Govern a big country as if boiling a small fish.
So that the way is present for all under heaven,
Its spirit is not magical.
Not only that its spirit is not magical,
Its magic does not hinder the people.
Not only that its magic does not hinder the people,
The wise person does not hinder the people.
Neither assists in hindering,
Therefore, each ascribes virtue to the other.
1) rule (govern; order; peace; > government; cure; control) big (great; fully) country like (as if, seem) boil small fresh (bright; delicious; aquatic foods). 治大国若烹小鲜。(zhì dà guó ruò pēng xiăo xiān.)
2) use (<v> take <p> according to; because of <adj> so as to <conj> and) road (way, principle; speak; think) arrive (be present) land under heaven, 以道莅天下，(yĭ dào lì tiān xià,)
3) his (its; their; they; that) ghost (spirit; dirty trick; terrible> clever; smart) no (not) god (supernatural; magical; smart). 其鬼不神。(qí guĭ bù shén.)
4) wrong (not conform to <infrml> must) his (its; their; they; that) ghost (spirit; dirty trick; terrible> clever; smart) no (not) god (supernatural; magical; smart), 非其鬼不神，(fēi qí guĭ bù shén,)
5) his (its; their; they; that) god (supernatural; magical; smart) no (not) wound (develop an aversion to sth.; distress; hinder) human (man; people). 其神不伤人。(qí shén bù shāng rén.)
6) wrong (not conform to <infrml> must) his (its; their; they; that) god (spirit; mind; smart) no (not) wound (develop an aversion to sth.; distress; hinder) human (man; people), 非其神不伤人，(fēi qí shén bù shāng rén,)
7) sage (holy; sacred) human (man; people) also (too) no (not) wound (develop an aversion to sth.; distress; hinder) human (man; people). 圣人亦不伤人。(shèng rén yì bù shāng rén.)
8) husband (man) two (both; either) no (not) appearance (<frml> assist_mutually) wound (develop an aversion to sth.; distress; hinder), 夫两不相伤，(fū liăng bù xiāng shāng,)
9) reason (cause; on purpose; hence) virtue (moral character; heart) hand over (give up; meet; join) go back to (return; give back to; come together) here (herein; (usu. negative questioning) how; why). 故德交归焉。(gù dé jiāo guī yān.)
Chapter of the Month
The first two lines are straightforward enough. The problems with boiling small fish come with not giving the task enough care, so it disintegrates. We seem instinctively to ‘budget’ our care and attention to focus on big important issues and ignore the mundane ‘small fish’ of life. The misstep here is simply not realizing that those big issues we care so much about have their foundation in the small. Feeling the way is present for all under heaven, is the result of caring for the mundane. This is life built on an all under heaven foundation of the mundane. This echoes chapter one’s the constant: The way possible to think, runs counter to the constant way. The constant is the character, cháng (常): ordinary; common; normal; constant; invariable; frequently; often; usually… what could be more mundane? Also, something Jesus said parallels this, “for he that is least among you all, the same shall be great”.
I know lines 3 to 6 read a little strange. Reading it over a few times helps; you really need to use the comma at the end of line 4 to feel how the case builds. The word magical also helps confuse. However, this is better than the likely misunderstanding that can result from rewording. It will help to consider the various meaning of the character here, and its use as either a noun or an adjective.
shén (神) Noun: god; deity; spirit; mind; expression; Adjective: clever; supernatural; magical; miraculous
The last lines of this chapter put me in mind of other chapters (excerpts below) that speak to the knack of stopping in time, which is the key to moderation. Of course, knowing where the balance point of moderation involves the same careful moment-to-moment that boiling a small fish requires.
Work in Progress
There was a suggestion to change line #4 to read, Not only is its spirit not magical, Its magic does not hinder the people. This flows off the tongue better, and uses one less word to boot! It is a win win. Punctuation switch also seems in order: Govern a big country as if boiling a small fish,
So that the way is present for all under heaven.
This presents an odd picture; how many who govern countries also boil small fish? Perhaps if they did, and appreciated the parallel they would serve better… but that is just silly fantasy speaking.
