At first glance, we can see how some of these verses may be astute observations about nature. For instance, we can apply heat to expand a metallic component, and then let it to cool and shrink to fit around another component. The lenses of my reading glasses are fixed within metal frames through this very principle.
In our heavily commercialized world, we see many products that are hyped up and shoveled through the distribution pipelines as dictated by fads. Does anyone remember the Cabbage Patch Doll? Tickle Me Elmo? Pet Rock? Such products do not necessarily possess lasting value, so once the fads fade away, they are quickly forgotten. Thus they are first promoted, and then discarded.
The idea that the soft overcomes the hard is a recurring theme in Tao spirituality. The classical example of this is dripping water drilling through stone. Another example is one's tongue outlasting one's teeth. Given enough time, victory always belongs to the soft and the yielding.
At this level of understanding, we may wonder if there is something more. These observations are all well and good, but how can we apply them in a practical way? Are there teachings here that are more profound? If so, what might they be? Is it possible to illustrate them with a real-life story?
I discovered one such story while reading a Chinese book about human nature. The book isn't associated with any practice of spirituality - it is simply a discussion about the ways we interact in society. Nevertheless, the story fits chapter 36 like hand in glove. It's about a reporter named Michael:
The latest ratings came in, and they showed that Michael's newscast ranked first. Again Michael was the number one news anchor among all the TV journalists.
Along with his popularity, Michael had developed a star-size ego that constantly brought him into conflict with his boss, the news director.
When the company president's son graduated from college, the news director sent a team to cover the graduation ceremony. But when the news van returned with the story, Michael refused to report it.
"This is newsworthy? Since when?" Michael confronted the news director. "If we're going to cover this particular graduation, then why don't we, in all fairness, do the same for all the other colleges in this area?"
Michael made his point, and also threw in a number of unflattering remarks about the news director and the president. The company grapevine latched on to the latter and repeated them throughout the organization.
This was hardly the only time that Michael clashed with his boss. There were also times when the news director wanted to de-emphasize certain stories for political reasons, or to avoid offending sponsors. For such stories Michael might disregard instructions and spend a lot of time on them at the expense of other news, ad-libbing on live broadcast.
"People have a right to know," he would say.
"Fire him," the president told the news director. "As popular as he is, I can't permit his continuing insubordination."
"We can't do that. Have you seen the volume of his fan mail? If I fire him, there will be such an outcry, I'll probably have to turn in my resignation too."
The next day, Michael was called into the president's office. He thought he might get a reprimand over his recent remarks, but he wasn't worried. His ratings were at an all-time high, so he felt he could challenge the management and get away with it.
The president surprised him: "Michael, you know we've been talking about creating a new department for quite some time now. You're the best we have, so I think it only makes sense that you take charge of it."
Excitement overwhelmed Michael. The new department would develop news documentaries and, if all went well, even a news magazine show. He couldn't believe his ears.
His coworkers were also stunned by this development. One of them expressed grudging admiration for the president: "He didn't take Michael's crap personally. Rather than to retaliate, he's actually promoting Michael and giving him a shot at the dream job. That shows professionalism and class."
Michael's first assignment was to create a documentary feature about the economy of the Pacific Rim. The station sent him on a three-month investigative journey to gather information. Michael traveled in style on a generous expense account.
When Michael returned, he brought back boxes full of research material, detailed notes, photographs, and tape recordings. He was ready to make a difference and show everyone what he could do.
That's when he ran into his first snag. In order to put together his program, he needed to get stock footage from the news department. The news director - his old boss - was not exactly eager to help. He told Michael to follow company procedures and fill out the appropriate forms.
It became an exercise in frustration. The simplest request seemed to take forever, and many film clips could not be located, even the ones that Michael was quite certain existed. The few clips he did eventually receive were unusable. He suspected the news director of intentionally making things difficult, but he couldn't prove it.
Months passed, and Michael's feature was still far from completion. He began to draw criticism from the board of directors. Their questions became more and more pointed: "We've spent all this money, and what do we have to show for it?"
Finally, the president called Michael into his office again. "I know your heart's in the right place, Michael, but this just doesn't seem to be working out. The board has decided to dismantle your department. Perhaps you should go back to reporting."
"That's fine with me," Michael replied. "Anchoring the news is what I do best. You know I'm a proven performer at the desk and I would love to return to it."
"Maybe not right away," the president said. "The new anchor is doing quite well. The audience is giving us great ratings comparable to your previous performance. You'll have to go back to field reporting for the time being. When the opportunity comes up, talk to the news director and we'll see what he can do for you."
