How the Sage Governs Them All

“Bestowing no honors
keeps people from fighting
prizing no treasures
keeps people from stealing
displaying no attractions
keeps people from making trouble
thus the rule of the sage
empties the mind
but fills the stomach
weakens the will
but strengthens the bones
by keeping the people from knowing or wanting
and those who know from daring to act
the sage governs them all”

(Taoteching, verse 3, translation by Red Pine)

SU CH’E says, “Bestowing honors embarrasses those who don’t receive them to the point where they fight for them. Prizing treasures pains those who don’t possess them to the point where they steal them. Displaying attractions distresses those who don’t enjoy them to the point where they cause trouble. If people aren’t shown these things, they won’t know what to want and will cease wanting.”

WANG CHEN says, “Sages empty the mind of reasoning and delusion, they fill the stomach with loyalty and honesty, they weaken the will with humility and compliance, and they strengthen the bones with what people already have within themselves.”

WANG PI says, Bones don’t know how to make trouble. It’s the will that creates disorder. When the mind is empty, the will is weak.”

WANG P’ANG says, “An empty mind means no distinctions. A full stomach means no desires. A weak will means no external plans. Strong bones mean standing on one’s own and remaining unmoved by outside forces. By bestowing no honors, sages keep people from knowing. Prizing no treasures, they keep people from wanting.”

LU NUNG-SHIH says, “The mind knows and chooses, while the stomach doesn’t know but simply contains. The will wants and moves, while bones don’t want but simply stand there. Sages empty what knows and fill what doesn’t now. They weaken what wants and strengthen what doesn’t want.”

YEN TSUN says, “They empty their mind and calm their breath. They concentrate their essence and strengthen their spirit.”

HUANG YUAN-CHI says, “Sages purify their ears and eyes, put an end to dissipation and selfishness, embrace the one, and empty their mind. An empty mind forms the basis for transmuting cinnabar by enabling us to use our yang breath to transform our yin essence. A full stomach represents our final form, in which our yang breath gradually and completely replaces our yin essence.”

WEI YUAN says, “The reason the world is in disorder is because of action. Action comes from desire. And desire comes from knowledge. Sages don’t talk about things that can be known or display things that can be desired. This is how they bring order to the world.”

LIU CHING says, “This verse describes how sages cultivate themselves in order to transform others.”

If your world is in disorder, it probably isn’t because of a failure to act (contrary to conventional wisdom), but because of action. As Wei Yuan says, action comes from desire, and desire comes from knowledge. Sages don’t talk about things that can be known or display things that can be desired. This is how they bring order to the world. It took me a bit of time to realize how these sages governed. I have gotten so used to being manipulated by the powers that be, and I thought these sages were doing the very same thing. Liu Ching straightens out my thinking, however. Sages transform others, not by acting on others, but by cultivating themselves. Sages empty their own minds. They weaken their own wills. It is their example which keeps people from knowing or wanting, and those who think they know from daring to act.

Red Pine introduces some additional sages today:

WANG CHEN (FL. 809). T’ang dynasty general and student of the Taoteching. His commentary, which he personally presented to Emperor Hsiuan Tsung, remains unique for its display of pacifist sympathies by a military official.

WANG P’ANG (1044-1076). Brilliant scholar, writer, and son of Wang An-shih. His commentary, written in 1070, was “lost” until Yen Ling-feng reedited it from various sources.

LU NUNG SHIH (1042-1102). High official and scholar known for his knowledge of ritual. His commentary makes extensive use of quotes from the Liehtzu and Chuangtzu.

YEN TSUN (FL. 53-24 B.C.). Urban recluse of Chengtu. He supported himself as a fortune-teller and spent his remaining time reading and pondering the Taoteching. The lengthy commentaries that he produced are sometimes quite profound but more often obscure, and those that survive are incomplete. He divides the text into seventy-two verses.

HUANG YUAN-CHI (FL. 1174-1190). Taoist master famous for his sermons and oral expositions of Taoist texts. His commentary, which he dictated to a disciple, focuses on internal yoga as well as on points in common between the teachings of Lao-tzu and Confucius.

WEI YUAN (1794-1856). Classicist, historian, geographer, and admired administrator. While his own views are insightful, his commentary consists largely in selections from Chiao Hung’s earlier edition.

LIU CHING (FL. 1074). Recognized for his literary talent by Wang An-shih, he was given several minor posts but failed to advance due to his fondness for argument.

Cultivating the Body

“All the world knows beauty
but if that becomes beautiful
this becomes ugly
all the world knows good
but if that becomes good
this becomes bad
have and have not create each other
hard and easy produce each other
long and short shape each other
high and low complete each other
note and noise accompany each other
first and last follow each other
sages therefore perform effortless deeds
and teach wordless lessons
they don’t look after all the things that arise
or depend on them as they develop
or claim them when they reach perfection
and because they don’t claim them
they are never without them”

(Taoteching, verse 2, translation by Red Pine)

LU HSI-SHENG says, “What we call beautiful or ugly depends on our feelings. Nothing is necessarily beautiful or ugly until feelings make it so. But while feelings differ, they all come from our nature, and we all have the same nature. Hence, sages transform their feelings and return to their nature and thus become one again.”

WU CH’ENG says, “The existence of things, the difficulty of affairs, the size of forms, the magnitude of power, the pitch and clarity of sound, the sequence of position, all involve contrasting pairs. When one is present, both are present. When one is absent, both are absent.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “These six pairs all depend on time and occasion. None of them is eternal. Sages, however, act according to the Immortal Tao. Hence, they act without effort. And because they teach according to the Immortal Name, they teach without words. Beautiful and ugly, good and bad don’t enter their minds.”

