The Meaning of Emptiness

“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. They 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).

In yesterday’s verse, Lao-tzu said the sage empties the mind. In today’s verse, Lao-tzu explains what emptiness means.

First of all, as Wu Ch’eng says in his commentary, “‘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.”

Empty like a bowl” means an emptiness that can be used. What can you use an empty bowl for? Pretty much anything. Emptying our minds, then, makes our minds useful. They really aren’t of much use to us when they are full of clutter, now, are they?

Now, try to imagine this: A mind so empty it can never become full again. What a glorious state “emptiness” is! This sort of emptiness is so deep, here Wu Ch’eng (once again) has something to say, “‘Deep’ means ‘what cannot be measured.’” In other words, this is an infinite emptiness.

The Tao’s emptiness dulls our edges, meaning (as Li Hsi-chai says in his commentary) it takes away all of our ambition. Dulling our edges means not insisting on anything.

It unties our tangles. This means having no fear. Untying every tangle means avoiding nothing (Once again, see Li Hsi-chai, above).

It softens our light. Here, Li Hsi-chai says those who follow the Tao don’t care about beauty. I am rather certain this refers to the subjective beauty, Lao-tzu talked about in verse two. Softening our light means forgetting about ourselves.

And while they didn’t care about beauty, they didn’t hate ugliness (once again, see Li Hsi-chai, above). It merges our dust so that we don’t abandon others.

This prescription, which is something Lao-tzu introduced in yesterday’s verse, is contrary to the Way of Humankind.

The Way of Humankind takes advantage of edges, as Wei Yuan says in his commentary, to create conflicts with others. It shines bright lights to illuminate their dust. But the emptiness of the Tao, by grinding down our edges, makes conflicts disappear. It dims the light and merges our dust with the darkness of understanding (see verse one).

Finally, the Tao’s emptiness is so clear. Here, Lu Nung-shih explains, “‘Clear’ describes what is deep, what seems present and yet not present, what seems to be not-present and yet not not-present.”

What’s that again? This just highlights what an enigma the Tao is. Lao-tzu marvels at it, as we all should. And he is careful with his words. “As if it were present.” And, “As if it were the ancestor of us all.” Does it even precede God? “It seems” so.

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 no 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.

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