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).”

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.

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 the 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.”

I can identify with Lao-tzu. I suspect that many of my followers do, as well. The things we have been talking about for the last several days, now, the diagnosis of our problem, and the prescription for healing – these are way outside the mainstream of allowable opinion. Lao-tzu doesn’t just differ from everyone else, he chooses to differ from everyone else. That means he is alone. How many times does he say, “I alone”? I counted at least five times in this verse.

And, let me tell you, I am alone, too. As, I am sure, you are. Don’t worry about it. It is completely natural to be alone when you choose to think differently, to act differently. It isn’t how to win friends. To seem deficient. To be simple. To seem dim. To be confused about what all the uproar is about anyway. Everyone has a goal. I alone am dumb and backward.

This isn’t self-pity, or self-loathing, on Lao-tzu’s part. And it certainly isn’t on my own part. I have chosen to be different. And I can’t be like everyone else ever again.

Once I came to a certain realization. You know this for yourself, I am sure. I realized artificial “learning” had to go. And problems vanished. I realized yes and no weren’t so far apart. Think about that for just a moment. Just think of how much our social media is rife with arguments over yes and no. What is lovely and what is ugly? I realized just how alike they are.

Now, I am human, just like you, and even Lao-tzu. I understand fear. And, I can’t help but fear, too. But, I just can’t get all worked up over it any longer. I have a friend who I meet weekly; and we have tea, while discussing all the problems of the world. I almost always tell him, “I can’t do anything about it, so what is it to me? I am just going to live my life in such a way that I am as little affected by it as is humanly possible.”

It is simple, really. I am a fool. Not getting overjoyed, or overly anxious, about anything. Nope! I just sit here at my mother’s tit. Slurp. Slurp. Yum. This is contentment.

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 sayings 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 in ruling the kingdom as the simple knots used earlier by the Three Sovereigns.”

TE-CH’ING says, “This is what Chuang-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 justice, cleverness and profit. Those who understand the Tao see how artificial these 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 by the followers of Confucius.”

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

Oh Su Ch’e, what is that you say, Su Ch’e? Su Ch’e is concerned that maybe Lao-tzu goes a bit far. He prefers Confucius’ order, to Lao-tzu’s disorder. But, as I was saying in yesterday’s commentary, I think chaos can serve a greater purpose. As Red Pine says in his commentary, “Get rid of sayings (what Confucius is most famous for), and people will be their own sages.” I can already hear the naysayers: “But people can’t be trusted.” I think that was Su Ch’e’s fear.

Folks, this is serious. And, believe me, I am taking it seriously. And I want you to, too. I don’t want chaos anymore than the rest of you. Disorder is so untidy. It will be ugly. Things are going to be bad. But, do we have a choice? Honestly, I don’t think so.

So many things to get rid of. Anything artificial. That is really all the problems in the world wrapped up in one word. There is too much that is artificial. We keep manufacturing more of the artificial each and every day. And I hope you are understanding what I am meaning by artificial, here. I am talking about our kindness and justice, our love and obedience, our cleverness and profit. None of these things are natural. They aren’t honest. We aren’t being honest with ourselves. So, we are deceiving ourselves.

We need to stop that. We need to throw all of the artificial away. They were only fit for the dung pile, anyway.

But what are going to replace them with? Well, of course, someone was going to ask that. That is what us anarchists are always hit with. Anytime we argue in favor of getting the government out of the “meddling in our business” business, someone says, “But, what are you going to replace it with?”

And, if we anarchists are on our game, we will be honest and say, “Why, of course, this is incomplete. There will be much to add.”

Lao-tzu does, too!

So, what do we replace the artificial with? The natural, of course. Leave behind self-interest and desires, go back to your original nature.

Is That What It’s Going to Take?

“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).

I like old Chuang-tzu. Maybe as much as I like Lao-tzu. I have been reading the essential writings of Chuang-tzu, and boy oh boy is he funny. I think of him as an ancient Mark Twain. But, Chuang-tzu can be harder to understand at times.

Still, his commentary today isn’t hard to understand at all. It would be better to be oblivious of one another. But I think finding ourselves in those puddles, spraying water on each other to survive, might just serve some greater purpose.

Today’s verse is obviously a continuation of yesterday’s. Lao-tzu is talking about the same thing. The ever diminishing virtue in our rulers is identified as the Great Way, that has disappeared. And what has replaced it, what have our rulers tried to fit in its place? Kindness. Justice. Reason. Deceit.

The six relations have failed. Refer to the various commentators, today, for an understanding of those. I am still holding out for what I said I wanted in yesterday’s commentary. I want some damn honesty in our rulers. I am tired of dishonesty prevailing. Aren’t you?

