February 28, 2009


Heaven and Earth are not humane (bù rén),
They regard the myriad things as straw dogs.
The shèng rén is not humane (bù rén).
He regards the common people as straw dogs.

May not the space between Heaven and Earth be compared to a bellows?
Empty yet inexhaustible.
Moving and yet it pours out ever more.
By many words one's reckoning is exhausted.
It is better to abide by the center.

COMMENTARY by Koeng S. Wan:
The shèng rén (sage), like both Heaven and Earth, regards everything, even people, with detachment and impartiality. As a consequence, humanity has no special place in creation. However, by being impartial a person can come to be like Heaven (Division 16). Without divine guidance people must find their own ways through life.

The atmosphere with its dynamic and ever-changing wind and climate, being empty and inexhaustible (Division 4), is described as the Dào. The Dào interacts with the Earth and Heaven creating the wind like a bellows that seemingly drives the ever-changing climate and brings the seasons.

Words cannot describe the endlessly, ever-changing climate, so readers are admonished to abide by the center where they can find tranquility (Division 16).

Straw dogs were representations of dogs used in rituals. They were revered, then burned in sacrifices and discarded as ordinary refuse[1]. The myriad of things are separate from Heaven and Earth. Living things, in particular, arise and make something out of their efforts (Division 2). They seem to be hosted by Heaven and Earth as they transform, but neither Heaven nor Earth have any compassion for them. Furthermore, neither Heaven nor Earth are expected to respond to human efforts to communicate with them, as the Lǎo Zǐ contains no passages about making prayers or offerings to spirits, gods, or the Dào for the benefit of people.

The line about the shèng rén being bù rén (不仁) towards people has been variously translated as direction to be “ruthless”, “inhumane”, and “impartial.” Clearly, the Lǎo Zǐ doesn't advocate that the shèng rén treat people like straw dogs. Furthermore, the Lǎo Zǐ doesn't characterize the shèng rén as someone who should care nothing about the common people. If not, why teach them (Divisions 2 and 3), or even govern them (Division 3)? Divisions 10 and 13 identify the love of rulers have for their people as a virtue. Division 49 says one should be good to both good people and not good people.

These apparent paradoxes are resolved when rén (仁) is specifically interpreted as the Confucian ideal that is often translated as benevolence or humanity. The concept that rén is a relationship of benevolence between any people was an invention of Confucianism in the Lún​ Yǔ​ (Analects)[2]. Prior to the Lún​ Yǔ​ rén referred to a ruler's benevolent regard toward his subjects or a "manly or virile quality"[3]. Simple translation distorts by oversimplifying, as Confucian rén constitutes more than just demonstrating benevolence and kindness, for the Confucians require the individual to acquire the kind of practical wisdom (zhi)[4] the Lǎo Zǐ aims to suppress in Division 3, and conformance with elaborate sets of rites () that were "a body of rules governing action in every aspect of life"[5]. The all-consuming prescriptions for the individual in the Lún​ Yǔ​ are very clear:

" Yen Yuän asked about rén. The Master said, 'To return to the observance of the rites through overcoming the self constitutes rén. If for a single day a man could return to the observance of the rites through overcoming himself, then the whole Empire would consider rén to be his. However, the practice of rén depends on oneself alone, and not on others.'

" Yen Yuän said, 'I should like you to list the items.'

" The Master said, 'Do not look unless it is in accordance with the rites; do not listen unless it is in accordance with the rites; do not speak unless it is in accordance with the rites; do not move unless it is in accordance with the rites.'

" Yen Yuän said, 'Though I am not quick, I shall direct my efforts towards what you said.'" (Analects, XII.1)[6]
In the overall context of Confucian practices, the Lǎo Zǐ has little regard for rén when the Lǎo Zǐ's Dào is followed. (See Divisions 18, 19, and 38.) In particular, Chen describes Division 38 as an "anti-Confucian polemic"[7].

In such a case, the shèng rén doesn't practice Confucian rén and so, the shèng rén treats people as just another thing that is a part of creation which is another focus of disputes between Lǎo Zǐ and Confucian schools.

As mentioned earlier, the Lǎo Zǐ's position is that Heaven and Earth are impartial towards people. However, the Confucians claimed Confucius acquired their moral and ethical system directly from Heaven.

"The Master said, 'At fifteen, I had my mind bent on learning. At thirty, I stood firm. At forty, I had no doubts. At fifty, I know the decrees of Heaven. At sixty, my ear was an obedient organ for the reception of truth. At seventy, I could follow what my heart desires, without transgressing what was right.'" (Analects, II.4)[8]
It is no wonder the Lǎo Zǐ appears to be so defensive since the Confucians so easily questioned the legitimacy of their Dào.

The wind, as a phenomenon, is an example of an indifferent, impartial, inexhaustible force that operates in a void. This description of the wind compares to the description of the Dào in Division 4, thus adding indifference and impartiality towards all things as attributes of the Dào.

Finally, like the force of the wind, creation itself is characterized as vast and overwhelming (see Division 12). Language alone is inadequate to gain an understanding of it (Division 2), so it is better to use one's full faculties, including the capacity to use words, to comprehend the world through one's center (zhōng
) as articulated elsewhere in the Lǎo Zǐ (see Divisions 16 and 47).

[1] Lao-Tze, The Canon of Reason and Virtue, Translated by D.T. Suzuki and Paul Carus, Open Court, LaSalle, IL, 1913, p.137.

[2] Lai, Karyn, Learning from Chinese Philosophies: Ethics of Interdependent and Contextualised Self, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd, Farnham, Surrey, UK, 2006, p.15.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Lau, D.C., Confucius: The Analects -- Translated with Introduction, Doreset Press, NY, 1979, p.20.

[6] Ibid, p.112.

[7] Chen, Ellen M., Tao Te Ching: A New Translation with Commentary, Paragon House Publishing, St. Paul, MN, 1989, p.146.

[8] Lau, D.C., Confucius: The Analects -- Translated with Introduction, Doreset Press, NY, 1979, p.63.