Chapter 73 – Let’s Start With Bravery

 He who is brave in daring will be killed.
He who is brave in not daring will live.
Of these two, one is advantageous and one is harmful.
Who knows why Heaven dislikes what it dislikes?
Even the sage considers it a difficult question.
The Way of Heaven does not compete, and yet is skillfully achieves victory.
It does not speak, and yet it skillfully responds to things.
It comes to you without your invitation.
It is not anxious about things and yet it plans well.
Heaven’s net is indeed vast.
Though its meshes are wide, it misses nothing. 

Translated by Wing-Tsit Chan (1963)

Taoist Immortals

Taoist Immortals

There are a lot of directions in which I think I should go with my “Tao Te Ching Tuesday” comment on this chapter, many of which, I’m afraid, qualify as abject digressions.  I also would like to keep a reasonable length to what I write.  Therefore, I am going to try to avoid at least some of the digressions and be succinct in dealing with some of the subjects.  Let’s start with bravery.

It is certainly not surprising that humans recognize different kinds of brave actions.  Sometimes we are awed by the brave man or woman who rushes into danger without regard for personal safety.  Other times it is the person who is calm before a hazardous situation who is seen as brave.

Here, the sage tells us that “one is advantageous and one is harmful”; but he does not say which is which.

In a different context, I have written about the influence of the Vietnam War on the actions and beliefs of an entire generation of Americans.  That generation includes tens of thousands of brave men and women who risked or gave their lives in that war.  It also includes tens of thousands more who declared themselves conscientious objectors or who emigrated to Canada to avoid the draft or who protested against the war.  Without questioning the belief or sincerity of any of those groups or individuals, we still must consider which of the brave actions were advantageous and which harmful.

Recently, my friends Rudy and Tracy Spano introduced me to wonderful little book (about 100 pages), published in 1900, called Bushido, The Soul of Japan, by Inazo Nitobe.  The following is found at Page 15 of that book:

“ . . . ‘Courage is doing what is right’  To run all kinds of hazards, to jeopardize one’s self, to rush into the jaws of death—these are too often identified with Valor, and in the profession of arms such rashness of conduct—what Shakespeare calls, ‘valor misbegot,’ is unjustly applauded; but not so in the Precepts of Knighthood.  Death for a cause unworthy of dying for, was called a ‘dog’s death.’  ‘To rush into the thick of battle and be slain in it,’ says a Prince of Mito, ‘is easy enough, and the merest churl is equal to the task; but,’ he continues, ‘it is true courage to live when it is right to live, and to die only when it is right to die’ . . .”

We are next told that even the sage finds it difficult to understand “why Heaven dislikes what it dislikes.”  It would be easy to say that this hearkens back to the famous line about the sage, following Tao, treating all men as straw dogs.  However, the Chinese character used here seems to be “tian” or “t’ien,” which means sky or heaven or deity, and not Tao.

Since Tao is that which gives birth to Heaven and Earth and the 10,000 Things, it is perhaps relevant that in the translation above, the very next line begins a discussion of “the Way of Heaven.”  This returns our focus to Tao – although I am not sure that the symbol for Tao is used anywhere in this chapter.  Wing-Tsit Chan may have thought it was implied.

The lines which follow clearly reflect attributes that have been given to Tao throughout the Tao Te Ching.  It does not compete, but is ever victorious; it is silent, but answers all; it is all-pervasive; it accomplishes everything by taking no action; it seems a void, but includes all that exists.

Therefore, perhaps we can say that the sage finds it difficult to understand why Heaven dislikes something because in the end that is a meaningless question.  Or perhaps we are being told that people may think some brave men are blessed with the luck of Heaven, when lucky and unlucky are simply complementing qualities that are part of Tao.

In trying to make sense of what is being said here, I read some comments by Stefan Stenudd on, who reminds readers that none of what is now included in Chapters 67 through 81 of the Tao Te Ching is found in the Guodian Manuscript.

