Category Archives: Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching

It’s the Emptiness that 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.”

Yesterday, we talked about emptying our minds. With today’s verse, Lao-tzu returns to talking about the importance of emptiness. It’s the emptiness that makes a wheel work, it’s the hollow inside a pot that makes a pot work, it’s the spaces for windows and doors that make a house work.

That emptiness, that we can’t really see, that we hardly pay any attention to at all – without it, everything that exists wouldn’t be useful to us, at all. Emptiness, nonexistence, is what makes it work for us.

When I first encountered this verse in the Taoteching, it was something of an epiphany for me. I had never before really considered the value of “nothing.” Instead, “something” was what always had my attention.

My mind was always thinking about something. I was always working on something. But I never, for even a moment, considered any purpose for empty space. Since my “epiphany,” I have taken to looking at things quite differently. I think about nothing, and work with nothing, like never before.

I started really paying attention to that empty space which “fills” the skies. Before, when I looked up into the skies, all that empty space seemed such a waste. Now, I see it as full of purpose. Likewise, all the emptiness in every cell of matter. Down to the empty space inside atoms. There is so much more empty space, so much more nothing, than there is something. And that something couldn’t work without it.

I no longer see emptiness as lack, or like it is in want (of something). I rejoice in the emptiness inside of me, rather than trying to fill it. I have everything I need.

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, there 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.’”

Today’s verse hearkens back to the dark and elusive, yet inexhaustible, Tao Lao-tzu talked about in verse six. He asks seven rhetorical questions to explain Dark Virtue to us.

Red Pine’s commentary on the first line, concerning “your crescent soul” elicited a chuckle from me. We must protect our precious bodily fluids, after all. But seriously, crescent, I think refers to the fact we have both a light side, and a darker side. Lao-tzu’s emphasis on the darker side, makes the “crescent” imagery quite good.

You may have noticed, the last few days, we have been talking about the many ways in which the way of Humankind is different from the Way of the Tao. One of those ways, as Lao-tzu pictures for us in today’s verse, is that we prefer light to darkness. We “go crazy” for a full moon. But “new” or even “crescent” moons are “meh.”

But, Lao-tzu, always prefers the darkness. He calls this virtue, dark. And while he calls it dark because it is deep, mysterious, even unseen; let’s not forget that it isn’t just dark, it is also virtuous.

And, if we are going to practice this virtue, this dark virtue, it is going to take practice.

Can you keep your mind from wandering? What was that again,? I was thinking of something else. No, seriously, I know how much we value activity. But you really need your mind to be still. Just don’t try to still it. That defeats the whole purpose. Let your mind wander. Go ahead, don’t worry about it. Let those thoughts come and go. Don’t worry about them. Just breathe. Concentrate on your breath. By not thinking about what you are thinking about, your mind will empty. But what was that he said about breathing?

Can you make your breath as soft as a baby’s? So easy, even a baby can do it. Or maybe, only a baby can do it. The point here, isn’t to try to make your breath as soft as a baby’s, though. The point is to let go of your need to focus on your breathing, now. We have moved on with time. Our minds now empty. Now we just breathe softly. No need to pay attention to the breathing any longer. It just happens naturally, after all.

Can you wipe your dark mirror free of dust? That dark mirror, a reflection of your true self. Covered in dust because there is so much dust. That is life’s cares, life’s worries. Let them go. Wipe that mirror clear.

Can you serve and govern without effort? Serving and governing without effort is, perhaps, the whole point of Lao-tzu’s teachings. We talked about this a couple of verses ago. It is about choosing “not competing” over competing.

Can you be female at Heaven’s Gate? Well, it doesn’t get any more yin than “being female.” This doesn’t mean embracing your feminine side, boys. This means being female in the truest sense of the word. Embracing the darkness, choosing passivity over activity. There is simply a time to be still. And the time is now.

Can you light the world without knowledge? Oh, so now we have light? Yes, but with a twist. We all know about lighting the world with knowledge. It wasn’t called the Enlightenment for nothing. With the invention of the Gutenberg printing press, there was a massive expansion of knowledge. But, can you light the world without knowledge?This “without knowledge” calls attention to all we presume we already know. And that presumption is a huge problem for us. The world would be a much “lighter” place if we didn’t presume we knew so much. Maybe now is a good time to go back to emptying our minds again. Concentrate on your breathing….

