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Conquering the World by Inaction

Part 48 of the Tao Teh King for Awakening

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In the pursuit of learning, every day something is acquired. In the pursuit of Tao, every day something is dropped.

Less and less is done until non-action is achieved. When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.

The world is ruled by letting things take their course. It cannot be ruled by interfering.

(Tao Teh King 48–Feng and English translation)

In the pursuit of learning, every day something is acquired. In the pursuit of Tao, every day something is dropped.

Byrn: “One who seeks knowledge learns something new every day. One who seeks the Tao unlearns something new every day.”

We must realize that “learning” and “knowledge” here mean the accumulation of the trivia that passes for learning and knowledge but are really the fluff of an idle mind. Worldly people cram their minds full of pointless ideas and facts in a desperate attempt to cover their inner and outer emptiness. I once had a conversation with a man who told me with great satisfaction that his entire life was on a completely different track from it had been previously. This he told me was because: 1) he had gotten a divorce, 2) had taken a course in Ancient Wisdom, 3) he was learning to play the saxophone, and 4) he was going on a cruise. What a life change! Running in the hamster wheel of their lives, people are occupied and blinded to the pathetic pettiness of their lives and minds.

But those who seek the Tao are the opposite. They shrug off the nonsense they were indoctrinated with as children and adults and simplify their existence so the horizons of their life will be clear and ready for seeing the Tao. They turn from “reality” to the Real, from “truth” to the True, from “knowledge” to Knowing, from “living” to Life. It takes a courageous mind to be willing to discover what is actually true and what is false, what is worthwhile and what is worthless. Such an outlook certainly estranges us from the false realm of ordinary life. As Shelley wrote:

Lift not the painted veil which those who live
Call Life: though unreal shapes be pictured there,
And it but mimic all we would believe
With colours idly spread–behind, lurk Fear
And Hope, twin Destinies; who ever weave
Their shadows, o’er the chasm, sightless and drear.
I knew one who had lifted it–he sought,
For his lost heart was tender, things to love,
But found them not, alas! nor was there aught
The world contains, the which he could approve.
Through the unheeding many he did move,
A splendour among shadows, a bright blot
Upon this gloomy scene, a Spirit that strove
For truth, and like the Preacher found it not.

Less and less is done until non-action is achieved. When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.

This may sound like nonsense, but if we look at it carefully it will make total sense. The wise person becomes less and less intent on busyness and gets down to business: the knowing of the Tao. He eliminates activity that is nothing but distraction or insincere fulfillment of shallow social expectations. He does not become idle, but has no involvement with activity that is to no worthwhile purpose or which produces no desirable or lasting result.

Only that which has genuine benefit interests him. As far as the world is concerned he does nothing and wastes his time. A friend of mine was constantly pestered by her mother if she tried to read a book. “Why don’t you do something?” her mother would say. Once when traveling on a bus I heard a woman complaining to someone about how her son had a good job that made money but was always listening to music or reading. “And this week he’s going to an opera, even though he’s been to that one before,” she complained. “But it’s not the story, it’s the music,” said her companion. “Well, I don’t see it!” retorted the disgruntled mother. Naturally I had to get a look at the offender, so I dawdled around and witnessed the meeting of mother and son. He was dressed in suit, tie and overcoat, obviously prosperous and obviously intelligent. She kept looking at him and though he had two heads and after she managed to gripe about “that opera” and his life in general he got her into a taxi and away they went for what I felt sure would be a horrible visit for both of them.

When we no longer waste our time and life we accomplish a great deal: everything, in fact.

The world is ruled by letting things take their course. It cannot be ruled by interfering.

Byrn: “Mastery of the world is achieved by letting things take their natural course. You cannot master the world by changing the natural way.” Does this mean we do nothing? No; it means we do what needs to be done and then let the cosmos respond as it will. All our lives we have been seeing people force things in their life rather than realizing that they have to let the tides of the world determine the result. Usually, if they bully the universe into doing what they want the result is disastrous or completely nil. They only end up with wasted time and energy.

Montessori education (real Montessori, that is) is a perfect example of Lao Tzu’s principle. Children are never required to study something. Rather it is presented to them and if they are ready for it they respond with interest, otherwise not. We must deal with the world in the same way. In spiritual matters this is especially crucial. Consider Lao Tzu; he said what he had to say and then passed on leaving the result up to those who encountered his wisdom. Buddha embodied this, also. And so do all viable spiritual teachers.

Next in the Tao Teh King for Awakening: The People’s Hearts 

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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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