Things to Get Rid of, Things to Add

“Get rid of wisdom and reason
and people will live a hundred times better
get rid of kindness and justice
and people once more will love and obey
get rid of cleverness and profit
and thieves will cease to exist
but these three saying are incomplete
hence let these be added
display the undyed and preserve the uncarved
reduce self-interest and limit desires”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 19, translation by Red Pine)

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Get rid of the works of wisdom and reason and return to the primeval. The symbols and letters created by the Five Emperors were not as effective ruling the kingdom as the simple knots used earlier by the Three Sovereigns.”

TE-CH’ING says, “This is what Chaung-tzu meant when he said, ‘Tigers and wolves are kind.’ Tigers and wolves possess innate love and obedience that don’t require instruction. How much more should Humankind, the most intelligent of creatures, possess these.”

WANG CHEN says, “Put an end to wisdom that leaves tracks and reason that deceives, and people will benefit greatly. Put an end to condescending kindness and treacherous justice, and relatives will come together on their own and will once more love and obey. Put an end to excessive cleverness and personal profit, and armies will no longer appear. And when armies no longer appear, thieves will cease to exist.”

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “These three only help us get rid of things. They don’t explain cultivation. Hence, they are incomplete.”

WANG PI says, “Wisdom and reason are the pinnacle of ability. Kindness and justice are the acme of behavior. Cleverness and profit are the height of practice. To tell us simply to get rid of them would be inappropriate and wouldn’t make sense without giving us something else. Hence, we are told to focus on the undyed and the uncarved.”

CHIAO HUNG says, “The ways of the world become daily more artificial. Hence, we have names like wisdom and reason, kindness and jusice, cleverness and profit. Those who understand the Tao see how artificial thse are and how inappropriate they are in ruling the world. They aren’t as good as getting people to focus their attention on undyed cloth and uncarved wood. By displaying what is undyed and preserving what is uncarved, our self-interest and desires wane. The undyed and the uncarved refer to our original nature.”

LIU CHING says, “‘Undyed’ means unstained by anything else and thus free of wisdom and reason. ‘Uncarved’ means complete in itself and thus free of kindness and justice. ‘Self-interest’ concerns oneself. And ‘desires’ concern others. As they diminish, so do cleverness and profit.”

SU CH’E says, “Confucius relied on kindness and justice, ritual and music to order the kingdom. Lao-tzu’s only concern was to open people’s minds, which he accomplished through the use of metaphor. Some people, though, have used his metaphors to create disorder, while no great problems have been caused y the followers of Confucius.”

And RED PINE adds, “Get rid of sayings, and people will be their own sages.”

We have been talking for the last couple of days about substitutes for the Tao. Substitutes like kindness and justice, and like wisdom and reason. These substitutes don’t seem so bad. What could possibly be bad about kindness and justice, wisdom and reason?

Well, they aren’t bad, in and of themselves. Be kind and just, and people will love you. Be wise and employ reason, and people will fear (respect) you. But, there is one reason they are bad. And, that is because they are used as substitutes for the Tao. Because they are an artificial means to an end which the whole world would be better off reaching through natural means.

I thought the quote attributed to Chuang-tzu, which Red Pine included in his commentary for yesterday’s verse, was quite poignant in illustrating this point. “When springs dry up, fish find themselves in puddles, spraying water on each other to keep each other alive. Better to be in a river or lake ad oblivious of one another.”

We need to get back to the river or lake. How could we ever be content in our current state of being in small puddles?

In today’s chapter, Lao-tzu shows us the way out of the puddles and back to the river or lake.

Get rid of the substitutes! Throw them out! Be done with them!

Of course, this prescription is going to be met with resistance. The powers that be have devised a rather lucrative fish-spraying apparatus for puddle dwellers. Fish who aren’t content to stay in their puddles? That want to swim in a river or lake again? Don’t they care about their fellow fish? Not everyone can escape those puddles, you know. They should check their privilege! Everyone needs to contribute their fair share to the spraying.

I won’t go on with that little analogy. I am certain you get the point.

And, anyway, Lao-tzu is well aware that just abandoning the puddles isn’t enough. Something does need to be added.

If we are going to be back in the rivers and lakes, swimming again, we need a whole lot more water.

Water, being a metaphor for the Tao, of course. But the spring has dried up!

Well, what is much more likely is it has gotten a bit stopped up. If we dig a bit deeper, I bet we fill find a vast reservoir of untapped water there to be used.

That delving deeper is getting back to our original nature: The undyed and uncarved. It reduces self-interest and limits desires. Tomorrow, we will delve deeper.

