Tao Te Ching Chapter 30


 Warning Against the Use of Force

He who by Tao purposes to help the ruler of men
Will oppose all conquest by force of arms.
For such things are wont to rebound.
Where armies are, thorns and brambles grow.
The raising of a great host
Is followed by a year of dearth.

Therefore a good general effects his purpose and stops.
He dares not rely upon the strength of arms;
Effects his purpose and does not glory in it;
Effects his purpose and does not boast of it;
Effects his purpose and does not take pride in it;
Effects his purpose as a regrettable necessity;
Effects his purpose but does not love violence.

(For) things age after reaching their prime.
That (violence) would be against the Tao.
And he who is against the Tao perishes young.

Lin Yu Tang


Whenever you advise a ruler in the way of Tao,
Counsel him not to use force to conquer the universe.
For this would only cause resistance.
Thorn bushes spring up wherever the army has passed.
Lean years follow in the wake of a great war.

Just do what needs to be done.
Never take advantage of power.
Achieve results,
But never glory in them.
Achieve results,
But never boast.
Achieve results,
But never be proud.
Achieve results,
Because this is the natural way.
Achieve results,
But not through violence.

Force is followed by loss of strength.
This is not the way of Tao.
That which goes against the Tao comes to an early end.

Jane English and Gia-fu Feng

Chapter 29 is about being, and the sage counsels acceptance of things as they are. There’s a lot of philosophy going on about being.

Chapter 30 is about acting and doing, and the achievement of purpose, and here the sage offers cautions and guidance and observes the consequences of not acting and doing in cooperation with the Tao. There’s a lot of good advice going on about acting and doing.

Sometimes I wonder which is more useful, the philosophy of being or the advice about acting and doing.

In this chapter the sage advises us that force, pride, and violence in the pursuit of victory are wrong, no matter whether exercised by the individual or the tribe. Such actions produce waste and leave wastelands in their wake, and weak land and weakened people and early death.

Doing and Being. Earth and Heaven. Yin and Yang. The sage obviously accepts that there is a dualistic nature to human being, and does not favor one over the other. The counsel here is about balance of the two and mindfulness of each in what we do to achieve the purposes of our lives.

What are our purposes? We effect our purposes, we achieve results, that’s an obvious human characteristic. We have evolved as an adaptive, manipulative, thinking species which beholds fact, whether from the prehistoric cave or the megalopolitan high-rise. Then we act in response to the facts before us to effect the purpose of our existential needs.

What are those needs? Sustenance, shelter, safety. How do we get them? Work,  cooperation, community. Are our needs any more complex in the megalopolis than they are in the cave? Perhaps, in the sense that the environment we navigate in the contemporary world is highly complex and interrelated. Our world is complicated by blurred lines between needs and wants, requirements and desires, and a burgeoning, ever-present stimulation of basic human appetites luring us to ever higher levels of  aggressive, violent consumption. This is exactly the thing the sage counsels us to avoid.

And it is exactly the thing which, in spite of all our applications of our complex processing powers as existential beings in our pursuit of survival, we fail to process adequately. Aggression and violence will not serve human beings. Yet too often we remain unaware of how aggressive and violent our ways and means are.

What violence and aggression are present if I live and work according to the ways and means presented to me by the complex structure of my culture? Hell, in America the ways are legion, practically uncountable, and seemingly unavoidable. In order to get along I have to go along with the status quo. Yet under the smooth, complacent surface of accepting things “because that’s just the way things are now,” there is a dark depth of violence and aggression underpinning the dispensations we have available to us at the great, wasteful smorgasbord which our culture has convinced us is the place where we can slake the appetites our culture – not our nature, but our culture – has given us.

My culture is ruthlessly Darwinian, a place where, because of the standard of living which it affords me, the resources and energies and very lives of other people on this planet are aggressively, violently taken to serve it. Sometimes I look at all the things which are in my house, and marvel at the thousands and perhaps tens of thousands of human beings who have been involved in creating them. I am awed by the tremendous cooperation and complexity which it takes to do that, and I am appalled at the cost.

