Empty, Like a Bowl

“The Tao is so empty
those who use it
never become full again
and so deep
as if it were the ancestor of us all
it dulls our edges
unties our tangles
softens our light
and merges our dust
it’s so clear
as if it were present
I wonder whose child it is
it seems it was here before Ti”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching verse 4, translation by Red Pine)

WANG AN-SHIH says, “The Tao possess form and function. Its form is the original breath that doesn’t move. Its function is the empty breath that alternates between Heaven and Earth.”

WU CH’ENG says, “‘Empty’ means ‘empty like a bowl.’ The Tao is essentially empty, and people who use it should be empty, too. To be full is contrary to the Tao. ‘Deep’ means ‘what cannot be measured.’ ‘Ancestor’ means ‘one who unites a lineage,’ just as the Tao unites all things. ‘As if’ suggests a reluctance to compare.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “The ancient masters of the Way had no ambition. Hence, they dulled their edges and did not insist on anything. They had no fear. Hence, they untied every tangle and avoided nothing. They did not care about beauty. Hence, they softened their light and forgot about themselves. They did not hate ugliness. Hence, they merged with the dust and did not abandon others.”

WEI YUAN says, “By taking advantage of edges, we create conflicts with others. By shining bright lights, we illuminate their dust. Grinding down edges makes conflicts disappear. Dimming the light merges dust with dust and with darkness.”

HUANG YUAN-CHI says, “A person who can adjust their light to that of the crowd and merge with the dust of the world is like a magic mushroom among ordinary plants. You can’t see it, but it makes everything smell better.”

HSI T’UNG says, “The Tao is invisible. Hence, Lao-tzu calls it ‘clear.’”

THE SHUOWEN says, “Chan [clear] means ‘unseen.’”

LU NUNG-SHIH says, “‘Clear’ describes what is deep, what seems to be present and yet not present, what seems to be not-present and yet not not-present.”

LIU CHING says, “If it’s empty, it’s deep. If it’s deep, it’s clear. The Tao comes from nothing. Hence, the Tao is the child of nothing.”

LI YUEH says, “Ti is the Lord of Creation. All of creation comes after Ti, except the Tao, which comes before it. But the nature of the Tao is to yield. Hence, Lao-tzu does not insist it came before. Thus, he says, ‘it seems.’”

JEN CHI-YU says, “In ancient times no one denied the existence of Ti, and no one called his supremacy into doubt. Lao-tzu, however, says the Tao is ‘the ancestor of us all,’ which presumably included Ti as well.”

The Tao is so empty, so deep, so clear… In yesterday’s verse Lao-tzu talked about both emptying and filling, so there is a place for filling. But today, Lao-tzu’s emphasis is on emptying. That has to come first. Just like the new moon precedes its waxing, you can’t be filled until you are fully emptied. And, that is where the Tao comes in. Empty, like an empty bowl. With what will it be filled? The possibilities are inexhaustible. But, it has to, first, be empty. And, so do we. Here the deepness, which is the Tao, must be plumbed, fully. We need to look deep without our own selves. Our edges have to be dulled. Our tangles, untied. Our dust merged. Until we are clear. So clear, we are present. Just like the Tao is present. Present but not-present; not-present but not not-present.

Red Pine introduces the following sages, today.

HSI T’UNG (1876-1936). Official and classical scholar known for his commentaries on the philosophical texts of the Warring States Period (403-221 B.C.).

LI YUEH (FL. 683). Military official, accomplished poet, calligrapher, and painter of the plum tree. He viewed the Confucian classics as no more than leaves and branches and the Taoteching as the root.

JEN CHI-YU (B. 1916). Professor of religion and philosophy at Beijing University. His many publications include an English translation of the Taoteching.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *