In Chapter 29 of the Tao te Ching, Lao-tze raises an issue that is central to Taoism but which a modern American might find difficult to understand. This issue is non-interference. Americans like to be in control. This is not just an American feature, but a feature of the modern world. People have become used to instant answers to their questions, and instant gratification that patience is completely elusive. If something seems wrong, the modern person fixes it immediately even if that means taking short cuts and making the situation worse. Lao-tze's philosophy of non-interference seems anathema to modern life. However, it is central to the Way, the Tao. The Taoist master "sees things as they are / without trying to control them," (Chapter 29). To this, the American might answer, "But what if things are bad? Don't we have a responsibility to fix them?" Lao-tze responds simply: "Do you want to improve the world? / I don't think it can be done." This statement seems on the surface like a pessimistic one; as the author seems to suggest that it is impossible to change anything so why bother trying? However, what Lao-tze really means is that "the world is sacred / It cannot be improved. / If you tamper with it, you'll ruin it," (Chapter 29).
To fully understand what Lao-tze is trying to say in Chapter 29 of the Tao te Ching, it is important to place the chapter in the broader context of the philosophy as a whole. Chapter 29 refers to the Taoist concept of non-interference, which is a state of being that is in accordance with the Tao or the Way. The Way is the way of balance and neutrality, which mirrors the essential nature of the universe as being "infinite" "unchanging" and "eternally present," (Chapter 25). The Tao or Way is a state of being, which is paradoxically a state of action. Lao-tze explains why a state of being and being nothingness can also be a state of action, in terms relaxing and letting go. "Open yourself to the Tao," Lao-tze advises. "Then trust your natural responses; / And everything will fall into place," (Chapter 23). When Lao-tze expands upon this concept in Chapter 29, he states that relaxing and letting go are the only ways of making the world a better place because by letting go and doing nothing, the world is in tune with itself.
For example, in the preceding chapter, Chapter 28, Lao-tze writes, "If you accept the world, / the Tao will be luminous inside you / and you will return to your primal self." The modern person might then ask, "What is the primal self, and how would I know what it looked like?" Herein lies one of the mysteries of the Tao that must be understood if the entire philosophy is to be grasped. The primal self is that which is original and untainted, because it was "formed from the void" as all creation (Chapter 28). There is no hard definition of the primal self, either, because "he who defines himself / can't really know who he really is," (Chapter 24). The primal self is beyond words or descriptions; it is a state of being. In a sense, Lao-tze's primal self is not a "self" at all, but simply a way of being that is self-less. The primal self cannot be revealed through typical mental cognition, but through emptying the mind. In fact, the primal self is the Tao. It is "ungraspable," which is why effort is meaningless (Chapter 21).
Lao-tze's concept of letting go, which he advises throughout the Tao de Ching, is linked with the concept of emptiness and nothingness. The American will have a difficult time accepting emptiness and nothingness as being real, or as being acceptable. It is hard for a modern person to accept a void, which is why individuals try to fill the natural void with things like drugs, alcohol, and shopping. Yet any pursuits that seek to fill the void are only avoiding the reality of the Tao. Nothingness is beauty, pure and untainted. "The Tao is dark and unfathomable. / How can it make her radiant? / Because she lets it," (Chapter 21).
The Master lets the darkness of the Void illuminate her own impulses so that doing Nothing is really doing Something special. Nothingness is pure potency and power, and all is perfect and sacred within the void of nothingness. Nothingness is at the center and origin of the universe. When the Master returns to the primal self by recognizing the essential emptiness at the heart of creation, he or she achieves a state of bliss and peace and that state enables the perfect unfolding of the Universe. From that state of bliss and peace comes the ability to maintain pure repose and calm. It is within the state of calmness and repose that the world can evolve as it should, without the unnecessary interference of the will.
The will can only "tamper" with the beauty of the creation (Chapter 29). As Lao-Tze said earlier, in Chapter 24, "If you want to accord with the Tao, / just do your job, then let go." The American finds it hard to let go, because the American has an aggressive attitude that frequently involves the use of force. It is almost impossible to imagine getting a job done or living one's life by letting go. In fact, the entire history of the United States has been built on the use of force to achieve what are considered to be great things. Yet Lao-tze would point out that the nation and its people are not completely healthy. They exert will and use force, to fill the void that is perceived of as uncomfortable. The philosopher calls the feeling of discomfort at perceiving the void "existential angst." Existential angst is the anxiety that comes from fearing the void. The Taoist Master welcomes and embraces the Void and thus becomes peaceful. When one welcomes the Void and becomes the Void via oneness with the Tao, then the whole world opens up. "If you want to be given everything," Lao-tze advises, "give everything up," (Chapter 22). Such advice is anathema to the American, who advises against giving anything up.
This is because the nation is not following the Way. Lao-tze would notice immediately, "He who has power over others / can't empower himself," (chapter 24). The white American has had power over the Native American and the African-American, and thus has not been able to spiritually empower himself. Similarly, the "Puritan work ethic" that has dominated American society is not in accordance with the Tao. "He who clings to his work / will create nothing that endures," (Chapter 24). Lao-tze expands on the concept of relaxing the will, and resisting use of force, in Chapter 29 of the Tao de Ching. In Chapter 30, Lao-tze refers specifically to the use of weapons as a means of imposing one's will on the universe. "Whoever relies on the Tao in governing men / doesn't try to force issues / or defeat enemies by force of arms," (Chapter 30).
The modern American might respond, "Our enemies hate us. If we do not use force, they will kill us, and what good is the Tao if we are dead?" Lao-tze responds immediately with the central Taoist concept of trusting the flow, which in some cases might involve the use of force. Thus, if the use of force is necessary, the Taoist master takes that responsibility very seriously. Weapons are used only with "the utmost restraint," (Chapter 30). A Taoist individual does not avoid battle if the universe delivered the battle to one's doorstep; but the Master does "enter a battle gravely, / with sorrow and with great compassion, / as if he were attending a funeral," (Chapter 30). This is because weapons beget death. The use of brute force is not always incongruous with the Tao, but it must flow from understanding the Way. There is a "time for being in danger," just as there is a "time for being safe," (Chapter 29).
Lao-tze also talks about the importance of flow and timing in Chapter 29, which is a central concept throughout the Tao de Ching. The Christian American might notice that their sacred text echoes the teachings of the Tao, because there is a passage in the Bible about there being a right time for everything. "There is a time for being ahead, / a time for being behind; / a time for being in motion, / a time for being at rest," (Chapter 29). Therefore, there will be a time when action and change are necessary, and that is the time for right action. Simply acting from brute force or will can ruin the balance of the universe. Staying still by residing "at the center of the circle," the Master is in tune with time. All events, whether they are perceived of as good or as…