Chapter 72 – Why Not Rule Like a Sage?

 When the people lack a proper sense of awe,
Then some awful visitation will descend upon them. 

Do not constrict their living space;
Do not press down on their means of livelihood.
It is because you do not press down on them that they will not weary of the burden.

Hence the sage knows himself but does not display himself,
Loves himself but does not exalt himself.

Therefore he discards the one and takes the other.

Translation by D. C. Lau (1963)


When the people do not fear what they ought to fear, that which
is their great dread will come on them.

Let them not thoughtlessly indulge themselves in their ordinary
life; let them not act as if weary of what that life depends on.
It is by avoiding such indulgence that such weariness does not

Therefore the sage knows (these things) of himself, but does not
parade (his knowledge); loves, but does not (appear to set a) value
on, himself. And thus he puts the latter alternative away and makes
choice of the former.

Translation by James Legge (1891)


When the people no longer fear your power,
It is a sign that a greater power is coming.

Interfere not lightly with their dwelling,
Nor lay heavy burdens upon their livelihood.
Only when you cease to weary them,
They will cease to be wearied of you.

Therefore, the Sage knows himself,
But makes no show of himself,
Loves himself,
But does not exalt himself.
He prefers what is within to what is without.

Translation by John C. H. Wu (1961)


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI began this consideration of Chapter 72 of the Tao Te Ching by quoting the translations of not one, but three, respected scholars because these three different approaches show the difficulty inherent in trying to translate this work.  Although I do not read Chinese, the research I did to prepare for these comments has indicated that the literal, word-for-word rendering of this chapter would be something like:

The people no fear power
Standard big power until
Not be improperly familiar with his place dwell
Not be disgusted with his place give birth to
Man alone not be disgusted with
Is because of not be disgusted with
Is because of sage man
Self know not self see
Self love not self precious
Reason remove that take this

In several commentaries I reviewed, it seems that the “modernistic” approach is to adopt a position close to the translations of Lau and Legge, which start by saying that if one does not have a proper perspective with respect to things which should invoke awe or dread, such things will come into his life.  Amy Putkonen (who came up with the idea of Tao Te Ching Tuesdays”) simplifies that approach in her rendering of the chapter by stating:  “When people are not expecting it/disaster happens.”

Due to the ambiguities inherent in ancient Chinese script from the perspective of a 20th or 21st Century person writing in English, the context of the language within the whole Tao Te Ching, or at least nearby chapters, must be considered to determine how the words may be rendered to make the most sense.  In this part of the book, Lao Tzu has several times given advice to rulers as to how the people should be governed.  I believe that he is again offering such advice here.  Therefore, I would lean toward accepting John C. H. Wu’s rendition.  Wu’s also seems the simplest, so perhaps it wins out simply based on Occam’s Razor.

Following Wu’s translation, I believe Lao Tzu is telling the Prince or Emperor, first, that the people must recognize the extent of his power, otherwise there is danger of rebellion or invasion by a neighboring kingdom which might see a weakness that could be exploited.

Once the power is clearly established, Lao Tzu says, as he has before (e.g., Chapters 57 and 58) that the ruler must permit his subjects personal freedoms and refrain from overbearing regulation and taxation.

Finally, he offers the ruler the example of the sage.  The sage is a person who understands his own virtues and abilities, but makes no show of them.  He knows that all that is really important is within his own person and does not seek any more than is necessary from the external world.  Why can’t governments act similarly?

Yeah, why can’t they?


10 thoughts on “CHAPTER 72 – WHY NOT RULE LIKE A SAGE?

  1. Right there with you, Louis. The inherent nature of translation is like the “gossip game” that used to be played in elementary schools to demonstrate the problem of information conveyed from person to person. A story would be told to a student, who would whisper it to his neighbor, the story would make its way from person to person, and the last person would tell the story out loud. It would be so changed and garbled that it was unrecognizable from the original.

    After transit across two plus millennia and multiple cultures the TTC retains an essence pared down to salient points of resonance which rang the bell of truth in multiple perspectives. What we have now is that essence and a plethora of interpretations and local reflections from a multitude of perspectives defined not only by the age and culture they were experienced in, but also the nature of the individual who considered the sage’s observations.

    I too look for a consensus in multiple translations, reflexively thinking that in that process a commonality of perspective will reveal a universal truth. It does, in a way, yet I think the real thing at play here is the process of establishing awareness of our personal perspective of truth. It’s an internal process, involving an internal ruler and an internal kingdom, that the sage is ultimately speaking to.

