Monday, September 14, 2009

Verse 60: Frying a Small Fish

Verse Sixty
Governing a large country
is like frying small fish.
Too much poking spoils the meat.

When the Tao is used to govern the world
then evil will lose its power to harm the people.
Not that evil will no longer exist,
but only because it has lost its power.
Just as evil can lose its ability to harm,
the Master shuns the use of violence.

If you give evil nothing to oppose,
then virtue will return by itself.

~ John McDonald translation ~
To be quite candid, I didn't understand the first stanza of this verse the first one hundred times I read it. As a vegetarian, I neither cook nor eat fish and so the metaphor was completely lost on me. I kept trying to ascertain what the difference was between cooking a large fish and a small fish!!

Later, after reading several commentaries, I realized that the SIZE of the fish wasn't the operative element at all. The metaphor probably would work as intended if Lao Tzu had referred to a large fish, a pig or a cow. ; )

So, what does this famous phrase mean? As Nina Correa explains,
If the natural progression of Dao is accepted throughout the world, the rulers can patiently allow things to take their natural course. When cooking a tender piece of fish or meat, one has to wait patiently for the flesh to congeal before trying to turn it with a fork. If one is too impatient and tries to move the tender piece of flesh too soon, it will just fall apart.
Carl Abbott of Center Tao views the first stanza from a more personal perspective.
The state that I’m most responsible for is myself. This directly effects how I govern my external responsibilities. As I mature and become more gentle and patient with myself I likewise do so in my interactions with the world.

It is easy to fall into rushing. The desire to get things done pushes me to ‘turn up the heat’ and force the issue. I focus on the ‘end’ and go too fast to notice the Way (the means to the end). I trade off the Joy of doing for the promised joy of a fleeting success. I rush to get the fish cooked when I forget what I really want out of my life.
In other words, whether speaking of a great nation or simply ourselves as individuals, the thrust of the first part of this verse highlights a recurrent theme -- don't force things; learn patience! Force generates unneeded tension and, once the tension is released, it's almost always difficult to control and may flow off in several directions which will result in unintended consequences.

The second portion of this verse deals with the concept of evil. It should be noted that Taoists do not view evil in the same way that those of the Abrahamic religions do. From the viewpoint of John Lash,
The Tai Chi person approaches life with Oneness and harmony, rejecting nothing and no one. He realises that there is no such thing as good and evil. There are only harmonious and disharmonious relationships.

For example, a piece of lead in the form of a bullet entering a human body does not mean that pieces of lead are evil. It simply means that this is not a harmonious relationship between lead and the human body.

When we approach the universe with Oneness, a harmonious relationship is established between ourselves and all that exists. Hence the "evil" power of all things (that is, disharmonious relationships) will no longer be used to harm others.
For me, this is a powerful message. If we view all of creation as interconnected or as a manifestation of one universal whole, it would revolutionize social relations. Very few people would be interested in war because it would be like shooting and killing yourself. Robbery and theft would be tantamount to stealing from yourself. Rape and incest would be the same as victimizing yourself. And environmental degradation would be like emasculating yourself.

All of these disharmonious actions are dependent on each of us seeing ourselves as isolated and independent actors. When we look out into the world and all we see is separation, it becomes much easier to lash out at others. If, on the other hand, we looked out into the world and we saw ourselves in every life form, we would want to nurture, support and embrace all things.

This post is part of a series. For an introduction, go here.


  1. Ah, now here is a revelation!

    "When we look out into the world and all we see is separation, it becomes much easier to lash out at others. If, on the other hand, we looked out into the world and we saw ourselves in every life form, we would want to nurture, support and embrace all things."

    And I would add, if we saw ourselves in every life form, there would be no reason to be afraid...of anything or anyone or of any situation.

  2. Cym,
    That's a most excellent point!!

  3. Perhaps your juxtaposition with the 'Abrahamic' view is correct; but I completely agree with your perspective here. I think maybe the uniqueness and the connectedness of each person and thing is just one of those beautiful paradoxes that we should embrace! :)

  4. I'm also a vegetarian and was so confused! Thank you!

  5. Great article. I read this article properly. This is one of the best posts. Thanks sharing this article
    Teefury , Redbubble uk , Spreadshirt us , tshirthell coupon , threadless coupon , Teespring us , Teepublic coupon code , 80stees coupon

  6. Too much poking and you burn up all the juices, which come out with each poke. Thus it becomes dry and brittle, this is when it falls apart.


Comments are unmoderated, so you can write whatever you want.