Can you give birth without possessing, raise without controlling? Well, that certainly makes “being female” important, if we are talking about giving birth. Unless you are a sea horse. But I don’t think I have any sea horses following me. Yet Lao-tzu isn’t talking about making babies, or raising children, here. What he is talking about is not “who” we give birth to, but “what.” It is all the things we do. From beginning to end. We talked about the work we do, in the last two verses. First, do it with skill. Next, when it is finished, let it go. Don’t try to possess it. Don’t try to control it. Just let it be.

Yes, this requires dark virtue. Something deep and mysterious, and unseen, inside of each one of us. But it is there. And we can all tap into that hidden strength. Use it. It is inexhaustible.

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.”

It seems so basic. Yet, we ignore Lao-tzu’s sage advice at our own peril. And, ignore it, we do. As Red Pine says in his own commentary on today’s verse, “This recipe for long life has been repeated in every civilized culture, and yet it has forever fallen on deaf ears.” Why is that?

I think it is quite clear. And we have been talking about it for days, now. The way of Humankind runs counter to the Way of the Tao.

We always want more. Surely, I can add just a little more. “Whoa there,” says Lao-tzu. “Better stop while you can.” “While you can” implies you can reach a point where you can’t stop. I think for some of us, it happens a whole lot sooner than we might think.

Rooms full of treasure. What a measure of the vanity of success! But those rooms will never be safe. Humankind’s vanity invites its own failure.

So, what is to be done? It is simple, really. Like I said, at the beginning of my commentary, it is basic. Just do your work, then stop.

As we said in yesterday’s verse, do your work with skill. Do your very best. But when it is done, treat it as if it were nothing. Let it go. Let it be. Don’t be attached to it. Don’t keep pouring. That vessel will only hold so much. Don’t keep sharpening. You only hasten it getting dull again.

Things flourish for a time, and then they die. Remember what Lao-tzu said, in yesterday’s verse, about moving with time? Don’t rush it. And don’t try to hold on to it. This is the Way!

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.”

As we said in the previous verse, Humankind are unique. We are free to choose between two very different alternatives.

Because we are human, we can choose not to follow the Tao. That is a downside to being human. The way of Humankind naturally runs counter to the Way of the Tao. We have talked about the downside of being human. We see ourselves as distinct. We are “self-aware.” We see ourselves as separate from all other beings. This results in competing. We want to end up in front, and on top. And we will use force, it just comes naturally to us, to get what we want. Of course, we are never quite satisfied once we get to the front and on top. Because the struggle to remain in front and on top must continue. You can’t take a holiday from that competing.

However, because we are human, we do have an alternative choice. Life doesn’t have to be a competition. It doesn’t have to be a struggle. We can choose to follow the Tao. But, to do this we are going to have to overcome some of our natural predispositions. Like the predisposition to resort to the use of force. To intervene. To interfere. To try to control. We need to practice not competing. And that word practice is important. For it will take practice.

Today’s verse shows us the Way.

Lao-tzu says the best are like water. Water is a favorite metaphor of Lao-tzu’s for the practice of the Way.

If you can be like water, then you approach the Tao.

What is water like?

Water brings help to all without trying to. It doesn’t require any effort, or struggle, to be itself. It nourishes all things, without trying. Water also chooses what others avoid. It always seeks the lowest places. Water flows downhill, naturally. It requires force of some kind to make water flow up hill. Lao-tzu will liken this attribute of water to humility.

And humility is a pretty good word to use for it, when you are using it as a metaphor for humans to use to approach the Tao. Lao-tzu says the best are like water. They bring help to all without competing. They choose what others avoid.

Dwelling in harmony with, rather than being antagonistic toward, the Earth. Humankind are unique in that we see our place as somehow against the natural order. We spend hours on end trying to overcome nature. We are at war with nature. That is what makes life such a struggle. Better, it would be for us, if we would stop competing with nature, and start working with it.

Thinking with depth. You are going to have to delve deeper to get to the inner reality inside of you. Being human, it is easy to limit ourselves to shallow thinking. But shallow thinking will keep us competing with others, with nature, with our true selves.

Helping with kindness. Don’t try to be kind. Kindness, as a motivation, leads to all sorts of evil being perpetrated on the Earth. But, if you can be like water, you will help without trying, without competing, and you can’t practice a greater kindness than that.

