Taoist Philosophy - Chapter 109

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To Lead The World Toward Brigandage


When uncarved wood is cut up,
It’s turned into vessels.
In the hands of the Sage,
Worthy men become the officials and magistrates.
Truly, great carving is done without splitting up.
Therefore the great ruler does not cut up.

(In the interesting essay entitled “Horses’ Hoofs”, the idea of preserving man’s original nature by comparing the harm done to that nature by the learned ones and the harm done to a horse by a famous horse trainer is discussed. The imagery of preserving the “natural integrity” of the “uncarved wood” and not “cutting it up” is given in identical phraseology and is more forcefully developed.)

The Horse Trainer Po Lo

Horses have hoofs to carry them over frost and snow, and hair to protect them from wind and cold. They feed on grass and drink water, and fling up their tails and gallop. Such is the real nature of horses. They have no use for ceremonial halls and big dwellings.

One day the famous horse-trainer Po Lo appeared, saying, “I am good at managing horses.” So he burned their hair and clipped them, and pared their hoofs and branded them. He put halters around their necks and shackles around their legs and numbered them according to their stables. The result was that two or three in every ten died. Then he kept them hungry and thirsty, trotting them and galloping them, and taught them to run in formation, with the misery of the tasseled bridle in front and the fear of the knotted whip behind, until more than half of them died.

On Managing Nature

The potter says, “I am good at managing clay. If I want it round, I use compasses; if rectangular, a square.” The carpenter says, “I am good at managing wood. If I want it curved, I use an arc; if straight, a line.”

But on what grounds can we think that the nature of clay and wood desires this application of compass and square, and arc and line? Nevertheless, every age extols the horse trainer for his skill in training horses, and potters and carpenters for their skill with clay and wood. Those who manage the affairs of the empire make the same mistake.

I think one who knows how to govern the empire should not do so. For the people have certain natural instincts; to weave and clothe themselves, to till the fields and feed themselves. This is their common Character, in which all share. Such instincts may be called “Heaven-born”.

So in the days of perfect Nature, men were quiet in their movements and serene in their looks. At that time, there were no paths over mountains, no boats or bridges over waters. All things were produced, each in its natural district. Birds and beasts multiplied; trees and shrubs thrived. Thus it was that birds and beasts could be led by the hand, and one could climb up and peep into the magpie’s nest. For in the days of perfect Nature, man lived together with birds and beasts, and there was no distinction of kind. Who could know of the distinctions between gentlemen and common people? Being all equally without knowledge, their Character could not go astray. Being all equally without desires, they were in a state of natural integrity. In this state of natural integrity, the people did not lose their original nature.

And then when the learned ones appeared, straining for humanity and limping with justice, doubt and confusion entered men’s minds. They said they must make merry by means of music and enforce distinctions by means of ceremony, and the empire became divided against itself. Were the uncarved wood not cut up, who could make sacrificial vessels? Were Tao and Te not destroyed, what use would there be for humanity and justice? Were man’s natural instincts not lost, what need would there be for music and ceremonies? Were the five notes not confused, who would adopt the six pitch pipes? Destruction of the natural integrity of things for the production of articles of various kinds; this is the fault of the artisan. Destruction of Tao and Te in order to strive for humanity and justice; this is the fault of the learned ones.

To Know It Is To Cut It Up

When horses lived free on the prairies, they ate grass and drank water. When they were pleased, they rubbed their necks together; when they were angry, they turned back to back and kicked up their heels at each other. This was all they knew. But once they were bridled and bitted and harnessed, they learned how to be vicious, how to get their head and bolt, trying to get rid of the bit and the bridle.

On Returning To Nature

“What do you mean by the nature of the natural? And what do you mean by man, or the artificial?” asked the River Spirit.

And the Spirit of the North Sea replied, “When a cow or a horse walks about with its four legs in freedom, we call it natural. To put a halter around the horse’s head and put a ring through the cow’s nose, that we call the artificial. Therefore it is said, do not let the artificial submerge the natural. Do not, for material purposes, destroy your life. Do not sacrifice your Character for fame. Guard carefully your nature and do not let it go astray. This is called returning to one’s nature.”

Edited by Marblehead
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My Mayan teacher's grandfather taught in a similar manner. When my teacher was a boy in Cuba his friend owned a caged bird. Its song was beautiful and my teacher wanted a caged bird for himself. His grandfather chided him sternly and instructed him thusly, "If you want to hear a bird sing simply give him food and watch him play in the branches. His freedom will make his song sweeter than if he were confined."


Thank you for the excellent post.

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Great share, Marblehead!


Lots of insight into being a manager, in that post. Do I turn employees into components of my process, whose opinions I will brush aside when they don't match with what I want to hear?


Or do I ask the whole person to come in and share their genius, by acknowledging and accepting the reality of a full mind and heart with insights that I do not have?

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Or do I ask the whole person to come in and share their genius, by acknowledging and accepting the reality of a full mind and heart with insights that I do not have?



Nice application, Otis.


In the hands of the Sage, he looks for the uncarved wood in others. He looks for the most natural of men to lead the country. Men who are embellished with pomposity or arrogance are not the right ones to lead.

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