The implements of the soldiering man are inauspicious;
such things are harmful,
therefore the person of Tao eschews their use.
The noble person values the left
The soldier values the right.
The tools of the soldier are ominous
and are not those of the noble person
who uses them only with reluctance.
Keeping his cool by rising above,
he succeeds without smugness,
whereas the person who is self-satisfied
is content to kill people,
and he who kills people
cannot win the land under Heaven.
On auspicious occasions, precedence is to the left, whereas on tragic occasions it is to the right. The general stands to the right and the lieutenant to the left, which is to say, just as in a funeral.
Where many are killed grief is appropriate.
The rites appropriate to victory are those of mourning.
“The implements of the soldiering man are inauspicious;” Weapons are often admired. For sure there is great craftsmanship in a samurai sword and young men may drool over guns and knives. They carry an aura of power that extends the strength of the person. Here, however, Lao Tzu says that they are tokens of ill omen, to be avoided whenever possible.
He then goes on to make reference to conventions in China concerning the right and the left. In English, we also talk about being somebody’s right hand man, and most people would carry their sword in their right hand.
Also, in politics we talk about the right as the side of discipline and conservatism and the left as the side of social welfare. In classical China there would be some equivalence to this distinction with Confucianism being on the right and Taoism on the left.
In this chapter it is clear that the person of Tao is not incapable of taking up arms, but rather that he does so with great reluctance and does not relish it. He rises above the situation so as to see the bigger picture. Sometimes armed intervention is unfortunately the best one can do. One might think of the intervention in Rwanda that halted the genocide. In the way of the Tao, however, to have to resort to such action is a misfortune. When one has gained the victory, one mourns those who died on both sides.
We can extend this principle also to lesser conflicts. The orinary attitude is to relish winning an argument, but the Chinese principle is to allow the defeated party to save face and have an honourable retreat so that the victory not sew seeds for yet more conflict and bitterness in the future.
People who delight in fighting and killing bring bad consequences upon themselves. Although they may prevail in the sort term, they often come to a bad end eventually. We see here how Taoism is about taking the longer view and also is concerned about all people, not just ‘our’ people. This is a matter of having a big heart and an all embracing mind. All lives are important, including those of enemies.
We can see from this that vengeance has no place in this scheme and punishment should not be employed unless it is clearly going to bring a better result in the future. In general, all of these principles point toward it being more important to secure a better future than to vindicate one's past. Too often human interactions are distorted by attachment to events that are already over and done, but such attachment only leads to repetition of misfortune.