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The Rhythm of Life

Part 36 of the Tao Teh King for Awakening

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He who is to be made to dwindle (in power) must first be caused to expand.

He who is to be weakened must first be made strong.

He who is to be laid low must first be exalted to power.

He who is to be taken away from must first be given.

This is the Subtle Light.

Gentleness overcomes strength; fish should be left in the deep pool, and sharp weapons of the state should be left where none can see them.

(Tao Teh King 36)

This is a very intriguing passage of the Tao Teh King, which is my way of saying that it seems impossible to determine what Lao Tzu meant by it! But I think we can extract the fundamental principles behind what is either advice or observation of human ways.

The main thing that will help us somewhat is the principle that getting implies losing. Whatever we gain must eventually be lost; whatever comes must eventually go; whatever change may occur must eventually resolve back into the previous state. In the ultimate sense, all manifestation must return to the unmanifest state that is the pure Tao. For if we have not had something from eternity, we never can have it, and so when reality begins to dawn we lose it.

Lao Tzu is certainly telling us that increase leads to decrease, strength leads to weakness, elevation leads to coming down, and gaining leads to losing. So to run obsessively after anything is to ensure our eventual experience of its opposite. Therefore we should live our lives intelligently and pursue that which is innately good, not merely pleasant or advantageous. For the truly good does not lead to evil, but only to increase of good. Why? Because good is the characteristic of the Tao. Evil is a distortion or denial of the Tao. Truth never leads to lies.

To understand these principles is no small thing. That is why Lao Tzu comments: “This is the Subtle Light,” the insight that is possible only to the illuminated intellect which functions mostly on the highest intuitive level.

When Lao Tzu tells us that “gentleness overcomes strength” he is speaking an entire mode of life based on the understanding in the first part of this verse. Taoist writings frequently speak of the need to be yielding: not in the sense of being weak, conciliatory or wishy-washy, but in the sense of being flexible, acknowledging the realities of a situation, and shaping our actions accordingly. I once saw a sign that said: “Would you rather work harder or smarter?” Lao Tzu is saying that banging our heads again the door may eventually open it, but we may be too damaged to go through it. Rather, we must observe the nature and structure of the door and go about opening it in a manner that makes sense and succeeds.

We must also know when something needs changing and when it does not. To pursue foolish goals, even if they are attainable, can be more harmful than pursuing goals that cannot be reached. Many people regret it when they get what they strive for. So Lao Tzu tells us to consider well the fact that many times “fish should be left in the deep pool.” In the West we say: “Let sleeping dogs lie” and: “Leave well enough alone.” Fish belong and thrive in a deep pool. They belong there and we should not upset the natural, and therefore positive and sensible, order. (Taoists are traditionally vegetarian.)

“Sharp weapons of the state” and of private life “should be left where none can see them” and get wrong ideas. Saint Paul wrote: “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not” (I Corinthians 10:23). The way of “power plays” are almost always a two-edged sword that cuts the wielders as well as the targets. Cunning and devious ways are dangerous things. The short-term advantage may seem good, but eventually grief and harm comes to those who employ them. Parents especially should protect their children from becoming enamored of the “quick-fix” and “looking out for ‘number one’” approaches to life. I have seen both poor and rich fall into this trap and suffer, sometimes without any alleviation or remedy whatsoever.

It is extremely crucial for us to understand that Lao Tzu is not advocating passivity and the line of least resistance and surrender to negative forces and situations. He is urging us to gauge the truth of a situation, to weigh the consequences of all actions, and thus be able to live successfully in the truest and highest sense. Centered in the Tao, only good can result.

Next in the Tao Teh King for Awakening: World Peace

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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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