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