Lao Zi and the Tao: (Part 3) An Interpretation of "High Virtue is Non-Virtuous"

Wang Yifeng

PureInsight | February 17, 2003

[] In ancient China when moral values still prevailed, there was only one law for judging a person – de (virtue). A Chinese proverb says, "A man without any virtue is no more than a beast." When a person does not have any virtue left, he is no longer considered worthy of being a human and therefore should have no place in human society. From this, one can see how highly virtue was regarded in ancient China! Virtue is deeply rooted in history, society, ethics and culture of the Chinese people. It goes beyond a mere set of measurements that distinguishes a good person from a bad one. That is because traditional Chinese culture is a culture of cultivation. Virtue is considered to be of the uttermost importance in cultivation. Today if people try to read Lao Zi's Classics of Tao and Virtue from a perspective other than that of cultivation, what they understand is only the superficial meaning.

In the first chapter of Classics of Tao and Virtue, Lao Zi said, "High Virtue is non-virtuous. Therefore it has Virtue. Low Virtue never frees itself from virtuousness. Therefore it has no Virtue. High Virtue makes no fuss and has no private ends to serve. Low Virtue not only trifles, but also serves pursuits…Failing Tao, man resorts to Virtue. Failing Virtue, man resorts to humanity. Failing humanity, man resorts to morality. Failing morality, man resorts to ceremony. Now, ceremony is the merest husk of faith and loyalty. It is the beginning of all confusion and disorder." For the last several thousand years, "high virtue" and "low virtue" have been interpreted according to their superficial meaning. "High virtue" has been interpreted as "higher moral value standards," or "a great deal of virtue." We must understand that Lao Zi was an enlightened Taoist, and he explained "virtue" from a higher level, that of the Tao. When he said, "High virtue is non-virtuous," he meant that there is a higher level than that of virtue, and it is the Tao. From the perspective of cultivation, when a person obtains the Tao, cultivates the Tao and consummates into the Tao, all the virtue he has accumulated will have been transformed into gong [cultivation energy]. In the past, the Taoist masters only chose those with great virtue to be their disciples, and this is why Lao Zi said, "Therefore it has Virtue." When a cultivator reaches the level of the Tao, he is no longer measured by the amount of virtue he carries since he no longer has any, because all his virtue has been transformed into gong. That is why Lao Zi said, "High Virtue is non-virtuous." Instead, he carries something from a higher level, namely the Tao. Tao is the elevation of virtue. Virtue is the foundation of Tao, but it is a kind of matter at a lower level.

When Lao Zi said, "Low Virtue never frees itself from virtuousness," he meant that during cultivation one must avoid losing virtue because virtue is most precious at the level of virtue and at the level of human society. "Therefore it has no virtue," means that one cannot regain the virtue that he has lost by doing inappropriate things. [Editor's note: except through suffering] Virtue is both precious and concrete, and it is accumulated throughout many lifetimes. All losses and gains, such as aging, sickness, pestilence, death, luck, good fortune, wealth, longevity, are given to a man based on the amount of virtue he carries during this lifetime. For a cultivator, the amount of virtue determines one's foundation level for cultivation. A person with more virtue has better enlightenment quality. His teacher will be able to transform his virtue more easily into gong and thus taking him to a higher cultivation level.
"Failing Tao, man resorts to Virtue. Failing Virtue, man resorts to humanity." From higher levels to lower ones, we find the Tao, humanity, morality and ceremony. During the time of Lao Zi, ceremony was already regarded as being very far from the real Tao. But it is still a strict personal code of conduct and many times better than what we see today when many people no longer follow any personal conduct of code, and society has to resort to passing many laws to govern people. From another point of view, it can also be understood that a person's journey of cultivation begins with a ceremony, then moves progressively to morality, to humanity, to virtue, and finally to the Tao. When one attains the Tao, one reaches consummation and transform into an enlightened being. To summarize, this is a process that one goes through as one elevates oneself and rise above humanness. Virtue is the foundation of cultivation and one of the prerequisites for consummation. Humankind came into existence on earth when it fell from the level of the Tao. To return to the original level of the Tao, man must cultivate to re-attain the Tao. Because the transformation of virtue into gong is done by one's master and it is something that one is unable to do for oneself, Lao Zi did not say anything about gong at all. Instead, he concentrated on lecturing exclusively on the central theme of why and how one must guard virtue in Chapters 39 to 81 of Classics of Tao and Virtue.