WANG WU-CHIU says, “Sages are not interested in deeds or words. They simply follow the natural pattern of things. Things rise, develop, and reach perfection. This is their order.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “Sages create but do not possess what they create. They act but do not depend on what they do. They succeed but do not claim success. These all result from selflessness. Because sages are selfless, they do not lose themselves. Because they do not lose themselves, they do not lose others.”

SU CH’E says, “Losing something is the result of possessing something. How can people lose what they don’t possess?”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Lao-tzu’s 5,000-word text clarifies what is mysterious as well as what is obvious. It can be used to attain the Tao, to order a country, or to cultivate the body.”

HO-SHANG KUNG titles this verse: “Cultivating the Body.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Those who practice the Way put an end to distinctions, get rid of name and form, and make of themselves a home for the Way and Virtue.”

To have and have not. This may just be the ultimate in distinctions. But, Lao-tzu tells us they create each other. Because we concern ourselves with having, we have not. But, if we concerned ourselves with having not, we would have. Don’t choose that over this. Choose this over that. Cultivate your own body; let outward things take care of themselves. Make of yourself a home for the Way and Virtue.

Red Pine introduces some additional sages, today:

LU HSI-SHENG (FL. 890). High official and scholar known for his wide learning. His commentary reflects the view that Lao-tzu and Confucius were the spiritual heirs of Fu Hsi (ca. 3500 B.C.), with Lao-tzu emphasizing the yin and Confucius the yang aspects of the Way of Heaven.

WU CH’ENG (1249-1333). One of the great prose writers of the Yuan dynasty, surpassed only by his student Yu Chi (1272-1348). His commentary shows exceptional originality and provides unique background information. It is also noted for its division of the text into sixty-eight verses.

LU HUI-CH’ING (1042-1102). Gifted writer selected by Wang An-shih to help draft his reform proposals. His commentary, presented to the emperor in 1078, is quoted at length by Chiao Hung.

WANG WU-CHIU (FL. 1056). Scholar-official. He gave up a promising official career in order to devote himself to studying and teaching.

WANG AN-SHIH (1021-1086). One of China’s most famous prime ministers. His attempt to introduce sweeping reforms directed against merchants and landowners galvanized Chinese intellectuals into a debate that continues to this day. He was also one of China’s great poets and prose writers. His commentary has been reedited from scattered sources by Yen Ling-feng.

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING (FL. 1700). Taoist master and seventh patriarch of the Dragon Gate sect of the Golden Lotus lineage. His commentary on the Taoteching was a favorite of Emperor K’ang-hsi (r. 1662-1722).

The Door to All Beginnings

“The way that becomes a way
is not the Immortal Way
the name that becomes a name
is not the Immortal Name
no-name is the maiden of Heaven and Earth
name is the mother of all things
thus in innocence we see the beginning
in passion we see the end
two different names
for one and the same
the one we call dark
the dark beyond dark
the door to all beginnings”

(Taoteching, verse 1, translation by Red Pine)

TU ER-WEI says, “Tao originally meant ‘moon.’ The Yiching [see hexagrams 42 and 52] stresses the bright moon, while Lao-tzu stresses the dark moon” (Lao-tzu-te yueh-shen tsung-chiao, pp. ii-iii).

(See my introduction, posted yesterday, to see how deeply influenced Red Pine was by the thought of Tu Er-wei).

CONFUCIUS says, “The Tao is what we can never leave. What we can leave isn’t the Tao” (Chungyung:1).

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “What we call a way is a moral or political code, while the Immortal Way takes care of the spirit without effort and brings peace to the world without struggle. It conceals its light and hides its tracks and can’t be called a way. As for the Immortal Name, it’s like a pearl inside an oyster, a piece of jade inside a rock: shiny on the inside, dull on the outside.”

CH’ENG CHU says, “Sages don’t reveal the Way because they keep it secret, but because it can’t be revealed. Thus their words are like footsteps that leave no tracks.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Things change but not the Tao. The Tao is immortal. It arrives without moving and comes without being called.”

SU CH’E says, “The ways of kindness and justice change but not the way of the Tao. No-name is its body. Name is its function. Sages embody the Tao and use it in the world. But while entering the myriad states of being, they remain in nonbeing.”

WANG PI says, “From the infinitesimal all things develop. From nothing all things are born. When we are free of desire, we can see the infinitesimal where things begin. When we are subject to desire, we can see where things end. ‘Two’ refers to ‘maiden’ and ‘mother.’”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “‘Two’ refers to ‘innocence’ and ‘passion,’ or in other words, stillness and movement. Stillness corresponds to nonexistence. Movement corresponds to existence. Provisionally different, they are ultimately the same. Both meet in darkness.”

THE SHUOWEN says, “Hsuan [dark] means ‘black with a dot of red in it.’” This is how the darker half of the yin-yang symbol was traditionally represented. In Shensi province, where the Taoteching was first written, doors were, until recently, painted black with a thin line of red trim. And every road begins with a door.

TE-CH’ING says, “Lao Tzu’s philosophy is all here. The remaining five thousand words only expand on this first verse.”

Finally, RED PINE says, “During Lao-tzu’s day, philosophers were concerned with the correspondence, or lack of it, between name and reality. The things we distinguish as real change, while their names do not. How then can reality be known through names?

