Tao Te Ching – Lao Tzu
Stretch (a bow) to its very longest,
And you will wish you had stopped in time.
Temper a (sword-edge) to its very sharpest,
And the edge will not last long.
When gold and jade fill your hall,
You will not be able to keep them safe.
To be proud with wealth and honor
Is to sow seeds of one’s own downfall.
Retire when your work is done,
Such is Heaven’s way.
(Translated by Yu Tang Lin)
What is Heaven’s way? That is the way of the Tao.
Never hold anything to its fullest because it will overflow, and then you lose more than you gain.
If you keep showing off your ability; you will lose support from your colleagues and success will not last long.
When gold and jade fill the halls, their possessor cannot keep them safe. Gold and jade are mere worldly possessions which come and go. Virtue is more important than external property.
When wealth and honors lead to arrogance, this brings evil upon that person. Because they invite criticism and jealousy from people, it ignites the beginning of a curse.
When your work is well done, and your name is becomes well-known, to withdraw into obscurity is the way of Heaven.
Here Lao Tzu taught us how to practice ” Tao” in our life. Never do anything extreme and find the balance instead, because the balancing is the Tao. I love this story from Osho. It shows us how to gain balance.
Here is excerpt from Osho-Tao: The Three Treasures, Vol 1 Page 70
I have heard:
Once, a great king had to make a decision that was against his heart. Two of his ministers had committed some crime, and he loved the ministers very much. Even if they had committed the
crime, he wanted to forgive them; his love was such for them. But that was against the law of the country, and it wouldn’t have been a good precedent. So they had to be punished. And the law of
the country said that for the crimes they committed, the only punishment was death. So what to do?
It was too difficult to decide, so he found a way out. He said, ”They have to be sentenced to death, but I will give them one more chance to live. Between two hills a tightrope will be stretched. If they can walk over it and survive, then I will forgive them.”
It seemed almost impossible. It was impossible because the ministers had never walked on any tightrope, let alone on one between two hills over a big valley – there was death everywhere. And to walk on a tightrope is a great art, one has to learn it for many years, and it is a great discipline. They had not even dreamed in their lives that they would become tightrope-walkers.
One of the two couldn’t sleep. The whole night he prayed to God to help him. He couldn’t take his tea in the morning. He came to the place where this phenomenon was to happen; the whole capital
The other, knowing well that he didn’t know anything about tightrope-walking, that nothing could be done and it was almost certain that he was going to die, so why not sleep well? He slept. In the morning he took his usual tea. He walked leisurely to the tightrope that morning. The other was trembling and feverish, but he was quiet and calm knowing well that death was to happen – and when it is certain, why bother? Die silently.
He started walking on the rope, and wonder of wonders – he walked!
Nobody could believe it! Even the tightrope-walkers had come to watch – even they could not believe it. It was difficult, even for them – the distance was too great, and the danger was too much. One step wrong, a little too much leaning towards the left or the right and you are gone; become a little unbalanced and death is waiting at every step. But the man walked, and he walked as leisurely as if he had gone for a morning walk. He reached the other hill.
The first man was trembling, perspiring. He shouted from his place to the other man, ”Please tell me how you walked, so I can also walk!”
The other man shouted back: ”It is difficult to say because I don’t know how. I know only one thing – this is the way I have been walking my whole life. I’m not a tightrope-walker, but now I know I am because this is the way I have been living my whole life – balanced, never going to the extreme. Or, if I lean towards the left immediately I balance it by leaning towards the right. I have not done anything else. But this won’t help you because this is not something you can learn suddenly. If you live in this way, it comes to you.”
Yes, never go to the extremes – to the fullest and sharpest… Be in the middle and be in the balance for that is skill and that is Tao. That is eternal.
A man of morals is like water.
Water benefits everything without evoking conflicts or resistance.
It willingly takes the dirtiness that everyone hates within itself instead, so it is close to resembling “Tao.”
A man of morals always falls back and humbles himself,
His heart is deep and silent.
He treats people with love and kindness.
He has nothing but sincerity in his words.
He governs with fairness.
He is competent in business.
He chooses the right time to take action.
There is nothing to contend with,
so he is without reproach.
Image from Forbes
Our bodies are 66-70% water, so if we are too dehydrated, we cannot survive. We need water. Moreover, the earth is also called a water planet. The Earth is a watery place. About 71 percent of the Earth’s surface is water-covered. Water plays a significant role for humans and the Earth. All living creatures on this planet are dependent on the water; the water is the source of life.
You might have heard the story of the jar – a life lesson by a professor to her students. I would like to use the same ingredients to show you the character of water. If we fill the jar with large rocks, we can still put small pebbles inside, and again we can still put sand in as well. The story serves to demonstrate that we should not focus on little things that trouble us, but rather, keep in mind our large goals in the midst of them. The lesson she tells ends here, but I want to point out that the full jar can still be filled with water.
