“All the world knows beauty
but if that becomes beautiful
this becomes ugly
all the world knows good
but if that becomes good
this becomes bad
have and have not create each other
hard and easy produce each other
long and short shape each other
high and low complete each other
note and noise accompany each other
first and last follow each other
sages therefore perform effortless deeds
and teach wordless lessons
they don’t look after all the things that arise
or depend on them as they develop
or claim them when they reach perfection
and because they don’t claim them
they are never without them”
(Taoteching, verse 2, translation by Red Pine)
LU HSI-SHENG says, “What we call beautiful or ugly depends on our feelings. Nothing is necessarily beautiful or ugly until feelings make it so. But while feelings differ, they all come from our nature, and we all have the same nature. Hence, sages transform their feelings and return to their nature and thus become one again.”
WU CH’ENG says, “The existence of things, the difficulty of affairs, the size of forms, the magnitude of power, the pitch and clarity of sound, the sequence of position, all involve contrasting pairs. When one is present, both are present. When one is absent, both are absent.”
LU HUI-CH’ING says, “These six pairs all depend on time and occasion. None of them is eternal. Sages, however, act according to the Immortal Tao. Hence, they act without effort. And because they teach according to the Immortal Name, they teach without words. Beautiful and ugly, good and bad don’t enter their minds.”
WANG WU-CHIU says, “Sages are not interested in deeds or words. They simply follow the natural pattern of things. Things rise, develop, and reach perfection. This is their order.”
WANG AN-SHIH says, “Sages create but do not possess what they create. They act but do not depend on what they do. They succeed but do not claim success. These all result from selflessness. Because sages are selfless, they do not lose themselves. Because they do not lose themselves, they do not lose others.
SU CH’E says, “Losing something is the result of possessing something. How can people lose what they don’t possess?”
LI HSI-CHAI says, “Lao-tzu’s 5,000 word text clarifies what is mysterious as well as what is obvious. It can be used to attain the Tao, to order a country, or to cultivate the body.”
HO-SHANG KUNG titles this verse: “Cultivating the Body.”
SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Those who practice the Way put an end to distinctions, get rid of name and form, and make of themselves a home for the Way and Virtue.”
Today’s verse may just be the most important verse in the whole Taoteching, if you want to properly understand philosophical Taoism. At least, I think so. It is misunderstood by a great many, I used to fall in this camp. The problem with it is that we failed to understand what Lao-tzu taught us in the first verse.
Remember, in verse one, Lao-tzu introduced the Immortal Way and the Immortal Name, contrasting them with a way that becomes a way and a name that becomes a name. This really is vital to understand, or the rest of the book is going to largely be misunderstood, beginning with today’s verse.
So. we really have to understand what Lao-tzu is teaching. The way that becomes a way, the name that becomes a name – these are not the Immortal Way and Immortal Name.
That brings us to verse two, now. Where I, and a whole lot of other people have mistakenly believed that Lao-tzu is teaching there is no such thing as beauty or goodness.
But that conclusion flies in the face of what Lao-tzu taught us in verse one. There is such a thing as the Immortal Way. There is such a thing as the Immortal Name. Thus, there is such a thing as an objective, and eternal, beauty and goodness.
And, Lao-tzu begins today’s verse by saying all the world knows it. “All the world knows beauty…. All the world knows good….” The world knows it, because it is the eternal reality. And, Lao-tzu will be teaching, again and again, about this objective, eternal reality, throughout the Taoteching.
I understand that now. And I hope I cleared that up with my followers, as well.
But, there is a beauty and goodness that we, indeed, should be skeptical about. That is the subjective, and temporal. Once again, Lao-tzu teaches, “If that becomes beautiful, this becomes ugly…. If that becomes good, this becomes bad.” What Lao-tzu is talking about is what becomes beautiful, what becomes good. And we aren’t going to forget what Lao-tzu taught about the way that becomes a way, and the name that becomes a name: They aren’t the Immortal….
This, also, is something we simply must understand. This duality that exists. The yin-yang duality.
Have and have not, hard and easy, long and short, high and low, note and noise, first and last. You can’t have one without the other. They create each other, they produce each other, they shape each other, they complete each other, they accompany each other, they follow each other. This is the natural order. This is the Way things are.
Sages understand this. That is why they are careful about performing deeds and naming things. In light of the Way things are, the natural order, what is called for is effortless action and wordless lessons. Every effort, and every word spoken, take us farther away from the Way.
Things arise, they develop, they reach perfection. That is simply the natural order, the Way of things.
What is that to us? Let it be. Leave it alone. Don’t interfere with it. Don’t intervene. Don’t try to control. Don’t try to force things.
But somehow we feel we have some kind of vested interest in things. That has become beautiful to us, that has become good. And, “this” has become ugly and bad. But what is that? And, what is this?
That is something external to us. Something temporal. This is something internal, what you already have, with which you ought to be content. But because your focus has turned outward, looking after that that arises, depending on that, claiming that, you lose the most important thing of all. And for what? Those temporal things won’t last. They can’t last.
Oh, but if instead, you don’t look after all the things that arise, nor depend on them, nor claim them; you will never be without them, and you won’t lose the most important things of all.
Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:
LU HSI-SHENG (FL. 890). High official and scholar known for his wide learning. His commentary reflects the view that Lao-tzu and Confucius were the spiritual heirs of Fu Hsi (ca. 3500 B.C.), with Lao-tzu emphasizing the yin and Confucius the yang aspects of the Way of Heaven. Tao-te-chen-ching-chuan.
FU HSI (CA. 3500 B.C.). Sage ruler of ancient times and the reputed inventor of the system of hexagrams on which the Yiching is based.
WU CH’ENG (1249-1333). One of the great prose writers of the Yuan dynasty, surpassed only by his student Yu Chi (1272-1348). His commentary shows exceptional originality and provides unique background information. It is also noted for its division of the text into sixty-eight verses. Tao-te-chen-ching-chu.
LU HUI-CH’ING (1031-1111). Gifted writer selected by Wang An-shih to help draft his reform proposals. His commentary, presented to the emperor in 1078, is quoted at length by Chiao Hung. Tao-te-chen-ching-chuan.
WANG WU-CHIU (FL. 1056). Scholar-official. He gave up a promising official career in order to devote himself to studying and teaching. Lao-tzu-yi.
WANG AN-SHIH (1021-1086). One of China’s most famous prime ministers. His attempt to intorduce sweeping reforms directed against merchants and landowners galvanized Chines intellectuals into a debate that continues to this day. He was also one of China’s great poets and prose writers. His commentary has been reedited from scattered sources by Yen Ling-feng. Lao-tzu-chu.
SUNG CH’ANG-HSING (FL. 1700). Taoist master and seventh patriarch of the Dragon Gate sect of the Golden Lotus lineage. His commentary on the Taoteching was a favorite of Emperor K’ang-hsi (r. 1662-1722). Tao-te-ching chiang-yi.