The Rule of the Sages: They Pick This Over That

“The five colors make our eyes blind
the five tones make our ears deaf
the five flavors make our mouths numb
riding and hunting make our minds wild
hard-to-get goods make us commit crimes
thus the rule of the sages
favors the stomach over the eyes
thus they pick this over that”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 12, translation by Red Pine)

RED PINE begins by explaining, “The early Chinese liked to divide everything into five basic states of existence. They distinguished things as made up of varying amounts of water, fire, wood, metal, and earth. And each of these came with its corresponding color: blue, red, black, white, and yellow; its corresponding flavor: salty, bitter, sour, pungent, and sweet; and its corresponding tone: la, sol, mi, re, and do.”

YEN TSUN says, “Color is like an awl in the eye. Sound is like a stick in the ear. Flavor is like an ax through the tongue.”

TE-CH’ING says, “When the eyes are given free rein in the realm of form, they no longer see what is real. When the ears are given free rein in the realm of sound, they no longer hear what is real. When the tongue is given free rein in the realm of flavor, it no longer tastes what is real. When the mind is given free rein in the realm of thought, it no longer knows what is real. When our actions are given free rein in the realm of possession and profit, we no longer do what is right. Like Chuang-tzu’s tapir [Chuangtzu: 1.4], sages drink from the river, but only enough to fill their stomachs.”

WU CH’ENG says, “Desiring external things harms our bodies. Sages nourish their breath by filling their stomach, not by chasing material objects to please their eyes. Hence, they choose internal reality over external illusion. But the eyes can’t help seeing, and the ears can’t help hearing, and the mouth can’t help tasting, and the mind can’t help thinking, and the body can’t help acting. They can’t stay still. But if we let them move without leaving stillness behind, nothing can harm us. Those who are buried by the dust of the senses or who crave sensory stimulation lose their way. And the main villain in this is the eyes. Thus, the first of Confucius’ four warnings concerned vision [Lunyu: 12.1: not to look except with propriety], and the first of the Buddha’s six sources of delusion was also the eyes.”

LI YUEH says, “The eyes are never satisfied. The stomach knows when it is full.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “The main purpose of cultivation is to oppose the world of the senses. What the world loves, the Taoist hates. What the world wants, the Taoist rejects. Even though color, sound, material goods, wealth, and beauty might benefit a person’s body, in the end they harm a person’s mind. And once the mind wants, the body suffers. If we can ignore external temptations and be satisfied with the way we are, if we can cultivate our mind and not chase material things, this is the way of long life. All the treasures of the world are no match for this.”

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “‘Hard-to-get goods’ refer to things that we don’t possess by nature but that requires effort to obtain. When we are not content with our lot and allow ourselves to be ruled by conceit, we turn our backs on Heaven and lose the Way.”

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “‘That’ refers to the blindness and delusion of the eyes. ‘This’ refers to the fullness and wisdom of the stomach.”

And RED PINE adds, “‘This’ also refers to what is within easy reach, while ‘that’ refers to what can be obtained only with effort…. Until as late as the early twentieth century, vast tracts of land in northern China were set aside for the exclusive use of the nobility and the military for conducting group hunts to practice their riding and archery.”

I don’t think I can over-stress the importance of today’s verse in explaining how sages practice the Way. Instead of me going back over each of the sages’ commentaries, I would simply recommend that you go back and reread through them, again and again, until you get what they are saying.

I am not just living my life casually. I am serious about wanting to cultivate my mind and body, and deliberate in my practice of Taoism. I hope my readers will be serious and deliberate with this practice, too.

I do want to add the importance of self-regulation here. It is easy for those who want to control others to try to regulate others by imposing certain rules on how others may choose to live their own lives. History is replete with examples of these attempts at outward control.

But that, of course, is the antithesis of what Lao-tzu is teaching. I think that is one of the reasons Lao-tzu writes so much about the art of governing; and, it always boils down to “Don’t try to control, let others be.”

However, Lao-tzu also explains that when we don’t control ourselves internally, we invite external control from others.

Still, it isn’t just avoidance of external control which should be our motive. As Te-ching says, when we give our senses free rein, when we give our mind free rein, when our actions have free rein, we aren’t dwelling in reality, and suffer from delusions. How do sages overcome delusions and dwell in reality? By understanding, as Li Yueh points out, ‘The eyes are never satisfied. The stomach knows when it is full.” My mother always warned me, “Your eyes are bigger than your stomach.” She was always telling me, “Don’t put too much food on your plate.”

My mother also insisted I eat everything I put on my plate, for there were starving people all over the world (she was particularly fixated on starving people in China for some reason); and somehow, by not leaving food on my plate which would invariably end up being trashed, I could somehow help them? Yeah, I never understood that one. But, the adage that my stomach could be trusted to know when to stop, if only I would let it, stuck with me. That, I am certain is Lao-tzu’s point, here. Don’t let your eyes mislead you.

Yet, as Wu Ch’eng tells us, our eyes can’t avoid seeing, nor our ears hearing, nor our mouth tasting, nor our mind thinking, nor our body acting. Sages understand this. But while we can’t stay still, we can move in such a way we never leave stillness behind. This requires practice to master. So, don’t beat yourself up because you aren’t perfect at it.

Just remember, in choosing “this” over “that” we are choosing what is best, what is real. That is what leads to true contentment. And, that is the whole point of the practice of the Way.

The Emptiness Which Makes It Work

“Thirty spokes converge on a hub
but it’s the emptiness
that makes a wheel work
pots are fashioned from clay
but it’s the hollow
that makes a pot work
windows and doors are carved for a house
but it’s the spaces
that make a house work
existence makes a thing useful
but nonexistence makes it work”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 11, translation by Red Pine)

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “Thirty spokes converging on a hub demonstrates that less is the ancestor of more.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Ancient carts had thirty spokes in imitation of the lunar number.”

LI JUNG says, “It’s because the hub is empty that spokes converge on it. Likewise, it’s because the minds of sages are empty that the people turn to them for help.”

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “A cart, a pot, and a house can hold things because they are empty. How much more those who empty their mind.”

WU CH’ENG says, “All of these things are useful. But without an empty place for an axle, a cart can’t move. Without a hollow place in the middle, a pot can’t hold things. Without spaces for doors and windows, a room can’t admit people or light. But these three examples are only metaphors. What keeps our body alive is the existence of breath within us. And it is our empty, nonexistent mind that produces breath.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “In this verse the great Sage teaches us to understand the source by using what we find at hand. Doors refer to a person’s mouth and nose. Windows refer to their ears and eyes.”

CHANG TAO-LING says, “When ordinary people see these things, they only think about how they might employ them for their own advantage. When sages see them, they see in them the Tao and are careful in their use.”

TE-CH’ING says, “Heaven and Earth have form, and everyone knows that Heaven and Earth are useful. But they don’t know that their usefulness depends on the emptiness of the great Way. Likewise, we all have form and think ourselves useful but remain unaware that our usefulness depends on our empty, shapeless mind. Thus, existence may have its uses, but real usefulness depends on nonexistence. Nonexistence, though, doesn’t work by itself. It needs the help of existence.”

