Daily Daodejing, Part 5

For information of what this thread is about, see the parent thread

Heaven and Earth are not benevolent and treat the myriad things as straw dogs

Heaven and Earth allow things to follow their natural bent and neither engage conscious effort nor start anything, leaving the myriad things to manage themselves. Thus they “are not benevolent.” The benevolent [ren] have to establish institutions and influence behavior, for they are prone to use kindness and make conscious effort. But when institutions are established and behavior influenced, people lose their authenticity, and when subject to kindness and conscious effort, they no longer preserve their integrity. If people do not preserve their integrity, they no longer have the capacity to uphold the full weight of their existence. Heaven and Earth do not make the grass grow for the sake of beasts, yet beasts eat grass. They do not produce dogs for the sake of men, yet men eat dogs. Heaven and Earth take no conscious effort with the myriad things, yet because each of the myriad things has what is appropriate for its use, not one thing is denied support, As long as you use kindness derived from a personal perspective, it indicates a lack of capacity to leave things to themselves.

Since this is being taken outside of its original cultural context, I think I should start by explaining what a ‘straw dog’ is. Wei Yuan (another commentator) described their significance as, “People bound grass together to make dogs and use them as sacrificial offerings, but when they concluded the ritual they cast them aside and trampled on them.” This is important because “straw dogs” should not be understood to mean something of no significance, instead they are items of great significance in their proper context and once they are removed from that, they are absolutely worthless.

This is importance because the Daodejing is not suggesting that Heaven and Earth are in some way negligent. Quite the opposite, Heaven and Earth perfectly provide to each according to their need. It is up to us, then, to conform to what Heaven and Earth have provided us and make ourselves content with our position. It is when people are not content with what nature has provided them that they deviate from their place that they make the transition from being revered as straw dogs to being trampled on as straw dogs.

The sage is not benevolent and treats the common folk as straw dogs.

Because the sage makes his virtue conform to that of Heaven and Earth, he likens the common folk to straw dogs.

Like Heaven and Earth, a sage recognizes that people have their place in both human society and nature. Furthermore, he realizes that people should be treated within the realm of their status and ignored (if not out-and-out repressed) if they step outside that position.

The space between Heaven and Earth, is it not just like a bellows or a mouth organ! Empty, it can never be used up. Active, it produces all the more.

Tuo [open-ended sack] here means a paituo [bellows], and yue [pipe] means a yueyue [mouth organ]. The inferior of a bellows or a mouth organ is completely empty and free of both innate tendencies [qing] and deliberate action [wei]. Thus, though empty, it can never be used up, and, when it is in action, it is impossible to exhaust its strength. The space between Heaven and Earth just lets things follow their natural bents without the least stricture, thus it can never be used up, just as with the bellows or the mouth organ.

Everything is always engaged in the process of being and becoming, filling and emptying. From this process, the ceaseless fecundity of the world is born. However, those who try to use this fecundity to their own ends rather than allowing themselves to be used by the Way will disrupt this delicate process and end in ruin.

Many words lead to quick exhaustion; better to maintain emptiness within.

The more you apply conscious effort to something, the more you will fail. If you set up a policy of kindness toward your people and establish words for dealing with matters, without kindness you will have no way to provide relief [ji] and without words you will have no way to establish order. All of which is sure to result in quick exhaustion. As with the mouth organ, maintain emptiness within, and exhaustion will never happen; take yourself out of it and leave things to themselves, and nothing will ever lack order. If the mouth organ itself intentionally tried to make sounds, it would no longer provide the player with what he needs.

Here the Daodejing anticipates what would presently be known as ‘Libertarianism’. Since the natural endowment differs from person to person, any attempts to maximize or standardize people cannot help but fail. Instead, people should be left to their own devices so as to allow them to play their individual role in the way. In keeping with the Libertarian theme, the free market is a perfect example of what is being discussed: though prices aren’t set by any agency, they conform to their own standards. The system both sets itself and maintains itself in a harmonious fashion. And, like the market, those who seek rigid control are doomed to collapse despite the best of intentions.

