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.
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 taotechingdaily.com.