And, RED PINE adds, “Lao-tzu’s ‘existence’ and ‘nonexistence’ are tantamount to yang and yin…Until recently, the people who lived in the middle reaches of the Yellow River watershed, where the Taoteching was composed, carved their houses out of the loess hillsides. As long as the ceilings of the rooms were carved in an arch, the compactness of the soil made support beams unnecessary. Thus, the only building materials needed were for doors and windows.”

Existence makes a thing useful, but nonexistence makes it work. Yang makes a thing useful, but yin makes it work. This verse is about the emptiness inside. The emptiness of the hub; the emptiness of the pot; the emptiness, the space for windows and doors, in your house; the emptiness inside your mind. No, not your brain. Don’t equate your brain with the mind, here. The mind, here, is the nonexistent part inside of each one of us.

The nonexistent mind. Empty, it produces the breath we need to live. I like what Sung Ch’ang-hsing says, here: “Doors refer to a person’s mouth and nose. Windows refer to their ears and eyes.” Be careful what you allow in and out of your doors, what you allow your eyes to see and your ears to hear.

In a later verse (verse 47), Lao-tzu will tell us we don’t have to go out our doors or look out our windows to know the whole world and the Way of Heaven. It is all within us, that emptiness inside, the nonexistent mind. Thus, sages know without traveling, name without seeing, and succeed without traveling.

Ordinary people, as Chang Tao-ling says, see these things, and only think about how they might employ them for their own advantage. Sages see them, and see in them the Tao, being careful in their use.

Yes, what exists is important. Of course it is. But what is not, what is nonexistent, is all the more important. For without it, your existence wouldn’t work.

It is a lack of understanding with regards to the value of nonexistence which gives us so much trouble. We are all for yang, and disdain yin. But yang without yin doesn’t work. Yang can exist without yin, but not for long. Without it, it grows old, withers, and dies.

Without emptiness how will that cart move, or that pot be useful, or your house be livable? Without that empty breath you cease to live.

Red Pine introduces the following sages with today’s verse:

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING (FL. 647-663). Taoist master and proponent of using an eclectic approach to explain the teachings of Lao-tzu. His commentary was recently reedited from portions found in the Taoist canon and in the Tunhuang Caves: S.2517. It reflects the influence of Chuang-tzu along with Buddhist Sanlun and Tientai teachings and was required reading for Taoists seeking ordination during the T’ang dynasty. Lao-tzu-shu.

CHANG TAO-LING (A.D. 34-157). Patriarch of the Way of Celestial Masters, the earliest known Taoist movement, which emphasized physical and moral training along with spiritual cultivation. His commentary was lost until a partial copy, including verses 3 through 37, was found in the Tunhuang Caves: S.6825. Lao-tzu hsiang-erh-chu.

This Is Dark Virtue

“Can you keep your crescent soul from wandering
can you make your breath as soft as a baby’s
can you wipe your dark mirror free of dust
can you serve and govern without effort
can you be female at Heaven’s Gate
can you light the world without knowledge
can you give birth and nurture
but give birth without possessing
raise without controlling
this is Dark Virtue”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 10, translation by Red Pine)

RED PINE begins by saying, “The Chinese say that the hun, or bright, ethereal, yang soul, governs the upper body and the p’o, or dark, earthly yin soul, concerns itself with the lower body. Here, Lao-tzu mentions only the darker soul. But the word p’o also refers to the dark of the moon, and the opening phrase can also be read as referring to the first day of the new moon. Either way, dark of the soul or dark of the moon, Taoist commentators say the first line refers to the protection of our vital essence, of which semen and vaginal fluid, sweat and saliva are the most common examples, and the depletion of which injures the health and leads to early death.”

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “The first transformation of life is called p’o. When the p’o becomes active and bright, it’s called hun.”

WANG P’ANG says, “Life requires three things: vital essence, breath, and spirit.”

CHIAO HUNG says, “The mind knows right and wrong. Breath makes no distinction. If we concentrate our breath and don’t let the mind interfere with it, it remains soft and pure. Who else but a child can do this?”

CHUANG-TZU says, “The sage’s mind is so still, it can mirror Heaven and Earth and reflect the ten thousand things” (Chuangtzu: 13.1).

WU CH’ENG says, “Our spirit dwells in our eyes. When the eyes see something, the spirit chases it. When we close our eyes and look within, everything is dark. But within the dark, we still see something. There is still dust. Only by putting an end to delusions can we get rid of the dust.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “The best way to serve is by not serving. The best way to govern is by not governing. Hence, Lao-tzu says, ‘without effort.’ Those who act without effort make use of the efforts of others. As for Heaven’s Gate, this is the gate through which all creatures enter and leave. When it is open, it is active. When it is closed, it is still. Activity and stillness represent the male and the female. Just as stillness overcomes activity, the female overcomes the male.” (RED PINE notes that the images of young women were often carved on either side of the entrance to ancient, subterranean tombs.)

SU CH’E says, “What lights up the world is the mind. There is nothing the mind does not know. And yet no one can know the mind. The mind is one. If someone knew it, therre would be two. Going from one to two is the origin of all delusion.”

LAO-TZU says, “The Way begets them / Virtue keeps them” (Taoteching: 51).

WANG PI says, “If we don’t obstruct their source, things come into existence on their own. If we don’t suppress their nature, things mature by themselves. Virtue is present, but its owner is unknown. It comes from the mysterious depths. Hence, we call it ‘dark.’”

This is Dark Virtue… Once we get beyond our precious bodily fluids, which might be difficult for some of the more hard-core “Dr. Strangelove” fanatics, this is Dark Virtue. I would remind those still tripping over those precious bodily fluids to remember they are metaphors, just metaphors. And what the metaphors are pointing to is what we need to be focusing on.

So, what is the point? The rhetorical “Can you” questions are best explained by a couple of the sages Red Pine quotes with today’s verse. Let’s look back at what they had to say.

Wu Ch’eng said, “Our spirit dwells in our eyes. When the eyes see something, the spirit chases it. When we close our eyes and look withing, everything is dark. But within the dark, we still see something. There is still dust. Only by putting an end to delusions can we get rid of the dust.”

It takes dark virtue to close your eyes, to stop looking outside yourself, and chasing after the things which delight your eyes. Once you spend some time looking within yourself, you inner eyes get adjusted to the dark inside. Delusions can then be swept away.

Wang An-shih says, “The best way to serve is by not serving. The best way to govern is by not governing.”

That is what Lao-tzu means by “without effort.” You merge yourself with the efforts of others. This isn’t just letting others do all the work. Being lazy. This is letting things arise and fall, come and go, naturally. I especially appreciate what Wang Pi says at the end.

“If we don’t obstruct their source, things come into existence on their own. If we don’t suppress their nature, things mature by themselves. Virtue is present, but its owner is unknown. It comes from the mysterious depths. Hence, we call it dark.”

Those mysterious depths are within you. Watching, and being still, you give birth without possessing, you nurture without controlling.

Your vital essence, which is more than just precious bodily fluids, is your Chi, your life force. It is renewed moment by moment, day by day. It is a spirit that never grows old.

