Category Archives: Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching

Those Who Possess Virtue in Abundance Know How to Be Balanced

“He who possess 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”

(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).

In today’s verse, and tomorrow’s, Lao-tzu describes those who have an abundance of virtue. And, I am just going to say, right from the get-go, these are difficult verses for me to add my own commentary. In tomorrow’s verse, Lao-tzu basically instructs me to quit talking. “Those who know, don’t talk, and those who talk don’t know.” Well, I know I don’t know, so I shouldn’t dare talk. But, here I go, anyway…

What of those who possess this virtue, Lao-tzu has been talking about, in abundance?

They resemble a newborn child. This is a metaphor, and Lao-tzu seems to be intimately acquainted with newborn children.

They harm no one and no thing. And nothing can harm them.

They are weak and soft. Yet, they possess a hidden strength.

They know nothing of what begets life, yet they are full of the essence of life.

They can cry all day without ever getting hoarse. This, Lao-tzu says, shows the perfect balance of their yin and yang breath. Hsun-tzu says, “Everything must breathe to live. When we know how to breathe, we know to nurture life and how to endure.”

Knowing how to be balanced we endure. Knowing how to endure we become wise. But you can’t force it. As Wang An-shih says, “Life cannot be extended. But people keep trying and thus incur misfortune.” Try to force things, and your supposed strength will mature until you become old.

And what becomes old, dies. It ends early. That isn’t the Way, says Lao-tzu.

Now, with tomorrow’s verse we will hopefully get a better understanding of what it means to be 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”

(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.”

As I have mentioned previously, I am about two weeks ahead on the writing of my blog posts on these verses. And the reason for this is not just to keep my blogging free of the stress of meeting deadlines. More importantly, I have found that as I come to later verses I end up getting new insight into previous ones, and I have time to go back to revise earlier ones. In fact, I just did that with yesterday’s verse.

Lao-tzu has been talking about virtue for some time. In yesterday’s verse he came down hard on those who lacked virtue, saying their actions amounted to robbery. In today’s verse the subject is again, virtue, specifically the cultivation of virtue. And, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that virtue is defined as how you view others.

What may come as a surprise is what Lao-tzu means by how we view others. Remember, with yesterday’s verse, where Lao-tzu called our lack of virtue robbery? But he never identified the “others” we have robbed. I said, then, it is because we are the ones we have robbed.

To say that how we treat others is the measure of our virtue, would be to think that virtue is some external thing. Wait! Doesn’t how we treat others show either an abundance or a lack of virtue? Isn’t it universally acclaimed that treating others well is deemed virtuous, while no one ever claims treating others poorly is virtuous? When Lao-tzu calls us out for robbery, we know he isn’t commending us for our virtue.

What Lao-tzu wants, though, is for us to cultivate virtue in ourselves, in our families, in our villages, in our states, in our world. It is an internal thing. What you plant well, can’t be uprooted, what you hold well can’t be taken away. But, there is more to it than that. That is only a promise that the virtue we cultivate can’t be uprooted or taken away from us.

How we view others will have an external manifestation, it will be reflected in how we treat others. But, that is an end, not the means. If we view others as the means, if we view others as separate from ourselves, we are going to get it all backwards.

True Virtue, Lao-tzu proclaims, is viewing others through ourselves. You contain the ten thousand things within you. Others aren’t out there. Separate from us. That is an illusion. If you want to cultivate virtue in others, you have to cultivate it in yourself.

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.

Lao-tzu isn’t talking about external other worlds, here. Raising the question of whether life exists on other planets. The other worlds refer to each of us containing our own world within us. How do you know what other worlds are like? Through the world you contain within you.

Chuang-tzu’s commentary makes it so very clear. The reality of the Tao lies in concern for the self. It is an internal thing. Concern for external things is irrelevant. It is cow shit. The emperor’s work (meddling in external affairs) is not what develops the self or nourishes life. Thus, sages don’t occupy themselves with external things. The external is merely a hobby. It is treated as secondary.

