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Futility of Contention

Part 22 of the Tao Teh King for Awakening

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To yield is to be preserved whole. To be bent is to become straight. To be hollow is to be filled. To be tattered is to be renewed. To be in want is to possess. To have plenty is to be confused.

Therefore the Sage embraces the One, and becomes the model of the world. He does not reveal himself, and is therefore luminous. He does not justify himself, and is therefore far-famed. He does not boast of himself, and therefore people give him credit. He does not pride himself, and is therefore the chief among men.

Is it not indeed true, as the ancients say, “To yield is to be preserved whole?” Thus he is preserved and the world does him homage.

(Tao Teh King 22)

To yield is to be preserved whole. To be bent is to become straight. To be hollow is to be filled. To be tattered is to be renewed. To be in want is to possess. To have plenty is to be confused.

The ancient Taoists were very much like the Stoics of Greece who prized the principle cited by Saint Paul: “Come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you” (II Corinthians 6:17). The Tao is the Source of All and the Indweller of All, yet It does not assert itself–at least not in the manner of human beings. Seeking to be like the Tao we can recover our identity as the Tao in essence. Consequently Lao Tzu is giving us several points of “likeness” that we should cultivate.

To yield is to be preserved whole. First we must understand that Lao Tzu is not telling us to become mental and moral jellyfish, always giving in to everything and never at any time standing firm on anything–this is the way of the morally lazy. Considering the pungent things Lao Tzu has to say about aspects of personal and social life, it is obvious he took a very firm stand on many things, and expressed his opinion. What he is inculcating here is both flexibility and simply stepping away from the tar baby of situations in which we would be caught and shaped by involving or committing ourselves. Almost the only activism advocated by Lao Tzu is personal discipline.

So what is he advising us? He is telling us to never get involved in a manner which will seize our mind and narrow it–which is the great danger of all advocacy and resistance, especially in social matters. To be fervent in a “cause” can be very harmful because it usually involves obsession, indignation, the spending of large amounts of time, interference, the adoption of a “pro” or “con” self-identity, and a narrowing of interest and awareness. I have known people who were really a one-note personality, continually thinking and speaking of a single thing: their advocacy or their opposition.

One of the worst aspects of this is a supposedly moral insistence that a person “stand up and be counted” or “speak out whenever necessary.” This can entail being a real nuisance. I think we all know people who consider it an obligation for them to express an opinion on everything, no matter how small–often arguing on and on–if they are to be really honest. I knew a woman who felt it an obligation to rebuke anyone who said or did anything she considered mistaken or wrong–and I do mean anything. Contempt, bullying, and often cruelty spiced her “honesty.” She often boasted about her practice of writing what she called “get straight letters” to those who transgressed her principles. All she really did was vent her resentments and prejudices. Finally her only friends were two dogs.

Lao Tzu is certainly advocating the ability to know when to speak and when not to speak, when to act and when not to act–and when we do speak and act we must know how to be quit of the matter and not hang on to it like a dog worrying a rag. There are times when we should express our convictions, but then end it right there and put it out of our mind and get on with our life. We often hear about being possessed by possessions. The remedy is not to have nothing, but to be able to own things and not be owned by them. It is the same way with our words and actions. We need to know how to let go, not to keep on. The ability to let go is a necessary factor for inward peace. Actually, Lao Tzu is recommending the attitude expressed in the Gita where we are told to act as we should and then let the results be what they are–to let go, move on, and put our energies where they should be.

If we follow the sage’s counsel, we will “be preserved whole”–not shattered or reshaped in the image of any object or situation. Simply facing facts and accepting them for what they are is part of this wisdom. Ultimately Lao Tzu is urging us to a kind of benevolent and wise indifference, the ability to let things be and go on our way. Is it any surprise that the Taoists tended to the heremitic life? Even when living in a large city, Taoists lived in a very self-contained manner, with a light touch all around.