Speaking with honesty. Do I need to say it? This doesn’t mean saying the meanest, most cruel things, with the excuse that, “I was just being honest.” Speaking with honesty means your words aren’t contrary to the truth.

Governing with peace. This one is huge! Governing with peace means not using force. Not trying to control. Not intervening. Not interfering. Let people take care of themselves.

Working with skill means always doing your best. Don’t be sloppy. Shoddy workmanship is not a good sign of character. If you don’t care enough about your work to do your very best, find another line of employment.

Moving with time means going with the flow. Not rushing ahead, or trying to lag behind.

If you don’t compete, you won’t be maligned! How could you be maligned? You are operating in a completely different realm of existence. One very different from the way of Humankind.

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.

Being Human Is Problematic, But You Have a Choice

“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.”

In today’s verse, Lao-tzu goes back to talking about how very problematic life can be for Humankind. Lao-tzu talked about this before, in verse three. Heaven and Earth are governed in a particular Way; and Humankind alone, apparently of all beings in the Universe (at least, as far as I know), can attempt to live contrary to the governance of the Tao. The problem, says Lao-tzu, is when we live for ourselves. Being self-aware. Seeing ourselves as distinct from other beings.

Sages overcome this “natural” human tendency by “pulling themselves back,” and “putting themselves outside.” Now, this results in the sage “ending up in front,” and “being safe” inside. But the rest of Humankind aren’t naturally inclined to believe this will be the outcome for themselves, because they see themselves not as unique, but distinct from everything else. That selfness is a problem.

Yes, I think I may have just coined a new word there. Selfness as opposed to selfishness. Disciples of Ayn Rand don’t have to get their feathers ruffled as Lao-tzu pronounces his prescription for the problem of selfness.

To overcome the problem of selfness, sages practice “selflessness,” says Lao-tzu, and that results in “whatever they seek, they find.”

Selflessness isn’t the opposite of selfishness. It isn’t altruism, the sacrificing or negating of the self.

The practice of selflessness deals with the problem of being self-aware, of selfness. This practice results in the exaltation and realization of your true “self.” Notice, sages end up in front, on top, and safe inside. But, it doesn’t happen as a result of us trying to force our way to the front, or to the top.

Force is our “natural” inclination. But that is going counter to the Tao. Meaning, we aren’t in sync with the rest of the Universe. And we wonder why we aren’t content. Why enough is never enough. Why we are never satisfied.

Our problem is we see ourselves as distinct from, exclusive, rather than inclusive. And, just to be clear here. This isn’t about being a part of the whole creation, either. Oh we are, but we are so much more than just a part. We actually contain the whole Universe inside of us. That is the eternal reality. We just don’t see it. And because we don’t see it, we don’t act like that is our reality.

We need to realize our reality. That is the purpose of Lao-tzu’s teaching. He lays out a prescription for realizing our reality in each verse of the Taoteching. Just don’t be surprised when it seems to run counter to the way of Humankind. We see ourselves as distinct, when we should be celebrating our uniqueness.

Our uniqueness, what makes us human, means we have a choice. Other beings can’t help but follow the Way. But Humankind can choose to follow the Way. This is the reason that Lao-tzu, in a later verse, will list Humankind as one of the four great powers.

You have a choice. That means freedom. You are free to choose. So, choose wisely. The verses that follow will help you to do just that.

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).

Lao-tzu is still talking about the mystery of emptiness with today’s verse. As Lao-tzu has said in the verses which preceded this one, the Tao is “empty, like a bowl.” And, it could be called “heartless.” In today’s verse, Lao-tzu uses the metaphor of a valley to characterize the Tao’s emptiness.

As Wang Pi says in his commentary, “The valley is what is in the middle, what contains nothing, no form, now 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.”

And, 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 further explains the mysterious language which Lao-tzu uses in this verse. “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.”

In today’s verse, Lao-tzu tells of how dark and elusive the Tao is. In my commentary on the second verse, I talked about the difference between the objective (which is infinite and eternal), and the subjective (which is finite and temporal). One of our problems is that we want something that is tangible. Something we can hold on to. But, the Tao is anything but that. It is dark. Elusive. Still, it never changes. And it seems to do nothing.

This “doing nothing” will be a theme we will return to again and again throughout the Taoteching. But, what does it mean?

