Tao a Day — Verse 63: Doing without Doing

Let’s approach this verse in two pieces. We’ll compare the Red Pine and Jonathan Star translations for each piece in that order:

Act without acting
work without working
understand without understanding
great or small[,] many or few
repay each wrong with virtue
– Trans. Red Pine

Act without acting
Give without giving
Taste without tasting

Tao alone becomes all things great and all things small
It is the One in many
It is the many in One

Let Tao become all your actions
then your wants will become your treasure
your injury will become your blessing.
– Trans. Jonathan Star


It’s always interesting to see how different translations of this classic have been approached, and the power of Red Pine’s translation is to get it down to one without artistic interpretation: a simple, bare-bones, as close to the original as possible translation without embellishment. The quote from his translation here boils this down; act without acting in all instances and with everyone, no matter how they treat you. Do this by repaying wrong with virtue. However, what are we to make of the very enigmatic opening lines? Luckily, his book also has chosen commentary from Chinese masters throughout the ages. I found these two bits of commentary quite helpful. Ho-Shang Kung, a Taoist master from around 100 B.C., says: “To act without acting means to do only what is natural. To work without working means to avoid trouble by preparing in advance. To understand without understanding means to understand the meaning of the Tao through meditation.” Sung Ch’ang-Hsing, a seventh patriarch of the Dragon Gate and Taoist master from the 1700s, says: “To act without acting, to work without working, to understand without understanding is to conform with what is natural and not to impose oneself on others. Though others treat sages wrongly, the wrong is theirs and not the sages’. Sages respond with the virtue within their hearts. Utterly empty and detached, they thus influence others to trust in doing nothing.”  These two pieces of commentary make this short section shine. It fits well with my previous discussion of Verse 8 (What I called: “In Accordance with Nature”), and it also fits with a previous post (in terms of doing what is natural and not imposing oneself on others and the world): Control and Letting Go. The doing without doing, wu wei, is acting in appropriate resonance with the nature of things–situations as they present themselves. It is not about imposing your own will on the world and making it conform to you. The Sage does not see such a separation, and the Tao Te Ching speaks in passage after passage about how that which is gained by force does not last very long: it comes to an early death. Hence, the way to live forever (or live longer and at peace) is to develop the virtue, Te, which goes along with the emanations of the 10,000 things (one aspect of Tao). Acting through force and reactive vengeance is not only ego-centered, it does not embrace Tao. It embraces “me”. That’s all. Acting in that very standard sense of pursuing your own motivations to make the world the way you want it to be, to form it in your own image as some creator-God-wannabe, is not virtuous, not wise, and not seeing the universe and its mysterious origins for what they are. We could look to the comments on Verse 26. Jonathan Star’s translation says pretty much the same thing as everything I just explicated but in a more succinct and poetic manner. As he closes, letting Tao become all of your actions is to act without the intention of promoting yourself. Instead, it is to act in accordance with Tao, the ever unfolding beauty of All, and by so doing, you act without acting. It’s not about complete inaction. It’s about acting through Tao rather than through your “self”.


Here is the second passage from the verse:

Plan for the hard while it’s easy
deal with the great while it’s small
the world’s hardest task begins easy
the world’s greatest goal begins small
sages therefore never act great
they thus achieve great goals
who quickly agrees is seldom trusted
who thinks things easy finds them hard
sages therefore think everything hard
and thus find nothing hard
– Trans. Red Pine

Take on difficulties while they are still easy
Do great things while they are still small
Step by step the world’s burden is lifted
Piece by piece the world’s treasure is amassed

So the Sage stays with his daily task
and accomplishes the greatest thing
Beware of those who promise a quick and easy way
for much ease brings many difficulties

Follow your path to the end
Accept difficulty as an opportunity
This is the sure way to end up
with no difficulties at all.
-Trans. Jonathan Star


Let’s take one more piece of commentary to handle these lines. Te-Ch’ing says (again from Red Pine’s book): “When I entered the mountains to cultivate the Way, at first it was very hard. But once I learned how to use my mind, it became very easy. What the world considers hard, the sage considers easy. What the world considers easy, the sage considers hard.” Controlling the mind in Buddhism is mindfulness. This is showing up to each moment just as it is without concept. Taoism’s stories of insight are meant to produce the same result: non-conceptual understanding. We might understand the Sage here as the mindful one of Tao’s unfolding with each moment. A task, no matter how large, is always right now. For instance, the next verse is the one with the famous line “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The thing is: it begins with a single step, it continues with a single step, and it ends with a single step. The task is always the small, easy task of just one step. The Sage approaches doing by not looking at the goal which sees the task in its entirety: huge, hard, insurmountable. Rather, he sees it as this small, single step in this moment. Each moment of doing is a step. Again and again. Yet, the Sage sees it just as the step of this moment, not all the steps that lie ahead. The Sage recognizes the greatness of the task, but he is not daunted, as he approaches it in accordance with the task and with flexibility in each and every step, moment by moment: just this. Through such a mindful engagement with the present action that is in accordance with nature, the Sage will surely accomplish the greatest of things.

May this help you achieve the greatest things without acting.
Gassho!

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