This is Called the Dark Union

“Those who know don’t talk
those who talk don’t know
seal the opening
close the gate
dull the edge
untie the tangle
soften the light
and join the dust
this is called the Dark Union
it can’t be embraced
it can’t be abandoned
it can’t be helped
it can’t be harmed
it can’t be exalted
it can’t be debased
thus does the world exalt it”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 56, translation by Red Pine)

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “”Those who know, value deeds not words. A team of horses can’t overtake the tongue. More talk means more problems.”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “Those who grasp the truth forget about words. Those who don’t practice what they talk about are no different from those who don’t know.”

SU CH’E says, “The Tao isn’t talk, but it doesn’t exclude talk. Those who know don’t necessarily talk. Those who talk don’t necessarily know.”

HUANG YUAN-CHI says, “We seal the opening and close the gate to nourish the breath. We dull the edge and untie the tangle to still the spirit. We soften the light and join the dust to adapt to the times and get along with the world.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “By sealing the opening, we guard the exit. By closing the gate, we bar the entrance. By dulling the edge, we adjust the inside. By untying the tangle, we straighten the outside. By softening the light, we focus on ourselves. By joining the dust, we adapt to others. What is devoid of exit and entrance, inside and outside, self and other, we call the Dark Union.”

WANG TAO says, “The Dark Union unites all things but leaves no visible trace.”

WANG PI says, “If something can be embraced, it can be abandoned. If something can be helped, it can be harmed. If something can be exalted, it can be debased.”

TE-CH’ING says, “Those who know transcend the mundane and the superficial, hence they cannot be embraced. Their utter honesty enables others to see. Hence, they cannot be abandoned. They are content and free of desires. Hence, they cannot be helped. They dwell beyond life and death. Hence, they cannot be harmed. They view high position as so much dust. Hence, they cannot be exalted. Beneath their rags they harbor jade. Hence, they cannot be debased. Those who know walk in the world, yet their minds transcend the material realm. Hence, they are exalted by the world.”

WEI YUAN says, “Those who seal the opening and close the gate neither love nor hate. Hence, they don’t embrace or abandon anything. Those who dull the edge and untie the tangle don’t seek help. Thus, they suffer no harm. Those who soften the light and join the dust don’t exalt themselves. Thus, they aren’t debased by others. Forgetting self and other, they experience Dark Union with the Tao. Those who have not yet experienced this Dark Union unite with ‘this’ and separate from ‘that.’ To unite means to embrace, to help, and to exalt. To separate means to abandon, to harm, and to debase. Those who experience Dark Union unite with nothing. From what, then, could they separate?”

And RED PINE adds, “Knowing comes before talking. And the Dark Union comes before knowing. It’s called the Dark Union because it precedes the division into subject and object.”

In our verses this week, we have been talking a lot about the need for balance, for the practice of doing nothing. And today’s verse is a nice culmination, a nice verse for us to end the week on.

What does Lao-tzu mean by balance? And what does doing nothing have to do with it?

Well, those who know don’t talk, and those who talk don’t know. That is somewhat similar to saying, If I told you, I would have to kill you.

No, seriously, how do we put this balance, this doing nothing into practice?

Seal the opening. Close the gate. That really does mean exactly what it sounds like it means. It means stop talking. And stop going out doing things. Dull the edge. Untie the tangle. We really need to stop, and take all the time it will take to get all the tangles unraveled. Because all our prior interventions have made a fine mess of things. Soften the light. Join the dust. Dust, to me, symbolizes disuse. Dust settles on things that aren’t being regularly employed.

This is what Lao-tzu calls Dark Union, this joining with the dust. Being still. Refraining from action. Letting the dust settle. Being one with the dust.

When everywhere around you, you are hearing a call to action, Lao-tzu is calling you to inaction.

Why? Because anything that can be embraced, can be abandoned. And anything that can be helped, can be harmed. And anything that can be exalted, can be debased. Our interventions have unintended consequences. We want to help, and we end up harming.

But, inaction, the practice of doing nothing, brings about a whole different balance. What can’t be embraced, can’t be abandoned. What can’t be helped, can’t be harmed. What can’t be exalted, can’t be debased.

This is what “the world” would exalt, if we only put it into practice in our lives.

Those Who Possess Virtue in Abundance Know How to Be Balanced

“He who possesses virtue in abundance
resembles a newborn child
wasps don’t sting him
beasts don’t claw him
birds of prey don’t carry him off
his bones are weak and his tendons soft
yet his grip is firm
he hasn’t known the union of sexes
yet his penis is stiff
so full of essence is he
he cries all day
yet never gets hoarse
his breath is so perfectly balanced
knowing how to be balanced we endure
knowing how to endure we become wise
while those who lengthen their life tempt luck
and those who force their breath become strong
but once things mature they become old
this isn’t the Way what isn’t the Way ends early”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 55, translation by Red Pine)

WANG P’ANG says, “The nature of Virtue is lasting abundance. But its abundance fades with the onset of thoughts and desires.”

SU CH’E says, “Once we have a mind, we have a body. And once we have a body, we have enemies. If we did not have a mind, we would not have enemies and could not be harmed. The reason a newborn child isn’t harmed is because it has no mind.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “A newborn child doesn’t harm anyone, and no one harms it. In an age of perfect peace, Humankind knows neither noble nor base. Even wild beasts do people no harm.”

