The Sage

The Sage - an introduction

圣人

Who’s a Sage? Is a Sage simply a wise person? A holy man? A saint? A philosopher? The power behind the throne? A recognized leader? An actual leader? Or just an ordinary person acting in accordance with Tao – someone whose actions are in complete harmony with their environment? In Tao, as in so many other areas of life, everything depends on context. Where verses specifically mention a Sage, they cast this person sometimes as a leader, sometimes as a viewer of life, sometimes as a student, sometimes conflating several roles in the same verse. The answer to the question of “Who – or what – is a Sage,” is, “It depends.”

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Like many concepts Westerners encounter in Oriental societies, the Shengren (Zhenren) in Chinese culture has no true equivalent in Western culture. So we need to rely on the translator’s own view of the Chinese character and its context. As with the words of many languages, Chinese characters have shades of meaning, many of which are conveyed through context and the inflections of speech rather than the fixity of writing. And don’t forget synonyms, which may be close, but not exactly the same, as our target word. In my teaching days I sometimes cringed over the results of students pulling words from a thesaurus in an effort to impress me. I’ll have to admit, they did impress me – with their ignorance of the actual meaning of the word they used. Just because a word is in a thesaurus list doesn’t mean it’s an exact match for the meaning you’re trying to convey.

Want to cast some more doubt on the meaning of translated Chinese words? Much of the early translation was done by European missionaries, each of whom viewed the text through their own particular lens and agenda, creating sages as leaders, wise men and saints with varying degrees of stature in their society. Oh, and the documents they worked from used a Chinese alphabet that didn’t exist when the Tao was composed, but one that was imposed on the language several hundred years later.

While today’s translators may not be viewing the text through stained-glass lenses, they still bring their own perspective, preconceived notions and cultural biases to the project. Like us, they’re human. Some translations use the term wise, wise person or master instead of sage. This can lend itself to the concept of an influencer, leader or ruler rather than one of the people. This may not need to be a political ruler, sometimes it can be a respected elder, or one recognized for their wisdom. Chinese meaning depends on word order.

So what are we to do with all of this confusion?

Use Tao as you’d use a map showing several ways to reach the same place. Find a translation that resonates with you. Or a commentary. Or a response in the vein that you’ll see here, where I use verses that resonate with me as jumping off points on the trail of life.

Then follow your path. Even if it’s not the same as mine, it’ll be the one that’s right for you.

Oh, and some suggestions for reading this section –

First, a few more words on translating Chinese into English. Then you’ll see my own responses to each of the Tao’s verses that specifically mention a Sage. If you agree with me, wonderful! If you don’t, wonderful! In that case I hope you make the time to consider your response to my thoughts or to the Tao’s original verse, in whatever form it comes to you. In either case, try to find ways to make your response part of your own life on your own Tao.

Oh, and if you’d like to follow the concept of Sagehood down a rabbit hole of research, ask your search engine to look up Zhenren or Shengren. The root word Zhen/Sheng is generally westernized as holy, or perfected, or genuine, or some other description that marks the person as exceptionally virtuous or good. The second character refers to the person, in many translations it’s “man”. But just saying a holy person only puts western blinders on a much broader concept. If you’d rather use Chinese characters, the traditional character is 聖人. The simplified character is 圣人. And while you’re at it, take a look at the character for woman and compare it to what you’ve just discovered.

Just randomly read these notes and the accompanying reflections on Tao’s verses at your own pace, with or without an accompanying copy of the Tao te Ching. Apply whatever you like to your own life and move on, making your learning part of your life, not your memory.

Or . . .

Get a book – yes, a real book – this will keep you from clicking from screen to screen with a chosen online Tao. Make notes in its margins. Writing things down reinforces your thoughts, making them more likely to stay with you. (Reading from paper instead of a screen does the same thing.)

Over the years I’ve read many versions of the Tao and consulted at least as many commentaries. I like some parts of some versions, other parts of others. My excerpts here are from public domain versions. So find what you like and use my thoughts as thought-starters for yourself.

Note that many of Tao’s verses cover several topics, since current versions were collated long after the original document was compiled. Since my approach is thematic rather than numeric, an individual essay may pertain to lines in the middle or the end of a particular verse, or even consecutive verses where a topic is spread between the two. The quote heading one of my commentaries may not be the one at the beginning of a verse, but rather one from its middle, pertaining to our subject.

To make things simple for this public site, I’m using public domain translations for references.

John H. McDonald – a modern translator. In the spirit of Tao, he’s hidden any personal information from public view. Several other sites claim his work is in the public domain, so I’ll continue their practice. Mr. McDonald, thank you for your wonderful work. Please feel free to contact me if I’m wrong.

Lin Yutang – 20th Century Chinese/American scholar. From the age of 40 he lived primarily in the U.S., popularizing Chinese philosophy and customs. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1940 and 1950. 

 

Enjoy.

Learn.

Live what you learn. 

Want to learn more about how the Tao treats the Sage? Simply click on one of these boxes, below. You’ll find contemporary reflections on Tao’s verses dealing with the Sage. Feel free to read them with – or without – your favourite version of the Tao-Te-Ching. Remember, these are thought-starters, not solutions. Solutions to your issues can only come from you.

…the Master can act without doing anything and teach without saying a word.

(Verse 2, McDonald translation)

OK, so the Sage is devoted to “non-action” – does that mean we should sit around and do nothing until our fairy godmother pops in from the ether and taps us with her wand? Of course not! Non-action is one of those translation issues that’s become institutionalized through repetition. (See the section on Wu-wei for more discussion on the meaning of “non-action”.) The Sage – your inner wise person – recognizes that we’re part of nature with no need to interfere with natural processes. Then, when the time is right, with a minimum of effort, the Sage achieves their goal.