As Sung Ch’ang-hsing explains, “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.”

And Liu Ching further explains, “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.”

This is something we must always remember as we go about using the Tao. You don’t use it like Humankind uses most things. Indeed, you can’t. You can, however, use it with your spirit. It is as simple as breathing. And that, naturally. Anything more than that, anything that requires effort, is too much, and will only lead to exhaustion.

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.”

Is there virtue in being heartless? It would seem so. The Tao’s emptiness isn’t partial. It can be used by all, equally. But, what is that about treating creatures like straw dogs? Well, if you read the various commentators, you have some idea what a straw dog is. It sounds harsh. Like the Tao doesn’t care about us. Like sages don’t care. Are we really no more than straw dogs to them?

Forget the words, just understand the meaning (Wang Tao, above). Yes, we dismiss it as heartless. It is empty inside, just like a bellows. Talking about it won’t help you. Getting all bent out of shape because you aren’t something special won’t help. Just let that emptiness do its work in you.

No one is treated favorably. At the same time, no one is treated badly. Impartiality. True impartiality. Don’t let it scare you! It is exactly what we need in the world today.

If you are still getting hung up on being treated as straw dogs, go back and read through the various commentaries again, particularly Su Ch’e’s, Wang P’ang’s, Wang Tao’s, Hsin Tu-tzu’s, and Ho-shang Kung’s. It isn’t out of cruelty or kindness. It isn’t about love or hate. It is simply accepting that the way things are is the way things are. What! You would prefer partiality? But that wouldn’t be the Tao.

Empty but inexhaustible. You can use it again and again. Or, you can go on chattering away about how unfair life is. But I have to tell you. If you choose that course, it will all be in vain.

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).

The Meaning of Emptiness

“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. They 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).

In yesterday’s verse, Lao-tzu said the sage empties the mind. In today’s verse, Lao-tzu explains what emptiness means.

First of all, as Wu Ch’eng says in his commentary, “‘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.”

Empty like a bowl” means an emptiness that can be used. What can you use an empty bowl for? Pretty much anything. Emptying our minds, then, makes our minds useful. They really aren’t of much use to us when they are full of clutter, now, are they?

Now, try to imagine this: A mind so empty it can never become full again. What a glorious state “emptiness” is! This sort of emptiness is so deep, here Wu Ch’eng (once again) has something to say, “‘Deep’ means ‘what cannot be measured.’” In other words, this is an infinite emptiness.

The Tao’s emptiness dulls our edges, meaning (as Li Hsi-chai says in his commentary) it takes away all of our ambition. Dulling our edges means not insisting on anything.

It unties our tangles. This means having no fear. Untying every tangle means avoiding nothing (Once again, see Li Hsi-chai, above).

It softens our light. Here, Li Hsi-chai says those who follow the Tao don’t care about beauty. I am rather certain this refers to the subjective beauty, Lao-tzu talked about in verse two. Softening our light means forgetting about ourselves.

And while they didn’t care about beauty, they didn’t hate ugliness (once again, see Li Hsi-chai, above). It merges our dust so that we don’t abandon others.

This prescription, which is something Lao-tzu introduced in yesterday’s verse, is contrary to the Way of Humankind.

The Way of Humankind takes advantage of edges, as Wei Yuan says in his commentary, to create conflicts with others. It shines bright lights to illuminate their dust. But the emptiness of the Tao, by grinding down our edges, makes conflicts disappear. It dims the light and merges our dust with the darkness of understanding (see verse one).

Finally, the Tao’s emptiness is so clear. Here, Lu Nung-shih explains, “‘Clear’ describes what is deep, what seems present and yet not present, what seems to be not-present and yet not not-present.”

What’s that again? This just highlights what an enigma the Tao is. Lao-tzu marvels at it, as we all should. And he is careful with his words. “As if it were present.” And, “As if it were the ancestor of us all.” Does it even precede God? “It seems” so.

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 no 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, sages 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.”

I think this is a good time to point out a distinction Lao-tzu will be making throughout the Taoteching. The difference between “the Way of Heaven” (the Tao, the Way of Nature) and the “Way of Humankind.” Humankind are different from all other beings in the Universe. Humankind, unlike all other beings in the Universe (as far as we know), have the capacity to act contrary to the Way of Nature. This makes us unique. But, it also causes us certain problems.