Red Pine introduces the following sages with today’s verse:

HSUAN-TSUNG (R. 712-762). One of China’s more famous emperors, he was also a skilled poet and calligrapher and was deeply interested in Taoism as well as Buddhism. I have quoted from his own commentary, written in 732, as well as from another commentary compiled under his direction that expands on his earlier effort. Yu-chu tao-te-chen-ching and Yu-chih tao-te-chen-ching-shu.

CHIAO HUNG (1541-1620). Noted compiler of bibliographic works. His 1587 edition of the Taoteching includes his own occasional comments as well as selected commentaries of mostly Sung dynasty authors, notably Su Ch’e, Lu Hui-ch’ing, and Li Hsi-chai. It remains one of the most useful such compilations. Lao-tzu-yi.

CHUANG-TZU (369-286 B.C.). After Lao-tzu, the greatest of the early Taoist philosophers. The work that bears his name contains some of the most imaginative examples of early Chinese writing and includes numerous quotes from the Taoteching. The work was added to by later writers and edited into its present form by Kuo Hsiang (d. 312).

Better Stop While You Can

“Instead of pouring in more
better stop while you can
making it sharper
won’t help it last longer
rooms full of treasure
can never be safe
the vanity of success
invites its own failure
when your work is done retire
this is the Way of Heaven”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 9, translation by Red Pine)

THE HOUHANSHU says, “What Lao-tzu warns against is ‘pouring in more’” (see the Houhanshu’s Lao-tzu biography).

HSUN-TZU says, “In the ancestral hall of Duke Huan, Confucius reports watching an attendant pour water into a container that hung at an angle. As the water level approached the midpoint, the container became upright. But when the attendant went beyond the midpoint, it tipped over, the water poured out, and only after it was empty did it resume its former position. Seeing this, Confucius sighed, ‘Alas! Whatever becomes full becomes empty’” (Hsuntzu: 28).

LU TUNG-PIN says, “This verse is about the basics of cultivation. These are the obstacles when you first enter the gate.”

LIU SHIH-LI says, “Since fullness always leads to emptiness, avoid satisfaction. Since sharpness always leads to dullness, avoid zeal. Since gold and jade always lead to worry, avoid greed. Since wealth and honor encourage excess, avoid pride. Since success and fame bring danger, know when to stop and where lies the mean. You don’t have to live in the mountains and forests or cut yourself off from human affairs to enter the Way. Success and fame, wealth and honor are all encouragements to practice.”

YEN TSUN says, “To succeed without being vain is easy to say but hard to practice. When success is combined with pride, it’s like lighting a torch. The brighter it burns, the quicker it burns out.”

WANG CHEN says, “To retire doesn’t mean to abdicate your position. Rather, when your task is done, treat it as though it were nothing.”

SSU-MA CH’IEN says, “When Confucius asked about the ceremonies of the ancients, Lao-tzu said, ‘I have heard that the clever merchant hides his wealth so his store looks empty and that the superior man acts dumb to avoid calling attention to himself. I advise you to get rid of your excessive pride and ambition. They won’t do you any good. This is all I have to say to you’” (Shihchi: 63).

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Excessive wealth and desire wearies and harms the spirit. The rich should help the poor, and the powerful should aid the oppressed. If, instead, they flaunt their riches and power, they are sure to suffer disaster. Once the sun reaches the zenith, it descends. Once the moon becomes full, it wanes. Creatures flourish then wither. Joy turns to sorrow. When your work is done, if you do not step down, you will meet with harm. This is the way of Heaven.”

HUANG YUAN-CHI says, “You need a raft to cross a river. But once across, you can forget the raft. You need to study rules to learn how to do something. But once you know how, you can forget the rules.”

And RED PINE adds, “This recipe for long life has been repeated in every civilized culture, and yet it has forever fallen on deaf ears.”

I am immediately inclined to point out that the word “retire,” here, doesn’t mean what our modern western minds have come to understand the term. It isn’t something you save for over many years. Like Wang Chen points out, “To retire doesn’t mean to abdicate your position. Rather, when your task is done, treat it as though it were nothing.” This is mostly about what kind of attitude to take about work. Like the author of Ecclesiastes (in the Bible) said, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Ecclesiastes happens to be one of my favorite books in the Bible. As I read it, I saw a man who had gotten to the end of his life, and looking back over it, saw it as an exercise in futility. To try so hard, and for what?

That may seem to be a real “downer.” Overly pessimistic. I just consider it a good dose of realism to balance out idealism. Some yin to go with your yang.

We really do need to know when to stop. When is enough, enough? Do you keep pouring? Sharpening? Rooms full of treasure don’t offer safety and security. What you value, others will want to steal. Success invites failure. That is why pursuing something outside of ourselves is vanity.

You already have everything! And yet, you still aren’t happy. Be content with enough. Don’t keep pouring. Stop, while you still can.

And, of course, there are parallels, here, to American foreign policy.

As I am writing this, Donald Trump is reportedly considering stopping pouring more into Afghanistan. And, no surprise here, he is getting plenty of opposition from the military industrial complex. “We can’t stop pouring!” Oh, I am not holding out a whole lot of hope, when it comes to the mind of Trump. If he pours less here, he will probably only go on to pour more there. Our rulers can’t help themselves. They can’t stop pouring.

Oh well. This is just all the more reason for each one of us, as individuals, to know when to stop. Don’t wait until you are on the cusp of retiring to figure out that it was all an exercise in futility.

This commentary really has been a downer. And, I apologize for that. But, Yen Tsun tells us, “To succeed without being vain is easy to say but hard to practice. When success is combined with pride, it’s like lighting a torch. The brighter it burns, the quicker it burns out.” Consider this your wake-up call. And, maybe, just maybe, we will come to see there is virtue in being dark.

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

HOUHANSHU (HISTORY OF THE LATTER HAN DYNASTY). Compiled by Fan Yeh (398-445) for the period A.D. 25-220.

HSUN-TZU (FL. 300-240 B.C.). Teacher of Han Fei as well as Li Ssu, the First Emperor’s infamous prime minister. He is considered the third of the great Confucian philosophers, after Confucius and Mencius. However, his rationalism is often at odds with the idealism of his predecessors. His teachings are contained in a book of essays that bears his name.

LIU SHIH-LI (FL. 1200.). Lao-tzu-chieh-chieh.

SSU-MA CH’IEN (145-85 B.C.). Authored with his father, Ssu-ma T’an, the first comprehensive history of China. His biography of Lao-tzu (Shihchi [Records of the Historian]: 63) constitutes the earliest known record of the Taoist patriarch. There are several English translations.

The Best Are Like Water

“The best are like water
bringing help to all
without competing
choosing what others avoid
they thus approach the Tao
dwelling with earth
thinking with depth
helping with kindness
speaking with honesty
governing with peace
working with skill
and moving with time
and because they don’t compete
they aren’t maligned”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 8, translation by Red Pine)

WU CH’ENG says, “Among those who follow the Tao, the best are like water: content to be lower and, thus, free of blame. Most people hate being lower and compete to be higher. But when people compete, someone is maligned.”

LI HUNG-FU says, “How do we know the best don’t compete? Everyone else chooses nobility. They alone choose humility. Everyone else chooses the pure. They alone choose the base. What they choose is what everyone else hates. Who is going to compete with them?”

KUAN-TZU says, “Water is the source of creation, the ancestor of all living things. It’s the bloodstream of Earth” (Kuantzu: 39).