The Guodian Manuscript is the oldest known version of the Tao Te Ching.  The “manuscript” consists of characters on a number of bamboo slips that were found in a tomb in China’s Hubei province.  It is believed that they date from about 300 B.C., which is roughly two centuries after we assume that Lao Tzu died.  If the last 15 chapters of what we now consider the Tao Te Ching were not part of the text back then, a good argument could be made that they were probably added later by someone other than Lao Tzu.  That could explain a lot.

On the other hand, those missing chapters may simply be missing.  The bamboo slips on which they were written may have been destroyed, or may have not yet been found.  Many other chapters are also missing – including Chapters 1 and 3 and 4.

I would now like to take a break from meaningful discussion and digress, as I too often do.

Back in the mid-1970s, I had a friend I will call “Bill.”  That is not his real name, and I don’t think he would want his real name used.  Bill possessed inherited wealth and he dabbled in various businesses.  Once, strictly for business purposes, he hatched a plan to travel to Colombia with several thousand dollars to purchase cocaine, which he had arranged to dispose of, as a wholesaler, to one of his business associates.

When he returned, he told me how he had been taken to a secret location in the jungle where he had met Jimi Hendrix.  Now, Jimi Hendrix had died five or six years earlier, and I pointed that out to Bill.  His story, though, was that Hendrix had suffered a drug overdose, but had survived.  However, he knew that he would soon be arrested on drug charges, so he faked his death and fled to South America.  According to Bill, the several posthumous Jimi Hendrix recordings that were released were not from tapes that had been made earlier, but were new works recorded in Colombia

Perhaps there is a similar explanation for the Tao Te Ching chapters that were not found among the bamboo slips.  Lao Tzu is considered a “Taoist immortal,” so he could have written them at any time.

But what about Bill’s cocaine purchase, you ask.  Well, for some reason he felt that he shouldn’t trust the drug dealer he met in Colombia, so he did not buy any.

Instead, he took his several thousand dollars and purchased diamonds, taking elaborate precautions so that he could smuggle them back into the United States.  He managed to get them through customs and return to Colorado, where he had them appraised.  They were fake!

Gosh, who can you trust?


  1. I know, I know! Oooh, Ooohh, call on me! Actually I can’t wait, can’t think about it, so I’ll just blurt it out! The answer is:

    Well, certainly not Bill. Or Jimi Hendrix impersonators or diamond brokers. Although in all fairness to Bill’s tendencies toward being gulled I have to cut him some slack for being young, which is an often regrettable condition in which many of us learn the principle of karmic shrapnel blow-back and act precipitously and without regard for whether the results of our actions will be beneficial or harmful to ourselves or others.

    Dwight Goddard entitles this chapter “Action is Dangerous.” I’d say Action is Problematic. That is, when we take action there are problems associated with our acts. Are we acting ignorantly, are we acting precipitously, are we acting selfishly or without consideration of the root of our motives? If we choose our actions, have we thought about whether they will prove beneficial or harmful?

    The sage doesn’t preclude or discourage either daring or cautious action, doesn’t advise us to not act courageously. He just says that any action is difficult, and that no one can tell whether their actions will be in alignment with the will of heaven. Therefore, he says, it is good to remember that courageous action, whether daring or cautious, will produce consequences which we are unaware of, and may or may not produce accord with heaven, or creation, or others, or even ourselves.

    To which I would add that if discord is the result, then the lesson is one learned from the resultant discord. And that lesson is this one, the one the sage speaks of in this chapter. Action is problematic, so the best course is to not act aggressively and instead remain calm and flexible and quiet and allow the circumstances which call us to act to come to us naturally, and develop around us – and then act with strength and grace, and not weakness and haste.

    It’s a tough lesson.
    Chapter 73

    Courage carried to daring leads to death. Courage restrained by caution leads to life. These two things, courage and caution, are sometimes beneficial and sometimes harmful. Some things are rejected by heaven, who can tell the reason? Therefore the wise man deems all acting difficult.

