We Should Know Restraint

“The Tao remains unnamed
simple and though small
no one can command it
if a lord upheld it
the world would be his guest
when Heaven joins with Earth
they bestow sweet dew
no one gives the order
it comes down to all
the first distinction gives us names
once we have a name
we should know restraint
who knows restraint avoids trouble
to picture the Tao in the world
imagine a stream and the sea”

(Taoteching, verse 32, translation by Red Pine)

WANG P’ANG says, “The Tao has no body. How could it have a name?”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “We call it ‘simple’ because it hasn’t been cut or polished. We call it ‘small’ because it’s faint and infinitesimal. Those who can see what is small and hold on to it are rare indeed.”

CHIAO HUNG says, “‘Simple means the natural state. When it expands, it’s everywhere. When it contracts, it isn’t as big as the tip of a hair. Hence, even though it’s small, it’s beyond anyone’s command.”

WANG PI says, “If people embrace the simple and work without effort and don’t burden their true nature with material goods or injure their spirit with desires, all things will come to them on their own, and they will discover the Tao by themselves. To discover the Tao, nothing is better than embracing simplicity.”

JEN FA-JUNG say, “In terms of practice, if people can be serene and natural, free themselves from desire, and put their minds at rest, their yin and yang breaths will come together on their own and penetrate every artery and organ. Inside their mouths, the saliva of sweet dew will appear spontaneously and nourish their whole body.”

LU HUI-CHING says, “When a ruler acts, the first thing he does is institute names.”

HSUN-TZU says, “Now that the sages are gone, names and reality have become confused” (Hsuntzu:2).

TE-CH’ING says, “What is simple has no name. Once we make something, we give it a name. But name gives rise to name. Where does it end? Hence, Lao-tzu tells us to stop chasing names.”

LI JUNG says, “The child who depends on its mother suffers no harm. Those who depend on the Tao encounter no trouble.”

WU CH’ENG says, “The Tao has no name, but as Virtue it does. Thus, from nothing we get something. But Virtue is not far from the Tao. If we stop there, we can still go from something back to nothing and return to the Tao. Thus, the Tao is like the sea, and Virtue is like a stream, flowing back into the Tao.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Although Heaven and Earth are high and low, they join together and send down sweet dew. No one makes them do so. And there is no one who does not benefit. Although the Tao separates into things, and each thing has a name, the Tao never abandons anything. Thus, the breath of rivers eventually reaches the sea, and the breath of the sea eventually reaches rivers.”

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

You wouldn’t know this, if I didn’t readily admit it, but I have taken several days wrestling with today’s verse. And, the Tao remains unnamed. Oh, we have ascribed a name to it. Tao. But that isn’t its immortal name. That remains unnamed. And, it will always remain unnamed. That can’t change. It never changes.

Call it simple. That just means the natural state. It hasn’t been cut or polished. It will never be cut or polished.

Call it small. It is faint and infinitesimal. Without distinction. If we could see what is small and hold on to it, Ho-shang Kung says, “those who can do this are rare indeed.”

It is small, yes, but it expands. And, when it expands it’s everywhere. It also contracts, until it isn’t as big as the tip of a hair, says Chiao Hung. Hence, even though it is small, it’s beyond anyone’s command.

You can’t command it. Though we try, how we try. But, you can uphold it. I think that is the purpose of Lao-tzu’s words: To uphold the Tao.

It doesn’t need us to uphold it. It will just go on expanding and contracting, being itself. But it would be of benefit to ourselves if we would uphold it.

Can we be simple and small? Wang Pi says, “If people embrace the simple and work without effort and don’t burden their true nature with material goods or injure their spirit with desires, all things will come to them on their own, and they will discover the Tao by themselves. To discover the Tao, nothing is better than simplicity.”

As Heaven and Earth join together to bestow sweet dew, without anyone giving the order, it comes down to us all, without distinctions.

Distinctions. That first distinction is what gives us names. This and that. Yes and no. I’m right, so you’re wrong. We really should know restraint.

If we could just know restraint, we could avoid trouble.

Restraint. Jen Fa-jung says, “In terms of practice, if people can be serene and natural, free themselves from desire, and put their minds at rest, their yin and yang breaths will come together on their own and penetrate every artery and organ. Inside their mouths, the saliva of sweet dew will appear spontaneously and nourish their whole body.”

Spontaneously. Naturally. Effortlessly. Without anyone commanding that it be so.

To picture the Tao in the world, imagine a stream and the sea. Where the stream meets the sea, it is impossible to distinguish the one from the other. There is no this or that, there is no yes or no, there is no I am right, so you are wrong.

Dispassion Is the Best

“Weapons are not auspicious tools
some things are simply bad
thus the Taoist shuns them
in peace the ruler honors the left
in war he honors the right
weapons are not auspicious tools
he wields them when he has no choice
dispassion is the best
thus he doesn’t praise them
those who praise their use
enjoy killing others
those who enjoy killing others
achieve no worldly rule
thus we honor the left for happiness
we honor the right for sorrow
the left is where the adjutant stands
the commander on the right
which means as at a funeral
when you kill another
honor him with your tears
when the battle is won
treat it as a wake”

(Taoteching, verse 31, translation by Red Pine)

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “In times of decadence and disorder, we use weapons to defend the people.”

