“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”
(Taoteching, verse 4, translation by Red Pine)
WANG AN-SHIH says, “The Tao possesses 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. Hey 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 the 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” (Lao-tzu che-hsueh t’ao-lun-chi, p. 34).
Red Pine calls this verse enigmatic. And I feel like saying, “Well, duh…”
The Tao, Lao-tzu is describing (really, for the first time), is an enigma.
So empty… you never become full again.
So deep… it dulls our edges (eliminating distinctions), unties our tangles (simplifying difficulties), softens our light (so, no one outshines another), merges our dust (making us all one).
So clear (unseen)… it seems to be present and not present, not-present and not not-present, all at the same time.
Whose child is it? It is the child of nothing, and the mother of everything.
Even before the Lord of Creation? It would seem so.
If you were looking for me to explain away the enigma, you may be disappointed. Instead of making it plain, Lao-tzu gives us something to chew on. It is as if he might say, “Come back again tomorrow; first, think on these things.” And, Lao-tzu has given us plenty to think on.
Like, how those who use the empty Tao never become full again.
It is “empty like a bowl,” says Wu Ch’eng. And, we are all probably clamoring over what we might fill the bowl with. I, too, used to think that was the function of an empty bowl. It is empty so you can fill it.
Perhaps. But this emptiness is so empty you never become full again. And, that takes our eyes off some external bowl needing to be filled, and directs them back to ourselves. Namely, inside of us. What emptiness is this? And, isn’t it a horrible thing to be empty on the inside?
Yes, that can be a bit disconcerting, since we have been conditioned to treasure fullness over emptiness. However, in the next few chapters Lao-tzu is going to explain the virtue of emptiness as opposed to fullness. Lao-tzu also has much more to say about the Tao’s deepness and clearness; so please, keep coming back.
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.). Lao-tzu chi-chieh.
LI YUEH (FL. 683). Military official, accomplished poet, calligrapher, and painter of the plum tree. He viewed the Confucian classics as non more than leaves and branches and the Taoteching as the root. Tao-te-chen-ching hsin-chu.
JEN CHI-YU (B. 1916). Professor of religion and philosophy at Beijing University. His many publications include an English translation of the Taoteching. Lao-tzu che-hsueh t’ao-lun-chi.