    The Tao of heaven does not quarrel, yet it conquers. It speaks not, yet its response is good. It issues no summons but things come to it naturally because its devices are good. Heaven’s net is vast, indeed! its meshes are wide but it loses nothing.
    – Dwight Goddard

    • I agree with you. I also agree that Dwight Goddard’s translation is one that should be considered. I usually like the older translations, like his.

      One of the older ones I often turn to is James Legge’s; though I don’t so much like the way he translates this chapter:

      “He whose boldness appears in his daring (to do wrong, in
      defiance of the laws) is put to death; he whose boldness appears in
      his not daring (to do so) lives on. Of these two cases the one
      appears to be advantageous, and the other to be injurious. But

      When Heaven’s anger smites a man,
      Who the cause shall truly scan?

      On this account the sage feels a difficulty (as to what to do in the
      former case).

      It is the way of Heaven not to strive, and yet it skilfully
      overcomes; not to speak, and yet it is skillful in (obtaining a reply);
      does not call, and yet men come to it of themselves. Its
      demonstrations are quiet, and yet its plans are skillful and effective.
      The meshes of the net of Heaven are large; far apart, but letting
      nothing escape.”

      Like Chan and Goddard, Legge distinguishes Heaven from Tao; and that seems important here – not so much in helping us poor humans decide how to act (which relates to Te), but in the greater overall scheme (Tao). I looked at Stephen Mitchell’s newer interpretation and decided I did not like it at all. He skips over everything relating to bravery and to Heaven and pretends that our sage is considering only Tao. His version is:

      “The Tao is always at ease.
      It overcomes without competing,
      answers without speaking a word,
      arrives without being summoned,
      accomplishes without a plan.

      Its net covers the whole universe.
      And though its meshes are wide,
      it doesn’t let a thing slip through.”

      • The confusion you note between Tao and Heaven has spun me off into a tangential orbit which has more to do with the confusions of mind rather than sorting out the difference between Tao and Heaven. That distinction is real and relevant and I would probably be better off confining myself to that conversation. But off I go anyway…

        It occurs to me that perhaps this chapter is about doing nothing in order to do something.

        The Tao proves to be un ungraspable amorphous wisp when mind tries to get hold of it by itself. In order to even begin to understand the Tao we have to relegate comprehension to a lesser status and embrace a mysterious, holistic state of calm, waiting being. When we do, we don’t comprehend the Tao – it apprehends us. This is a conundrum for the mind, to do nothing in order to know something.

        The miasmic net which connects us all, this universal consciousness, comes as all graces come, on its own, where and when it will, unbidden and uncontrolled. It will remain only as long as it will, and it will leave when it will. That is to say, mind and self will have no say in the matter. We are always connected – and submitted – to it.

        “Here” we have mind and thoughts and words and will in play, and the Tao for us is overlaid with the grid of mind. The tripartite Cartesian coordinate system of length, breadth and height combined with the concept of time is a good representation of the way mind interprets the physicality of life and the universe. Ternary logic (true, false, and maybe – or “maybe there is more and this is indeterminate at this time”) is a good representation of the way mind processes what it encounters.

        Mind proves to be a useful navigation system when its grid is laid over creation, and has been around a long time. The most basic protozoan is naturally compelled to shrink from the negative stimulus, from the “pains” of its path. In a sense, life has always sought warmth and light and turned away from cold, dark places using the mind as a navigator.

        But mind, like life, is imbued with the essence of the Tao as well. Terry Pratchett observed that, while there are beings who believe that for a thing to exist it has to have a position in space and time, humanity practically is things which don’t have a position in time and space – like imagination, pity, hope, history, and belief. “Take those away,” Pratchett wryly observes, “and all you had was an ape that fell out of trees a lot.”