Lao-tzu identifies a two-fold problem with humankind; knowing and wanting.

What is the problem with knowing? Notice, first of all, the problem isn’t with knowledge, per se. It is with knowing, or more precisely, thinking we know, or presuming.

And what is the problem with wanting? The problem is we aren’t satisfied with what we already have. We aren’t content. We want more. But the more we get, the more we want.

This two-fold problem, knowing and wanting, is the big problem Lao-tzu addresses with the Taoteching. And, today’s verse is his introduction to the two-fold solution to the problem.

The problem is subjectivity. As he talked about in yesterday’s verse. But how do we avoid subjectivity?

If you don’t bestow any honors, people won’t fight for them. If you don’t prize treasures, people won’t steal. If you don’t display attractions, people won’t make trouble.

This is how sages rule, or govern.

They empty the mind, but fill the stomach. They weaken the will, but strengthen the bones. In other words, they don’t fill the minds of the people with things to know and want.

Filled stomachs know no want. We all know what this is like. That feeling of satisfaction you have after you have just eaten a good meal. You are full. And you don’t want another bite.

This is the way to govern. Not just others, but yourself. If you know you don’t know, and are content so you don’t want, you won’t dare to act.

Daring to act is the consequence of knowing and wanting. As Wei Yuan says in his commentary on today’s verse: “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.”

It is important to point out that this rule of sages is not something which is forced on people. Force may be the Way of Humankind, but it isn’t the Way of Nature. Thus, it isn’t the Way of sages. As Liu Ching says in his commentary on today’s verse: “This verse describes how sages cultivate themselves in order to transform others.”

Sages are content to be an example for people. They are an example; and, they never force people to follow their example. Yet, because it is the Way of Nature, and the Way of Nature always prevails, the people naturally follow.

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.

This and That, and the Natural Order

“All the world knows beauty
but if that becomes beautiful
this becomes ugly
all the world knows good
but if that becomes good
this becomes bad
have and have not create each other
hard and easy produce each other
long and short shape each other
high and low complete each other
note and noise accompany each other
first and last follow each other
sages therefore perform effortless deeds
and teach wordless lessons
they don’t look after all the things that arise
or depend on them as they develop
or claim them when they reach perfection
and because they don’t claim them
they are never without them”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 2, translation by Red Pine)

LU HSI-SHENG says, “What we call beautiful or ugly depends on our feelings. Nothing is necessarily beautiful or ugly until feelings make it so. But while feelings differ, they all come from our nature, and we all have the same nature. Hence, sages transform their feelings and return to their nature and thus become one again.”

WU CH’ENG says, “The existence of things, the difficulty of affairs, the size of forms, the magnitude of power, the pitch and clarity of sound, the sequence of position, all involve contrasting pairs. When one is present, both are present. When one is absent, both are absent.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “These six pairs all depend on time and occasion. None of them is eternal. Sages, however, act according to the Immortal Tao. Hence, they act without effort. And because they teach according to the Immortal Name, they teach without words. Beautiful and ugly, good and bad don’t enter their minds.”

WANG WU-CHIU says, “Sages are not interested in deeds or words. They simply follow the natural pattern of things. Things rise, develop, and reach perfection. This is their order.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “Sages create but do not possess what they create. They act but do not depend on what they do. They succeed but do not claim success. These all result from selflessness. Because sages are selfless, they do not lose themselves. Because they do not lose themselves, they do not lose others.

SU CH’E says, “Losing something is the result of possessing something. How can people lose what they don’t possess?”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Lao-tzu’s 5,000 word text clarifies what is mysterious as well as what is obvious. It can be used to attain the Tao, to order a country, or to cultivate the body.”

HO-SHANG KUNG titles this verse: “Cultivating the Body.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Those who practice the Way put an end to distinctions, get rid of name and form, and make of themselves a home for the Way and Virtue.”

Today’s verse may just be the most important verse in the whole Taoteching, if you want to properly understand philosophical Taoism. At least, I think so. It is misunderstood by a great many, I used to fall in this camp. The problem with it is that we failed to understand what Lao-tzu taught us in the first verse.

Remember, in verse one, Lao-tzu introduced the Immortal Way and the Immortal Name, contrasting them with a way that becomes a way and a name that becomes a name. This really is vital to understand, or the rest of the book is going to largely be misunderstood, beginning with today’s verse.

