Chapters 30 and 31 – You Must Not Do It Anymore

Chapter 30

 When one leads people
by the way of the Tao,
Force and military strength
are not recommended –
There is usually retaliation.
Thorns and brambles appear
where armies are stationed.
Famine is often the aftermath of war.
A skillful commander
achieves her purpose and then stops,
Not venturing to take the path of force.
She achieves her purpose and does not boast,
She achieves her purpose and does not criticize,
She achieves her purpose and is not proud,
She achieves her purpose with reluctance,
She achieves her purpose without the use of force.
Over development is unnatural and hastens decay.
Not being of Tao, it comes to an early end.

 Chapter 31

Weapons are not good fortune
as they instill fear.
Followers of Tao avoid them.
In ordinary life, masterful rulers
honor the feminine side –
In times of war, they honor the masculine side.
Weapons are not good fortune
and therefore are not the instruments of peace.
The wise woman does not use them.
If unavoidable, she will use them –
But peace is the best policy.
There is no delight in such victory.
There is no glory in the killing of people.
One who enjoys killing cannot expect to thrive in the world.
Happy occasions honor the left.
Sad occasions honor the right.
The second general stands on the left.
The general stands on the right.
This means that war is like a funeral.
The slaughtering of people  goes against one’s heart.
Therefore victory can be treated as a ceremony of mourning.

Chapters 30 and 31 address similar subjects, so I will discuss them together.  The translations above are those used on  I don’t know who the translator is, but they reflect what I think is the spirit of these verses, and Amy Putkonen, whose site that is, originated the idea of Tao Te Ching Tuesdays.  Amy’s comments on both of these chapters are insightful, and certainly worth reading.

Arapahoe High School Image from CNN

Arapahoe High School
Image from CNN

Here, I am going to make only a very succinct comment about the text before going off on a bit of a tangent or two.  None of what Lao Tzu says is very subtle.  He tells us that the use of force brings destruction and counter attacks.  Weapons, he says, should be used only when absolutely necessary and that the so-called “victor” in any conflict should acknowledge the sacrifices of those on all sides.  The “victor” should not boast or celebrate.  The principles stated here apply to wars between nations, to workplace politics, to relations between parents and children, and the list goes on.

The use of force in any situation is an attempt to control that situation.  Trying to control any part of the world or nature is not going to work.  Eventually, there will be some retribution and a cycle of unpleasantness will repeat over and over.  The way of the Tao and of the sage is not to control, but to accept the ways of nature, the ways of the universe, and accomplish what is necessary through wu wei (non-action).  While there is much more I would like to say about some of the lines in these chapters, I want to head off on the tangent I mentioned earlier.

My nephew Paul graduated from Arapahoe High School in suburban Centennial, Colorado several years ago.  He was a good student and represented the school in state championship cross country and track meets.  Paul is now a park ranger with the National Park Service and often carries a gun to help keep our national parks safe for all visitors.

On December 13, 2013, an Arapahoe student named Karl Pierson, who was also a member of the track team – and the debate team, good enough to represent the school at a national competition – was also carrying a gun.  He walked into the school with a shotgun, wearing bandoliers holding some 125 rounds of ammunition and carrying a machete and three Molotov cocktails.  The details of his plan and his motives are not yet known.  Apparently he was seeking some kind of revenge against his debate coach, but his weaponry suggests something more may have been on his mind. It is known that he shot two other students, apparently at random, and then killed himself.

This scenario is getting old for us in Colorado.  In 1999, on my wife’s birthday, 13 people were killed and another two dozen injured in the violence at Columbine High School.  In 2006, a student was killed and several others sexually assaulted by a gun-wielding man at Platte Canyon High School.  In 2012, 12 people were killed and 70 wounded, most of the victims being young adults, at a movie theater in Aurora.

Of course, these tragic events are not unique to Colorado.  The Arapahoe High School shootings came one year less one day after the tragic deaths at a Newtown, Connecticut elementary school.

According to the Denver Post, one item posted on Pierson’s Facebook page was an image that showed the national Republican party’s agenda to be:  “Health Care: Let ’em Die, Climate Change: Let ’em Die, Gun Violence: Let ’em Die, Women’s Rights: Let ’em Die, More War: Let ’em Die.”  Now, I am not going to blame this supposed Republican “let ‘em die” agenda for anything that has happened; but I would like to talk briefly about politics.

After the 2012 elections, the Democratic Party held the majority of seats in the Colorado Senate, with 20 members to 15 for the Republicans.  During the next legislative session, several gun control bills were introduced and became law.  Though none of them could really be called sweeping or effective, they angered many “pro-gun” advocates.  Financed by money from the national gun lobby, groups began circulating petitions asking for the recall of three Democratic senators who had supported the legislation.  Enough signatures were obtained that a recall election was held for two of those senators in September 2013, at a cost to taxpayers of nearly half a million dollars.  Not enough signatures were gathered for a recall election of the third senator.

Both of the targeted senators were recalled and replaced by Republicans.  That left the Democrats in control of the Senate, but only by a margin of 18-17.  If one more seat would change hands, the Republicans would take control.

