"He who changes it
will destroy it."
Tao Te Ching — Chapter 29
The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained
Conquering the world and changing it,
I do not think it can succeed.
The world is a sacred vessel that cannot be changed.
He who changes it will destroy it.
He who seizes it will lose it.
So, among all things,
Some lead and some follow,
Some sigh and some pant,
Some are strong and some are weak,
Some overcome and some succumb.
Therefore the sage avoids extremity, excess, and extravagance.
Don't Change the World
Lao Tzu continues his ecological thinking, more than
two millennia ahead of time. In his own era, he was not alone
in appreciating the world as it was, but he expressed it
with rare sharpness and devotion.
He would not have approved of the Great Wall of
China, which was begun around the time when this book is
supposed to have been written. That colossal wall, which
grew and grew by each century, is such a striking symbol of
what Lao Tzu deplored, one must wonder if he watched its
beginning with his own eyes.
The emperors, who tried to hold onto their vast
domain by enclosing it, were indeed headed towards the failure
The bigger things are, the more difficult they are to
grab and keep. The world is simply too much. So are
countries, even rather small ones. Any one of them has had
countless rulers, even dynasties, where the mightiest of kings
have been replaced, borders have been moved, treasures
have changed owners, and castles have been vacated. Power
is not persistent.
Many have tried to change the whole world or some
significant parts of it. We seem to be getting good at it,
lately. But each such change must be constantly renewed and
fortified. Otherwise, the world will soon return to its
previous state. Man-made changes wither, often quicker than men do.
Nature gnaws down unattended buildings, grass
pierces through asphalt, and forests move in on lawns that
aren't mowed regularly. Animals, too, feast on civilization as
they do on nature. The changes we make are splendid only in
our own eyes, and we should refrain from blinking if we
want the sight to remain.
Change Is the Nature of Nature
What makes the world difficult to change in a lasting
way is not its reluctance to change, but because it's so
familiar with it. The world itself is a master of change. That's how
it was made in the first place, and that's how it continues
to remake itself.
From the smallest to the biggest part of the world,
everything changes. Water evaporates, rising to the sky, and
falls back on the ground as rain. Forests grow, burn down,
and grow back up again. Even the vast continents move
across the surface of the planet, as if playing their own
Our whole planet is spinning around its axis,
and around the sun, in a remarkable race which is still
insignificant compared to the movements of galaxies and the
expansion of the whole universe. Everything is changing,
and most of those changes are far superior to anything the
human being can accomplish.
We don't fail because we try to change things, but
because we want to stop them from changing. What little
adjustments we do to the world, we don't want undone.
We build our houses and want them to remain exactly as
they were immediately after the roofing.
That's futile. Decay starts already at the beginning
of growth. Change has neither beginning nor end. We
can never fully control it, since we are mere parts of it.
So, what Lao Tzu states about the consequences
would be true, if change and seizure of the world were at all
possible. If the world could be changed into a fixed state,
which is what we would try, it could only lead to destruction.
We would have to stop time, and where would that leave us?
There is an order to life, and we play our parts in it.
That's fine, and grants us enough liberty to explore our
capacities and take delight in them. But if we try to overstep
our boundaries, extend beyond our capacities, we will fail
miserably and painfully.
There is no satisfaction in pretense, if allowed to
guide our lives. We need to be what we are, not what we
would like to be. Otherwise we can never come to like
ourselves, and then we will never be pleased.
Lao Tzu understands the temptation of
overdoing things and reaching beyond our wildest dreams. But he
also knows about the price that needs to be paid for it. It's
inevitable, since chasing our dreams means running away
from our reality.
He wants us to start by reexamining what we have
and what we are, because he is confident that doing so, we
will find it to be sufficient. Then we can enjoy it. What more
to ask for?
© Stefan Stenudd.
Tao Te Ching Explained
The 81 Chapters of Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
translated and explained by Stefan Stenudd.
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