I am going to keep my own commentary brief today. After all, these sages have already given us plenty to think about.

It would seem to me that Lao Tzu is stressing being, as opposed to becoming. Be what you are. Don’t worry so much about what you will become. All things change, but there is one thing which always remains the same. Because we are so worried about becoming, we struggle (passion), when we should simply remain still. We long for light, when we should be content with the dark. Let it be. Let all things be. It will sort itself out.

And now, let me introduce a little something different. I am including a glossary at the end, which I got straight out of Red Pine’s book. As he introduces sages, I will include (for the first time only) a little something explaining who these sages were. I found it interesting, and you may, as well. But, you can also feel free to skip over this last section.

TU ER-WEI (1913-1987). Scholar of Chinese religion and comparative mythology and proponent of the view that Taoism had its origin in the worship of the moon.

CONFUCIUS (551-479 B.C.). China’s most revered teacher of doctrines emphasizing the harmony of human relations. His teachings, along with those of certain disciples, were compiled into the Lunyu (Analects), the Chungyung (Doctrine of the Mean), and the Tahsueh (Great Learning) and until recently formed the basis of moral education in China.

HO-SHANG KUNG (D.CA. 159 B.C.). Taoist master who lived in a hut beside the Yellow River – hence his name, which means Master Riverside. His commentary emphasizes Taoist yoga and was reportedly composed at the request of Emperor Wen (r. 179-156 B.C.). It ranks next to Wang Pi’s in popularity. Some scholars think it was compiled as late as the third or fourth century A.D. by members of the Taoist lineage that included Ko Hung (283-343). There is at least one English translation: Eduard Erkes, Artibus Asiae (Switzerland), 1950.

CH’ENG CHU (1078-1144). Scholar-official and fearless critic of government policies.

LI HSI-CHAI (FL. 1167). Taoist master, practitioner of Taoist yoga, and noted Yiching (Book of Changes) scholar. His commentary extends Lao-tzu’s teachings to the state as well as the individual.

SU CH’E (1039-1112). He, his father, and his brother are counted among the eight great prose writers of the T’ang and Sung dynasties. Although his commentary reflects his own neo-Confucian sympathies, it is also treasured by Buddhists and Taoists.

WANG PI (226-249). Famous for the quickness of his mind as well as the breadth of his learning. He grew up with one of the best private libraries of his time. Although he died of a sudden illness at the age of twenty-four, he was among the first to discuss Taoism as metaphysics rather than religion. As a result, his commentary has been preferred over that of Ho-shang Kung by Confucian scholars. At least two English translations exist: Paul Lin, University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies, 1977; Ariane Rump, University of Hawaii Press, 1979.

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG (FL. SUNG DYNASTY: 960-1278). Taoist nun about whom I have found no other information.

SHUOWEN – Greatest of China’s early etymological dictionaries. It was compiled and first published by Hsu Shen in A.D. 121 and revised and updated with new materials in the T’ang, Sung, and Ch’ing dynasties.

TE-CH’ING (1546-1623). One of the greatest Buddhist writers of the Ming dynasty and responsible for revitalizing the practice of Zen in China. His commentaries on Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu are among the best ever written and are used by Taoists as well as Buddhists.

An All New Beginning

In the past, I have tried to include an introduction of sorts with chapter one of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. This go around, I have decided to put my introduction first, in between the last chapter, which I posted yesterday, and chapter one, which I will post tomorrow. Because I will be using Red Pine’s translation as my starting point for this new cycle, I have decided to quote extensively from Red Pine’s introduction to the 1996 edition of his translation of the Tao Te Ching. In it, you will get to learn a whole lot (I know I did) of what motivated his thinking as he translated it.

“The Taoteching is at heart a simple book. Written at the end of the sixth century B.C. by a man called Lao-tzu, it’s a vision of what our lives would be like if we were more like the dark, new moon.

“Lao-tzu teaches us that the dark can always become light and contains within itself the potential for growth and long life, while the light can only become dark and brings with it decay and early death. Lao-tzu chose long life. Thus, he chose dark.

“The word that Lao-Tzu chose to represent this vision was Tao. But tao means ‘road’ or ‘way’ and doesn’t appear to have anything to do with darkness. The character is made up of two graphs, one being ‘head’ and the other ‘go.’ To make sense of how the character came to be constructed, early Chinese philologists concluded that ‘head’ must mean the start of something and that the two graphs together show someone starting on a trip. But I find the explanation of a modern scholar of comparative religion, Tu Er-wei, more convincing. Professor Tu says the ‘head’ in the character tao is the face of the moon. And the meaning of ‘road’ comes from watching this disembodied face as it moves across the sky.

“Professor Tu also notes that tao shares a common linguistic heritage with words that mean ‘moon’ or ‘new moon’ in other cultures: Tibetans call the moon da-ua; the Miao, who now live in southwest China but who lived in the same state as Lau-tzu when he was alive, call it tao-tie; the ancient Egyptians called it thoth. Tu Er-wei could have added dar-sha, which means ‘new moon’ in Sanskrit.

“However, the heart of Tu’s thesis is not linguistic but textual, and based on references within the Taoteching. Lao-tzu says the Tao is between Heaven and earth, it’s Heaven’s Gate, it’s empty but inexhaustible, it doesn’t die, it waxes and wanes, it’s distant and dark, it doesn’t try to be full, it’s the light that doesn’t blind, it has thirty spokes and two thirteen-day (visible) phases, it can be strung like a bow or expand and contract like a bellows, it moves the other way (relative to the sun, it appears/rises later and later), it’s the great image, the hidden immortal, the crescent soul, the dark union, the dark womb, the dark beyond dark. If this isn’t the moon, what is it?

