The strategists have a saying,
I dare not play the host but play the guest,
I dare not advance an inch but retreat a foot instead.

During my short lifetime, I am a guest on this planet. I’m a guest of nature—the particular circumstances I happened to be born under, both genetically and environmentally. What control have I had, really? By playing the guest, I’m more tentative, as if fording a river in winter [see ch. 15]. The river of life is the host. Through this approach, I’m more sensitive and receptive to the world around me; I can follow the way with greater ease.

When I’m a guest, I feel less certain in the new host environment. I tend to pay greater attention, notice more, and seek to understand what’s going on.

I’m a guest of my biology. All the billions of cells of my body co-operate to make ‘me’ possible. ‘I’ am an emergent property of all these fundamentals, and so, like all emergent properties, am a guest of those fundamentals.

This is known as marching forward when there is no road,
Rolling up one’s sleeves when there is no arm,
Dragging one’s adversary by force when there is no adversary,
And taking up arms when there are no arms.

When I can focus on my work without regard to ideals or results, but just pay attention, feels like dragging one’s adversary by force when there is no adversary. This is doing my duty in the purest sense. I especially experience this during Yoga; my deepest practice is when I’m marching forward when there is no road. Roads lead to an end, a goal. To be here in the moment, alive, is roadless and goalless. The means is the end.

It is easy to pay attention to an enemy, a problem, or desire. These grab my attention and urge me to act. Marching forward when there is no road is like paying attention without clinging onto anything specific—like peripheral vision compared to focused vision. This is ‘seeing the forest when there are NO trees’.

Dragging one’s adversary by force when there is no adversary is paying the deepest attention to life without becoming attracted to any particular outcome. Isn’t this like caring deeply about nothing in particular, or holding on tightly to nothing?

There is no disaster greater than taking on an enemy too easily. So doing
nearly cost me my treasure. Thus of two sides raising arms against each other,
it is the one that is sorrow-stricken that wins.

Taking on an enemy corresponds to taking on problems. When I regard something as a problem I plunge in and struggle to resolve it. If I take on problems too easily, I spend my life in a constant struggle. After one problem is resolved, there awaits another in the wings, ready to grab my attention. The treasure I lose in this approach to life is contentment. I can imagine nothing worse than living out my days in constant dis-contentment.

When I’m reluctant to raise arms against a problem (“enemy”), I expect a less perfect solution, and so win satisfaction much more easily. I’m more receptive to compromise.

Life is a cornucopia of problems (“enemies”). When I’m looking for one, I’ll always find one. The irony in this is that I only take on a problem with the aim of resolving it. But, as there is an endless supply of problems, there is never any lasting resolution. I find the deepest sense of resolution in accepting the problematic nature of life. It is a matter of perspective. Once I realized that ‘problem’ and life were synonymous, it became much easier to let it (problems, enemies) be. Is this what is meant by transcendence?

When I deeply understand the enemy, I accept its reality. When I must react to this enemy, I do so with sorrow stricken resolve. Such battles can be unavoidable, even though there is no fault on either side, like civil war.

When I get self-righteous, I reject the enemies reality. I succumb to the illusion that I ‘should’ prevail if the universe is to be set right again; I set forth with great enthusiasm to win.

I take on an enemy too easily from impulse. I get swayed by a blind faith that I’ll win and life will be happy ever after. It is like the gambler that lays down money upon money, only to always lose in the end. And yet, the illusion of winning keeps him coming back for more.

The inclination to take on an enemy too easily must have a sound survival basis in nature. And, if I lived in a forest as a hunter gatherer, this would not cause me as much grief. In my complex abstract civilized world, however, this instinct is very stressful and counter productive.

<< Back to D.C. Lau’s Translation

<< Back to The Tao Te Ching