SU CH’E says, “We take up weapons to rescue the distressed and not as a matter of course.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “The system of ritual devised by the ancient kings treated the right as superior and the left as inferior. Being superior, the right represented the Way of Victory. Being inferior, the left represented the Way of Humility. But victory entails death and destruction. Hence, those on the right were in charge of sad occasions, while those on the left were in charge of happy events.”

JEN FA-JUNG says, “‘Left’ refers to the east and the power of creation, while ‘right’ refers to the west and the power of destruction.”

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “When Tibetans, Huns, or other tribes invade our borders, the ruler has no choice but to respond. But he responds as he would to a gnat. He does not act in anger. The greatest victory involves no fighting. Hence, dispassion is the best policy.

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Sun-tzu discussed in detail the use of strengths and weaknesses and of direction and indirection in warfare. But he did not understand their basis (Suntzu Pingfa: 5-6). Lao-tzu says dispassion is the best policy, because it secures victory without a display. This might seem odd, but dispassion means rest, and rest is the root of victory. Meanwhile, passion means to act, and action is the basis of defeat.”

KING HSIANG OF LIANG asked Mencius, “How can the kingdom be pacified?” Mencius answered, “The kingdom can be pacified by uniting it.” King Hsiang asked, “But who can unite it?” Mencius answered, “One who does not delight in killing others can unite it” (Mencius: 1A.6).

LI JUNG says, “The ancients used weapons with compassion. They honored them for their virtue and disdained them as tools. Once the enemy was defeated, the general put on plain, undyed clothes, presided over a funeral ceremony, and received the mourners.”

“Weapons are not auspicious tools.” Lao-tzu repeats it again, probably for the very same reason I repeat things. Because it is important to understand. Just in case “auspicious” is not a familiar word in your vocabulary, I will save you the trouble of having to look it up. If weapons were auspicious tools, then we could expect favorable results for using them. But, weapons are not auspicious tools. In other words, just as Lao-tzu was saying in yesterday’s verse, there will be repercussions. And, those repercussions don’t bode well for us.

He repeats something else, in today’s verse, which he said before (in verse 24). “Some things are simply bad.” Thus, the Taoist shuns them.

From there he goes on to talk about left and right, and it shouldn’t be any surprise to find out these are simply yin and yang.

From ancient times, the left (yin) has stood for weakness, as being inferior. And the right (yang) has stood for strength, as being superior. As Sung Ch’ang-hsing puts it, the right represented the Way of Victory. And the left represented the Way of Humility. But, keep reading… “Victory entails death and destruction. Hence, those on the right were in charge of sad occasions, while those on the left were in charge of happy occasions.”

This may be an ancient way of looking at left and right, but with how divided the whole world seems to be, between left and right, it seems to be especially relevant for us today.

In peace, the ruler honors the left. In war, he honors the right. War and peace. Nothing seems to incite my passions more. What? Do you enjoy killing others? But, Lao-tzu admonishes, “Dispassion is the best.”

In our present division, between left and right, passion is what seems to rule the day. But dispassion would be so much better.

We honor the left for happiness. We honor the right for sorrow. The left is where the adjutant stands. The commander stands on the right. Yes, it is an ancient ritual. But rituals have meaning.

After the battle has been won, and our enemies defeated, the dead need to be honored with our tears. With regrets that it ever came to this. Weapons were not auspicious tools. We should have known it wouldn’t bode well. Treat this victory as a wake. And, as yang gives way to yin, may we see more happy occasions.

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

KING HSIANG (FL. 4TH C. B.C.). Ruler of the small state of Liang (now Kaifeng) and son of King Hui.

This Is How Things Have Repercussions

“Use the Tao to assist your lord
don’t use weapons to rule the land
such things have repercussions
where armies camp
brambles grow
best to win then stop
don’t make use of force
win but don’t be proud
win but don’t be vain
win but don’t be cruel
win when you have no choice
this is to win without force
virility leads to old age
this isn’t the Tao
what isn’t the Tao ends early”

(Taoteching, verse 30, translation by Red Pine)

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “A kingdom’s ruler is like a person’s heart; when the ruler acts properly, the kingdom is at peace. When the heart works properly, the body is healthy. What enables them to work and act properly is the Tao. Hence, use nothing but the Tao to assist the ruler.”

LI HSI-CHAI, quoting Mencius (7B.7), says, “‘If you kill someone’s father, someone will kill your father. If you kills someone’s brother, someone will kill your brother.’ This is how things have repercussions.”

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “The external use of soldiers and arms returns in the form of vengeful enemies. The internal use of poisonous thoughts come back in the form of evil rebirths.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “Humankind’s retribution is clear, while Heaven’s retribution is obscure. Where an army spends the night, brambles soon appear. In an army’s wake, bad years follow. This is the retribution of Heaven.”

WANG CHEN, paraphrasing Suntzu Pingfa (2.1), says, “To raise an army of a hundred thousand requires the daily expenditure of a thousand ounces of gold. And an army of a hundred thousand means a million refugees on the road. Also, nothing results in greater droughts, plagues, or famines than the scourge of warfare. A good general wins only when he has no choice, then stops. He dares not take anything by force.”

MENCIUS says, “Those who say they are great tacticians or great warriors are, in fact, great criminals” (Mencius: 7B2-3).

