Tao Te Ching Chapter 31

Good weapons are instruments of fear; all creatures hate them.
Therefore followers of Tao never use them.
The wise man prefers the left.
The man of war prefers the right.
Weapons are instruments of fear; they are not a wise man’s tools.
He uses them only when he has no choice.
Peace and quiet are dear to his heart,
And victory no cause for rejoicing.
If you rejoice in victory, then you delight in killing;
If you delight in killing, you cannot fulfill yourself.

On happy occasions precedence is given to the left,
On sad occasions to the right.
In the army the general stands on the left,
The commander-in-chief on the right.
This means that war is conducted like a funeral.
When many people are being killed,
They should be mourned in heartfelt sorrow.
That is why a victory must be observed like a funeral.

Jane English and Gia-fu Feng, 1989

There’s been a lot of brain play engendered by the last couple of chapters as evidenced by the nature of the commentary there, and it seems my commentary on this chapter is the culmination of that exercise. Obviously there are those who would wisely forego an extended and diffuse commentary if they were advised ahead of time of the ground ahead. Consider this that advisement.

I am a generalist and a path mixer and therefore confusing to many. Consider yourself warned. As a matter of fact, as soon as I am able to sign off on this chapter I plan to spend a lot of time embracing the sentiments expressed much more succinctly in my commentary on Chapter 32.

For starters, since paths are going to be mixed here and confusions abound, I offer as a conciliatory sentiment we can take to heart, in place of contention, this Vodou-based quote in a quasi-Jamaican patois from William Gibson’s Neuromancer:

             “I don’t understand you guys at all, “ he said. “Don’ stan’ you, mon,” the Zionite said, nodding to the beat, “but we mus’ move by Jah love, each one.”

And the following quotes aren’t going to lessen the confusion, but could enrich the context here:

“How we live is so different from how we ought to live that he who studies what ought to be done rather than what is done will learn the way to his downfall rather than to his preservation.”

 “Wisdom consists of knowing how to distinguish the nature of trouble, and in choosing the lesser evil.” 

“When evening comes, I return home and go into my study. On the threshold I strip off my muddy, sweaty, workday clothes, and put on the robes of court and palace, and in this graver dress I enter the antique courts of the ancients and am welcomed by them, and there I taste the food that alone is mine, and for which I was born. And there I make bold to speak to them and ask the motives of their actions, and they, in their humanity, reply to me. And for the space of four hours I forget the world, remember no vexation, fear poverty no more, tremble no more at death: I pass indeed into their world.” 

― Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince

 So in this chapter, once again, we address destructive violence. In the previous chapter the sage offered counsel about force, pride and violence, and acting and doing and the achievement of purpose. The sage carries forward this theme in this chapter with observations about war, weapons, and killing, and the sorrows and losses which are inexorably attached to them.

I’ll start with some historical background about martial institutions taken from a description of ideas forwarded in The Warrior Ethos, a work by Steven Pressfield:

…Starting thousands of years ago with the hunters, protection for the tribe was best achieved as a group working together. The successful tribes evolved the warrior ethos practiced by the Spartans and others where courage, cooperation, and acknowledging the strength of the group over that of the individual, enabled the tribe or the nation to survive.

 Tribes and nations prospered or were conquered by the strength of the warrior culture, and as Philip of Macedon, Alexander the Great, Xerxes, and others fought their way across the Mediterranean and Central Asia, civilization was spread as conquerors and conquered traded goods, took wives, and exchanged ideas.

 This sort of intermingling led to the Indian warrior epic “Bhagavad-Gita,” expanding the warrior ethos to a loftier plane – from the war against one’s neighbor to an internal struggle to reach one’s better nature as Arjuna, the Gita’s hero, battles against enemies whose names can be translated as greed, sloth, and selfishness – all moral weaknesses that must be overcome.

This reference to the Bhagavad Gita has a context here. The Bhagavad Gita is, simply put, a philosophical and practical manual of human being and conduct presented in an allegory of war and the experiences there of Arjuna, the “greatest warrior,” and the guidance, counsel and instruction given to him by Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, regarded in the Hindu canon as the “Supreme God.”