TE CH’ING says, “Those who cultivate the Tao should first focus their mind. When their mind doesn’t stray, they become calm. When their mind becomes calm, their breath becomes balance. When their breath becomes balance, their essence becomes stable, their spirit becomes serene, and their true nature is restored. Once we know how to breathe, we know how to endure. And once we know how to endure, we know our true nature. If we don’t know our true nature but only know how to nourish our body and lengthen our life, we end up harming our body and destroying our life. A restless mind disturbs the breath. When our breath is disturbed, our essence weakens. And when our essence weakens, our body withers.”

HSUN-TZU says, “Everything must breathe to live. When we know how to breathe, we know how to nurture life and how to endure” (Hsuntzu: 17).

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “The basis of life rests on this breath. If people can nourish the pure and balanced breath within themselves for fifteen minutes, they will discover the principle of Heaven and Earth’s immortality. If they can do this for half an hour, they will enter the gate of eternity. But if they try to extend their life or force their breath, they will create the womb of their own destruction.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “Life cannot be extended. But people keep trying and thus incur misfortune.”

MOU-TZU says, “Those who attain the Way don’t become active and don’t become strong. They don’t become strong and don’t become old. They don’t become old and don’t become ill. They don’t become ill and don’t decay. Thus, Lao-tzu calls the body a disaster” (Moutzu: 32).

Ah, the wonders of a newborn child! In my commentary on yesterday’s verse we were talking about cultivating virtue in ourselves, first. Today’s verse is the realization of that practice. Those who possess virtue in abundance resemble a newborn child: wasps don’t sting them, beasts don’t claw them, birds of prey don’t carry them off.

Lao-tzu demonstrates, in the verse today, just how enamored with newborns he was. They were a metaphor for an abundance of virtue. And, just in case we need reminding, newborns don’t “do” much of anything. Their virtue isn’t something they do, it is simply what they are.

Lao-tzu juxtaposes the newborn with those who become old. The differences between them couldn’t be more explicit. The newborn is balanced. While the old have grown out of balance. They have lengthened their life, and tempted luck, through force. This is the exact opposite of the newborn, who does nothing. But, once things mature, they become old. This isn’t the Way, says Lao-tzu, and what isn’t the Way ends early.

Most of us, are somewhere in between newborn and old and if we don’t want to end early, we should practice the virtue of the newborn, rather than the force of the old.

Be perfectly balanced. Like the newborn. For if we know how to be balanced, we will endure. And knowing how to endure is wisdom.

Not the wisdom which comes from a lifetime of regrets, but the wisdom that comes from being perfectly balanced.

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

MOU-TZU (FL. 3RD C.) High official and author of the Lihuolun, the earliest known work that addresses the conflicts arising from Buddhist practice and Chinese tradition.

The Cultivation of Virtue, and How You View Others

“What you plant well can’t be uprooted
what you hold well can’t be taken away
your descendants will worship this forever
cultivated in yourself virtue becomes real
cultivated in your family virtue grows
cultivated in your village virtue multiplies
cultivated in your state virtue abounds
cultivated in your world virtue is everywhere
thus view others through yourself
view families through your family
view villages through your village
view states through your state
view other worlds through your world
how do you know what other worlds are like
through this one”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 54, translation by Red Pine)

WU CH’ENG says, “Those who plant something well, plant it without planting. Thus, it is never uprooted. Those who hold something well, hold it without holding. Thus, it is never taken away.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “What we plant well is virtue. What we hold well is oneness. When virtue flourishes, distant generations give praise.”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “First improve yourself, then reach out to others and to later generations bequeath the noble, pure, and kindly Tao. Thus, blessings reach your descendants, virtue grows, beauty lasts, and worship never ends.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “In ancient times, ancestral worship consisted in choosing an auspicious day before the full moon, in fasting, in selecting sacrificial animals, in purifying the ritual vessels, in preparing a feast on the appointed day, in venerating ancestors as if they were present, and in thanking them for their virtuous example. Those who cultivate the way likewise enable later generations to enjoy the fruits of their cultivation.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “We cultivate the Tao in ourselves by cherishing our breath and by nourishing our spirit and thus by prolonging our life. We cultivate the Tao in our family by being loving as a parent, filial as a child, kind as an elder, obedient as the younger, dependable as a husband, and chaste as a wife. We cultivate the Tao in our village by honoring the aged and caring for the young, by teaching the benighted and instructing the perverse. We cultivate the Tao in our state by being honest as an official and loyal as an aide. We cultivate the Tao in the world by letting things change without giving orders. Lao-tzu asks how we know that those who cultivate the Tao prosper and those who ignore the Tao perish. We know by comparing those who don’t cultivate the Tao with those who do.”

YEN TSUN says, “Let your person be the yardstick of other persons. Let your family be the level of other families. Let your village be the square of other villages. Let your state be the plumb line of other states. As for the world, the ruler is its heart, and the world is his body.”

CHUANG-TZU says, “The reality of the Tao lies in concern for the self. Concern for the state is irrelevant, and concern for the world is cow shit. From this standpoint, the emperor’s work is the sage’s hobby and is not what develops the self or nourishes life” (Chuangtzu: 28.3).

CONFUCIUS says, “The ancients who wished to manifest Virtue in the world first ordered their states. Wishing to order their states, they first harmonized their families. Wishing to harmonize their families, they first cultivated themselves. Wishing to cultivate themselves, they first perfected their minds. Wishing to perfect their minds, they first rectified their thoughts. Wishing to rectify their thoughts, they first deepened their knowledge” (Tahsueh:4).

And RED PINE notes that the last seven lines of today’s verse is similar to that of the line in the poem “Carving an Ax Handle” in the Book of Songs: “In carving an ax handle, the pattern is not far off.”

