"Pounding an edge to sharpness will not make it last."
Tao Te Ching - Chapter 9
The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained
Filling all the way to the brim
Is not as good as halting in time.
Pounding an edge to sharpness
Will not make it last.
Keeping plenty of gold and jade in the palace
Makes no one able to defend it.
Displaying riches and titles with pride
Brings about one's downfall.
To retreat after a work well done is Heaven's Way.
Moderation in All
Lao Tzu ends this chapter with the expression
Heaven's Way, T'ien chih Tao, instead of just Tao, the Way. Still, the
two expressions are definitely meant to be synonymous. I
discuss this more in chapter 73, where Heaven's Way also
The modesty and moderation suggested in this
chapter are at the core of Lao Tzu's teaching. This he concludes
from observing the discreet and yet omnipotent workings of
Tao, the Way, as the ruling law of nature. Mankind should
behave in the same manner. That means moderation in all.
The life he recommends is hardly spectacular, at
least not on the surface. Any excess is sure to cause
trouble. People should live their lives humbly, sort of discreetly.
This goes for kings, too. Don't rock the boat.
The reward lies in peace and harmony of the mind,
and a life lived with ease.
Lao Tzu finds concrete examples showing the
necessity of his ideal. If you fill the cup to the brim, you just risk
spilling. It's a waste. In the Bible, this is called gluttony.
Sometimes we are like children, biting off more than we can
chew. It will not only wear us down, but it will also make
everything taste more bland than it would if we consumed it
with some restrain.
If you hammer a blade it may get sharp, but also
fragile. It breaks easily, and then what good is its sharpness?
In life, this is pushing things. It happens easily when we try
to make something more out of what we have at our
disposal. Whether this is driving a car faster than it's
manufactured to manage, or forcing our own bodies and minds to
feats beyond their capacity, the outcome is likely to be very
If you assemble riches, you will certainly attract people
who want to take them away from you. Either they succeed,
and you have nothing, or you spend your life struggling to
protect your fortune. Then you have little time to enjoy
it. That's just as true today as it was thousands of years ago.
If anything, holding on to one's wealth has become
Present day society is obsessed with money, and
it's taken for granted that being rich guarantees happiness.
We assume that it must be fortunate to have a big fortune.
But upon scrutiny we rarely find this to be the case. Instead,
life becomes a kind of imprisonment, slavery under the
obsession. The more money you have, the more it dominates
A poor man's dream about getting rich is much
more pleasant than a rich man's fear of becoming poor. Money
is seductive, but a steep price must be paid for it. Actually,
it costs you the joy that money was supposed to bring.
Fame Brings Envy
Titles and elevated positions in society are just as
deceptive as money. They cause envy and animosity. Others want
to bring you down, either to replace you or just so they
don't have to look up to you.
Lately, fame has become the great quest. People
think that if they just get famous, their lives will be splendid
like the lives of celebrities, as seen in magazines and on
TV shows. But that's just entertainment. It's a gilded version
of reality. Under its shiny surface there is not much that
separates the celebrities from the rest of us – except the fear
of losing their fame.
Yes, fame is like money: It's much more of a torment
to fear losing it, than it is to dream about reaching it.
In the last sentence, Lao Tzu states what is repeated
many times in the Tao Te Ching
: Do good without
demanding praise for it. Then you act according to the highest ideals.
So does Tao in ruling the world discretely by its laws.
Nature obeys without being aware of any rules for its behavior.
The mightiest force is the least visible.
This discretion of the laws of the universe is evident
in the perspective of quantum physics, where the very
smallest components are said to contain the rules by which all
the stars and galaxies of the cosmos abide. There is no
struggle involved in it. The world behaves according to its
attributes, which are carried by particles too small to be seen in
So, every human being should work with the
same modesty. Also, when you don't demand any praise for
your deeds, there is no reason for others to question them.
© Stefan Stenudd.
Tao Te Ching Explained
The 81 Chapters of Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
translated and explained by Stefan Stenudd.
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