HUANG YUAN-CHI says, “Mencius says, ‘People cannot live without water and fire’ [Mencius: 7A.23]. In terms of cultivation, when fire warms water, ‘pure yang’ arises. When water cools fire, ‘sweet dew’ appears.”

WANG P’ANG says, “Water is the chief of the five elements [see verse 12]. It comes from space, which is not that far from the Tao.”

WANG PI says, “The Tao does not exist, but water does. Hence, it only approaches the Tao.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “The best people have a nature like that of water. They’re like mist or dew in the sky, like a stream or a spring on land. Most people hate moist or muddy places, places where water alone dwells. The nature of water is like the Tao: empty, clear, and deep. As water empties, it gives life to others. It reflects without becoming impure, and there is nothing it cannot wash clean. Water can take any shape, and it is never out of touch with the seasons. How could anyone malign something with such qualities as this?”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Those who free themselves from care stay low and avoid heights. Those whose minds are empty can plumb the depths. Those who help others without expecting any reward are truly kind. Those whose mouths agree with their minds speak the truth. Those who make demands of themselves as well as others establish peace. Those who can change as conditions change work with skill. Those who act when it is time to act and rest when it is time to rest move with time.”

LI JUNG says, “Water has no purpose of its own. Those who can remain empty and not compete with others follow the natural Way.”

YEN TSUN says, “If a ruler embodies this and uses this in his government, his virtue is most wonderful. How could it be maligned?”

HAN FEI says, “If a drowning man drinks it, he dies. If a thirsty man drinks it, he lives.”

And, RED PINE adds, “Given Lao-tzu’s usual disdain for social virtues, some commentators have trouble accepting the standard reading of jen (kindness) in line eight. For those in search of an alternative, the Fuyi and Chinglung editions have jen (others), while the Mawangtui B has t’ien (heaven), and Mawangtui A compresses lines eight and nine: ‘helping with honesty.’ This is one of the Taoteching’s most quoted verses.”

The first time I heard it, I am pretty sure it was Bruce Lee who was saying it: “Be like water.” This was well before I heard of Lao-tzu, and his Taoteching. And I didn’t understand it, at all, at the time. I was young. And martial arts movies were cool. And, Bruce Lee was a master at them. Moving so swiftly, sometimes faster than my eye could take in. He made it look easy. Like he was exerting no effort at all. I wish I could say that I was inspired by Bruce Lee to get involved in the martial arts. I was a puny little kid. Martial arts could have been very helpful to me. But that was a long time ago. I lived in a small town. And, martial arts seemed to be something only practiced in far away countries. It was just one more thing which made people who looked different from me seem even more different. They looked different. They spoke a completely different language. They even ate differently. And they knew things, secret things, like the martial arts, that I could never know. The world was a lot bigger back then. Bigger and scarier. But, great oceans separated continents, and people, from each other. I was safe and secluded, in my small town in the middle of my own continent of people who looked, and sounded, and acted the same as me. I was far away from those oceans.

Those oceans don’t seem quite so large now, nor so far away. But the water in them is still the same. “Be like water,” he said. “The best are like water.”

What does it mean to be like water? Lao-tzu takes us through it, line by line.

Bringing help to all. Without competing. Choosing what others avoid. Thus, approaching the Tao. Dwelling with earth. Thinking with depth. Helping with kindness. Speaking with honesty. Governing with peace. Working with skill. Moving with time.

Content to be lower, and thus free of blame. Most people hate being lower and compete to be higher. But, as we all have come to know, when people compete, someone is always maligned.

Choosing humility, rather than nobility. Choosing the base, over the pure.

Water gives without expecting anything in return. You can’t change it, it is forever the same. Water doesn’t know it is water. And it wants nothing. It has no purpose of its own. It just is.

Be empty. Be clear. Be deep. Be like water.

Red Pine introduces the following sages with today’s verse:

LI HUNG-FU (FL. 1574). His commentary can be found appended to a reissue of Su Ch’e’s commentary. In his preface, he says the differences between Confucius and Lao-tzu are no more significant than the preference for wheat in North China and rice in the South. Lao-tzu-chieh.

KUAN-TZU (D. 645 B.C.). Prime minister of the state of Ch’i. The voluminous work that bears his name more likely incorporates the views of Chi-hsia Academy that flourished in the Ch’i capital at about the same time.

LI JUNG (FL. 670). Taoist master and proponent of the Chunghsuan (Double Darkness) approach to the truth, which first uses darkness to break through the dialectic of darkness and light then renounces darkness as well. His commentary has been recently reedited from portions that survive in the Taoist canon as well as from several Tunhuang copies. Tao-te-chen-ching-chu.

HAN FEI (D. 233 B.C.). Student of the Confucian philosopher Hsun-tzu. His collection of rhetoric and anecdotes, known as the Hanfeitzu, is noted for its legalist philosophy. Chapters 20 and 21 consist of quotes from the Taoteching and include commentaries on verses 38, 46, 50, 53, 54, 58, 59, 60, and 67. Although Han Fei often misconstrues phrases to support his own ideas, his is the earliest known commentary.

The Problem With Being Self-Aware

“Heaven is eternal and Earth is immortal
the reason they’re eternal and immortal
is because they don’t live for themselves
hence they can live forever
sages therefore pull themselves back
and end up in front
put themselves outside
and end up safe
is it not because of their selflessness
whatever they seek they find”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 7, translation by Red Pine)

CHU CH’IEN-CHIH says, “The line ‘Heaven is eternal and Earth is immortal’ was apparently an old saying, which Lao-tzu quotes in order to explain its significance.”

CHIANG SSU-CH’I says, “‘Heaven’ refers to the point between the eyebrows. ‘Earth’ refers to the point just below the navel.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “Heaven stands for the movement of time. Earth represents the transformation of form. Heaven and Earth have their origin in the dark womb. And the essence of the dark womb is the valley spirit that doesn’t die. Because it doesn’t die, it isn’t born. Only what isn’t born can give birth to the living. And because it doesn’t give birth to itself, it can live forever.”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “What is not alive is the basis for life. By equating life and death, we are no longer burdened by life and death. By abandoning bodily form, we are no longer hindered by bodily form.”

WU CH’ENG says, “To pull oneself back means to be humble and not to try to be in front of others. To put oneself outside means to be content and not to try to add to one’s life. To find what one seeks means to be in front and safe.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Heaven and earth help creatures fulfill their needs by not having any needs of their own. Can sages do otherwise? By following the Way of Heaven and Earth, sages are revered by all and harmed by none. Hence, they, too, live long.”

JEN FA-JUNG says, “Sages do not purposely seek long life but achieve it through selflessness.”

CH’ENG CHU says, “Heaven, Earth, and Humankind share the same origin. Why doesn’t Humankind share their immortality? Because Heaven and Earth are not aware they are Heaven and Earth. Only Humankind is self-aware. And being self-aware, there is nothing humans won’t do to stay alive. But the more they care for their life, the more pained their life becomes. The more they nourish their body, the sicker their body becomes. People who have not thought this out say the followers of Lao-tzu are afraid of death and only interested in immortality. But this is getting it backward.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “The reason Heaven and Earth alone are eternal and immortal is because they are content and give without expecting a reward, unlike Humankind who never stops chasing profit and fighting over possessions.”