For a few moments, don’t call yourself a Sage. Become a surfer instead. You sit on your board, observing, waiting for the right wave. You don’t waste your time on the baby waves. And you don’t endanger your life on the waves you’re not ready for, but you know enough about yourself and local conditions to pick the Goldilocks Wave, the one that’s just right for you. Or, if you prefer to stay on dry land, imagine yourself a ju-jitsu practitioner waiting for your opposite to commit to a direction so that when you simply give them a nudge, all their strength and movement accrues to your benefit. Why waste time and energy trying to control what you can’t, when you can use your knowledge to control your response to a situation? Note that we’re saying response, rather than reaction. Response requires thought and consideration for an outcome. A responder recognizes their environment and deals with it in terms of the outcome they want. Reaction is simply an avoidance mechanism that may provoke a chain of other reactions, many of which may be beyond our control or ability to deal with.

We also need to recognize that attaching our feelings to anyone or anything can create a whole new set of issues. Ownership, be it of an object or another’s feelings, creates responsibilities. These duties can become either steps or stones in our particular path, our Tao. The Sage’s path is one of freedom. So…should you choose attachments, recognize that they come with a price. Be sure you get what you pay for. Attachments, such as to a particular concept of beauty, place a bias in your viewpoint. To be in Tao, the Sage must be beyond bias, accepting everything and everyone on their own terms. The Sage sees beautiful and ugly not as opposites, but as different, as complementary.

Simply put, if you don’t recognize ownership, you don’t have to deal with loss. How can you lose what you never had?

Throughout Tao, you’ll see encouragement to practice modesty. This makes absolute sense, because how can the Sage take credit for something that was already happening of its own accord? Besides, if we listen to our inner Sage, we’ll understand that actions unattached to a name are more likely to last longer. They live on their merits, not the fleeting fame or infamy of their creator. There’s a quote that’s been attributed to quite a few different philosophers and politicians through the years: “There’s no limit to the amount of good you can accomplish if you’re willing to let someone else take the credit.” This principle, a variation on non-action, is woven throughout Tao’s verses focusing on the Sage. When no credit is taken, accomplishment endures. It becomes part of everyone’s life, not subject to disposal through guilt by association to a previous ruler or time.

We’ve just covered a lot of ground here. Let’s break it down.

The Master leads by emptying people’s minds, filling their bellies…

(Verse 3, McDonald translation)

Forget today’s diet-conscious fixation on stomachs. Instead, look at this commentary metaphorically [remember, the Tao is a long verse, not a text book]. How do the wise keep the peace in themselves, their families, their societies? By satisfying basic needs. If you don’t, the time may come when people hungry for physical or social satisfaction decide to focus on you as the source of their problems. People on pedestals are easy-to-see targets for the frustrated. (Another reason for the anonymity prized in Verse 2. It’s rare that a power behind the throne is identified and vilified.)

The wise one, whether or not they’re seen as a leader, fills bellies to keep the peace. Roman rulers of old provided bread and circuses to distract people from politics and civic problems. While distracting entertainment, food, clothing and shelter may fall under the “bellies” category, respect and justice provide this nourishment on a societal level. Whenever you see “bellies” in Tao, think core values – those beliefs and attitudes that help us contribute to our society, that help us play our part in the whole.

Another way to read “emptying hearts” in Verse 3 is to say “reducing emotions”. If you make a big deal about exceptions to the rule – life’s rarities – be they objects in short supply or “heroes” – you’re appealing to people’s emotions. Their hearts will generate a jealousy for what they don’t have rather than satisfaction with what they do have. As the old World War I song told us, “How you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?” While the relatively immobile agricultural population of ancient China probably never saw much of the era’s large cities and luxuries, the principle remains the same then and now. If you expose someone to something that appears enjoyable and is outside their day-to-day life, you’re creating desire, jealousy, frustration and probably a host of other emotions that distract from the task at hand. How many times have you heard a team’s coach or manager talk about focusing on this week’s game, rather than dreaming of championship rings? The wise leader keeps the peace by focusing on the here and now; and, as much as possible, by eliminating exposure to the roots of discontent. When you remove these temptations you’re removing a source of distraction and ambition. Sounds a lot like Buddhism, doesn’t it? This is just one of the many reasons Buddhism won acceptance when it migrated from India to China.

Another of Tao’s consistent themes, to modestly serve as an example to others, works here. When a leader is “one of us” there really aren’t any privileges or objects that create temptation in others. The humble, modest Sage sets an example for others to follow. It’s an organic, wu-wei [non-action], approach – not a Confucian hierarchy of rules and regulations. The Sage teaches by example, not by lecture.

In other words, don’t tell me, show me.

Heaven and earth are impartial…The Master doesn’t take sides…

(Verse 5, McDonald translation)

The true Sage recognizes that they – like all of us – are part of the natural world. Just as sunbeams and raindrops fall on everyone and everything, the Sage treats everyone equally, without playing favourites. In several places you’ll see The Tao refer to the Sage as “Not kind”. This simply means that the Sage deals from logic, not emotion. Just like the sky that doesn’t own the rain but merely lets it flow through, the Sage doesn’t own things, but acts simply as a conduit [or, in some translations, as a bellows] bringing things to those in need. Because Sages aren’t giving anything that they personally own, there’s no need to take credit for being a channel, or even for being modest. And many times people are like kids in a candy shop. They really don’t care about the source of things.

Don’t let your emotions get in the way of doing what’s right and treating everyone equally. There are times when “helping” someone or something on their way actually harms them. There’s an oft-told tale of a person helping an emerging butterfly break free of its cocoon. The butterfly died soon after, well before its time. Since it never developed the strength it needed to break its cocoon, it didn’t have strength to deal with the outside world. On a personal note, during my lifeguarding days I once received criticism for letting a poor swimmer struggle as long as he did to reach the float on a lake. Yes, I would have jumped in to save him if he’d been drowning. Instead I gave him time to recover from his exhaustion on the float, reflecting on his limits. Then I helped him back and gave him suitable instructions. If I’d stopped his efforts too early he might have thought he could have swum further – and put himself in serious danger at a point when there wasn’t anyone around to help.

