Chapter 64 – Never Fail to Fail
What remains still is easy to hold.
What is not yet manifest is easy to plan for.
What is brittle is easy to crack.
What is minute is easy to scatter.
Deal with things before they appear.
Put things in order before disorder arises.
A tree as big as a man’s embrace grows from a tiny shoot.
A tower of nine stories begins with a heap of earth.
The journey of a thousand li starts from where one stands.
He who takes action fails.
He who grasps things loses them.
For this reason the sage takes no action and therefore does not fail.
He grasps nothing and therefore does not lose anything;
A sane man is sane in knowing what things he can spare,
In not wishing what most people wish,
In not reaching for things that seem rare.
Therefore the sage desires to have no desire,
He does not value rare treasures.
He learns to be unlearned, and returns to what the multitude has missed (Tao).
Thus he supports all things in their natural state but does not take any action.
Translation by Wing-Tsit Chan (1963)
In his book Change Your Thoughts – Change Your Life, Wayne Dyer looks at this 64th Chapter and remarks that the best known line in the entire Tao Te Ching is “a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step.” Certainly his observation is correct., as illustrated by the fact that the late comedian George Carlin could say, “The Chinese have a saying: on a journey of 1,000 miles, 512 is a little over a half,” and his audience would understand.
Of course that line is not actually found in the Tao Te Ching. After all, Lao Tzu lived some 2,500 years ago and had never heard of the units of measurement that eventually were used in England and the United States.* The translation here mentions a journey of 1,000 li, which is probably accurate because the Chinese have utilized a unit for measuring distance called li for millenia.
Does it matter whether one intends to journey 1,000 miles or 1,000 li? Either journey must begin with a single step – or start from where one stands, as this translation says. I am going to say that it probably does not matter if we look at the first part of this chapter, but it may if we look at the last part.
The first nine lines in the translation above essentially continue what was said in Chapter 63. The sage tells us to deal with the things of the world while they are small or few or weak. Most things are manageable until they reach a point of being out of control.
The whole tenor of the chapter changes after those nine lines. It seems to say that taking action or grasping is doomed to failure, and that the sage does nothing because he or she has no desire to fail.
If failure means that the result of an action is to not achieve an intended goal, then perhaps it is important to really know the difference between a mile and a li. Today, the li has been standardized as 500 meters, or about 0.3 mile. The distance has varied over time, but seems to have always been much less than a mile. Therefore, if a person desired to journey to a city 1,000 miles away, but prepared for a journey of 1,000 li, he might well run out of food and supplies in some desert well short of the destination and face dire consequences of that failure.
Perhaps that is an absurd example, though it does recognize there are very good reasons a person would desire not to fail. Lao Tzu tells us here that, first, a sage is one who desires not to fail. He then tells us that a sage desires to have no desire. It seems we must conclude that the very desire not to desire is itself a failure.
The sage is therefore only human, as we have seen previously. The sage, though, is aware that human fraility can be attenuated by returning to the natural Way – to Tao. That simple realization is something overlooked by the multitude and goes a long way toward making the sage a sage.
To close with a bit of candor, I am not completely satisfied with my interpretation. This chapter has a split personality. However, since this is written for a “Tao Te Ching Tuesday,” and the hour is getting late, I will say that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. I’m only human, after all.
* Similar things happen all the time. For instance, many people “know” that Franklin Roosevelt said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Actually, in his first inaugural address he said, “So first let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Three-quarters of a century earlier Henry David Thoreau had written in his journal that, “Nothing is so much to be feared as fear.” Put both of those together and you get that we have nothing to fear but fear itself – and that just sounds better – with the same meaning – as what either Roosevelt or Thoreau actually said.
You might also want to read the discussion on the “Cascadian Wanderer” website about how the writings of Jim Brown can be paraphrased and attributed to the Dalai Lama.