Tao Te Ching Chapter 57

Govern the state with correctness.
Operate the army with surprise tactics.
Administer the empire by engaging in no activity.
How do I know that this should be so? Through this:

The more taboos and prohibitions there are in the world, 
The poorer the people will be. 
The more sharp weapons the people have, 
The more troubled the state will be. 
The more cunning and skill a man possesses, 
The more vicious things will appear. 
The more laws and orders are made prominent, 
The more thieves and robbers there will be.

Therefore the sage says: 
I take no action and the people of themselves are transformed. 
I love tranquility and the people of themselves become correct. 
I engage in no activity and the people of themselves become prosperous. 
I have no desires and the people of themselves become simple.

Translation by Wing-Tsit Chan (1963)

Note: The following comments link with and relate (sometimes loosely) to the observations made at Tao Te Ching Chapter 56, at Ralston Creek Review.

Good stuff, Louis. The quote by Teddy Roosevelt rings especially loud, it is both historically proven and currently prophetic:

“…the prime factor in their fall was the fact that the parties tended to divide the line that separates wealth from poverty; It made no difference which side was successful; it made no difference whether the republic fell under the rule of oligarchy or under the rule of a mob.”

 Thoreau’s particular quote is speculative and utopian, yet it does point to a good step forward in the administration of government which seems nearly impossible for the governors of a society to take – to be expedient rather than inexpedient:

 “…That government is best which governs not at all;” and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient.

 Thoreau’s observation is grounded in his baseline belief that the conscience of human beings – the “still, small voice within” or the Holy Spirit, if you will – when properly followed will conform the object of that expediency to the true nature of Creation rather than the local and selfish definitions of the ego.

The selfish ego proves to be the root of governmental inexpediency when the actions there descend to that Machiavellian level of action which pursues results by any means. That way falls even further when those means favor the few at the cost of the many, and Teddy Roosevelt is absolutely accurate in observing that the next step down that path is the dissolution and fall of both government and the governed.

Politics is often nothing more than an institutionalized illusion based on power and control which attracts egos who operate in that illusion exclusively. An ugly little twist on what true power – powerlessness – and true control – release – is really.

In our dualistic experience there is always the “real world” to contend with, and our proper response to it is to behold it and then act there with balance, maintaining a firm line of sight upon the Tao as well as the manifestations of ego which seek to cut it off.

The dualistic dichotomy is our existential predicament and rules are a part of its nature. It has always been the goal of humanity to identify what rules are good, i.e., conform to the essence of our highest nature as creatures endowed and imbued with the essence, the Te virtue, of the Tao.

The sage acknowledges that social organizations form and are institutionalized in the realm of what we have characterized here as the “real world.” It’s the place where self-will and choice exist, where consciousness of the Tao is subject to a purely dualistic, binary off-on switch, operated by the individual ego, which may or may not even be aware of the existence of the choice to be “on”, to be aware of something other than itself.

It seems that there are those who know or learn about the usefulness of keeping the connection open, or are naturally inclined to do so without knowing or learning – and there are others who operate exclusively in the realm of the “real world,” where self interest overrules, ignores, or nullifies the broader perspective of Tao-awareness.

It is not that they are not imbued with Te, it is more about their choice to view existential challenges from the viewpoint of personal need rather than mutual need, and personal expedience rather than mutual expedience. The expedient employed to meet the needs of the self is paramount in that view, and if it is inexpedient and harmful to others, well then that’s just the way it is.

I recently picked up a copy of the Dalai Lama’s book “Beyond Religion,” subtitled Ethics for a Whole World. The chapter addressing Compassion and the Question of Justice ends with this statement:

“…I consider compassion to be the core principle upon which an entire ethical approach can be built. It is from a compassionate concern for the welfare of others that all our ethical values and principles arise, including that of justice.”

 A compassionate concern for the welfare of others. There is a long, well thought-out understanding behind this statement with regard to what compassion is, and what justice is, and what religion is – and at the very end of that reasoned knowing there is that statement. It’s a distillation of thought into a single precept which constitutes a pragmatic, go-to criterion which every person engaged in the “real world” can apply, and which every social, legal, governmental, and economic institution can refer to as a higher governing law which local law (as discussed in the commentary on Chapter 50) can be subject to, and ruled by.