To be bent is to become straight. If we can be flexible, we will have the ability to be “straight” within ourselves, not shaped or twisted by outer influences. Even if something pushes at us, we will be able to retain our footing. Years ago we had salt and pepper shakers that were round, but could not be knocked over because there was a heavy metal weight in their base. Children (me included) loved knocking or pushing them down over and over, watching them immediately come right back to upright–and not rocking around, either. They were a perfect symbol of mental equilibrium. It is the same with the wise, and the same with the Tao. In its manifestation the Tao undergoes an infinite variety of changes, yet remains unchanging. All around us is the Tao, and no matter how much we assault It and seek to destroy It, it yields and bends and thus remains Itself in total integrity.

To be hollow is to be filled. Byrn: “If you want to become full, first let yourself become empty.” Chan: “To be empty is to be full.” Both of these differing translations give a valid aspect to this principle. Only an empty vessel can be filled. A vessel with rocks in it will not be able to receive and hold the intended amount of water. In the same way, a life cluttered with extraneous things will not be the truly full life it was intended to be. Those who mentally “possess” nothing can possess everything, for they are open to all things. To not keep any identity enables us to be everything. To “know” nothing is the way to know everything. Basically we must be ever open and ready for what comes to hand. This is the way to live in totality. When our hands are holding on to something they cannot grasp anything else, so to live with open hands is to accept and receive all. This is to be understood in an intelligent–not in a simplistic or minimal–manner. Life offers infinite possibilities to the “empty” sage.

To be tattered is to be renewed. In childhood I knew quite a few elderly people who had lived through very hard times economically, so they had a fear of things wearing out and becoming useless. Their response to this was not use anything they bought. It was really absurd. In Mill On The Floss there is a character who keeps all her newly-bought clothing in drawers with paper between them. Only after a long while can she bring herself to wear them, and by that time they are completely out of style and she looks ridiculous. I knew people like that–even some that hardly drove their auto lest it wear out or break. So they rarely went anywhere. One of my great-aunts was really obsessive about anything she got. She would not even allow her grandchildren to play with the toys she bought them. But life is not like that–it is self-renewing. So the more we live the more life will come to us. The fuller we live life the more it expands and increases. This is one of the reasons Taoists lived to be so old and retained their youthfulness. One of my dearest friends, “Grandma Sullivan,” used to climb around on her roof, repairing it herself, mowed her own extensive yard, made her own repairs to her house, and was thoroughly independent. She had been that way when young and kept it up, living to be nearly a century old without lessening any activity. She was “tattered” but renewed. Using life keeps it new.

Another aspect is in this translation by Byrn: “If you want to become new, first let yourself become old.” We must grow, develop, and be adults. Those who cling to childhood just become childish, those who do not want to grow up–the kind that call themselves “Johnny” and “Debbie” when their hair has turned white–frustrate the purpose of life. Those who let themselves become “seasoned citizens” continue to grow and be new in mind and heart. Further, those who live worthily and wisely attain a good rebirth when the present life ends. Many are those that return to birth with a continuing consciousness from the previous life, retaining the wisdom gained there, and so able to build on it in the new life, ever moving forward.

To be in want is to possess. To have plenty is to be confused. Better is the translation by Chan: “To have little is to possess. To have plenty is to be perplexed.” This has two meanings. One is that only when we have a few simple necessities can we really own them in the sense of profitably using them to our benefit without anxiety, for they will be easy to replace if need be. But when we own a lot of things we are worried and unsure as how to retain or maintain them. They cause us anxiety just by being in our lives and minds, cluttering them up in many ways. The other meaning is that those who own little can “own” all things by appreciating them and yet not having to possess or “relate” to them in any way. He who owns nothing can yet own all–so Lao Tzu tells us.

Therefore the Sage embraces the One, and becomes the model of the world.

Byrn: “For this reason the Master embraces the Tao, as an example for the world to follow.” This is quite clear and needs no comment, but I would like to point out that Lao Tzu tells us the Tao-embracing sage is an example for us to follow–not just admire and consider beyond our scope to imitate. “That is for saints” is not the view of the Taoist, for we are all part of the Tao and so no ideal, however exalted, is beyond our capacity to fulfill.

He does not reveal himself, and is therefore luminous. He does not justify himself, and is therefore far-famed. He does not boast of himself, and therefore people give him credit. He does not pride himself, and is therefore the chief among men.

