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Big and Small Countries

Part 61 of the Tao Teh King for Awakening

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A great country is like the lowland toward which all streams flow. It is the Reservoir of all under heaven, the Feminine of the world. The Feminine always conquers the Masculine by her quietness, by lowering herself through her quietness.

Hence, if a great country can lower itself before a small country, it will win over the small country; and if a small country can lower itself before a great country, it will win over the great country.

The one wins by stooping; the other by remaining low.

What a great country wants is simply to embrace more people; and what a small country wants is simply to come to serve its patron.

Thus, each gets what it wants. But it behooves a great country to lower itself.

(Tao Teh King 61–Wu translation)

A great country is like the lowland toward which all streams flow. It is the Reservoir of all under heaven, the Feminine of the world. The Feminine always conquers the Masculine by her quietness, by lowering herself through her quietness.

“Great” does not just refer to size, but to the character of a major county. Such a country is receptive not aggressive, welcoming all outside influence that proves worthy, and willing to adopt (and adapt) that which is superior. This has been a characteristic trait of India throughout its history. Therefore it could continually advance in civilization and in richness of culture. The Indians were open to outside elements and yet able to maintain their distinctive character while assimilating and making them their own. Another example is Chinese Buddhism, which is an evolutionary recreation of the Buddhism originally brought to China, and permeated with the genius of Chinese culture.

The Divine Feminine prevails by the same kind of openness. She receives and recreates all things for their betterment. This is not passivity, but intense activity whose openness can be mistaken for weak acquiescence. But it is really a working of power. The Feminine does not play a “Yes, Dear,” role in relation to the Masculine. Rather, she transforms the Masculine by receiving it completely and evolving it into a form that is a development of its inherent qualities: qualities that would have lain dormant otherwise, and thus the Masculine would never have been fully itself. The Feminine does not absorb, she receives, transmutes and gives a rebirth to all things. Thus she is the Mother of All.

Hence, if a great country can lower itself before a small country, it will win over the small country; and if a small country can lower itself before a great country, it will win over the great country.

“Lower itself” is not a very good translation, nor would “humble itself” be acceptable. Rather, Lao Tzu means a large country should exhibit positive condescension in the sense of respectful accommodation and regard for a smaller nation. It should be like a brother or even a father–certainly more than a friend–which shares a common interest and outlook with the smaller country. Empires have been built in this way by the wise.

The one wins by stooping; the other by remaining low. Mabry: “Therefore, by being humble, one gains. And the other, being humble already, also gains.” Whether the larger assimilates the smaller or they remain separate with the larger assisting and even fostering the lesser which comes to depend on it, both are mutually benefited and both win by such an arrangement. Of course Lao Tzu is assuming that both are being honest and open with one another without underhanded or ulterior motives. I mention this because in its heyday the British Empire continually strove to extend itself by pretending to be of a fostering and protecting character to various nations. In fact, they liked using the word “protectorate,” though eventual control and even tyrannical domination was their purpose.

What a great country wants is simply to embrace more people; and what a small country wants is simply to come to serve its patron. This is meant in a totally positive way, so it is not cynical as it might seem to us living in a morass of political fraud throughout the world.

Lao Tzu in no way opposes the desire of a country to extend its influence either through increasing its population or becoming a leader and trendsetter in a purely cultural sense. There is an empire of government and an empire of moral or cultural influence. No matter how the Soviet Union inveighed against the Decadent West and the United States in particular, on every level their politicians and the common citizens engaged in an almost desperate imitation of everything Western and especially American. Right in Moscow at the height of the Cold War there was a beauty shop called (in Russian) American Woman. I well remember seeing a special program about “youth” in the Soviet Union complete with interviews of teenagers (obviously privileged children of the leaders of the Communist Party) who had flip hairdos (the girls, that is) and were ham radio fans and demonstrated their skill in performing American popular music. There was even a time when a pair of blue jeans made in America could easily be sold in Russia for the equivalent of one hundred dollars. Even today America “rules,” despite the continual sneering and outright hostility that is so chic among the envious in Europe and the Middle East.

And it is only good practical sense for smaller or less influential countries to desire the benefits of friendship with the powerful and affluent countries.

Thus, each gets what it wants. But it behooves a great country to lower itself. Mabry: “Thus, both needs are satisfied And each gets what it wants. Remember, the great country should always humble itself.” Byrn: “Both large and small countries benefit greatly from humility.” If humility and sincere benevolence would dominate our “world scene” we could live in a very different and better world.

Next in the Tao Teh King for Awakening: The Good Man’s Treasure

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Introduction to The Tao Teh King for Awakening

Chapters of The Tao Teh King for Awakening

Preface to The Tao Teh King for Awakening

  1. On the Absolute Tao
  2. The Rise of Relative Opposites
  3. Action Without Deeds
  4. The Character of Tao
  5. Nature
  6. The Spirit of the Valley
  7. Living for Others
  8. Water
  9. The Danger of Overweening Success
  10. Embracing the One
  11. The Utility of Not-Being
  12. The Senses
  13. Praise and Blame
  14. Prehistoric Origins
  15. The Wise Ones of Old
  16. Knowing the Eternal Law
  17. Rulers
  18. The Decline of Tao
  19. Realize the Simple Self
  20. The World and I
  21. Manifestations of Tao
  22. Futility of Contention
  23. Identification with Tao
  24. The Dregs and Tumors of Virtue
  25. The Four Eternal Models
  26. Heaviness and Lightness
  27. On Stealing the Light
  28. Keeping to the Female
  29. Warning Against Interference
  30. Warning Against the Use of Force
  31. Weapons of Evil
  32. Tao is Like the Sea
  33. Knowing Oneself
  34. The Great Tao Flows Everywhere
  35. The Peace of Tao
  36. The Rhythm of Life
  37. World Peace
  38. Degeneration
  39. Unity Through Complements
  40. The Principle of Reversion
  41. Qualities of the Taoist
  42. The Violent Man
  43. The Softest Substance
  44. Be Content
  45. Calm Quietude
  46. Racing Horses
  47. Pursuit of Knowledge
  48. Conquering the World by Inaction
  49. The People’s Hearts
  50. The Preserving of Life
  51. The Mystic Virtue
  52. Stealing the Absolute
  53. Brigandage
  54. The Individual and the State
  55. The Character of the Child
  56. Beyond Honor and Disgrace
  57. The Art of Government
  58. Unobtrusive Government
  59. Be Sparing
  60. Governing a Big Country
  61. Big and Small Countries
  62. The Good Man’s Treasure
  63. Difficult and Easy
  64. Beginning and End
  65. The Grand Harmony
  66. The Lords of the Ravines
  67. The Three Treasures
  68. The Virtue of Not-Contending
  69. Camouflage
  70. They Know Me Not
  71. Sick-Mindedness
  72. On Punishment (1)
  73. On Punishment (2)
  74. On Punishment (3)
  75. On Punishment (4)
  76. Hard and Soft
  77. Bending the Bow
  78. Nothing Weaker than Water
  79. Peace Settlements
  80. The Small Utopia
  81. The Way of Heaven

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