And yet it isn’t an actively embraced consciousness in the “real world,” where egocentric corruptions seem to prevail and the law of the jungle is every person for themselves. How then do we institutionalize the essential virtue, Te, pragmatically in government, law, in institutionalized structures of leadership and rules of conduct?

And so we come to your observation via Thoreau:

“…we will finally be able to experience the best government, which does not govern at all, ‘when men are prepared for it.’ It seems that Lao Tzu, Confucius, Chuang Tzu and Plato all recognized that caveat. Until that time…”

 Even the Dalai Lama acknowledges that time is not here. He expresses wishes and hopes, and offers prayers that such a time will come, and he elucidates the principles and choices which will make it so if we embrace them in our conduct and our institutions. Yet he, too, beholds the “real world” and acknowledges its ego-burdened predilection to focus selfishly rather than make the choice to embrace the broader perspective which includes compassionate regard for others as part of the process which helps us determine what actions we take there.

Action comes with the territory when we are conducting ourselves in the “real world.” Which is not to say that the last four lines of this chapter observing the mind of no-action which loves tranquility without attached desires does not apply there. Many sages address the nature of actions in the world as well as the fulfillments of detachment and inaction.

So how do we meet the “real world” in “the real world?” (I can’t desist from the quotes because I don’t regard it as “real” in the way I use the word, although I do acknowledge the dimension of consciousness which regards it as “real,” and which I do experience, too. I would characterize it as the local world, or the self-world, existing in the local, self-based order of perception.)

To look at a particular aspect of action it would be good to consider the following question: How am I to act when my leaders or the laws I am subject to or the social institutions which have been established to regulate the conduct and affairs of all prove to be ignorant, selfish, overbearing, prejudiced, harmful and/or otherwise at odds with the Tao-centric baseline of an ethical construct which the Dalai Lama has defined as being based upon a compassionate concern for the welfare of others?

One choice is to live outside local law while living within higher law. Most local laws are in accordance with, or at least not injurious to, higher law. When they are not then we could navigate our way through the conflict, flowing around confrontation whenever possible, making a stand when no other option is available – a time which, as the sage observes, inevitably appears sooner or later. When it comes we have noted here before the models of compassionate civil disobedience embodied in Thoreau, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and others. Their actions give us a template for how to live outside local law while living within higher law and acting compassionately and firmly to resist conditions which have become injurious in the absence of a compassionate concern for the welfare of others.

It is true that those who know “know” they know, but when it comes to the world wherein we experience existential separations we are confronted not only with unknowing others, but also with the possibility that we are as unknowing as everyone else, and even our own “knowing” is delusional and therefore null. The ego-self can become deluded and believe that its perception is paramount and so fall out of the condition of grace which connects us with the Tao in the first place.

There is a philosophical and psychological hypothesis built upon the premise that the formation of personal consciousness and its evolution from a primary “knowing” consciousness to a complex dualistic processor is the root of our disconnection from the Tao and constitutes a condition which cannot transcend itself, and as a result we are stuck in the “real world” and constitutionally incapable of transcending it.

I think it is necessary to be aware of the schism created there, and while some perceive it as a permanent break between the “real world” and the Tao it would be more accurate to describe it as an overlay, a built-up system which can be transcended. The release of self which we have discussed before is they key there. A simple act, yes – but not an easy one. The overlay is powerful, and has created an existential reality which is difficult to release. But we are looking at action in that existential experience. Let’s stay on that topic.

So what’s the “real answer” for the “real world,” regardless of whether we can transcend it or are stuck here?

Personal action, conduct and belief rooted in the highest value we are able to perceive: a compassionate concern for the welfare of others.

It is clear that human institutions in the world today are going off the tracks on an order of magnitude which in some cases has no historical precedent. There are no historical instances which truly reflect the problems we face with regard to global overpopulation and global warming.