…the Sage puts himself last, and finds himself in the foremost place…

(Verse 7, Yutang translation)

You may be familiar with the phrase, “Living in the world, but not of it.” While it usually describes a person single-mindedly devoted to an activity to the exclusion of nearly everything else, it implies that human activity is all that makes up “the world.” If this is your perspective, it sounds like you’ve limited yourself to living in the man-made world, be it material or social. If you listen to your inner Sage you don’t have to abandon the material world, just keep it in perspective as a part of the natural world. Birds build nests. Beavers build dams. Coral polyps build reefs. Spinning energy balls called stars create lots of things, too.

When we look after the natural world, we’re looking out for ourselves. When we only look out for our “self” we’re ignoring a large part of our being. Imagine your lungs only looking out for the air they use, ignoring the requirements of the rest of the body. How long would they – or you – last?

The sky, sun, moon, trees and water are all part of nature. Sages know we exist as one of them, living just as they do, supporting others without discrimination. (The bones of our rib cage protect our heart, lungs and stomach, which in turn ensure that the bones get their nutrients.) The light of the sun and moon fall on all, as do the falling rain and snow. Sages don’t live for themselves. Like the earth and sky – like the universe – like Tao, they simply exist.

When we consider ourselves as an individual – a self – we limit our being to whatever fits inside our package of flesh and bone. This self is limited. A person defining themselves as separate draws a line between themselves and creation, the whole of life. The world becomes an object for them to manipulate, not an extension of themselves to nurture and care for. And even if you’ve never paid much attention to the birds and the bees, give some thought to the sports cliché – There’s no “I” in Team. Nature’s team is considerably larger and more talented than any sports team.

Think for a moment of the word selfish. What’s its meaning? What’s its root? A related word, ego, is also the root word for egotism in English and several romance languages. (It’s OK to take a break here to wander through your translation software to see for yourself. If you want to have some fun and learn something at the same time, type in “selfish” as the English word. Then notice the “ego” root word in nearly every Romance or Germanic European language.)

Self dies. Tao doesn’t. And the Sage doesn’t play favourites.

The Sage lives as an example to others. If being an example is leadership, then in this case it’s leadership from behind. Those in front know the source of their strength. You don’t have to have a title to be a leader. Know your place. No need to advertise yourself. If others want to recognize you, let them. If others want to ignore you, let them.

Or, as modern philosopher Thomas Berry put it in many talks, as well as his book, Evening Thoughts: “The universe is composed of subjects to be communed with, not objects to be exploited. Everything has its own voice. Thunder and lightning and stars and planets, flowers, birds, animals, trees – all these have voices, and they constitute the community of existence that is profoundly related.”

Learn how to listen. To everyone and everything, no matter their form.

And in Tao: No self-interest? Self is fulfilled. Look beyond your body to fulfill your being.

OK, here’s an easy one –

…the Sage provides for the belly and not the eye…

(Verse 12, Yutang translation)

Too many choices can be confusing. Add ignorance and things can be even worse. Think of kids at a candy counter, ignoring the fruits, vegetables and grains less than an aisle away. Or voters enthralled by promises, never asking how they’ll be fulfilled. Or the sheer volume of unsorted uncategorized information that assaults us nearly every waking minute of every day.

The Sage is content with simplicity, looking for substance instead of the superficial. And the difference between the substance and the superficial? Think of those who scan and react to social media headlines versus those who read and respond because they’ve discovered that headlines are designed to attract attention, rather than inform. To borrow a line from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, “All that glisters is not gold.” He said essentially the same thing in Henry VIII, “All hoods do not make monks”. These thoughts have come down to us today in the form of, “You can’t tell a book by its cover.”

In Tao, taking care of the belly means relying on core values, or staying centered on what really counts in life. Relying on eyes leads to enslavement by the clutter of our manmade environment.

Antoine de St. Exupery’s Little Prince expressed the same thought, using similar imagery: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

The Sage not only understands, but feels, priorities.

If you want to become whole, first let yourself become broken.

(Verse 22, McDonald translation)

Most of us learn from our mistakes. With a little bit of luck, we’re lifelong learners because we’re constantly exploring what’s new to us. Hopefully you’ll be flexible enough to adjust your path in light of your experience. Tao recognizes that perfection doesn’t exist, but that there’s a path in perfection’s direction. Want to avoid stubbing your toe on life’s path? Just refuse to move. Stay stuck in the same place.

Is it possible for the Sage to forego life’s clutter on the way to knowledge? Here we’re re-emphasizing the appeal to modesty and humility we’ve seen in Verses 1 and 3. If you’re not concerned with making yourself look good, you can devote your time and energy to learning. (There’s a certain amount of humility involved in learning, an admission that we don’t know everything.)  When the world worships artifice and everyone is wrapping themselves in bright bling, those who remain true to their core being and don’t chase the crowd are the ones who stand out. Eventually this humility and modesty are noticed, with the Sage as an example to all those tiring of the chase for fashion – until modesty becomes the fashion. The Sage who becomes a fashion leader is no longer a sage. (Think of the “gurus” from the East making financial killings in the West.)

Flexibility is key. There’s a quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson [although he never said it], that seems appropriate here: In matters of principle, stand like a rock. In matters of taste, go with the current. Adjust your sails to the wind, but don’t lose sight of your goal.

The Sage’s principle of humility, of blending in with the crowd, has found itself embodied in many cultures. Two aphorisms in particular reflect this, seen variously in collections of Chinese, Japanese and Korean proverbs. The tallest flower in the field is picked, leaving the rest to survive. The straightest tree is chopped, leaving the rest – the crooked ones – to grow and reproduce.

You may have heard the old story about the farmer who had a single old horse that helped him work his fields, take him to market and carry his burdens. When the horse ran away all the neighbors consoled him because of his bad luck. “Bad luck, good luck, who knows?” said the farmer. The next week the horse returned, bringing three young wild horses to stay. The neighbors congratulated him on his good luck. “Bad luck, good luck, who knows?” said the farmer.

The farmer’s son tried to ride one of the new horses, was thrown and broke his leg. “Bad luck,” cried the neighbors. “Bad luck, good luck, who knows?” said the farmer.  The next day the army came to take all of the village’s able-bodied young men to fight in the Emperor’s new war, leaving the farmer’s lame son. “Good luck,” said the neighbors. “Bad luck, good luck, who knows?” said the farmer.

