At his death he is hard and stiff.
Green plants are tender and filled with sap.
At their death they are withered and dry.
Therefore the stiff and unbending is the disciple of death.
The gentle and yielding is the disciple of life.
Thus an army without flexibility never wins a battle.
A tree that is unbending is easily broken.
The hard and strong will fall.
The soft and weak will overcome.
– Gia-fu Feng and Jane English
we are tender and weak
When life ends
we are stiff and rigid
All things, including the grass and trees,
are soft and pliable in life
dry and brittle in death
So the soft and supple
are the companions of life
While the stiff and unyielding
are the companions of death
An army that cannot yield
will be defeated
A tree that cannot bend
will crack in the wind
Thus by Nature’s own decree
the hard and strong are defeated
while the soft and gentle are triumphant
– Jonathan Star
Talk about ancient wisdom… the great Laozi knew, over twenty-six hundred years ago, the strength in vulnerability. Do we?
While Taoism is about balancing the complementary forces of Yin and Yang, Yin is ultimately the prized quality. Yin overcomes Yang. The Tao receives itself.
I absolutely love how the Taoist works are all filled with analogies to nature: the flora, fauna, and all of the elements. Gia-fu Feng and Jane English’s translation to include “sap” is a particularly beautiful image; I liken it, in part, to the body being well-lubricated with synovial fluid after articulating every joint through its full range of motion in a good mobility sequence.
Breath, as well as water, are the biggest companions of life. Both are so perfectly representative of soft and weak, I can’t imagine an example that would closer reach the Plato Forms for those qualities. Without the breath, we are dead. But even with the breath, most of us accompany death. Death of aliveness of being, not necessarily death in the sense of life preservation. We become life’s disciple through becoming breath’s disciple; I can dedicate my entire life to the breath and still find myself as its student at that last moment, when breath becomes air.
It may seem obvious when we hold onto something – be it stubbornness of an idea, resentment of another’s actions, selfishness of our possessions, anger towards perceived wrongdoings, etc. – but why can’t we let it go? Outside of our character, it’s even more apparent in our bodies – stiffness, tension, immobility, pain, etc. – yet why do most people stay glued to the TV? Ever prescient, Laozi continues two poems later:
Everyone knows that the soft overcomes the hard
and yielding triumphs over the rigid
Why then so little faith?
Why can no one practice it?Daodejing, Poem Seventy-Eight (trans. Jonathan Star)
It is breathing, in part, which dissolves tension and rigidity in the body, as well as incinerates any unwieldy thoughts and emotions of the monkey mind. What a homie!
Soft and weak also imply a non-doing; they embody Wu Wei which is so highly esteemed in Taoism. Li Hsi-Chai’s quote in the commentary of the Red Pine translation stands out to me among the rest:
Although the soft and weak aren’t the same as the Tao, they approach its absence of effort. Hence they aren’t far from the Tao. Although the hard and strong aren’t outside the Tao, they involve effort. Hence they lead people away from it.
Funny enough, it probably takes more effort to become soft and weak in the modern day than it ever has before. Developing a protective coat of armor, both in the ego and body, is a seemingly guaranteed adaptation to growing up in the movement-sick society of today.
Taoist philosophy is a constant reminder to respect and love the ‘unappreciated side’ of duality (e.g. we need ugliness for there to be beauty, death for there to be life) and to step back and see how there is Yin in Yang, and Yang in Yin (e.g. there is strength in weakness, beauty in ugliness).
Ah, such a beautiful and empowering poem. The soft and weak will overcome!