There is a connection between the Gita and the Tao Te Ching. Victor Mair has observed that “…there are many remarkable correspondences between the Bhagavad Gita and the Tao Te Ching,” and also that “The Bhagavad Gita is essentially a manual of spiritual discipline that has applications in the real world; the Tao Te Ching is basically a handbook for the ruler with mystical overtones. The Bhagavad Gita advocates control of the mind and ultimate liberation; adherents of the Tao Te Ching espouse the indefinite protraction of the physical body.”

A spirited discussion has come out of Mair’s work which, among other things, observes differences between wu wei and karma yoga, and to a purist a certain amount of contention can arise favoring one or the other. I have no problem integrating the two.

I behold the all-inclusive, natural Tao to include Kamma (action and results) as something which can be observed and allowed to be from a perspective of wu-wei, non-action or non-doing.

I do not, however, believe that the sage advises us to be passive, inactive observants exclusively. In this chapter wu wei and karma yoga become mutually inclusive: The sage observes the karmic results of war.

If there is a synthesis of the two we can find it in the concept of selfless action as embraced, taught and demonstrated by the “peaceful warrior” Mohandas Ghandi (who called the Gita his “bible”), and espoused by Vivekananda,  Paramahansa Yogananda, and many others. We can also find it in the conduct of those who are perceived as “not peaceful” warriors who nonetheless demonstrate the ethos and essence of their peaceful counterparts.

In light of the discussion which followed my commentary on the previous chapter and the incorporation of wu wei and karma yoga which appears here it seems appropriate to ask a basic question. What is the purpose of the Tao Te Ching sage in these communiqué’s? Does the sage ultimately seek to nullify our separated personal dualistic existential experience by helping us create a singular, perfect focus on the inexplicable and indefinable Tao?

Or does the sage seek to advise us of how to balance ourselves here in this place where we navigate between poles of good and evil, action and inaction, seeing and knowing, mind and heart, intellect and intuition, earth and heaven, bully and saint, hard forms and soft forms, war and peace, death and survival, destruction and preservation, confrontation and deflection, existential conflicts and spiritual resolution?

In this chapter the sage once again acknowledges and accepts the existential realm and notes that weapons can be deployed there even by the wise man “when he has no choice.”

Since that’s the focus here, let’s take a look at that. Choice. I’ll take the sage at his word and accept that there are situations in which there is no choice and the use of weapons is necessary. What is the nature of such a situation? When does choice no longer apply, and all options disappear?

Given the background offered here so far, and dialing in to the boots-on-the-ground war experience of the individual confronted with a situation in which the use of weapons is necessary, we can look at a moment in time which occurred in the “Blackhawk Down” military action in Mogadishu, Somalia on the 3rd of October 1993:

During a raid in Mogadishu on 3 October 1993, MSG. Gary Gordon and SFC. Randall Shughart, were providing precision and suppressive fires from helicopters above two helicopter crash sites. Learning that no ground forces were available to rescue one of the downed aircrews and aware that a growing number of enemy were closing in on the site, MSG. Gordon and SFC. Shughart volunteered to be inserted to protect their critically wounded comrades. Their initial request was turned down because of the danger of the situation. They asked a second time; permission was denied. Only after their third request were they inserted.

MSG. Gordon and SFC. Shughart were inserted one hundred meters south of the downed chopper. Armed only with their personal weapons, the two NCOs fought their way to the downed fliers through intense small arms fire, a maze of shanties and shacks, and the enemy converging on the site. After MSG. Gordon and SFC. Shughart pulled the wounded from the wreckage, they established a perimeter, put themselves in the most dangerous position, and fought off a series of attacks. The two NCOs continued to protect their comrades until they had depleted their ammunition and were themselves fatally wounded. Their actions saved the life of an Army pilot.

 So. Obviously there is a larger picture available here. There is a good argument to be made against how and why these men were in this situation in the first place, and who put them there, and the reasoning which created their circumstances. These men were killing people violently with weapons, and people killed them violently with weapons, and for all the arguments to be made against the insane sourcing of that situation there is a paradox present there – the presence of a noble virtue. The fact of the moment is not arguable. It is a simple fact that these two men used violence and weapons in a situation where there was, by their lights, no other choice available to them.

What were those lights, what was the fundamental basis of their decision? When I speak with vets about war-time experiences a couple of common things are eventually distilled from all their varying perspectives which begin to answer that question.