I live humbly, and my possessions are few, and yet even in these circumstances I am aware that what I have to meet my basic needs according to the terms of my culture is excessive, and wasteful. Human beings have died so that I might have what was taken from them. It is just that sadly, starkly simple. My physical security and comfort here are predicated upon violent and aggressive ways and means applied to my planet and my fellow human beings.

How can I reconcile that, how do I live with that? Well, obviously I do. I deplore it, I see it for what it is, I behold the fact of it and I wonder if there isn’t something that can be done about it. But is there? Really? I mean, it’s obviously a fact that this is the way things are these days, and I’m just going to have to get over the obvious horror of it and carry on, right?

How would the sage advise me to conduct myself in the midst of such imbalance, as a passive beneficiary of such aggression and violence? Is the sage shouting in the wind? Are these words being carried away by the storms of modernity which today show clear promise of the end of modern human civilization because of our violent, aggressive practices?

Perhaps. But I hear the sage’s words. If my species as a whole does not, it’s just another fact which, in pursuit of my own survival, I must confront. How do I survive the unwitting vector of my own species?

If the natural way has been lost and humanity as a whole is proceeding on an unnatural way, a way that achieves results through violence, how would the sage advise me to proceed? Would the sage soothe me with philosophy, reminding me of my true nature? That would be fine, that’s a good thing to remember. Yet I wonder what practical advice the sage might offer to guide me through the spiritual wastelands of our prevalent and current aggressive, violent human culture. Or has the sage already advised me here in this chapter about how to proceed?

The sage obviously recognizes violence and aggression, and advises against it. Am I to be non-violent and unresisting? Am I to accept even the violent ways and means employed which supply provision to me far beyond my basic needs at the cost of human and planetary life?

Apparently I am, and this does not sit well with me. What, on a practical level, beyond the simple soothings of philosophy, am I to do? How am I to act?

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5 Responses to Tao Te Ching Chapter 30

  1. Louis W. says:

    When I was in high school, a friend told me what a wonderful book “Wuthering Heights” is. She particularly raved about the ending. I respected her opinion, so I picked up a copy and began reading the adventures of Heathcliff and friends and lovers and enemies. I eagerly anticipated the amazing conclusion, but after I had read the last page I was convinced that my copy must be missing the real last page or two. I found another copy and discovered that it ended exactly as had my copy of the book.

    I discussed my disappointment with my friend and learned that high school girls were (and are) more capable than I am in differentiating between ending and closure. For a number of years I have blamed Emily Bronte, assuming that here writing was inadequate. After thinking about your comments on Chapter 30, I am realizing that real life is like that. So many things end without closure.

    • bobgriffith says:

      Hi Louis,

      An interesting response. Endings versus closure? Wuthering Heights? High school girls? Help! I need more information, I can’t seem to connect with your meaning here. Thanks, B.

      Which I guess won’t stop me from commenting anyway…

      My commentary on this chapter was twofold. It is basically meant to inspire the reader to ask themselves the final question, and to also provide an example of how the mind, unbalanced in its duality and drifting toward the pole of ego, attempts to bully the heart into a corner with shouts and finger pointing.

      I think the sage advises us of our active life choices as well as our passive universal connections. There are a variety of distinct, divergent existential paths. This is to be expected in a realm where individual, separate experiences can exist as quests leading to the discovery that the all is within, and the destination has always been omnipresent – within, without, and throughout the seeker’s quest. It occurs to me that there is a basic archetypal distinction to be made here.

