By Means of This

“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”

-Lao-tzu-
(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.

Choosing to Differ

“Get rid of learning and problems will vanish
yes and no
aren’t so far apart
lovely and ugly
aren’t so unalike
what others fear
we can’t help fear too
before the moon begins to wane
everyone is overjoyed
as if they were at the great Sacrifice
or climbing a tower in spring
I sit here and make no sign
like an infant that doesn’t smile
lost with no one to turn to
while others enjoy more
I alone seem deficient
with a mind like that of a fool
I’m so simple
others look bright
I alone seem dim
others are certain
I alone am confused
ebbing like the ocean
waxing without cease
everyone has a goal
I alone am dumb and backward
for I alone choose to differ
preferring still my mother’s tit”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 20, translation by Red Pine)

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “When we give up the study of phenomena and understand the principle of noninterference, troubles come to an end and distress disappears.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “What passes for learning in the world never ends. For every truth found, two are lost. And while what we find brings joy, losses bring sorrow – sorrow that never ends.”

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “Wei [yes] indicates agreement and k’o [no] disdain.

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Even though ‘yes’ and ‘no’ come from the same source, namely the mouth, ‘yes’ is the root of beauty, and ‘no’ is the root of ugliness. Before they appear, there is nothing beautiful or ugly and nothing to fear. But once they appear, if we don’t fear one or ther other, disaster and harm are unavoidable.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “What others love, the sage also loves. What others fear, the sage fears, too. But where the sage differs is that while others don’t see anything outside their own minds, the mind of the sage wanders in the Tao.”

WANG P’ANG says, “Everything changes into its opposite. Beginning follows end without cease. But people think everything is either beautiful or ugly. How absurd! Only the sage knows that the ten thousand ages are the same, that nothing is gained or lost.”

SU CH’E says, “People all drown in what they love: the beauty of the Great Sacrifice, the happiness of climbing to a scenic viewpoint in spring. Only the sage sees into their illusory nature and remains unmoved. People chase things and forget about the Tao, while the sage clings to the Tao and ignores everything else, just as an infant only nurses at it mother’s breast.”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “People all see external things, while sages alone nourish themselves on internal breath. Breath is the mother, and spirit is the child. The harmony of mother and child is the key to nourishing life.”

And, RED PINE adds, “Another verse in which Lao-tzu chooses the crescent moon, while others choose the full moon. In ancient China, emperors marked the return of swallows to their capitals in spring with the Great Sacrifice to the Supreme Intermediary, while people of all ranks climbed towers or hiked into the hills to view the countryside in bloom and to celebrate the first full moon.”

Yesterday, I promised we were going to delve deeper. In today’s verse, Lao-tzu talks about being different, of the need to be different, from everyone else.

It begins with getting rid of distinctions, between yes and no, between lovely and ugly. These distinctions are something we have learned. Newborns at their mothers’ breasts don’t have any knowledge of them. And, all of our problems, says Lao-tzu, can be traced back to this learning. We need some serious unlearning. Yes and no aren’t nearly as far apart as we imagine them to be. Lovely and ugly aren’t so unalike.

Sages have the same fears we all have. What makes them different is their disaffection, their detachment.

Everyone is so easily moved. Their emotions change suddenly and erratically. Vacillating between manic and depression. Meanwhile Lao-tzu sits there making no sign, like an infant before it can smile. While everyone wants more, Lao-tzu is content with less. He seems deficient, simple, dim, like a fool; while others appear bright, brilliant, clever. Everyone is certain. Lao-tzu, alone seems confused. Everyone has a goal, Lao-tzu alone seems dumb and backward.

Everyone else seeks external things, Lao-tzu encourages us to stop looking outside of ourselves. To instead look within, to go back to our mother’s tit.

Things to Get Rid of, Things to Add

“Get rid of wisdom and reason
and people will live a hundred times better
get rid of kindness and justice
and people once more will love and obey
get rid of cleverness and profit
and thieves will cease to exist
but these three saying are incomplete
hence let these be added
display the undyed and preserve the uncarved
reduce self-interest and limit desires”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 19, translation by Red Pine)

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Get rid of the works of wisdom and reason and return to the primeval. The symbols and letters created by the Five Emperors were not as effective ruling the kingdom as the simple knots used earlier by the Three Sovereigns.”