After yesterday’s verse, we might be thinking there must be something we can do. But Lao-tzu throughout his Taoteching has promoted doing nothing. What? Do nothing? How can that be right? Hold on there, cowboy. The nothing Lao-tzu wants us to do never fails to accomplish everything which needs to be done. So, don’t go wandering off on byways (see yesterday’s verse), stick with the straight Way.

What is the nothing we can all be doing? “What you plant well can’t be uprooted / what you hold well can’t be taken away.” What Lao-tzu is talking about is self-cultivation of the Tao. That is the nothing we can do. That is the nothing we must do.

Notice what Chuang-tzu says in his commentary: “The reality of the Tao lies in concern for the self. Concern for the state is irrelevant, and concern for the world is cow shit.” I love Chuang-tzu! His way with words is unparalleled. Don’t go down those byways being concerned with things outside of you, outside of your control. Cultivate the Tao in your own self; and then, watch what happens in your world.

It is only when you cultivate it in yourself that it becomes real. It is only when you cultivate it in your family that it grows. And having done that, then cultivate it in your village and watch it multiply.

Too slow, too slow… We want shortcuts. But where do shortcuts invariably get us? In trouble, my friends.

No. We must start with planting it well in ourselves. Then our families. Then our villages. Before we can move on to the State, and the world. That is, if we want it to abound, and be everywhere.

View others through yourself.

If we would just do that, virtue in the world would grow exponentially. The reason virtue is so sorely lacking is because we don’t view others through our selves. Take care of your self. Treat others as you do your own self.

Others aren’t so very different from you. Other families aren’t so different from your family. Other villages aren’t so different from your village. Other states aren’t so different from your state. And even other worlds, imagines Lao-tzu – they aren’t so different from ours.

But the only way for you to “know” this is through this one.

Taxation is Theft, and Other Taoist Memes

“Were I sufficiently wise
I would follow the Great Way
and only fear going astray
the Great Way is smooth
but people love byways
their palaces are spotless
but their fields are overgrown
and their granaries are empty
they wear fine clothes
and carry sharp swords
they tire of food and drink
and possess more than they need
this is called robbery
and robbery is not the Way”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 53, translation by Red Pine)

KU HSI-CH’OU says, “The Tao is not hard to know, but it is hard to follow.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Lao-tzu was concerned that rulers of his day did not follow the Great Way. Hence, he hypothesized that if he knew enough to conduct the affairs of a country, he would follow the Great Way and devote himself to implementing the policy of doing nothing.”

LU HSI-SHENG says, “The Great Way is like a grand thoroughfare: smooth and easy to travel, perfectly straight and free of detours, and there is nowhere it doesn’t lead. But people are in a hurry. They take shortcuts and get into trouble and become lost and don’t reach their destination. The sage worries only about leading people down such a path.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “A spotless palace refers to the height of superficiality. An overgrown field refers to an uncultivated mind. An empty granary refers to a lack of virtue.”

HAN FEI says, “When the court is in good repair, lawsuits abound. When lawsuits abound, fields become overgrown. When fields become overgrown, granaries become empty. When granaries become empty, the country becomes poor. When the country becomes poor, customs become decadent, and there is no trick people don’t try” (Hanfeitzu: 20).

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “When the court ignores the affairs of state to beautify its halls and interrupts farm work to build towers and pavilions, the people’s energy ends up at court, and fields turn to weeds. Once fields turn to weeds, state taxes are not paid and granaries become empty. And once granaries are empty, the country becomes poor, and the people become rebellious. The court dazzles the people with its fine clothes, and threatens the people with its sharp swords, and takes from people more than it needs – this is no different from robbing them.”

LI JUNG says, “A robber is someone who never has enough and who takes more than he needs.”

WANG PI says, “To gain possession of something by means other than the Way is wrong. And wrong means robbery.”

If only we were sufficiently wise… If the only thing we feared was going astray…

The Great Way is smooth, but people have always loved byways. How do I know this is true? Their palaces are spotless, but their fields are overgrown and their granaries are empty. They wear fine clothes and carry sharp swords. They tire of food and drink and possess more than they need.

This, my friends, is a picture of decadence in every age. It was true in Lao-tzu’s age, just as it has been true since Lao-tzu’s day, all the way to today. It is the sign of a culture in decline. One whose collapse isn’t just impending, it is already happening. It is robbery, says Lao-tzu, and robbery is not the Way.

Note what Li Jung has to say about robbers. “A robber is someone who never has enough and who takes more than he needs.” And Wang Pi, “To gain possession of something by means other than the Way is wrong. And wrong means robbery.”

I especially like what Sung Ch’ang-hsing says: When the court ignores the affairs of state to beautify its halls and interrupts farm work to build towers and pavilions, the people’s energy ends up at court, and fields turn to weeds. Once fields turn to weeds, state taxes are not paid and granaries become empty. And once granaries are empty, the country becomes poor, and the people become rebellious. The court dazzles the people with its fine clothes, and threatens the people with its sharp swords, and takes from people more than it needs – this is no different from robbing them.”

Yes, “Taxation is Theft.” Gaining possession of anything by means other than the Way is robbery.

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

KU HSI-CH’OU (FL. 1600-1630). Scholar-official. His is one of several commentaries incorrectly attributed to the T’ang dynasty Taoist, Lu Tung-pin. Tao-te-ching-chieh.

Which Path Will We Choose?

