Tao Te Ching: 59
In caring for others and serving heaven,
There is nothing like using restraint.
Restraint beings with giving up one’s own ideas.
This depends on virtue being gathered in the past.
If there is a good store of virtue, then nothing is impossible.
If nothing is impossible, then there are no limits.
If a man knows no limits, then he is fit to be a ruler.
The mother principle of ruling holds good for a long time.
This is called having deep roots and a firm foundation.
The Tao of long life and eternal vision.
–trans. Jane English
A wood in autumn. The day is gray, but warm and close; golden leaves are falling onto the rich earth. It has just finished raining, and the scent of damp soil is intoxicating.
This vision came to me as I was meditating on these lines from the Tao Te Ching. Lao Tzu’s verse may seem to apply only to kings, rulers, and generals, and one might think that they would be of limited applicability today; but in fact every verse of the Tao Te Ching offers food for thought in many modern situations. Leadership is something that can be thrust upon you whether you want it or not. You may find yourself in charge of the team at work, or sharing responsibility as the leader of a family. But even if you live by yourself on a desert island, you are, unavoidably, the only captain of your soul.
Lao Tzu advocates a very hands-off approach to leadership. A perfect leader, in his view, doesn’t lead so much as set a good example. A king who spends too much time issuing orders, watching his subjects carefully, and meddling in their affairs will soon find himself with a population that is cunning, stealthy, backstabbing and traitorious. On the other hand, a king who leaves his people alone, allows them to live their lives without interference, and sets a good example of virtuous behavior, will find himself with a people who are prosperous, happy, forthright, and beloved of heaven.
On the face of it, it appears to be quite a libertarian philosophy, one that would appeal to the framers of the U.S. Constitution. But an important part of it — one that’s addressed specifically in this passage — is the cultivation of virtue by the leader, which not only sets a good example, but leads to “no limits”, “long life” and “eternal vision”. We’re way out beyond the U.S. Constitution here, but it’s still all pretty groovy stuff. But what does this mean, exactly? What is this virtue that should be cultivated?
Here I got stuck. The Tao seemed to be silent on this point. But the image of autumn soil, which I received in meditation, gave me part of the key.
The Virtue in the Earth
In the meditation, the soil is the leader, the ruler. It is itself the accumulation of virtue. Its richness and depth come from its past experiences; anything can grow in it if it is rich enough. Nothing is impossible — there are no limits. It literally facilitates deep roots; it is the epitome of a good foundation. The soil may appear to be the Blank Slate upon which the story of life is written, a but in fact it is the Source, the sustenance, and the wellspring of life.
The good ruler, then — whether ruling a country, a work team, a family, or the self — does not step out in front and take charge. Rather, Lao Tzu says, the leader stands behind, offering service as an exemplar and a resource. Just as the quality and the characteristics of the soil determine the richness of the harvest and the plants that flourish, leaders influence outcomes through the quality of their own virtue — the examples and the resources that they offer.
Doing Nothing, Leaving Nothing Undone
This principle is easy to extend to real-life situations. When you are entrusted with the leadership of a team at work, think about the goals that need to be accomplished, line up the resources that the team will need to achieve these goals, lay out the situation to the team, and then get out of the way and allow the team to get to work. If you’re raising a family, lay down firm rules and boundaries or your children, provide them with an environment appropriate to their safety, be available for them when they need you, and then get out of the way and let them explore and grow, self-directed, at their own pace.
Most eye-opening for me, I think, is applying this advice to the stewardship of your soul — personal development. It’s suggested very strongly that trying to achieve goals through careful planning of step-by-step projects and willpower is far from the best way to go; instead, one should carefully lay out the goals you have in mind, gather the resources you need, establish a fertile environment for achieving those goals, and then get out of the way and wait to see what happens. Your body, mind, heart, and spirit, given the tools and the workshop, will do a better job working organically together to reach those goals than your ego can accomplish by fiat.
You Cannot BECOME Virtuous
We’re still left with the question we started with, however, which is: what is this virtue that is the treasure of the effective leader? For soil, it’s clear what virtue is: the nutrients, the aeration, the water table, etc. — all the things that make soil rich and pregnant with possibility. But what is the analogue for a human being? What constitutes richness for a person? And most importantly — how may a person become virtuous?
Well, what does soil do to become virtuous? Obviously the answer is: nothing at all! Soil becomes rich merely by existing; its virtue comes from the rain, sun, wind, and all the plants and animals that pass across it, each leaving their imprint, living or dying there, the wealth of untold generations.
Perhaps we are the same way. Maybe there is nothing we do, consciously, that increases our virtue; we cannot become virtuous, because we already are. Our virtue, our wealth, is simply ourselves, our accumulation of experiences, in one lifetime or many… The lives that have touched us, the experiences that have shaped us, everything that has made us who we are — this is our wealth.
Perhaps this is the storehouse from which new life arises, the treasure in our hearts that makes the impossible possible, shatters limitations, builds high and digs deep, lives long and sees far.