TE-CH’ING says, “This is what Chaung-tzu meant when he said, ‘Tigers and wolves are kind.’ Tigers and wolves possess innate love and obedience that don’t require instruction. How much more should Humankind, the most intelligent of creatures, possess these.”

WANG CHEN says, “Put an end to wisdom that leaves tracks and reason that deceives, and people will benefit greatly. Put an end to condescending kindness and treacherous justice, and relatives will come together on their own and will once more love and obey. Put an end to excessive cleverness and personal profit, and armies will no longer appear. And when armies no longer appear, thieves will cease to exist.”

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “These three only help us get rid of things. They don’t explain cultivation. Hence, they are incomplete.”

WANG PI says, “Wisdom and reason are the pinnacle of ability. Kindness and justice are the acme of behavior. Cleverness and profit are the height of practice. To tell us simply to get rid of them would be inappropriate and wouldn’t make sense without giving us something else. Hence, we are told to focus on the undyed and the uncarved.”

CHIAO HUNG says, “The ways of the world become daily more artificial. Hence, we have names like wisdom and reason, kindness and jusice, cleverness and profit. Those who understand the Tao see how artificial thse are and how inappropriate they are in ruling the world. They aren’t as good as getting people to focus their attention on undyed cloth and uncarved wood. By displaying what is undyed and preserving what is uncarved, our self-interest and desires wane. The undyed and the uncarved refer to our original nature.”

LIU CHING says, “‘Undyed’ means unstained by anything else and thus free of wisdom and reason. ‘Uncarved’ means complete in itself and thus free of kindness and justice. ‘Self-interest’ concerns oneself. And ‘desires’ concern others. As they diminish, so do cleverness and profit.”

SU CH’E says, “Confucius relied on kindness and justice, ritual and music to order the kingdom. Lao-tzu’s only concern was to open people’s minds, which he accomplished through the use of metaphor. Some people, though, have used his metaphors to create disorder, while no great problems have been caused y the followers of Confucius.”

And RED PINE adds, “Get rid of sayings, and people will be their own sages.”

We have been talking for the last couple of days about substitutes for the Tao. Substitutes like kindness and justice, and like wisdom and reason. These substitutes don’t seem so bad. What could possibly be bad about kindness and justice, wisdom and reason?

Well, they aren’t bad, in and of themselves. Be kind and just, and people will love you. Be wise and employ reason, and people will fear (respect) you. But, there is one reason they are bad. And, that is because they are used as substitutes for the Tao. Because they are an artificial means to an end which the whole world would be better off reaching through natural means.

I thought the quote attributed to Chuang-tzu, which Red Pine included in his commentary for yesterday’s verse, was quite poignant in illustrating this point. “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 ad oblivious of one another.”

We need to get back to the river or lake. How could we ever be content in our current state of being in small puddles?

In today’s chapter, Lao-tzu shows us the way out of the puddles and back to the river or lake.

Get rid of the substitutes! Throw them out! Be done with them!

Of course, this prescription is going to be met with resistance. The powers that be have devised a rather lucrative fish-spraying apparatus for puddle dwellers. Fish who aren’t content to stay in their puddles? That want to swim in a river or lake again? Don’t they care about their fellow fish? Not everyone can escape those puddles, you know. They should check their privilege! Everyone needs to contribute their fair share to the spraying.

I won’t go on with that little analogy. I am certain you get the point.

And, anyway, Lao-tzu is well aware that just abandoning the puddles isn’t enough. Something does need to be added.

If we are going to be back in the rivers and lakes, swimming again, we need a whole lot more water.

Water, being a metaphor for the Tao, of course. But the spring has dried up!

Well, what is much more likely is it has gotten a bit stopped up. If we dig a bit deeper, I bet we fill find a vast reservoir of untapped water there to be used.

That delving deeper is getting back to our original nature: The undyed and uncarved. It reduces self-interest and limits desires. Tomorrow, we will delve deeper.