Lao Zi said, "The softest of all things prevails over the hardest. Insubstantial, it enters where there is no room. Thereby, I know the benefit of something done by being quiet. In all the world, only a few can know what can be accomplished when no words are used." (From Chapter 43 of Classics of Tao and Virtue) Then he said, "The mighty and great will be laid low. The humble and weak will be exalted." (From Chapter 76 of Classics of Tao and Virtue) Just like a steady stream of water that has the power to penetrate rock over a long period of time, people who seem soft can guard their virtue better. "As for your name and your body, which is more valuable? Which is the more to be prized, your body or your wealth? Which is the more painful, gain or loss? Thus, an excessive love for anything will ultimately cost you dearly. The hoarding of goods will entail a heavy loss. To know when you have enough is to be immune from disgrace. To know when to stop is to be protected from perils. Only thereby can you long endure." (From Chapter 44 of Classics of Tao and Virtue) Here Lao Zi pointed out a tragic flaw in mankind, the crucial attachments to fame and wealth. Attachments to fame and wealth bring about loss of virtue. One gains fame and wealth at the expense of his most precious possession, virtue. One who desires fame and wealth will do anything to attain them. When one loses virtue, one invites sickness, pestilence and many other kinds of misfortune. This is why Lao Zi taught people to be content with what they already have. "There is no calamity like not knowing what is enough. There is no evil like covetousness." (From Chapter 46 of Classics of Tao and Virtue) This is why, in the past, Chinese people, as part of their philosophy of life, believed that a contented person is the happiest. It is this very philosophy, upon which a stable society or a harmonious family is based.

Lao Zi said, "The Great Way is very smooth and straight. Yet, most prefer devious paths. The court is very clean and well decorated. But the fields are very weedy and wild. And the granaries are empty! They wear gorgeous clothes. They carry sharp swords. They surfeit themselves with food and drink. They possess more riches than they can use! They are the heralds of brigandage! As for Tao, what do they know about it?" (From Chapter 53 of Classics of Tao and Virtue) Even though the Great Way is supposed to be smooth and straight, people give that up and think that they have cleverly found a shortcut when they deviate from it. Here, Lao Zi once again urges cultivators to give up transitory, flimsy pursuits and stay on the smooth and straight main road.

"They have not been commanded to worship the Tao or pay homage to virtue, but they always do so spontaneously." (From Chapter 51 of Classics of Tao and Virtue) To worship the Tao, to aspire to virtue, and to do so spontaneously, are the essences of Lao Zi's ideas. With vivid expressions, concise words and profound philosophy, Lao Zi imparted this high level Taoist teaching that originated in China, assuring that Chinese society would have a long tradition of respecting and cultivating virtue and judging people based upon their virtue. Emperors were told to govern the country with virtue, which may be the reason why Chinese civilization never tried to invade any neighbouring countries with force even at the peak of its power. Excesses in killing were to be avoided.

"As weapons are instruments of evil, they are not properly a gentleman's instruments. He will resort to them only of necessity. Peace and quiet are dearest to his heart.
For him, even a victory is no cause for rejoicing. To rejoice over a victory is to rejoice over the slaughter of men! Hence a man who rejoices over the slaughter of men cannot expect to thrive in the world of men. Because many people have been killed, it is only right that survivors should mourn for them. Hence, even a victory is a funeral." (From Chapter 31 of Classics of Tao and Virtue) These lines clearly express Lao Zi's idea how to deal with an unavoidable war. War is the result of celestial phenomena. As a human being, one is not allowed to do whatever he wants to do. While he has no choice whether or not to participate in an unavoidable war, he shouldn't enjoy the killing of people. Even if a country has won a war, it should not celebrate the victory. Instead people should feel sorrowful for the people who died and treat it as a funeral. This is a marvellous way of maintaining virtue, because the killing of people is really losing great virtue and creating great karma.