While the boy healed with but a slight limp, all of the village’s other sons died in the war, leaving the farmer and his son as the only ones able to work the fields, making them the wealthiest in the village. Everyone looked up to them, congratulating them on their good luck. “Bad luck, good luck, who knows?” said the farmer.

The next day the Emperor’s tax collector came to town…

…the Sage travels all day yet never leaves his provision cart

(Verse 26, Yutang translation)

This verse re-states Verse 12. When we accept our abilities – our strengths and weaknesses – we’re free in this world. No need to worry about what’s not there. We simply appreciate what we have. No matter where we travel, physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually, we still have our core being, or as Tao says it, our provision cart. This baggage is who we are – our core values, our physical attributes – in a sense, these constitute our power base, the places where we have our strength, our confidence.

Have you ever looked out at a beautiful beach or landscape and just felt good about it? Or left an event or person with a calm satisfaction that’s beyond words? That’s when you’re in Tao. Most of us have seen exuberant children gleefully opening presents while their parents look on in calm appreciation. This calmness comes with maturity’s wisdom.

If your tastes run more to competitive sports, you may be familiar with Lou Holtz, the American football coach. One day an interviewer asked him why his players never celebrated in the end zone after scoring a touchdown. His reply? “I want them to act like they’ve been there before.”  

If Christmas mornings or competitive sports aren’t your thing, here’s an old story told by Zen master Soen-roshi: One day a young monk went with his teacher on a long hike up Mount Fuji. Although the young monk had seen Fuji many times before, this time he truly felt himself as being in oneness with the mountain and all it embodied. All along the trail he kept exclaiming over the wildflowers, birds, the reflected light in the trees, and the sacred mountain’s magnificent silence and more. In his excitement he asked his teacher if he saw the same things. “Yes,” said the old monk, “but isn’t it a pity to say so.”

The Sage, being part of nature, accepts the world as it is. Simply put, be consistent. Keep to the path and don’t be distracted. Appreciate beauty – and ugliness as well – because we can’t have one without recognizing the other.

A good runner leaves no track…the good man is the teacher of the bad and the bad man is the lesson of the good…

(Verse 27, Yutang translation)

What’s good? What does it take to be good?

Verse 27 starts with a series of examples. Like many speakers with general audiences, The Tao gives the same example in multiple ways. Good travelling/bookkeeping/knot-tying and so forth are simply ways of flowing with Tao – being a part of the planet, not apart from it, socially as well as physically.

The Sage’s modesty allows teaching and caring for others without the ego or need for recognition getting in the way. Leaving no tracks or trace is simply being humble – allowing the task and others to come first. Life is a two-way transaction – teachers and students need each other. Everyone and everything in the world has a purpose.

You’ll find modesty and humility as recurring themes in Tao. While we’re all part of nature, the Sage recognizes that they may just be a bug on a leaf on a tree in a forest on an island in a lake in another forest. No matter how beautiful and inspirational they may be to others, they recognize their bughood or leafhood, knowing that at some point they’ll fall from their branch to become compost for others.

Oh, and I’ll admit that one part of this verse confused me for a while – the “no one can untie it” part. Then the light bulb turned on. Once you’ve taught something – or learned something – it can’t be undone. When you recognize this part of your Sagehood, be careful about what you say and do. You don’t want to fill up your world – and everyone else’s world – with junk.

And finally, we all need to remember that we teach by example. Hopefully we’re good examples for others, and not examples of how not to be. Or, as Oscar Wilde told us in “The Duchess of Padua, “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.” (He “borrowed” the thought from Shakespeare’s 1 Henry VI)

Do you want to rule the world and control it? I don’t think it can ever be done.

(Verse 29, McDonald translation)

Are you holding on to something with all your might? This sort of defeats the purpose of having it, doesn’t it. How can you use it? Holding on to people or things keeps them from being themselves, from fulfilling their function in their own lives as well as ours. Think of the New Age poster that permeates shops and social media: “If you love someone let them go. If they return, they’re yours. If they don’t, they never were.” Or of all the business and biblical axioms contrasting those who hide their resources under a mattress with those who invest and put them to work.

We all have our strengths and weaknesses. When we recognize this in ourselves, we’re comfortable surrounding ourselves with people who (1) can compensate for our own weaknesses and (2) benefit from our strengths.

Look at the world of nature…

Different plants have different functions – some provide our food, others our building materials, others provide good environments for local plants and animals. People are the same. Let the builders and bakers and others do what they love. Seasons change, bringing different approaches and different needs. As we’re told in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, to everything there is a season. The Sage respects the currents of nature as well as the attributes of its citizens. You can tamper with Mother Nature and kill the goose that lays golden eggs, or you can work with the world, serving as an example for others.

Part of non-action is letting nature take its course.

Without opening your door, you can know the whole world.

(Verse 47, McDonald translation)

Wise people don’t get caught up in the minutiae of everyday life. We can look out our window or door to see and feel what’s happening in a single glance – or we can focus on a single item like a speck on the glass  and miss the big picture. It’s that feeling – something’s good or something’s wrong – that we need to pay attention to. The Sage listens to their heart with their heart, hearing that voice that doesn’t use words but speaks more clearly than thousands of books. As the Little Prince told us, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

You may also recall Einstein’s observation that problems can’t be solved at the same level that created them. The monks, hermits and other recluses throughout history withdrew from the everyday world for many reasons. One of these was the perspective that comes from looking within [“without opening your door”]. This doesn’t mean becoming a bookworm and shutting out the outside world, rather it’s a lesson in priorities. Since we’re all part of the one, recognize the role you’re playing on this planet. When we get a full night’s sleep, we see our world with a new set of eyes. Look at vacations, retreats and other withdrawals from daily chaos in the same way. You’ll not only recharge your battery but you’ll re-focus your inner eyes, as well.