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “To win means to defeat one’s enemies. To win without being arrogant about one’s power, to win without being boastful about one’s ability, to win without being cruel about one’s achievement, this sort of victory only comes from being forced and not from the exercise of force.”

SU CH’E says, “Those who possess the Tao prosper and yet seem poor. They become full and yet seem empty. What is not virile does not become old and does not die. The virile die. This is the way things are. Using an army to control the world represents the height of strength. But it only hastens old age and death.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Once plants reach their height of development, they wither. Once people reach their peak, they grow old. Force does not prevail for long. It isn’t the Tao. What is withered and old cannot follow the Tao. And what cannot follow the Tao soon dies.”

WU CH’ENG says, “Those who possess the Way are like children. They come of age without growing old.”

LAO-TZU says, “Tyrants never choose their death” (Taoteching: 42).

And, RED PINE adds, “It isn’t the Tao that ends early, for the Tao has no beginning or end.”

When I first was drawn to the Taoteching, and philosophical Taoism, it was because of verses like this one, and so many others, which expressed such strong libertarian leanings: Don’t intervene, don’t interfere, don’t try to control, don’t initiate force. Such things have repercussions. In this day, we now call the results of our foreign interventions “blowback.” I remember well when Ron Paul spoke after the events of September 11, 2001. He put into words exactly what I had been thinking: This is what happens as a result of our foreign interventions. We had been terrorizing the middle east for decades. It was only a matter of time until the seeds we had planted would be harvested, that we would reap, at least in some measure, exactly what we had sown.

But, as I have continued reading and thinking on these things, I have come to understand that what Lao-tzu was saying about external things, the things that so drew me to philosophical Taoism in the first place, were really secondary to his purpose. He was using these external things, things readily apparent to us, as metaphors for something deeper, an internal reality.

Sung Ch’ang-hsing makes this clear in his commentary. “A kingdom’s ruler is like a person’s heart: when the ruler acts properly, the kingdom is at peace. When the heart works properly, the body is healthy. What enables them to work and act properly is the Tao. Hence, use nothing but the Tao to assist a ruler.”

Did you catch that? The kingdom and ruler (or lord) Lao-tzu keeps invoking isn’t just something external to us. The kingdom represents our body, and the ruler (or lord) our heart. I know I have said this many times before, but it bears repeating: Lao-tzu isn’t speaking to rulers about how to govern their countries, he is speaking to individuals about how to govern their own selves. Sure, it would be nice if rulers would use the Tao to govern. It is the best way to govern a country. But, Lao-tzu was no fool, and realized that wasn’t likely to happen. But, if individuals could take his teachings to heart? That was much more likely to occur.

Keep this in mind while we look again at what Lao-tzu says in today’s verse.

“Where armies camp, brambles grow.” These are the repercussions for using weapons, or force, to win. If we wish to avoid the repercussions, we need to avoid doing the things which result in the repercussions. This is so self-evident, you would think it would have occurred to our rulers.

Oh, they know. They just don’t care. But applying this to ourselves: should we know, understand, and care?

Only the strong will survive. We think like this. We think it is “Darwinian.” And, therefore, it must be so. But, I think it is a misreading of Darwin to say that only the strong will survive. What Darwin really said is those most able to adapt will survive.

Strength seems so important to us. We must display just how strong we are. If not for offensive purposes, at least for defensive purposes. The weak are just going to be preyed upon. Better to be seen as predator, than as prey.

Lao-tzu saw things a bit differently. He took a look at the Way things are and he noticed something, a law, that was always at work in our world. Much like Darwin. Though Lao-tzu’s law wouldn’t agree with Darwin, if you think Darwin proscribed “only the strongest survive.” Lao-tzu saw something quite different. And, something with which Darwin actually would probably have agreed. Virility (strength) always leads to old age, and then a premature death. It wasn’t the strong who survived, it was those who yielded, the weak. The soft overcomes the hard. You can win without using force.

In fact, you better win without using force. Because any gains you make, when you use force, are sure to not last.

Better to win when you have no choice. To be forced to win. To win and then to stop. To know when enough is enough. Not to be proud. Not to be vain. Not to be cruel.

Sure, I can’t read today’s verse without thinking of America’s foreign policy, which hasn’t so much as wavered since well before I was born. But now, I use that as a metaphor for how not to live my own life. And that, my friends, has made all the difference.

Red Pine introduces a sage, in today’s verse, with which we may already be somewhat familiar:

SUN-TZU (FL. 512 B.C.). Master of military tactics and strategy. His Pingfa (Art of War) has been much studied and admired ever since it came to the attention of King Ho Lu of the state of Wu, who subsequently became Sun’s patron.

I See This Not Succeeding, Therefore Avoid Extremes

“Trying to govern the world with force
I see this not succeeding
the world is a spiritual thing
it can’t be forced
to force it is to harm it
to control it is to lose it
sometimes things lead
sometimes they follow
sometimes they blow hot
sometimes they blow cold
sometimes they expand
sometimes they collapse
sages therefore avoid extremes
avoid extravagance
avoid excess”

(Taoteching, verse 29, translation by Red Pine)

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “We can’t control something as insignificant as a mustard see. How can we control something as big as the world?”

