Which Path Will We Choose?

“There’s a maiden in the world
who becomes the world’s mother
those who find the mother
thereby know the child
those who know the child
keep the mother safe
and live without trouble
those who block the opening
who close the gate
live without toil
those who unblock the opening
who meddle in affairs
live without hope
those who see the small have vision
those who protect the weak have strength
those who use their light
and trust their vision
live beyond death
this is called holding on to the crescent”

(Taoteching, verse 52, translation by Red Pine)

LAO-TZU says, “The maiden of Heaven and earth has no name / the mother of all things has a name” (Taoteching: 1).

KUAN-TZU says, “The ancients say, ‘No one understands a child better than its father. No one understands a minister better than his ruler’” (Kuantzu: 7).

LI HSI-CHAI says, “The Way is the mother of all creatures. All creatures are the children of the Way. In ancient times, those who possessed the way were able to keep mother and children from parting and the Way and all creatures together. Since creatures come from the Way, they are no different from the Way, just as children are no different from their mother. And yet people abandon other creatures when they search for the Way. Is this any different from abandoning the children while searching for the mother? If people knew that all creatures are the Way, and children are the mother, they would find the source in everything they meet.”

CONFUCIUS says, “Things have their roots and branches. Those who know what comes first and last approach the Tao” (Tahsueh).

TUNG SSU-CHING says, “People are born when they receive breath. Breath is their mother. And spirit dwells within their breath. When children care for their mother, their breath becomes one and their spirit becomes still.”

WU CH’ENG says, “‘Opening’ refers to the mouth. ‘Gate’ refers to the nose. By controlling our breath to the point where there is no breath, where breath is concentrated within, we are never exhausted.”

WANG P’ANG says, “When the opening opens, things enter. And the spirit is exhausted trying to deal with the problems that then develop. Once we are swept away by this flood, who can save us?”

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “Those who can see an event while it is still small and change their behavior accordingly we say have vision.”

WANG PI says, “Seeing what is great is no vision. Seeing what is small is vision. Protecting the strong is not strength. Protecting the weak is strength.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “Light is the function of vision. Vision is the embodiment of light. If we can use the light to find our way back to the source, we can live our lives free of misfortune and become one with the Immortal Way.”

RED PINE says, “This verse reminds me of Confucius’ words: ‘When I was young, historians still left blanks’ (Lunyu: 15.25). Not being a historian, I have proceeded despite uncertainty.”

Lao-tzu’s use of maiden and mother in today’s verse takes us back to the opening verse where Lao-tzu said “the maiden of Heaven and Earth has no name / the mother of all things has a name” I believe that refers to how the unknowable Tao can only be known through its manifestations. A mother is a mother because she has children (manifestations). It is through these children we find the mother; therefore, to know the child is to know the mother.

This is the only way to “know” the Tao, through its children. So, it is vital for us to see the Tao in each other.

Where we see those who block the opening, who close the gate, we see those who live without trouble. That sounds good, but what does “block the opening” and “close the gate” refer to? The answer is revealed when we consider the next three lines, where we see those who unblock the opening, who meddle in affairs, we see those who live without hope.

Blocking the opening and closing the gate means we don’t run our mouths and meddle in others’ affairs. But, as it is often said, there are all kinds of people, and all of them are manifestations of the Tao.

In other words, there is something for us to know about the Tao in both kinds of people.

The Tao, after all, is simply the natural law of the universe at work in our lives. And because it is the Tao, the paths we choose lead us inexorably to their conclusion.

Which path will we choose?

It isn’t those who see the great who have vision, but those who see the small. It isn’t those who protect the strong who have strength, but those who protect the weak.

And those who use their light can trust their vision, and live beyond death. Once again, Lao-tzu isn’t referring to our physical lives, here. Though our physical lives are a metaphor for it. He is talking about transcending the boundaries of life and death while we yet live.

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

TUNG SSU-CHING (FL. 1246-1257). Taoist master and compiler of Taoist texts in the Lingpao tradition. His commentary includes extensive quotes from T’ang and Sung dynasty commentators as well as his own comments. Tao-te-chen-ching chi-chieh.

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