I said, I think finding ourselves in puddles, spraying water on each other to survive, might just serve some greater purpose. And what might that be?

I get my inspiration from the last two lines of today’s verse. “When the country is in chaos, we meet upright officials.” I am going to be optimistic enough to believe these “upright” officials are truly upright. In other words, honest.

Is that what it is going to take? Our country in chaos? Some might argue we are already in chaos. I would counter, this is only the beginning of chaos; and I fear, as well as hope, that this is only the beginning. Things are going to get a whole lot worse, before we can ever expect them to get better.

But, will it be worth it? If we were to actually get upright officials, I would have to say, yes.

When Honesty Fails, Dishonesty Prevails

“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.”

I don’t think I am asking too much. And I don’t think it is unreasonable to want it. All I want is to be governed like those good old days, those High Ages, that Lao-tzu talks about in the first line of today’s verse. “The people hardly knew they were there.” It was because those legendary rulers, as Red Pine says in his commentary, exercised power so unobtrusively.

Am I pining away for the good old days? Maybe I am. But at least these good old days are something I feel justified in pining over.

Still, I have this thing nagging at me. This need to be content with the way things are. What I want and what I have maybe two very different things. And, maybe, just maybe, I should just play the hand that has been dealt to me.

I don’t know. Seriously, I don’t know. Lao-tzu does a fine job of presenting the history. How things devolved over time. And our various commentators explain it all very well.

Over time the virtue of rulers diminished. They stopped being so unobtrusive in exercising their power. It began subtly. Much like the proverbial frog in a pot of water which is slowly being brought to a boil.

They ruled with kindness and justice. This earned them love and praise. But their kindness and justice weren’t virtues. Understand, their virtue had already diminished. They had an ulterior motive for ruling with kindness and justice, and that would only be their modus operandi for as long as they realized their purpose. And we know what that purpose was – to control the people’s hearts.

And when kindness and justice failed to serve its purpose, the rulers’ virtue diminished further. That is when the rulers instituted laws and punishments. It was as if the rulers thought, “If the people can’t be controlled by their affection for us, then making them fear us is the logical next step. If we can’t control their hearts, we will control their minds.” And maybe that did work for a time. The people certainly did fear them.

But, to whatever extent and for however long it might have worked, their laws and punishments (becoming more and more numerous) ultimately failed to achieve the desired results. I think at that point the rulers got lost in their impatience and simply turned up the heat on the frog to the max. Their virtue diminished to a point that they acted with force and deceit, with the unintended (but thoroughly predictable) outcome – the people despised them.

That may or may not be a very accurate picture of Chinese, or world history, when it comes to governments. I think it is more accurate than inaccurate, though. It is a nice, neat synopsis of the way things have been.

But what about the way things are? Well, I think we have some kind of blend going on. Some rulers are loved and praised, some are feared, and some are despised. But, in every case, their virtue has been greatly diminished. How do I know that? Because each and every one of them, without any exceptions I have seen or heard of, don’t exercise their power unobtrusively.

It all goes back to what I said I wanted in the beginning of my commentary. I still don’t think I am asking too much. And, I still don’t think it is unreasonable to ask for it. I want some damn honesty. Our rulers aren’t being honest with us. They aren’t even being honest with themselves. And, as Lao-tzu says in today’s verse, “When honesty fails, dishonesty prevails.”

Dishonesty prevails. It has been prevailing for as far back as I can go in history. I know how difficult it can be to get an accurate picture of history out of the history books; because, in all the great conflicts, it was the winners who compiled the historical record. And might made right. Though might is never (well, hardly ever) right. They haven’t been honest with us. They aren’t being honest with us. And, I really hate to break it to you, they aren’t very likely to start being honest with us, in the foreseeable future.

Dishonesty prevails. And there is really only one way to combat that.

Hesitate, and weigh your words. Put those words on the scale. Am I being honest? Really? Or, am I still being dishonest? Let me stop and consider this for a moment. A long moment. Is it really so important that I control their hearts and minds? Wouldn’t it be better, far better, if I left them alone, if I let them be? Could I be less obtrusive in governing?

Like I said earlier, I don’t know. I really don’t know. After reading that last paragraph, I am beginning to think I am expecting a whole lot more honesty, than I can honestly expect. So, maybe I am asking too much. Maybe it is unreasonable.

To expect anyone in power to let the people think they did all the work by themselves, without our rulers wanting to take all the credit for themselves?

Well, a fellow can dream, can’t he?

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.

A Life Without Trouble? Return to Your Roots

“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 unconsciously 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 but 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.”

We have come to the end of another week. In yesterday’s verse, Lao-tzu listed 7 defining characteristics of those who uphold the Way. With today’s verse, Lao-tzu takes us step by step through the process having these defining characteristics take us.