    Since Occam’s Razor has been invoked, I submit that the simplest explanation of the TTC’s meaning is acknowledging that it means nothing until the individual mind gives it meaning, and that meaning can be taken as advice to the rulers of social subjects, or how to be a good boss, or how to be a success with money, or how to be happy, or how to be informed of the wisdom of the ages, or how to express our own personal experience, or just how to look good in the polite company of others, depending on the personal internal environment of the individual.

    In reflecting on the chapters of the TTC I have at times experienced more than a mind-based reflection of the observations there. I get a feeling, an empathetic inkling of how the sage might have felt as he was writing a particular thought. It’s definitely a personal reflection, mirrored in my own understanding and experience, shaded by my own perspective, and both relevant and irrelevant to any other person’s experience. Relevant, because essence is everywhere, irrelevant because my personal experience is mine, not anyone else’s.

    The sage, fleeing or at least leaving behind the complexities and affairs of the royal court, is delayed at an outpost and required to leave a written record of his acquired wisdom before he departs. He bows to the moment and submits himself to doing so.

    The first thing he says is what he knows can not be said, it can only be known. And so, because it has come about that he is required to say what can not be said, he accepts the requirement of the moment and proceeds to do just that.

    Every once in awhile as he writes a certain weariness creeps into his writing as he says things which can not be said, but he gathers himself and carries on, always trying to give the future beholder of his words the closest perspective point to a view of the truth he knows. Yet always he is aware that ultimately the internal perspective point is always removed from the truth.

    By this chapter I get the personal feeling that the sage is hoping that the future reader will, having come this far through the words, at least have begun to develop an inkling that the ruler spoken of is the ruler of the internal kingdom, and the kingdom is the internal kingdom, and the essence is the internal essence.

    And I get the feeling that at this point he is down to pointing out the ways and means of the ruler of the internal kingdom – the individual self, which gives meaning and constitutes the limit of “meaning” – and hoping that the reader will begin to be aware of the difference between meaning and “isness”, that which is and has no meaning.


    That being said, I’ll go ahead and put in my nickel’s worth of personal perspective on this chapter. I too went to multiple translations seeking a consensus – Gia-fu Feng & Jane English, Victor H. Mair, and Lin Yutang – and found a couple of their reflections in my own mirror.

    Lin Yutang’s translation of the TTC brings chapters 72-75 together under the heading of “Punishment.”

    Punishment is a thing often present in our actions toward ourselves and others, and often unexamined. By the time we think we or others are due punishment for transgressions, a righteous certainty has already taken hold and we think the way is clear for us to bring force to bear to change the nature of things. The wrong-thinker or wrong-doer has earned their return, that much is true. However, the sage reminds us that it is not our job to personally undertake the deliverance of those returns to others by overt or covert force.

    The sage appears willing to meet wrong-mindedness (covered in the previous chapter) and wrong-doing with a gentle demeanor rather than a club. My default setting is “club”, and I have had to learn to put it down, and by now I do, for the most part. It’s proven to be the choice producing the best outcome with the least karmic shrapnel blow-back.

    The sage advises us to avoid the personal karmic returns experienced from intolerance, judgment and interference in the lives of others, and the sage counsels the ruler of the kingdom (internal and/or external) to remember it is best to let people live their own lives, make their own beds, and live and sleep there, no matter how we feel about it.

    “When people have no fear of force, Then (as is the common practice) great force descends upon them.” (Lin Yutang)

    This observation reflects the situation when worldly circumstances are seen to be in such a state that there is nothing left to lose, and even death is not feared. The common practice – perhaps we could say the typical response of those who use the lever of fear of loss to control others and creation and even use it to dictate the forms of their own lives – is to revert to a default course of forceful imposition of self-will upon others, and creation, and the self.

    “Do not limit their dwellings,
    Do not suppress their livelihood.
    Simply because you do not suppress them, they will not grow weary of you.”
    (Victor H. Mair)

    The sage counsels against imposing force on others (and our selves) as a way of action. Let everyone live where and how they will, and do not interfere with their livelihoods, and they will not oppose you if you don’t oppose them. This embrasure of non-interference in the affairs of others reflects the virtuous way of a sage:

    “For this reason,
    The sage is self-aware, but does not flaunt himself;
    He is self-devoted, but does not glorify himself.” (Victor H. Mair)

    “Therefore he rejects the one (force) and
    accepts the other (gentility).” (Lin Yutang)

    ‘”Just let the deal go down” is what the sage counsels. It’s good advice.