“There’s a maiden in the world
who becomes the world’s mother
those who find the mother
thereby know the child
those who know the child
keep the mother safe
and live without trouble
those who block the opening
who close the gate
live without toil
those who unblock the opening
who meddle in affairs
live without hope
those who see the small have vision
those who protect the weak have strength
those who use their light
and trust their vision
live beyond death
this is called holding on to the crescent”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 52, translation by Red Pine)

LAO-TZU says, “The maiden of Heaven and earth has no name / the mother of all things has a name” (Taoteching: 1).

KUAN-TZU says, “The ancients say, ‘No one understands a child better than its father. No one understands a minister better than his ruler’” (Kuantzu: 7).

LI HSI-CHAI says, “The Way is the mother of all creatures. All creatures are the children of the Way. In ancient times, those who possessed the way were able to keep mother and children from parting and the Way and all creatures together. Since creatures come from the Way, they are no different from the Way, just as children are no different from their mother. And yet people abandon other creatures when they search for the Way. Is this any different from abandoning the children while searching for the mother? If people knew that all creatures are the Way, and children are the mother, they would find the source in everything they meet.”

CONFUCIUS says, “Things have their roots and branches. Those who know what comes first and last approach the Tao” (Tahsueh).

TUNG SSU-CHING says, “People are born when they receive breath. Breath is their mother. And spirit dwells within their breath. When children care for their mother, their breath becomes one and their spirit becomes still.”

WU CH’ENG says, “‘Opening’ refers to the mouth. ‘Gate’ refers to the nose. By controlling our breath to the point where there is no breath, where breath is concentrated within, we are never exhausted.”

WANG P’ANG says, “When the opening opens, things enter. And the spirit is exhausted trying to deal with the problems that then develop. Once we are swept away by this flood, who can save us?”

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “Those who can see an event while it is still small and change their behavior accordingly we say have vision.”

WANG PI says, “Seeing what is great is no vision. Seeing what is small is vision. Protecting the strong is not strength. Protecting the weak is strength.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “Light is the function of vision. Vision is the embodiment of light. If we can use the light to find our way back to the source, we can live our lives free of misfortune and become one with the Immortal Way.”

RED PINE says, “This verse reminds me of Confucius’ words: ‘When I was young, historians still left blanks’ (Lunyu: 15.25). Not being a historian, I have proceeded despite uncertainty.”

Lao-tzu’s use of maiden and mother in today’s verse takes us back to the opening verse where Lao-tzu said “the maiden of Heaven and Earth has no name / the mother of all things has a name” I believe that refers to how the unknowable Tao can only be known through its manifestations. A mother is a mother because she has children (manifestations). It is through these children we find the mother; therefore, to know the child is to know the mother.

This is the only way to “know” the Tao, through its children. So, it is vital for us to see the Tao in each other.

Where we see those who block the opening, who close the gate, we see those who live without trouble. That sounds good, but what does “block the opening” and “close the gate” refer to? The answer is revealed when we consider the next three lines, where we see those who unblock the opening, who meddle in affairs, we see those who live without hope.

Blocking the opening and closing the gate means we don’t run our mouths and meddle in others’ affairs. But, as it is often said, there are all kinds of people, and all of them are manifestations of the Tao.

In other words, there is something for us to know about the Tao in both kinds of people.

The Tao, after all, is simply the natural law of the universe at work in our lives. And because it is the Tao, the paths we choose lead us inexorably to their conclusion.

Which path will we choose?

It isn’t those who see the great who have vision, but those who see the small. It isn’t those who protect the strong who have strength, but those who protect the weak.

And those who use their light can trust their vision, and live beyond death. Once again, Lao-tzu isn’t referring to our physical lives, here. Though our physical lives are a metaphor for it. He is talking about transcending the boundaries of life and death while we yet live.

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

TUNG SSU-CHING (FL. 1246-1257). Taoist master and compiler of Taoist texts in the Lingpao tradition. His commentary includes extensive quotes from T’ang and Sung dynasty commentators as well as his own comments. Tao-te-chen-ching chi-chieh.

A Respect and Honor That is Simply Natural

“The Way begets them
Virtue keeps them
matter shapes them
usage completes them
thus do all creatures respect the Way
and honor Virtue
their respect for the Way
and honor of Virtue
are not conferred
but simply natural
for the Way begets and keeps them
raises and trains them
steadies and adjusts them
maintains and protects them
but it doesn’t possess what it begets
or depend on what it develops
or control what it raises
this is called Dark Virtue”

-Lao-tzu- (Taoteching, verse 51, translation by Red Pine)

WU CH’ENG says, “What is begotten is sprouted in spring; what is kept is collected in fall; what is shaped is raised in summer from sprouts grown in spring; what is completed is stored in winter from the harvest of fall. Sprouting, raising, harvesting, and storing all depend on the Way and Virtue. Hence, the ten thousand creatures respect the Tao as their father and honor Virtue as their mother. The Way and Virtue are two, but also one. In spring, from one root many are begotten: the Way becomes Virtue. In fall, the many are brought back together: Virtue becomes the Way. The Way and Virtue are mentioned at the beginning of this verse, but only the Way is mentioned later [in line eleven]. This is because Virtue is also the Way.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, ‘What the Way and Virtue bestow, they bestow without thought. No one orders them. It is simply their nature. It is their nature to beget and their nature to keep. It is their nature to raise and train, to steady and adjust, to maintain and protect. And because it’s their nature, they never tire of begetting or expect a reward for what they give. This is what is meant by ‘Dark Virtue.’”

