When man is born, he is tender and weak; at death, he is hard and stiff. When the things and plants are alive, they are soft and supple; when they are dead, they are brittle and dry. Therefore hardness and stiffness are the companions of death, and softness and gentleness are the companions of life.
Therefore when an army is headstrong, it will lose in a battle.
When a tree is hard, it will be cut down.
The big and strong belong underneath.
The gentle and weak belong at the top.
(Tao Teh King 76)
When man is born, he is tender and weak; at death, he is hard and stiff. When the things and plants are alive, they are soft and supple; when they are dead, they are brittle and dry. Therefore hardness and stiffness are the companions of death, and softness and gentleness are the companions of life. Feng and English: “Therefore the stiff and unbending is the disciple of death. The gentle and yielding is the disciple of life.” A major principle of Taoism is the insistence on flexibility and the ability to “roll with the punches” rather than punch back and compound the conflict.
In the Taoist view life is pliable and death, or that which breeds death, is hard and unyielding. “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5), is the same view. It did not originate with Jesus, for the Psalm says: “The meek shall inherit the earth; and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace” (Psalms 37:11). According to the Aquarian Gospel the Essenes were well acquainted with the Taoist writings, and the psalmist may have been also. (Not all of the psalms were written by David). There is a great deal of mistaken thought and action that arises from a misapplied insistence on standing up and being firm about principles that are purely personal rather than truly matters of justice and righteousness. The principle of forgiveness and returning good for evil is purely Taoist in the context of this section of the Tao Teh King. So is: “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” (II Corinthians 3:6).
Therefore when an army is headstrong, it will lose in a battle. Wu: “Therefore, a mighty army tends to fall by its own weight, just as dry wood is ready for the axe.” Any individual or group which exalts their “standards” or ideas of “right” above good sense and respect for others will also lose and fall. “Here I stand,” insisted Martin Luther and look at the spiritual blight he ushered into the world. Nailing personal ideas to doors as Luther did is not the way to bring either wisdom or right.
When a tree is hard, it will be cut down. This is why both spiritual and political movements come and go. When they become “giants of the forest” their death warrant is already made out.
The big and strong belong underneath. Wu: “The mighty and the great will be laid low.” Mabry: “The strong and rigid are broken and laid low.” This can be understood in two legitimate ways. One is that the great and powerful should be the servants of the people, they should be the support and burden-bearers for those of lesser power than they. The other is that such people will, if they do not cultivate humility, flexibility and care for those “beneath” them, themselves be broken and brought low.
The gentle and weak belong at the top. Wu: “The humble and the weak will be exalted.” Mabry: “The soft and weak will always overcome.” Here again we find that the meek and humble will eventually rise, even if only after tremendous suffering and upheaval. Also that it is those who are mild and aware of their own frailty that have the moral strength needed to be leaders and governors.
All the preceding can be applied to the inner polity of the seeker for enlightenment. Each one of us is a kingdom and often various of our aspects clamor for the pre-eminence and control–even tyranny. Just as a state should be ordered rightly, so must we be. Therefore Lao Tzu is a master teacher of both governments and individuals who seek to be united with the Tao and embody its traits perfectly.
Next in the Tao Teh King for Awakening: Bending the Bow