everything lives by its grace
but it doesn’t speak
when its work succeeds
it makes no claim
it has no desires
shall we call it small
everything turns to it
but it wields no control
shall we call it great
it’s because sages never act great
they can thus achieve great things”

(Taoteching, verse 34, translation by Red Pine)

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “To drift means to be unrestrained. The Tao is neither yin nor yang, weak nor strong. Unrestrained, it can respond to all things and in any direction. It isn’t one-sided. As Chuang-tzu says, “The Tao has no borders’ (Chuangtzu: 2.5).

CHUANG-TZU says, “Those who are skilled toil, and those who are clever worry. Meanwhile, those who do not possess such abilities seek nothing and yet eat their fill. They drift through life like unmoored boats” (Chuangtzu: 32.1).

WANG PI says, “The Tao drifts everywhere. It can go left or right. It can go up or down. Wherever we turn, it’s there for us to use.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “The Great Way is a watery expanse that extends to the eight horizons. But when we use it, it’s as close as our left or right hand. There is nothing that doesn’t depend on it for life, and yet it never speaks of its power. There is nothing that doesn’t happen without its help, and yet it never mentions its achievements.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Outside of the Tao there are no things. Outside of things there is no Tao. The Tao gives birth to things, just as wind creates movement or water creates waves.”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “Although living things might be infinite in number, the Tao creates them all through the mystery of doing nothing. It doesn’t mind making so many. And it creates them without about its power.”

WANG P’ANG says, “When the Tao becomes small, it doesn’t stop being great. And when it becomes great, it doesn’t stop being small. But all we see are its traces. In reality, it is neither small nor great. It can’t be described. It can only be known.”

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “The Tao produces all things, and all things turn to it. It’s like the sea. All streams empty into it, and yet it doesn’t control them.”

Commenting on lines eight and eleven, WU CH’ENG says, “Even though there are no question indicators, these are questions and not statements, just as in verse 10. If we can call something great, it isn’t the Tao.”

SU CH’E says, “Those who are great and think themselves great are small.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “The Tao hides in what has no name, and sages embody it through what has no name. They don’t consider themselves great, and yet no one is greater, for they can go left or right. Hence, they are neither small nor great. And because they are neither small nor great, they can do great things.”

Today’s verse may be disconcerting for some. Some may want to be able to pin the Tao down. But, as Lao-tzu continues to teach us, the Tao can’t be pinned down. He says it drifts, going either left or right. Wang Pi adds, it goes up or down, as well. His point being, wherever you turn, the Tao is there to be used. Hsuan-tsung says, “To drift means to be unrestrained.” You can’t restrain it. You can’t control it. You can’t pin it down. And, Chuang-tzu talks of those who follow the drift of the unrestrained Tao in their own lives, “They drift through life like unmoored boats.” We are, all of us, beyond anyone’s control, as well.

Does this scare you?

It used to scare me. I didn’t know if I was really “ready” to a live a life, free of anyone’s control. It is a universal dilemma for young adults everywhere. But, I had a much greater crisis in my life, much further into adulthood. Realizing, even I didn’t have any control.

Now, you may be really scared.

We want to be in control of our own lives. It was the promise made to us when we were still children: Mom and Dad are in charge now. But, once I am an adult, then I will be in charge.

But, there will come a time. For some (I would think, thankfully) it comes sooner. For others of us, perhaps, it takes much longer. Then, we begin to realize the myriad things which are beyond our (and anyone’s) control. Great things. And even small things. To try to control the great things is laughable. But to go on trying to control the small things, resisting, resisting, it just doesn’t make any sense. This should be easy. It is such a small thing, after all. But, still, no. What a waste of effort! Still, we keep trying.

I quit trying. Oh, not without a long struggle. And, I am far from perfect at this. There are still plenty of twists and turns, bumps and ruts, that I seem to navigate past, or through, in a haphazard fashion, hitting most of the bumps, and spending some time in most of the ruts. The Tao has been there wherever I turned. But, I haven’t always used it.

If you were looking for some paragon of virtue, alas, you need to look further.

But, for what it is worth, here is my testament to the Tao: Looking back over the course of my own life, wherever I have acted great, I have achieved only small things; and wherever I have acted small, I have achieved great things.

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