LU HSI-SHENG says, “To beget is to endow with essence. To keep is to instill with breath. To raise is to adapt to form. To train is to bring forth ability. To steady is to weigh the end. To adjust is to measure the use. To maintain is to preserve the balance. To protect is to keep from harm. This is the Great Way. It begets but does not try to possess what it begets. It develops but does not depend on what it develops. It raises but does not try to control what it raises. This is Dark Virtue. In verse 10, Humankind is likened to the Way and Virtue. Here, the Way and Virtue are likened to Humankind. The expressions are the same, and so is the meaning.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “The Way does not beget the myriad creatures to possess them for its own advantage. The actions of the Way do not depend on a reward. And the Way does not raise or maintain the myriad creatures to butcher them for profit. The kindness performed by the Way is dark and invisible.” Where Ho-shang Kung reads “butcher,” Lu Hsi-sheng reads “control.” Red Pine followed Lu.

WANG PI says, “The Way is what things follow. Virtue is what they attain. ‘Dark Virtue’ means virtue is present but no one knows who controls it. It comes from what is hidden.”

“The Way begets them, Virtue keeps them.” That is how Lao-tzu describes how the ten thousand things get along in nature. And just so you won’t forget, humankind is part of those “ten thousand things.” I said “just so you won’t forget,” because we so often do. Humankind seem to be alone in this ability to forget. All the rest of nature respect the Way and honor Virtue. And this respect and honor isn’t something conferred; it is, as Lao-tzu wants to make clear, simply natural.

This is what Lao-tzu calls Dark Virtue. It is a virtue that goes both ways. Between those begotten, and the Tao which begets them. The Tao does its thing, naturally. And the ten thousand things do their thing, naturally.

It isn’t conferred. It is simply natural. I know I am repeating myself, but this is important to understand. The Tao is simply the natural order. It doesn’t possess anything it begets, or depend on anything it develops, or try to control what it raises. It simply is. So, naturally, all creatures respect this. What’s not to respect? Of course, the Virtue of the Way is honored by all creatures. What would be unnatural is not honoring the Virtue of the Way.

Which brings me back to Humankind. What is wrong with us? Our lack of respect for and honor of Nature certainly can’t be called natural. It could almost be said that we think, somehow, it is something which must be conferred. And our conferring respect and honor, far from being natural, requires effort. Lots of effort. And to what purpose?

As I said at the beginning of my commentary, we have forgotten our connection to the ten thousand things. Maybe we think we are above all that. That the rest of nature is beneath us. And we certainly have long acted as if we are at war with nature.

I, for one, think it is long overdue that we declare a truce. How hard can that be? It isn’t like the Tao is threatening us. So why be antagonistic towards it?

Transcending the Boundaries of Life and Death

“Appearing means life
disappearing means death
thirteen are the followers of life
thirteen are the followers of death
but people living to live
move toward the land of death’s thirteen
and why is this so
because they live to live
it’s said that those who guard life well
aren’t injured by soldiers in battle
or harmed by rhinos or tigers in the wild
for rhinos find nowhere to stick their horns
tigers find nowhere to sink their claws
and soldiers find nowhere to thrust their spears
and why is this so
because for them there’s no land of death”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 50, translation by Red Pine)

CH’ENG CHU says, “Of the ten thousand changes we all experience, none are more important than life and death. People who cultivate the Tao are concerned with nothing except transcending these boundaries.”

RED PINE adds an explanatory note about the “thirteen” in lines 3, 4, and 6, saying, “The phrase shih-yu-san has long puzzled commentators. HAN FEI says it means “three and ten,” or thirteen, and refers to the four limbs and nine orifices of the body, which can be guarded to preserve life or indulged to end it.”

TU ER-WEI says the numerical significance of thirteen here refers to the moon, which becomes full thirteen days after it first appears and which disappears thirteen days after it begins to wane.”

WANG PI says it means “three in ten” and refers to the three basic attitudes people have toward life. Wang An-shih summarizes these as: “Among ten people, three seek life because they hate death, three seek death because they hate life, and three live as if they were dead.” Leaving the sage, who neither hates death nor loves life, but who thus lives long.”

RED PINE notes that the Mawangtui texts, which he has followed here, word lines five and six in such a way as to make Wang Pi’s interpretation unlikely, if not impossible. As for choosing between Han Fei and Tu Er-wei, he thinks Professor Tu’s interpretation comes closer to what Lao-tzu had in mind.

WANG PI also says, “Eels consider the depths too shallow, and eagles consider the mountains too low. Living beyond the reach of arrows and nets, they both dwell in the land of no death. But by means of baits, they are lured into the land of no life.”

SU CH’E says, “We know how to act but not how to rest. We know how to talk but not how to keep quiet. We know how to remember but not how to forget. Everything we do leads to the land of death. The sage dwells where there is neither life nor death.”

TE-CH’ING says, “Those who guard their life don’t cultivate life but what controls life. What has life is form. What controls life is nature. When we cultivate our nature, we return, we return to what is real and forget bodily form. Once we forget form, our self becomes empty. Once our self is empty, nothing can harm us. Once there is no self, there is no life. How then could there be any death?”

CHIAO HUNG says, “Those who are wise have no life. Not because they slight it, but because they don’t possess it. If someone has no life, how can they be killed? Those who understand this can transcend change and make of life and death a game.”