The line, which Red Pine recalls, from the poem “Carving an Ax Handle” puts it quite well. “In carving an ax handle, the pattern is not far off.” The pattern is the virtue you cultivate in yourself. It isn’t far off. It is close at hand. It is what is planted well in your own heart.

Only Fear Going Astray

“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”

(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 no 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.”

Red Pine adds, in his explanatory notes, “The standard version of line three reads ‘only fear acting.’” That isn’t a bad translation. Lao-tzu certainly has devoted a lot of his Taoteching warning against acting. But, Red Pine notes, Wang Nien-sun sees a problem with that translation in today’s verse, suggesting shih (act) is a mistake for yi (go astray), and Red Pine agrees. I do, too. I think the context of following the Great Way, which is smooth, and contrasting it with people loving byways, makes it clear we don’t fear going astray as we ought. And the result, readily apparent to all, is superficiality, an uncultivated mind, a lack of virtue.

Lao-tzu names it with just one word: robbery. And Red Pine points out that that is a pun: “The words for robbery and Way are both pronounced tao.

Robbery is an apt description of what has taken place as we have loved byways rather than following the Way, though I have another word for it: Decadence.

Let’s look at the downward spiral again. Their palaces are spotless, but their fields are overgrown. Their fields are overgrown, while their granaries are empty. They wear fine clothes and carry sharp swords, yet they tire of food and drink. They possess more than they need. Yes, robbery. Yes, decadence.

If only we were sufficiently wise. If only we feared going astray. Why do we love those byways? Well, Lao-tzu already answered that question. It is because we aren’t sufficiently wise. It is because we don’t fear going astray. The Great Way is smooth. It will get you where you’re going, without any trouble. Wisdom cries out, “Don’t be foolish! Don’t go astray!” But we are fearless with regards to the only thing we should fear, while we instead fear what? Not being superficial enough?

Let’s be honest with ourselves. We already possess far more than we need. And it is through what amounts to robbery that we haveobtained it. But, this requires further clarification. Who exactly have we robbed? Lao-tzu doesn’t mention others at all in this verse. Oh, we might read between the lines and assume that Lao-tzu must mean the less fortunate don’t have enough because we aren’t giving enough out of our abundance. We do possess more than we need. Others don’t. So there is that.

But, I don’t think we should be assuming anything, here. We don’t want to be the proverbial ass. I think we are better off not trying to read between the lines. Lao-tzu doesn’t mention others because he is only concerned with ourselves. We have robbed ourselves!

This will be further explained in tomorrow’s verse on the cultivation of virtue within ourselves, our families, our villages, our states, and our world.

For today, let it be sufficient that we realize it is time to go back to following the Great Way. Are we sufficiently wise? And, do we sufficiently fear going astray?

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.

Holding On to the Constant

“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”

(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.”

“Holding on to the crescent”? What does that mean? Red Pine, in his explanatory notes, admits the word ch’ang normally means “constant.” But because ch’ang is also the name for the crescent moon, he decided to translate it ‘crescent.” Again, this is one of those few times where I choose to differ with Red Pine. I understand how much he has been influenced by Tu Er-wei in his interpretations. And, I think this has sometimes clouded his judgment. While the moon can sometimes be a fitting metaphor for the Tao, I would prefer to not take these metaphors so literally. For my own commentary, I am reading ch’ang as it normally means, “constant.” Hence the title of my commentary today, “Holding On to the Constant.”

Holding on to the constant has Lao-tzu comparing maiden with mother, “maiden” in verse one, is the metaphor for no-name, while the metaphor of name is mother. Naming, is something Lao-tzu has been talking about since verse one. And, always, he has warned us of the consequences. Once you open that gate, the naming never ends. The child, here, is the consequences. Find the mother, the name, and you will know the child. But, once you know the child, you will keep the mother safe. That is the only way to live without trouble.

Holding on to the constant has Lao-tzu comparing opening and closing, blocking and unblocking. It may seem odd that Lao-tzu is advocating blocking and closing, as opposed to unblocking and opening. Shouldn’t we want to be open?