When This Disappears, That Appears

“When the Great Way disappears
we meet kindness and justice
when reason appears
we meet great deceit
when the six relations fail
we meet obedience and love
when the country is in chaos
we meet upright officials”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 18, translation by Red Pine)

Connecting this with the previous verse, WEI YUAN says, “What people love and praise are kindness and justice. What people fear is reason. And what people despise is deceit.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “It isn’t the Great Way that leaves Humankind and goes into hiding. it’s Humankind that leaves the Great way and replaces it with kindness and justice.”

SU CH’E says, “When the Great Way flourishes, kindness and justice are at work. But people don’t realize it. Only after the great Way disappears, do kindness and justice become visible.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “The Way hides in formlessness. Names arise from discontent. When the Way hides in formlessness, there isn’t any difference between great or small. When names arise from discontent, we get distinctions such as kindness, justice, reason, and so forth.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “When the kingdom enjoys peace, no one thinks about kindness, and the people are free of desire. When the Great Way prevails, kindness and justice vanish, just as the stars fade when the sun appears.”

MENCIUS says, “Kindness means dwelling in peace. Justice means taking the right road” (Mencius: 4A.10).

TE CH’ING says, “Reason is what the sage uses to order the kingdom. It includes the arts, measurements, and laws. In the High Ages, people were innocent, and these were unknown. In the Middle Ages, people began to indulge their feelings, and rulers responded with reason. And once reason appeared, the people responded with deceit.”

WANG PI says, “The six relations are between father and son, elder and younger brothers, husband and wife. When these six relations are harmonious, the country governs itself, and there is no need for obedience, love, or honesty.”

WANG P’ANG says, “During a virtuous age, obedience and love are considered normal. Hence, no one is called obedient or loving. Nowadays, when someone is obedient or loving, we praise them. This is because the six relations are no longer harmonious. Moreover, when peace prevails, everyone is honest. How can there be honest officials?

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “When the realm is at peace, loyalty and honesty are nowhere to be seen. Innocence and virtue appear when the realm is in chaos.”

LI JUNG says, “During the time of the sage emperors Fu Hsi and Shen Nung, there was no mention of officials. It was only during the time of the despots Chieh and Chou that we begin to hear of ministers such as Kuan Lung-feng and Pi Kan.”

WU CH’ENG says, “Shao Juo-yu assigns these four divisions to emperors, kings, the wise, and the talented.”

CHUANG-TZU says, “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” (Chuangtzu: 6.5).

In some copies, line 1 of today’s verse begins with ku (therefore). As I noted in my commentary on verse 17 this past Friday, many commentators have concluded that verse 17 and 18 may have been one once. This seems plausible to me, given that today’s verse does read like an explanation of the previous one. Then again, every verse is connected; and verse 19, which we will get to tomorrow will likewise continue this same thread.

But, I don’t want to get ahead of myself. Let’s look back at the previous verse. As you may recall, verse 17 recounted how things had spiraled down since the time of the reigns of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors. That was some 4500 years ago. These legendary rulers exercised power so unobtrusively, the people hardly knew they were there.

But, no rulers since then have been so virtuous. As their virtue diminished, the country experienced decline. After leaving the Tao behind, rulers first governed with kindness and justice, and were loved and praised. But that didn’t last. Then, they tried reason, laws and punishments. That caused the people to fear them. Finally, they resorted to the use of force and deceit, leading to the people despising them.

One thing I have learned about history is that any lesson to be learned from it, the Chinese learned long before us.

And now, not just the country, but the whole world seems to be in chaos.

Note what Wang P’ang says about the six relations failing: “During a virtuous age, obedience and love are considered normal. Hence, no one is called obedient or loving. Nowadays, when someone is obedient or loving, we praise them. This is because the six relations are no longer harmonious. Moreover, when peace prevails, everyone is honest..”

And, Ch’eng Hsuan-ying adds, “When the realm is at peace, loyalty and honesty are nowhere to be seen. Innocence and virtue appear when the realm is in chaos.”

The six relations have failed. We are no longer living harmoniously. It once happened naturally. Now, try as we might, we can’t even manage to fake it.

There is simply no substitute for the Tao. And that is best illustrated by what Chuang-tzu said, “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.”

