Chapter 63 – Difficulty

Act without action.
Do without ado.
Taste without tasting.

Whether it is big or small, many or few, repay hatred with virtue.

Prepare for the difficult while it is still easy.
Deal with the big while it is still small.

Difficult undertakings have always started with what is easy.
And great undertakings have always started with what is small.

Therefore the sage never strives for the great,
And thereby the great is achieved.

He who makes rash promises surely lacks faith.
He who takes things too easily will surely encounter much difficulty.
For this reason even the sage regards things as difficult.
And therefore he encounters no difficulty.

Translation by Wing-Tsit Chan (1963)


Water over Thunder suggests
tempests above and earthquakes below –
cruel conditions for seeds and saplings.

From Richard Gill’s version of the the I Ching (1993),
Hexagram 3, entitled “A Difficult Beginning”*


     I was not there when this happened, so I am re-telling an experience that was told to me. A couple of weeks ago my son Michael, my daughter Suzanne and her husband Jeff hiked up LaPlata Peak, which at 14,360 feet above sea level is the fifth highest mountain in the State of Colorado. Michael and Suzanne are fairly experienced, having summited many Colorado mountains – and Suzanne has been to 19,341 feet (nearly a mile higher) on Mt. Kilimanjaro – but it was Jeff’s first try at a 14er.

Photo from (public domain)

Photo from (public domain)

     To reach the top of LaPlata Peak requires a strenuous hike of several hours, but it can be done without technical gear. The three of them reached the top at about 1:30 in the afternoon. They were tired and sat down on rocks to eat a quick lunch. Within minutes, though, the wind had picked up and a large cloud had formed. Suddenly Suzanne felt a tingling and the hair on her arm began to stand on end.

     Technically, the electricity in the approaching storm had caused her body to send a “positive streamer.” That is a bad thing. It meant that the three of them could be struck by lightning at any second. Suzanne screamed, told everyone to crouch down and get off the top of the mountain. They all did that, and were not struck. They were moving as fast as they could over a boulder field, cutting and bruising their legs while being pelted by wind, rain and hail.

     All three of them made it down safely, though two of their backpacks and Jeff’s wallet and cell phone were lost somewhere along the way.

     Looking back to the previous day, while talking with Suzanne about caring for her 6-month old son Ryder while she and Jeff were in the mountains, I mentioned (as I always do) that they needed to be certain they were off the top of the mountain before noon. She knew to do that; and Michael knew. They both knew that two people had been killed by lightning over the past two weeks in nearby Rocky Mountain National Park. They had planned the trip so it could be completed safely.

     The first difficulty arose, though, when they reached the trailhead and found that the trail up the mountain was closed. There was another route to the top of similar difficulty, so they drove to that trailhead – which took them another hour. Therefore, by the time they started up, it was some 90 minutes later than they had planned. The result of that delay was the nearly tragic brush with lightning.

     I believe that if Lao Tzu had been with them, he would have told everyone to turn around at noon, even though they had not reached the top and the weather seemed to be fine. If that had been done, they, like the sage, would have encountered no difficulty and would probably not even have known that the storm rolled over the top of the mountain an hour and a half later.

     Of course, they would not have had the satisfaction of reaching the summit, and may have felt frustrated. Lao Tzu would not have cared, for the sage never strives for the great. By not striving, the sage is able to understand the difficult, “and therefore he encounters no difficulty.”

     This chapter starts with a call for the non-action of wu-wei: “Act without action. Do without ado.” The story of the storm on LaPlata Peak is a good illustration of that principle. In many ways, to act without action means to follow the rhythms of nature. One of those rhythms is that in the summer there is thunder and lightning over high mountain peaks almost every afternoon. If you get caught in a storm, you will be required to act quickly and appropriately to avoid serious injury or death. That action can usually be avoided, though, by being aware of the way nature acts.

