How We Can Avoid Disaster

“Favor and disgrace come with a warning
honor and disaster come with a body
why do favor and disgrace come with a warning
favor turns into disfavor
gaining it comes with a warning
losing it comes with a warning
thus do favor and disgrace come with a warning
and why do honor and disaster come with a body
the reason we have disaster
is because we have a body
if we didn’t have a body
we wouldn’t have disaster
thus those who honor their body more than the world
can be entrusted with the world
those who cherish their body more than the world
can be encharged with the world”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 13, translation by Red Pine)

WANG CHEN says, “People who are favored are honored. And because they are honored, they act proud. And because they act proud, they are hated. And because they are hated, they are disgraced. Hence, sages consider success as well as failure to be a warning.”

SU CH’E says, “The ancient sages worried about favor as much as disgrace, because they knew that favor is followd by disgrace. Other people think favor means to ascend and disgrace means to descend. But favor cannot be separated from disgrace. Disgrace results from favor.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Those who gain favor or honor should worry about being to high, as if they were at the edge of a precipice. They should not flaunt their status or wealth. And those who lose favor and live in disgrace should worry more about disaster.”

LU NUNG-SHIH says, “Why does favor become disgrace and honor become disaster? Favor and honor are external things. They don’t belong to us. When we try to possess them, they turn into disgrace and disaster.”

SSU-MA KUANG says, “Normally a body means disaster. But if we honor and cherish it and follow the natural order in our dealings with others, and we don’t indulge our desires, we can avoid disaster.”

HUANG YUAN-CHI says, “We all possess something good and noble that don’t have to seek outside ourselves, something that the glory of power or position cannot compare with. People need only start with this and cultivate this without letting up. The ancients said, ‘Two or three years of hardship, ten thousand years of bliss.’”

WANG P’ANG says, “It isn’t a matter of having no body but of guarding the source of life. Only those who refuse to trade themselves for something external are fit to receive the kingdom.”

WANG PI says, “Those who are affected by favor and disgrace or honor and disaster are not fit to receive the kingdom.”

TSENG-TZU says, “The superior person can be entrusted with an orphan or encharged with a state and be unmoved by a crisis” (Lunyu: 8.6).

I will admit to being a bit taken aback; indeed, I had to reread it again a couple more times, because I thought I was misreading it, when I got to those last four lines of today’s verse. Honor their body more than the world? Cherish their body more than the world? I was remembering Stephen Mitchell’s interpretation of this verse, and it was very different. Red Pine explains that some versions indeed interpret the text “more than the world” as “as the world.” That certainly explains Stephen Mitchell’s take, but which one is more correct?

Red Pine notes that these same four lines are found in Chuangtzu: 11.2, where they are used to praise the ruler whose self-cultivation doesn’t leave him time to meddle in the lives of his subjects. And, they also appear in Huainantzu: 12, where they are used to praise the ruler who values the lives of his people more than the territory in which they live.

As some of the sages said in their commentaries, today, the injunction is to value the inner life over the external. Cultivate your own body. The world can take care of itself, without our meddling, if we will concentrate on taking care of our own selves.

Red Pine introduces the following additional sages, today:

SSU-MA KUANG (1019-1086). One of the most famous writers and political figures of the Sung dynasty and adversary of Wang An-shih. His multivolume history of China remains one of the most thorough treatments of China’s past up through the T’ang dynasty. His commentary interprets Lao-tzu’s text using Confucian terminology and neo-Confucian concepts.

TSENG-TZU (B. 505 B.C.). Disciple of Confucius and author of the Hsiaoching (Book of Piety). His views are also quoted at length in the Lunyu and the Tahsueh.

Pick This Over That

“The five colors make our eyes blind
the five tones make our ears deaf
the five flavors make our mouths numb
riding and hunting make our minds wild
hard-to-get goods make us commit crimes
thus the rule of the sages
favors the stomach over the eyes
thus they pick this over that”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 12, translation by Red Pine)

RED PINE explains the significance of the number five in today’s verse: “The early Chinese liked to divide everything into five basic states of existence. They distinguished things as made up of varying amounts of water, fire, wood, metal, and earth. And each of these came with its corresponding color: blue, red, black, white, and yellow; its corresponding flavor: salty, bitter, sour, pungent, and sweet; and its corresponding tone: la, sol, mi, re, and do.”

YEN TSUN says, “Color is like an awl in the eye. Sound is like a stick in the ear. Flavor is like an ax through the tongue.”

TE CH’ING says, “When the eyes are given free rein in the realm of form, they no longer see what is real. When the ears are given free rein in the realm of sound, they no longer hear what is real. When the tongue is given free rein in the realm of flavor, it no longer tastes what is real. When the mind is given free rein in the realm of thought, it no longer knows what is real. When our actions are given free rein in the realm of possession and profit, we no longer do what is right. Like Chuang-tzu’s tapir [Chuangtzu: 1.4], sages drink from the river, but only enough to fill their stomachs.”