In other cases the historical record is so full of instances of institutional failures that it simply makes no sense to deny that the elements of social collapse are clearly in play today. We are confronted with holy wars, culture wars, economic predators and their resultant desolations of entire populations, an overweening sense of selfish personal entitlement in the social hierarchy, fear-based motivations inculcated into us from an early age by oligarchic corruptions of capitalism which teach us to watch out for number one and not others because there is no compassion in the world, no cooperation, no concern – in short, no love – and much fear.

We can see all these manifestations and backtrack to the causes, and it doesn’t take much to realize that the root of many of our ills lays in the fact that we have forgotten the basic precept of a successful social order – a compassionate concern for the welfare of others. Its absence or loss is a historical indicator of social collapse and failure. Its presence is a marker in the genesis of highly successful social orders and governments. It is true that the principle of compassion has historically been applied locally for preservation of the group rather than humanity as a whole, but the principle was active and in play when civilizations flourished, and much diminished or had even disappeared when they fell.

Now the group is no longer a local one and instead has become humanity itself. As the old local political paradigms fall a developing global consciousness that we are all now in the business of survival together may be the seed which finally brings forth the time that has not come forth yet according to Plato, Thoreau, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Chuang Tzu and  the Dalai Lama.

We are not there yet. And so for now the “real answer” for the “real world” is to act personally, locally and directly, in accordance with the principle of a compassionate concern for the welfare of others as best we can.

In this context of personal action the observations of the sage in the last four lines of this chapter seem contradictory, yet we need to remember that the sage is balanced and shifts fluidly between viewpoints which behold the Tao and the existential condition.

It is beyond the ability of words to express simultaneity of viewpoint, and so the sage does as we all do, shifting the dualistic viewpoint until both the Tao and existential being are seen and, hopefully, the message is conveyed that we are not trapped in one place or separated from another, but rather wholly incorporated into a dynamic experience which is both.

I think that if the Dalai Lama were asked what the difference is between the sage’s observations of inaction and his own advice to embrace compassionate action he would hold both hands out apart and move them up and down as though weighing something, and he would say, “It is all a matter of perspective.” And then, smiling, he would bring both hands together, uniting the “two,” in the traditional form of the namaste’ greeting. And laugh with compassion and understanding.

Because we are wholly incorporated into a dynamic experience which involves both detached understanding and engaged compassion.

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2 Responses to Tao Te Ching Chapter 57

  1. louisweltzer says:

    I have been meaning to comment on this essay for several days, but have put it off because (a) it is a complicated subject, (b) you seem to have covered the subject in a manner with which I would concur, and (c) my computer has been “in the shop” for repairs for two full weeks now.

    When it comes to matters of ethics and practical spirituality, I almost always agree with the Dalai Lama. His worldly situation is actually a good illustration of the duality you mention. I had a friend named John who was very interested in spiritual matters – while selling real estate in Central City, Colorado. He had spent several months studying in India, where he had become good friends with the Canadian consul to India. That consul had occasion to visit the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala and invited John to accompany him, As John told the story, they arrived at the offices of the Dalai Lama and were greeted by a saffron-robed monk who led them to the Dalai Lama’s personal office. When they entered, the office was empty. They asked where the Dalai Lama was, and the little monk who had greeted them smiled and said, “Here I am.” He showed himself a simple man despite his lofty position.

    Because of that lofty position, however, the Dalai Lama is inaccessible to most people. You or I could not walk up to him on the street and engage in conversation because he has bodyguards to prevent such a thing. We should not expect him to respond to our emails or postcards. He is a simple man whose lofty position isolates him from most of the other simple folk.

    Still, if you read his words or hear him speak, you know that it is a compassionate concern for the welfare of others that remains the base from which that lofty position rises. And it is a position that is exercised with the virtue of Te – and with a laughing “Namaste.”

    • bobgriffith says:

      Computer dysfunction is one of the great existential challenges of our time, and I am glad you have weathered it with grace. When I am confronted with the same thing I eventually realize I could live without it, but not before I go through withdrawal symptoms. However, some of the things I do not miss are the online comments section of almost any news item regarding politics, religion, or other human catastrophes, and it is also quite nice to not have to cull my email messages of YouTube forwards featuring little brother thrilling his nostril with the tail of Fluffy, the family cat.

      Nice to have you back.

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