WANG PI says, “Those who live for themselves fight with others. Those who don’t live for themselves are the refuge of others.”

SU CH’E says, “If Heaven and Earth fought with others over life, they would be the same as others. And if sages fought with others over profit, they would be the same as them. Would that no be a great shame?”

WANG P’ANG says, “Although sages are sages, they look the same as others. But because they embody the Way of Heaven and don’t fight, they alone differ from everyone else. Sages are selfless because they no longer have a self.”

LU TUNG-PIN says, “The only thing sages seek is Virtue.”

And here we are with yet another hard teaching. So hard, it seems impossible to attain. Stop trying so hard, then. What, give up? Actually, I think that would be a giant step forward.

Humankind are a selfish lot. We know it is so. And, we don’t like it, not one bit. But what we really hate is when we get called out for our own selfishness. Yes, you read that right. More than not wanting to be selfish, we don’t want to be thought of as selfish.

And, that leads to us putting on a big show of our selflessness. There are people to fool, both others and ourselves. I am not suggesting this is a conscious thing. I think it is mostly unconsciously that we contrive to be selfless. Whether or not we are fooling others, we are certainly fooling ourselves.

I said this is a hard teaching. But that is only because I let my self get in the way of this practice.

But Lao-tzu isn’t asking us to try to be selfless. It isn’t some self-sacrificing altruism that sages are practicing here.

Let’s look again at what Lao-tzu is saying, and what the various sages have to say on the subject.

Heaven and Earth are eternal, immortal. How is this possible? They don’t live for themselves. I really appreciate Ch’eng Chu’s insight on this. Heaven, Earth, and Humankind all share the same origin. We have the same source, the Tao. But they are immortal, at least compared to us mortal beings. Why is that? It is that we are self-aware. Being self-aware, there is nothing we won’t do to stay alive. We put great care into living. We nourish our bodies. People think that it is sages who fear death, and only are interested in immortality. Ch’eng Chu says this is getting it backward. And he is right.

It is people who fear death and long for immortality.

So, being self-aware is a problem. But, what does that actually mean, and how do we overcome it?

Lao-tzu actually explained this just a few verses ago, back in verse three. There, he said our problem is knowing and wanting. That is what Lao-tzu means by being self-aware.

As Ho-shang Kung explains in his commentary on today’s verse, we need to be content and give without expecting a reward. Stop chasing profit and fighting over possessions. What makes sages different from ordinary people is they have overcome self-awareness. Being selfless.

So, how do we do this? It is more about what we don’t do than what we do. We don’t put ourselves in front. Instead, pulling our selves back.

That might seem easier said than done. I certainly am not suggesting I have arrived at some higher plane of existence. But, I do know that when I put myself first, I never know true contentment. Competing. Always competing. Never satisfied. Never content.

To overcome self-awareness, we simply must be content. Content to be last. To be lower. In our verse tomorrow, Lao-tzu will turn to his favorite metaphor for explaining it better.

Red Pine introduces the following sages with today’s verse:

CHU CH’IEN-CHIH (1899-1972). Classical scholar and teacher of philosophy and history. His edition of the Taoteching presents variants, rhymes, and usages along with his own comments. Lao-tzu chiao-shih.

CH’IANG SSU-CH’I (FL. 920). Taoist master of the former Shu dynasty (Szechuan province) during the Five Dynasties period. His edition is invaluable for its preservation of the comments of Li Jung, Ch’eng Hsuan-ying, and Yen Tsun, as well as those of Hsuan-tsung and Ho-shang Kung. Tao-te-chen-ching hsuan-te-tsuan-shun.

JEN FA-JUNG (B. 1930). Director of the Taoist Association of China and abbot of Loukuantai, the Taoist center where Lao-tzu reportedly wrote the Taoteching. Master Jen’s is the only commentary I know of by a Taoist priest subsequent to the Cultural Revolution. Tao-te-ching shih-yi.

LU TUNG-PIN (FL. 845). Leader of Taoism’s legendary Eight Immortals and author of a number of Taoist works, including Secret of the Golden Flower. Several commentaries have been attributed to him. I have used the Tao-te-ching shih-yi.

Dark and Elusive, Yet Inexhaustible

“The valley spirit that doesn’t die
we call the dark womb
the dark womb’s mouth
we call the source of Heaven and Earth
as elusive as gossamer silk
and yet it can’t be exhausted”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 6, translation by Red Pine)

THE SHANHAICHING says, “The Valley Spirit of Morning Light is a black and yellow, eight-footed, eight-tailed, eight-headed animal with a human face” (9). The Shanhaiching’s “valley spirit’ is the moon, which runs ahead of the sun during the last eight days of its thirty-day cycle, lags behind during the first eight days, and faces the sun during its eight days of glory. For the remaining days of the month, it’s too close to the sun to be visible. Like many other cultures, the ancient Chinese viewed the moon as the embodiment of the female element of creation.

WANG PI says, “The valley is what is in the middle, what contains nothing, no form, no shadow, no obstruction. It occupies the lowest point, remains motionless, and does not decay. All things depend on it for their development, but no one sees its shape.”

YEN FU says, “Because it is empty, we call it a ‘valley.’ Because there is no limit to its responsiveness, we call it a ‘spirit.’ Because it is inexhaustible, we say ‘it doesn’t die.’ These three are the virtues of the Tao.”

SU CH’E says, “A valley is empty but has form. A valley spirit is empty but has no form. What is empty and has no form is not alive. So how can it die? ‘Valley spirit’ refers to its virtue. ‘Dark womb’ refers to its capacity. This womb gives birth to the ten thousand things, and we call it ‘dark’ because we see it give birth but not how it gives birth.”

HSUEH HUI says, “The words Lao-tzu chooses are often determined by the demands of rhyme and should not be restricted to their primary meaning. Thus, p’in [female animal] can also be read p’in [womb].”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “The valley is what nourishes. Those able to nourish their spirit do not die. ‘Spirit means the spirits of the five organs: the gall bladder, the heart, the kidneys, and the spleen. When these five are injured, the five spirits leave. ‘Dark’ refers to Heaven. In a person, this means the nose, which links us with Heaven. ‘Womb’ refers to Earth. In a person, this means the mouth, which links us with Earth. The breath that passes through our nose and mouth should be finer than gossamer silk and barely noticeable, as if it weren’t actually present. It should be relaxed and never strained or exhausted.”

WU CH’ENG says, “The empty valley is where spirits dwell, where breath isn’t exhausted. Who relaxes their breath increases their vitality. Who strains their breath soon expires.”

TE-CH’ING says, “Purposeful action leads to exhaustion. The Tao is empty and acts without purpose. Hence, it can’t be exhausted.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “The valley spirit, the dark womb, the source of Heaven and Earth all act without acting. That we don’t see them doesn’t mean they don’t exist.”

LIU CHING says, “It’s like the silk of a silkworm or the web of a spider: hard to distinguish and hard to grab. But then, it isn’t Humankind who uses it. Only the spirit can use it.”