WU CH’ENG says, “Desiring external things harms our bodies. Sages nourish their breath by filling their stomach, not by chasing material objects to please their eyes. Hence, they choose internal reality over external illusion. But the eyes can’t help seeing, and the ears can’t help hearing, and the mouth can’t help tasting, and the mind can’t help thinking, and the body can’t help acting. They can’t stay still. But if we let them move without leaving stillness behind, nothing can harm us. Those who are buried by the dust of the senses or who crave sensory stimulation lose their way. And the main villain in this is the eyes. Thus, the first of Confucius’ four warnings concerned vision [Lunyu: 12.1: not to look except with propriety], and the first of the Buddha’s six sources of delusion was also the eyes.”

LI YUEH says, “The eyes are never satisfied. The stomach knows when it is full.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “The main purpose of cultivation is to oppose the world of the senses. What the world loves, the Taoist hates. What the world wants, the Taoist rejects. Even though color, sound, material goods, wealth, and beauty might benefit a person’s body, in the end they harm a person’s mind. And once the mind wants, the body suffers. If we can ignore external temptations and be satisfied with the way we are, if we can cultivate our mind and not chase material things, this is the way of long life. All the treasures of the world are no match for this.”

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “‘Hard-to-get goods’ refer to things that we don’t possess by nature but that require effort to obtain. When we are not content with our lot and allow ourselves to be ruled by conceit, we turn our back on Heaven and lose the Way.”

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “‘That’ refers to the blindness and delusion of the eyes. ‘This’ refers to the fullness and wisdom of the stomach.”

And RED PINE adds, “‘This’ also refers to what is within easy reach, while ‘that’ refers to what can be obtained only with effort. Until as late as the early twentieth century, vast tracts of land in northern China were set aside for the exclusive use of the nobility and the military for conducting group hunts to practice their riding and archery.”

“Pick this over that.” This rule of the sages is not a rule they imposed upon others, but upon themselves. But, if others would follow their example, how happy we all would be.

It is time to take back ownership of your self. You can’t be content, until you choose to be content. The external forces arrayed against you are great. But you, and you alone, have the power within you to not allow your self to be swayed by the external illusion. Our stomachs tell us when they are full. We ignore that at our own peril.

A week ago, I got an anonymous message from someone who wanted to know more about the practice of Taoism, but having no Taoist temples to inquire within. I wish I had had this chapter handy to answer this person. For, this is the essence of the practice of Taoism. Practice this, and your own body will be your temple.

Much Ado About Nothing?

“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 wouldn’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.”

HUANG YUAN-CHI says, “What is beyond form is the Tao. What has form are tools. Without tools we have no means to apprehend the Tao. And without the Tao there is no place for tools.”

HSUEH HUI says, “At the end of this verse, Lao-tzu mentions both existence and nonexistence, but his intent is to use existence to show that nonexistence is more valuable. Everyone knows existence is useful, but no one pays attention to the usefulness of nonexistence.”

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.”

Is this just much ado about nothing? It seems Lao-tzu can’t talk enough about the nothing we pretty much look over without giving a second thought. So much emptiness! It is all around us, and within us. Without it, the something we use wouldn’t be able to be used. Nonexistence precedes existence, just like yin comes before yang. We ought to be mindful of that. We lead too much with yang, when yin should take precedence.

Red Pine introduces these additional sages, today:

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.

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.

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 the 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 says, “The Chinese say that the hun, or bright, ethereal, yang soul, governs the upper body and 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.” (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.’”

Lao-tzu’s seven rhetorical “Can you” questions are both deep and dark, just like the virtue they call for. The various commentators do a much better job, than I could, of explaining their mystery. All I would add is this: While they can all be answered in the affirmative, few are those who put this virtue into practice. I guess it wouldn’t be considered a virtue, if it was otherwise. Still, if we would live our lives in such a way that we had without possessing, and never sought to control, we would immediately know the contentment, Lao-tzu offers those who follow the Tao.

Red Pine introduces the following sages in his commentaries for 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.

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.

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).

It Has Forever Fallen on Deaf Ears

“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 Houhunshu’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 signed, ‘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 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 has forever fallen on deaf ears.” What a sad, yet true, commentary on the human race. It is something which has long bothered me. I tell myself, “This is just common sense!” But common sense is apparently not at all common. We keep filling, we keep sharpening, we keep accumulating, never having enough, never knowing when enough is enough, never knowing when to stop. Being content is treated like it is a defect in character. Like there is some kind of virtue in wanting more, more.

Red Pine introduces the following sources in his commentaries for 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).

SSU-MA CH’IEN (145-85 B.C.). Authored with his father, Ssu-ma T’an, th 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.

Who is Going to Compete With Them?

