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The Danger of Overweening Success

Part 9 of the Tao Teh King for Awakening

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It is better to leave a vessel unfilled, than to attempt to carry it when it is full. If you keep feeling a point that has been sharpened, the point cannot long preserve its sharpness.

When gold and jade fill the hall, their possessor cannot keep them safe. When wealth and honors lead to arrogancy, this brings its evil on itself. When the work is done, and one’s name is becoming distinguished, to withdraw into obscurity is the way of Heaven.

(Tao Teh King 9)

Although Taoism is often thought of as a mystical system of magic and wonders, with sages flying through the sky and immortals hidden away in secret places, it is actually eminently practical and a philosophy of exquisite simplicity that is yet awesomely profound. But it does have all those other mystical-magical qualities as well in a perfectly consistent manner.

This ninth section of the Tao Teh King deals with the wisdom of “lesser is better” in contrast to our modern “more is better and most is best” unwisdom. The translators of the first part do not agree in their understanding, so we need to look at all views in hope of at least getting the general idea, which I think is rather clear.

It is better to leave a vessel unfilled, than to attempt to carry it when it is full. If you keep feeling a point that has been sharpened, the point cannot long preserve its sharpness. This is Legge’s translation. Mitchell renders it: “Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill. Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt.” And Lin Yutang: “Stretch [a bow] to the very full, and you will wish you had stopped in time. Temper a (sword-edge) to its very sharpest, and the edge will not last long.”

Flexibility is a cardinal virtue in Taoism, so perhaps Lin Yutang’s interpretation is correct. For if a bow is stretched as far as it can go, the archer loses full control and may miss the target, but if there is some leeway (flexibility) he can aim with confidence and accuracy. In the same way, a vessel filled to the maximum can be impossible to move or carry.

The ability to function well (even perfectly) in both the inner and outer worlds is a prime principle of Taoism. It is not enough to speak high-flown philosophy and delight in being able to figure out abstruse (and often obtuse) philosophical points. So whatever the exact translation, the idea is gotten across.

The same principle is embodied in the second half which deals with overdoing something, with being obsessive about obtaining the best or the most. Such an endeavor always results in the best and the most being pushed out of reach by our efforts to reach it. Only those who are relaxed and detached can really live in peace and harmony, and that is the true “most” and “best.” It is a matter of living, not getting.

When gold and jade fill the hall, their possessor cannot keep them safe. When wealth and honors lead to arrogancy, this brings its evil on itself. When the work is done, and one’s name is becoming distinguished, to withdraw into obscurity is the way of Heaven. The meaning here is that too much is too much, and robs us of the very thing we were looking for: security and satisfaction. It is good to know when to stop short of too much.

The belief that very successful and renowned people should withdraw while at the peak of their accomplishments and thereby evade the decline that would inevitably come, is unique to Taoism. Since Taoism was the foundation of Chinese philosophical thought, it pervaded all other philosophies such as Confucianism and Buddhism. As a result people of all persuasions acknowledged this fact, and it was quite the norm for renowned personages to quit all public life and go to out of the way places where they could live a simple life and not be bothered with notoriety. It was considered that the ideal form of withdrawal was to take up the heremitic life and live in solitary tranquility, and in that way continue to benefit society by example. Such hermits were sometimes visited by those who had great power and influence over society, and their advice, given in their “outside” perspective, wrought much good for the entire nation. As a result, even today hermits are looked upon as potential benefactors by the Chinese people.

Next in the Tao Teh King for Awakening: Embracing the One

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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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