That Was Then

“During the High Ages people knew they were there
then people loved and praised them
then they feared them
finally they despised them
when honesty fails
dishonesty prevails
hesitate and weigh your words
when their work succeeds
let people think they did it”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 17, translation by Red Pine)

RED PINE begins the commentary by pointing out, “The Chinese of Lao-tzu’s day believed their greatest age of peace and harmony occurred during the reigns of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors, or 2,000 years earlier. These legendary rulers exercised power so unobtrusively, the people hardly knew they were there, as we hear in a song handed down from that distant age: ‘Sunup I rise / sundown I rest / I dig a well to drink / I plow fields to eat / the emperor’s might / what is it to me?’ (Kushihyuan: 1).”

THE LICHI says, “During the High Ages people esteemed virtue. Then they worked for rewards” (1).

LU HSI-SHENG says, “The virtuous lords of ancient times initiated no actions and left no traces. Hence, the people knew they were there and that was all. When their virtue diminished, they ruled with kindness and justice, and the people loved and praised them. When their kindness and justice no longer controlled people’s hearts, they governed with laws and punishments, and the people feared them. When their laws and punishments no longer controlled people’s minds, they acted with force and deceit, and the people despised them.”

MENCIUS says, “When the ruler views his ministers as his hands and feet, they regard him as their heart and soul. When he views them as dirt and weeds, they regard him as an enemy and a thief” (Mencius: 4B.3).

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “The mistake of loving and praising, fearing and despising does not rest with the people but with those above. The reason the people turn to love and praise or fear and hate is because those above cannot be trusted. And when trust disappears, chaos appears.”

HUANG YUAN-CHI “What we do to cultivate ourselves is what we do to govern the world. And among the arts we cultivate, the most subtle of all is honesty, which is the beginning and end of cultivation. When we embrace the truth, the world enjoys peace. When we turn our backs on the truth, the world suffers. From the time of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors, this has never varied.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “When those above treat those below with dishonesty, those below respond with deceit.”

WANG PI says, “Where there are words, there is a response. Thus, the sage hesitates.”

WU CH’ENG says, “The reason sages don’t speak or act is so they can bestow their blessings in secret and so people can live their lives in peace. And when their work succeeds and people’s lives go well, people think that is just the way it is supposed to be. They don’t realize it was made possible by those on high.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “As long as the people think they did it themselves, they have no reason to love or praise anyone.”

The people hardly knew they were there! They exercised power so unobtrusively! Now, some 4500 years ago, and still, this is my ideal for how to properly govern, as it was for Lao-tzu in his day.

Alas, those days are long over. Lu Hsi-sheng gives us a bit of a history lesson, taking us line by spiraling line down. “The virtuous lords of ancient times initiated no actions and left no traces. Hence, the people knew they were there and that was all.” Ah, a golden age, but it didn’t last. “When their virtue diminished (this is the virtue of the rulers), they ruled with kindness and justice and the people loved and praised them.” Now, the rulers were noticed. But, at least they were kind and just. Yet, once again, this wouldn’t last. For, note, the rulers weren’t being virtuous by acting with kindness and justice. They were after something. Control. “When their kindness and justice no longer controlled people’s hearts, they governed with laws and punishments, and the people feared them.” For a time that worked. Controlling the people’s minds, if not their hearts. For a time, yes. But only for a time. “When their laws and punishments no longer controlled people’s minds, they acted with force and deceit, and the people despised them.”

As Huang Yuan-chi notes, “From the time of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors, this has never varied. When we turn our backs on the truth, the world suffers.” As Sung Ch’ang-hsing says, “The mistake of loving and praising, fearing and despising does not rest with the people but with those above. The reason the people turn to love and praise or fear and hate is because those above cannot be trusted. And when trust disappears, chaos appears.”

A lot of the various sages’ commentary for today’s verse is anticipating the next one. And, this being Friday, we will just have to wait until Monday to see how the next verse relates to this one. What happens when the Great Way disappears? When virtue is replaced with kindness and justice? When reason appears? Yes, there follows chaos. But where to from there?

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

KUSHIHYUAN. Anthology of pre-T’ang dynasty poetry compiled by Shen Te-ch’ien (1673-1769) and published in 1719.

The LICHI (BOOK OF RITES). Anthology of Confucian writings, including the Chungyung and the Tahsueh. It was first put together around the second century B.C. and was further edited by Tao Te and his cousin during the following century.