Verse 47 continues, “The more you experience, the less you know”. If you’re filling your mind with images and symptoms of the world around you, there’s a good chance you’re ignoring their common source, ourselves. They, like us, are part of the universe. If you’re focused on a bug on a leaf you may not realize that you’re living in a forest. (You’ve probably heard the phrase describing an expert as one who knows more and more about less and less until they know everything there is to know about absolutely nothing. Those relying to an undue degree on social media, in particular, can find themselves addicted, exhausted and suffering from a limited worldview that’s divorced from actual experience in the physical world.)

The Sage can know without going this far – people are pretty much the same wherever we go. Situations change. Don’t get smothered in the non-essentials of a situation. It’s more important to address causes than symptoms.

We know that it’s hard to remember that your mission is to empty the swamp if you’re up to your ass in alligators. Have you considered that your mission may be ill-advised in the first place? Or that there might be a better way of accomplishing your task if you’re not in the middle of it?

When you let nature take its course, you’ll find yourself preferring substance over style.

The Master has no mind of her own.

She understands the mind of the people.

(Verse 49, McDonald translation)

We’re all one – so why dislike or distrust part of yourself? If something’s bothering you, find its cause and address it if you can. Accept it if you can’t. Do you cut off your arm because it itches? Take out your eye because you don’t have whatever we define as “perfect” vision? Or because you don’t care for what you’re seeing? Of course not. Other people are part of us and we’re part of them. Life’s a lot simpler when we treat everyone with respect.

We all use shortcuts to simplify life. A word or a name describes something or somebody simply. There’s a use for this. When I tell you a Category 5 hurricane is coming, my expectation is that you’ll begin to take appropriate precautions because you understand what a hurricane is. If I told you that an oceanic low pressure system was approaching with high sustained winds, you may dismiss my comment as an interesting but insignificant academic factoid. My knowledge of meteorology can help me give specific advice regarding the best precautions to take. My knowledge of communications – or contact with communicators – lets me to do so effectively.

The Sage is open-minded, treating all like their own family, recognizing that each has different wants, needs and abilities. A key characteristic of being open minded is an ability to avoid preconceived notions, to listen carefully to what people mean as well as what they’re saying. Preconceived notions limit our vision – they put blinders on us and restrict our path. Different people say the same thing in different ways. They may also hear us in their own ways, filtering our words through their own filters. So…when we respond to them it often means telling the same story, giving the same lesson, in several different ways. Flexibility of communication doesn’t mean sacrificing consistency in message.

The sage recognizes life’s flow and uses this knowledge to create harmony. There are times when we need to recognize that unpleasant people or situations carry important messages for us. Be sure to thank them.

The sage is a selfless role model, remembering to let others take credit for things since we’re all one and it really doesn’t make much difference. When a hand holds something, does it matter which finger says it’s essential?

Win the world by doing nothing.

(Verse 57, Yutang translation)

This is one of those verses where sage and leader are sometimes conflated. We generally look to leaders to “do something” – while it’s the Sage who counsels thought and non-action.

Many people – particularly in the West – feel an urge to “take action”. And if they’re in a position of power or control, to not only do something, but to stamp their name on it. It’s the ego. It’s something we’ve come to recognize – almost to the point of acceptance. If we elect leaders or representatives, it’s to do something new or to undo something a previous leader did. Whether we’re talking of political leaders or business magnates, the impulse is the same. Most prefer to look at the past and re-make it in their own manner. A few of the advanced ones look to their personal vision of the future and re-make their domains to match this vision. But if they’re too far ahead of their people, they’ll incur wrath rather than welcome. Smart visionaries know that lasting change has evolutionary roots, not revolutionary ones. Coffee plants can’t grow in lava, but thrive in the volcanic soil that eventually appears from lava, years after the eruption.

Those looking to the past are like generals who look to their own experience in fighting the last war. They’ll usually be beaten by the next generation, who understands the current environment and uses contemporary tools and tactics. And if you think this example only applies to war and politics, consider the story of Ingvar Kamprad, a 23-year old Swede who had to remove the legs from a table to fit it into his car. Until that point he’d never thought much about furniture. He then created IKEA. Using today’s hindsight, the concept is simple. But it’s an approach that traditional, experienced and expert furniture manufacturers and retailers had never considered.

Since Kamprad had never been taught the accepted ways of doing things, he didn’t know what couldn’t be done.

As we look at the tools of those who rule our world and run our economies – taboos, weapons, laws and more – we also need to recognize that these actions and attempts to impose behavior on society simply create reactions. Just as in any other field, action creates reaction. The Confucianism of its day used rules and regulations and found it created conflict rather than the stasis it desired. The second part of this verse lists the causes of society’s problems. Their common thread? Force. This appears to be a direct slap at Confucian philosophy and practice. The solution? Tao’s non-action. “I do nothing…”

Consider the forest fire. Is it good or bad? From the point of view of many people, it’s bad, because it burns towns and destroys the homes people build in the forest. But from the forest’s point of view, it clears brush, encourages certain seeds to germinate and allows the forest to renew itself.

And when it’s renewed, men can continue using it. Do you listen to those with short-term or long-term views?

If a government is unobtrusive, the people become whole.

If a government is repressive, the people become treacherous.

(Verse 58, McDonald translation)

Verse 58 continues the thoughts of 57, pointing out the problems inherent in a Confucian “law and order” society and reinforcing Tao’s view of opposites, or complementarity.

For the most part, if we treat people with respect, it will be returned. Consider the plight of the telephone rep on a help desk. Their only public contact is with people who are frustrated and angry over a product’s problems – and that’s before spending way-too-much time with automated menus and saccharine music. (“Due to temporary high call volumes, your wait time may be absurdly long” simply means that the firm refuses to hire more reps.) Many companies have a love and leave ‘em approach when it comes to sales and service. I’ve had just as many product problems as the next person, but I’ve found that they’re usually resolved quickly on the first call because I treat the phone rep with respect, using a sense of humour about the entire situation. If we can help to make that stressed person comfortable they may find it easier to resolve our particular issue.

While today’s web-linked society may differ from ancient China’s, people’s basic personalities remain pretty much the same. Accepting the fact that there is a given percentage of society that will try to scam the system, what’s the best way to deal with it? Should we build checkpoints and procedures into every part of government and society to prevent fraud? But this harms business and frustrates everyday honest citizens who are just trying to live their lives. Should we streamline life so that it’s easy to do things? Then the scam artists will prosper. At what point does the cost of regulation exceed the cost of corruption?