“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 he be maligned?”

HAN FEI says, “If a drowning man drinks it, he dies. If a thirsty man drinks it, he lives.”

The greatest of virtues is being like water. Lao-tzu will teach us this, again and again. It nourishes all things without having to compete. It doesn’t compete or try to be higher, being content with the lowest place. Thus, it chooses what others avoid. So, no one competes with it. How do we practice being like water? By following its ways.

Red Pine introduces these additional 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.

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 the Chi-hsia academy that flourished in 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.

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.

The Practice of Selflessness

“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 and Earth is immortal’ was apparently an old saying, whch 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 origini 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 harm.”

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 safes 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 caere 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 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 not 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.”

While Ayn Rand may be spinning in her grave right now, I don’t think the selflessness Lao-tzu is talking about has anything to do with the altruism, the sacrificing of the self, which she so despised. It isn’t a sacrifice of self that Lao-tzu is advocating, here. He is only bringing out what another tradition calls the “original sin,” the curse of our self-awareness, our knowledge of good and evil. And, he has talked about this before, back in verse two. Because we know what is good, we also know what is bad. And, in our trying to avoid the bad, in trying to have only the good, we only make for ourselves a much worse life. The Way of Heaven and Earth, indeed all of the ten thousand things, don’t behave in such a way. Humankind, alone, is cursed. Is there a solution? There is, but don’t look outside of yourself to find it.

I like what Ch’eng Chu has to say in his commentary. “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.” Indeed. We aren’t the ones afraid of death and dying. We have merely learned how to be content. That is something only those who look deep enough within themselves can truly find. Deep within, deeper than even our own selves, our own will, our own desires. There you will find that empty space, which is the Tao. Use it, and you won’t have to be ahead or above anyone else.

Red Pine introduces the following sages’ commentaries today:

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.

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 Husan-ying, and Yen tsun, as well as those of Hsuan-tsung and Ho-shang Kung.

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.

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.

Not the How, But the Why

“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 the 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).

I have little I wish to add to the various commentaries on valley spirits, dark wombs, and gossamer silk. I don’t think Lao-tzu is necessarily equating the Tao with these things, but merely comparing them. The point being, just like these things, with which his contemporaries would have been familiar, the Tao is mysterious – elusive. I do really appreciate what Te-Ch’ing has to say about it all, though. Not the how, but the why, it is, that the Tao is inexhaustible. Being one with the Tao, not-doing, is acting without purpose. It is being care-free. We try too much, and too hard. We fill our days with purposeful actions, and exhaust ourselves, with still plenty left to do. The Tao does nothing and leaves nothing not done. There is no explaining the how; that is a mystery. But, the why? That, I think, is well worth considering.

Red Pine introduces these additional sources in his commentaries for today’s verse:

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.

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.

TU TAO-CHIEN (FL. 1264-1306). Taoist master and author of commentaries to a number of Taoist classics. His Taoteching commentary makes extensive us of quotes from the Confucian classics.

LIEH-TZU (FL. 4TH C. B.C.). Taoist master about whom we know nothing other than that he could ride like 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.”

SU CH’E says, “Heaven and Earth aren’t partial. They don’t kill living things out of cruelty or give them 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” (Lietzu: 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.”

Today’s verse is brutal, calling the Tao heartless, and treating our fellow human beings as straw dogs. But, if you want to understand, you will, forgetting about the words. If you practice impartiality perfectly, you will be called “heartless.” People won’t understand you. They won’t understand why you won’t intervene, why you won’t do something, about their particular problem. But, like a straw dog, or a Christmas tree, you know whatever has them all worked up will only be for a time; and then, it will return to nothing. To neither love, nor hate, to be perfectly impartial – I am a long way from this. But, I can see the virtue in it. Like a bellows, it is empty. It breathes in, and breathes out. That is all it does.

Red Pine introduces these additional sages today:

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.

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.

HSIN TU-TZU – Interlocutor in Liehtzu: 8.25.

Empty, Like a Bowl

“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 possess 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 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.”

The Tao is so empty, so deep, so clear… In yesterday’s verse Lao-tzu talked about both emptying and filling, so there is a place for filling. But today, Lao-tzu’s emphasis is on emptying. That has to come first. Just like the new moon precedes its waxing, you can’t be filled until you are fully emptied. And, that is where the Tao comes in. Empty, like an empty bowl. With what will it be filled? The possibilities are inexhaustible. But, it has to, first, be empty. And, so do we. Here the deepness, which is the Tao, must be plumbed, fully. We need to look deep without our own selves. Our edges have to be dulled. Our tangles, untied. Our dust merged. Until we are clear. So clear, we are present. Just like the Tao is present. Present but not-present; not-present but not not-present.

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.).

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.

JEN CHI-YU (B. 1916). Professor of religion and philosophy at Beijing University. His many publications include an English translation of the Taoteching.