MENCIUS (390-305 B.C.). Ranked with Confucius and Hsun-tzu as the foremost teachers of the philosophy known as Confucianism. He studied with Confucius’ grandson Tzu-ssu. The work that bears his name records his conversations with his disciples and various rulers of his day.

Knowing How to Endure

“Keeping emptiness as their limit
and stillness as their center
ten thousand things rise
we watch them return
creatures without number
return to their roots
returning to their roots they are still
being still they revive
reviving they endure
knowing how to endure is wisdom
not knowing is to suffer in vain
knowing how to endure is to yield
to yield is to be impartial
to be impartial is to be the ruler
the ruler is Heaven
Heaven is the Way
and the Way is long life
a life without trouble”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 16, translation by Red Pine)

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Emptiness is the Way of Heaven. Stillness is the Way of Earth. There is nothing that is not endowed with these. And everything rises by means of them.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “What is meant here by emptiness is not utter emptiness but the absence of fullness. And what is meant by stillness is not complete stillness but everything unconsicously returning to its roots.”

HUANG YUAN-CHI says, “Heaven has its fulcrum, people have their ancestors, and plants have their roots. And where are these roots? They are where things begin u have not yet begun, namely, the Dark Gate. If you want to cultivate the Great Way but don’t know where this entrance is, your efforts will be in vain.”

SU CH’E says, “We all rise from our nature and return to our nature, just as flowers and leaves rise from their roots and return to their roots, or just as waves rise from a river and return to the river. If you don’t return to your nature, even if you still your actions and your thoughts, you won’t be still. Heaven and Earth, mountains and rivers might be great, but none of them endures. Only what returns to its nature becomes still and enduring, while what does not return to its nature is at the mercy of others and cannot escape.”

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “Those who embrace all things are impartial and selfless become great examples to others, who thus turn to them as their rulers.”

TE-CH’ING says, “To know what truly endures is to know that Heaven and Earth share the same root, that the ten thousand things share one body, and that there is no difference between self and others. Those who cultivate this within themselves become sages, while those who practice this in the world become rulers. Rulers become rulers by following the Way of Heaven. And Heaven becomes Heaven by following the Tao. And the Tao becomes the Tao by lasting forever.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “To know the unchanging course of the Way is to be free of passion and desire and to yield. To yield is to be free of self-interest. To be free of self-interest is to rule the world. To rule the world is to merge your virtue with that of Heaven. And to merge your virtue with that of Heaven is to be one with the Way. If you can do this, you will last as long as Heaven and Earth and live without trouble.”

LI JUNG says, “Sages enjoy life without limits.”

And RED PINE adds, “Our knowledge is the knowledge of twigs. Lao-tzu’s knowledge is the knowledge of roots.”

Emptiness and stillness are themes on which we have been spending a considerable amount of our time. And, it was good to be reminded, again, what Lao-tzu means by emptiness and stillness. As Lu Hui-ch’ing points out, “What is meant by emptiness is not utter emptiness but the absence of fullness. And what is meant by stillness is not complete stillness but everything unconsciously returning to its roots.”

Keeping this emptiness as their limit, and stillness as their center, see how the ten thousand things rise, only to return to their roots. They rise from their roots and return to their roots. And it isn’t a conscious thing. This is important to understand. Trying to return to your roots is not the Way. Be still. Don’t try.

In returning to their roots they are still, and in being still they endure. Knowing how to endure is wisdom. Not knowing how to endure is to suffer. We suffer, and it is all in vain, because we don’t know what we think we know.

Knowing how to endure is to yield. To know that we don’t know. To be impartial. It is an unconscious thing. It is to overcome being self-aware. To not try, to just be.

To know how to endure is to know what truly endures, the Unchanging Course of the Way. As Te Ch’ing teaches, “Heaven and Earth share the same root, the ten thousand things share one body, and there is no difference between self and others.”

Stop making distinctions. There is no difference. Cultivate this understanding within yourself. Put it into practice in your world.

As Ho-shang Kung says, “To know the unchanging course of the Way is to be free of passion and desire and to yield.” It is to be free of self-interest.