 

Who rules the world in accord with Tao shall find that the spirits lose their power.

(Verse 60, Yutang translation)

Continuing the thoughts of several preceding verses, we’re again conflating the Sage and the ruler while believing in the basic decency of most people. As with other professions, the Sage/ruler should, first of all, do no harm.

Are these spirits [sometimes translated as demons and ghosts] non-human – or simply bad rulers? If we take the first view, we’re taking Taoism back to its Shamanic roots. Either way, we’re contrasting Taoistic laissez-faire with Confucian regulated behaviour. If you rule in the spirit of Tao, neither your ancestors’ spirits nor today’s humans will have anything to bother you about. We can all live peacefully in our own worlds, not bothering others, be they spiritual or physical.

When we rule our personal world with Tao, we don’t contrive. Things beyond our control occur naturally, so we need to expect the unexpected and anticipate potential problems before they become actual problems. If we maintain an awareness of our environment we’ll be in a position to deal with natural change without having to play catch-up. The Sage suggests that we don’t build our homes on sandy beaches. The materialist, rarely looking beyond their next bank deposit, builds in the path of a hurricane and looks for compliments on how well they recovered from the disaster using other people’s money.

The key here is to encourage and maintain harmony – what’s the best way to do this? Live in harmony with our earth’s forces. And in the human world, create harmonious conditions. Don’t micro-manage. As most of today’s management consultants and motivational speakers would put it, “Get good people. Then get out of their way.”

 

Act by not acting. Do by not doing…

(Verse 63, McDonald translation)

Or, to quote Ben Franklin, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. (He said it when he was promoting the establishment of Philadelphia’s first professional fire company.)

Here Tao is simply giving the Sage/leader another application of wu-wei. Think of the number of times you’ve seen people congratulating each other on how well they dealt with a particular disaster – storm, fire, flood, etc. Contrast this with the Sage who prepares ahead of time – doesn’t build on a flood plain, makes sure the roof is sound, has sufficient supplies and so forth.

The Sage views the easy problems of today as the big ones of tomorrow. In effect the Sage deals with the seed, so we can harvest later. By doing a little bit now, without recognition, we can avoid the need for a lot of work later. Of course, if your goal is public recognition and not modest invisibility, wait until after the disaster. Then show up with a lot of relief aid, media in tow. Hopefully the press will thank you for dealing with disaster without asking about the preparation you should have encouraged.

When you’ve been injured or insulted by someone else, how do you deal with it?

Do you react and repay them in kind? You may recall the statement that Gandhi never said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

Or do you respond, defusing the immediate action [if possible] and addressing its cause. It’s part of our nature to help those who are kind to us. If we treat everyone as a friend and equal, life can be a lot easier, even if you create a bit of confusion among those who feel that they want to harm you. This approach isn’t unique to Tao. We find it in the more recent past in Jesus’ advice to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31)

What lies still is easy to hold…

(Verse 64, Yutang translation)

Verse 64 continues the advice from the previous one, giving us the famous “journey of 1,000 steps/miles” admonition. (The actual distance in the original document is 1,000 li – about 500 meters in today’s measure. While this is nice-to-know, it doesn’t change the basic thought the verse is transmitting.) Life’s all in the timing. Start now, while you have the energy – things will go more smoothly. It’s easier to tie down your possessions now, before the storm comes, than during it, while you’re subject to its winds and rain. Also, look at the seeds of the future – it’s better to get out of town now, before the Emperor’s men are after you. Or…plant a seed, pour a foundation, clear a path for the plant, building or road you want later. Create the conditions for success and you’ll find it’ll come a lot easier.

Remember that there’s often no recognition in preparing the land or planting the seed you’ve saved from last year. But people will be thankful for the harvest banquet. Whether people recognize your participation in nature’s flow or whether they’re just ignorant and hungry, doesn’t matter as long as their stomachs are full.

But…life’s more than just timing. It’s also attitude. If you feel a need to hold on to something for dear life it may be time to question your views on the difference between needs and wants. Are you wasting your time and energy on non-essentials? If you feel this way about a person, are the feelings being returned? You’ve no doubt seen the poster adorning many gift shops that also carry the “1,000 miles” one: “If you love someone set them free. If they come back, they’re yours. If they don’t, they never were.”

Life’s about priorities. How will you use your energy?

How did the great rivers and seas become the Lords of the ravines?

By being good at keeping low.

(Verse 66, Yutang translation)

Successful leaders position themselves as being from ordinary stock, as being “one of the people.” Whether they truly are – or are just successful actors – is another conversation. Whether we’re a public leader or simply someone’s counselor, we need to establish our credibility, to show that we understand our audience’s background and concerns with our hearts and ears as well as our minds.

When rivers flow into the sea, they’re going to a lower level. This imagery works on several levels. First is the emotional connection that most of us have with water – tears of love, tears of joy, tears of sadness. Then of course there’s the fact that many people see generosity as something that flows, like water, from fullness to emptiness. And then we come back to the source of political and civic power. No matter how exalted your background, success is built on the foundation supplied by “the lowly”, the common people.

How do you talk with the people’s voice? By listening to them. We have two ears and only one mouth. It’s usually a good idea to use them in that 2:1 proportion. The best leaders know how to follow the public opinion they’ve probably helped to mold.

The key to all this? Not just perceived, but actual humility. A more recent text phrased it as "…so the last will be first and the first last...” (Matthew 20:16, Mark 10:31, Luke 13:30)

If you can actually practice this preaching with modesty, you’ll find that it helps others. It might even be an example for them on how to act. And if two of you are acting that way, it’ll be nice, but may not draw much attention. And if three people do it, people might start noticing and suggesting you create a centre. And can you imagine three times three times three people spreading a contagion of helping by listening?

The best leaders don’t lead, they inspire.

The best leaders become servants of their people.