Ah, let’s see if we can understand the nuance of what Lao-tzu is saying here. What does he mean by “unblock the opening”? It helps that he tells us with the very next line. Those who unblock the opening are those “who meddle in affairs.” In other words, the need to block the opening and close the gate has to do with keeping ourselves from going out and interfering.

Here, he then promotes the need to see the small. Those that do have vision. Protecting the weak means you are strong. Holding on to the constant means using your light, trusting your vision.

This is to live beyond death. This takes us back a couple verses, where we talked about transcending change, transcending life and death. By holding on to the constant we transcend change, and having transcended change, the immortal thing inside each of us, which we are cultivating, will live beyond death.

That might seem motivation enough to not want to meddle in affairs, to block the opening and close the gate. But the truth is, it isn’t enough. We simply don’t fear going astray as we ought. What are the possible reasons for this? Well, that will be the topic of our next verse, and that will have to wait until next week, on Monday. See you then…

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.”

As I am writing my commentary on today’s verse, on a schedule some two weeks ahead of when it will post, I am still reeling from the events of the previous weekend, where my friends and family on Facebook have been quite vocal in lambasting NFL players for taking a knee during the National Anthem, and so, according to them, disrespecting and dishonoring the flag, the country, and the men and women who have served in the armed forces. How timely, then, was it for me to come to today’s verse where Lao-tzu talks about what he calls “Dark Virtue,” where he talks of a respect and honor which is not conferred, but simply natural.

I have refrained, so far, from responding, though I have been thinking all along of some previous verses in the Taoteching, where Lao-tzu talked of the virtue of ritual. Ritual, you may recall, if you have been an avid reader of my posts, is one of the lower virtues Lao-tzu talks about. I don’t have much use for it, actually. But, it certainly does represent what I have witnessed on Facebook the last several days. This is the virtue, that when it doesn’t get the expected response, rolls up its sleeves and resorts to force.

Rather than this “light virtue” that wants to be seen, Lao-tzu is much more interested in Dark Virtue. One that is hidden. Dark and invisible. It isn’t ordered or controlled. And it doesn’t force or try to control. It isn’t conferred. It is simply natural.

Doing what is according to your nature. Natural. Up until this past weekend I actually thought that kneeling was a sign of respect and honor. Now I am being expected to believe it is a sign of dishonor and disrespect. And our Republican President Donald Trump tweeted that it was time football fans act. Interesting. That is why I thought it was also timely that I came across a certain quote by Albert Jay Nock, just before I began typing up this commentary:

“Republicanism permits the individual to persuade himself that the State is his creation, that State action is his action, that when it expresses itself it expresses him, and when it is glorified he is glorified. The republican State encourages this persuasion with all its power, aware that it is the most efficient instrument for enhancing its own prestige. Lincoln’s phrase, “of the people, by the people, for the people” was probably the most effective single stroke of propaganda ever made in behalf of republican State prestige.”

Yes, I think that quote taken from Nock’s Our Enemy, the State, is particularly apt for the moment. And, I must add how disheartened I am by the number of Christians (since I was raised Christian) who have posted things like “I stand for the flag, I kneel at the cross.” Really? Whatever happened to “Thou shalt have no other Gods”?

But, then, I must admit I knew the Church was in great distress when I first noticed the U.S. Flag being included center stage along with the Christian Flag (naturally) with an altar between them.

I apologize if any of you think I am a bit off topic with today’s commentary. It is just that sometimes current events are so telling. I will attempt to get back on topic with tomorrow’s verse.

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 the 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”

(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 the 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.”

This is one of those few times where I completely disagree with Red Pine on his interpretation. Perhaps, for no other reason than Wang Pi’s interpretation, along with Wang An-shih’s, was the first one to which I was exposed. But, in addition to that, I just think theirs fits more with what Lao-tzu says throughout the Taoteching. So, leaving aside the interpretations of Red Pine, Han Fei, and Tu Er-wei, I want to get to the actual meat of the verse.

Ch’eng Chu speaks of the ten thousand changes we all experience, life and death being paramount among these myriad changes. Saying, “People who cultivate the Tao are concerned with nothing except transcending these boundaries.”

