Holding On to the Constant

“There’s a maiden in the world
who becomes the world’s mother
those who find the mother
thereby know the child
those who know the child
keep the mother safe
and live without trouble
those who block the opening
who close the gate
live without toil
those who unblock the opening
who meddle in affairs
live without hope
those who see the small have vision
those who protect the weak have strength
those who use their light
and trust their vision
live beyond death
this is called holding on to the crescent”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 52, translation by Red Pine)

LAO-TZU says, “The maiden of Heaven and Earth has no name / the mother of all things has a name” (Taoteching; 1).

KUAN-TZU says, “The ancients say, ‘No one understands a child better than its father. No one understands a minister better than his ruler’” (Kuantzu: 7).

LI HSI-CHAI says, “The Way is the mother of all creatures. All creatures are the children of the Way. In ancient times, those who possessed the Way were able to keep mother and children from parting and the Way and all creatures together. Since creatures come from the Way, they are no different from the Way, just as children are no different from their mother. And yet people abandon other creatures when they search for the Way. Is this any different from abandoning the children while searching for the mother? If people knew that all creatures are the Way, and children are the mother, they would find the source in everything they meet.”

CONFUCIUS says, “Things have their roots and branches. Those who know what comes first and last approach the Tao” (Tahsueh).

TUNG SSU-CHING says, “People are born when they receive breath. Breath is their mother. And spirit dwells within their breath. When children care for their mother, their breath becomes one and their spirit becomes still.”

WU CH’ENG says, “‘Opening’ refers to the mouth. ‘Gate’ refers to the nose. By controlling our breath to the point where there is no breath, where breath is concentrated within, we are never exhausted.”

WANG P’ANG says, “When the opening opens, things enter. And the spirit is exhausted trying to deal with the problems that then develop. Once we are swept away by this flood, who can save us?”

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “Those who can see an event while it is still small and change their behavior accordingly we say have vision.”

WANG PI says, “Seeing what is great is not vision. Seeing what is small is vision. Protecting the strong is not strength. Protecting the weak is strength.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “Light is the function of vision. Vision is the embodiment of light. If we can use the light to find our way back to the source, we can live our lives free of misfortune and become one with the Immortal Way.”

And, RED PINE concludes, “This verse reminds me of Confucius’ words: ‘When I was young, historians still left blanks’ (Lunyu: 15.25). Not being a historian, I have proceed despite uncertainty. In the last line, the word hsi means “to wear” but also “to hold on to.”
And the word ch’ang normally means “constant,” but it is the name of the crescent moon as well.”

I appreciate Red Pine’s humility in his closing commentary. I’m not a historian either; and I know far less, I am sure, than Red Pine. But, I can’t help but think he is “reaching” a bit when he translates the word ch’ang “crescent,” in the last verse. At least he was kind enough to admit that it normally means “constant.” I prefer “constant” here, merely because it gives us something we can hold on to. The moon is ever changing. Or so it seems to me. I am seeking that one constant, like Confucius said in an earlier verse, ‘the one thing that ties everything together.” Maybe Red Pine is right, though. Maybe that crescent moon which keeps returning is that one constant. Perhaps, where I see something fleeting, I should see something everlasting.

Red Pine introduces the following sage today:

TUNG SSU-CHING (FL. 1246-1257). Taoist master and compiler of Taoist texts in the Lingpao tradition. His commentary includes extensive quotes from T’ang and Sung dynasty commentators as well as his own comments.

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