    • Looking at the meaning of the Tao Te Ching through a lens of phenomenology – I think I like the concept, though I may have a few caveats. The book and characters require a human mind to impart meaning, but the meanings we mortals attach probably cannot alter or affect the immortal and unchanging Tao. Or perhaps they can. Maybe our meanings may more affect the Virtue (Te). Or perhaps they can’t. I need to give it some more thought.

      In the meantime, it is interesting to consider the first lines of this chapter. The translations I included refer to people lacking a sense of awe, not fearing what they ought to and not fearing a ruler’s power. You have added having no fear of force, from Lin Yutang.

      Wing-Tsit Chan’s translation of this chapter begins, “When the people do not fear what is dreadful, then what is greatly dreadful will descend on them.” However, in a footnote he states: “According to Chiao Hung, wei, ordinarily meaning power, here means to be dreadful. According to Ho-shang Kung, however, it means what is harmful.”

      Back in Chapter 70, Lao Tzu said that his doctrines are easy to understand. Clearly that was written before he had looked over the centuries at the translations of this Chapter 72.

      You also mention that the Old Master must have hoped that readers would have certain understandings by the time they get this far into the text. I also like to pretend that the chapters of the Tao Te Ching were written sequentially in the order we find in most books today. Scholars tell us that is not true, and that they were probably not all written by the same person. The work of a translator is difficult.

      In discussing an earlier chapter, I mentioned a “translation” by a gentleman named Valdimir Antonov, which is found at Dr. Antonov says that “At the present time, Lao Tse provides spiritual help to incarnate people”; and that his (Antonov’s) translation “was done at the personal request of Lao Tse and with His help.” Antonov’s rendition of this chapter (with the Old Master’s supposed aid and assistance) takes a different tact than the ones mentioned to this point. he says:

      The one who lives with fear cannot become strong. The strength of the consciousness can only be gained if one lives without fear.
      Also, rid yourself of the ability to despise others! The one who despises others is despicable in front of Tao!
      Rid yourself of violence in relations with others! The one who does violence to others will be subjected to violence.
      Renounce the ability to deceive people! The one who deceives others deceives oneself.
      Live in love!
      Do not strive to show yourself off! The one who has cognized one’s own Higher Essence is not engaged in self-admiration and does not elevate oneself above others.

      That certainly looks to the inner, and not the outer, kingdom.

      Those are some of my thoughts for this evening.

  2. I have been sitting here for the last hour reading over your post. Actually, I read it yesterday and did not have sufficient time to comment and so I am looking it over again today. I so enjoy your posts and so often I only have enough time to read them and not enough time to add anything of value to the conversation, but I just want you to know that I am here regardless of whether or not I comment. Perhaps I will just add a 🙂 to the comment section when I stop by! 🙂

    There is such depth in your commentary and Bob’s wonderful responses. I often read through the pieces three or four times to grasp it all. It is such a delightful part of my study of the Tao Te Ching!

    What comes to mind firstly about this what you’ve said here is the difference between your two commentaries. Louis said, “the people must recognize the extent of his power, otherwise there is danger of rebellion or invasion by a neighboring kingdom which might see a weakness that could be exploited.” This is a very interesting point. I do believe that one thing that we need to learn in life (and Americans typically have a hard time with this one) is to be WILLING to be humbled by those who are our teachers. To give up to one higher than ourselves.

    Bob wrote, “the sage reminds us that it is not our job to personally undertake the deliverance of those returns to others by overt or covert force.” This, although seeming to come from a completely different planet from the above statement also holds some big truth. Both perceptions are coming from a different angle, but both are part of what I believe that Lao Tzu is teaching us here. The more I study this text (and the various interpretations of what it means to different people), the more it becomes like an oil painting hanging in an art gallery. One person looks at it and says that the artist was feeling dark that day and so he painted harsh waves on the water. Another person focuses on the softness in the eyes of the woman on the shore and interprets that she has lost her love. Each interpretation has nothing to do with anything but the ability of the interpreter to look deeply at the piece and reflect in their own soul mirror what is going on.