TE-CH’ING says, “Those who would govern the world should trust what is natural. The world cannot be controlled consciously. It is too big a thing. The world can only be governed by the spirit, not by human strength or intelligence.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Spiritual things respond to stillness. They cannot be controlled with force.”

LU-HUI-CH’ING says, “The world as a thing is a spiritual thing. Only the spiritual tao can control a spiritual thing. Spiritual things don’t think or act. Trying to control them with force is not the Way.”

WANG CHEN says, “‘Force’ refers to the mobilization and deployment of troops. But world’s spirit cannot be controlled with weapons.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Sages consider their body as transitory and the world as its temporary loding. How can they rule what is not theirs and lose the true and everlasting Way?”

SU CH’E says, “The interchange of yin and yang, of high and low, of great and small is the way things are and cannot be avoided. Fools are selfish. They insist on having their own way and meet with disaster. Sages know they cannot oppose things. They agree with whatever they meet. They eliminate extremes and thereby keep the world from harm.”

WU CH’ENG says, “How do those who gain control of the world keep the world from harm? Sages understand that things necessarily move between opposites but that there is a way to adjust this movement. Things that prosper too much must wither and die. By keeping things from prospering too much, they keep them from withering and dying.”

WANG PI says, “Sages penetrate the nature and condition of others. Hence, they respond to them without force and follow them without effort. They eliminate whatever misleads or confuses others so that their minds become clear and each realizes their own nature.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “Resting where you are eliminates extremes. Treasuring simplicity eliminates extravagance. Being content with less eliminates excess.”

LU NUNG-SHIH says, “Sages get rid of extremes with kindness. They get rid of extravagance with simplicity. They get rid of excess with humility. By means of these three, sages govern the world.”

HSUEH HUI says, “What Lao-tzu means by ‘extremes,’ by ‘extravagance,’ and by ‘excess’ is not what people mean nowadays. Lao-tzu means whatever involves an increase in effort beyond what is easy.”

In yesterday’s verse, Lao-tzu laid the foundation for being the world’s guide. In today’s verse, he calls it governing the world. And once again, he stresses the importance of not trying to force it, in an attempt to control it.

I haven’t done this in awhile, but I so love Stephen Mitchell’s translation of today’s verse, I think I should include it in its entirety now:

“Do you want to improve the world? I don’t think it can be done. / The world is sacred. It can’t be improved. If you tamper with it, you’ll ruin it. If you treat it like an object, you’ll lose it. / There is a time for being ahead, a time for being behind; a time for being in motion, a time for being at rest; a time for being vigorous, a time for being exhausted; a time for being safe, a time for being in danger. / The Master sees things as they are, without trying to control them. She lets them go their own way, and resides at the center of the circle.”

The world is sacred… That word “sacred” is such a powerful word. And much better, I think, than the word “spiritual” Red Pine uses.

Trying to improve the world, that is the stated purpose of those who govern us, is it not? But trying to force it? I see this not succeeding. It can’t be forced. It can’t be controlled. Every attempt to do so can only result in dire consequences. Namely, just the opposite of the stated purpose.

Recognize yang and hold on to yin. That was how Lao-tzu put it in yesterday’s verse. There is a time for being yang; but, for the sake of our Immortal Virtue, there is also a time for being yin.

See things as they are and don’t try to control them: Sometimes things lead. Sometimes they follow. Sometimes they blow hot. Sometimes they blow cold. Sometimes they expand. Sometimes they collapse.

Therefore, avoid extremes, avoid extravagance, avoid excess. If you can avoid these three things, I see you succeeding.

But how do you avoid them?

You avoid them with their opposites. For every yang there is a yin, hold on to it.

Recognizing That, Hold On to This

“Recognize the male
but hold on to the female
and be the world’s maid
being the world’s maid
don’t lose your Immortal Virtue
not losing your Immortal Virtue
be a newborn child again
recognize the pure
but hold on to the base
and be the world’s valley
being the world’s valley
be filled with Immortal Virtue
being filled with Immortal Virtue
be a block of wood again
recognize the white
but hold on to the black
and be the world’s guide
don’t stray from your Immortal Virtue
not straying from your Immortal Virtue
be without limits again
a block of wood can be split to make tools
sages make it their chief official
a master tailor doesn’t cut”

(Taoteching, verse 28, translation by Red Pine)

TE-CH’ING says, “To recognize the Way is hard. Once you recognize it, holding on to it is even harder. But only by holding on to it can you advance on the Way.”

MENCIUS says, “The great person does not lose their child heart” (Mencius: 4B.12).

WANG TAO says, “Sages recognize ‘that’ but hold on to ‘this.’ ‘Male’ and ‘female’ mean hard and soft. ‘Pure’ and ‘base’ mean noble and humble. ‘White’ and ‘black’ mean light and dark. Although hard, noble, and light certainly have their uses, hard does not come from hard but from soft, noble does not come from noble but from humble, and light does not come from light but from dark. Hard, noble, and light are the secondary forms and farther from the Way. Soft, humble, and dark are the primary forms and closer to the Way. Hence, sages return to the original: a block of wood. A block of wood can be made into tools, but tools cannot be made into a block of wood. Sages are like blocks of wood, not tools. They are the chief officials and not functionaries.”

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “What has no limits is the Tao.”

CONFUCIUS says, “A great person is not a tool” (Lunyu; 2.12).