That has certainly been my purpose in the years I have been reading through the Taoteching, and sharing my own commentary with my followers.

And, just so you know, my purpose has nothing to do with wishing to extend my physical life. I think that is a common misconception of Taoism. That somehow we are hoping to never die (physically).

Transcendence, though, means so much more. It is speaking of something beyond the physical realm. Indeed, the physical realm is largely a delusion. And often, Lao-tzu references it only in metaphorical terms. Physically, I am going to die. I was born, therefore, I am going to die. That is settled. What I am concerned with is something in me that was never born, and thus can never die. That is what I want to cultivate in me.

Being as Red Pine was mostly dismissive of Wang Pi’s interpretation, along with Wang An-shih’s, I want to go back once again to what they had to say: Three in ten people seek life because they hate death. Three in ten seek death because they hate life. And, three in ten live as if they were dead. We all know these people. They are us. Notice I am not excluding myself, here. We have all been there, done that. But, if you did the math, as I did, you know, that still leaves one in ten people. I want to be, and I think you do too, the one in ten that neither hate death, nor love life.

Wang Pi goes on to talk of eels and eagles, metaphorically, to explain how to live long. For eels, the boundaries of life and death are in the depths. For eagles, the boundaries are in the heights.

What we are seeking is to transcend those boundaries, to go deeper, or to go higher. To go beyond life and death. Su Ch’e has something to say about this very thing. He says the problem lies with not knowing yin like we do yang. If we were to know both yin and yang we would dwell where there is neither life nor death.

And Te-Ch’ing is particularly helpful: By cultivating what controls life, our nature, we return to what is real and forget bodily form, then our self becomes empty, then nothing can harm us. No self = no life. And no life = no death.

Finally, Chiao Hung concludes: Understanding this is the key to transcending change. My physical body is still going to die. Just like yours. But what I am cultivating on the inside of me, will live on.

How to Achieve Equality

“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”

(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.”

Today’s verse continues where Lao-tzu left off yesterday. “Having no mind” is the same as “find nothing to do” from the previous verse, where he contrasted the need to lose, with gaining more knowledge.

Let’s begin with what Red Pine says at the conclusion of the sages’ commentaries. “Sages have no mind of their own,” means sages have no thoughts, no goals, no intentions, no will, of their own.

As Yen Tsun says, “They are 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.

Wang P’ang warns that 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, don’t distinguish any differences between good and bad.”

And, Jen Fa-jung explains how ordinary people perceive with their ears and eyes and so concern themselves only with their own welfare. But sages cover their ears and eyes. They treat everyone, noble or commoner, rich or poor, with the same kindness and equality. Their mind merges with others.

I would rearrange the wording in lines nine and ten. I think it is better understood this way: “Sages are withdrawn in the world, they merge their mind with the world.” By “the world,” here, Lao-tzu means the ten thousand things. But, for our purposes keep in mind, you contain the ten thousand things internally. That is why it is so important to cover your ears and eyes so you won’t be distracted by the delusion of external things.

How else can you be good and true to both the good and the bad, and the true and the false, equally?

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”

(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. The 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).

We finished up last week with Lao-tzu saying “The farther people go, the less they know.” Yet, as he acknowledges in today’s verse, there is something to be gained every day by seeking learning. I certainly hope no one has ever gotten the idea that Lao-tzu, or philosophical Taoism, is anti-knowledge or anti-learning. I happen to work in the field of private education. And one thing I expect each of the children I work with each day, is that they will gain from the experience.

So what does he mean in contrasting gaining and losing, in today’s verse? What can we gain from losing, and lose in gaining?

Well, all along in his Taoteching he has been promoting cultivating the Tao in your own self. And that requires something very different from the lessons I give the children I teach. For them, I am providing something externally, that they don’t already have internally. Lao-tzu is teaching about something we already have internally, we just need to learn how to cultivate it. And seeking for knowledge externally, isn’t the Way.

What is the way? Instead of gaining, go for losing. What have you got to lose? Quite a bit, actually. But far from this losing resulting in loss for you, it will result in gain. This is the Way of the Tao. It always uses the complements of yin and yang to accomplish everything, while doing nothing.