TU TAO-CHIEN says, “This verse also appears in Liehtzu: 1.1, where it is attributed to the Yellow Emperor instead of Lao-tzu. Lao-tzu frequently incorporates passages from ancient texts. We see their traces in ‘thus the sage proclaims’ or ‘hence the ancients say.’ Thus Confucius said, ‘I don’t create. I only relate’ [Lunyu: 7.1]”.

LIEH-TZU says, “What creates life is not itself alive” (Liehtzu: 1.1).

Today’s verse is hard for a completely different reason than yesterday’s verse. Yesterday’s verse was hard because it exposed our hypocrisy, when we say we value impartiality. Today’s verse is hard simply because of how elusive (hard to grasp) the Tao actually is.

What is this Valley Spirit? Is it a black and yellow, eight-footed, eight-tailed, eight-headed animal with a human face, as the Shanhaiching says? Does it refer to our Moon, as Red Pine suggests? As I was reading along, I thought it was reminiscent of the Creation story in the Bible with which I became familiar as a child: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Genesis 1:1-2 NIV). This is the moment just before God says “Let there be light!”

Such diverse imagery for what Lao-tzu calls “the dark womb.” And, “the dark womb’s mouth…the source of Heaven and Earth.”

It is yin. Female, dark, still, empty, brooding, waiting, giving birth to all things… It is elusive. Like the silk of a silkworm or the web of a spider, hard to distinguish and hard to grasp. We reach for it, but can’t quite grasp it. We can see its manifestations. But, how? That eludes us.

There must be some purpose. That was what always intrigued me about that early part of the Creation story in Genesis. Why is the Spirit just hovering over the waters? What is it doing? What is going on here? Can we just skip to the next verse, where the “real” action starts?

Ah, but Te-ch’ing tells us “Purposeful action leads to exhaustion. The Tao is empty and acts without purpose. Hence, it can’t be exhausted.”

Acting without purpose, without effort, without struggling – that, is the practice of the Tao. Our journey through the Taoteching will be spent being still, being empty, brooding, waiting, learning to act without purpose, without effort, without struggling.

That is the purpose. We can’t wait to see what we will become. But that isn’t the Tao. It isn’t about what we will become. It is about being, and not-being. Especially not-being.

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

THE SHANHAICHING (BOOK OF MOUNTAINS AND WATERS). Shaman’s guide to China’s mountains and rivers. Attributed to Yu the Great (fl. 2200 B.C.), it was edited into its present form by Liu Hsin (ca. 50 B.C.- A.D. 23). A reliable English translation was published by Taiwan’s National Institute for Compilation and Translation in 1985.

YEN FU (1853-1921). Naval officer, scholar, and the first Chinese commentator to use Western philosophical concepts in interpreting Lao-tzu. Lao-tzu tao-te-ching p’ing-tien.

HSUEH HUI (1489-1541). Official, classical scholar, and student of the occult. His work on the Taoteching is notable for its critical review of previous commentaries. Lao-tzu chi-chieh and Lao-tzu k’ao-yi.

TU TAO-CHIEN (FL. 1264-1306). Taoist master and author of commentaries to a number of Taoist classics. His Taoteching commentary makes extensive use of quotes from the Confucian classics. Tao-te-hsuan-ching yuan-chih.

YELLOW EMPEROR (CA. 2700-2600 B.C.). Patriarch of Chinese culture. He was also among the earliest known practitioners of Taoist yoga and other hygienic arts.

LIEH-TZU (FL. 4TH C. B.C.). Taoist master about whom we know nothing other than that he could ride the wind. The book that bears his name was probably the work of his disciples and later generations of Taoists. The present version dates from the fifth century A.D.

 

The Virtue in Being Heartless

“Heaven and Earth are heartless
treating creatures like straw dogs
sages are heartless too
they treat people like straw dogs
between Heaven and Earth
how like a bellows
empty but inexhaustible
each stroke produces more
talking only wastes it
better to protect what’s inside”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 5, translation by Red Pine)

HU SHIH says, “Lao-tzu’s statement that Heaven and Earth are heartless undercuts the ancient belief that Heaven and Humankind were of the same lineage and thereby created the basis for natural philosophy” (Chung-kuo-che-hsueh-shih ta-kang. p. 56).

SU CH’E says, “Heaven and Earth aren’t partial. They don’t kill living things out of cruelty or give birth out of kindness. We do the same when we make straw dogs to use in sacrifices. We dress them up and put them on the altar, but not because we love them. And when the ceremony is over, we throw them into the street, but not because we hate them. This is how sages treat the people.”

HUAI-NAN-TZU says, “When we make straw dogs or clay dragons, we paint them yellow and blue, decorate them with brocade, and tie red ribbons around them. The shaman puts on his black robe, and the lord puts on his ceremonial hat to usher them in and to see them off. But once they’ve been used, they’re nothing but clay and straw.” A similar description appears in Chuangtzu: 14.4.

WU CH’ENG says, “Straw dogs were used in praying for rain, and these particular bellows were used in metallurgy.”

WANG P’ANG says, A bellows is empty so that it can respond. Something moves, and it responds. It responds but retains nothing. Like Heaven and Earth in regard to the ten thousand things or sages in regard to the people, it responds with what fits. It isn’t tied to the present or attached to the past.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “The Tao has no substance or dimension, yet it works the breath of emptiness between Heaven and Earth and gives birth to the ten thousand things.”

WANG TAO says, “The Tao cannot be talked about, yet we dismiss it as heartless. It cannot be named, yet we liken it to a bellows. Those who understand get the meaning and forget the words. Those who don’t understand fail to see the truth and chatter away in vain.”

HSIN TU-TZU says, “When the main path has many side trails, sheep lose their way. When learning leads in many directions, students waste their lives in study” (Liehtzu: 8.25).

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Whenever the mouth opens and the tongue moves, disaster is close behind. Better to guard your inner virtue, nurture your vital essence, protect your spirit, treasure your breath, and avoid talking too much.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “If our mouth doesn’t talk too much, our spirit stays in our heart. If our ears don’t hear too much, our essence stays in our genitals. In the course of time, essence becomes breath, breath becomes spirit, and spirit returns to emptiness.”

And, RED PINE adds, “Cultivating the heartless center between Heaven and earth, sages delight in the endless creation of something out of nothing without becoming attached to anything. The Chinese phrase pu-jen (no heart) not only means ‘unkind’ but also refers to any fruit that has no seed or kernel in its center. The straw dogs used in ceremonies in ancient China were much like Christmas trees in the West – used for a day, a week, a month, but not for long.”

Today’s verse is a hard one. Why? Because, we all claim to like impartiality. It is held up as a virtue. But, do we really want to be judged impartially? That depends. When we are standing before a judge, we hope to be able to make our case, and the judge to look upon us favorably, even if the facts in the case stand against us. Often, what we really want is partiality. The impartial, the truly impartial, will be viewed as heartless. The impartial will be thought of as unkind, even cruel. But, what they really are is unmoved. You shouldn’t ascribe motive, here. Heaven and Earth simply don’t care.

The sage therefore, doesn’t care, either. Heartless! If it was seen as virtue, it would be said of them, “They treat everyone the same.” Complete impartiality. Unmoved. Uncaring. They won’t intervene. They won’t interfere. They won’t try to force things. They won’t try to control.