Now, there is a twist in the Daoist version of Libertarianism, because the concept of Tabula Rasa doesn’t exist. Instead, people have a path to follow that is in accord with their natural endowment from the Dao. Success is only measured by contentment within the Way, rather than through the materialistic leanings of Libertarianism.

I think this passage is complimented perfectly by one of Zhuangzi’s sayings:

Hi Xunz,

I don’t get the same reading that you do.

Your interpretation implies that the Way is deterministic “A path to follow that is in accord with their natural endowment from the Dao.” Yes to the natural endowment, no to the path to follow. We come into being with tendencies toward, a latency perhaps, but each and every experience is an interaction and in this sense ALL experience is Tabula Rasa. My understanding is that the sage greets each experience with attention (honoring the straw dog), but is ever aware that each experience evolves into new experience and is prepared to let go the straw dog of an old experience. It seems to me that the chapter emphasizes the point that all experience is interactive and that one brings as little preconceived ‘knowing’ to these interactions as possible. The path to follow is not an external proscribed happening, but the processual cotermininous interaction. It is the dance. Perhaps you can see why I say that Dao is essential anarchic?

I don’t necessarily think that the Dao as presented by assuming continuity in the DDJ and between the DDJ and the Zhuangzi is necessarily ‘deterministic’ however, I do think that the notion the is stressed again and again in the texts is that things are perfect/ideal as they are naturally. Another concept that is stressed is that different things/situations suit different people/organisms. Couple that with the general condemnation for those who try to ‘get ahead’ in the world and I do think that a more rigid system falls into place.

After all, the Dao provides you with what you need due to its unceasing bounty, so any lack that you perceive is due to your failure to properly realize the way.

For me, this is actually the central problematik of Daoism – its most noble aspect, that which drives contentment and harmony leading to a comforting and satisfying individual philosophy, such as observed in things like Aiden’s Way and other works is, in my mind, inseparable from its Legalism/proto-Fascism.

The all-embracing acceptance goes hand-in-hand with acceptance of one’s place while denying not only that advancement is desirable, but going so far as to claim that advancement is actually impossible!

I am reminded of the origins of the Human Rights discussion when it started in Europe during the Wars of Religion. Those who argued for religious tolerance almost universally also argued for an autocratic system because unless there is an arbiter keeping the different people in line, you’ll get the sort of terror that happened in the Netherlands. On the other hand, those who argued for the republican systems were what we would now label as religious fanatics. After all, they could short-circuit the traditional levels of authority because they, themselves, could understand the Bible and then you get things like Universal Priesthood thrown into the mix and before you know it, these people are claiming that Rights which had theretofore been the sole providence of the noble-class (including the Priests).

These clash of seemingly conflicting ideas is very alien to the modern mind, but I do think it is essentially Daoist in nature, with the seeming conflict between these concepts being resolved by recognizing how they support each other rather than antagonize each other.

Now, I understand your interpretation, except for the fact that the notion of ‘benevolence’ [ren] is clearly stressed in this passage. Even poetically, the notion of applying ren to experiences doesn’t make sense. Now, I would normally bring in some Confucian baggage to explain a term like benevolence, but in this case I think the meaning maintains its authenticity across traditions. Now, I’m not going to say that the history of a character should be used to infer its meaning – think that is a dubious notion that can quickly fall apart, but in this specific case where the character literally means “two peopleness” with etymological roots suggesting ‘pliability’, I do not see how this trait can be manifested with an experience.

Instead, I think it is better to think that the relationship exists between Heaven and Earth with the myriad things and the sage with the common people.

Now, I do agree a Daoist sage lets go of experiences as you’ve suggested, but I think that given the presence of benevolence here, I think such a reading of this passage would be difficult.

