Sunday, November 9, 2014

Tao Te Ching: Chapter 9 Commentary

This is part of a series examining the Tao Te Ching from an LDS, Christ-centered perspective.

Chapter 9 of the Tao Te Ching is about avoiding excess and withdrawing the self. 

Cup overfilled. Image here.
Holding a cup and overfilling it
Cannot be as good as stopping short
Pounding a blade and sharpening it
Cannot be kept for long 
Gold and jade fill up the room
No one is able to protect them
Wealth and position bring arrogance
And leave disasters upon oneself 
When achievement is completed, fame is attained
Withdraw oneself
This is the Tao of Heaven

Avoiding excess

The beginning of this chapter is about avoiding excess. Holding a cup in place too long will lead to it overflowing. You can only sharpen your blade for so long.

Once again, this is a suggestion to embrace the yin aspect: resting is the necessary counterpart of work. Trying to do the yang thing for too long is not just impossible (as in the case of endlessly pounding on the blade), it's unwise (as in the case of overfilling the cup).
Sharpening a blade. Image here.

The Christian scriptures teach the same thing, except in the context of the Sabbath. Both the people (Exodus 20: 8-10) and the land (Leviticus 25:4) have a Sabbath--with every period of work comes a rest.

Now, there's a rest every night: sleep counts as yin-time. But even on top of our daily rest, Christians and Jews are commanded Biblically to add in a full day out of seven to rest. In the case of the Shemitah, Jews were commanded to leave the land fallow one year out of seven, to allow the land to rest. The punishment for violation of this law was invasion and displacement from their land (Leviticus 26:34), so that their land could still enjoy her Sabbaths.

Now, the reference to the cup overflowing is an interesting one because in the Tao Te Ching it appears that an overflowing cup is a bad thing--wasteful and messy. In the Christian scriptures, a famous verse uses the same imagery to convey abundance (Psalms 23:5-6):
5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
Although those verses get a lot of play, cups and how full they are play other important roles in the Bible.

Mark 14:36
36 And he said, Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt.
Luke 22:20:
20 Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you.
1 Corinthians 10:21:
21 Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table, and of the table of devils.

Ezekiel 23:33:
33 Thou shalt be filled with drunkenness and sorrow, with the cup of astonishment and desolation, with the cup of thy sister Samaria.

Isaiah 51:22:
22 Thus saith thy Lord the Lord, and thy God that pleadeth the cause of his people, Behold, I have taken out of thine hand the cup of trembling, even the dregs of the cup of my fury; thou shalt no more drink it again:
Do a scripture search on the word "cup" and see what comes up. By and large, it seems that the references to cups in the scriptures more often refer to suffering than abundance--and stopping that suffering short seems like a good idea. I like how 1 Corinthians 10:21 explains that the cup reference can refer to both good and evil. An overflow from a good cup can mean abundance for all of one's days--but an overflow from a bad cup would never be a good thing. It is far better to stop short.

Withdraw oneself

Treasures of gold. Image here.
The other part of this chapter extols the virtue of withdrawing--or what Buddhists might refer to as giving up attachment.

No one can protect the gold and jade that fill up the room, this chapter explains; a Christian might phrase it this way (Matthew 6:19-20):
19 ¶Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:
20 But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: 
 Chapter 9 goes on to counsel readers to avoid attachment to earthly things like wealth and position, because they only lead to pride and disasters--which completely fits with Christian teachings. Here is Proverbs 16:18:
18 Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.
And here is a list of scriptures that use the words "puffed up," a really interesting phrase for the word "pride." This chapter of the Tao Te Ching in essence cautions against being puffed up, because it only brings disaster on the self. Christianity tends to draw the focus of those disasters on the life to come--the idea that if you sin through pride you will end up paying for it in the eternities--but the Tao Te Ching seems to focus on the disastrous effects of pride in this life.


The Tao Te Ching supports periods of rest, and encourages the reader to "withdraw oneself" as a way of uniting with the Tao of Heaven. These concepts support and are supported by Christian scripture.

No comments:

Post a Comment