     Before leaving this chapter, I would also like to look at the line which is translated here as, “Whether it is big or small, many or few, repay hatred with virtue.” In a footnote in his translation, Wing-Tsit Chan observes, “The text reads, ‘big small, many few’ and can therefore be open to many interpretations.” Based on the following lines, I believe Lao Tzu is saying that big difficulties start off as small and mutiple problems begin as only a few. It is in the beginning when such matters should be confronted to avoid serious problems at the end.

     The admonition to “repay hatred with virtue” seems a little out of place here, but it is an important way to avoid difficulties. It is also something that seemed important to Confucius, for in his Analects, we find the following:

Someone said, What do you think of repaying hatred with virtue?” Confucius said, “In that case, what are you going to repay virtue with? Rather, repay hatred with uprightness and repay virtue with virtue.” (Analects, 14:36, as translated by Wing-Tsit Chan.)

     Professor Chan points out that the word he translates as “uprightness” is “chih,” which he says means absolute impartiality. I believe that is nearly the same as the virtue or Te that is spoken of in the Tao Te Ching. Neither is saying to love your enemy in the Christian sense. Both are saying that the proper manner of action or inaction by a person should not be dictated by the feelings or acts of another.

     To conclude, let me say that I have not intended to be critical of Michael or Suzanne of Jeff. I may well have decided to trudge on to the top when it was so close, if I had been there. Their story simply seemed a good illustration for this chapter.


* An interesting approach to Hexagram 3 is found on Amy Putkonen’s

6 thoughts on “CHAPTER 63 – DIFFICULTY

  1. “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer is a book I’ve read many times about the same sort of situation. It is an example of the struggle which occurs when the “absolute impartiality” of a preset climbing schedule comes into conflict with the ego, which has invested seriously in time, money and commitment to a goal, and seeks what it seeks for itself instead.

    The choice is always personal, of course, and the individual who decides personally to continue into the “death zone” has made a decision which is neither right or wrong, it is just a decision. It is also not noble, as so many who survive and those who observe such decisions seem to think. Nor is it ignoble. It is just a decision made at one step which carries the individual forward on a certain path. Sometimes it ends at the top of Everest, sometimes at the bottom of the Lhotse Face. Some live, and some die.

    When the absolute impartiality which Wing-Tsit Chan denotes is present, the only assessment of such decisions and what happens after such decisions are made is, “It is what it is.” That is to say, what was chosen was chosen, and what happened as a result followed naturally as a result of that choice.

    And of course that result leads to another decision at the next step. It is remarkable and sad to me that the climbers on Everest who evidenced a willingness to climb with chih, and who turned around on schedule because they were climbing with grace and submission to the mountain and the dynamic elements in play, achieved a true victory over their egoistic investments in summiting at all costs because they embraced chih, and yet that victory is often overlooked in the story. It seems to me to be the more difficult and noble decision, a decision invested in Teh rather than personal desire and attachment.
    Also, your explication of the word virtue is invaluable here. Well done, it helped me a lot with the translation where it says “repay hatred with virtue.” I agree that the story from the Analects of Confucius is more representative of the sage’s message here. When considered in that way, the idea of paying hatred with virtue is ludicrous, sort of like patting a serial killer on the head and telling him to go and sin no more when you know he will.

    The total impartiality of uprightness would observe the offender as being a danger to self and others and take both compassionate and firm steps to remove the offender from any future opportunity to practice his proclivity while also honoring the life and Teh present there, no matter how occluded it had become by insanity or ego.

    Honor virtue with virtue makes more sense to me. Give power to what is good, remembering that what we pay attention to is what we give power to. I’d say it is better to meet hatred impartially, observing it as being something which is what it is, and respond to it by speaking and acting virtuously – and directly – to it.

    • Several of the things you have said, combined with last week’s references to Hawai’i and the fact that I am thinking about my upcoming trip to Kauai, have brought to mind Serge King’s seven principles of Huna. They are:

      1. The world is what you think it is.
      2. There are no limits.
      3. Energy flows where attention goes.
      4. Now is the moment of power.
      5. To love is to be happy with.
      6. All power comes from within.
      7. Effectiveness is the measure of truth.

