Tao Te Ching —
The Classic about Ways And Instances
(Translated, with comments, by William P. Coleman)
When everyone in the world
sees some beautiful thing as beautiful,
it ends up only in ugliness.
sees a good thing as working for good,
it ends up only in its opposite.
Having and not having produce each other;
difficult and easy complete each other;
long and short contrast with each other;
high and low rely on each other;
tone and voice harmonize each other;
and front and back follow in rotation.
And that’s why the sage
manages his affairs by non-action,
and demonstrates his philosophy without words.
In this way everything happens but he doesn’t interfere;
he produces and he doesn’t possess;
he acts but doesn’t presume;
he accomplishes something yet doesn’t dwell in it.
Exactly because he doesn’t think it defines him,
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The content of this chapter has a direct meaning for Tai Chi, and for life. As you practice your form, good things occur spontaneously. You recognize you happen to be doing something “advanced” that you wanted to achieve. So then you consciously try for it—and, thereby, you lose it.
Pushing hands, in direct contact with an opponent, depends crucially on recognizing that actions—the opponent’s as well as yours—produce their opposite. Your action has the opposite quality from what you intended. Also, the result is opposite after considering the response from the other person.
The hardest part of learning Tai Chi is learning to stop doing things. When I watch beginners, even though I myself am not very advanced, the main thing I want to tell them is they could be good if they’d stop about 90% of what they’re currently doing. Learning is a slow, slow process of becoming willing to give up things you think you need for the effects you want. “Well, yeah, I know, but of course I’ve gotta at least . . .” When you stop enough of these, then everything starts to become possible and even easy.
In a different realm, I also take piano lessons and voice lessons. The same principles apply.
It isn’t about doing specific activities; it’s about living.
For comparison, I’m including the translation by Lin Yutang, which I always love and respect, even when I disagree:
2. The Rise of Relative Opposites
When the people of the Earth all know beauty as beauty,
There arises (the recognition of) ugliness.
When the people of the Earth all know the good as good,
There arises (the recognition of) evil.
Being and non-being interdepend in growth;
Difficult and easy interdepend in completion;
Long and short interdepend in contrast;
High and low interdepend in position;
Tones and voice interdepend in harmony;
Front and behind interdepend in company.
Therefore the Sage:
Manages affairs without action;
Preaches the doctrine without words;
All things take their rise, but he does not turn away from them;
He gives them life, but does not take possession of them;
He acts, but does not appropriate;
Accomplishes, but claims no credit.
It is because he lays claim to no credit
That the credit cannot be taken away from him.