That fact did not go unnoticed.  The gun lobby and its friends began a new petition

Hudak recall Image from

Hudak recall
Image from

campaign to once again try to recall that third senator, whose name is Evie Hudak, and just happened to represent the district in which I live.  The next few weeks were almost comical around here.  Travel along any major roadway took one past groups of people with signs and placards calling for Ms. Hudak’s recall, flanked by other groups with signs and placards opposing the recall.  Grocery store parking lots seemed a gauntlet of (presumably paid) petition circulators.

The recall supporters had numerous signs mentioning the Second Amendment, but the campaign was not actually about that.  The campaign was nothing but an attempted power grab – a new way for a party to subvert the political process after losing an election.  The people of the district all knew that – at least most of them.  Some thought it was a good idea (the Republicans) and others did not.  The Democrats also understood the real motive behind the recall, and they were afraid.  They were also smarter than most people would expect of politicians.

Less than a week before the deadline for submitting petitions, Ms. Hudak resigned her Senate seat.  Under the law, there would be no recall election and the Democratic Party got to pick a replacement to serve until the 2014 election.  They kept their one seat majority and all was well in their world.

These observations are of different kinds of wars and battles and conflicts and weapons.  A gun in the hand of a disturbed teenager may seem much different than a politician with a paid coterie of petition carriers; but not so much, really.  Each is taking aggressive actions with the weapons at his disposal to force change and to control his part of this world.  Lao Tzu tells us we must not do that anymore.  Look at the results.

And now I have one final tangent.  A few hundred years before the Tao Te Ching existed, Moses is said to have produced the Book of Genesis.  One of the stories in that work tells that Abraham and his wife Sarah were finally able to conceive a child when they were very old.  That child was named Isaac and was greatly loved by his parents.  One day, though, God instructed Abraham to take Isaac to the mountains and offer him as a human sacrifice.  Abraham’s love of God was so great that he set out to obey; though at the last minute God sent a ram and instructed Abraham to sacrifice that instead.  That story has made its way into rock and roll (at least by Jewish songwriters). For instance in Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” (“God said to Abraham, kill me a son/Abe said, ‘God, you must be putting me on”)  The best rock rendition with which I am familiar is Leonard Cohen’s “Story of Isaac,” which was an allegory of the Vietnam War and contains the lines:  “You who build these altars now/To sacrifice these children,/You must not do it anymore.”

That’s right, isn’t it?  They must not do it.

The same song includes the lines:  “When it all comes down to dust/I will kill you if I must/I will help you if I can.”  In a way, that is sort of what Lao Tzu is saying here.  Cohen then reorders his words, saying:  “When it all comes down to dust, I will help you if I must/I will kill you if I can.”  That sounds like what too many people are saying today.


  1. All very good observations, Louis. Where there is a victory, a defeat is created – and so very often the gains of the victor are illusory and the losses are on all sides.

    You may remember the day we took over and occupied the Colorado University Administration Building as a protest against the Vietnam war. Once inside, an open microphone was set up and the theory was that anyone could avail themselves of it to freely express their feelings there. It all went well until one person, a “hawk” in favor of the war, was shouted down by the “doves” and unable to express their viewpoint. That was a watershed moment for me.

    When the opposing viewpoint was shouted down, I suddenly and very clearly realized that for all the movement’s desires to make the world a better place, it was going to repeat the mistakes of the past. There was still a victor/loser mentality in play, and so there would always be an imbalance there rather than a balance. I left the building then, and the affiliations I had with political activism as well.

    As you know in those days I was a conscientious objector on moral grounds, and also on the basis that military conscription was an immoral form of indentured servitude – basically, slavery – which served what was then identified as the military-industrial complex, the “masters of war.” I conscientiously objected like hell to the war in Vietnam because of all of that. My cousin, a Navy medic, was executed by the Viet Cong on a beach there after being captured during a rescue mission he volunteered for, and several people I knew and know who did serve – and whose choice I respected – were either killed or maimed in body and/or spirit there. I hated that war.

    Your observation of how Cohen re-orders the words to show what is lost is so on point. In the old days, Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” spoke our hatred of the selfish roots and destructive evil behind the curtain of that war. I loved that song, especially at the last when the pure bitterness and awful, perfect curse comes up, “…and I hope you die, and I hope it’s soon…” Yet it displayed the roots of our own downfall if we didn’t transcend our hatred and desire to destroy our enemies and instead find the better way.
    (“Masters of War” is at )

    I still feel the shadows of that old anger come round again when I behold the things you have mentioned here, the egoistic, selfish, disconnected actions of those who kill others for their own satisfactions and/or delusions; of those who pervert the political process in favor of their own “victory” and say be damned to those who are hurt by it. I still stand against that, and always will. Nowadays, though, I find it better to stand for good things whenever I can, and just keep swinging away at selfishness as necessary. It really is the root of all evil, you know. Mammon comes in a poor and distant second to selfishness as the root of all evil.

    You’re right. We must not sacrifice a single child to selfishness, or allow it. Not one. We must not do it.

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