Chapter 36 – Crane and Snake
If you want something to return to the source,
you must first allow it to spread out.
If you want something to weaken,
you must first allow it to become strong.
If you want something to be removed,
you must first allow it to flourish.
If you want to possess something,
you must first give it away.
This is called the subtle understanding
of how things are meant to be.
The soft and pliable overcomes the hard and inflexible.
Just as fish remain hidden in deep waters,
it is best to keep weapons out of sight.
Translation by J. H. McDonald (1996)
Here, Lao Tzu begins by telling us once again that perceived
opposites are really part of one continuum. In order for something to return, it must first move away. Unless a person or thing has strength, it cannot be weakened – or you could say that unless it is weak, it cannot be made strong. Witter Bynner’s version of this chapter (which Wayne Dyer quotes in Change Your Thoughts – Change Your Life) is an excellent expression of the concept. He begins by saying:
He who feels punctured
Must once have been a bubble,
He who feels unarmed
Must have carried arms,
He who feels belittled
Must have been consequential,
He who feels deprived
Must have had privilege…
As important as that principle is, I would like to focus on the line that says, “the soft and pliable overcomes the hard and inflexible.” These words remind me, again, of the practice of tai chi ch’uan. Anyone who has ever begun the study of tai chi has heard that the movements of the body must be soft and supple like a child’s; and that four ounces can overcome one thousand pounds. To understand these aphorisms, let us consider the legendary beginnings of tai chi ch’uan practice.
The founder of the internal martial art (which I will simply call “tai chi”) is said to have been a Taoist monk and martial arts practitioner named Zhang San-Feng who supposedly lived some 800-900 years ago – although some believe that he became immortal. One version of his story tells that his meditation was interrupted one day by a crane that swooped down from the sky to attack a snake. Zhang watched as the snake slithered away from its predator and launched a counterattack. The crane calmly lifted one of its legs to avoid the strike and brought its beak down to where the snake had been; but the snake had easily moved out of the way. He watched for several minutes as the adversaries launched various attacks of deadly force only to be thwarted by the seemingly effortless movements of the other. Finally, each realized that it was futile to continue such a fight and they parted.
Whether that ever really happened, it is a good story. It is probable that Zhang San-Feng, or others like him, would have been familiar with crane and snake styles of kung fu which could have served as a basis for the earliest forms of tai chi. The symbolism is more important than that, however.
The snake is a creature of the earth. It moves across the ground and through the grass, living beneath rocks or beneath the dirt. The crane, on the other hand, came from the heavens. The confrontation between the two can thus be seen as the battle between the physical and the spiritual, the land and the sky, heaven and earth. The repeated attempts of the one to overcome the other through force proved useless because no matter how much force was used, it was rendered impotent by a slight movement.
Just as strength and weakness, privilege and deprivation, and all other apparent dualities are really different aspects of a single concept, so too are the physical and the spiritual. They must be balanced – and when balanced it is an exercise in futility to allow them to fight for control of our lives. We should accept that there is a place for both the crane and the snake.
The photo above was found on www.examiner.com. There was no attribution of the source, but it was said to be in the public domain as the copyright has expired in China.