        Anyway, this is the long way around to simply note that when we think and speak of the Tao we need to apply descriptive, metaphorical, mind-based expressions. And so when we describe the lay of the land of the TTC a hierarchy of “levels” appears. For my purposes it’s a visualization of a limitless, unknowable thing – the Tao – which has manifested spheres within spheres of locality – Being, Heaven, Creation, and, within all, last and least and simultaneously most – Life.

        And that bothers me sometimes, because the conceptualized matrix, the metaphor, the one-step-removed local perspective is so limited. Do we go with a linear hierarchy? Tao above all, that’s easy. Then the subsets beneath, Heaven, Creation, Life, Being, Mind, Doing. But questions come up, confusions about what is below and what is above, and what the order should be. So maybe we go with discrete spheres instead, spheres which overlap individually as well as commonly, but when we reach that place where every sphere intersects with every other, what do we find? The Tao! The mind thing can be such a dizzying merry-go-round.

        Other times, like now, conceptualization is useful. The chapters of the “Te Ching” are one side of the bridge – and a bridge must always have two sides in the dualistic mind – between mind and being. And once again the sage gives us existential guidance which helps conduct us across that bridge to a post-existential realm where being, not doing, is the thing.

        So. Be calm, and wait. Act, in the “sphere” where action applies, with strength and grace, not weakness and haste.

        It’s a principle which can be seen in the sphere of doing. Yet it’s also a principle which applies to the sphere of being: Be calm, and wait.

        So it occupies a position which mind locates as the intersection of the spheres of mind and action and being. If we see that much, then we have a start toward that location where all the spheres intersect, and there we are simultaneously in every manifestation of the Tao, and in the Tao itself.

        When the mind gets that, it calms right down, you know? And when the mind calms down, it gets that.

        Best I can say it. Principles – the essence of the nuances of our different experiential and existential spheres – apply to the Te of Action, the Te of Being, the Te of Tao.

        I’m going to have to rewrite this, my mind says it’s not linear enough and too diffuse…

        Oh, heck with that. I’ll just put a note on it that says, “Look what happened in my head. Funny old thing, eh?” And sign it,

        A mind that falls out of trees a lot.

        (Thank goodness the net of heaven is vast indeed, and it catches me anyway…)

        • PS: And when it catches me and I’m bobbing up and down in it, I do my best to not “Bob” up and down in it, and do nothing instead – because it just seems so perfect and right and coherent and clear and connected and all those other labels that Bob slaps on it after the fact, when he thinks about it.

          • First, I would like to pass along a comment I received on this chapter from “privter sextreff,” which somehow got deleted as spam. Privter said: “I am regular reader, how are you everybody? This article posted at this web site is genhuinely nice.” Privter, I welcome your insights into the interesting issues Bob has raised.

            Now, let me write a little more about the distinction between Heaven and Tao. This is not the first time it has come up in the book – just the first time I caught it. Back in Chapter 9 we read: “Withdraw as soon as your work is done. Such is Heaven’s way.” (Chan (1963)). And in Chapter 47: “One may see the Way of Heaven without looking through the windows.” (Chan (1963)) The Way of Heaven is also mentioned in three of the remaining eight chapters (77, 79 and 81).

            Of those chapters, only Chapter 9 was included in the Guodian Manuscript. It almost makes one believe that these thoughts may indeed have been added after Lao Tzu’s original version when that phrase may have had some particular meaning in China. I found an interesting summary of what is probably the neo-Confucian perspective on the Way of Heaven by a Chinese scholar, Tang Yi-Jie, who passed away in 2013 at the age of 87; and it can be read by clicking here.*

            I do not find, however, that Confucius ever said much about the Way of Heaven; and returning to Lao Tzu, he clearly differentiates between Heaven and Tao in Chapter 25: “Man models himself after Earth. Earth models itself after Heaven. Heaven models itself after Tao and Tao models itself after Nature.” (Chan (1963))

            That quotation raises another conceptual consideration. I often write about Tao as if it is some all-powerful, omniscient, limitless prime mover – very nearly the Christian concept of God. Tao, though, is “the Way.” It is the Way that an extraordinary human being tried to make sense of what he observed as the natural ebbs and flows, circles and cycles, ups and downs of the Universe. We are reading the result of his mind and his mental machinations; and at times they must have been a “dizzying merry-go-round” for him, too.

