What Others Teach

“The Tao gives birth to one
one gives birth to two
two gives birth to three
three gives birth to ten thousand things
then thousand things with yin at their backs
yang in their embrace
and breath between for harmony
what the world hates
to be orphaned widowed or destitute
kings use for their titles
thus some gain by losing
others lose by gaining
what others teach
I teach too
tyrants never choose their death
this becomes my teacher”

(Taoteching, verse 42, translation by Red Pine)

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “The Tao gives birth to the beginning. One gives birth to yin and yang. Yin and yang give birth to the breath between them, the mixture of clear and turbid. These three breaths divide themselves into Heaven, Earth, and Humankind and together give birth to the ten thousand things. These elemental breaths are what keep the ten thousand things relaxed and balanced. The organs in our chest, the marrow in our bones, the hollow spaces inside plants all allow these breaths passage and make long life possible.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “The yang we embrace is one. The yin we turn away from is two. Where yin and yang meet and merge is three.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “Dark and unfathomable is yin. Bright and perceptible is yang. As soon as we are born, we all turn our back on the dark and unfathomable yin and turn toward the bright and perceptible yang. Fortunately, we keep ourselves in harmony with the breath between them.”

THE YUNCHI CHICHIEN says, “When breath is pure, it becomes Heaven. When it becomes turgid, it becomes Earth. And the mixture of the breath between them becomes Humankind.”

TE-CH’ING says, “To call oneself ‘orphaned,’ ‘widowed,’ or ‘destitute’ is to use a title of self-effacement. Rulers who are not self-effacing are not looked up to by the world. Thus, by losing, they gain. Rulers who are only aware of themselves might possess the world, but the world rebels against them. Thus, by gaining, they lose. We all share this Tao, but we don’t know it except through instruction. What others teach, Lao-tzu also teaches. But Lao-tzu surpasses others in teaching us to reduce our desires and to be humbe, to practice the virtue of harmony, and let this be our teacher.”

CHIAO HUNG says, “Those who love victory make enemies. The ancients taught this, and so does Lao-tzu. But Lao-tzu goes further and calls this his own ‘teacher.’”

KAO HENG says, “According to the Shuoyuan (10.25), ‘Tyrants never choose their death’ was an ancient saying, which Confucius attributed to the Chinjenming. This is what Lao-tzu refers to when he says ‘what others teach.’”

WANG P’ANG says, “Whatever contains the truth can be our teacher. Although tyrants kill others and are the most hated of creatures, we can learn the principle of creation and destruction from them.”

You may have noticed, as I did, that our commentators used both “turbid” and “turgid” today. Neither of these two terms are regular parts of my vocabulary, so I consulted Merriam-Webster for assistance in understanding them.

Ho-Shang Kung distinguishes clear breath from “turbid” breath. Merriam-Webster defines turbid as thick or opaque, as if with roiled sediment (a turbid stream) or heavy with smoke or mist. Turbid is also used to denote a deficiency in clarity or purity, as in foul, muddy, turbid depths of degradation and misery, or characterized by or producing obscurity, an emotionally turbid response.

On the other hand, the Yunchi Chichien distinguishes pure breath from “turgid” breath. And Merriam-Webster points out that “turbid” and “turgid” (which means “swollen or distended” or “overblown, pompous, or bombastic”) are frequently mistaken for one another, and it’s no wonder. Not only do the two words differ by only a letter, they are often used in contexts where either word could fit. For example a flooded stream can be simultaneously cloudy and swollen, and badly written prose might be both unclear and grandiloquent. Nevertheless, the distinction between these two words, however fine, is an important one for conveying exact shades of meaning, so it’s a good idea to keep them straight.

So, my question is, “Did the Yunchi Chichien mean “turbid,” where it said “turgid?” That question is best answered when we consider the shades of meaning Lao-tzu employs in his many metaphors. So many things can be yin or yang. For instance, of the two, clear or turbid breath, which one is yin and which one is yang? And, does your answer change if we are talking about clear versus turgid?

So many shades of meaning. Why? Because at the same time they are both and neither. Lao-tzu says, what others teach, I teach too, and this becomes my teacher. Yin and yang, breathing in and breathing out.

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

YUNCHI CHICHIEN – an anthology of Taoist writings edited by Chang Chun-fang (fl. 1017-1021). It is one of the most influential such compilations, it is also called the Shorter Taoist Canon.

KAO HENG (1900-?). Classical scholar and advocate of using grammatical analysis to elucidate textual difficulties in the Taoteching. Many of his insights have been borne out by the texts discovered at Mawangtui.

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