Every time I read through Red Pine’s translation and commentary for today’s verse I try to reconcile his “thirteen” (three and ten) with the three in ten (see Wang Pi’s commentary) with which I am more familiar. And, every time I find myself disagreeing with Red Pine (and Han Fei and Tu Er-wei) about it meaning thirteen. And I don’t think it is just my familiarity with the interpretation which renders it three in ten that makes me favor that interpretation over Red Pine’s. For me, thirteen is a bit too esoteric for my liking. I tend to steer clear of interpretations which favor an esoteric understanding of what Lao-tzu is teaching. No, I think Lao-tzu is easy to understand, and easy to put into practice. We just don’t want to. And attaching esoteric understandings to his teachings give us an easy out for not being able to understand and put into practice what Lao-tzu has to teach.

So, once again, I am going to go at this as if Wang Pi is right in his interpretation. Lao-tzu is referring to the three basic attitudes people have toward life. These are: “Among ten people, three seek life because they hate death, three seek death because they hate life, and three live as if they were dead.” That just sounds more “right” to me.

And, of course, that leaves just one in ten, the sage, who neither hates death nor loves life, and who thus lives long. I want to be this one in ten. And I suspect I have a few fellow “one in tens” who are reading along with me today.

But, then, there are the others, the nine in ten, the vast majority. We can’t leave them out of the discussion. So, let’s spend a little time talking about each “three in ten” to give them their due, before we look more into the “one in ten.”

I like how Robert Brookes, in his translation, puts it. “Three in ten people focus too much on extending life. Three in ten people focus too much on fearing death. Three in ten people focus on living life to the fullest and thus find an early death. Why is this so? Because such people live to excess.”

Living life to excess doesn’t just apply to the last set of three. I think it applies to each set of three. Those who focus too much on extending life, and those who focus too much on fearing death, as well as those who focus on living life to the fullest.

What is your attitude toward life? Do you love it, or hate it? Perhaps you think, “What is wrong with wanting to live life to the fullest? After all, we only have one life to live, and that a short one. But that is just Lao-tzu’s point. We shorten our lives through our efforts to live.

The result is we live life as if we were already dead. Failing to go with nature’s flow. We resist nature every step of the way, whether in an effort to extend life, or to end it. That simply isn’t how nature unfolds around us.

What is missing is a sense of balance. The balance that nature is always about.

Meanwhile, we still have that one in ten left to talk about. They are the ones with the right attitude toward life. They neither hate death, nor love life. And because they have found the middle way, neither hot, nor cold, avoiding the extremes, they successfully preserve their life, thus having a long and enjoyable one.

Understand that Lao-tzu isn’t simply referring to your physical life, here. That is only a metaphor for what Lao-tzu is teaching. What Lao-tzu is teaching is how to transcend the boundaries of life and death. And that is to transcend the material realm.

I particularly appreciate what Su Ch’e has to say in his commentary, today. “We know how to act but not how to rest. We know how to talk but not how to keep quiet. We know how to remember but not how to forget. Everything we do leads to the land of death. The sage dwells where there is neither life nor death.” It is a whole other plane of existence. And that is where I wish to dwell.

Equality, Naturally, Not Forced

“Sages have no mind of their own
their mind is the mind of the people
to the good they are good
to the bad they are good
until they become good
to the true they are true
to the false they are true
until they become true
in the world sages are withdrawn
with the world they merge their mind
people open their ears and eyes
sages cover theirs up”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 49, translation by Red Pine)

SU CH’E says, “Emptiness has no form. It takes on the form of the ten thousand things. If emptiness had its own form it could not form anything else. Thus, sages have no mind of their own. They take on the minds of the people and treat everyone the same.”

HUI-TSUNG says, “Because it is empty, the mind of a sage can receive. Because it is still, it can respond.”

YEN TSUN says, “A mindless mind is the chief of all minds. Sages, therefore, have no mind of their own but embrace the minds of the people. Free of love and hate, they are not the enemy of evil or the friend of the good. They are not the protector of truth or the adversary of falsehood. They support like the earth and cover like the sky. They illuminate like the sun and transform like the spirit.”

WANG P’ANG says, “Good and bad are the result of delusions, and delusions are the result of self-centered minds. Those who open themselves up to the Great Way, although their eyes see good and bad, their minds do not distinguish any differences. They don’t treat the bad with goodness out of pity but because they don’t perceive any difference. Although the ten thousand things are different, their differences are equally real and equally false. To see the real in the false and the false in the real is how the wisdom of sages differs from that of others.”

CONFUCIUS says, “In their dealings with the world, great people are neither for nor against anyone. They follow whatever is right” (Lunyu:4.10).

WANG PI says, “The mind of sages has no point of view, and their thoughts have no direction.”

JEN FA-JUNG says, “Wherever sages go in the world, they act humble and withdrawn and blend in with others. They treat everyone, noble or commoner, rich or poor, with the same kindness and equality. Their mind merges with that of others. Ordinary people concentrate on what they hear and see and concern themselves with their own welfare. The sage’s mind is like that of a newborn baby, pure and impartial.”

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “Sages cover up the tracks of their mind by blending in with others.”

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “Stop the eyes and the ears, and the others senses will follow.”

And RED PINE adds, “The Chinese word for mind, hsin, also means ‘thoughts,’ ‘goals,’ ‘intentions,’ or ‘will.’ Thus, Lao-tzu is not being philosophical here in saying ‘sages have no mind of their own,’ merely practical.”

“All things being equal.” That is a phrase I have heard quite a lot. And I can’t help thinking to myself, “Yes, but they aren’t, are they?” And that is a problem. All our models depend on all things being equal. But they aren’t, are they? Actually, that depends on your perspective. On what and where you are looking. And equality is something of a dirty word for me, anyway. Because equality is something we desire, wherever we perceive all things aren’t equal, there will be those who will try to force equality. Have I mentioned, previously, I don’t like the use of force? Yeah, kind of big on the non-aggression principle.