      First, do I recall this right? Heathcliff, seemingly reduced to a vengeful beast by his passions and his fate, yet quite a bit more than just that. I have a quote at hand that describes him, I think, from “The Power of Myth” by Moyers and Campbell:

      “The Hero’s quest springs up in isolation, alienation and exile, and if in the story it is an isolation, from Society, in the character it is an isolation from the Self. Joseph Campbell observes; “From the standpoint of the way of duty, anyone in exile from the community is a nothing. From the other point of view, however, this exile is the first step of the quest. Each carries within himself the all; therefore it may be sought and discovered within. The differentiations of sex, age, and occupation are not essential to our character, but mere costumes which we wear for a time on the stage of the world. The image of man within is not to be confounded with the garments.” ” It seems a good summary of Heathcliff’s experience.

      Secondly – closure versus ending. Closure, meaning acceptance of that which is and ends, leading to an option of closure, of being done with it? Something ends – a fact. Acceptance of the end – closure – a choice. The sage counsels acceptance, and so the choice of closure, of disengagement?

      This seems to be a matter of perspective based on whether we perceive endings or not. For instance, there are three perspectives in an encounter between Snake and Crane (the link is to your commentary on Chapter 36): the perspectives of Sage, and Snake, and Crane. The Sage observes the encounter between Snake, bound to the earth, and Crane, the creature of the heaven.

      In terms of Tai Chi, one way to encounter an aggressor is to move back and forth between Crane and Snake, meeting Crane with Snake, meeting Snake with Crane. The strike of each seeks victory, the response of each defeats that victory. In this way the balance is kept, and we are not defeated, nor experiencing the equally out of balance manifestation of a victory. We move back and forth across the balanced center of dualistic existence which is suspended between heaven and earth, heart and mind, the separated ego and the unified whole.

      What is the Sage’s perspective on these encounters? The sage does not counsel Snake and Crane to avoid encounters, or to not fight, or to not experience conflict. The sage beholds the facts. Snake and Crane exist, they encounter one another, they fight. The sage beholds the outcome when balance between the two prevails, and when it does not.

      If one is stronger or weaker than the other a victory and a defeat will follow. The combatants fall out of grace and into the existential duality where victory creates a defeat, defeat creates a victory. We are the Sage and the Snake and the Crane, and the battle is within us, and only balance between the poles of duality, between heaven and earth and heart and mind, enables us to see and be and know and move in That Which Is, to strike and withdraw in balance and be neither defeated nor victorious.

      The sage does not endorse closure in the sense of capitulation. The sage does not advocate resistance to encounters or their endings. The sage observes the outcome of an encounter, yet never suggests that such an encounter will not occur again. The end of one encounter is a closure to the encounter, yet by no means an end to further encounters.

      We parry, we counter, we strike and withdraw, and from each encounter we learn about outcomes when we are balanced and when we are unbalanced. Snake and Crane continue to perfect one another in every encounter in the world beyond the true Garden, where, were they there instead of in this dualistic experience east of Eden where Cain and Abel vie, they would coexist without conflict.

      Yes, acceptance of things as they are is the sage’s answer. In the case of conflict the acceptance of an absence of resolution is in accordance with the sage’s counsel. There are encounters, there is balance, there is imbalance, there are respective outcomes, there are further encounters. There are no endings. There is no closure. Just as there are no beginnings, and nothing to open. We strike, we withdraw. In balance. Or not.

  2. Louis W says:

    I believe you may be over-thinking what I was trying to say. Your post had raised some of the fundamental questions that all must face who wish to be moral individuals in a modern world and Western society. As I read it, I kept hoping that you would provide an easy answer. You ended, though, with some hard questions

    In saying that, I am not being critical. I am only recognizing that no one – not even a Cascadian Wanderer – can do my thinking for me..

    It has been nearly half a century since read “Wuthering Heights”, but I believe your characterization of Heathcliff is a fair one. He is probably more an anti-hero than a true Hero, but those archetypes are very similar.

    As for the high school girls, what I meant to convey is that there are those who are able to look at something like the end of “Wuthering Heights” – which is essentially three graves and the quiet of the moors as a silent background to the next generation preparing to marry – and appreciate it.