CHANG TAO-LING says, “To make tools is to lose sight of the Way.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Before a block of wood is split, it can take any shape. But once split, it cannot be round if it is square or straight if it is curved. Lao-tzu tells us to avoid being split. Once we are split, we can never return to our original state.”

PAO-TING says, “When I began butchering, I used my eyes. Now I use my spirit instead and follow the natural lines” (Chuangtzu: 3.2).

WANG P’ANG says, “Those who use the Tao to tailor leave no seams.”

We ended last week with Lao-tzu talking about perfect goodness. And Lu Tung-pin in his commentary said, this goodness refers to our original nature. In today’s verse, Lao-tzu returns to talking about the good. He now calls it Immortal Virtue. And, the subject of today’s verse is returning to our original nature.

We accomplish this by recognizing that that draws us away from our original nature, while holding on to what anchors us to it.

Wang Tao says, “Sages recognize ‘that’ but hold on to ‘this.’ ‘Male’ and ‘female’ mean hard and soft. ‘Pure’ and ‘base’ mean noble and humble. ‘White’ and ‘black’ mean light and dark. Although hard, noble, and light certainly have their uses, hard does not come from hard but from soft, noble does not come from noble but from humble, and light does not come from light but from dark. Hard, noble, and light are the secondary forms and farther from the Way. Soft, humble, and dark are the primary forms and closer to the Way. Hence, sages return to the original: a block of wood. A block of wood can be made into tools, but tools cannot be made into a block of wood. Sages are like blocks of wood, not tools. They are chief officials and not functionaries.”

Recognize yang but hold on to yin would be another way of saying it. But let’s be clear here. To recognize yang isn’t some casual, and brief, encounter; noticing it, and then trying to forget about it. Yang isn’t something to be avoided under any circumstances. Yin needs yang as much as yang needs yin. It is yang to the exclusion of yin that Lao-tzu is warning against. Yang tends to dominate. It is its nature. Recognize that, and hold on to yin.

Yielding, not dominating, is the Way back to your original nature. Be the world’s maid. And being the world’s maid you won’t lose your Immortal Virtue. And, not losing your Immortal Virtue you will be a newborn child again. We may think being a newborn child again is returning to our original nature. But remember what Lu Tung-pin said about our original nature, yesterday. “It was our nature before our parents were born.”

We still have a ways to go.

In order for us to be a block of wood again we need to be the world’s valley, filled with Immortal Virtue. For, it is only in being filled with it we can return to being a block of wood.

Then, and only then, we can be the world’s guide, not straying from our Immortal Virtue.

If we can do this, not straying from our Immortal Virtue, we will be without limits again. Like a block of wood which can be fashioned into anything. There are no limits. Like a master tailor or master butcher. You can be a master anything.

But, I want to return to the importance of yin in all of this. It can’t be forced. Yang won’t do. You must yield to it, every step of the Way.

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

PAO-TING, the knife-wielding cook of Chuangtzu: 3.2.

On Being Perfectly Blind

“Good walking leaves no tracks
good talking contains no flaws
good counting counts no beads
good closing locks no locks
and yet it can’t be opened
good tying ties no knots
and yet it can’t be undone
sages are good at saving others
therefore they abandon no one
nor anything of use
this is called cloaking the light
thus the good instruct the bad
and the bad learn from the good
not honoring their teachers
or cherishing their students
the wise alone are perfectly blind
this is called peering into the distance”

(Taoteching, verse 27, translation by Red Pine)

LU TUNG-PIN says, “‘Good’ refers to our original nature before our parents were born. Before anything develops within us, we possess this goodness. ‘Good’ means natural.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Those who are good at walking find the Way within themselves, not somewhere outside. When they talk, they choose their words. When they count, they don’t go beyond one. When they close, they close themselves to desire and protect their spirit. When they tie, they secure their mind.”

TE-CH’ING says, “Sages move through the world with an empty self and accept the way things are. Hence, they leave no tracks. They do not insist that their ideas are right and accpet the wors of tohers. Hence, they reveal no flaws. They do not care about life and death, much less profit and loss. Hence, they count no beads. They do not set traps, yet nothing escapes them. Hence, they use no locks. They are not kind, yet everyone flocks to them. Hence, they tie no knots.”

WANG PI says, “These five tell us to refrain from acting and to govern things by relying on their nature rather than on their form.”

WU CH’ENG says, “The salvation of sages does not involve salvation, for if someone is saved, someone is abandoned. Hence, sages do not save anyone at all. And because they do not save anyone, they do not abandon anyone. To ‘cloak’ means to use an outer garment to cover an inner garment. If the work of salvation becomes apparent, and people see it, it cannot be called good. Only when it is hidden is it good.”

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “The good always cloak their light.”

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “The good are like water. Free of impurity and without effort on their part, they show people their true likeness. Thus, they instruct the bad. But unless students can forget the teacher, their vision will be obscured.”

SU CH’E says, “Sages do not care about teaching. Hence, they do not love their students. And the world does not care about learning. Hence, people do not honor their teachers. Sages no only forget the world, they make the world forget them.”

