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 something that Sri Ma Anandamayi, one of India’s most renowned spiritual leaders of the twentieth century once said in a public discussion (satsang) when the subject of loss after gain was brought up. Her statement was direct and simple: “Getting implies losing.” That is, 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.
Choosing the Good, not the merely advantageous
So Lao Tzu is certainly telling us that increase leads to decrease, strength leads to weakness, elevation leads to coming down, and gaining–as Ma said–leads to losing. So run obsessively after these “good” things is to ensure our eventual experience of their opposites. Therefore we should live our lives intelligently and pursue that which is innately good–not merely advantageous. For the truly good does not lead to evil, but only to and 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. Mercy never leads to cruelty. The Beatitudes of Christ are exactly such things, and should be taken as a guide to life. (See The Gnosis of the Ten Commandments and Beatitudes.)
To understand these principles is no small thing. That is why Lao Tzu comments: “This is the Subtle Light”–insight that is possible only to the illuminated intellect which functions mostly on the 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 both succeeds and makes sense.
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.
“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 those 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.
Further reading—Commentaries on spiritual classics: