“The appearance of Empty Virtue
this is what comes from the Tao
the Tao as a thing
waxes and wanes
it waxes and wanes
but inside is an image
it wanes and waxes
but inside is a creature
it’s distant and dark
but inside is an essence
an essence that is real
inside which is a heart
throughout the ages
its name hasn’t changed
so we might follow our fathers
how do we know what our fathers were like
by means of this”
(Taoteching, verse 21, translation by Red Pine)
WANG PI says, “Only when we take emptiness as our virtue can our actions accord with the Tao.”
SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Sages have it. So does everyone else. But because others are selfish and attached, their virtue isn’t empty.”
HUANG YUAN-CHI says, “Emptiness and the Tao are indivisible. Those who seek the Tao cannot find it except through emptiness. But formless emptiness is of no use to those who cultivate the Tao.”
YEN LING-FENG says, “Virtue is the manifestation of the Way. The Way is what Virtue contains. Without the Way, Virtue would have no power. Without Virtue, the Way would have no appearance.”
SU CH’E says, “The Tao has no form. Only when it changes into Virtue does it have an appearance. Hence, Virtue is the Tao’s visual aspect. The Tao neither exists nor does not exist. Hence, we say it waxes and wanes, while it remains in the dark unseen.”
CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “The true Tao exists and yet does not exist. It does not exist and yet does not not exist. Lao-tzu says it waxes and wanes to stress that the Tao is not separate from things, and things are not separate from the Tao. Outside of the Tao, there are no things. And outside of things, there is no Tao.”
WU CH’ENG says, “‘Inside’ refers to Virtue. ‘Image’ refers to the breath of something before it is born. ‘Creature’ refers to the form of something after it is born. ‘Distant and dark’ refers to the utter invisibility of the Tao.”
CHANG TAO-LING says, “Essence is like water; the body is its embankment, and Virtue is its source. If the heart is not virtuous, or if there is no embankment, water disappears. The immortals of the past treasured their essence and lived, while people today lose their essence and die.”
WANG P’ANG says, “Essence is where life and the body come from. Lao-tzu calls it ‘real’ because once things become subject to human fabrication, they lose their reality.”
And RED PINE explains, “In China people trace their descent through their male parent. The male is visible, the female hidden. Lao-tzu is nourished by his mother (Tao) but follows his father (Te).”
Today’s verse may seem difficult to understand; but, if you stop trying so hard to understand it, it just might make perfect sense. In my commentary a couple of verses ago, we were looking at a saying of Chuang-tzu. “When springs dry up, fish find themselves in puddles, spraying water on each other to keep each other alive. Better to be in a river or lake and oblivious of one another.”
I said, about that saying, that it isn’t that the spring has really dried up. It just seems as if it has. There just may be a blockage. We need to delve a bit deeper to find the vast reservoir that is there to be used. We behave like fish in puddles, when there are rivers and lakes we could be swimming in. Wouldn’t it be better to be oblivious of each other, and not oblivious of our source?
Ah, but overcoming our oblivion with regard to our source? That can be quite the difficulty. That emptiness is unnerving. No wonder we are spraying water on each other! But Lao-tzu insisted we must get rid of all substitutes for the Tao, before we can begin again to accord with the Tao. We need to be empty, because the Tao is empty.
What Su Ch’e and Ch’eng Hsuan-ying have to say here is of a whole lot more help to us than we might at first understand.
“The Tao has no form. Only when it changes into Virtue does it have an appearance. Hence, Virtue is the Tao’s visual aspect. The Tao neither exists nor does not exist. Hence, we say it waxes and wanes, while it remains in the dark unseen.”
“The true Tao exists and yet does not exist. It does not exist and yet does not not exist. Lao-tzu says it waxes and wanes to stress that the Tao is not separate from things, and things are not separate from the Tao. Outside of the Tao, there are no things. And outside of things, there is no Tao.”
It has been more than thirty years since I took that intro to philosophy course in college. As I remember it, Western philosophy seemed to be quite taken up with the question of essence and existence. Which came first?
Taoists might have a good laugh at that. They would say that they arise together.
This is important for us to understand because we try so hard to distinguish them. And, we really need to stop doing that.
Waxing and waning. Waxing and waning, waning and waxing. We keep looking for permanence, when the only thing which remains permanent is the state of flux which is our reality.
Red Pine introduces the following sage with today’s verse:
YEN LING-FENG (B. 1910). Classical scholar and specialist in Taoteching studies. In addition to his own books on the subject, he republished most of the surviving commentaries in his monumental Wu-ch’iu-pei-chai lao-tzu chi-ch’eng, including a number of “lost” commentaries that he reconstructed from diverse sources. Lao-tzu chang-chu hsin-pien.