Free, here, doesn’t mean the absence of passion and desire and self-interest. Just like emptiness doesn’t mean utter emptiness. It is the absence of fullness that sets you free. Of passion, of desire, of self-interest. Trying to empty yourself of these things won’t work. Maybe I need to say that again. Trying to empty yourself of passion, and desire, and self-interest won’t work. Trying to do so, you will suffer in vain.

This isn’t something you can be conscious of. That thread we have been talking about isn’t discernible. But knowing your limit and guarding your center, you can let it happen. Creatures without number returning to their roots.

It is, as Li Jung puts it, to “enjoy life without limits.”

Those Who Can Be

“The great masters of ancient times
focused on the indiscernible
and penetrated the dark
you would never know them
and because you wouldn’t know them
I describe them with reluctance
they were careful as if crossing a river in winter
cautious as if worried about neighbors
reserved like a guest
ephemeral like melting ice
simple like uncarved wood
open like a valley
and murky like a puddle
but those who can be like a puddle
become clear when they’re still
and those who can be at rest
become alive when they’re roused
those who treasure this Way
don’t try to be seen
not trying to be seen
they can hide and stay hidden”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 15, translation by Red Pine)

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “Although the ancient masters lived in the world, no one thought they were special.”

SU CH’E says, “Darkness is what penetrates everything but what cannot itself be perceived. To be careful means to act only after taking precautions. To be cautious means to refrain from acting because of doubt or suspicion. Melting ice reminds us how the myriad things arise from delusion and never stay still. Uncarved wood reminds us to put an end to human fabrication and return to our original nature. A valley reminds us how encompassing emptiness is. And a puddle reminds us that we are no different from anything else.”

HUANG YUAN-CHI says, “Lao-tzu expresses reluctance at describing those who succeed in cultivating the Tao because he knows the inner truth cannot be perceived, only the outward form. The essence of the Tao onsists in nothing other than taking care. If people took care to let each thought be detached and each action well considered, where else would they find the Tao? Hence, those who mastered the Tao in the past were so careful they waited until a river froze before crossing. They were so cautious, they waited until the wind died down before venturing forth at night. They were orderly and respectful, as if they were guests arriving from a distant land. They were relaxed and detached, as if material forms didn’t matter. They were as uncomplicated as uncarved wood and as hard to fathom as murky water. They stilled themselves to concentrate their spirit, and they roused themselves to strengthen their breath. In short, they guarded the center.”

WANG PI says, “All of these similes are meant to describe without actually denoting. By means of intuitive understanding the dark becomes bright. By means of tranquility, the murky becomes clear. By means of movement, the still becomes alive. This is the natural Way.”

WANG CHEN says, “All those who treasure the Way fit in without making a show and stay forever hidden. Hence, they don’t leave any tracks.”

And RED PINE adds, “It would seem that Lao-tzu is also describing himself here.”

In yesterday’s verse, Lao-tzu was describing the thread of the Tao as it weaves its way through the fabric of our universe. And we immediately saw the difficulty: this thread eludes inquiry. It can’t be seen. It can’t be heard. It can’t be felt. It is indiscernible, so dark…

in today’s verse Lao-tzu offers a solution to our dilemma; but he does so reluctantly. Maybe, if he describes how the ancient masters went about the task of focusing on the indiscernible, and penetrating the dark, maybe we could understand how to focus on the indiscernible for ourselves, and likewise penetrate the dark.

Lao-tzu’s reluctance is well justified, as Huang Yuan-chi points out. In fact, all that he has to say on this verse is worth repeating:

“Lao-tzu expresses reluctance at describing those who succeed in cultivating the Tao because he knows the inner truth cannot be perceived, only the outward form.” It can’t be perceived. That has been the whole point of so much of what he has been saying so far about the Tao. What you can see, what you can hear, what you can feel; that couldn’t possibly be the Tao. The outward form is an illusion. What matters is the truth on the inside.

“The essence of the Tao consists in nothing other than taking care.” This is so simple and profound that if you take away nothing else from today’s verse, I hope you get this one thing. “If people took care to let each thought be detached and each action well considered, where else would they find the Tao?” Indeed.

Watch them, now. “Those who mastered the Tao in the past were so careful they waited until a river froze before crossing. They were so cautious, they waited until the wind died down before venturing forth at night. They were orderly and respectful, as if they were guests arriving from a distant land. They were relaxed and detached, as if material forms didn’t matter. They were as uncomplicated as uncarved wood and as hard to fathom as murky water. They stilled themselves to concentrate their spirit, and they roused themselves to strengthen their breath.”

