“Heaven is eternal and Earth is immortal
the reason they’re eternal and immortal
is because they don’t live for themselves
hence they can live forever
sages therefore pull themselves back
and end up in front
put themselves outside
and end up safe
is it not because of their selflessness
whatever they seek they find”
(Taoteching, verse 7, translation by Red Pine)
CHU CH’IEN-CHIH says, “The line ‘Heaven is eternal and Earth is immortal’ was apparently an old saying, which Lao-tzu quotes in order to explain its significance.”
CHIANG SSU-CH’I says, “‘Heaven’ refers to the point between the eyebrows. ‘Earth’ refers to the point just below the navel.”
LU HUI-CH’ING says, “Heaven stands for the movement of time. Earth represents the transformation of form. Heaven and Earth have their origin in the dark womb. And the essence of the dark womb is the valley spirit that doesn’t die. Because it doesn’t die, it isn’t born. Only what isn’t born can give birth to the living. And because it doesn’t give birth to itself, it can live forever.”
TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “What is not alive is the basis for life. By equating life and death, we are no longer burdened by life and death. By abandoning bodily form, we are no longer hindered by bodily form.”
WU CH’ENG says, “To pull oneself back means to be humble and not to try to be in front of others. To put oneself outside means to be content and not to try to add to one’s life. To find what one seeks means to be in front and safe.”
SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Heaven and earth help creatures fulfill their needs by not having any needs of their own. Can sages do otherwise? By following the Way of Heaven and Earth, sages are revered by all and harmed by none. Hence, they, too, live long.”
JEN FA-JUNG says, “Sages do not purposely seek long life but achieve it through selflessness.”
CH’ENG CHU says, “Heaven, Earth, and Humankind share the same origin. Why doesn’t Humankind share their immortality? Because Heaven and Earth are not aware they are Heaven and Earth. Only Humankind is self-aware. And being self-aware, there is nothing humans won’t do to stay alive. But the more they care for their life, the more pained their life becomes. The more they nourish their body, the sicker their body becomes. People who have not thought this out say the followers of Lao-tzu are afraid of death and only interested in immortality. But this is getting it backward.”
HO-SHANG KUNG says, “The reason Heaven and Earth alone are eternal and immortal is because they are content and give without expecting a reward, unlike Humankind who never stops chasing profit and fighting over possessions.”
WANG PI says, “Those who live for themselves fight with others. Those who don’t live for themselves are the refuge of others.”
SU CH’E says, “If Heaven and Earth fought with others over life, they would be the same as others. And if sages fought with others over profit, they would be the same as them. Would that no be a great shame?”
WANG P’ANG says, “Although sages are sages, they look the same as others. But because they embody the Way of Heaven and don’t fight, they alone differ from everyone else. Sages are selfless because they no longer have a self.”
LU TUNG-PIN says, “The only thing sages seek is Virtue.”
In today’s verse, Lao-tzu goes back to talking about how very problematic life can be for Humankind. Lao-tzu talked about this before, in verse three. Heaven and Earth are governed in a particular Way; and Humankind alone, apparently of all beings in the Universe (at least, as far as I know), can attempt to live contrary to the governance of the Tao. The problem, says Lao-tzu, is when we live for ourselves. Being self-aware. Seeing ourselves as distinct from other beings.
Sages overcome this “natural” human tendency by “pulling themselves back,” and “putting themselves outside.” Now, this results in the sage “ending up in front,” and “being safe” inside. But the rest of Humankind aren’t naturally inclined to believe this will be the outcome for themselves, because they see themselves not as unique, but distinct from everything else. That selfness is a problem.
Yes, I think I may have just coined a new word there. Selfness as opposed to selfishness. Disciples of Ayn Rand don’t have to get their feathers ruffled as Lao-tzu pronounces his prescription for the problem of selfness.
To overcome the problem of selfness, sages practice “selflessness,” says Lao-tzu, and that results in “whatever they seek, they find.”
Selflessness isn’t the opposite of selfishness. It isn’t altruism, the sacrificing or negating of the self.
The practice of selflessness deals with the problem of being self-aware, of selfness. This practice results in the exaltation and realization of your true “self.” Notice, sages end up in front, on top, and safe inside. But, it doesn’t happen as a result of us trying to force our way to the front, or to the top.
Force is our “natural” inclination. But that is going counter to the Tao. Meaning, we aren’t in sync with the rest of the Universe. And we wonder why we aren’t content. Why enough is never enough. Why we are never satisfied.
Our problem is we see ourselves as distinct from, exclusive, rather than inclusive. And, just to be clear here. This isn’t about being a part of the whole creation, either. Oh we are, but we are so much more than just a part. We actually contain the whole Universe inside of us. That is the eternal reality. We just don’t see it. And because we don’t see it, we don’t act like that is our reality.
We need to realize our reality. That is the purpose of Lao-tzu’s teaching. He lays out a prescription for realizing our reality in each verse of the Taoteching. Just don’t be surprised when it seems to run counter to the way of Humankind. We see ourselves as distinct, when we should be celebrating our uniqueness.
Our uniqueness, what makes us human, means we have a choice. Other beings can’t help but follow the Way. But Humankind can choose to follow the Way. This is the reason that Lao-tzu, in a later verse, will list Humankind as one of the four great powers.
You have a choice. That means freedom. You are free to choose. So, choose wisely. The verses that follow will help you to do just that.
Red Pine introduces the following sages with today’s verse:
CHU CH’IEN-CHIH (1899-1972). Classical scholar and teacher of philosophy and history. His edition of the Taoteching presents variants, rhymes, and usages along with his own comments. Lao-tzu chiao-shih.
CH’IANG SSU-CH’I (FL. 920). Taoist master of the former Shu dynasty (Szechuan province) during the Five Dynasties period. His edition is invaluable for its preservation of the comments of Li Jung, Ch’eng Hsuan-ying, and Yen Tsun, as well as those of Hsuan-tsung and Ho-shang Kung. Tao-te-chen-ching hsuan-te-tsuan-shun.
JEN FA-JUNG (B. 1930). Director of the Taoist Association of China and abbot of Loukuantai, the Taoist center where Lao-tzu reportedly wrote the Taoteching. Master Jen’s is the only commentary I know of by a Taoist priest subsequent to the Cultural Revolution. Tao-te-ching shih-yi.
LU TUNG-PIN (FL. 845). Leader of Taoism’s legendary Eight Immortals and author of a number of Taoist works, including Secret of the Golden Flower. Several commentaries have been attributed to him. I have used the Tao-te-ching shih-yi.