First, there are some who have become aware through their experience that they placed their own self-will and ability to choose what their actions will be in the hands of others. Many do that unwittingly, and discover it through hard experience. Some, however, make that choice consciously, and in these individuals there is a noble consciousness which submits the individual to service of the group. These individuals are aware that in so doing they allow their lives and actions to be directed and used by others for a greater good than the good of themselves – the good of the community, the good of the tribe, the good of the family.

It’s so easy to veer from that seemingly noble conscious choice to the evil which is so often perpetrated by the powers who wield the nobly submitted warrior as a weapon of violence in pursuit of power and wealth for greedy, selfish purposes. But for the moment we are on the ground with the warrior. Let’s stay there with them.

There is a second common realization present in many vets I have known who directly experienced the violence of war. It came to each of them in the moment when they realized they were not fighting for country, or principle, or ideals, or even the greater good, because all of those things had become arguable and questionable and matters of opinion and perspective. It came to each of them in a moment when they realized they were fighting for the life of the person next to them, nothing less and nothing more. It came to them in the moment when they realized the most important thing to them was not whether they would live or die. The most important thing, the only thing, was that the person next to them should live.

Often this realization comes when the individual is certain their own death is imminent. What is remarkable is how many times in this moment vets have decided to die fighting for the person next to them rather than themselves. In that moment the macrocosmic social aggregate and the unbalanced perspective which has created war and sees it as a  necessity and takes human beings into it through their abdication of personal choice dissolves, and personal choice is resurrected. Or, more accurately, the individual becomes disconnected from the group cultural consciousness which he has submitted himself to and becomes reconnected to the spiritual connections and knowings and mandated actions which are in accord with and present in the divine self.

In that moment, these warriors achieve Arjuna’s spiritual victory over all moral weaknesses. They are focused, they are mindful, they are selfless, they are submitted to the One. When the choice is lost and the moment to deploy weapons comes, even then there is still a choice. We can choose who, and what, we fight for.

I believe that in the end, in Mogadishu, MSG. Gary Gordon and SFC. Randall Shughart realized Arjuna’s noble ideal in the personal choice they made in that moment. They were trained, imbued, and perfected in the modern martial warrior ethos, but they were not automatons. Social ethos did not make that final choice for them. Their humanity did. They did.

After the battle in Mogadishu there were many funerals on both sides. There was no victory there, only destruction and loss and mourning and lost lives. Yet woven into the dark horror of that misguided, insane, destructive mass event – the responsibility for which is traceable back to dark, selfish, insane perspectives – there are brilliant moments of human selflessness. On both sides.

I recall a friend telling me about a moment in Viet Nam which helped him to a realization of a related sort. I think it’s about what the sage speaks of about those moments which come when there is no choice, and the deployment of weapons is necessary. How do we know that moment?

My friend and another less experienced soldier were unable to make it back to their base after a reconnaissance mission and had to spend the night bivouacked in a tree. In the middle of the night my friend’s fellow soldier heard a noise in the jungle and whispered, “What was that?” My friend whispered this order back: “You did not hear anything. Nothing. If you heard something then you’ve made it real and we have to go see what it was. Just shut up and let it be. It’ll be real when it’s real. Until then, dammit, just let it be.”

It’ll be real when it’s real, and there’s no sense in borrowing trouble making it real when we have other choices. So long as there is a choice, the choice is to let things be what they are and, as the sage observes, hold peace and quiet dear to our heart.

What types of violence do we engage in? What types of violence are used upon us? The sage speaks of the use of weapons, and martial war. What weapons are in stock in our personal armory? What personal wars do we fight? What weapons do we deploy, what weapons are deployed against us? What martial perspectives do we see from and carry with us, unexamined or subtly and subliminally present in our own affairs?

What can be used as a weapon? Almost anything. A pen or pencil, a credit card, a rock, a belt, a handkerchief with a coin sewed into its corner, a sock full of quarters, household chemicals, almost any moveable object, the human body, religion, God, social status, educational attainment, race, gender, language, contempt, superiority, marginalization, rejection, ostracism – the list goes on and on.

What makes a thing a weapon? Intent. What marks a war as a war? Harm, destruction. Eventually it boils down to whether you want to use weapons or not, whether you want to make war or not. Do you? If you do, then expect those weapons to be deployed against you, expect their effects on yourself, expect the consequences of war. The karmic principle is set in stone, cast into the fundamental foundation of the dualistic human experience. Do you seek a victory? Then expect a defeat.