When looking at the character of water, one might notice that the water only flows downward to the lowest place. It has no constant shape nor steady flow. We see nothing in water but humbleness and harmony without competition. No wonder Lao Tzu regards water as Tao. Water fills any spaces that we lack in because it travels to the bottom and because water is shapeless as it flows. The water is the Tao in our full lives.
The Tao is infinite, eternal.
Why is it eternal?
It was never born;
thus it can never die.
Why is it infinite?
It has no desires for itself;
thus it is present for all beings.
The Master stays behind;
that is why she is ahead.
She is detached from all things;
that is why she is one with them.
Because she has let go of herself,
she is perfectly fulfilled.
(Translated by S. Mitchell)
This chapter talks about being egoless or selfless.
It is the easiest chapter to explain because there are many examples of this in human history.
My friend told me the story of one terminal ill patient who had lung cancer, whose doctor told him that he did not have much time to live.
He pitied himself and passed his last days complaining at first, but then he decided that he did not have time to waste, so he decided to get involved with charity work. He was so busy helping others that forgot his pain and illness. He recovered miraculously. It seemed that when he forsook his desires; he had also removed his troubles and unhappiness at the same time. He was the happiest when he tried to do good for others and in turn also helped himself.
There is also the example of Jesus Christ, who made the most selfless sacrifice by giving up Himself for the world. Before He was crucified, He knew what great suffering He would have to bear. He was weak for a moment and asked, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me.” But right away, He remembered that he had to put the world before Himself, and instead ended His prayer with, “Yet not my will, but yours be done.” He prioritized the world above Himself, and not only did He regain life for Himself, but also for the rest of humanity as well.
The valley spirit never dies;
We call it the mysterious female.
The gates of the mysterious female,
These we call the roots of Heaven and Earth.
Subtle yet everlasting! It seems to exist.
In being used, it is not exhausted.
(from – The Tao and the Field)
What is a valley? – It is between the two peaks. The difference between peak and valley is that the peak is high up there and filled with rocks whereas the valley is on the bottom and can be like an empty vessel.
The spirit of the valley is the spirit of emptiness. The valley represents the acceptance, endurance, humbleness and it is like the female. On the other hand, the spirit of the mountains is more like the male. It is boastful and not as humble and accepting as the valley. The valley just accepts and without taking action and moreover, it gives life, and then life goes on forever and ever. So it can be called the roots of Heaven and Earth. It is everlasting. Here, he uses the valley to explain “Tao” which is empty, existing, eternal and never exhausted.
As I was searching the material for this chapter, I found that there were a lot of explanations for this chapter and wondered why some did not bother to address the valley spirit. I think it’s important to keep the imagery of the valley spirit in the text. As you can see in chapter 28, he mentions it again:
“…Be the valley of the universe!/Being the valley of the universe…”
Nature is unkind: (Heaven and earth are unbiased)
It treats the creation like sacrificial straw-dogs.
The Sage is unkind: (The sage is not sentimental)
He treats the people like sacrificial straw-dogs.
How the universe is like a bellows!
Empty, yet it gives a supply that never fails;
The more it is worked, the more it brings forth.
By many words is wit exhausted.
Rather, therefore, hold to the core.
(Translated by Yu Tang Lin)
Note: The addition here in parentheses is to make the passage more understandable.
The original Chinese text is confusing. The direct translation of the first sentence – 天地不仁 – is “Nature is unkind.” In chapter 67, Lao Tze mentioned the three treasures, which he holds fast and watches closely – the first one is mercy. Therefore here it just implies that the heaven and earth are impartial or unbiased. The direct translation of the second sentence – 聖人不仁 – “The Sage is unkind” is also confusing. With the same principle, here we translate it to mean that the sage is not sentimental and has no preference. Both the sage and heaven and earth just follow the law of nature.
So here: Heaven and earth are unbiased, and because they treat everything like straw-dogs, they let it run its course. Similarly, saints are not sentimental; they have no preference, and also treat the people like the straw dog. Between heaven and earth, is it like a bellows? It is empty and not exhausted, the more you work, the more wind comes out, it is endless. It counts less if you use more words, as too much speech leads to mental silence. It is better to return to the core, that is to keep your mind quiet and empty.
Here Lao Tzu uses two things to explain. The first thing is the straw dog which is used for sacrifice during prayer. Once the prayer ends, the straw is thrown away. It shows that both heaven, earth, and the saint have no bias, they only follow nature and treat the people equally, letting them go with the flow.
The second thing is the bellows. As long as we work on it, the wind will come out and never be exhausted. So the heaven and earth are like the bellows, it is empty but never exhausted and it is up to us to use it.