The Practice of Selflessness

“Heaven is eternal and Earth is immortal
the reason they’re eternal and immortal
is because they don’t live for themselves
hence they can live forever
sages therefore pull themselves back
and end up in front
put themselves outside
and end up safe
is it not because of their selflessness
whatever they seek they find”

(Taoteching, verse 7, translation by Red Pine)

CHU CH’IEN-CHIH says, “The line’ Heaven and Earth is immortal’ was apparently an old saying, whch Lao-tzu quotes in order to explain its significance.”

CHIANG SSU-CH’I says, “‘Heaven’ refers to the point between the eyebrows. ‘Earth’ refers to the point just below the navel.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “Heaven stands for the movement of time. Earth represents the transformation of form. Heaven and Earth have their origini in the dark womb. And the essence of the dark womb is the valley spirit that doesn’t die. Because it doesn’t die, it isn’t born. Only what isn’t born can give birth to the living. And because it doesn’t give birth to itself, it can live forever.”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “What is not alive is the basis for life. By equating life and death, we are no longer burdened by life and death. By abandoning bodily form, we are no longer hindered by bodily harm.”

WU CH’ENG says, “To pull oneself back means to be humble and not to try to be in front of others. To put oneself outside means to be content and not to try to add to one’s life. To find what one seeks means to be in front and safe.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Heaven and Earth help creatures fulfill their needs by not having any needs of their own. Can safes do otherwise? By following the Way of Heaven and Earth, sages are revered by all and harmed by none. Hence, they, too, live long.”

JEN FA-JUNG says, “Sages do not purposely seek long life but achieve it through selflessness.”

CH’ENG CHU says, “Heaven, Earth, and humankind share the same origin. Why doesn’t Humankind share their immortality? Because Heaven and Earth are not aware they are Heaven and Earth. Only Humankind is self-aware. And being self-aware, there is nothing humans won’t do to stay alive. But the more they caere for their life, the more pained their life becomes. The more they nourish their body, the sicker their body becomes. People who have not thought this out say the followers of Lao-tzu are afraid of death and only interested in immortality. But this is getting it backward.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “The reason Heaven and Earth alone are eternal and immortal is because they are content and give without expecting a reward, unlike Humankind who never stops chasing profit and fighting over possessions.”

WANG PI says, “Those who live for themselves fight others. Those who don’t live for themselves are the refuge of others.”

SU CH’E says, “If Heaven and Earth fought with others over life, they would be the same as others. And if sages fought with others over profit, they would be the same as them. Would that not be a great shame!”

WANG P’ANG says, “Although sages are sages, they look the same as others. But because they embody the Way of Heaven and don’t fight, they alone differ from everyone else. Sages are selfless because they no longer have a self.”

LU TUNG-PIN says, “The only thing sages seek is Virtue.”

While Ayn Rand may be spinning in her grave right now, I don’t think the selflessness Lao-tzu is talking about has anything to do with the altruism, the sacrificing of the self, which she so despised. It isn’t a sacrifice of self that Lao-tzu is advocating, here. He is only bringing out what another tradition calls the “original sin,” the curse of our self-awareness, our knowledge of good and evil. And, he has talked about this before, back in verse two. Because we know what is good, we also know what is bad. And, in our trying to avoid the bad, in trying to have only the good, we only make for ourselves a much worse life. The Way of Heaven and Earth, indeed all of the ten thousand things, don’t behave in such a way. Humankind, alone, is cursed. Is there a solution? There is, but don’t look outside of yourself to find it.

I like what Ch’eng Chu has to say in his commentary. “People who have not thought this out say the followers of Lao-tzu are afraid of death and only interested in immortality. But this is getting it backward.” Indeed. We aren’t the ones afraid of death and dying. We have merely learned how to be content. That is something only those who look deep enough within themselves can truly find. Deep within, deeper than even our own selves, our own will, our own desires. There you will find that empty space, which is the Tao. Use it, and you won’t have to be ahead or above anyone else.

Red Pine introduces the following sages’ commentaries today:

CHU CH’IEN-CHIH (1899-1972). Classical scholar and teacher of philosophy and history. His edition of the Taoteching presents variants, rhymes, and usages along with his own comments.

CH’IANG SSU-CH’I (FL. 920). Taoist master of the former Shu dynasty (Szechuan province) during the Five Dynasties period. His edition is invaluable for its preservation of the comments of Li Jung. Ch’eng Husan-ying, and Yen tsun, as well as those of Hsuan-tsung and Ho-shang Kung.

JEN FA-JUNG (B. 1930). Director of the Taoist Association of China and abbot of Loukuantai, the Taoist center where Lao-tzu reportedly wrote the Taoteching, Master Jen’s is the only commentary I know of by a Taoist priest subsequent to the Cultural Revolution.

LU TUNG-PIN (FL. 845). Leader of Taoism’s legendary Eight immortals and author of a number of Taoist works, including Secret of the Golden Flower. Several commentaries have been attributed to him.

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