The words of the sage are good to keep in mind. Keep peace and quiet dear to your heart. There is no victory when you use weapons against others, and so yourself. When the fight happens a price will be paid. Do not employ weapons against yourself or others. There is no joy when weapons are used to gain personal fulfillment. Know what you seek and what you will lose.

The sage observes that violence with weapons comes when there is no other choice. When you encounter that moment, he says, remember: if you like to win then you will lose, you will not be fulfilled. War at any level brings destruction and loss. It should be followed by a funeral mourning those who think they have won something. They have lost, and are lost. There is war. There has been war. There will be war. Even so, hold peace and quiet dear to your heart.

The sage is tricky. He observes what happens when there is no choice. And in this way he leads us to find a singular truth for ourselves: there is always a choice.

That being said, I believe it is possible I could be confronted with a situation in which I would chose to use a weapon with deadly force. It hasn’t happened so far in my life, and I pray it never does. If it comes, the choice to do so will be a choice I make, not a choice the situation makes for me, and I will pay the price the sage speaks of. Volition – conscious choice – is always present, and it’s a cop-out to claim the situation called for it and I could do nothing else. Until such a moment appears in my life I will not make it real until it is real, I will let things be as they are, and I will hold peace and quiet dear to my heart.


In the comments section of the previous chapter, Louis shared a quote from Paxton Robey which zeroes in through all the confusions of the situations I have observed here to concentrate the attention on what we, as individuals, might correctly do when beholding such events and then experience the desire to correct them.

Robey observes, “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.”

I agree. What I would add to that good counsel is that, beyond perceiving and then healing our own error in finding fault in others, there is the matter of how we are to “send light.”

Is sending light the matter of a casual, benevolent prayer sent in the direction of others in the spirit of wu wei and then commending them to their path, allowing them to be who and what they are, accepting their condition as a fact of life which we are unable to judge? Yes, it is. Yet it is more than that, too.

When we actively embrace our existential being and the choices made there between good and evil, light and dark – choices which are intrinsic and inseparable from the ground – action is a part of that realm. Sages inform us throughout history of what right action is, and that information wakes us to what we already know about right action because that knowledge is inseparable from and intrinsic to the spiritual ground we all share in the One. We awake to that, and so awakened are compelled to embrace and support and demonstrate and express it and share it.

Right action is a matter of speaking our light, living our light by example, sharing our light – and the confusions we experience there as well – in deeds of example, not applied as corrections or coercions to others but rather as expressions of what we know ourselves to truly be, of the goodness and light we have found within ourselves which we share with all of creation.

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3 Responses to Tao Te Ching Chapter 31

  1. Louis W says:

    This is a powerful commentary. I have nothing to add, except one brief quotation from the Book of Sirach (a part of Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox scriptures, but not found in the Bibles used by most Protestant denominations:

    “If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you;
    If you trust in God, you too shall live;
    He has set before you fire and water;
    To whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand.
    Before man are life and death, good and evil,
    Whichever he chooses shall be given him.
    Immense is the wisdom of the Lord;
    He is mighty in power and all-seeing.
    The eyes of God are on those who fear him,
    He understands man’s every deed.
    No one does he command to act unjustly,
    To none does he give license to sin.”

    -Sirach 15:15-20

    • bobgriffith says:

      An excellent reflection, Louis. Thank you. We choose and are given what we have chosen. We are given license to choose. We are not given license to escape the returns of our choices.

  2. Amy Putkonen says:

    What an amazing entry. I am so glad that I found this and took the time to read it thoroughly. In thinking of what to comment, I feel that I need to re-read the entire thing because there was just so much here.

    I loved what you said about the warriors. This beautiful imagery will now replace what was confusion as to why anyone would go to war. I mean, I got the whole fighting for the country idea, but it just did not make sense to me why people would fight for a “cause” that was so clearly selfish most of the time. This gives me a wonderful new perspective that I will hold dear.

    As far as wars go, I think our battles just get more subtle as we learn more about ourselves and each other. Like Louis said though, I don’t have much to add here. This is a masterpiece in the truest sense of the word.

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