“We look but don’t see it
and call it indistinct
we listen but don’t hear it
and call it faint
we reach but don’t grasp it
and call it ethereal
three failed means to knowledge
I weave into one
with no light above
and no shadow below
too fine to be named
returning to nothing
this is the formless form
the immaterial image
the one that waxes and wanes
we meet without seeing its face
we follow without seeing its back
whoever upholds this very Way
can rule this very realm
and discover the ancient maiden
this is the thread of the Way”
(Taoteching, verse 14, translation by Red Pine)
HO-SHANG KUNG entitles this verse “In Praise of the Dark” and says, “About what has no color, sound, or form, mouths can’t speak and books can’t teach. We can only discover it in stillness and search for it with our spirit. We cannot find it through investigation.”
LU TUNG-PIN says, “We can only see it inside us, hear it inside us, and grasp it inside us. When our essence becomes one, we can see it. When our breath becomes one, we can hear it. When our spirit becomes one, we can grasp it.”
CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “What we don’t see is vital essence. What we don’t hear is spirit. What we don’t grasp is breath.”
SU CH’E says, “People see things constantly changing and conclude something is there. They don’t realize everything returns to nothing.”
CH’EN KU-YING says, “‘Nothing’ doesn’t mean nothing at all but simply no form or substance.”
WANG PI says, “If we try to claim it doesn’t exist, how do the myriad things come to be? And if we try to claim it exists, why don’t we see its form? Hence, we call it ‘the formless form.’ But although it has neither shape nor form, neither sound nor echo, there is nothing it cannot penetrate and nowhere it cannot go.”
LI YUEH says, “Everything is bright on top and dark on the bottom. But the Tao does not have a top or a bottom. Hence, it is neither bright nor dark. Likewise, we don’t see its face because it never appears. And we don’t see its back because it never leaves.”
TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “‘This very realm’ refers to our body.”
LU HUI-CH’ING says, “The past isn’t different from today, because we know what began in the past. And today isn’t different from the past, because we know where today came from. What neither begins nor comes from anywhere else we call the thread that has no end. This is the thread of the Tao.”
CHANG TAO-LING says, “The sages who achieved long life and immortality in the past all succeeded by means of this Tao. Whoever can follow their example today has found the thread of the Tao.”
In verse six, Lao-tzu said it was as elusive as gossamer silk. He is back talking of that “thread” in today’s verse. And it remains “elusive.”
You can’t see it. You can’t hear it. You can’t grasp it. All of these are “failed means.” Why? Because it isn’t something external to us. It is indistinct, faint, ethereal. Yet, it weaves its way through the very fabric of our Universe, and hence, our lives.
There is no light above it, so there is no shadow below it. It is too “fine” to be named. It is always returning to nothingness. Having a form without a form, it is the immaterial image.
It waxes and wanes, This doesn’t mean it is the moon. It means the moon is a pretty good metaphor for it.
We meet it without ever seeing its face and we follow it without ever seeing its back. How? How, indeed. By upholding this very Way. That is how!
Yes, but how do we uphold it? That is simple, actually. You uphold it by being like it. Don’t try to force things. Don’t intervene and interfere. Don’t try to control. Let things be. Let them be!
Only those who can do this are fit to rule! They have discovered the ancient maiden. The source of Heaven and Earth. This is its thread. You can’t see it, or hear it, or grasp it. But you can use it. It is the very source of life in the core of your being, Use it. You can’t exhaust it. Just use it!
Red Pine introduces the following sage with today’s verse:
CH’EN KU-YING (B. 1935). Classical scholar and philospher who has taught in Taipei and Beijing and annoyed authorities in both places with his outspokenness. Lao-tzu chu-yi chi-p’ing-chieh.