Chapter 9 – On the Natural
Filling a cup to the brim
is not as good as
stopping in time.
Staying constantly sharpened
can wear out the blade.
One cannot protect
a home full of jewels.
Position and prestige
lead to arrogance
and eventual downfall.
When your work is done,
This is the natural way.
In this chapter, Lao Tzu’s advice is fairly straightforward and easy to understand. Still, I would like to make a few comments.
It is appropriate to to read these words as telling us to act with moderation, as in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics; or to follow the Middle Way as Buddha taught. Looking at the last line, though, the focus is actually a little different. We are not told to follow the Middle Way or the moderate path; but the natural way, or as it is sometimes translated, the way of Heaven.
Once again, we are shown the wu wei. And again we learn that the way of nature is not to strive or hoard, but to take the action necessary to accomplish what is necessary. When a container must be filled, it is imprudent to add liquid until it cannot be lifted without spillage. Although a blade must be sharp in order to cut, whetting it excessively destroys its stability and function.
Lao Tzu warns against striving for too many valuables or too much fame and power because such ambition ultimately leads to a position that cannot be maintained.
I was tempted to illustrate this principle by referring to the skit about “Mr. Creosote” in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life in which a glutton literally explodes after he follows an impossibly extravagant meal with one small mint. However, after watching it again, it seems that the skit itself probably over-strives in presenting the satire.
Instead, let me share an old story from Chinese Shao Lin martial arts:
A student approached his teacher and said, “I find all that I have learned is excellent and I wish to devote my life to this art. Please tell me how long it will take before I become a master.”
The teacher paused, then answered, “Perhaps, 10 more years.”
“That seems too long,” said the student. “I am willing to practice for 10 hours each day, and sit five hours a day in meditation. How long will it take then to become a master?”
Again the teacher paused and after careful contemplation replied, “Perhaps 20 more years.”
The teacher knew the Tao of his art. Action in accordance with nature – the principle of wu wei – produces results at the appropriate time.
Finally, we should note the lines that say “When your work is done, gently withdraw.”
Sometimes we think of a Taoist sage as a hermit living in a cave on a high mountain who has withdrawn from society. At some point in life, that may be the appropriate thing to do – but not, Lao Tzu tells us, until our work is done. That is the natural way.
As I wrote the previous paragraph, I was reminded of an old Hoyt Axton song, “On the Natural.” It is nice to listen to when it is time to back away from pushing too hard and seeking too much.