This Is Dark Virtue

“Can you keep your crescent soul from wandering
can you make your breath as soft as a baby’s
can you wipe your dark mirror free of dust
can you serve and govern without effort
can you be female at Heaven’s Gate
can you light the world without knowledge
can you give birth and nurture
but give birth without possessing
raise without controlling
this is Dark Virtue”

(Taoteching, verse 10, translation by Red Pine)

RED PINE begins by saying, “The Chinese say that the hun, or bright, ethereal, yang soul, governs the upper body and the p’o, or dark, earthly yin soul, concerns itself with the lower body. Here, Lao-tzu mentions only the darker soul. But the word p’o also refers to the dark of the moon, and the opening phrase can also be read as referring to the first day of the new moon. Either way, dark of the soul or dark of the moon, Taoist commentators say the first line refers to the protection of our vital essence, of which semen and vaginal fluid, sweat and saliva are the most common examples, and the depletion of which injures the health and leads to early death.”

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “The first transformation of life is called p’o. When the p’o becomes active and bright, it’s called hun.”

WANG P’ANG says, “Life requires three things: vital essence, breath, and spirit.”

CHIAO HUNG says, “The mind knows right and wrong. Breath makes no distinction. If we concentrate our breath and don’t let the mind interfere with it, it remains soft and pure. Who else but a child can do this?”

CHUANG-TZU says, “The sage’s mind is so still, it can mirror Heaven and Earth and reflect the ten thousand things” (Chuangtzu: 13.1).

WU CH’ENG says, “Our spirit dwells in our eyes. When the eyes see something, the spirit chases it. When we close our eyes and look within, everything is dark. But within the dark, we still see something. There is still dust. Only by putting an end to delusions can we get rid of the dust.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “The best way to serve is by not serving. The best way to govern is by not governing. Hence, Lao-tzu says, ‘without effort.’ Those who act without effort make use of the efforts of others. As for Heaven’s Gate, this is the gate through which all creatures enter and leave. When it is open, it is active. When it is closed, it is still. Activity and stillness represent the male and the female. Just as stillness overcomes activity, the female overcomes the male.” (RED PINE notes that the images of young women were often carved on either side of the entrance to ancient, subterranean tombs.)

SU CH’E says, “What lights up the world is the mind. There is nothing the mind does not know. And yet no one can know the mind. The mind is one. If someone knew it, there would be two. Going from one to two is the origin of all delusion.”

LAO-TZU says, “The Way begets them / Virtue keeps them” (Taoteching: 51).

WANG PI says, “If we don’t obstruct their source, things come into existence on their own. If we don’t suppress their nature, things mature by themselves. Virtue is present, but its owner is unknown. It comes from the mysterious depths. Hence, we call it ‘dark.’”

Today’s verse hearkens back to the dark and elusive, yet inexhaustible, Tao Lao-tzu talked about in verse six. He asks seven rhetorical questions to explain Dark Virtue to us.

Red Pine’s commentary on the first line, concerning “your crescent soul” elicited a chuckle from me. We must protect our precious bodily fluids, after all. But seriously, crescent, I think refers to the fact we have both a light side, and a darker side. Lao-tzu’s emphasis on the darker side, makes the “crescent” imagery quite good.

You may have noticed, the last few days, we have been talking about the many ways in which the way of Humankind is different from the Way of the Tao. One of those ways, as Lao-tzu pictures for us in today’s verse, is that we prefer light to darkness. We “go crazy” for a full moon. But “new” or even “crescent” moons are “meh.”

But, Lao-tzu, always prefers the darkness. He calls this virtue, dark. And while he calls it dark because it is deep, mysterious, even unseen; let’s not forget that it isn’t just dark, it is also virtuous.

And, if we are going to practice this virtue, this dark virtue, it is going to take practice.

Can you keep your mind from wandering? What was that again,? I was thinking of something else. No, seriously, I know how much we value activity. But you really need your mind to be still. Just don’t try to still it. That defeats the whole purpose. Let your mind wander. Go ahead, don’t worry about it. Let those thoughts come and go. Don’t worry about them. Just breathe. Concentrate on your breath. By not thinking about what you are thinking about, your mind will empty. But what was that he said about breathing?

Can you make your breath as soft as a baby’s? So easy, even a baby can do it. Or maybe, only a baby can do it. The point here, isn’t to try to make your breath as soft as a baby’s, though. The point is to let go of your need to focus on your breathing, now. We have moved on with time. Our minds now empty. Now we just breathe softly. No need to pay attention to the breathing any longer. It just happens naturally, after all.

Can you wipe your dark mirror free of dust? That dark mirror, a reflection of your true self. Covered in dust because there is so much dust. That is life’s cares, life’s worries. Let them go. Wipe that mirror clear.

Can you serve and govern without effort? Serving and governing without effort is, perhaps, the whole point of Lao-tzu’s teachings. We talked about this a couple of verses ago. It is about choosing “not competing” over competing.

Can you be female at Heaven’s Gate? Well, it doesn’t get any more yin than “being female.” This doesn’t mean embracing your feminine side, boys. This means being female in the truest sense of the word. Embracing the darkness, choosing passivity over activity. There is simply a time to be still. And the time is now.

Can you light the world without knowledge? Oh, so now we have light? Yes, but with a twist. We all know about lighting the world with knowledge. It wasn’t called the Enlightenment for nothing. With the invention of the Gutenberg printing press, there was a massive expansion of knowledge. But, can you light the world without knowledge?This “without knowledge” calls attention to all we presume we already know. And that presumption is a huge problem for us. The world would be a much “lighter” place if we didn’t presume we knew so much. Maybe now is a good time to go back to emptying our minds again. Concentrate on your breathing….

Can you give birth without possessing, raise without controlling? Well, that certainly makes “being female” important, if we are talking about giving birth. Unless you are a sea horse. But I don’t think I have any sea horses following me. Yet Lao-tzu isn’t talking about making babies, or raising children, here. What he is talking about is not “who” we give birth to, but “what.” It is all the things we do. From beginning to end. We talked about the work we do, in the last two verses. First, do it with skill. Next, when it is finished, let it go. Don’t try to possess it. Don’t try to control it. Just let it be.

Yes, this requires dark virtue. Something deep and mysterious, and unseen, inside of each one of us. But it is there. And we can all tap into that hidden strength. Use it. It is inexhaustible.

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

HSUAN-TSUNG (R. 712-762). One of China’s more famous emperors, he was also a skilled poet and calligrapher and was deeply interested in Taoism as well as Buddhism. I have quoted from his own commentary, written in 732, as well as from another commentary compiled under his direction that expands on his earlier effort. Yu-chu tao-te-chen-ching and Yu-chih tao-te-chen-ching-shu.

CHIAO HUNG (1541-1620). Noted compiler of bibliographic works. His 1587 edition of the Taoteching includes his own occasional comments as well as selected commentaries of mostly Sung dynasty authors, notably Su Ch’e, Lu Hui-ch’ing, and Li Hsi-chai. It remains one of the most useful such compilations. Lao-tzu-yi.

CHUANG-TZU (369-286 B.C.). After Lao-tzu, the greatest of the early Taoist philosophers. The work that bears his name contains some of the most imaginative examples of early Chinese writing and includes numerous quotes from the Taoteching. The work was added to by later writers and edited into its present form by Kuo Hsiang (d. 312).

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