      He also uses the Hawai’ian words ike, kala, makia, manawa, aloha, mana and pono to represent the principles, though the correlations are not always exact.

      I won’t go into a lengthy discussion of how those principles apply. I know you can see the applications as well as I can. I would just add that when the people making decisons about going into the “death zone” are my family members, I don’t even intend to be as objective or impartial as I would otherwise be. In this case, they all came down safely. Therefore, based on Serge King’s 7th principle, we would have to say that their actions were in accord with Huna and Tao.

      Having said that, I sure do wish I could have convinced Lao Tzu to go along on the hike for the reasons I mentioned in the original post.

  2. Pingback: CHAPTER 64 - NEVER FAIL TO FAIL |

  3. Hi Louis,

    Wow. What a harrowing experience that must have been! Regardless of whatever reason they chose to do what they did, I am glad they are OK. My husband has read a book about Ho’ o pono pono… (not really sure how to spell that!) and he loves it. I have read some of it. We went to Hawaii a few years ago. It is a stunningly beautiful place. Enjoy your trip!

    • I should also mention that the [insert long Hawaiian word here] philosophy is quite cool and I think it is related to Huna somehow. That is why I mentioned it. He got the book sometime after we got back from Hawaii, but that is a special place. We have since gone to Puerto Rico, which is also beautiful and next year we are heading down to Costa Rico for the first time. Traveling is a great adventure!

      • You could really get me started on a long diatribe here; but I will try to be brief.

        It is good that you and your husband are discovering ho’oponopono, and Huna with it. You should be aware, though, that a lot of what passes for Hawaiian wisdom here on the mainland – and even over on the Islands – is something else entirely. In the same way that the White Man has distorted American Indian traditions like sweat lodges and vision quests into sort of “new age” spritual beliefs, Hawaiian traditions have also been modified for mass consumption.

        What most of us think of as Huna was created in California by a man named Max Freedom Long. Long had lived and worked in Hawaii, but the “Huna” he presented some 65 years ago in books like The Secret Science Behind Miracles was based more on the “new thought’ movement than on Hawaiian thought. That is not to say there is no value in that approach to “Huna.” There is. I just think it is important to keep things in perspective.

        As I understand ho’oponopono, that practice has a long history throughout Polynesian societies. It seems that, technically, ho’o- is used with a noun to make a verb. The noun pono has many meanings emphasizing things like goodness, morality and uprightness.

        But the noun doesn’t stop there. It is not just pono, it is ponopono. In the Hawaiian language things are sometimes emphasized (and meanings slightly changed) through repitition. For instance the syllable hu often means – or probably more accurately, connotes – something similar to the Taoist concept of yang (as in yin/yang). The word huhu means “angry,” implying there is an excess of hu or yang. Ponopono, then, seems to relate to the process of making good and upstanding; and ho’oponopono is the verb for that carrying out that process.

        When a group of people live on a small island, it is important that they get along. That, of course, is an important reason that the kapu were so rigorously enforced. However, there are times when relationships among family members or neighbors aren’t working as well as they should. To correct those problems, the Polynesians developed a sort of family therapy (to use a modern term) that was known as ho’oponopono. It was accomplished through several days of prayer, discussion, confession, forgiveness and cleansing.

        The modern books I have seen that refer to a process they call ho’oponopono are not quite the same thing. About 40 years ago a Hawaiian teacher or kahuna named Morrnah Simeona began to adapt the traditional process to what she perceived as more contemporary personal problems and her ideas have been taken and shaped by some of the new agers that you find in works like The Secret (and huna, interestingly enough, is often translated as “secret”). One of the approaches I have seen most often has distilled the multi-day ho’oponopono practice to I’M SORRY . . . . I LOVE YOU . . . . . I FORGIVE YOU . . . . THANK YOU.

        That can be a very powerful practice, itself. It is not traditional ho’oponopono, though; and I think it can be important for people to understand the origin of practices and beliefs that are being foisted upon us as traditional.

        Changing the subject, now, my wife and I spent some time in Costa Rica last year. It is a beautiful place. I would go on about it, but my reply is already too long.

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