I particularly like what Te-ch’ing and Kumarajiva have to say about all that we have to lose, and how to go about losing it.

Te-ch’ing says, those who seek the Tao begin by using wisdom to lose desires. Then, once they have lost their desires, they let loose of their wisdom. Thus they lose and lose again. The idea is to forget about both your mind and the world. And, all selfish desires being eliminated, you will find nothing left to do. As Lao-tzu puts it, “Nothing to do means nothing not done.” This is the practice of wei-wu-wei. This doing not doing means letting things be. Desires make us want to intervene and interfere, to force things in an attempt to control them. This is why it is so important to get rid of our desires. But, as Te-ching makes clear, even after we think we have eliminated all of our desires, if we think we can rely on our wisdom, we will still find something to do.

Kumarajiva says quite the same thing, just in a different way. First, we lose everything coarse, until we can forget about the bad. Then, we lose everything fine, until we can forget about the good. This is so important, because just about anyone who is out there doing something, thinks they are doing something good. So, it isn’t enough just to forget about the bad, what you dislike. You must go on to forget about the good, what you do like. This is the only way to cut yourself off from desire. Then, your virtue becomes one with the Tao, and you reach the state of doing nothing. I like what he adds at the end: While you do nothing, let others do what they want. Don’t try to prevent them! While you do nothing, there is nothing that isn’t done.

Do you want to rule your world? We are not talking about the external world, here. We are talking about the internal one. Can you master yourself? The key, says Lao-tzu, is don’t be busy.

It isn’t in doing, doing, doing, but in finding nothing to do. What have you got to lose, when you can gain the whole world?

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”

(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 whoa re 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.”

In today’s verse, Lao-tzu continues to teach on the art of being content with being content. And, it continues to be a matter of not looking to the external for what should be satisfied with the internal. Without going out your door, you can know the whole world. Without looking out your window you can know the Way of Heaven.

When we aren’t satisfied, aren’t content, with what we have inside of ourselves, and keep looking outside of ourselves, well as Lao-tzu puts it, the farther people go, the less they know.

And, just to be clear, here, Lao-tzu is talking about the knowledge of true contentment. The more we look outside ourselves, the less content we will be.

Sages know the contentment of being content without traveling. They can name it without actually seeing it. And, they succeed at it without trying. Effortlessly.

That’s it for today. I am thinking more commentary from me is another thing we can do without. But, Lao-tzu will have much more to say in the coming verses, and we will get to those beginning next week. See you then.

On the Contentment of Being Content

“When the Tao is present in the world
courier horses manure fields instead of roads
when the Tao is absent from the world
war horses are raised on the border
no crime is worse than yielding to desire
no wrong is greater than discontent
no curse is crueler than getting what you want
the contentment of being content
is true contentment indeed”

(Taoteching, verse 46, translation by Red Pine)

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “‘When the Tao is present’ means when the world’s rulers possess the Tao. In ordering their countries, they don’t use weapons, and they send courier horses back to do farm work. And in ordering themselves, they redirect their yang essence to fertilize their bodies.”

YEN TSUN says, “The lives of the people depend on their ruler. And the position of the ruler depends on the people. When a ruler possesses the Tao, the people prosper. When a ruler loses the Tao, the people suffer.”

WANG PI says, “When the Tao is present, contentment reigns. People don’t seek external things but cultivate themselves instead. Courier horses are sent home to manure fields. When people don’t control their desires, when they don’t cultivate themselves but seek external things instead, cavalry horses are bred on the borders.”

WU CH’ENG says, “In ancient times, every district of sixty-four neighborhoods was required to provide a horse for the army.”

CHIAO HUNG says, “A ‘border’ refers to the land between two states. When war horses are raised on the border, it means soldiers have not been home for a long time.”

THE YENTIEHLUN SAYS, “It is said that long ago, before the wars with the Northern Hu and the Southern Yueh, taxes were low, and the people were well off. Their clothes were warm, and their larders were stocked. Cattle and horses grazed in herds. Farmers used horses to pull plows and carts. Nobody rode them. During this period, even the swiftest horses were used to manure fields. Later, when armies arose, there were never enough horses for the cavalry, and mares were used as well. Thus, colts were born on the battlefield” (15).

