Dark and Elusive, Yet Inexhaustible

“The valley spirit that doesn’t die
we call the dark womb
the dark womb’s mouth
we call the source of Heaven and Earth
as elusive as gossamer silk
and yet it can’t be exhausted”

(Taoteching, verse 6, translation by Red Pine)

THE SHANHAICHING says, “The Valley Spirit of Morning Light is a black and yellow, eight-footed, eight-tailed, eight-headed animal with a human face” (9). The Shanhaiching’s “valley spirit’ is the moon, which runs ahead of the sun during the last eight days of its thirty-day cycle, lags behind during the first eight days, and faces the sun during its eight days of glory. For the remaining days of the month, it’s too close to the sun to be visible. Like many other cultures, the ancient Chinese viewed the moon as the embodiment of the female element of creation.

WANG PI says, “The valley is what is in the middle, what contains nothing, no form, no shadow, no obstruction. It occupies the lowest point, remains motionless, and does not decay. All things depend on it for their development, but no one sees its shape.”

YEN FU says, “Because it is empty, we call it a ‘valley.’ Because there is no limit to its responsiveness, we call it a ‘spirit.’ Because it is inexhaustible, we say ‘it doesn’t die.’ These three are the virtues of the Tao.”

SU CH’E says, “A valley is empty but has form. A valley spirit is empty but has no form. What is empty and has no form is not alive. So how can it die? ‘Valley spirit’ refers to its virtue. ‘Dark womb’ refers to its capacity. This womb gives birth to the ten thousand things, and we call it ‘dark’ because we see it give birth but not how it gives birth.”

HSUEH HUI says, “The words Lao-tzu chooses are often determined by the demands of rhyme and should not be restricted to their primary meaning. Thus, p’in [female animal] can also be read p’in [womb].”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “The valley is what nourishes. Those able to nourish their spirit do not die. ‘Spirit means the spirits of the five organs: the gall bladder, the heart, the kidneys, and the spleen. When these five are injured, the five spirits leave. ‘Dark’ refers to Heaven. In a person, this means the nose, which links us with Heaven. ‘Womb’ refers to Earth. In a person, this means the mouth, which links us with Earth. The breath that passes through our nose and mouth should be finer than gossamer silk and barely noticeable, as if it weren’t actually present. It should be relaxed and never strained or exhausted.”

WU CH’ENG says, “The empty valley is where spirits dwell, where breath isn’t exhausted. Who relaxes their breath increases their vitality. Who strains their breath soon expires.”

TE-CH’ING says, “Purposeful action leads to exhaustion. The Tao is empty and acts without purpose. Hence, it can’t be exhausted.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “The valley spirit, the dark womb, the source of Heaven and Earth all act without acting. That we don’t see them doesn’t mean they don’t exist.”

LIU CHING says, “It’s like the silk of a silkworm or the web of a spider: hard to distinguish and hard to grab. But then, it isn’t Humankind who uses it. Only the spirit can use it.”

TU TAO-CHIEN says, “This verse also appears in Liehtzu: 1.1, where it is attributed to the Yellow Emperor instead of Lao-tzu. Lao-tzu frequently incorporates passages from ancient texts. We see their traces in ‘thus the sage proclaims’ or ‘hence the ancients say.’ Thus Confucius said, ‘I don’t create. I only relate’ [Lunyu: 7.1]”.

LIEH-TZU says, “What creates life is not itself alive” (Liehtzu: 1.1).

Today’s verse is hard for a completely different reason than yesterday’s verse. Yesterday’s verse was hard because it exposed our hypocrisy, when we say we value impartiality. Today’s verse is hard simply because of how elusive (hard to grasp) the Tao actually is.

What is this Valley Spirit? Is it a black and yellow, eight-footed, eight-tailed, eight-headed animal with a human face, as the Shanhaiching says? Does it refer to our Moon, as Red Pine suggests? As I was reading along, I thought it was reminiscent of the Creation story in the Bible with which I became familiar as a child: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Genesis 1:1-2 NIV). This is the moment just before God says “Let there be light!”

Such diverse imagery for what Lao-tzu calls “the dark womb.” And, “the dark womb’s mouth…the source of Heaven and Earth.”

It is yin. Female, dark, still, empty, brooding, waiting, giving birth to all things… It is elusive. Like the silk of a silkworm or the web of a spider, hard to distinguish and hard to grasp. We reach for it, but can’t quite grasp it. We can see its manifestations. But, how? That eludes us.

There must be some purpose. That was what always intrigued me about that early part of the Creation story in Genesis. Why is the Spirit just hovering over the waters? What is it doing? What is going on here? Can we just skip to the next verse, where the “real” action starts?

Ah, but Te-ch’ing tells us “Purposeful action leads to exhaustion. The Tao is empty and acts without purpose. Hence, it can’t be exhausted.”

Acting without purpose, without effort, without struggling – that, is the practice of the Tao. Our journey through the Taoteching will be spent being still, being empty, brooding, waiting, learning to act without purpose, without effort, without struggling.

That is the purpose. We can’t wait to see what we will become. But that isn’t the Tao. It isn’t about what we will become. It is about being, and not-being. Especially not-being.

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

THE SHANHAICHING (BOOK OF MOUNTAINS AND WATERS). Shaman’s guide to China’s mountains and rivers. Attributed to Yu the Great (fl. 2200 B.C.), it was edited into its present form by Liu Hsin (ca. 50 B.C.- A.D. 23). A reliable English translation was published by Taiwan’s National Institute for Compilation and Translation in 1985.

YEN FU (1853-1921). Naval officer, scholar, and the first Chinese commentator to use Western philosophical concepts in interpreting Lao-tzu. Lao-tzu tao-te-ching p’ing-tien.

HSUEH HUI (1489-1541). Official, classical scholar, and student of the occult. His work on the Taoteching is notable for its critical review of previous commentaries. Lao-tzu chi-chieh and Lao-tzu k’ao-yi.

TU TAO-CHIEN (FL. 1264-1306). Taoist master and author of commentaries to a number of Taoist classics. His Taoteching commentary makes extensive use of quotes from the Confucian classics. Tao-te-hsuan-ching yuan-chih.

YELLOW EMPEROR (CA. 2700-2600 B.C.). Patriarch of Chinese culture. He was also among the earliest known practitioners of Taoist yoga and other hygienic arts.

LIEH-TZU (FL. 4TH C. B.C.). Taoist master about whom we know nothing other than that he could ride the wind. The book that bears his name was probably the work of his disciples and later generations of Taoists. The present version dates from the fifth century A.D.


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