“Tu Er-wei has I think, uncovered a deep and primitive layer of the Taoteching that has escaped the attention of other scholars. Of course, we cannot say for certain that Laotzu was consciously aware of the Tao’s association with the moon. But we have his images, and they are too often lunar to dismiss as accidental.

“In associating the Tao with the moon, Lao-tzu was not alone. The symbol Taoists have used since ancient times to represent the Tao, the yin-yang (aka Tai Chi), shows the two conjoined phases of the moon. And how could they ignore such an obvious connection between its cycle of change and our own? Every month we watch the moon grow from nothing to a luminous disk that scatters the stars and pulls the tides within us all. The oceans feel it. The earth feels it. Plants and animals feel it. Humans also feel it, though it is women who seem to be most aware of it. In the Huangti Neiching, or Yellow Emperor’s Internal Book of Medicine, Ch’i Po explained this to the Yellow Emperor, ‘When the moon begins to grow, blood and breath begin to surge. When the moon is completely full, blood and breath are at their fullest, tendons and muscles are at their strongest. When the moon is completely empty, tendons and muscles are at their weakest’ (8.26).

“The advance of civilization has separated us from this easy lunar awareness. We call people affected by the moon ‘lunatics,’ making clear our disdain for its power. Lao-tzu redirects our vision to this ancient mirror. But instead of pointing to its light, he points to its darkness. Every month the moon effortlessly shows us that something comes from nothing. Lao-tzu asks us to emulate this aspect of the moon – not the full moon, which is destined to wane, but the new moon, which holds the promise of rebirth. And while he has us gazing at the moon’s dark mirror, he asks us why we don’t live longer than we do. After all, don’t we share the same nature as the moon? And isn’t the moon immortal?

“Scholars tend to ignore Lao-tzu’s emphasis on darkness and immortality, for it takes the book beyond the reach of academic analysis. For scholars, darkness is just a more poetic way of describing the mysterious. And immortality is a euphemism for long life. Over the years, they have distilled what they call Lao-tzu’s ‘Taoist philosophy’ from the later developments of ‘Taoist religion.’ They call the Taoteching a treatise on political or military strategy, or they see it as primitive scientific naturalism or utopianism – or just a bunch of sayings.

“But trying to force the Taoteching into the categories of modern discourse not only distorts the Taoteching but also treats the traditions that later Taoists have associated with the text as irrelevant and misguided. Meanwhile, the Taoteching continues to inspire millions of Chinese as a spiritual text. And I have tried to present it in that dark light. The words of philosophers fail here. If words are of any use at all, they are the words of a poet. For poetry has the ability to point us toward the truth then stand aside, while prose stands in the doorway relating all the wonders on the other side but rarely lets us pass.

“In this respect, the Taoteching is unique among the great literary works of the Chou dynasty (1122-221 B.C.). Aside from the anonymous poems and folksongs of the Shihching, or Book of Odes, we have no other poetic work from this early period of Chinese history. The wisdom of other sages was conveyed in prose. Although I haven’t attempted to reproduce Lao-tzu’s poetic devices (Hsu Yung-chang identifies twenty-eight different kinds of rhyme) I have tried to convey the poetic feel with which he strings together images for our breath and spirit, but not necessarily our minds. For the Taoteching is one long poem written in praise of something we cannot name, much less imagine.

“Despite the elusiveness and namelessness of the Tao, Lao-tzu tells us we can approach it through Te. Te means ‘virtue,’ in the sense of ‘moral character’ as well as ‘power to act.’ Yen Ling-feng says, ‘Virtue is the manifestation of the Way. The Way is what Virtue contains. Without the Way, Virtue would have no power. Without Virtue, the Way would have no appearance.’ (See his commentary to verse 21.) Han Fei put it more simply: ‘Te is the Tao at work.’ “See his commentary to verse 38.) Te is our entrance to the Tao. Te is what we cultivate. Lao-tzu’s Virtue, however, isn’t the virtue of adhering to a moral code but action that involves no moral code, no self, no other – no action.

These are the two poles around which the Taoteching turns: the Tao, the dark, the body, the essence, the Way; and Te, the light, the function, the spirit, Virtue. In terms of origin, the Tao comes first. In terms of practice, Te comes first. The dark gives the light a place to shine. The light allows us to see the dark. But too much light blinds. Lao-tzu saw people chasing the light and hastening their own destruction. He encouraged them to choose the dark instead of the light, less instead of more, weakness instead of strength, inaction instead of action. What could be simpler?”

Okay, I am going to stop there with quoting from Red Pine’s introduction. Yes, I know it was long. But, I also think it is very important to understand. And, I at least didn’t go on from there, the actual introduction is much longer, including what we know (if we can truly know) about Lao Tzu, himself. And, then Red Pine goes on to talk about the challenges he faced while coming up with this translation. It is all very good, and well-worth your read. But, I will leave that to you. I got my copy of Red Pine’s translation through Amazon. I recommend all my followers get their own copy, as well.

I do want to admit, when I first read through Red Pine’s introduction, nearly three months ago, I was skeptical of Red Pine’s take on the Tao. His criticism of the mainstream view, I took rather personally; because, I knew I shared the views of which he was being critical. But, I went on to read through his translation with an open mind; and, I believe I was rewarded for having done so. I am willing to admit I may have been wrong, and beginning tomorrow, we will see whether I have actually learned anything, commencing with chapter one.