"When the people are no longer afraid of death, why scare them with the spectre of death? If you could make the people always fear death, and they still persisted in breaking the law, then you might with reason arrest and execute them. Then, who would dare to break the law? Is not the Great Executor always set to kill? To do the killing for the Great Executor is to chop wood for a master carpenter. And you would be lucky indeed if you did not hurt your own hand! "(From Chapter 74 of Classics of Tao and Virtue) It means that those who are in the position of power should not kill people at will. There must be just punishments for crimes. In addition, there are heavenly principles that judge people's action. If people establish laws that decide who should live and who should die, it is very likely that they themselves will be hurt in the process. These lines go one step further and talk about wars, unjust punishments and killing from the cultivation point of view. It is clear that killing goes against guarding virtue.

"Bad fortune is what good fortune leans on. Good fortune is what bad fortune hides in. Who knows the ultimate end of this process?" (Second stanza From Chapter 58 of Classics of Tao and Virtue) These lines have been interpreted as bemoaning the uncertainty of life. But they carry a far more profound meaning. One point should be made clear. Lao Zi never directly mentioned karma in his work, but he talked about it indirectly in many places, since virtue co-exists with karma at the same time and same place, and these two things are mutually transformable. Virtue can make one healthy, happy and harmonious, while karma is the source of adversity, illness and trouble. "Bad fortune is what good fortune leans on, Good fortune is what bad fortune hides in" is the disappearing, re-appearing and transformation of virtue and karma. How can we retain virtue and at the same time not lose virtue?

The cultivator should follow the course of nature and guard virtue. He should have no intent. To have no intent is not the same as not doing anything. It means not committing wrong deeds and not creating karma. Lao Zi said, "Do the Non-Ado. Strive for the effortless. Savour the savour-less. Exalt the low. Multiply the few. Requite injury with kindness."(From Chapter 63 of Classics of Tao and Virtue) "He is kind to the kind. He is also kind to the unkind." "I have Three Treasures, which I hold fast and watch over closely. The first is Compassion. The second is Frugality. The third is Never would I once presume that I would be the whole world's chief." (Second verse From Chapter 67 of Classics of Tao and Virtue) "It is Heaven's Way to conquer without striving, to get responses without speaking, to induce the people to come without summoning, to act according to plans without haste." "Vast is Heaven's net. Sparse-meshed it is, and yet nothing can slip through it." These are all the essences of traditional Chinese culture and words that ancient Chinese lived by.

"Ruling a big kingdom is like cooking a small fish. When a man of the Tao reigns over the world, demons have no spiritual powers." (Verses one and two From Chapter 60 of Classics of Tao and Virtue) This is an often-cited quote. But most interpretations that are given for these lines are wrong. What did Lao Zi mean when he said, "Ruling a country is like cooking a small fish?" A popular explanation is that when cooking a small fish, it should not be turned over too much. Otherwise, it would fall into small pieces. To carry on the analogy, many think Lao Zi meant to say that the ruler of a big kingdom should not issue too many laws. Otherwise, the country would be in chaos. Quoting Lao Zi's words out of context and explaining his words superficially can lead to misunderstandings. We must keep in mind what Lao Zi said in the next line, "A man of the Tao reigns over the world." Lao Zi spoke from the level of an enlightened being. To an enlightened Taoist (or a God or a Buddha or a high level being), ruling a country is just as simple as cooking a small fish. He possesses all the capability because he is at a high level. He has the power to let all beings in the universe obey virtue and respect the Tao because he is at such a high level. He is the genuine ruler. He has cultivated enough virtue for the whole world!

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