    As you’ve said, there are many interpretations – second only to the Bible in how many people have tried to interpret these words. Like Bob suggested, to me the value in doing my own commentary really has nothing to do with anything except for it provides me a vehicle by which to dig into what the meaning was for me personally and to hopefully inspire others to do the same. I think the point is to DIG. For me, the point is also to DISCUSS. When I read back over my commentary on this chapter, I laughed. I went off on a tangent that had little to do with the chapter as I often did during some of my commentaries. In my chapter, I look back on it and feel that it was narcissistic. So my own interpretations of the chapters change over time, much as the interpretations of individuals have morphed over time. Is this because we are growing more or LESS understanding of the principles contained in these words?

    Perhaps I will just read these words and try to remember to avoid karmic shrapnel blow-back as much as possible in life. You two are SO AWESOME! [Insert Lego Movie theme song.]

    • Louis, I like Antonov’s reflection (overlooking the cheerful, emphatic exclamation points which are reminiscent of over-the-top text messages and, unhappily, things I myself have written in the same way more often than I really want to ‘fess up to) and I thank you for that.

      Amy, love your insight. I always find the things you observe and share to be “stand alone and solid” and often my personal response has been to savor what you have written rather than comment about it. Whenever you appear here I find myself thinking what a great perspective you bring, and wishing you came here more often.

      My post got me to thinking about me (imagine that! – and yes, that is an exclamation point…) and my comment that “My default setting is ‘club’…” Actually, that’s only my default setting when it comes to fear. The focus of my commentary was about that. Whether it’s death, what is dreadful (or fear inspiring), a ruler’s power, or force, the common denominator spoken of is fear.

      The phenomenological experience of fear – what it feels like, what we think of it, how we act when it is present, what we learn from it – is what I spoke of according to the moment and my own predilection.

      Fear inspires two baseline responses, the good old fight or flight response embedded in the deep structures of the vehicle of dualistic consciousness.

      So, to clarify… My “default setting” to fear – the aspect of me that I’ve had to contend with and learn from and grow beyond – is to contend forcefully with wrong thinking and wrong doing out of fear that in some way it poses a threat to who I am, and what I know, and what I desire for others.

      But fear doesn’t affect those things at all. I still am who I am, I still know what I know, and I still desire that others might find the same sort of peace and happiness I’ve found in the same baffling, challenging, difficult circumstances we all share in our existence as creatures of creation, and creatures of the Tao.

      So I guess what I’m trying to say is that beyond fear there is a default setting in each of us which is about meeting the existential challenges of life in a body and a mind, and that default setting is being open to others, and meeting them with the desire to understand them without judgment, and respecting their process and path without interfering, and trusting them until they prove untrustworthy, and spending time with them until it proves undesirable, and being tolerant of their ways and means so long as no true harm is caused to others, and viewing them with compassion even when we see them learning things the hard way, and in all ways doing our best to be loving, and to just be kind.

      • To Amy: Gosh, I’ll bet you say that to all the boys! (Imagine Groucho Marx saying that to Margaret Dumont and it doesn’t sound as ungrateful on my part as it initially may appear.)

        To Bob: Did you notice that I included an exclamation point?

        I must say that writing something about the Tao Te Ching almost every week for the past year and half has changed some of my perceptions and perspectives. Thank you, Amy for starting me on this project. When I began, I thought I sort of understood what Lao Tzu was saying, having read the book several times over the years. The more deeply I got into the project, I realized that giving my ideas of the meanings of his really came down to simply my ideas. They were valid to and (usually) for me, but I am not a sage.

        As I read more and more translations, I came to realize the difficulty of translating, much less interpreting, words that can have many meanings on many levels. For months now I have been trying to focus more on trying to pull out what I think Lao Tzu (or whomever the author may have actually been – I will call him/her “Lao Tzu” – and using that name puts me out of the mainstream and back to Wade-Giles transliteration) was actually trying to say.

        I think it would be a simpler task if Lao Tzu was actually coaching me along as Dr. Antonov believes Lao Tzu is doing for him.

        Anyway, I still think that Lao Tzu’s words here were intended for a ruler, though as a sage that advice is given from the perspective of a sage and so is more nearly universal than specific to a particular person and time.

        If we are looking, then at awe or dread of fear, I began to wonder what the concept of fear would be from the perspective of the sage. Then I began to think back to A Course in Miracles and the Yougbloods’ “Get Together,”* which tell us there is only Love and Fear. Accordingly, the sage would fear nothing – “he discards one and takes the other,” per Lau’s translation.

        Of course that brings us back to words, and gives me the opportunity to quote the Sufi poet, Rumi (translated by Coleman Barks):

        “There is a way between voice and presence
        Where information flows.
        In disciplined silence it opens.
        With wandering talk it closes.”