This, my friends, is the only equality we should be interested in. Equality under the Law of Nature. But, I don’t want to be treated like a straw dog! Or, like a Christmas tree (as Red Pine compares it to). I want to matter!

Well, of course you do. And, you do matter. Everything and everyone does have a purpose. And that matters. But, what no one and no thing can ever hope to claim is that they matter more.

So like a bellows is nature. Empty but inexhaustible. Each stroke produces more. But talking only wastes it. Better to protect what’s on the inside.

Fulfill your purpose. Do your work and then step back. Don’t whine! Nature responds, and the sage responds. Just not in the way we might like, showing partiality. No, nature and the sage both respond impartially, like a bellows, with only what fits. There is a purpose, it just seems to be purposeless. It seems to be purposeless because nature and the sage act purposelessly. Without struggling. Without effort.

Trying to act purposelessly isn’t the answer, obviously. That requires effort. But how to be, without trying?

I once had the honor of knowing a young man who epitomized this practice. It is not at all a wonder to me that Lao-tzu often refers to children, to show this practice of purposelessness. For this young man was just a boy. He was my son’s best friend at the time. And, I got to observe this boy quite closely. For a couple of years he spent a lot of time in my home.

What I observed was someone for whom everything seemed to just happen naturally. He exuded a natural confidence. He was athletic, and involved in a variety of sports related activities. But, I wouldn’t characterize his involvement as competing. He was just playing. And, he seemed to love it, without caring. When he was running, his speed was deceptive, for he ran effortlessly. He certainly didn’t seem to be trying. And someone, observing only casually, might have been tempted to urge him to try harder. I hope that never happened for him. It might have killed that spirit. Like, I am sure, that spirit has been killed in many children. For, without trying, he succeeded. Over and over again. And, I honestly don’t think he would have succeeded any better by “trying” harder.

Now, I wouldn’t characterize this boy’s life as easy. His parents were divorced, so he lived half the time with his mom and half the time with his dad. And, neither of his parents were well off. He didn’t have a lot of what the world considers blessings. He just seemed to live his life as unaffected, as unmoved, by any of that, as anyone I have ever known.

He moved away years ago. And, I don’t know what has become of him. I only know what he was in those few years I observed him.

Red Pine introduces the following sages with today’s verse:

HU SHIH (1891-1962). Student of John Dewey and leader of China’s New Culture Movement that helped establish vernacular Chinese as a legitimate form of literary expression. Chung-kuo che-hsueh-shih ta-kang.

HUAI-NAN-TZU (D. 122 B.C.). A.K.A. LIU AN. He was the grandson of Liu Pang, the first Han emperor. He was a devoted Taoist, although his search for the elixir of immortality was prematurely interrupted when he was accused of plotting to seize the throne and was forced to commit suicide. The book named after him is a collection of treatises on mostly Taoist themes written by a group of scholars at his court.

WANG TAO (1476-1532). Incorporates Confucian interpretations in his commentary. Lao-tzu-yi.

HSIN TU-TZU Interlocutor in Liehtzu: 8.25).

Whose Child Is It?

“The Tao is so empty
those who use it
never become full again
and so deep
as if it were the ancestor of us all
it dulls our edges
unties our tangles
softens our light
and merges our dust
it’s so clear
as if it were present
I wonder whose child it is
it seems it was here before Ti”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 4, translation by Red Pine)

WANG AN-SHIH says, “The Tao possesses form and function. Its form is the original breath that doesn’t move. Its function is the empty breath that alternates between Heaven and Earth.”

WU CH’ENG says, “‘Empty’ means ‘empty like a bowl.’ The Tao is essentially empty, and people who use it should be empty, too. To be full is contrary to the Tao. ‘Deep’ means ‘what cannot be measured.’ ‘Ancestor’ means ‘one who unites a lineage,’ just as the Tao unites all things. ‘As if’ suggests a reluctance to compare.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “The ancient masters of the Way had no ambition. Hence, they dulled their edges and did not insist on anything. They had no fear. Hence, they untied every tangle and avoided nothing. Hey did not care about beauty. Hence, they softened their light and forgot about themselves. They did not hate ugliness. Hence, they merged with the dust and did not abandon others.”

WEI YUAN says, “By taking advantage of edges, we create conflicts with others. By shining bright lights, we illuminate their dust. Grinding down edges makes conflicts disappear. Dimming the light merges the dust with dust and with darkness.”

HUANG YUAN-CHI says, “A person who can adjust their light to that of the crowd and merge with the dust of the world is like a magic mushroom among ordinary plants. You can’t see it, but it makes everything smell better.”

HSI T’UNG says, “The Tao is invisible. Hence, Lao-tzu calls it ‘clear.’”

THE SHUOWEN says, “Chan [clear] means ‘unseen.’”

LU NUNG-SHIH says, “‘Clear’ describes what is deep, what seems to be present and yet not present, what seems to be not-present and yet not not-present.”

LIU CHING says, “If it’s empty, it’s deep. If it’s deep, it’s clear. The Tao comes from nothing. Hence, the Tao is the child of nothing.”

LI YUEH says, “Ti is the Lord of Creation. All of creation comes after Ti, except the Tao, which comes before it. But the nature of the Tao is to yield. Hence, Lao-tzu does not insist it came before. Thus, he says, ‘it seems.’”

JEN CHI-YU says, “In ancient times no one denied the existence of Ti, and no one called his supremacy into doubt. Lao-tzu, however, says the Tao is ‘the ancestor of us all,’ which presumably included Ti as well” (Lao-tzu che-hsueh t’ao-lun-chi, p. 34).

Red Pine calls this verse enigmatic. And I feel like saying, “Well, duh…”

The Tao, Lao-tzu is describing (really, for the first time), is an enigma.

So empty… you never become full again.

So deep… it dulls our edges (eliminating distinctions), unties our tangles (simplifying difficulties), softens our light (so, no one outshines another), merges our dust (making us all one).

So clear (unseen)… it seems to be present and not present, not-present and not not-present, all at the same time.

Whose child is it? It is the child of nothing, and the mother of everything.

Even before the Lord of Creation? It would seem so.

If you were looking for me to explain away the enigma, you may be disappointed. Instead of making it plain, Lao-tzu gives us something to chew on. It is as if he might say, “Come back again tomorrow; first, think on these things.” And, Lao-tzu has given us plenty to think on.

Like, how those who use the empty Tao never become full again.

It is “empty like a bowl,” says Wu Ch’eng. And, we are all probably clamoring over what we might fill the bowl with. I, too, used to think that was the function of an empty bowl. It is empty so you can fill it.

Perhaps. But this emptiness is so empty you never become full again. And, that takes our eyes off some external bowl needing to be filled, and directs them back to ourselves. Namely, inside of us. What emptiness is this? And, isn’t it a horrible thing to be empty on the inside?

Yes, that can be a bit disconcerting, since we have been conditioned to treasure fullness over emptiness. However, in the next few chapters Lao-tzu is going to explain the virtue of emptiness as opposed to fullness. Lao-tzu also has much more to say about the Tao’s deepness and clearness; so please, keep coming back.

