“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).”
The problem Lao-tzu has described for us, in the last several verses, is the Great Way (the Tao) has disappeared. His prescription for what ails us, getting rid of artifice, getting rid of pretense, getting rid of any extra thing – all these things which have replaced the Tao — serves one purpose for Lao-tzu: The reappearance of Empty Virtue, which comes from the Tao.
Lao-tzu has talked a lot about emptiness, before. So, it is something we have already covered, before. And, I don’t want to spend my commentary trying to reiterate what has already been said. What I would rather do is focus on what he is saying in today’s verse about Empty Virtue. Empty Virtue, is just that, empty. It doesn’t have any additions, no attachments, no desire. It is empty of artifice, pretense, anything that is extraneous to the Tao.
This does come with a warning, however. The practice of Empty Virtue won’t earn you love and praise from others. On the other hand, you won’t be feared or despised by them, either. If you are a practitioner of Empty Virtue you can pretty much expect that people will hardly be aware you are even there.
That is just fine with me, for I am not looking to be noticed, or to be rewarded for doing what I know is the right thing. Quite frankly, I just want to be left alone, as I leave everybody else alone.
I think of Empty Virtue, pretty much, as minding my own business. Not interfering, not intervening, not forcing things, not trying to be in control.
I know, I know, with all the virtue-signaling going on in the world today, you might think my not signaling my virtue would raise a few eyebrows. But I haven’t found it to be so. I simply don’t call attention to the fact I am not virtue-signaling. And, it really isn’t surprising how unnoticed and ignored I can be. Anyone who doubts that probably has too high an estimation of themselves.
No, to be quite honest, the world doesn’t revolve around you, or me. When I don’t draw attention to myself, people don’t give me a second thought. And that is just the way I like it.
What was it Lao-tzu said in yesterday’s verse? He was alone. And, alone, isn’t a bad thing. I go out every morning, alone. Well before sunrise. Just walking in the darkness. It is my “me” time. The darkness, the emptiness, make those two hours a walking meditation. I see the waxing and waning of the moon; and, I see the waxing and waning of the Tao. Alone, in the dark, I see the essence of the Tao, the only thing that is real. It is by means of this that I empty my mind, and am renewed, day by day.
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.