Back in verse 24 Lao-tzu told us, “Some things are simply bad.” And since, there is this objective bad, there must also be an objective good, which is the theme of today’s verse. What is this good? It is, as Lu tung-pin says, our original nature. And just to underscore how original it is, he says it is our nature before our parents were born. That would seem to take anything we could say or do or be completely out of the equation. Indeed, it is before anything develops within us that we possess this goodness. And then he sums it up by saying, “Good” means natural. It isn’t anything we could contrive. It had to precede us. And, it has to be completely free of being affected by anything we could ever say or do or be.

This goodness is then perfect goodness. Where it walks, it leaves no tracks. When it talks, it contains no flaws. What it counts, it counts with no beads. What it closes, it locks with no locks. Yet, what it closes cannot be opened. What it ties, it ties with no knots. Yet, they can’t be undone.

As an aside, I have probably mentioned before I am fond of using an abacus, with its beads for counting, for teaching children math. And, one thing I learned quite quickly is that the abacus I have the children use, they only need to use for a time, just until they master it. Once they are “good” at counting with it, at adding and subtracting, the external abacus can be set aside. They have the abacus inside their minds to use for counting. An abacus without beads.

Now, going back to these five “good” ways of being, Wang Pi says, they “tell us to refrain from acting and to govern things by relying on their nature rather than on their form.” To refrain from acting, here, as always throughout the Taoteching, means to go with the flow, to act naturally, without effort. By relying on their nature, we return to our nature.

Sages save others by saving no one and abandoning no one. Even seeing the use in the useless. This might confound you, this cloaking of the light. But, Lao-tzu speaks of cloaking the light for a very good reason. Cloaking the light is necessary before we can peer into the distance. We need to be perfectly blind.

Being perfectly blind is to see nothing, and thus everything. The good instructing the bad, the bad learning from the good, the bad not honoring their teachers, and the good not cherishing their students.

That “not honoring” and “not cherishing” may have struck you as just plain wrong. But, before we discount it, let’s go back to this idea of perfect goodness, once again. This will explain the need to be perfectly blind. Lu Tung-pin said, “‘Good’ refers to our original nature before our parents were born. Before anything develops within us, we possess this goodness. ‘Good’ means natural.”

Honoring our teachers and cherishing our students is something we have contrived after that fact. Or, as Wang Pi refers to, it is relying on their form, rather than on their nature.

The good teach the bad, and the bad learn from the good; that is their nature. But, to rely on their nature, rather than on their form we need to refrain from acting, we need to cloak the light, we need to be perfectly blind to form. Only then will we able to peer into the distance.

Peering into the distance is our goal. It doesn’t mean seeing into the future, or even perceiving something far away. Peering into the distance, here, means seeing through the illusion to the Source behind everything that is and is not. It is seeing the way things are, so we can act accordingly, going with the flow, doing what comes naturally. Lao-tzu always “returns” to the need of returning. As he said in verse 25, “To be great means ever-flowing, ever-flowing means far-reaching, far-reaching means returning.” If we want to master self-rule, we need to be great. This is simply how to be great.

Traveling All Day Without Going Far

“Heavy is the root of light
still is the master of restless
thus a lord might travel all day
but never far from his supplies
even in a guarded camp
his manner is calm and aloof
why would the lord of ten thousand chariots
treat himself lighter than his kingdom
too light he loses his base
too restless he loses command”

(Taoteching, verse 26, translation by Red Pine)

HAN FEI says, “‘Heavy’ means to be in control of oneself. ‘Still’ means not to leave one’s place. Those who are heavy control those who are light. Those who are still direct those who are restless.”

WANG PI says, “Something light cannot support something heavy. Something small cannot hold down something large.”

CONFUCIUS says, “A gentleman without weight is not held in awe, and his leaning is not secure” (Lunyu: 1.8).

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “Roots are heavy, while flowers and leaves are light. The light wither, while the heavy survive. ‘Still’ means tranquil, and ‘restless’ means excited. Excitement is subject to birth and death. Tranquility endures. Hence, the still rule the restless.”

TE-CH’ING says, “‘Heavy’ refers to the body. ‘Light’ refers to what is external to the body; success and fame, wealth and honor. ‘Still’ refers to our nature. ‘Restless’ refers to our emotions. People forget their body and chase external things. They forget their nature and follow their emotions. Sages aren’t like this. Even though they travel all day, they don’t leave what sustains them.”

KUAN-TZU says, “Those who move lose their place. Those who stay still are content” (quoted by Chiao Hung).

WU CH’ENG says, “When a lord travels for pleasure, he rides in a passenger carriage. When a lord travels to battle, he rides in a war chariot. Both of these are light. And behind these come the heavier baggage carts. Even though a lord might travel fifty kilometers a day in a passenger carriage or thirty kilometers a day in a war chraiot, he does not hurry so far ahead that he loses sight of the baggage carts behind him.”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “‘Supplies’ means the precious commodities with which we maintain ourselves and without which we cannot exist for a second.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “A lord who is not heavy is not respected. A plant’s leaves and flowers are light. Hence, they are blown about by the wind. And its roots are heavy. Hence, it lives long. A lord who is not still loses his power. A dragon is still. Hence, it is able to constantly transform itself. A tiger is restless. Hence it dies young.”

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “Traditionally, the Son of Heaven’s fief included one million neighborhoods with a tax revenue of 640,000 ounces of silver, one million cavalry horses, and ten thousand war chariots. Hence, he was called ‘lord of ten thousand chariots.’”