They waited. Orderly and respectful They were still. Relaxed and detached. Waiting until the right moment. Then, they acted. Uncomplicated and yet hard to fathom. That is why Lao-tzu was reluctant to describe them.

“In short, they guarded the center.” I see this as having two meanings. First, they avoided extremes. Secondly, they protected what’s on the inside.

And that is what we must do. To guard the center. To be careful. To be still. To wait until the right action arises all by itself. Until what is murky becomes clear.

This Is the Thread of the Way

“We look but don’t see it
and call it indistinct
we listen but don’t hear it
and call it faint
we reach but don’t grasp it
and call it ethereal
three failed means to knowledge
I weave into one
with no light above
and no shadow below
too fine to be named
returning to nothing
this is the formless form
the immaterial image
the one that waxes and wanes
we meet without seeing its face
we follow without seeing its back
whoever upholds this very Way
can rule this very realm
and discover the ancient maiden
this is the thread of the Way”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 14, translation by Red Pine)

HO-SHANG KUNG entitles this verse “In Praise of the Dark” and says, “About what has no color, sound, or form, mouths can’t speak and books can’t teach. We can only discover it in stillness and search for it with our spirit. We cannot find it through investigation.”

LU TUNG-PIN says, “We can only see it inside us, hear it inside us, and grasp it inside us. When our essence becomes one, we can see it. When our breath becomes one, we can hear it. When our spirit becomes one, we can grasp it.”

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “What we don’t see is vital essence. What we don’t hear is spirit. What we don’t grasp is breath.”

SU CH’E says, “People see things constantly changing and conclude something is there. They don’t realize everything returns to nothing.”

CH’EN KU-YING says, “‘Nothing’ doesn’t mean nothing at all but simply no form or substance.”

WANG PI says, “If we try to claim it doesn’t exist, how do the myriad things come to be? And if we try to claim it exists, why don’t we see its form? Hence, we call it ‘the formless form.’ But although it has neither shape nor form, neither sound nor echo, there is nothing it cannot penetrate and nowhere it cannot go.”

LI YUEH says, “Everything is bright on top and dark on the bottom. But the Tao does not have a top or a bottom. Hence, it is neither bright nor dark. Likewise, we don’t see its face because it never appears. And we don’t see its back because it never leaves.”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “‘This very realm’ refers to our body.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “The past isn’t different from today, because we know what began in the past. And today isn’t different from the past, because we know where today came from. What neither begins nor comes from anywhere else we call the thread that has no end. This is the thread of the Tao.”

CHANG TAO-LING says, “The sages who achieved long life and immortality in the past all succeeded by means of this Tao. Whoever can follow their example today has found the thread of the Tao.”

That which is not seen, that which is not heard, that which is not felt; together, these things elude inquiry. Indistinct. Faint. Ethereal. This thread which weaves its way through the very fabric of our Universe. It weaves its way through each one of us, uniting us, and making us one. Without beginning or end. Always returning to nothingness. Empty but inexhaustible. We can only discover it in stillness. We can only experience it inside of us.

What more can I say about today’s verse? Can I make what is intangible, tangible? Can I shine a light on this darkness? I would only reveal there is nothing there. The mystery can’t be explained.

In tomorrow’s verse, Lao-tzu will describe the great masters of ancient times. They focused on the indiscernible and penetrated the darkness. Perhaps, there is something we could learn from them. Perhaps, it will be that we, too, can discover and experience this thread of the Way inside of us.

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

CH’EN KU-YING (B. 1935). Classical scholar and philospher who has taught in Taipei and Beijing and annoyed authorities in both places with his outspokenness. Lao-tzu chu-yi chi-p’ing-chieh.

As Yang Bends Toward Yin, Will You Be Bound or Boundless?

“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 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 the are honored, they act proud. And because the 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 followed 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 too high, sa 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 induge our desires, we can avoid disaster.”

HUANG YUAN-CHI says, “We all possess something good and noble that we 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).

RED PINE adds, “The first two lines are clearly a quote, and the last four lines are also 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. 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.”

