Chapter 79 – Obligations
When a great hatred is reconciled, naturally some hatred will remain.
How can this be made good?
. Therefore the sage keeps the obligations of his contract and exacts not from others.
Those who have virtue attend to their obligations;
those who have no virtue attend to their claims.
. Heaven’s Reason shows no preference
but always assists the good man.
Translation by D. T. Suzuki and Paulo Carus (1913)
Like many (or most) chapters of the Tao Te Ching, this one can be read and interpreted on many levels. The most obvious is that it relates to the “virtuous” (in the sense of Te)
resolution of disputes between individuals. An excellent discussion of that interpretation is given by Amy Putkonen (who initiated the idea of Tao Te Ching Tuesdays) on her website, taotechingdaily.com. I will let you read what she has to say in her essay while I suggest some other approaches to the chapter.
First, we can consider the well-known Zen saying: “Before enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water. After enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water.” In other words, when a person attains so-called enlightenment, nothing magical happens. The world remains as it always was, but the way in which it is perceived by the enlightened individual is shifted. Life goes on, and with it the duties of life such as chopping wood and carrying water. Emotions like hatred and bitterness, or even greed, would probably not be a part of the psyche of one who is enlightened. Therefore, such a person would attend to his own duties and let others go their own ways.
The last two lines of this chapter may call to mind Chapter 6 of St. Matthew’s Gospel. There, Jesus tells his disciples that they should not act like the hypocritical Scribes and Pharisees who perform religious duties like giving alms and praying as a show to impress whoever may be watching them. Such actions are not truly virtuous, so Jesus tells his followers to retreat privately to a closet or small room to pray without anyone else knowing about it. He then instructs them in what we now call the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father, Who art in heaven . . .). Following the discussion of prayer, he says that no person can serve two masters, those being God and money. He teaches that the Father provides all the food needed for the birds of the sky, who neither plant nor reap; and that the lilies of the field are more beautifully dressed than even King Solomon. He concludes by saying, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” (Matthew 6:33, King James Version of Bible).
Putting that into the context of this chapter, it could be said that the Scribes and Pharisees were a hateful lot who had only contempt for those who did not believe as they did. Jesus tells his disciples not to be like that. Instead, they should follow their own virtue and beliefs. By doing that, they will not only reach the Kingdom of God, but Heaven’s Reason will also assist them in this life. They will be given all they need. Bear in mind, though, that when one’s primary duty is to seek God’s kingdom, the things that are “needed” in the physical world may not include wealth, luxury and comfort.
The distinction between the followers of Jesus and the Scribes and Pharisees reminds us that in Chinese philosophy, for many centuries, there has been a distinction between Taoist and Confucian thought. Perhaps the pre-eminent belief of Confucius and his followers is that each person has a set of duties to his family, to his state, to the emperor and to whomever he interacts with in society. The virtuous individual – the man of ren – attends to those duties and obligations, which builds a strong and virtuous society.
Taoists on the other hand – despite what this chapter seems to say – were not so concerned with lists of duties and obligations that are often only human constructs*. Instead, they preferred to follow the way of Nature, often leaving society as far behind them as possible. That is not to say that Taoists did not recognize certain obligations to family and society. Those obligations, though, were not the same as the ones recognized by Confucianists.
There is a poem called “The Return” which was written in the early Fifth Century by T’ao Ch’ien (Tao Qian, also known as Tao Yuan-ming) that illustrates some of the differences. It is fairly long, so I will only excerpt portions for this discussion. The entire poem may be read here.
It begins with a prologue telling that the author was not able to support his family with what he could grow on a small farm, so his friends and relatives advised him to obtain a position with the government as a magistrate. With the help of his uncle, he was able to do that. He began to earn good money, but he soon felt that he had made a mistake because his official duties constrained his sense of freedom. He said, “I was mortgaging myself to my mouth and belly.” As he was entertaining such thoughts, he learned that his sister had died; so he resigned his position and left to attend to his family obligations. Then he writes as follows about returning to his home:
“To get out of this and go back home!
My fields and garden will be overgrown with weeds–I must go back.
It was my own doing that made my mind my body’s slave
Why should I go on in melancholy and lonely grief?
. . . . .
Then I catch sight of my cottage–
Filled with joy I run.
The servant boy comes to welcome me
My little son waits at the door.
The three paths are almost obliterated
But pines and chrysanthemums are still here
Leading the children by the hand I enter my house
Where there is a bottle filled with wine.
I draw the bottle to me and pour myself a cup;
Seeing the trees in the courtyard brings joy to my face.
I lean on the south window and let my pride expand,
I consider how easy it is to be content with a little space.
Every day I stroll in the garden for pleasure,
There is a gate there, but it is always shut.
Cane in hand I walk and rest
. . . . .
Back home again!
My friendships be broken off and my wandering come to an end.
The world and I shall have nothing more to do with one another.
If I were again to go abroad, what should I seek?
Here I enjoy honest conversation with my family
And take pleasure in books and cither to dispel my worries.
. . . . .
I admire the seasonableness of nature
And am moved to think that my life will come to its close.
It is all over–
So little time are we granted human form in the world!
. . . . .
I have no desire for riches
And no expectation of Heaven.
Rather on some fine morning to walk alone
Now planting my staff to take up a hoe,
Or climbing the east hill and whistling long
Or composing verses beside the clear stream:
So I manage to accept my lot until the ultimate homecoming.
Rejoicing in Heaven’s command, what is there to doubt?”
I will end now, leaving you with those words from a true poet.
*There is a concept known as the “Mandate of Heaven” that teaches that the ruler is chosen by Heaven. Therefore, the duties of the governed and the governing could be considered divine command rather than human constructs.