(Verse 68, McDonald translation)

“There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.” While there’s no definitive source for this bromide, its first use is generally attributed to Alexandre Ledru-Rollin, a 19th century French revolutionary.

Leading from behind doesn’t mean putting your boot up people’s butts. It means creating an environment that encourages others to do their best because they want to, not because you’re ordering them to.

When you inspire people, you’ll do less perspiring and they’ll do better work. What’s the best way to motivate people? It will come as no surprise that the answer is, “It depends.” Think for a moment of Star Trek’s two leaders, Kirk and Spock. One led from his heart, the other with his brain. Each had their strengths and weaknesses and the series relied on playing to their strengths, using the leadership quality appropriate to the interplanetary crisis du jour. Those scripts worked with archetypes, using what I tend to call sledgehammer morality. You’ve got the advantage of working with more subtle approaches.

Citizens are not cattle. But if you use the latest knowledge about cattle you might wind up treating people more humanely. Temple Grandin of Colorado State University has won international acclaim for saving money and improving processing time in feedlots by looking at fencing, transport and cattle chutes from the cow’s point of view, not man’s. Have you ever thought of looking at a task from a worker’s point of view, rather than an accountant’s? The end result might even make the accountant happy. While there’s a place for task-oriented management by objective (MBO) don’t ever forget that it’s people and process that underlie a successful MBO program.

As a public leader, you’re on a pedestal, open to everyone’s view. If people suspect your strength, but never see it demonstrated, there’s a good chance they’ll over-estimate your power. This is a particularly valuable asset in any type of competition, where your opposite’s ignorance can generate either an ineffective conservatism or an even less-effective rashness.

My words are easy to understand…

(Verse 70, McDonald translation)

Sure, it’s easy to praise ambitious mission statements and lofty goals, but how many of us actually make the time to practice what we preach? How many of us talk to be understood, rather than impress others with our vocabulary?

And how many of us simply pay attention to the styles and rituals of life without learning or practicing their substance? Whether it’s following the interpreted or misinterpreted teachings of our religion’s founder, or actually working with the goals and objectives of that business plan we prepared for the bankers, it’s a rare person who walks the walk and talks the talk.

Life has changed since those days in ancient China. In many ways it’s harder for us to follow these precepts. How many times have you simply scanned and reacted to something you’ve seen on social media, rather than actually reading and responding to it? Or just ignoring social media for a few days in favour of more worthwhile things? Today’s life is busy and multi-layered. If we can deal with a symptom and move on to our next task, we feel we’ve accomplished something. But many times that symptom is a side-effect, and not the cause of our problem. It takes more time to return to an issue several times than it would have taken to study and solve its cause. Even if we’re adults, the time pressures we place on ourselves take us back to childhood days, searching for candy-shop satisfaction without a thought of nutrition, much less sugar crashes, calories and cavities.

Oh, and that “no one can understand” part of the verse? It simply means practice what you preach. If you don’t follow Tao it’s impossible for you to practice its teaching. The words have ancestors – they have meaning. Deeds have masters – we’re dealing with both the concept of action and non-action as well as master/subject vs. a person who’s a humble example to others. You can’t always tell a book by its cover. Is the most influential person the one in public office or the humble man in everyday garb? The business boss or the gatekeeper assistant? (My kingdom is not of this world – John 18:36)

Knowing you don’t know is wholeness.

Thinking you know is a disease.

(Verse 71, McDonald translation)

How many times have you heard someone start a conversation with, “I don’t know much about - - - -“, and then proceed to demonstrate how little they know? There’s a comment often attributed to Mark Twain, stating that it’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

Verse 71 simply continues the thoughts of Verse 70, promoting wisdom and humility as important attributes of a Sage.

A more recent view of Tao’s recognition of our limits is found in 1999’s Dunning-Kruger study entitled, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.” In brief, it tells us that the ignorant don’t know they’re ignorant. In more popular jargon, we lift a line from Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Criticism”: “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”

When people have no fear of force…

(Verse 72, Yutang translation)

If you’re the boss, do you want people’s fear or their respect? Slavish followers or enthusiastic co-workers contributing to the cause you all share? If you’re their Sage – their advisor – should they follow you by rote with fear or with understanding and love? Worse than this is creating an atmosphere of rebellion, where people who feel they have nothing more to lose rise up against you.

Life’s ideal lies in doing things because we want to, not because we have to. And this ideal is easier for all to fulfill when people understand you from their hearts, not their heads. It doesn’t matter what sport you follow, or even if you don’t follow any at all. Nearly all of us have seen clips of powerful locker room speeches that unite and motivate a team, creating a winning attitude – and more importantly, that burst of adrenaline that helps their common quest for victory.

As in many previous verses, Tao encourages the Sage to practice humility and non-action to achieve this. In today’s business parlance, we encourage managers to get good people, then get out of their way. In agricultural parlance that worked for Lao Tzu as well as for today, create good conditions for good seed, giving encouragement and guidance only when it’s needed. See which way a tree is growing before you stake it.

Mother, but don’t smother.

Being over bold and confident is deadly…

(Verse 73, McDonald translation)

Courage takes many forms. But what’s courage? Is it an adrenaline-fueled charge into combat or the public disagreement with those who want to shoot first and ask questions later? What are the impossible odds that courage fights? Are they countless opponents driving us to action – or are they the people on our own side who refuse to consider more thoughtful options?

Many times we need courage to have the generosity and patience praised in the previous verse, Verse 72. It’s a courage that requires going against the grain, which in most cases is the courage to practice non-action in the face of a society that seems to demand action at every breath and every step along the way.

And if you choose not to go with the flow toward action? Yes, there are consequences. Several cultures tell tales of the straightest tree or the most beautiful flower being stolen from its natural home to be killed and used for the purposes of the few, not for all. What’s left for species reproduction? The weak and crooked.

But – and this requires the wisdom of the Sage – we should remember the lessons of ju-jitsu, which is to engage your opponent, but to practice non-action, using their own strength against them. When the time is right, you let your opponent’s momentum carry them to defeat. Champion boxer Muhammad Ali stood tall against the forces of politics and racism. He suffered for it. Years later people praised him for his integrity. Sages are human, too. They must recognize their own strengths and weaknesses and choose their battles accordingly.