Parting Words of Wisdom

True words aren’t eloquent;
eloquent words aren’t true.
Wise men don’t need to prove their point;
men who need to prove their point aren’t wise.

The Master has no possessions.
The more he does for others,
the happier he is.
The more he gives to others,
the wealthier he is.

The Tao nourishes by not forcing.
By not dominating, the Master leads.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 81, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Parting Words of Wisdom

This week will be one of endings and new beginnings. Today, we finish the Tao Te Ching with the final chapter. Tomorrow, we will begin our journey anew. As you may have noticed, I have really grown to love Red Pine’s translation, with its commentary by sages from the last twenty centuries. And, I have decided, beginning with my next cycle through, to use Red Pine’s translation as my starting point from which to begin all my commentaries. Stephen Mitchell’s translation has served me well, for something like four years now, and I will always love it, and (don’t worry) I am sure I will still be referring to it, but I think now is a good time to try something a bit different with my own commentaries. Let me know what you guys think. I always enjoy your messages in my inbox. You always encourage me, even you anonymous ones attempting to give me grief. So, enough of that, I want to get to today’s chapter, where Red Pine (and the crew) have some parting words of wisdom for us all.

“True words aren’t beautiful

beautiful words aren’t true

the good aren’t eloquent

the eloquent aren’t good

the wise aren’t learned

the learned aren’t wise

sages accumulate nothing

but the more they do for others

the greater their existence

the more they give to others

the greater their abundance

the Way of Heaven

is to help without harming

the Way of the Sage

is to act without struggling”

HUANG-TI says, “There’s a word for everything. Words that are harmful we say aren’t true” (Chingfa: 2).

TE-CH’ING says, “At the beginning of this book, Lao-tzu says the Tao can’t be put into words. But are its 5,000-odd characters not words? Lao-tzu waits until the last verse to explain this. He tells us that though the Tao itself includes no words, by means of words it can be revealed – but only by words that come from the heart.”

SU CH’E says, “What is true is real but nothing more. Hence, it isn’t beautiful. What is beautiful is pleasing to look at but nothing more. Hence, it isn’t true. Those who focus on goodness don’t try to be eloquent. And those who focus on eloquence aren’t good. Those who have one thing that links everything together have no need of learning. Those who keep learning don’t understand the Tao. The sage holds on to the one and accumulates nothing.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “True words are simple and not beautiful. The good cultivate the Tao, not the arts. The wise know the Tao, not information. Sages accumulate virtue, not wealth. They give their wealth to the poor and use their virtue to teach the unwise. And like the sun or moon, they never stop shining.”

CHUANG-TZU says, “When Lao Tan and Yin Hsi heard of people who considered accumulation as deficiency, they were delighted” (Chuangtzu: 33.5). Lao Tan was Lao-tzu’s name, and Yin Hsi was the man to whom he transmitted the Taoteching.

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “People only worry that their own existence and abundance are insufficient. They don’t realize that helping and giving to others does them no harm but benefits themselves instead.”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “The wealth that comes from giving generously is inexhaustible. The power that arises from not accumulating is boundless.”

WU CH’ENG says, “Help is the opposite of harm. Wherever there is help, there must be harm. But when Heaven helps, it doesn’t harm, because it helps without helping. Action is the start of struggle. But when sages act, they don’t struggle, because they act without acting.”

CHIAO HUNG says, “The previous 5,000 words all explain ‘the Tao of not accumulating,’ what Buddhists call ‘nonattachment.’ Those who empty their mind on the last two lines will grasp most of Lao-tzu’s text.”

WANG CHEN says, “The last line summarizes the entire 5,000 words of the previous eighty verses. It doesn’t focus on action or inaction but simply on action that doesn’t involve struggle.”

And, finally, RED PINE concludes, “At the beginning and at the end of the Taoteching, Lao-tzu reminds us not to become attached to the words. Let the words go. Have a cup of tea.”

I was thinking of adding some of my own commentary. But, after reading Red Pine’s sage advice, I think I will let the words go. Time to have a cup of tea. Tomorrow will be an all new beginning.

Imagine a Country Governed Wisely

If a country is governed wisely,
its inhabitants will be content.
They enjoy the labor of their hands
and don’t waste time inventing
labor-saving machines.
Since they dearly love their homes,
they aren’t interested in travel.
There may be a few wagons and boats,
but these don’t go anywhere.
There may be an arsenal of weapons,
but nobody ever uses them.
People enjoy their food,
take pleasure in being with their families,
spend weekends working in their gardens,
delight in the doings of the neighborhood.
And even though the next country is so close
that people can hear its roosters crowing
and its dogs barking,
they are content to die of old age
without ever having gone to see it.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 80, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Imagine a Country Governed Wisely

Today, we finish out our week with the penultimate chapter of the Tao Te Ching. In it, Lao Tzu invites us to let our imaginations run wild. In fact, Red Pine’s translation has Lao Tzu saying, “Imagine a small state with a small population” – today’s chapter has always reminded me of Tolkien’s Shire, with the simple hobbit-folks tending to, and minding, their own business; unconcerned with the goings on beyond their idyllic homeland.

Imagine enjoying the labor of your own hands so much, you would consider it a waste of your time to invent labor-saving machines.

Imagine so dearly loving your home, you wouldn’t even be interested in traveling.

Imagine the few wagons and boats not ever going anywhere, an arsenal of weapons that nobody ever has to use.