Red Pine introduces the following sages today:

HSI T’UNG (1876-1936). Official and classical scholar known for his commentaries on the philosophical texts of the Warring States Period (403-221 B.C.). Lao-tzu chi-chieh.

LI YUEH (FL. 683). Military official, accomplished poet, calligrapher, and painter of the plum tree. He viewed the Confucian classics as non more than leaves and branches and the Taoteching as the root. Tao-te-chen-ching hsin-chu.

JEN CHI-YU (B. 1916). Professor of religion and philosophy at Beijing University. His many publications include an English translation of the Taoteching. Lao-tzu che-hsueh t’ao-lun-chi.

Our Problem Is Knowing and Wanting

“Bestowing no honors
keeps people from fighting
prizing no treasures
keeps people from stealing
displaying no attractions
keeps people from making trouble
thus the rule of the sage
empties the mind
but fills the stomach
weakens the will
but strengthens the bones
by keeping the people from knowing or wanting
and those who know from daring to act
the sage governs them all”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 3, translation by Red Pine)

SU CH’E says, “Bestowing honors embarrasses those who don’t receive them to the point where they fight for them. Prizing treasures pains those who don’t possess them to the point where they steal them. Displaying attractions distresses those who don’t enjoy them to the point where they cause trouble. If people aren’t shown these things, they won’t know what to want and will cease wanting.”

WANG CHEN says, “Sages empty the mind of reasoning and delusion, they fill the stomach with loyalty and honesty, they weaken the will with humility and compliance, and they strengthen the bones with what people already have within themselves.”

WANG PI says, “Bones don’t know how to make trouble. It’s the will that creates disorder. When the mind is empty, the will is weak.”

WANG P’ANG says, “An empty mind means no distinctions. A full stomach means no desires. A weak will means no external plans. Strong bones mean standing on one’s own and remaining unmoved by outside forces. By bestowing no honors, sags keep people from knowing. Prizing no treasures, they keep people from wanting.”

LU NUNG-SHIH says, “The mind knows and chooses, while the stomach doesn’t know but simply contains. The will wants and moves, while bones don’t want but simply stand there. Sages empty what knows and fill what doesn’t know. They weaken what wants and strengthen what doesn’t want.”

YEN TSUN says, “They empty their mind and calm their breath. They concentrate their essence and strengthen their spirit.”

HUANG YUAN-CHI says, “Sages purify their ears and eyes, put an end to dissipation and selfishness, embrace the one, and empty their mind. An empty mind forms the basis for transmuting cinnabar by enabling us to use our yang breath to transform our yin essence. A full stomach represents our final form, in which our yang breath gradually and completely replaces our yin essence.”

WEI YUAN says, “The reason the world is in disorder is because of action. Action comes from desire. And desire comes from knowledge. Sages don’t talk about things that can be known or display things that can be desired. This is how they bring order to the world.”

LIU CHING says, “This verse describes how sages cultivate themselves in order to transform others.”

In today’s verse, Lao-tzu begins to explain how the sage (someone in harmony with the Tao) governs others. Lao-tzu’s teaching on the art of governing in harmony with the Tao is what attracted me to philosophical Taoism in the first place. So, this first mention, in the Taoteching, is of great importance in understanding it.

I want to be careful, here, though. I want to limit my commentary, as much as possible, to just what Lao-tzu says in this verse. Still, I do want to make clear from the start what makes a sage a sage, and what does it mean to govern in harmony with the Tao.

Since a sage is someone in harmony with the Tao, what exactly does that mean? What it has come to mean to me is a realization. It may be sudden, or something that occurs over a long time; but it is spontaneous and intuitive, regardless of what the time frame is. This realization is an understanding of the natural laws which govern our universe, and each of our roles as an individual human being in the grand scheme of things. You learn, first, that there is a flow to things, and then, you learn how to go with that flow. The sage realizes that everything external is subject to change, and doesn’t form any attachments to them. Instead, the sage cultivates their interior life. That which is intuitively and spontaneously in tune with the Tao.

The sage recognizes our problem, because the sage has the very same problem. It is knowing and wanting. The difference, for the sage, is that they overcome this problem by emptying their own mind of knowing, and weakening their own will of wanting. I don’t know what I think I know. Thinking I know gets me into all sorts of trouble. That, and wanting things that are external, and pretty much out of my reach, anyway.

How the sage overcomes this problem of knowing and wanting is important, because it informs how they govern others. Others with the very same problem. The sage does this, not by lording it over others. Not by intervening, interfering, or trying to control. Not by using force. The sage acts without acting. They lead by example.

Knowing people will fight for honors, sages bestow no honors. Knowing people will steal treasures that are prized, sages prize no treasures. Knowing people make trouble over the display of attractions they can’t themselves enjoy, sages display no attractions.

Wei Yuan says it so well. “The reason the world is in disorder is because of action. Action comes from desire. And desire comes from knowledge. Sages don’t talk about things that can be known or display things that can be desired. This is how they bring order to the world.” And, Liu Ching adds, “This verse describes how sages cultivate themselves in order to transform others.”

That has me wishing, “If only… if only our rulers went at things in this way, from the inside out, instead of the outside in.” Our rulers always resort to force, to trying to control; they intervene, they interfere. They try to bring order to the seeming chaos by “making it so.” But, what if… what if, instead, of focusing on others, they cultivated their own selves? What if they were a light, a shining example, instead of adding to the darkness?

Keeping the people from knowing or wanting, and those who know from daring to act, is how the sage governs. But the sage does it so subtly. Working with and through the Tao. It is a good first lesson in the art of governing in harmony with the Tao.

Red Pine introduces the following sages with today’s verse:

WANG CHEN (FL. 809). T’ang dynasty general and student of the Taoteching. His commentary, which he personally presented to Emperor Hsiuan Tsung, remains unique for its display of pacifist sympathies by a military official. Tao-te-ching lun-ping yao-yi-shu.

WANG P’ANG (1044-1076). Brilliant scholar, writer, and son of Wang An-shih. His commentary, written in 1070, was “lost” until Yen Ling-feng reedited it from various sources. Lao-tzu-chu.

LU NUNG-SHIH ((1042-1102). High official and scholar known for knowledge of ritual. His commentary makes extensive use of quotes from the Liehtzu and Chuangtzu. Lao-tzu-chu.

YEN TSUN (FL. 53-24 B.C.). Urban recluse of Chengtu. He supported himself as a fortune-teller and spent his remaining time reading and pondering the Taoteching. The lengthy commentaries that he produced are sometimes quite profound but more often obscure, and those that survive are incomplete. He divides the text into seventy-two verse. Tao-te-ching chih-kuei.

HUANG YUAN-CHI (FL. 1820-1874). Taoist master famous for his sermons and oral expositions of Taoist texts. His commentary, which he dictated to a disciple, focuses on internal yoga as well as on points in common between the teachings of Lao-tzu and Confucius. Tao-te-ching ching-yi.

WEI YUAN (1794-1856). Classicist, historian, geographer, and admired administrator. While his own views are insightful, his commentary consists largely in selections from Chiao Hung’s earlier edition. Lao-tzu pen-yi.

LIU CHING (FL. 1074). Recognized for his literary talent by Wang An-shih, he was given several minor posts but failed to advance due to his fondness for argument. Lao-tzu-chu.