SU CH’E says, “If the ruler is light, his ministers know he cannot be relied upon. If the ministers are restless, the ruler knows their minds are bent on profit.”

The “lord” in today’s verse is the ruler from yesterday’s. One of the four great powers, imitating the Tao, its nature becoming Humankind’s nature. A lord might travel all day without going far. Just like the Tao. You don’t get to be great without being ever-flowing and far-reaching, and always returning to your Root.

Your Root. Your Source. It is heavy. It anchors you, so even in the midst of storms you don’t get tossed to and fro, being swept every which way, flitting about like a fool.

You can’t let restlessness be what moves you. You have to be still. You have to let stillness master the restlessness.

To be still is to be calm. Disaffected by everything external. To not be swayed by fleeting circumstances. To hold on to what never changes, to what always endures.

To be still is to be aloof. Detached from all things external. Things come and go, Neither reach for them as they come, nor hold on to them as they go.

To be light is to lose touch with your base. To be restless is to lose your command. Command, here, doesn’t just refer to a ruler exercising power over others. That is just a metaphor for the inner stillness which gives you command of yourself. You can never treat yourself lighter than your kingdom. Your kingdom, once again, doesn’t refer to an external kingdom, but your inner being. It is that which holds you, that supports you. The Earth, Heaven, and the Tao.

The Great Imitates

“Imagine a nebulous thing
here before Heaven and Earth
subtle and elusive
dwelling apart and unconstrained
it could be the mother of us all
not knowing its name
I call it the Tao
forced to describe it
I describe it as great
great means ever-flowing
ever-flowing means far-reaching
far-reaching means returning
the Tao is great
Heaven is great
Earth is great
the ruler is also great
the realm contains Four Greats
of which the ruler is but one
Humankind imitates Earth
Earth imitates Heaven
Heaven imitates the Tao
and the Tao imitates itself”

(Taoteching, verse 25, translation by Red Pine)

WU CH’ENG says, “‘Nebulous’ means complete and indivisible.”

SU CH’E says, “The Tao is neither pure nor muddy, high nor low, past nor future, good nor bad. Its body is a nebulous whole. In Humankind it becomes our nature. It doesn’t know it exists, and yet it endures forever. And within it are created Heaven and Earth.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “It dwells apart but does not dwell apart. It goes everywhere but does not go anywhere. It’s the mother of the world, but it’s not the mother of the world.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “The Tao does not have a name of its own. We force names upon it. But we cannot find anything real in them. We would do better returning to the root from which we all began.”

Standing beside a stream, CONFUCIUS sighed, “To be ever-flowing like this, not stopping day or night!” (Lunyu: 9.16).

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “Although we say it’s far-reaching, it never gets far from itself. Hence, we say it’s returning.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “The Tao is great because there is nothing it does not encompass. Heaven is great because there is nothing it does not cover. Earth is great because there is nothing it does not support. And the king is great because there is nothing he does not govern. Humankind should imitate Earth and be peaceful and pliant, plant and harvest its grains, dig and discover its springs, work without exhaustion and succeed without fuss. As for Earth imitating Heaven, Heaven is still and immutable. It gives without seeking a reward. It nourishes all creatures and takes nothing for itself. As for Heaven imitating the Tao, the Tao is silent and does not speak. It directs breath and essence unseen, and thus all things come to be. As for the Tao imitating itself, the nature of the Tao is to be itself. It does not imitate anything else.”

WANG PI says, “If Humankind does not turn its back on Earth, it brings peace to all. Hence it imitates Earth. If Earth does not turn its back on Heaven it supports all. Hence, it imitates Heaven. If Heaven does not turn its back on the Tao, it covers all. Hence, it imitates the tao. And if the Tao does not turn its back on itself, it realizes its nature. Hence, it imitates itself.”

And RED PINE adds, “The character for ‘ruler’ (wang) shows three horizontal lines (Heaven, Humankind, Earth) connected by a single vertical line. Lao-tzu’s point is that the ruler, being only one of the four great powers of the world, should not be so presumptuous of his greatness, for he depends on the other three.”

In today’s verse, like the ones which precede it and those which will follow it, Lao-tzu is being forced to describe a subtle and elusive thing. He tells us to imagine a nebulous thing. Wu Ch’eng offers us help by saying, “‘Nebulous’ means complete and indivisible.” But, I don’t know that that is any help at all.

Nebulous actually means not clear, difficult to see, understand, describe, etc. It means this thing is cloudy, misty, or hazy. It lacks definite form or limits. It is vague. I got that definition from a variety of sources, and I am quite certain, that is exactly what Lao-tzu means. Just try to imagine that thing! John Lennon insisted in his “imagine” song that it wasn’t hard, if you try. But, this? This nebulous thing? I think Lao-tzu fully intends for us to understand just how difficult it is.

Yet, he is forced to describe it; forced to give it a name. I call it the Tao. I describe it as great.

But what does any of this mean? Su Ch’e says, “The Tao is neither pure nor muddy, high nor low, past nor future, good nor bad….It doesn’t know it exists, and yet it endures forever.” And, Li Hsi-chai says, “It dwells apart but does not dwell apart. It goes everywhere but does not go anywhere. Its the mother of the world, but it’s not the mother of the world.”

