Recognizing That, Hold On to This

“Recognize the male
but hold on to the female
and be the world’s maid
being the world’s maid
don’t lose your Immortal Virtue
not losing your Immortal Virtue
be a newborn child again
recognize the pure
but hold on to the base
and be the world’s valley
being the world’s valley
be filled with Immortal Virtue
being filled with Immortal Virtue
be a block of wood again
recognize the white
but hold on to the black
and be the world’s guide
don’t stray from your Immortal Virtue
not straying from your Immortal Virtue
be without limits again
a block of wood can be split to make tools
sages make it their chief official
a master tailor doesn’t cut”

(Taoteching, verse 28, translation by Red Pine)

TE-CH’ING says, “To recognize the Way is hard. Once you recognize it, holding on to it is even harder. But only by holding on to it can you advance on the Way.”

MENCIUS says, “The great person does not lose their child heart” (Mencius: 4B.12).

WANG TAO says, “Sages recognize ‘that’ but hold on to ‘this.’ ‘Male’ and ‘female’ mean hard and soft. ‘Pure’ and ‘base’ mean noble and humble. ‘White’ and ‘black’ mean light and dark. Although hard, noble, and light certainly have their uses, hard does not come from hard but from soft, noble does not come from noble but from humble, and light does not come from light but from dark. Hard, noble, and light are the secondary forms and farther from the Way. Soft, humble, and dark are the primary forms and closer to the Way. Hence, sages return to the original: a block of wood. A block of wood can be made into tools, but tools cannot be made into a block of wood. Sages are like blocks of wood, not tools. They are the chief officials and not functionaries.”

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “What has no limits is the Tao.”

CONFUCIUS says, “A great person is not a tool” (Lunyu; 2.12).

CHANG TAO-LING says, “To make tools is to lose sight of the Way.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Before a block of wood is split, it can take any shape. But once split, it cannot be round if it is square or straight if it is curved. Lao-tzu tells us to avoid being split. Once we are split, we can never return to our original state.”

PAO-TING says, “When I began butchering, I used my eyes. Now I use my spirit instead and follow the natural lines” (Chuangtzu: 3.2).

WANG P’ANG says, “Those who use the Tao to tailor leave no seams.”

In yesterday’s verse, we talked about going back to our original nature, that is, before our parents were born. This, Lao-tzu said, is good. It is to be perfectly blind. Today he continues on this theme, as “the good” is referred to as “Immortal Virtue.” And, going back to our original nature is referred to as being “a block of wood again.”

To do this requires a progression (or is it a regression) of steps. Each of them requires recognizing “that,” while holding on to “this.” “That” is yang: the male, the pure, the white. Recognize those things in your life, but hold onto, and embrace, what is yin: the female, the base, the black. Holding onto this means being the world’s maid, innocent, so you won’t lose your Immortal Virtue. It means being a newborn child again, once again innocent, so you can be the world’s valley, empty, and able to be filled with Immortal Virtue. It means being a block of wood again, so that you won’t stray from your Immortal Virtue. It means being without limits again.

Being without limits again, that block of wood can be anything, anything at all. But once it is split, then it there are limits. We want to go back to being that block of wood again. Back to our original nature.

The difficulty lies, as Wang Tao says, in how to go back to being that block of wood again. A block of wood can be made into tools, but tools cannot be made into a block of wood. The master tailor in today’s verse, and the master butcher in Chuangtzu’s writings reveal the Way. They are both perfectly blind. They no longer see with their eyes, but with their spirit. Don’t be a tool!

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

PAO-TING, the knife-wielding cook of Chuangtzu: 3.2.

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