            Jumping now to your excellent advice that we should probably be calm and wait, I think I will finish this comment with a long quotation from Chuang Tzu, as interpreted by Thomas Merton:

            “The nonaction of the wise man is not inaction.
            It is not studied. It is not shaken by anything.
            The sage is quiet because he is not moved,
            Not because he wills to be quiet.
            Still water is like glass.
            You can look in it and see the bristles on your chin.
            It is a perfect level;
            A carpenter could use it.
            If water is so clear, so level,
            How much more the spirit of man?
            The heart of the wise man is tranquil.
            It is the mirror of heaven and earth
            The glass of everything.
            Emptiness, stillness, tranquility, tastelessness,
            Silence, non-action: this is the level of heaven and earth.
            This is perfect Tao. Wise men find here
            Their resting place.
            Resting, they are empty.

            “From emptiness comes the unconditioned.
            From this, the conditioned, the individual things.
            So from the sage’s emptiness, stillness arises.
            From stillness, action. From action, attainment.
            From their stillness comes their non-action, which is also action
            And is, therefore, their attainment.
            For stillness is joy. Joy is free from care
            Fruitful in long years.
            Joy does all without concern:
            For emptiness, stillness, tranquility, tastelessness,
            Silence and non-action
            Are the root of all things.”

            I couldn’t have said that better myself. Heck, I probably could never even have thought it.

            Now I am really looking forward to Privter’s perspective on all of this.
            *I mentioned that the Guodian Manuscript was found in Hubei Province. My son Michael is in Wuhan for the next several months teaching English at Hubei University. I have just started planning to travel there. Perhaps this is an area that requires personal scholarly investigation and sight-seeing.

  2. Sorry to learn of the canned spam from your “perv riffs texter” who sent you a text from the “pert riffs vertex”. Here, with regard to the quality of the contribution of “privter sextreff”, the “river exerts pfft”.

    Anagrammatically yours, and here’s an easy one –


    • I don’t know if Privter will say hello to you next time.

      I deleted 657 spam messages at the same time as Privter’s. Perhaps I should save them to give you anagram material to make it through the winter.


  4. I have been listening to a book called Customs of the World (, in order to get a firmer grasp on other cultures and how different cultures have different perspectives on things, particularly the Chinese culture. In the book, he mentions the cultures of much of Asia as “Confucian cultures”. It got me thinking – how much of my perception of the Tao Te Ching is completely off from what the Chinese were thinking when they wrote it? (I say Chinese, as plural, because regardless of when or if part of this book was not written by Lao Tzu himself, most of what we see is an amalgamation of what has been perceived to be Lao Tzu’s words all those thousands of years ago…) The truth is, I have no idea. The more I learn, the more I know that I know nothing, really.

    As for the danger and the daring, I loved what you said about the men and women who fought in Vietnam, plus those who exercised their own version of courage by giving up their livelihood to escape being part of it and moving to another country. It makes me wonder if courage is not so much in what is true for me about you as what is true for you about what is important for you. If someone fighting in Vietnam was able to reconcile his actions by believing that he was supporting his country, he was courageous in his own mind. If he discovered that his actions were not in alignment with what the government was doing, it would be hell on Earth as it was for so many of them to offer his life for such actions in hindsight. Wouldn’t he also be courageous in this situation? Isn’t the level of courage judged based on what you go through to get to the end goal? Many were forced to fight in Vietnam and so had neither choice nor an alignment with what they were giving their lives for. For many of them, it was a prison sentence. Not too different from The Hunger Games, perhaps? A very sad piece of our history on many levels. One that I don’t believe that we have reconciled yet at all.

