BY STEFAN STENUDD
I'm a Swedish writer, and instructor of the peaceful martial art aikido. In addition to fiction, I've written books about Taoism as well as other Chinese and Japanese traditions. I'm also a historian of ideas, researching the thought patterns in creation myths. My personal website: stenudd.com
Tao Te Ching 64
The Lao Tzu Taoist Classic Translated and Explained
Stillness is easy to maintain.
What has not yet emerged is easy to prevent.
The brittle is easy to shatter.
The small is easy to scatter.
Solve it before it happens.
Order it before chaos emerges.
A tree as wide as a man's embrace
Grows from a tiny shoot.
A tower of nine stories
Starts with a pile of dirt.
A climb of eight hundred feet
Starts where the foot stands.
Those who act will fail.
Those who seize will lose.
So, the sage does not act and therefore does not fail,
Does not seize and therefore does not lose.
People fail at the threshold of success.
Be as cautious at the end as at the beginning.
Then there will be no failure.
Therefore the sage desires no desire,
Does not value rare treasures,
Learns without learning,
Recovers what people have left behind.
He wants all things to follow their own nature,
But dares not act.
The Sage Dares Not Act
The first half of this chapter adds arguments to what was explained in the previous one: the importance of solving problems before they grow big.
The connection to chapter 63 is so obvious that one must wonder why they are divided. The reason might be one of length. Chapter 63 is long enough as it is, without the first half of this chapter. Together they would form a chapter longer by far than any other in the Tao Te Ching.
We are reminded of the fact that the division of the text into 81 chapters is a later revision. It was done several centuries after the book was written. The only division assumed to be original was that into two parts: chapters 1-37, called Tao, and 38-81, called Te.
The last line that deals with the theme of the previous chapter is the one about a climb of eight hundred feet. Most versions of it read differently: "A journey of a thousand li starts where you stand." But both the manuscripts found in Mawangdui, dating to around 200 BC, have lines similar to the one used here.
The manuscript from Guodian, a hundred years older, is inconclusive on this point, because of damages to it.
I can understand why the line was changed somewhere along the way. The line above it already introduces height, so length would make more sense to deal with next. Still, I have decided to go with what is so far established as the oldest version.
The two versions make no difference in meaning. Projects of whatever size are minute at the moment they begin.
Attention to the End
The second half of this chapter deals with the danger of action. What is done is hard to undo, so it has to be considered very seriously beforehand.
Lao Tzu actually claims that most actions fail, if not all of them. Only if there is just as much care about the end as the beginning, there is a chance of success. That really means the same care all through.
That might seem self-evident, but it's easily neglected. We tend to start our projects with resolute energy and complete attention, but soon our concentration wavers and our efforts decrease. It's as if we tire quickly. Or we might have the illusion that things we start reach their completion automatically, as if nothing can go wrong along the way. It may be a combination of both.
Our behavior is bound by patterns inside our minds. The habit we have of starting things and then just letting them go, stems from the patterns of how we think about the world.
It's the rhythm of existence: We give life to our children, take care of them while they need it to survive, and then let them go – beyond the future that we can ourselves expect to reach. Probably, we tend to see all our projects as children of ours, and therefore lack the urge to follow them through to the end. We might not even want them to ever end.
It's strange how human deeds are slowed down right before completion. The last steps of a long walk are not the quickest. At the end of a meal we chew less eagerly than when the plate was full. The end of a song is rarely as abrupt as its beginning. We hurry into things but hesitate when the end comes near.
In many cases there are obvious reasons for this. Still, it's a pattern we follow, even when there's no reason for it. We like beginnings but fear endings.
Surely, this has to do with the fact that we will all die, and we know it. A start is like birth, an end is like death. We cheer the former and dread the latter. Lao Tzu has told us that we should not hurry from the one to the other, and we rarely do – willingly. So, we have great trouble finishing things of any kind.
Because of our unwillingness to deal with endings, we are prone to fail with what we begin.
Shortcomings of the Sage
The sage has such respect for this shortcoming of ours, he refrains from action. He desires no desire, seeks no treasure, ignores knowledge, and settles for what others reject. He has no ambition. He dares not act, although he is wise enough to lead the world around him on its natural course.
He must suspect that he, too, has the shortcomings he finds in others, at least when it comes to action. So, in his wisdom he refrains from acting.
In many versions of the Tao Te Ching, the last lines of this chapter read: "He lets all things follow their own nature, and dares not act." This implies that the sage is afraid of disturbing the good order, and therefore refrains from action.
Again, the Mawangdui manuscripts present another reading: "He could help all things follow their own nature, but dares not act." It's supported by the Guodian manuscript. I have allowed myself a small compromise, with the word `wants' instead of `could help,' which is sort of halfway to `lets.'
Still, the difference is considerable. It means that although the sage sees the need for improvement, he holds still. If interfered with, even an imperfect world risks getting worse. Also when things don't go the right way, there's an additional risk in trying to correct them.
Usually, our excuse for springing into action is that there's need for improvement. There certainly is, in many cases. Still, that's no guarantee we will not make things worse. The risk is actually increased. We easily find the right course of action in a well ordered world, but how to sort out a mess?
To find the right solution, we must know where it leads and how it will end. Our discomfort with endings makes us badly equipped for that.
Lao Tzu (Lao Zi), the legendary writer of Tao Te Ching (Dao De Jing), left the Chinese emperor's court on a water buffalo, after growing tired of politics. He wrote the Tao Te Ching on the request of a border guard. Here is my translation and explanation, chapter by chapter. From the book:
Translated and explained by Stefan Stenudd.
10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18
19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27
28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36
37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45
46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54
55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63
64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72
73 74 75 76 77 78 79 80 81
Tao Te Ching - the Book