Good lord, I’m still digesting the first offering in this series and trying to develop a sense of the “Sage”. So my comments end up necessarily short and specific to a particular point. (Well, within the broad sense that all things have the nature of dual/non-dual/both dual and non-dual/neither dual nor non-dual). The quoted phrase above caught my eye, as I would never consider either ‘allowing’ or ‘disallowing’ in this context. The Buddhist Eightfold Path is about the development of wisdom (among other things) and the ‘way’ as it were, comes from a realization developed with practice. Heaven and Earth (which I consider as non-appearance and appearance from my conventional perspective) can be understood (I’m not referring to ‘known’ here) only through emptiness. There’s no other way to penetrate what is true about them other than in relation, and a symbolic (pointing) one at that.

That’s all I have time for at the moment, but will probably be commenting on this thread for the next year or two. At least, lol. And it will likely be out of order, as I get something different each time I read through a commentary. Such is the Tao. :slight_smile:

Hey, take your time. That’s why I have links to all the other threads in the parent thread. Makes surfing a little easier. . . though I suppose the search engine here works just as well. Daily Daodejing shouldn’t turn up too many other answers :wink:

As for your point, I did not mean to suggest that one couldn’t ever use things, but rather that one had to use them in accordance with the way. There is a passage in the Zhuangzi (I believe, it may be another text, I’m not totally sure – it is like a passage in the Mencius, I even believe it is a response to it, but I don’t recall who is responding) where they discuss how one could make a bowl from a tree without disrupting its authentic nature if one simply followed the lines of tree. Indeed, there were entire aesthetic movements based around this concept. It reminds me of Michaelangelo’s comment that he didn’t actually make any of the statues, they were already present in the marble and he merely brought them out. It is kinda reminiscent of the reverse of Goethe’s theory of the garden, where the natural world was maintained but shaped to human needs – in the Daoist sensibility, the human world is what ought be shaped and constrained (back) into the natural world.

But the ability of one to follow these natural lines is precisely that ‘knack’ that I mentioned in Part 2. and I think what I’ve said here helps clarify both what is good about the notion of ‘knack’ and what is bad about it.

I think especially if you couple these things with the sort of “Triumphant Dao” for lack of a better term, as articulated by Shen Dao and others, as I touched on in Part 3

So we have the problem of consigning people to what amounts to a fairly limited fate. I think it is all the more problematic than many religions that use proscriptions to keep people in their place. Instead, by suggesting that everyone has a role to play and that they are perfectly suited to that role, it makes breaking out of it difficult. As they say, flattery will get you everywhere.

Hi Xunz,

I think something is slipping here, and the is the constant evolution within every experience. Yes, all things have natural latency, but it is the interaction among the constituants that is process, content, and culmination.

I have a non-existent knowledge of specific characters but I’ll use your description and I come to the opposite conclusion. ‘two peopleness’ Not just one, but two. It reinforces the notion of coterminus interaction. “It takes two to Tango.” How an experience evolves is not from deference to a static “nature”, but is fully engaging in interaction that creates the experience. The external watcher doesn’t exist. The term ‘pliability’ suggests once more, active interaction. Certainly with deference to all constituants, but with active participation.

I actively agree that your description of ren is fair . . . except that I still fail to see how that relates to experience. Ren exists as a state between two people (things, if we take a Yangmingist stance – and I am not sure how valid that approach is, as applied to the DDJ). So then, is the relationship between the experiener and the experience a ‘ren’ relationship? The experiencer and the experienced, certainly.

Hmmm, actually. In this case the ‘experience’ itself could be used to represent the relationship itself. Hmmmm. Still not sure if that could properly be described as ‘ren’ given the language of the time, but the comparison is tempting.

Thank you, you’ve thrown light onto this passage for me. I’ll have to think about this one.

I did some research on ren, stripping it of all the baggage I normally have with it.

Ren originally meant the feeling that a lord has towards their subordinate. If we assume that this passage of the DDJ was compiled before the notion of ren became expanded by the Confucians (Ru), I think that supports my initial position. However, if the passage is a later addition and the author was aware of the changed meaning, then I suppose your interpretation could be valid.