Imagine people enjoying their food, and taking pleasure in being with their families.

Imagine spending weekends working in your garden, and delighting in the doings of your neighborhood.

Imagine being so close to the next country that you can hear its roosters crowing, and its dogs barking, but you are content to die of old age, without ever having gone to see it.

Now, stop imagining. And, start living your life as if you were content. Maybe, just maybe, through practice, and habit, you will find you are content with your simple and ordinary life.

It worked for me. Perhaps, it will work for you, too!

War and Peace

Failure is an opportunity.
If you blame someone else,
there is no end to the blame.

Therefore the Master
fulfills her own obligations
and corrects her own mistakes.
She does what she needs to do
and demands nothing of others.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 79, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

War and Peace

Regarding the last line of yesterday’s chapter, “True words seem paradoxical” (in Stephen Mitchell’s translation), and “upright words sound upside down” (in Red Pine’s translation), Red Pine had this to add. “Wu Cheng puts the last line at the beginning of the next verse [today’s chapter], Yen Tsun combines both verses, and some commentators suggest combining this with verse 43.” Indeed, much of Lao Tzu’s teaching will seem paradoxical. It sounds upside down to all, but those who are followers of the Way. I only mention this because today’s chapter, regarding dispute resolution, will certainly seem paradoxical to most. Here is Red Pine’s translation:

“In resolving a great dispute

a dispute is sure to remain

how can this be good

sages therefore hold the left marker

and make no claim on others

thus the virtuous oversee markers

the virtueless oversee taxes

the Way of Heaven favors no one

but it always helps the good”

TE-CH’ING says, “In Lao Tzu’s day, whenever feudal rulers had a dispute, the most powerful lord convened a meeting to resolve it. But the resolution of a great dispute invariably involved a payment. And if the payment was not forthcoming, the dispute continued.”

WANG PI says, “If we don’t arrange a contract clearly and a dispute results, even using virtuous means to settle it won’t restore the injury. Thus, a dispute will remain.”

SU CH’E says, “If we content ourselves with trimming the branches and don’t pull out the roots, things might look fine on the outside, but not on the inside. Disputes come from delusions, and delusions are the product of our nature. Those who understand their nature encounter no delusions, much less disputes.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Murderers are killed, and criminals are punished, according to their crime. But those who inflict such punishments offend their own human feelings and involve innocent people as well. If even one person sighs, we offend the Heart of Heaven. How can resolving disputes be considered good?”

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “If someone lets go of both sides but still clings to the middle, how can he be completely good?”

CHENG LIANG-SHU says, “In ancient times, contracts were divided in two. In the state of Ch’u, the creditor kept the left half, and Lao-Tzu was from Ch’u. In the central plains, this was reversed, and the creditor kept the right half.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Seeking to make peace with others is the Way of Humankind. Not seeking to make peace but letting things make peace by themselves is the Way of Heaven. Despite action and the expenditure of energy, energy and action seldom bring peace. Sages therefore hold the left marker because they rely on non-action and the subtlety of letting things be.”

CHIANG HSI-CH’ANG says, “If one does not make demands of others, disputes cannot arise. If one constantly takes from others, great disputes cannot help but occur.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “Those concerned with taxes cannot avoid making claims on others and thus cannot prevent disputes. This is why they lack virtue.”

MENCIUS says, “The rulers of the Hsia dynasty exacted a tribute [kung] on every five acres of land. The rulers of the Shang exacted a share [chu] on every seven acres. The rulers of the Chou exacted a tax [ch’e] on every ten acres. In reality, what was paid was a tithe of 10 percent” (Mencius: 3A.3; see also Lunyu: 12.9).

LU TUNG-PIN says, “Those who are good cultivate themselves. They don’t concern themselves with others. Once you concern yourself with others, you have disputes. The good make demands of themselves. They don’t make demands of others. The Way of Humankind is selfish. The Way of Heaven is unselfish. It isn’t concerned with others. But it is always one with those who are good.”

And, RED PINE adds, “The way of Heaven always helps the good because the good expect nothing. Hence, they are easily helped. The last two lines were a common saying. In the Shuoyan:10.25, they conclude an exhortation to keep still. They also appear in slightly different form in the Shuching and in Ch’u Yuan’s Lisao: ‘High Heaven favors no one / but it helps the virtuous.’”

This past Sunday marked the 100th anniversary of Woodrow Wilson’s address to Congress asking them to declare war on the Central powers, and formally involve us in the Great War, later dubbed WWI. The war was propagandized as the war to end all wars, and the war to make the world safe for democracy. History has shown it was, in reality, the war to begin all wars. I have recently been relearning World War I history as part of my teaching the 8 year old girl I work with on a daily basis. We discussed, at length, all the entangling alliances which brought about the war in the first place. What a mess!

How could this have been resolved differently? As my readers are no doubt aware, I am opposed to all wars. But, could peace have been negotiated, and conflict and disputes avoided?

Lao Tzu’s words may seem paradoxical, but I find myself agreeing with him. Not intervening, not interfering, not trying to force things, not trying to dominate or control is always the best solution. Take care of your own business. Look after yourself. Leave others alone. We shouldn’t be the world’s policemen, even when it comes to attempts at negotiating diplomacy between rivals. Stay out of it. Let it resolve itself.

Be Like Water

Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
nothing can surpass it.

The soft overcomes the hard;
the gentle overcomes the rigid.
Everyone knows this is true,
but few can put it into practice.

