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 no 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.”

RED PINE says, “This verse reminds me of Confucius’ words: ‘When I was young, historians still left blanks’ (Lunyu: 15.25). Not being a historian, I have proceeded despite uncertainty.”

“Holding on to the crescent”? What does that mean? Red Pine, in his explanatory notes, admits the word ch’ang normally means “constant.” But because ch’ang is also the name for the crescent moon, he decided to translate it ‘crescent.” Again, this is one of those few times where I choose to differ with Red Pine. I understand how much he has been influenced by Tu Er-wei in his interpretations. And, I think this has sometimes clouded his judgment. While the moon can sometimes be a fitting metaphor for the Tao, I would prefer to not take these metaphors so literally. For my own commentary, I am reading ch’ang as it normally means, “constant.” Hence the title of my commentary today, “Holding On to the Constant.”

Holding on to the constant has Lao-tzu comparing maiden with mother, “maiden” in verse one, is the metaphor for no-name, while the metaphor of name is mother. Naming, is something Lao-tzu has been talking about since verse one. And, always, he has warned us of the consequences. Once you open that gate, the naming never ends. The child, here, is the consequences. Find the mother, the name, and you will know the child. But, once you know the child, you will keep the mother safe. That is the only way to live without trouble.

Holding on to the constant has Lao-tzu comparing opening and closing, blocking and unblocking. It may seem odd that Lao-tzu is advocating blocking and closing, as opposed to unblocking and opening. Shouldn’t we want to be open?

Ah, let’s see if we can understand the nuance of what Lao-tzu is saying here. What does he mean by “unblock the opening”? It helps that he tells us with the very next line. Those who unblock the opening are those “who meddle in affairs.” In other words, the need to block the opening and close the gate has to do with keeping ourselves from going out and interfering.

Here, he then promotes the need to see the small. Those that do have vision. Protecting the weak means you are strong. Holding on to the constant means using your light, trusting your vision.

This is to live beyond death. This takes us back a couple verses, where we talked about transcending change, transcending life and death. By holding on to the constant we transcend change, and having transcended change, the immortal thing inside each of us, which we are cultivating, will live beyond death.

That might seem motivation enough to not want to meddle in affairs, to block the opening and close the gate. But the truth is, it isn’t enough. We simply don’t fear going astray as we ought. What are the possible reasons for this? Well, that will be the topic of our next verse, and that will have to wait until next week, on Monday. See you then…

Red Pine introduces the following sage with today’s verse:

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. Tao-te-chen-ching chi-chieh.

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