How to Start AND How to Finish

“When superior people hear of the Way
they follow it with devotion
when average people hear of the Way
they wonder if it exists
when inferior people hear of the Way
they laugh out loud
if they didn’t laugh
it wouldn’t be the Way
hence these sayings arose
the brightest path seems dark
the path leading forward seems backward
the smoothest path seems rough
the highest virtue low
the whitest white pitch-black
the greatest virtue wanting
the staunchest virtue timid
the truest truth uncertain
the perfect square without corners
the perfect tool without uses
the perfect sound hushed
the perfect image without form
for the Tao is hidden and nameless
but because it’s the Tao
it knows how to start and how to finish”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 41, translation by Red Pine)

CONFUCIUS says, “To hear of the Tao in the morning is to die content by nightfall” (Lunyu: 4:8).

LI HSI-CHAI says, “When great people hear of the Tao, even if others laugh at them, they can’t keep them from practicing it. When average people hear of the Tao, even if they don’t disbelieve it, they can’t free themselves of doubts. When inferior people hear of the Tao, even the ancient sages can’t keep them from laughing. Everyone in the world thinks existence is real. Who wouldn’t shake their head and laugh if they were told that existence wasn’t real and that non-existence was?”

TE-CH’ING says, “The Tao is not what people expect. Hence, the ancients created these twelve sayings, which Lao-tzu quotes to make clear that the Tao has two sides.”

SU CH’E says, “These twelve sayings refer to the Tao as it appears to us. Wherever we look, we see its examples. The Tao as a whole, however, is hidden in namelessness.”

LI JUNG says, “The true Tao is neither fast nor slow, clear nor obscure. It has no appearance, no sound, no form, and no name. But although it has no name, it can take any name.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “Name and reality are often at odds. The reality of the Tao remains hidden in no name.”

LU HSI-SHENG says, “Tools are limited to the realm of form. The Tao is beyond the realm of form.”

YEN TSUN says, “The quail runs and flies all day but never far from an over-grown field. The swan flies a thousand miles but never far from a pond. The phoenix, meanwhile, soars into the empyrean vault and thinks it too confining. Where dragons dwell, small fish swim past. Where great birds and beasts lie, dogs and chickens don’t go.”

THE CHANKUOTSE says, “Those who know how to start don’t always know how to finish” (31).

Oh, how I wanted to be one of Lao-tzu’s superior people. Alas, I knew I was only average. I was assailed by doubts. Try as I might, I couldn’t seem to shake them. I strove hard to be superior. All, without any success. It wasn’t until I gave up, when I gave into my weakness, and took to laughing out loud, that I found the Way. Some people know how to start, but don’t know how to finish.

Red Pine introduces the CHANKUOTSE today. It is a collection of narratives, some historical, some fictional, based on the events of the Warring States Period (403-221 B.C.). Compiled by Liu Hsiang (ca. 79-6 B.C.0 and reedited by later scholars.

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