Therefore the Master remains
serene in the midst of sorrow.
Evil cannot enter his heart.
Because he has given up helping,
he is people’s greatest help.

True words seem paradoxical.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 78, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Be Like Water

Water is Lao Tzu’s go to metaphor when nothing else will quite do. “Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water. Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible, nothing can surpass it.” It truly is like nothing else in our world.

I have been relearning a lot of physics, the last several weeks, as I have been tutoring a 15 year old girl in physics. And, I am feeling quite accomplished. When she first started working with me, she was getting a very low D in her physics class. But, she immediately began to show improvement, and she got solid B’s on her last two physics tests. Indeed, one on one tutoring can be very helpful. One thing we were recently learning about is how very different water is from just about any other thing. For instance, water, in its liquid state, is more dense than in its solid state. This is why ice floats on water. But, get this, just about every other substance is less dense in its liquid state than in its solid state. The significance of this is, if water behaved like just about every other substance, life on Earth simply wouldn’t be possible. I won’t bore you with further physics lessons today. I only wanted to point out how very different water truly is. And, how Lao Tzu’s teachings line up so well with our modern understanding of how the universe works.

But, Lao Tzu saw a lot more to water, something physics can only point to. Let’s look, once again, at Red Pine’s translation of today’s verse, and its commentaries.

“Nothing in the world is weaker than water

but against the hard and the strong

nothing outdoes it

for nothing can change it

the soft overcomes the hard

the weak overcomes the strong

this is something everyone knows

but no one is able to practice

thus do sages declare

who accepts a country’s disgrace

we call the lord of soil and grain

who accepts a country’s misfortune

we call the ruler of all under Heaven

upright words sound upside down”

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “The nature of water is to stay low, to not struggle, and to take on the shape of its container. Thus, nothing is weaker. Yet despite such weakness it can bore through rocks. Rocks, however, cannot wear down water.”

LI HUNG-FU says, “The soft and the weak do not expect to overcome the hard and the strong. They simply do.”

HSI T’UNG says, “You can hit it, but you can’t hurt it. You can stab it, but you can’t wound it. You can hack it, but you can’t cut it. You can light it, but you can’t burn it. Nothing in the world can alter this thing we call water.”

CHU TI’HUANG says, “We can alter the course and shape of water, but we can’t alter its basic nature to descend, by means of which it overcomes the hardest and strongest things.”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “The reason people know this but don’t put this into practice is that they love strength and hate weakness.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Spies and traitors, thieves and robbers, people who have no respect for the law, disloyal subjects and unfilial children, these are disgraces. Excessive drought and rain, epidemics and locusts, untimely death, famine and homelessness, ominous plants, and misshapen animals, these are misfortunes.”

PO-TSUNG says, “Rivers and swamps contain mud. Mountains and marshes harbor diseases. The most beautiful gem has a flaw. The ruler of a state suffers disgrace. This is the Way of Heaven” (Tsochuan: Hsuan.15).

SHUN says, “If I commit an offense, it has nothing to do with my people. If my people commit an offense, the offense rests with me” (Shuching: 4C.8).

CHUANG-TZU says, “Everyone wants to be first, while I alone want to be last, which means to endure the world’s disgrace” (Chuangtzu: 33.5).

MENCIUS says, “If the rulers of a state are not kind, they cannot protect the spirits of the soil and grain” (Mencius: 4A.3).

SU CH’E says, “Upright words agree with the Tao and contradict the world. The world considers suffering disgrace shameful and suffering misfortune a calamity.”

LI JUNG says, “The world sees disgrace and innocence, fortune and misfortune. The follower of the Tao sees them all as empty.”

KAO YEN-TI says, “The last line sums up the meaning of the abstruse phrases that occur throughout the Taoteching, such as ‘to act without acting.’ The words may contradict, but they complement the truth.”

The lesson is quite clear. We need to be like water, to love weakness rather than strength. to be soft and yielding, to be humble. Stephen Mitchell phrases it in this way: We need to remain serene in the midst of sorrow. Then, evil will not be able to enter our heart. The things the world loves, and the things the world hates, are counter to the Tao. It doesn’t seem to make any sense, yet it is true; and, we know it is true.

Give and Take, a House of Cards

As it acts in the world, the Tao
is like the bending of a bow.
The top is bent downward;
the bottom is bent up.
It adjusts excess and deficiency
so that there is perfect balance.
It takes from what is too much
and gives to what isn’t enough.

Those who try to control,
who use force to protect their power,
go against the direction of the Tao.
They take from those who don’t have enough
and give to those who have far too much.

The Master can keep giving
because there is no end to her wealth.
She acts without expectation,
succeeds without taking credit,
and doesn’t think that she is better
than anyone else.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 77, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Give and Take, a House of Cards

I recently began watching, for the very first time, the Netflix original series, House of Cards. I know, I know, what took me so long? I think I just knew that if I ever got started, I might not be able to pull myself away from it long enough to actually spend some time writing these blog posts. Sure enough, I have had some trouble dragging myself away between episodes, just long enough to begin typing. I find myself justifying myself with the inspiration Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, is giving me. In his opening monologue in the very first episode, he talked about give and take, as it relates to political reality in Washington, DC. Give and take. How convenient for me, as that just happens to be what today’s chapter is about.

How the Tao acts in the world versus how we act in the world, when we try to control things. It really is a matter of give and take.

The Tao acts like the bending of a bow. It happens naturally. It isn’t forced. It happens effortlessly. Excess and deficiency are adjusted as the top bends down and the bottom is bent up. The results are perfect balance, as it takes from what is too much, and gives to what isn’t enough.

How very different it is for those who intervene, who interfere, who use force, who wish to dominate, who try to control. Why do they do it? Regardless of what they say of their motivations, regardless of what they may even think of their own motivations, the root is they are seeking to preserve and protect, and even expand, their own power. They never have enough of that, and they are always wanting more.

Oh, they will say they have good intentions. They want to do something about perceived inequalities, injustice. But, no matter how good their intentions, they always end up going against the direction of the Tao. They just can’t leave that bow alone. To leave it to balance itself out, naturally; well, that might take too long. And, besides, can we really trust nature to work this out?

So it is that they take, not from what is too much, but from those who don’t have enough. And, they give, not to what isn’t enough, but to those who already have far too much. See, they end up making it personal. The Tao is all about impartiality. It is never something personal. But, that can’t be allowed to keep happening! Why, if we let that continue to happen, what will become of the people on top. All this talk of equality – with the Tao, it isn’t just empty platitudes. The Tao actually means business. The people on top want to be sure they will remain on top. And, that means making sure the people on the bottom remain right where they are. We certainly couldn’t have them bettering themselves. They might get dangerous notions in their heads. Notions like they are our equals. That we are no better than they. Nosirree, we can’t have that.

I just want to make clear that I am not the one who made it personal. And, the Tao has no interest in making it personal, either. It isn’t the Tao judging people. It treats everyone the same.

But those trying to control, do make it personal. They are the ones ensuring those on the bottom never rise up, and those on the top never come down.

The Master certainly isn’t like this. And, all the Frank Underwoods in Washington could certainly learn a thing or two from the Master’s example. The Master doesn’t take from anyone. The Master only gives. And, the Master can keep on giving, because there is no end to the wealth of the one who gives. Acting without expecting anything in return. No quid pro quo, no tit for tat. Succeeding without taking credit. No ego needing to be fed by accolades. The Master simply doesn’t think or act like anyone in Frank Underwood’s world. Choosing humility over pride. Not wishing to be, or needing to be, in the limelight. Not thinking themselves better than anyone else.

Okay, that is enough. I have another episode beckoning me.

Lessons Best Learned in Your Garden

Men are born soft and supple;
dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant;
dead, they are brittle and dry.

Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible
is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding
is a disciple of life.

The hard and stiff will be broken.
The soft and supple will prevail.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 76, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Lessons Best Learned in Your Garden

Last week, Lao Tzu taught on the differences in the choices we make. Some lead to life, and others lead to death. We should fear death, and choose life. But, we often don’t. In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu continues this theme with lessons we could learn while spending time in our gardens. It is early spring in the northern hemisphere; so, I just happen to have gardening on my mind. Every year I ponder the question, when will the last frost arrive, so I can begin planting tomato and pepper plants? In his commentary on today’s chapter, Red Pine ponders the question, “How different would this world be if our leaders spent as much time in their gardens as they do in their war rooms?” Without any effort, I can easily let my imagination run wild with that. Why, the world would be transformed, all by itself. It would become a paradise. But, before I get all carried away, let’s look at Red Pine’s translation, and its ensuing commentaries. This is going to be good.

“When people are born

they are soft and weak

when they perish

they are hard and stiff

when plants shoot forth

they are supple and tender

when they die

they are withered and dry

thus it is said

the hard and stiff are followers of death

the soft and weak are followers of life

when an army becomes stiff it suffers defeat

when a plant becomes stiff it snaps

the hard and stiff dwell below

the soft and weak dwell above”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “When people are born, they contain breath and spirit. This is why they are soft. When they die, their breath ceases and their spirit disappears. This is why they are hard.”

WU CH’ENG says, “Seeing that the living are soft and the dead are hard, we can infer that those whose virtue is hard and those whose actions are forceful die before their time, while those who are soft and weak are able to preserve their lives.”

LI HSI’CHAI says, “Although the soft and weak aren’t the same as the Tao, they approach its absence of effort. Hence, they aren’t far from the Tao. Although the hard and stiff aren’t outside the Tao, they involve effort. Hence, they lead people away from it.”

LIEH-TZU says, “The world has a path of perennial victory and a path of perennial defeat. The path of perennial victory is weakness. The path of perennial defeat is strength. These two are easy to recognize, but people remain oblivious to them” (Liehtzu: 2.17).

LAO-TZU says, “The weak conquer the strong” (Taoteching: 36).

WANG CHEN says, “It isn’t hard for an army to achieve victory. But it is hard to hold on to victory. There is no great army that has not brought on its own defeat through its victories.”

HSI T’UNG says, “When a plant becomes stiff, it loses its flexibility and becomes easy to break.”

WANG P’ANG says, “In terms of yin and yang, yin comes before and yang comes after. In terms of Heaven and Earth, Heaven is exalted and Earth is humble. In terms of Virtue, the soft and weak overcome the hard and stiff. But in terms of material things, the hard and stiff control the soft and weak. The people of this world only see things. They don’t understand Virtue.”

SU CH’E says, “As long as it contains empty breath, the body does not suffer from rigidity. As long as they reflect perfect reason, actions are not burdened by severity. According to the unchanging principle of things, the refined rises to the top, while the coarse sinks to the bottom. The refined is soft and weak, while the coarse is hard and stiff.”

LI JUNG says, “The living belong above. The dead belong below.”

My friends, Lao Tzu is setting before us a choice between life and death. Choose life! And, happy gardening!