    While I understand that life does go on, when I was reading the book I hoped that the author would explain why there had to be such conflict and brutality in human (specifically, Heathcliff’s) nature and how life could peacefully progress in spite of that.

    Your comments pointed out that the comfort and security of each of us “are predicated upon violent and aggressive ways and means applied to [our] planet and [our] fellow human beings.” Again, I was hoping that the essay was going to explain why that must be and how we can peacefully progress in spite of it.

    I don’t know if you are familiar with Paxton Robey. He is a physical engineer who became interested in more metaphysical pursuits back in the 1960s and has done some excellent teaching and writing, His best known (and I would say best) work is a book called “No Time for Karma.” It was written about 20 years ago, and has been updated most recently in 2012. I have only read the 1998 edition. The book used to be available as a free download from Mr. Robey’s website. Now, I believe, it has to be purchased as a Kindle book through Amazon for $3.99. Anyway, that book is in many ways a long look at some of the issues you discuss. He says:

    “There is no historical precedent for mankind living in peace as one tribe, let alone a galactic community sharing its joys and accomplishments together. There is nothing to support the possibility of reversing the ever increasing disregard for human life, plant life, Gaia life. There is no scientific documentation to support the notion that any human being could be more than merely human and demonstrate dominion over, instead of subjugation to, this three dimensional plane of reality.

    “But in spite of the “evidence” to the contrary, I have seen, and will share with you, a vision of the future that confirms that our subtle inner yearnings are not without basis. Indeed these suppressed altruistic leanings and hard to make out visions of grandeur are about to explode into a movement more powerful than any political, military or industrial revolution in history.”

    And then, 40-some pages later:

    “Some of us get confused about our roles as way-showers on the earth. We sometimes get bogged down in a sense of responsibility that we have to save everybody on the planet. … Believing that we can fix anybody is an error in judgment. If it were possible for one entity to fix another entity then God, or one of God’s representatives, would have surely fixed you and me by now. It can’t happen in that way.

    “We feel a need to control other people’s behavior because their behavior makes us uncomfortable, not because it hurts them. We feel a need to control other people’s behavior because we don’t understand the purpose of earth school. We don’t understand or believe that altering other people’s consciousness is a job that belongs to the universe, not us. We don’t believe that God could be so powerful and so loving that everything … could be okay just the way it is.

    “… Pointing out faults has never fixed a fault. There are no faults, only perceptions. No master teacher ever told a disciple to correct another person’s behavior. Master teachers told us to pray for each other and prayer is a non-contact sport. ‘A Course in Miracles’ says that all correction belongs to the Holy Spirit. It also says that when we perceive an error, it is our perception that needs fixing, not the situation we are perceiving. So when we believe someone is in error we send them light. Hopefully we have learned to never again correct them or commiserate with them.”

    You asked if a sage would soothe you with philosophy. Well, it seems that is what Mr. Robey is doing in this sagacious work. That probably still does not sit well with you, but it may be the correct approach. I don’t know.

    That, of course, is the problem – I don’t know; and that is the reason that I was thinking about how nice closure would be when I reached the end of your commentary.

    • bobgriffith says:

      Thanks, Louis, that helps a lot. Robey’s reference to A Course in Miracles is a perfect place to conclude the discussion here. Much appreciated here. It sits just fine with me and is a perfect response to the rhetorical posture I put forward.

      Also, if I over-thought my response, all I can say is it’s definitely not the first time that’s happened. As it says in Chapter 32 (Jane English and Gia-fu Feng’s translation):

      “Once the whole is divided, the parts need names.
      There are already enough names.
      One must know when to stop.
      Knowing when to stop averts trouble.”

      I get into more trouble naming the parts of the parts of the parts…

      I enjoyed the point and counterpoint discussion here, and must say that the over-all worth of this chapter’s commentary is made so by your follow-up. Thanks again!

  3. Pingback: CHAPTER 39 – ONE BODY | ralstoncreekreview.com

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