        I find myself wandering here, so I should close. I will do so by quoting Groucho Marx one more time: “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them . . . well, I have others.”

        *The song “Get Together” was actually written by a guy named Chet Powers, who most of us who listened to rock in the ’60s knew as Dino Valenti, and was recorded by Jefferson Airplane before it was done by the Youngloods. Still, I think of it a a Youngbloods’ song.

        • External and/or internal ruler works for me. The principles seem to apply across the board. Principles are common denominators, the essence distilled from nuance. If perspective comes in from different angles on the same thing, it’s still the same thing.

          Heck, Lao Tze could have been a subversive revolutionary embedded in the court of the ruler, writing wisdom for every person but couching it in terms of elite, closely held “special” information for the few. Or perhaps the ruler was a metaphor for the internal self, the ruler of one’s directions in the world, the director and interpreter of experience, the learner within. Or the ruler could have been – a ruler. Dog-gone if I know.

          What I do know is that your perspective on, and expression of, the history and principles of the TTC has benefited me a lot since you began this project. I’ve been greatly enriched by your viewpoint and resonate with your expressions of the principles here. I DO like your principles, and if you have others (!) please share!

          “We must remember that art is art.
          Well, on the other hand water is water isn’t it?
          And east is east and west is west.
          And if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does.

          Now, uhh… now you tell me what you know.” (Groucho redux)

          • This past week, I got to see my friends Rudy and Tracy who were passing through Colorado one one of their semi-epic road trips (no longer “epic” because as they begin to feel older they also feel the need to find a motel after many fewer hours driving than in the past), and they gave me a book called Bushido, the Soul of Japan, written by Inazo Nitobe in 1900. Interestingly, that book contained a reference to something James Russell Lowell had said about William Wordsworth. Going to my trusty internet search engine, I soon found that the remark, made in a work called Among My Books, published in 1877, was as follows: “But Wordsworth never quite learned the distinction between Fact, which suffocates the Muse, and Truth, which is the very breath of her nostrils.”

            You seem to understand that distinction and have made it well in your comment.

  3. Friends bearing treasure – how cool is that?

    And what a kind thought… Thank you for that, and the quote as well – it was worth looking up. In all honesty I have to admit that Fact and Truth are so wound up together in my experience that if I ever do meet the Muse I have no idea whether I’ll take a good wallop from her for all the times I’ve suffocated her or get a good hug for all the times I’ve tried to invigorate her. I do understand the distinction sometimes.

    I also know that I will not be taken for a sage by anyone anytime soon, because I talk too much. It’s what people from the words and thought planet do. Sometimes I think I should just shut up and transcend my humanity and merge with the One, but then I always run into the suspicion that if I did that I’d be missing a lot of fun, and possibly the purpose of it all, too.

    Being human is such a Divine Mess.

  4. Wow, I am gone for only just a few days from the conversation and look what I’ve come back to? (giggle). What fun. Here’s a few thoughts:

    *I cannot quote Groucho Marx because I’ve never watched him. (say it isn’t so!!)

    *Thank you both for sweet words. I feel a virtual hug coming on!

    *I would so love to hang with you two sometime in real time.

    *This project has been all worth it even though it did not get hundreds of people participating. Just you two participating was enough for me to be grateful that I did it and I would do it all over again. I also feel that it is coming to a close soon – just a few months left. For myself, this means that I will move on to my next Tao Te Ching project, which I have already planned out but am a bit frightened of because it entails my doing artwork and sharing it on a regular basis. I am also thinking of doing a possible online book study group through the blog. I hope that you will both stay in touch!

    The fact v truth conversation is intriguing. We were having discussion (my husband, my daughter and I) over lunch today about how those two are so LITERAL and I am just not. Eric, my husband, said that Alan Watts suggested that there were prickly people and there were gooey people and I was gooey people. (Which he demonstrated by slathering himself across the table.) Hmm. I don’t mind being gooey people.

    To me, it seems that facts are like prickly people and truth is more overarching. Real truth cannot be argued but facts are, well, just kinda boring and thus the muse just takes a nap when their muse-ee gets to wrapped up in the facts. They definitely hold a different vibe. With the truth, the muse hosts a party and brings out the bubbly. That’s my two cents.

    • Amy, for your cultural edification and educational enculturation, you can click here to see a scene with Groucho and Margaret Dumont. Groucho does not say, “I’ll bet you say that to all the boys,” but it is a reasonable introduction.

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