“Of those that became one in the past
Heaven became one and was clear
Earth became one and was still
spirits became one and were active
valleys became one and were full
kings became one and ruled the world
but from this we can infer
Heaven would crack if it were always clear
Earth would crumble if it were always still
spirits would dissipate if they were always active
valleys would dry up if they were always full
kings would fall if they were always high and noble
and the high is founded on the low
thus do kings refer to themselves
as orphaned widowed and destitute
but this isn’t the basis of humility
counting a carriage as no carriage at all
not wanting to clink like jade
they clunk like rocks”
(Taoteching, verse 39, translation by Red Pine)
WANG PI says, “One is the beginning of numbers and the end of things. All things become complete when they become one. But once they become complete, they leave oneness behind and focus on being complete. And by focusing on being complete, they lose their mother. Hence, they crack, they crumble, they dissipate, they dry up, and they fall. As long as they have their mother, they can preserve their form. But their mother has no form.”
HO-SHANG KUNG says, “It’s because Heaven becomes one that it graces the sky with constellations and light. It’s because Earth becomes one that it remains still and immovable. It’s because spirits become one that they change shape without becoming visible. It’s because valleys become one that they never stop filling up. It’s because kings become one that they pacify the world. But Heaven must move between yin and yang, between night and day. It can’t only be clear and bright. Earth must include high and low, hard and soft, and the five-fold stages of breath. Spirits must have periods of quiescence. They can’t only be active. Valleys must also be empty and dry. They can’t only be full. And kings must humble themselves and never stop seeking worthy people to assist them. They can’t only lord it over others. If they do, they fall from power and lose their thrones.”
CHENG LIANG-SHU says, “In ancient times, kings used carriages as metaphors for the wealth and size of their kingdoms. To refer to one’s carriages as no carriages was an expression of self-deprecation.”
SU CH’E says, “Oneness dwells in the noble, but it is not noble. Oneness dwells in the humble, but it is not humble. Oneness is not like the luster of jade (so noble it cannot be humble) or the coarseness of rock (so humble it cannot be noble).”
And RED PINE reminds us, “One is the number between zero and two.” This is to remind us we need to move between zero and two, yin and yang, to be one.
In today’s verse, which is a continuation of the previous one in theme, Lao-tzu talks about those that became one in the past. This is the goal, to become one. It is to practice the Higher Virtue, Lao-tzu was talking about yesterday. And he tells us there is something we can infer from those that became one in the past.
What can we infer?
The first thing we can infer is that being one isn’t something we can maintain by trying to maintain it. They, and we, must move between yin and yang. Yin, you will recall, is what got us to the place of becoming one. Yang was the result. But we can’t just stay yang.
Here, Lao-tzu talks about what is noble being based on the humble, and what is high being founded on the low.
This is where we need to be careful. And the lower virtues we talked about yesterday, particularly ritual, is relevant to our discussion.
As you will recall, ritual is all about keeping up appearances. It is more about virtue-signaling. It speaks of humility and harmony. But, it trades the spirit, for the letter.
This is how kings, and pretty much all of us, try to maintain our nobility, our highness. We refer to ourselves as orphaned, widowed, and destitute. We will say our carriages are no carriages at all. This self-deprecation is about appearances. Instead of the spirit of humility, we try to follow the letter.
But, it doesn’t work. While we try to hide the clink of our jade, we clunk like rocks.
That is what comes of trying to force things.
Being true to our original nature is what got us to oneness, and being true to our original nature is the way to continue to be one. Let yourself move from yin to yang, and from yang back to yin. And so on and so forth. This is the natural way. You don’t dare force it, for you can’t control it.
Red Pine introduces the following sage with today’s verse:
CHENG LIANG-SHU (B. 1940). Classical scholar and a leading authority on the Mawangtui texts. His presentation of differences between the Mawangtui and other editions appears in Ta-lu tsa-chih vols. 54-59 (April 1977-October 1979). His study of Tunhuang copies of the Taoteching is also excellent: Lao-tzu lun-chi.