Those of you who have been following along with me for some time know what these sages are describing is yin and yang. It is and it is not; it is not and it is not is not. Are you confused yet? Confused is just another definition for nebulous.

Because it is nebulous, we are going to have a pretty hard time trying to imagine it. That is the whole point. Or, maybe there is something more to it. Let’s look again at what Lao-tzu has to say about what “great” means:

“Great means ever-flowing, ever-flowing means far-reaching, far-reaching means returning.” So, great means returning. Ts’ao Tao-ch’ung explains, “Although we say it’s far-reaching, it never gets far from itself. Hence, we say it’s returning.”

Returning. Don’t despair! Lao-tzu goes on to explain exactly what he means by this.

But first he describes three other “great” things. Because in describing what makes them great, he can return to that nebulous Tao’s greatness.

The ruler is great, but shouldn’t get cocky, because the ruler is only one of the four great powers, and is dependent on the others. Humankind imitates the Earth, that makes Humankind great. The Earth imitates Heaven, that makes the Earth great. Heaven imitates the Tao, that makes Heaven great.

Shouldn’t the Tao be flattered by all of this imitation?

The Tao, returning to itself, having never actually left itself, just goes about its business of imitating itself.

That is its nature. And that, my friends is the key to understanding this nebulous thing. It is its nature. It is the nature of Heaven. It is the nature of Earth. And yes, even in Humankind, it becomes our nature. The great imitates.

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”].

In today’s verse, Lao-tzu says “Some things are simply bad / those who possess the Way thus shun them.” This verse is all about distinguishing between doing what is natural (without effort) and doing what requires effort, what we can’t do for long, what is artificial. He has spent quite a bit of time talking about good and bad before, and when he has done so, he has pretty much scolded us for making these distinctions. So, what gives? How is it okay, now, to say some things are simply bad, and something we would be wise to avoid?

The distinction Lao-tzu is making, here, and rightly so, is a distinction between the subjective and the objective. When he has scolded us before about making distinctions, he was talking about subjective ones. Ones that change. Today’s verse concerns itself with the objective. It is concerned with things that never change. Ah, you might say, but sometimes it is okay to stand on tiptoe, to stride or straddle. Isn’t that so? Isn’t that subject to change?

If we are thinking that way, we are missing Lao-tzu’s point. What doesn’t change is that you can’t tiptoe, or stride or straddle, for long. It just isn’t natural. It wasn’t natural from the beginning, and it never will be. It is like the analogy of eating too much food or working at a tiring pace. Obviously, we can do those things. And when we do, to excess, we suffer.

Whenever we strive too hard, and exert too much effort, to do anything, we ultimately achieve nothing. The things we are trying to achieve come to naught. This, Lao-tzu has been teaching, is simply the Way things are. We go through our lives frustrated because instead of going with the flow, we continually swim against the current, wearing ourselves out. The Way is effortless, and those who follow the Way do so, effortlessly.

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.”

Speaking no words would be perfection. But, as we talked about with yesterday’s verse, we should be content with being incomplete. So, when it comes to speaking, less is better than more. What we want to reach is oneness with the natural Way. To be more natural in everything we say, everything we do.

What does it mean to be natural? I particularly like what Lu Nung-shih says about it, “Something is natural when nothing can make it so, and nothing can make it not so.”

Lao-tzu uses the metaphors of wind and rain to illustrate this natural Way. Heaven and Earth, great as they are, can’t make the wind and rain last. So, Humankind, great as we may be, can’t make our works last. But, we can be natural. As Su Ch’e says, our words can be faint, our deeds plain. Then, being natural, they can last, not being exhausted.

As Chiao Hung says, when we pursue the Way we are being natural. We experience freedom from success, and therefore freedom from failure. And freedom, here, doesn’t mean we don’t succeed or fail. It means it doesn’t affect us.

Oneness with the Tao, with the natural Way means leaving the self behind, as Lu Hui-ch’ing says. “No self is the Way.” The delusions of distinctions between success and failure won’t affect us any longer. We won’t see how they differ.

What Ho-shang Kung says, talking about the nature of water and fire, is both humorous and spot on. What we are doing is returning to simply being what we are by nature.

But, as we said earlier, being incomplete is the path to becoming whole. Which is why we must be content with being incomplete. Being incomplete means, if we still yet make distinctions between success and failure, we should hold on to failure as being the shorter path to wholeness.

I want to give a shout-out to one of my mutual followers on tumblr, westdesertsage. He messaged me months ago, and recommended I check out Red Pine’s translation of the Taoteching; and we know where that has taken us. Sam and I have had several conversations over the course of the last few months, and he also sent me a link to his website devoted to a book he had been working on, Progress Debunked, which he was busy finishing. Due to my interest in it, he graciously offered me an advance copy of it, which I received in the mail just a few days ago (as I am typing this). In his book, he debunks the notion that we can ever “progress” to a point beyond a “Creation-Destruction Balance” of joy and suffering, success and failure. While I am only half-way into the book, I can already highly recommend it to all my followers, when it actually comes out.

The real reason for my mentioning this book, though, is because of what Lao-tzu says in today’s verse. “The Way fails too.” Of course we would like to always succeed. But failure is often going to be our reality. Why? Because failure is just as much a part of reality as success. And, coming to grips with that is necessary for being one with the Way.