There was something formless and perfect
before the universe was born.
It is serene. Empty.
Infinite. Eternally present.
It is the mother of the universe.
For lack of a better name,
I call it the Tao.
It flows through all things,
inside and outside, and returns
to the origin of all things.
The Tao is great.
The universe is great.
Earth is great.
Man is great.
These are the four great powers.
Man follows the earth.
Earth follows the universe.
The universe follows the Tao.
The Tao follows only itself.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 25, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
A Departure for Me, But I Won’t Wander Far
In my commentary, today, I am going to be doing things a bit differently than I normally do. I mentioned, previously, I had recently purchased a “new to me” translation of the Tao Te Ching, by Red Pine. Thank you #westdesertsage for recommending it to me. The revised edition I purchased is copyright 2009. I am going to be quoting extensively from this translation, today. In it, Red Pine includes selected commentaries from the past 2,000 years by various Chinese Taoists. I will be referencing those as well. It is going to be a lot less of me, and a lot more of them. I just figured if I was going to expect anyone to take me seriously, when I say to accept being less to become more, that I best put that into practice.
Red Pine’s translation of chapter 25:
“Imagine a nebulous thing
here before Heaven and Earth
subtle and elusive
dwelling apart and unconstrained
it could be the mother of us all
not knowing its name
I call it the Tao
forced to describe it
I describe it as great
great means ever-flowing
ever-flowing means far-reaching
far-reaching means returning
the Tao is great
Heaven is great
Earth is great
the ruler is also great
the realm contains Four Greats
of which the ruler is but one
Humankind imitates Earth
Earth imitates Heaven
Heaven imitates the Tao
and the Tao imitates itself”
WU CH’ENG says, “”’Nebulous’ means complete and indivisible.”
SU CH’E says, “The Tao is neither pure nor muddy, high nor low, past nor future, good nor bad. Its body is a nebulous whole. In Humankind it becomes our nature. It doesn’t know it exists, and yet it endures forever. And within it are created Heaven and Earth.”
LI HSI-CHAI says, “It dwells apart but does not dwell apart. It goes everywhere but does not go anywhere. It’s the mother of the world, but it’s not the mother of the world.”
SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “The Tao does not have a name of its own. We force names upon it. But we cannot find anything real in them. We would do better returning to the root from which we all began.”
Standing beside a stream, CONFUCIUS sighed, “To be ever-flowing like this, not stopping day or night!” (Lunyu: 9.16).
TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “Although we say it’s far-reaching, it never gets far from itself. Hence, we say it’s returning.”
HO-SHANG KUNG says, “The Tao is great because there is nothing it does not encompass. Heaven is great because there is nothing it does not cover. Earth is great because there is nothing it does not support. And the king is great because there is nothing he does not govern. Humankind should imitate Earth and be peaceful and pliant, plant and harvest its grains, dig and discover its springs, work without exhaustion and succeed without a fuss. As for Earth imitating Heaven, Heaven is still and immutable. It gives without seeking a reward. It nourishes all creatures and takes nothing for itself. As for Heaven imitating the Tao, the Tao is silent and does not speak. It directs breath and essence unseen, and thus all things come to be. As for the Tao imitating itself, the nature of the Tao is to be itself. It does not imitate anything else.”
“WANG PI says, “If Humankind does not turn its back on Earth, it brings peace to all. Hence it imitates Earth. If Earth does not turn its back on Heaven, it supports all. Hence it imitates Heaven. If Heaven does not turn its back on the Tao, it covers all. Hence, it imitates the Tao. And, if the Tao does not turn its back on itself, it realizes its nature. Hence, it imitates itself.”
Okay, now I am back. I think that was very helpful. It was just a few short chapters ago (chapter 21) where Lao Tzu called the Tao ungraspable, dark and unfathomable; before time and space were, beyond is and is not. And the various commentators today certainly “grasped” that concept of the Tao. The only way for us to “imitate” the Tao is to be content to imitate the Earth.
I do want to add one final note, however.
Red Pine goes on to say, “The Chinese character for “ruler” (wang) shows three horizontal lines (Heaven, Humankind, Earth) connected by a single vertical line. Lao-Tzu’s point is that the ruler, being only one of the four great powers of the world, should not be so presumptuous of his greatness, for he depends on the other three.”
Now, wouldn’t it be nice if our rulers would take that lesson to heart, and not be so presumptuous?
Well, even if they won’t, we can.