Dealing with childish demands, no matter the age of their source, for something you know is bad for them may be difficult, but it’s doable.

It is the way of Heaven to take away from those that have too much

and give to those that have not enough.

Not so with man’s way…

(Verse 77, Yutang translation)

Nature is self-regulating. In fact the “balance of nature” is a phrase that many of us hear quite often. Water finds its own level. Stressing part of a branch – or a muscle – releases the tension in a complementary place.

Humans, however, seem to have lost this intuitive ability somewhere along the way. Balance is no longer assumed, it needs to be taught. Those living as part of nature, like the Sage, practice this charitable balance of nature naturally. You’ve probably read tales of indigenous tribes with minimal contact with the Western world to whom sharing equally comes naturally. The rest of us, centered on our individual humanity rather than our place in nature, need to be taught.

While rarely making direct reference to our place in the natural world, most religions recognize the need for balance. Some appeal to our individual sense of desire or greed, others to a need for justice.

There is nothing weaker than water…

(Verse 78, Yutang translation)

After World War I France built the Maginot line, an impregnable network of bunkers and forts. German forces simply went around and over them at the beginning of World War II, using tactics and equipment that didn’t exist in the first war.

In India, Ireland and the United States Gandhi, Daniel O’Connell and Martin Luther King used flexible non-violent demonstrations of mass support to wear down their opposition, which was experienced in military and diplomatic combat, but not mass movements with multiple, often uncoordinated, approaches and attack tactics. A key to water’s success lies in persistence in the face of resistance as well as its pervasive ability to find and utilize cracks and flaws in its opposition.

Rulers and conquerors recognize opponents like themselves, users of force. Just as generals are renowned for fighting the last war, those who’ve fought their way to success are often blind to others and their techniques. Grassroots leaders draw their strength from people and ideas rather than politics and powerful weapons. Unless a leader uses the tools of the Sage we’ve been talking about, their strength will erode and their cliff they’ve used as a pedestal will become an unstable ledge.

Be it an organic mass movement, guerilla warfare or innovative marketing, it’s the antithesis of the Confucian concept of top-down management and rigid adherence to rules. Beyond the peaceful demonstrations mentioned above, consider the guerilla tactics used by colonials versus the British in 18th Century America – or those used by Ho Chi Minh against the Americans in 20th Century Viet Nam. Or consider the effects of the internet age on retailers and media companies who’ve failed to adapt to changes in consumer preferences.

Let’s look at beyond politics and warfare to business. In the 1960’s spray cleaner Formula 409 had a comfortable American market niche and almost no competition.  When Procter & Gamble decided to enter this market, it used all the weight of its Confucian top-down step-by-step marketing ability. Being a small, closely-held company, Formula 409 used guerilla tactics by withdrawing its product from P&G’s test markets, stopping advertising and refusing to re-fill shelves. Naturally, P&G’s Cinch had an extremely successful test and began the massive effort needed for national distribution. In the time that it took P&G to organize itself, Formula 409 expanded its distribution, cut prices and sold “2 for 1” packages, so that, by the time P&G’s Cinch hit the shelves, nearly every American home that used this type of spray cleaner had more than enough of it in their house. In less than a year, P&G declared defeat and withdrew its product.

P&G was a marketing monolith, but like most monoliths, was inflexible. Formula 409’s management, like its product, knew how to exploit the cracks in its opponents’ armour.

Successful marketing, warfare, politics and diplomacy are all built on water’s strength.

Consider your job. How can you achieve more by doing less?

Difficulties remain, even after solving a problem.

(Verse 79, McDonald translation)

It’s better to take responsibility than blame. Deal with what you can control, which is rarely others’ behavior and almost never their feelings. Harbouring ill will simply reinforces toxicity within ourselves.

This verse, in a different manner, also demonstrates an issue we’ve probably all encountered in the world of social media: the written word is easily subject to misinterpretation. Without the nuance expressed through pacing, inflection and body language, it’s easy for a statement to be misinterpreted and misunderstood. Irony and sarcasm are among the first victims of social media contact between strangers, quickly followed by detailed analysis of almost anything. Professional translators of The Tao make the same point through conflicting interpretations. In ancient China a piece of wood was broken in two, with one half going to a creditor and the other to the debtor. Some versions have the Sage playing the creditor, others the debtor. The right and left halves of the contract also have different meanings. How is this so? The translators, reflecting their own cultural biases and filters, are dealing with glyphs, not sentences which can be parsed. Having said that, even with conflicting translations, the translators keep the same meaning in their work: The Sage promotes peace and agreement, not conflict and blame.

Just be aware that many times people don’t mean what they say – because they may not know the meaning of their words. Be human, not a dictionary. Sometimes it’s better to be nice than it is to be right, because in the end, justice prevails.

If you haven’t done so already, you might want to

True words do not sound beautiful, beautiful sounding words are not true.

(Verse 81, McDonald translation)

Tao’s final verse: The summary of a lesson? Or an invitation to start the cycle again?

“You can’t tell a book by its cover.” We’ve heard this many times before, in many different versions. But how many of us take the time to actually open that book, read it and learn from it? Are we so focused on the next item in our to-do list that we glance at a person, situation or event – taking them at the shorthand of face value, which may hide their true benefit or hazard to us? Unless we recognize the meaning of the symptom, we’ll most likely spend more time and money dealing with the aftermath of a problem than we would have spent dealing with its source.

So, where do you get the best return on your investment in time – by scanning or studying?

In today’s over-stimulated world it’s not easy to spend time researching and learning about everything that affects us. But we have access to other eyes, other senses. They’re called other people. Teamwork doesn’t mean giving up your identity, it means contributing your strength to a common goal that you share with others. Cooperation yields more benefits than competition. When we give our best to the group, our return is greater than if we kept it to ourselves. Does wealth of anything come from hoarding our resources or putting them out there to work with others?

It doesn’t matter whether you’ve scanned or studied these comments. Here’s your test, to be graded by only yourself:

List the three most important lessons you’ve learned from these comments.