09 May 2014

Who is the Greatest? The Unsung Hero and Lao Zi

Who is the greatest? Some people claim it themselves. Some were given by others like Mother Teresa. But according to Lao Zi, the true greatest is the someone you don't know or have taken for granted. Dao De Jing Chapter 5 describes the Way of Dao - The Way is impartial and it works silently and endlessly for the benefits of all.
Dao De Jing Chapter 5 is one of those passages that is misinterpreted and understood.

The original Chinese text is:
  1. 天地不仁,以萬物為芻狗。
  2. 聖人不仁,以百姓為芻狗。
  3. 天地之間,其猶橐籥乎﹖
  4. 虛而不屈,動而愈出。
  5. 多言數窮,不如守中。
Below is a famous English translation from Waley. You can find it and other translations here.
  1. Heaven and Earth are ruthless; To them, the Ten Thousand things are but as straw dogs.
  2. The Sage too is ruthless; To him, the people are but as straw dogs.
  3. Yet Heaven and Earth and all that lies between is like a bellows
  4. In that it is empty, but gives a supply that never fails. Work it, and more comes out.
  5. Whereas the force of words is soon spent. Far better is it to keep what is in the heart.
Errors and Difficulty:
  1. Literal translation without an understanding of the whole passage leads to wrong meaning.
    A word can have a few meanings and the exact meaning has to depend on the context.
    Secondly, the meaning of a word changes through time, and we need to get as close to the time of the writing. A modern dictionary is not a sure guide.
    In this particular case of verse 1, 不仁 is being wrongly translated as Ruthless because 仁 usually means kindness. But if we look up the older dictionary, we get the following definitions:仁,亲也。——《说文》. It is love for family or relationship.
    上下相亲谓之仁。——《礼记·经解》It is the closeness between the top(parent) and bottom(children).
    Both definitions speak of love because of relationships. Confucius' school teaching on love is also dependent on the relationship-distant. You should love your family more than friends and love your friends more than strangers.
    So, the correct translation and meaning is not ruthless but no favoritism or be impartial.
    This meaning will fit well with the rest of the passage (and the whole book of Dao De Jing).
  2. Meaning should be in context and mutually support each other to give a coherent meaning for the whole passage.
    Verse 3-5 speak of Heaven and Earth (The Way of) is vast and hallow (as if not there) but work endlessly (the more you act with it, the more it gives) and not boasting but keeping the central righteous path.
    So, it gives support to translate verse 1 not as ruthless but as impartial.
  3. Even with the correct translation, one may still not able to grasp the deeper meaning of the verse.
    For some. the meaning of verses 3-5 may not be fully understood. What is the meaning in the use of the illustration of a 'bellows'. Bellows are used for blowing wind into the furnace to increase the fire. Verse 4 tells us the Dao is like the empty air of the wind. You don't see it but you can see its effect. While it is empty it does not lose its purpose. It does not give in to external pressure to do other things but stays to the very thing that it was designed for. This supports verse 5 meaning keeping the central righteous way. 
My Translation:
  1. Heaven and earth (The Way or Dao) is impartial and treats all things as equal without regard to one's wealth or position but only see and meet the needs.
    (Staw doges are for the poor to offer as their sacrifices. The rich would sacrifice real animals. Poor means a lack of resources to meet the needs.). 
  2. The sages/saints are likewise. They are impartial and seek to meet the needs of people regardless of their status.
  3. Between heaven and earth, the empty space works like a bellows.
  4. It appears empty and it has the power to accomplish its purpose. (It does not give in to other pressure to lose its designed purpose).
    The more you act on and follow its purpose and way, the more it gives.
    (recall Chapter 3v9 9 为无为,则无不治。disrupt not the natural order and everything will be well managed. See The Problems and Answers for Men According to Lao Zi
  5. Boasting (talking too much) will soon reveal one poverty (lack of ability or resources or action).
    It is better to keep within the heart and be sincere and righteous in action.
    (Let our righteous actions do the talking instead!)
The Take-Away:

What does Lao Zi teach us about being the greatest?
It is not about self-proclaimed greatness nor wanting people to praise you. 
It is not about doing something to gain a reputation or money for self.
It is about meeting the needs of the situations or people, quietly doing them and doing them tirelessly.

This concept is repeated in Chapter 9 ... 功成身退,天之道
Leave after the mission is accomplished is the Way of Heaven

and reflected well in Levels of Leadership - Can We Measure Leadership?

So we must not grow weary in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not give up.---Galatians 6:9 of the Bible

By following this post,  I hope you have also picked up the skill of reading and understanding a passage correctly.

Compare this with Confucius‘s How Great are You? Let Confucius Tell you.

Lim Liat (c) 9 May 2014

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