It all really begins with keeping emptiness as your limit. For me, this just demonstrates how differently Lao-tzu thinks, than most people. As we have said before, the Way of the Tao is very different from the way of Humankind. For Humankind, fullness is our limit. I won’t stop until I am full. Lao-tzu has things quite upside-down, antithetical to the way we think. He wants our limit to be emptiness. Forget about fullness. See how empty you can be.

Let stillness be your center. Humankind prefers activity. We want to be doing something. Anything. To be at rest seems a waste of our precious time. I need to be doing something. And being still, being at rest, just doesn’t fit the bill. Except that our lives are always going to be a bit murky (like the puddle from yesterday’s verse) until we still ourselves, until we center ourselves, then the Way becomes clear.

Empty and still. This is where we begin. Now, observe nature. Watch as the ten thousand things rise. They rise from their roots. Like trees, like flowers, blooming in the spring. For a time they flourish. Then, watch, as they return. They return to their roots. As you are reading this, if you live in the northern hemisphere, we are fast approaching the winter solstice. Where I live we have been having a bout of winter-like temperatures. Winter seems to have arrived already. A wonderful stillness has descended upon us.

Being still they revive. Yes, we can see that in nature. My daughter lives in Australia (in the southern hemisphere); and there, they have been experiencing that revival for some months. We see it in nature; but, can we experience it in our own living. Being still, for a season. And then reviving. And enduring. Because we were still. And we revived.

Knowing how, Lao-tzu says, is wisdom. Not knowing is suffering in vain. Why, oh why, do we suffer? What vanity it is! All because we don’t know how to endure. We endure by being still. By emptying ourselves of every thing that would fill us up with vanity.

Knowing how, says Lao-tzu, is to yield. Instead of pressing on. Instead of forcing things. Instead of trying to control. Instead of intervening and interfering. Just yield to the natural process. It is time to be empty. To be still. To return to our roots. Then we will revive.

Yielding means being impartial. Not favoring one outcome over another. Not calling that beautiful and good, at the expense of this becoming ugly and bad.

Can you do this? For if you can, then you are upholding the Way. The Way of a long life, a life without trouble.

I could stop there. I kind of planned to, actually. But as I was typing that word, trouble, it suddenly dawned on me that Lao-tzu isn’t promising us a life without troubles (with an s, plural). Trouble and troubles are two very different things. A life without trouble doesn’t mean the same thing as a life without troubles. Oh, you will have troubles. I can promise you that.

But, troubles come and go. You can handle those. Just go with the flow. And, it won’t be any trouble, at all.

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.”

We were talking, yesterday, about things not to do in order to uphold the Way of the Tao. Today, instead of focusing on the “don’t do” list, let’s review the “things to do” list.

Lao-tzu points out the great masters of ancient times for their example in following the Tao. They “focused on the indiscernible” and “penetrated the dark.” Yes, this dark, elusive Tao can be mastered.

Though he is reluctant to describe them, by describing them, maybe we can learn how to imitate them.

These are our things to do:

Be careful: Like you are crossing a river in winter. Here “careful” refers to how you relate to your natural environment.

Be cautious: Like you are worried about neighbors. Being “cautious” is different from being careful (see above). Here it relates to how you relate to the people around you.

Be reserved: Like a guest. Hey, this world you inhabit, don’t treat it like you own the place. Be like a guest.

Be ephemeral: Like melting ice. Well, melting ice is certainly a great metaphor for being ephemeral. Life is fleeting. Your own life is fleeting. Live in the moment. Adapt. Change. Go with the flow.

Be simple: Like uncarved wood. It certainly doesn’t get any simpler than that. That block of wood. What will you become? This is where you start. This is where you keep returning.

Be open: Like a valley. Lao-tzu, in an earlier verse, used a valley as a metaphor for the emptiness of the Tao. That is how open, how empty, we need to be. Be receptive.

Be murky: Murky? That seems odd. Why would I want to be murk?. Like a puddle. Well, if we carry the metaphor further, it makes a whole lot more sense. Embrace who you are in this moment. Be who you are. Is there a lot disturbing your life (your puddle) right now. Don’t worry about it. Just be murky. Don’t worry, if you are “ephemeral” and “open,” then you know things are going to change, anyway. And the next one shows how to make that happen.

Be still: Sure, you are murky right now. But be still, be at rest. That puddle will soon become clear. When you allow yourself to be still, to be at rest, you will be ready for the change that is coming. And, when roused, you will become alive.

Finally, treasure this Way: Don’t try to be seen, be content to stay hidden. Who knows, maybe hundreds of years from now, someone will come along and try to describe you.

