The master of Tao does not know he has it.
Next to him is the person who relates to it and praises it.
The next best fears it,
then come those who ridicule it.
If there is insufficient faith, what can one do?
If there is no faith, what can be done?
Oh, so distant, its precious words!
When everything succeeds and works out well,
ordinary people say “It came to me naturally”.
太上 Tai Shang is a title of respect in Taoism, implying great antiquity. In Taoism, the distant past is the time when things were more natural and so it is the voice from the distant past that the sage pays attention to. So here we are talking about the masters of Taoism. The true master is so in tune with the Tao that he does not even know that he is. Such a person is natural and spontaneous. Living a life that is naturally illuminated, he or she just behaves in keeping with nature and circumstance. Such people are rare, so the next best is the one who consciously relates to the Tao in a positive way, praising and honouring it.
Thus, if one follows a spiritual path, one may have a practice and one may carry out that ritual assiduously and religiously and it may bring about important change and growth in one’s life. The person of highest attainment, however, may well have no particular practice, but is happy to engage is whatever suits the community or fosters good relations, without being wedded to a particular routine or form. His form is provided by the elements.
Beside such serious practitioners, there are those who fear and those who ridicule. Those who fear are those who are oppressed by feelings of guilt or shame, who live repressed lives and who have not discovered the joy in the practice. Those who ridicule, on the other hand, live shamelessly and have no respect for proper values or forms at all. They think that spirituality is nonsense and consider themselves above it.
However, there is a second way of reading the middle lines. Classical Chinese is very terse so that it is sometimes impossible to be quite sure which interpretation is intended. Fearing it and ridiculing it can also be ways of practising. Taoists are not conventional. Elsewhere it says that the adept is cautious as if crossing thin ice. A certain kind of fearfulness can make one into an excellent practitioner. Again, there is a way of practising that always sees the lighter or brighter side of things, who laughs at death and so shrugs off tragedy. So it is possible to see the first four lines as a typology of different styles of practice - the completely natural, the reverential, the cautiously careful, and the light-heartedly irrepressible. One should not think that great spirits are all alike.
All these four are ways of manifesting faith in the Tao. When faith is deficient, one cannot follow. The Chinese 信不足焉，有不信焉 literally says, “Faith not enough, how? Having no faith, how?” Whatever one does requires some kind of faith. To stand at a bus stop, one has to have faith that one will arrive eventually. To boil an egg one has to have faith that the water will boil and the egg will harden. Our ordinary life is shot through with faith at every turn and this faith comes mostly from our experience. As we saw in the previous chapter, the person who has no personal investment sees most clearly and so gains knowledge and faith based upon it. All learning involves building up a stock of faith, sometimes about small details, sometimes about the greater scheme of things. Here, we are talking especially about faith in the ultimate working of the Tao in all the ordinary things that unfold.
The person of Tao, therefore, is like somebody listening to a distant, still small voice that nobody else is aware of. Acting in accord with it, they do not set up resistance, do not make waves. The person who is most in tune with it acts in such a way that when everything has been achieved, people all think that it happened naturally.