Chapter 5 – Straw Dogs
Heaven and earth are not humane:
The 10,000 things are straw dogs to them.
Sages are not humane:
People are straw dogs to them.
Yet heaven and earth
And all the space between are like a bellows:
Empty and inexhaustible,
Always producing more.
Longwinded speech is exhausting.
Better to stay centered.
Perhaps we should blame Sam Peckinpah for some of the misconceptions people have about regarding or treating things and other humans as straw dogs. His 1971 movie, Straw Dogs, took its name from this chapter of the Tao Te Ching. It showed a dark, primal side of humanity through graphic scenes of violence and rape.
I’m sorry, Sam, but that is not the way of the sage or of Nature.
However, Peckinpah was not alone in what might be said to be his “interpretation” of the text.
Twenty-five centuries ago in China, straw dogs were just that – dummies made of straw in the shape of a dog. At an even earlier time, real dogs had been sacrificed in religious ceremonies. That practice changed so that the straw dummies were substituted for the living animals. It is often said (dating all the way back to Chuang Tzu) that before the ceremony, the straw dogs were venerated and treated with extreme respect; but when it was over they were tossed aside and trampled in the ground. Pieces were taken to be used as kindling. Knowing that history, a number of translators working 40-50 years ago, produced works saying that both heaven and earth and sages are “ruthless” or “unkind.” Peckinpah’s movie took such translations to a ridiculous extreme, but we can’t lay all the blame at his feet.
To properly understand this chapter, one must consider what words Lao Tzu actually used. Unfortunately for us, he did not write in English. He did not say the sage is “ruthless” or is“not humane” or is “not kind” or is “not benevolent.” As I understand it, he wrote that heaven and earth and sages are BU REN.
The word bu expresses a negative, so we may say it means “not.” The word ren has always proved difficult to translate. In a special sense, it is a central concept of Confucianism, which exhorts everyone to become a “man of ren.” That is, to be fully human. To do that, a person must interact properly with other humans, fulfilling one’s duties to his family and community. The proper way of acting was prescribed by li or rites which provided the guidelines for human conduct. That sense of being human was thought necessary for a person or a society to develop culture and civilization.
Here, it seems that Lao Tzu is telling us that Nature (heaven and earth) and the Taoist sage are not concerned with human rules of etiquette or ritual because
the things and people of the world are really the equivalent of straw dummies. As the Buddhists would say, the physical world is an illusion. It is as if we are living among shadows on the wall of a cave, according to Plato.
Accordingly, the wise person is not focused on artificial rules of human interaction, but on the true nature of all things.
This way of looking at Chapter 5 is reinforced by a story found in Chapter 14 of Chuang Tzu in which Confucius has come to visit Lao Tzu to seek advice. Confucius has diligently studied and organized the Six Canons (poetry, history, rites, music, changes, seasons) and has presented his work to 72 princes; but none of them would follow his suggestions for governing the people.
“It is well for you, Sir,” replied Lao Tzu, “that you did not come across any real ruler of mankind. Your Six Canons are but the worn-out footprints of ancient sages. And what are footprints? Why the words you now utter are like footprints. Footprints are made by the shoe; they are not the shoe itself.” He then tells Confucius that if he wishes to provide guidance to others, he must attain the Tao, for with it there is nothing that cannot be accomplished; though without it, nothing may be done.
Confucius returned home and spent three months locked in his house, contemplating the words of Lao Tzu. After that period, he again went to Lao Tzu and announced: “I have attained [the Tao]. Birds lay eggs, fish spawn, insects undergo metamorphosis and mammals suckle their young. For a long time I have not been enlightened. And he who is not himself enlightened, how can he enlighten others?’
La Tzu said, “Yes, Ch’iu, you have attained.”
The rest of the chapter is as fully complex (and simple) as the first four lines. It is from the void that the Nameless, the Tao, creates without end the 10,000 things to which we apply names in our world of illusion. For now, however,
my words are getting in the way
of my understanding, or lack thereof.
I should be quiet –
Amy Putkonen of taotechingdaily.com has begun a project challenging anyone who may be interested to comment on a chapter of the Tao Te Ching each “Tao Tuesday.” You may check that site for links to other considerations or interpretations.
I would like to credit the image of Lao Tzu, but I have not been able to learn who created it. It seems to exist in the public domain.