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.”

In verse six, Lao-tzu said it was as elusive as gossamer silk. He is back talking of that “thread” in today’s verse. And it remains “elusive.”

You can’t see it. You can’t hear it. You can’t grasp it. All of these are “failed means.” Why? Because it isn’t something external to us. It is indistinct, faint, ethereal. Yet, it weaves its way through the very fabric of our Universe, and hence, our lives.

There is no light above it, so there is no shadow below it. It is too “fine” to be named. It is always returning to nothingness. Having a form without a form, it is the immaterial image.

It waxes and wanes, This doesn’t mean it is the moon. It means the moon is a pretty good metaphor for it.

We meet it without ever seeing its face and we follow it without ever seeing its back. How? How, indeed. By upholding this very Way. That is how!

Yes, but how do we uphold it? That is simple, actually. You uphold it by being like it. Don’t try to force things. Don’t intervene and interfere. Don’t try to control. Let things be. Let them be!

Only those who can do this are fit to rule! They have discovered the ancient maiden. The source of Heaven and Earth. This is its thread. You can’t see it, or hear it, or grasp it. But you can use it. It is the very source of life in the core of your being, Use it. You can’t exhaust it. Just use it!

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.

It’s Because You Have a Body, Consider Yourself Warned

“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 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, 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 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.”

In yesterday’s verse, Lao-tzu said to pick this over that. This being what is internal (your stomach), and that being what is external (what your eyes and ears delude you into thinking). Today’s verse is just a continuation of that theme.

Favor and disgrace, honor and disaster, those are things that are external. Hence, they come with a warning. “Don’t concern yourself with those things.” And, continuing my theme from yesterday’s commentary, “Mind what’s on your own plate.”

You have a body. Yes, I know, it blows my mind too. But, the reason Lao-tzu shares that mind-blowing revelation with us is because, having a body, we should expect disaster when we don’t cultivate our bodies properly. That involves more than just eating your peas and carrots, by the way. What Lao-tzu is talking about goes much deeper than our physical bodies.

What he is wanting us to cultivate is inside our bodies. As opposed to those things external to our bodies. Don’t seek favor and honor, and you won’t suffer disgrace and disaster.

Lao-tzu is still dealing with our problem of selfness (see my commentary on verse 7). Don’t see yourself as distinct from everyone and everything else. Don’t be full of your self. Be self-less. By being empty, rather than full, you are cultivating something deep inside of you. Your greatest treasure.

Lao-tzu is talking about the source of life within us, the Tao. Honor it. Cherish it. Cultivate it. For it is only those who do so, who can be entrusted with any great position in the world.

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.

It Favors The Stomach Over the Eyes

“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.”

When I was a child, growing up, my parents had very strict rules regarding meal time.

Rule #1: You had to put a little bit of everything on your plate. Rule #2: You had to eat everything you put on your plate.

As rule #1 was explained to my siblings and me, our parents worked hard to put food on the table for us, and it behooved us to reciprocate the love shown in the food being provided for us, by eating some of it. Rule #2 was explained as a simple matter of not letting anything go to waste. To the waist, maybe, but not to waste.

There were, after all, starving children in the world somewhere, my parents seemed particularly concerned with the starving children in China (I don’t know why), and somehow they benefited when we ate everything we had put on our plate.

To this day, I can’t leave any food on my plate. I have to be real careful to make sure there is never too much food on my plate to eat. Because I can’t dare to see it go to waste. When I had kids of my own, while I wouldn’t make them eat everything on their plate, I did take it upon myself to finish what they left.

The reason I am sharing this is because I was often told by my parents that “my eyes were bigger than my stomach.”

I knew better than to take that statement literally. What they meant was simple. “Don’t put more food on your plate than you can eat.” Once on your plate, it couldn’t be served again as leftovers. And leftovers were something we had aplenty.

Now, being blessed with a mother who was a wonderful cook, I had little problem with cleaning my plate, But that problem with my eyes being bigger than my stomach, well that took some time to outgrow. And a lot of that growth occurred in my waistline, I am afraid.

The point of all this is to say that my parents and Lao-tzu (who happened to be Chinese, go figure), would have gotten along splendidly.

The rule of the sages favors the stomach over the eyes. As Li Yueh says in his commentary today, “The eyes are never satisfied. The stomach knows when it is full.”

Our eyes are never satisfied, they delude us into thinking we need more, more, when our poor stomach may be speaking to us with its still, small voice, “Whoa, there, I am already quite full.”

Ah, to listen to my stomach…. To be ruled, only by what it needs…. To not exceed that.

To pick this over that is the whole point of today’s verse. Now, put just a little of everything on your plate, and eat only until your stomach is full. Have a great day!