And another thing about equality, we are only allowed to discuss it along certain lines. It is okay, for instance, to say that equality of outcome isn’t something that is possible, even if it may be desirable. By the way, I am not conceding it should be desirable. Equality of opportunity, that is the only alternative to equality of outcome which is “allowed.” And just about everybody falls into line on this one. We all know, though we may not like it, that equality of outcome isn’t possible; so equality of opportunity becomes not just desirable, but possible, so we try to force that outcome. And I am made to feel like maybe I am alone (though I know I am not alone on this) in knowing equality of opportunity is just as undesirable and impossible as equality of outcome. And for the very same reasons. But what other equality are we really allowed to talk about?

Do-gooders want something good to do, and making all things equal is the good thing they want to do. Try to talk about an equality which comes naturally, which is natural, that doesn’t require us to do something to try to force it, and that would leave them with nothing to do. That doesn’t go over so well. They will immediately rebel and point out how things look from their perspective. Because from their perspective all things aren’t equal. And something needs to be done about it.

That is why I have come to loathe the word equality. Whenever someone brings it up I begin to cringe. I already know where this conversation is going. It always comes to the use of force.

Still, here I am talking equality today. And why? Because Lao-tzu brought it up. And thankfully, Lao-tzu’s equality is one that comes naturally, it is one that is not forced. This is actually an equality that doesn’t make me cringe.

Sages have no mind of their own. What Red Pine says in his commentary at the end is quite helpful, here. “The Chinese word for mind, hsin, also means ‘thoughts,’ ‘goals,’ ‘intentions,’ or ‘will.” Thus, Lao-tzu is not being philosophical here in saying ‘sages have no mind of their own,’ merely practical.”

Merely practical. Get ready, this is an equality we can actually practice. Sages have no thoughts, no goals, no intentions, no will of their own, their mind is the mind of the people.

Now what does he mean by that? Remember, it is a practice. They practice being good. Not just to the good, but to the bad as well; until they become good. And, they practice being true. Not just to the true, but the false as well; until they become true.

This is the practice of equality which comes naturally, because it is nature’s equality. Nature treats us all the same. And sages treat us all the same. There aren’t any favorites. No one is more equal than anyone else. This isn’t equality of outcome or opportunity. And it isn’t something which is forced.

But if you are going to practice this you need to lose everything that would otherwise prevent you from practicing it. Lao-tzu talked about losing, in yesterday’s verse. What have you got to lose? A mind of your own. Your own thoughts, your own goals, your own intentions, your own will. Having a mind of your own will keep you from your task. Having a mind of your own won’t allow you to be good to the bad, and true to the false. That mind of yours will have you playing favorites in no time. In other words, all things won’t be equal. And we will be right back in the same place we have always been.

So, how to do this? I knew you were going to ask that.

In the world, sages are withdrawn. No, that doesn’t mean we need to be hermits living alone on some mountaintop somewhere.

Being withdrawn simply means we don’t let external things distract us. Notice what Lao-tzu says about people opening their ears and eyes, while sages cover theirs up.

We are with the world, and it is with this world we merge our minds. This isn’t something like a Vulcan mind-meld. It is simpler than that. Withdrawn, we look inside ourselves, there, in our innermost being we find all of Heaven and Earth. That is where we merge our minds.

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

HUI-TSUNG (R. 1101-1125). Sung dynasty emperor and one of China’s greatest calligraphers and patrons of the arts. His commentary was finished in 1118, shortly before he was taken captive by nomad invaders. Yu-chieh tao-te-chen-ching.

What Have You Got to Lose?

“Those who seek learning gain every day
those who seek the Way lose every day
they lose and they lose
until they find nothing to do
nothing to do means nothing not done
those who rule the world aren’t busy
those who are busy
can’t rule the world”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 48, translation by Red Pine)

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “‘Learning’ refers to knowledge of administration and rhetoric, ritual and music.”

CONFUCIUS asked Tzu-kung. “Do you think I learn in order to increase my knowledge?” Tzu-kung answered, “Well, don’t you?” Confucius replied, “No. I seek the one thing that ties everything together” (Lunyu: 15.2).

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Those who seek the Tao don’t use their ears or eyes. They look within, not without. They obey their natures, not their desires. They don’t value knowledge. They consider gaining as losing and losing as gaining.”

YEN TSUN says, “Get rid of knowledge. The knowledge of no knowledge is the ancestor of all knowledge and the teacher of Heaven and Earth.”

WANG PI says, “Those who seek learning seek to improve their ability or to increase their mastery, while those who seek the Tao seek to return to emptiness and nothingness. When something is done, something is left out. When nothing is done, nothing is not done.”

HUAI-NAN-TZU says, “Those who are wise cultivate the inner root and do not make a display of the outer twigs. They protect their spirit and eliminate cleverness. They do nothing, which means they don’t act until others act. And yet there is nothing that isn’t done, which means they rely on the actions of others” (Huainantzu: 1).

TE-CH’ING says, “Those who seek the Tao begin by using wisdom to eliminate desires. Thus, they lose. Once their desires are gone, they eliminate wisdom. Thus, they lose again. And they go on like this until the mind and the world are both forgotten, until selfish desires are completely eliminated, until they reach the state of doing nothing. And while they do nothing, the people transform themselves. Thus, by doing nothing, the sage can do great things. Hence, those who would rule the world should know the value of not being busy.”

