“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.
Being one with the Way things are. Lao-tzu has talked of this before, specifically in verse 23, where he talked about how being one with the Tao meant being one with both success when we succeed, and failure when we fail. Being one with the Way things are is actually the theme of his whole Taoteching. Being one with the Way things are is both realizing and accepting our connection to the whole universe. And realizing and accepting isn’t a mere passive thing, a simple knowing; it requires active participation from us.
Lao-tzu teaches that there are things we can infer from those that became one in the past. Then he lists those things: Heaven, Earth, spirits, valleys, and kings. But what can we infer from them?
Let’s take them one by one. From Heaven becoming one and clear, we can infer that Heaven would crack if it were always clear. From Earth becoming one and still, we can infer that Earth would crumble if it were always still. From spirits becoming one and active, we can infer that spirits would dissipate if they were always active. From valleys becoming one and full, we can infer that valleys would dry up if they were always full. And, from kings becoming one and ruling the world, we can infer kings would fall if they were always high and noble. That is a whole lot to infer, but what is Lao-tzu actually getting at, here?
Oneness with the Way things are means realizing and accepting the duality which exists in oneness. He is referring to yin and yang. Clearness and murkiness, stillness and activity, fullness and emptiness, these all go together. The high is founded on the low.
Thus it is, says Lao-tzu, that kings refer to themselves as orphaned, widowed, and destitute. But this, Lao-tzu says, isn’t the basis of humility. This is an important point. It is really the whole point of today’s verse. It is where us humans always seem to get it wrong.
Trying to appear humble, instead of realizing and accepting the natural flow of yin and yang. Trying to force things, instead of merely letting it happen. Lao-tzu, still speaking of kings, says they count a carriage as no carriage at all. How ridiculous! Of course it is a carriage. You can say it isn’t, but that is just nonsense. They strive to not clink like jade, and they end up clunking like rocks. In other words, they may have once been one with the Way things are, and they ruled the world; but they didn’t stay one with the Way things are, and they fell. And what a fall!
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.