    One thing I learned in that customs book is that the Chinese culture is typically communal – which explains why the most important thing is what is important for the greater good and not just for the individual (which is how it is in the US). A Chinese person operating out of a sense of community being the base of what is important might be horrified by a person who leaves his country to live somewhere else based on the belief that what is most important is supporting your country and respecting your elders. Neither is incorrect, just different.

    What also struck me about reading about the different cultural perspectives is that we are all evolving all the time. Cultures are blending and adapting to each other. Later generations are changing the status quo, as they always have. I am also learning that my own frameworks for what I believe is right and wrong are completely different from another’s. This is hard to take sometimes when I have a clear belief that something is right or wrong. Perhaps one of the tenets of the Tao Te Ching is to help us to remember this global perspective when dealing with each other?

    What has not been addressed (at least so far in the customs book) is the impact of our beliefs over several lifetimes. Since the author comes from a Christian background, one could perhaps assume that he did not personally believe reincarnation to be possible but I would like to suggest that past lifetimes could also affect our tendencies for behavior. For example, if there were some karmic blow-back from a prior life, it may persuade us to act differently than our currently accepted beliefs. When my daughter was about three years old, she had a nightmare and woke up screaming. When I asked her what was wrong, she said that her hands had been cut off and she was being burned up. Was this a bad dream or was this a memory? At the time, I could not think of a single thing that she could possibly have seen during this lifetime that would even give her the idea of someone doing that to her. I also have had experiences during my lifetime where I was judged for behavior that was pagan in nature. Am I attracted to pagan structures because of my past lives or because of influences in this life? It is impossible to say.

    As I was listening for those traits in the book that are apparently typically American, I found that – on many of them – I did not match up. One trait, for example, was competitive vs cooperative. Although I would not argue that the US is primarily focused on the competitive side, I would argue that I was. I have a competitive nature, but I am primarily focused on cooperative living as opposed to competitive living.

    So how does all of this relate to the Tao Te Ching and our discussions of it? Just as I enjoy reading BOTH of your perceptions on these chapters, I also enjoy expanding my own perceptions of the world to include opposing viewpoints. All of this leads me to question whether I love the Tao Te Ching because it fits my own belief systems so well or do I love it because it is changing my beliefs to something altogether new? Do I love it because it is Universal Truth? Would a practicing Muslim agree?

    • Amy, I think your thoughts on the influence and importance of “culture” are important ones.

      Last week at church, Fr. Cao’s homily began with a consideration of the story of Jesus telling the Pharisees that they should give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s. Some things, like the monetary system, he said, are clearly within the province of government. There are others, like life, that must belong to God – for didn’t God establish ownership thereof by commanding in the Ten Commandments, “Thou Shalt Not Kill”?

      That seems pretty simple and straightforward. However, I started thinking about a book I have referred to several times over the past few weeks, Inazo Nitobe’s Bushido. In particular, the chapter on the “Duty of Loyalty,” of which the following quote is illustrative:

      “Since Bushido, like Aristotle and some modern sociologists, conceived the state as antedating the individual – the latter being born into the former as part and parcel thereof – he must live and die for it or for the incumbent of its legitimate authority. Readers of Crito will remember the argument with which Socrates represents the laws of the city as pleading with him on the subject of his escape. Among others he makes them (the laws or the state) say:–‘Since you were begotten and nurtured and educated under us, dare you once to say you are not our offspring and servant, you and your fathers before you!’ These are words which do not impress us as any thing extraordinary; for the same thing has long been on the lips of Bushido, with this modification, that the laws and the state were represented with us by a personal being. . .”

      Thus, we are told that in pre-modern Japan, life belonged to the State. Perhaps it could be said that in traditional Chinese culture life belonged to the family. To some modern Americans, life belongs to the individual. In many cultures life belongs, as Fr. Cao stated, to God. Without considering whether any of these views are right or wrong ( in whatever sense those terms may be used), it is obvious that one’s culture influences even the most basic of human values.

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