He does not reveal himself, and is therefore luminous. Feng and English: “Not putting on a display, They shine forth.” Obviously they do not “shine forth” to the eyes of the ordinary person, but to those whose “Tao eyes” are open to at least some degree. I have known saints in East and West who were disregarded or sneered at by the ignorant (even if religious), but revered by those who themselves had some degree of spiritual progress. All of them simply lived the holy life and minded their own business, often hiding or downplaying their virtues and accomplishments. Nor could they be drawn out by jackasses who wanted to enter into controversy with them or test them in any way.

One of my friends was a yoga-siddha, possessing astonishing psychic powers, and head of his own ashram in western India. I loved him for his good qualities, but he was amazingly rude and contemptuous of–and to–people who did not have similar psychic experiences and powers. One of my painful memories is his treatment of a wonderful one-hundred-eight-year-old sadhu who lived next to me in the Sapta Rishi Ashram outside the holy city of Hardwar (not any more–the city has extended and engulfed the ashram property). Having learned about his advanced age, he asked me to arrange a meeting with the swami (whose name really was “Swami Om Namah Shivaya”). My heart and stomach sank. I knew he would have no use for the wonderfully humble and simple little sadhu. And I was right. After a few minutes he stood up and walked out without even a farewell to the swami. So next day when he went to Sivanandashram in Rishikesh I refused to accompany him, dreading the outcome. That night he told me that he had gotten a private interview with Sivananda and had trotted out all his psychic experiences/phenomena. Sivananda listened attentively and then quietly said: “I would not know about these things. I have never had any psychic experiences.” And that was right: he had only spiritual experiences. “But I still respect him,” was Dattabal’s comment, “because he is a great karma yogi.” Many people met Sivananda and thought he was an ignoramus and a fool because he was so unassuming and egoless. Yet many others saw his greatness and loved him as the colossal Master he was. As Yogananda wrote in a song: “Devotee knows how sweet You are. He knows whom You let know.” Having myself been fooled by great yogis who could perfectly hide their inner status, I cannot boast of my great insight–but I can express gratitude for their eventually revealing themselves to me. Lao Tzu would understand.

He does not justify himself, and is therefore far-famed. A man once came storming into Alfred Deller’s dressing-room after a concert. “Mister Deller, I just want to know that I hate your voice!” he shouted. Deller calmly replied: “Well, that is between you and your psychiatrist.” It is the same with the really wise–they live their life and what others think of them is their own problem. As Sri Ramakrishna said, when the elephant walks down the street the little dogs bark, but the elephant just keeps on walking. One mark of fake teachers and institutions is their constant anxiety about how they appear to prospective followers and the public in general. But the real ones have their consciousness focussed on the Transcendent and are satisfied with that. When people tried to get Sri Ramakrishna to define his spiritual status he would say: “I am the dust of your feet” and then bow down to them. One time someone phoned the church where FDR usually attended to ask if the President would be there the next Sunday. The pastor had answered the phone, and he replied: “We are not sure, but we are confident that God will be here.” It is all according to one’s priorities.

The wise do not expound themselves and project an image of wisdom and worthiness. They know that what they really are is the only thing that matters–and that most people are clueless regarding themselves, what to say of others. So they do not worry. Many great ones have fled from place to place to get away from clamoring adorers who understood nothing of their purpose. This is the case with Buddha Boy in Nepal. Anandamayi Ma often “disappeared” for a while, especially after having been surrounded by thousands of people for days at a time.

He does not boast of himself, and therefore people give him credit. Feng and English: “Not boasting, They receive recognition.” So it is.

He does not pride himself, and is therefore the chief among men. What is more humble than the Tao? It is and does all things, yet never announces itself, never gives commands or revelations, but awaits for awakening intelligences to figure out Its existence. It has no interest in right views or wrong views–in fact, it has no interest in anything–not even Itself. This is humility that only the Supreme Reality can have. So it is with those that know the Tao and themselves as part of the Tao–in other words: real people. They are not only “the chief among men,” they are the only men among “men.”

Is it not indeed true, as the ancients say, ‘To yield is to be preserved whole?’ Thus he is preserved and the world does him homage.

So now we are back at the beginning–and a good beginning it is, indeed. For such a one the whole world is his domain. Humanity may ignore him, but Reality does not. He is in the Tao and the Tao is in him.

Next in the Tao Teh King for Awakening: Identification with Tao

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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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