So. we really have to understand what Lao-tzu is teaching. The way that becomes a way, the name that becomes a name – these are not the Immortal Way and Immortal Name.

That brings us to verse two, now. Where I, and a whole lot of other people have mistakenly believed that Lao-tzu is teaching there is no such thing as beauty or goodness.

But that conclusion flies in the face of what Lao-tzu taught us in verse one. There is such a thing as the Immortal Way. There is such a thing as the Immortal Name. Thus, there is such a thing as an objective, and eternal, beauty and goodness.

And, Lao-tzu begins today’s verse by saying all the world knows it. “All the world knows beauty…. All the world knows good….” The world knows it, because it is the eternal reality. And, Lao-tzu will be teaching, again and again, about this objective, eternal reality, throughout the Taoteching.

I understand that now. And I hope I cleared that up with my followers, as well.

But, there is a beauty and goodness that we, indeed, should be skeptical about. That is the subjective, and temporal. Once again, Lao-tzu teaches, “If that becomes beautiful, this becomes ugly…. If that becomes good, this becomes bad.” What Lao-tzu is talking about is what becomes beautiful, what becomes good. And we aren’t going to forget what Lao-tzu taught about the way that becomes a way, and the name that becomes a name: They aren’t the Immortal….

This, also, is something we simply must understand. This duality that exists. The yin-yang duality.

Have and have not, hard and easy, long and short, high and low, note and noise, first and last. You can’t have one without the other. They create each other, they produce each other, they shape each other, they complete each other, they accompany each other, they follow each other. This is the natural order. This is the Way things are.

Sages understand this. That is why they are careful about performing deeds and naming things. In light of the Way things are, the natural order, what is called for is effortless action and wordless lessons. Every effort, and every word spoken, take us farther away from the Way.

Things arise, they develop, they reach perfection. That is simply the natural order, the Way of things.

What is that to us? Let it be. Leave it alone. Don’t interfere with it. Don’t intervene. Don’t try to control. Don’t try to force things.

But somehow we feel we have some kind of vested interest in things. That has become beautiful to us, that has become good. And, “this” has become ugly and bad. But what is that? And, what is this?

That is something external to us. Something temporal. This is something internal, what you already have, with which you ought to be content. But because your focus has turned outward, looking after that that arises, depending on that, claiming that, you lose the most important thing of all. And for what? Those temporal things won’t last. They can’t last.

Oh, but if instead, you don’t look after all the things that arise, nor depend on them, nor claim them; you will never be without them, and you won’t lose the most important things of all.

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

LU HSI-SHENG (FL. 890). High official and scholar known for his wide learning. His commentary reflects the view that Lao-tzu and Confucius were the spiritual heirs of Fu Hsi (ca. 3500 B.C.), with Lao-tzu emphasizing the yin and Confucius the yang aspects of the Way of Heaven. Tao-te-chen-ching-chuan.

FU HSI (CA. 3500 B.C.). Sage ruler of ancient times and the reputed inventor of the system of hexagrams on which the Yiching is based.

WU CH’ENG (1249-1333). One of the great prose writers of the Yuan dynasty, surpassed only by his student Yu Chi (1272-1348). His commentary shows exceptional originality and provides unique background information. It is also noted for its division of the text into sixty-eight verses. Tao-te-chen-ching-chu.

LU HUI-CH’ING (1031-1111). Gifted writer selected by Wang An-shih to help draft his reform proposals. His commentary, presented to the emperor in 1078, is quoted at length by Chiao Hung. Tao-te-chen-ching-chuan.

WANG WU-CHIU (FL. 1056). Scholar-official. He gave up a promising official career in order to devote himself to studying and teaching. Lao-tzu-yi.

WANG AN-SHIH (1021-1086). One of China’s most famous prime ministers. His attempt to intorduce sweeping reforms directed against merchants and landowners galvanized Chines intellectuals into a debate that continues to this day. He was also one of China’s great poets and prose writers. His commentary has been reedited from scattered sources by Yen Ling-feng. Lao-tzu-chu.

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING (FL. 1700). Taoist master and seventh patriarch of the Dragon Gate sect of the Golden Lotus lineage. His commentary on the Taoteching was a favorite of Emperor K’ang-hsi (r. 1662-1722). Tao-te-ching chiang-yi.