Give and Take
Tao Te Ching 5
Heaven and Earth are impartial;
They see the ten thousand things as straw dogs.
The wise are impartial;
They see the people as straw dogs.
The space between heaven and Earth is like a bellows.
The shape changes but not the form;
The more it moves, the more it yields.
More words count less.
Hold fast to the center.
To understand this passage of the Tao Te Ching, one must first know what a ‘straw dog’ is. A ‘straw dog’ is a valueless object used in ceremonies in ancient China. It was made solely for a ceremony and then discarded afterward, yet it was an imperative part of the ceremony. It held value only for the ceremony and was then later tossed into the street as worthless.
Heaven and Earth, representing the spiritual world and the physical world respectively, are said to see ‘the ten thousand things’ as straw dogs, thus suggesting that life sees every little component of being as being neither loved nor hated but simply existing. Every one of ‘the ten thousand things’ comes and goes, existing for a time to fulfill a purpose in a grander scheme before fading into oblivion. In this, wise people see other people – and themselves as well – as being nothing more than people, existing for a time and eventually fading into oblivion as well. In Taoist principle, no person or thing is worthy of our love or hate by virtue of his, her, or its existence alone.
This verse also presents the value of “give and take” as an essential element in the scheme of reality by comparing it to a bellows. It moves in opposition and complement to itself and the forces around it, acknowledging that every action results in both assertion and assent. The balance of life recognizes that for one thing to move forward, another must move backward; and still other things must move aside. In doing this, all things are affected by the movement of one thing, and that one thing will eventually be affected by the movements of other things that it created in moving itself.
The principle being addressed in this verse is summarized in the closing two lines: “More words count less. Hold fast to the center.” To identify and address every small thing is to miss the greater relationship that all the small things have. By remaining neutral and impartial, thus at the center of all things, we are able to see everything equally as straw dogs. Everything has its own value, but that value is fleeting and temporary, as are all things between heaven and earth.