LI HSI-CHAI says, “When the ruler possess the Tao, soldiers become farmers. When the ruler does not possess the Tao, farmers become soldiers. Someone who understands the Tao turns form into emptiness. Someone who does not understand the Tao turns emptiness into form. To yield to desire means to want. Not to know contentment means to grasp. To get what you want means to possess. Want gives birth to grasping, and grasping gives birth to possessing and there is no end to possessing. But once we know that we do not need to grasp anything outside ourselves, we know contentment. And once we know contentment, there is nothing with which we are not content.”

LU HSI-SHENG says, “When the mind sees something desirable and wants it, even though it does not accord with reason – there is no worse crime. When want knows no limit, and it brings harm to others, there is no greater wrong. When every desire has to be satisfied, and the mind never stops burning, there is no crueler curse. We all have enough. When we are content with enough, we are content wherever we are.”

LU TUNG-PIN says, “To know contentment means the Tao prevails. Not to know contentment means the Tao fails. What we know comes from our minds, which Lao-tzu represents as a horse. When we know contentment, our horse stays home. When we don’t know contentment, it guards the border. When the Tao prevails, we put the whip away.”

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “Material contentment is not contentment. Spiritual contentment is true contentment.”

With yesterday’s verse, Lao-tzu concluded “Those who know how to be perfectly still are able to govern the world.” Clearly, Lao-tzu is thinking a lot of how it is best to govern. It is something he brings up again and again, throughout his Taoteching. But, I resisted my inclination to go on a rant about how we are governed, preferring instead to apply the lesson to how we govern ourselves. With today’s verse, it is even harder for me not to start ranting. Lao-tzu is clearly talking war and peace, here. And, my followers are already well aware of my passion when it comes to being anti war.

But, before I rant, and hopefully it won’t even come to that, I want to thank one of our commentators today, Lu Tung-pin, who reminds us, Lao-tzu is speaking metaphorically. Horses refer to our minds. “When we know contentment, our horse stays home. When we don’t know contentment, it guards the border. When the Tao prevails, we put the whip away.”

That isn’t to say there isn’t a whole lot that could be said about how we are being governed in our world. US foreign policy is dreadful. I wish all of our rulers would read these words of Lao-tzu, and not just take them to heart, but put them into practice. It is the best way to govern.

But, understanding this is a metaphor for how we govern ourselves, that no crime is worse than yielding to desire, that no wrong is greater than discontent, that no curse is crueler than getting what you want, it is clear we need to master the art of being content being content.

Yen Tsun says “The lives of the people depend on their ruler.” One may wish to argue why the people find the need to be so dependent on a ruler. But, remembering this is a metaphor, let’s get to what the metaphor is really pointing out. Who or what rules you? Forget, for just a moment, those rulers who were elected to govern us, and focus on our one true governor. You might want to grab a mirror, for then you can look right at them.

It is me. It is you. We are the ones who ultimately govern, or rule, over our world. As Robert Heinlein once said, “I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do. I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do.” We are, each of us, free moral agents. Maybe it is time we started acting like it.

Wang Pi says, “When the Tao is present, contentment reigns.” Are you still looking in the mirror? Is the Tao present there? For remember, no matter what rulers surround you, you need to have the Tao present within you. If it is, contentment reigns. You won’t seek external things, instead cultivating the Tao within.

The real lesson of today’s verse is we need to learn true contentment. It isn’t something that depends on some external ruler, or external “anything,” like our bank account, or our job, or our family, or our friends, or where we live. We need to stop looking outside of ourselves in an attempt at “the pursuit of happiness”. We need to look within, find we already have everything we need, and go from there, content with being content. That is true contentment indeed.

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

YENTIEHLUN (DISCOURSE ON IRON AND SALT). A record of debates on government policies and other problems of the day compiled by Huan K’uan (fl. 73 B.C.).