KUMARAJIVA says, “Those who lose eliminate everything coarse until they forget about the bad. Then they eliminate everything fine until they forget about the good. The bad is what they dislike. The good is what they like. First, they eliminate dislikes. Then, they eliminate likes. Once they forget their likes and dislikes and cut themselves off from desire, their virtue becomes one with the Tao, and they reach the state of doing nothing. And while they do nothing, they let others do what they want. Hence, there is nothing that isn’t done.”

SU CH’E says, “Everyone wants to rule the world. But when people see others doing something to possess it, they cringe. And when the people see the sage doing nothing, they rejoice. Those who are wise do not seek to rule the world. The world comes to them.”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, When someone uses laws to restrict the world, might to compel it, knowledge to silence it, and majesty to impress it, there are always those who don’t follow. When someone rules by means of the Tao, the world follows without thinking. ‘The world’ refers to the ten thousand things.”

WEN-TZU says, “In ancient times, those who were good rulers imitated the sea. The sea becomes great by doing nothing. Doing nothing, it governs hundreds of rivers and streams. Thus, it rules by not being busy” (Wentzu: 8).

What have you got to lose? Probably more than you think. And all of it, you would be wise to lose, to let go of; we are way too busy with something to do.

In yesterday’s verse, Lao-tzu took aim at our quest for knowledge, an outward quest for something external to ourselves, external to our nature. Desires drive us in this quest, but getting what we want isn’t a blessing, it is a curse.

Gain. That is why we seek learning every day. We seek to learn, we seek to gain. But Lao-tzu teaches this desire is in conflict with the Way. Those who seek the Way don’t seek to gain, they seek to lose. And lose. And lose. And in losing they gain.

What do they gain? The whole world. Not a world to be dominated and controlled; ruling their world is about self-rule, not ruling others. But others will look to them as an example of how to live their own lives. By seeking to lose until they find nothing to do, they discover the contentment of being content. Nothing to do and nothing not done. A contentment you don’t have to pursue, because you find it right where you already are.

It is already in your nature to be content; and if you find yourself discontent, looking to see where the grass appears greener, won’t bring you contentment. Contentment isn’t an external thing. It is an inward thing. You need to get back to your own nature. Cultivate contentment within your own self. That is the only Way to be content. Content with yourself. Content with your world. There is no other way.

Things We Can Do Without

“Without going out your door
you can know the whole world
without looking out your window
you can know the Way of Heaven
the farther people go
the less they know
sages therefore know without traveling
name without seeing
and succeed without trying”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 47, translation by Red Pine)

CHUANG-TZU says, “Who takes Heaven as their ancestor, Virtue as their home, the Tao as their door, and who escapes change is a sage” (Chuangtzu: 33.1).

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Those who are sages understand other individuals by understanding themselves. They understand other families by understanding their own family. Thus, they understand the whole world. Humankind and Heaven are linked to each other. If the ruler is content, the breath of Heaven will be calm. If the ruler is greedy, Heaven’s breath will be unstable. Sages do not have to ascend into the sky or descend into the depths to understand Heaven or Earth.”

WANG PI says, “Events have a beginning. Creatures have a leader. Roads diverge, but they lead back together. Thoughts multiply, but they all share one thing. The Way has one constant. Reason has one principle. Holding on to the ancient Way, we are able to master the present. Although we live today, we can understand the distant past. We can understand without going outside. If we don’t understand, going farther only leads us farther astray.”

SU CH’E says, “The reason the sages of the past understood everything without going anywhere was simply because they kept their nature whole. People let themselves be misled by things and allow their natures to be split into ears and eyes, body and mind. Their vision becomes limited to sights, and their hearing becomes limited to sounds.”

WANG P’ANG says, “If we wait to see before we become aware and wait to become aware before we know, we can see ten thousand different views and still be blind to the reason that binds them all together.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Those who look for Heaven and Earth outside look for forms. But Heaven and Earth cannot be fathomed through form, only through reason. Once we realize that reason is right here, it doesn’t matter if we close our door. For those who are wise, knowledge is not limited to form. Hence, they don’t have to go anywhere. Name is not limited to matter. Hence, they don’t have to look anywhere. Success is not limited to action. Hence, they don’t have to do anything.”

LAO-TZU says, “The name that becomes a name / is not the Immortal Name” (Taoteching: 1).

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “‘Without traveling’ means to know without depending on previous or external experience. ‘Without seeing’ means to know that everything is empty and that there is nothing to see. ‘Without trying’ means to focus the spirit on the tranquility that excels at making things happen.”

WU CH’ENG says, “‘To succeed without trying’ is the result of the previous two lines. Because those sages know everything without going anywhere and see everything without looking at anything, they succeed at everything without any effort at all.”

We ended last week with a call to the contentment of being content. Stop yielding to desire. Stop being discontent. You already have everything you need. Getting what you want isn’t a blessing, it is a curse. In today’s verse, Lao-tzu teaches that he isn’t just referring to material things. When you let go of all wanting, you succeed without trying.

You can know the whole world without ever having to go out your door. You can know the Way of Heaven without having to look out your window. No, Lao-tzu isn’t talking about the marvels of the internet. He is talking about our desire to look outside ourselves in the pursuit of knowledge. And the farther people go looking outside of themselves, the less they know.

Sages, throughout the ages, have always said the beginning of knowledge is knowing yourself. It is also the end. Everything you need to know, you already know, in your innermost being. If you would only be content to look for it there, you can know without traveling, name without seeing, and succeed without effort (without trying).