One needs to take great care when boiling a small fish otherwise it easily dis-integrates. The promise of the way is a feeling of integration with the whole (self, family, nation, world, universe, eternity…). This is how even the greatest control never cuts or as Lau puts it, Therefore the greatest cutting does not sever. Govern as if boiling a small fish means action that maintains (or at least is coming from one’s sense of) integration (even though, in another persons eyes that may look and feel like dis-integration).
The difference in whether governance is integrating or dis-integrating is extremely subtle and so the idea of magic suits. That said, magic also conveys something much deeper than what we interpret as magic generally (tricks, magicians, Houdini). Consider the range of meanings for the character 神 (shén): god; divinity; supernatural; magical; spirit; mind; expression; look; clever.
When I reconsider this, I’m tempted to change magic to clever, although that is so far down the meaning ladder from the usual usage… or maybe not. It also means God, but what does God mean?
Everyone argues about that, which means God’s meaning is in the eye of the beholder and nowhere else. Of course, true believers will see it otherwise… meaning absolute and external to their point of view. The same applies to true non-believers of course. Oh my, the odd tricks our minds play on us.
Well, I’ve done enough damage for one day. The last point I’ll make: Try rereading chapter 60 replacing the word magic for the other meanings of 神 God; divinity; supernatural; magical; spirit; mind; expression; look; clever. Which word do you vote for?
Chapter of the Week
This chapter reminds me of how easy it is to go to extremes. Balance is so hard to maintain, and perfect balance is impossible to realize(1). Fortunately I eventually came to realize this is natural, i.e., balance is balanced by imbalance. Ah yes, straightforward words seem paradoxical. For me, life is a process of getting closer and closer to the happy medium between too much, and too little. In other words, circumstances bring me to maturity. Cooking an egg, like boiling a small fish, takes less action (heat) than beginners imagine, and so the inexperienced overcook it. Likewise, in life we tend to over do, over protect, over plan, over think, over desire… . In the natural wild, heaven and earth’s ruthless edge would push back on us, slow us down, resulting in a happy medium of sorts. Freeing ourselves from nature’s restraints, as we have, makes maintaining reasonable balance all the more challenging. Ironically, the more we are able to satiate our every desire, the less we are able to know contentment.
Boiling a small fish reminds me of the saying, “too little, too late”. If we were not so preoccupied with doing what requires less doing, we would be aware of what truly needs “more, sooner”. Eagerly jumping into actions is symptomatic of deep seated personal fears and needs, projected outward in those action. When life is action-packed-full there is no space to see. Hold firmly to stillness to watch our needs and fears, rather than jumping in, gives us space to see when action would be most timely (2). Ironically, such delayed gratification results in constant ‘gratification’. (i.e., short term pain; long term pleasure).
As I see it, words such as spirits and God symbolize for us what exists beyond what we think we know. We are much better at defining existence than the ancients were. Having less factual knowledge at their disposal, they relied on ‘fuzzier’ rationales to support their myths. For example, someone getting sick might be seen as the body being hindered by bad spirits. Now, we get out the microscope and see E. Coli by the millions… Ah ha! But really, isn’t this simply an undated version of the “what we think we know”.
The crux of the matter is not that different. The ancients thought they knew; we think we know; future generations (10,000 year from now perhaps) will look back on our quaint understanding at their future time when they think they truly know. Nothing will have changed. Only when we face the void, will we be truly be capable of not knowing anything. The older a person gets, the more that becomes possible, i.e., death is moving closer. Still, I wouldn’t hold my breath!
So, why do we need to think we know? I’d say fear drives us to see the indistinct and shadowy… distinctly! Names and words help us nail that mystery upon mystery down. This utility of names and words makes language inevitable… and natural I might add. Nevertheless these deceive us. Still, when conditions are fairly balance, neither assists in hindering, therefore, each ascribes virtue to the other.
(1) Perfect balance is impossible to realize only in the sense that impossible expectations are impossible to realize. I see nature as being in a dynamic state of perfect balance. My desire to hold onto any moment creates an impossible expectation. I am my own worst enemy.
(2) Watching our needs and fears, rather than jumping in may be a good example of chapter 70’s My words are very easy to understand and very easy to put into practice, yet no one in the world can understand them or put them into practice, especially the “put them into practice” part! Still, it helps to know the way.