"Can you care for the people and rule the country, and not be cunning?"
Tao Te Ching — Chapter 10
The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained
Can you make your soul embrace the One
And not lose it?
Can you gather your vital breath
And yet be tender like a newborn baby?
Can you clean your inner reflection
And keep it spotless?
Can you care for the people and rule the country
And not be cunning?
Can you open and close the gate of Heaven
And act like a woman?
Can you comprehend everything in the four directions
And still do nothing?
To give birth to them and nourish them,
Carry them without taking possession of them,
Care for them without subduing them,
Raise them without steering them.
That is the greatest virtue.
There is great power in attaining the wisdom Lao Tzu
describes in his book, but anyone reaching that wisdom
first and foremost learns the importance of modesty. This is
a contradiction, almost a paradox.
It can be compared to what Jesus said about the
meek: They are blessed, for they shall inherit the earth
Not that modesty is the moral obligation of
somebody enlightened and elevated. Lao Tzu makes few arguments
of that kind in the Tao Te Ching. Instead, modesty is the
conclusion, the key to how the world works according to
Tao. Without modesty, neither Tao nor the world can be
"The One" in the first line of this chapter is no
doubt Tao, the Way. If your soul grasps it, how can you keep
your soul from escaping you? How can you remain sound and
in control of your senses?
Modesty is the solution. You observe the inner
workings of the universe, but you understand that there is little to
do about it. Nothing has changed as a result of your
understanding. So you remain grounded in yourself,
although you have grasped the secret of the universe.
The secret lies in the calm primordial law that
arranged all according to the principle of effortlessness. The
greater the power, the less its effort is. So, modesty surpasses
pride and keeps you sane in the middle of the cosmic spectacle.
It's the same with the power so grand that it allows
you to open and close the very gates of heaven, as if you
were a god. Still, you should have no ambition, but be caring
like a mother and accept the yielding position which was
traditionally that of the woman.
You should have no wish to rule, or to make use of
the powers you have at hand. Then you understand when to
do nothing, which is usually the best.
To Lao Tzu, this attitude is the female one, and he
definitely prefers it – for men as well. Traditionally, men
have sought power and were eager to use it in abundance,
while women preferred to leave things be, in order to do the
least damage. That's the wisdom of doing nothing.
The Vital Breath
The vital breath that Lao Tzu mentions is
(also transcribed qi
). He uses the term in chapter 42 and 55, too.
This is a fundamental concept in the cosmology of ancient
China. It's a life energy filling the cosmos as well as mankind,
an essence without which there is no life. It flows through
us and around us, similar but not identical to the air
we breathe. It's what is treated in acupuncture, by
stimulating its meridians inside the body. It's also essential in the
practice of qigong
, the martial arts, and many other traditions.
The idea of such a life force is present in many
other cultures. In India it's called prana, in old Greece
pneuma, in Israel and the Arab world
ruach. The Latin word is spiritus, the spirit, as in the biblical concept of the Holy Spirit.
The Chinese concept is mainly, at least in Lao Tzu's
perspective, a nourishing power at man's disposal, of which
we can have more or less, according to how we exercise it.
Its nourishing quality is evident in the components of its
Ch'i consists of two parts. One is the sign for rice,
and the other that for steam or air. This suggests boiling rice,
the way to make the basic food of the East edible. Indeed,
the boiled rice is what has kept the Chinese alive for
thousands of years. So, the sign suggests essential nourishment
without which one cannot live.
Lao Tzu seems to have had an uncomplicated
and straightforward view on ch'i as a vital essence in
man, stronger in some than in others. What he asks in the
tenth chapter is whether you are able to remain soft and
gentle, even if this spirit of yours is strong.
Power tempts us to express it, and this ambition
hardens us. When we are eager to show our strength,
our muscles stiffen and our movements get clumsy. Our
behavior becomes rude, and we easily damage our
surroundings as well as ourselves.
The flow of ch'i through one's body may be weak
like rain or strong like a waterfall, but our attitude should
remain the same. Strength is no reason to use force.
The last few lines of the chapter speak about "them,"
meaning people, from the perspective of a parent, a leader, an
elder, or a ruler. It's all the same. Whatever your role,
you must treat people as gently as if you had no power at
all over them. Even if you are in the position to give orders,
you should ask. Even though you are sure that you know
what's right for them, you must allow them to choose for
You can suggest and assist, but not command. That
will only lead to opposition and conflict. Also, it robs people
of the chance to come to their own sound conclusions.
You should treat people around you like loving parents
treat their children.
Parents, too, must understand not to use force on
the children in their care. Gentle guidance should be
enough, preferably so that they are unaware of being guided.
Children as well as adults need to feel that they have their
future in their own hands. Only then are they able to listen
to advice wholeheartedly, and follow them without
frustration or remorse.
The greatest virtue of such a respectful attitude is
its gentleness, its refusal to use the power at hand. This is
in accordance with Tao, the Way, which acts in the same
discreet manner. No virtue is greater than to be like Tao.
In chapter 51, Lao Tzu describes this very gentleness
of Tao, ending it with the exact same phrase about the
greatest virtue. Of course, Tao is nothing but the greatest virtue.
The Chinese word translated to virtue is
te, which is also in the title of the book. I will return to it in coming chapters.
© Stefan Stenudd.
Tao Te Ching Explained
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