Michael had to quit. He knew the news director would never let him anchor again. And having been a department head, he found he couldn't bear the thought of going back to being a field reporter.
News of Michael's departure spread throughout the small world of newscasters. Because he left under the dark cloud of failure, he was not in a position to choose from many offers for his next job.
Some of the lessons from this story are immediately obvious. Pride goeth before the fall. Michael's ego got out of control, and eventually led to his downfall. He thought his popularity protected him, but he was wrong. He considered himself indispensible. He was wrong about that too.
We can also see the workings of Karma in this story. Michael initiated the cause of negativity with his arrogance, and it came back to haunt him. We can see this as a cautionary tale.
As valuable as these lessons are, they are not as interesting to me as the way this story meshes with Tao Te Ching. Every line of chapter 36 echoes Michael's predicament in some way.
Michael's ego was expanded because of his popularity. Subsequently, his inability to maximize the opportunity led to failure and a massive deflation of his ego. Thus it is literally true that in order to shrink something, one must expand it first.
Michael started out in an enviable position, full of potential and promise. The president strengthened that position by placing him in charge of his own department. Michael could not have guessed that this would lead to a severe weakening, so that he ended up at the level of a field reporter, substantially below that of the star anchor. The net effect was a big step back - Michael was weakened after being strengthened.
Michael could not be dismissed or demoted while he was at the height of his popularity. The president saw this and promoted him instead. In effect, he gave Michael more rope to see if Michael would hang himself. Events unfolded in an inexorable way, and ended with Michael's departure. From the president's perspective, he needed to promote Michael first, in order to discard him.
The president's approach was an example of the soft overcoming the hard. Faced with Michael's strong ego, he appeared to be yielding. He achieved his goal, even as he appeared to retreat from Michael's forceful overtures.
This is a different approach than what we may be used to in the West. It is deeply ingrained in the Western mindset to counter force with force, or fight fire with fire. Our problem-solving strategy is to meet barriers head on, and smash them. Confrontation is integrated into our mindset; the showdown at the OK Corral is part of our paradigm and mentality.
The Eastern approach does not seek to overcome obstacles by destroying them. The Tao perspective is that one can always find a way around an obstacle. For instance, when water encounters a rock, it does not seek to obliterate the rock. Instead, it flows to the left or to the right, over or under the rock without any extra effort. Confrontations and showdowns are simply unnecessary.
At this point in our discussion and based on Michael's example, it seems as if chapter 36 is all about how to plot against other people. The president achieved his goal at Michael's expense. Is Lao Tzu advocating that we use the same strategy in life?
The answer is no, because there is yet another deeper level of wisdom beyond this one. Ultimately, the Tao is about achieving harmony. It is also about the mindset of creativity that benefits all, and not adversarial competition. Life is not a zero-sum game; in order for me to win, no one else has to lose.
If this seems puzzling, take heart. We can find, embedded in the same lines of chapter 36, the key to unravel this puzzle. It is the true teaching of this chapter, and the final level of "subtle clarity." Its essence is simple: By reversing the first few lines, we can immediately see how Michael could turn his fate around.
Michael could expand his role and increase his capabilities, but only if he could shrink his ego first. In other words, if he wished to expand externally, he needed to start by focusing his attention internally. Thus, we see that one must first shrink, or concentrate inward, in order to expand outward.
Michael could also strengthen his own position, but first he needed to weaken his tendencies to be aggressive and confrontational. To be truly strong is to have the ability to overcome oneself. Thus, we see that one must first weaken, or reduce one's own negative impulses, before one can attain true strength.
In a similar way, Michael could be in a situation to have his work promoted and appreciated, but only by first discarding any thoughts of self-glorification. By placing himself last and attaining true humility, the merits of his work could shine forth and be recognized. Thus, in order to promote oneself, one must first discard, or abandon self-centered thinking.
In this, the deepest level of subtle clarity, the sage is like the fish that swims in the depths of the Tao. And just as the fish should never leave the water, the sage does not stray far from the Tao. Although the sage understands the shallow levels, he or she remains below. Just as the state should never display its weapons, the sage will never use his understanding against others.
A distinguishing feature of Tao Te Ching is that it packs layers upon layers of meaning into just a few words. We may not understand a passage at first, but if we continue to cultivate the Tao, at some point the light bulb will come on, and the teaching becomes not only comprehensible, but obvious.
Now we can see that Chapter 36 provides not only an example of Lao Tzu's cryptic prose, but also a compelling demonstration of his timeless appeal. Looking at the multiple layers of subtle clarity in this chapter, we begin to appreciate how the hidden wisdom of Tao Te Ching has cast a spell on every generation of students for over 2,500 years!