Robert Brookes’ translation of today’s verse is, I think, especially helpful:

“As yang bends toward yin honor turns into dishonor.  Be wary of becoming bound up in yourself.

What does it mean that honor turns into dishonor? The need to maintain honor makes one dependent on praise, so the wise person avoids honor to begin with.

What does it mean to be wary of becoming bound up in yourself? You become focused on a limited sense of yourself. But if you are selfless, what misfortune can occur?

Therefore those whose actions accord with the Tao can be trusted with the greatest responsibility.”

As yang bends toward yin… Just picture the familiar yin-yang symbol. Yang bends in a curve toward yin, which bends in a curve toward yang.

Let this be a warning to you, favor and honor are merely external things. They don’t belong to us, and when we try to possess them, they will naturally turn into disgrace and disaster (Lu Nung-shih).

Just having a body leads to disaster. But, if we will cultivate the body, not trading what we are for what we think we can have, we can avoid disaster (Ssu-ma Kuang).

What Lao-tzu is asking of us, especially of those who wish to govern us, is to be unaffected by what is external to our body (Wang P’ang and Wang Pi).

Don’t let yourself form attachments to things which are only temporal, which come and go. External things. Be detached. Don’t form affections for things outside yourself. Cultivate the eternal and immortal Tao in you. Be so focused on your own inner workings you won’t have time to meddle in others’ affairs.

But shouldn’t we be wary of becoming bound up in ourselves, with all that focusing on what is internal? That is a reasonable question. I even asked it myself. But, here is where I take us back to that familiar yin-yang symbol, and what I noted before. Yang bends toward yin, yes. But yin also bends toward yang.

Our focus on the external is focusing on a limited sense of ourselves. Yang bends toward yin. But when we focus on what is internal, on yin, we open ourselves up to experience yang, as yin bends toward yang. Instead of being bound, be boundless.

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

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.

The Rule of the Sages: They 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 begins by explaining, “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 requires effort to obtain. When we are not content with our lot and allow ourselves to be ruled by conceit, we turn our backs 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.”

I don’t think I can over-stress the importance of today’s verse in explaining how sages practice the Way. Instead of me going back over each of the sages’ commentaries, I would simply recommend that you go back and reread through them, again and again, until you get what they are saying.

I am not just living my life casually. I am serious about wanting to cultivate my mind and body, and deliberate in my practice of Taoism. I hope my readers will be serious and deliberate with this practice, too.

I do want to add the importance of self-regulation here. It is easy for those who want to control others to try to regulate others by imposing certain rules on how others may choose to live their own lives. History is replete with examples of these attempts at outward control.

But that, of course, is the antithesis of what Lao-tzu is teaching. I think that is one of the reasons Lao-tzu writes so much about the art of governing; and, it always boils down to “Don’t try to control, let others be.”

However, Lao-tzu also explains that when we don’t control ourselves internally, we invite external control from others.

Still, it isn’t just avoidance of external control which should be our motive. As Te-ching says, when we give our senses free rein, when we give our mind free rein, when our actions have free rein, we aren’t dwelling in reality, and suffer from delusions. How do sages overcome delusions and dwell in reality? By understanding, as Li Yueh points out, ‘The eyes are never satisfied. The stomach knows when it is full.” My mother always warned me, “Your eyes are bigger than your stomach.” She was always telling me, “Don’t put too much food on your plate.”

My mother also insisted I eat everything I put on my plate, for there were starving people all over the world (she was particularly fixated on starving people in China for some reason); and somehow, by not leaving food on my plate which would invariably end up being trashed, I could somehow help them? Yeah, I never understood that one. But, the adage that my stomach could be trusted to know when to stop, if only I would let it, stuck with me. That, I am certain is Lao-tzu’s point, here. Don’t let your eyes mislead you.

Yet, as Wu Ch’eng tells us, our eyes can’t avoid seeing, nor our ears hearing, nor our mouth tasting, nor our mind thinking, nor our body acting. Sages understand this. But while we can’t stay still, we can move in such a way we never leave stillness behind. This requires practice to master. So, don’t beat yourself up because you aren’t perfect at it.

Just remember, in choosing “this” over “that” we are choosing what is best, what is real. That is what leads to true contentment. And, that is the whole point of the practice of the Way.