When This Disappears, That Appears

“When the Great Way disappears
we meet kindness and justice
when reason appears
we meet great deceit
when the six relations fail
we meet obedience and love
when the country is in chaos
we meet upright officials”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 18, translation by Red Pine)

Connecting this with the previous verse, WEI YUAN says, “What people love and praise are kindness and justice. What people fear is reason. And what people despise is deceit.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “It isn’t the Great Way that leaves Humankind and goes into hiding. it’s Humankind that leaves the Great way and replaces it with kindness and justice.”

SU CH’E says, “When the Great Way flourishes, kindness and justice are at work. But people don’t realize it. Only after the great Way disappears, do kindness and justice become visible.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “The Way hides in formlessness. Names arise from discontent. When the Way hides in formlessness, there isn’t any difference between great or small. When names arise from discontent, we get distinctions such as kindness, justice, reason, and so forth.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “When the kingdom enjoys peace, no one thinks about kindness, and the people are free of desire. When the Great Way prevails, kindness and justice vanish, just as the stars fade when the sun appears.”

MENCIUS says, “Kindness means dwelling in peace. Justice means taking the right road” (Mencius: 4A.10).

TE CH’ING says, “Reason is what the sage uses to order the kingdom. It includes the arts, measurements, and laws. In the High Ages, people were innocent, and these were unknown. In the Middle Ages, people began to indulge their feelings, and rulers responded with reason. And once reason appeared, the people responded with deceit.”

WANG PI says, “The six relations are between father and son, elder and younger brothers, husband and wife. When these six relations are harmonious, the country governs itself, and there is no need for obedience, love, or honesty.”

WANG P’ANG says, “During a virtuous age, obedience and love are considered normal. Hence, no one is called obedient or loving. Nowadays, when someone is obedient or loving, we praise them. This is because the six relations are no longer harmonious. Moreover, when peace prevails, everyone is honest. How can there be honest officials?

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “When the realm is at peace, loyalty and honesty are nowhere to be seen. Innocence and virtue appear when the realm is in chaos.”

LI JUNG says, “During the time of the sage emperors Fu Hsi and Shen Nung, there was no mention of officials. It was only during the time of the despots Chieh and Chou that we begin to hear of ministers such as Kuan Lung-feng and Pi Kan.”

WU CH’ENG says, “Shao Juo-yu assigns these four divisions to emperors, kings, the wise, and the talented.”

CHUANG-TZU says, “When springs dry up, fish find themselves in puddles, spraying water on each other to keep each other alive. Better to be in a river or lake and oblivious of one another” (Chuangtzu: 6.5).

In some copies, line 1 of today’s verse begins with ku (therefore). As I noted in my commentary on verse 17 this past Friday, many commentators have concluded that verse 17 and 18 may have been one once. This seems plausible to me, given that today’s verse does read like an explanation of the previous one. Then again, every verse is connected; and verse 19, which we will get to tomorrow will likewise continue this same thread.

But, I don’t want to get ahead of myself. Let’s look back at the previous verse. As you may recall, verse 17 recounted how things had spiraled down since the time of the reigns of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors. That was some 4500 years ago. These legendary rulers exercised power so unobtrusively, the people hardly knew they were there.

But, no rulers since then have been so virtuous. As their virtue diminished, the country experienced decline. After leaving the Tao behind, rulers first governed with kindness and justice, and were loved and praised. But that didn’t last. Then, they tried reason, laws and punishments. That caused the people to fear them. Finally, they resorted to the use of force and deceit, leading to the people despising them.

One thing I have learned about history is that any lesson to be learned from it, the Chinese learned long before us.

And now, not just the country, but the whole world seems to be in chaos.

Note what Wang P’ang says about the six relations failing: “During a virtuous age, obedience and love are considered normal. Hence, no one is called obedient or loving. Nowadays, when someone is obedient or loving, we praise them. This is because the six relations are no longer harmonious. Moreover, when peace prevails, everyone is honest..”

And, Ch’eng Hsuan-ying adds, “When the realm is at peace, loyalty and honesty are nowhere to be seen. Innocence and virtue appear when the realm is in chaos.”

The six relations have failed. We are no longer living harmoniously. It once happened naturally. Now, try as we might, we can’t even manage to fake it.

There is simply no substitute for the Tao. And that is best illustrated by what Chuang-tzu said, “When springs dry up, fish find themselves in puddles, spraying water on each other to keep each other alive. Better to be in a river or lake and oblivious of one another.”

That Was Then

“During the High Ages people knew they were there
then people loved and praised them
then they feared them
finally they despised them
when honesty fails
dishonesty prevails
hesitate and weigh your words
when their work succeeds
let people think they did it”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 17, translation by Red Pine)

RED PINE begins the commentary by pointing out, “The Chinese of Lao-tzu’s day believed their greatest age of peace and harmony occurred during the reigns of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors, or 2,000 years earlier. These legendary rulers exercised power so unobtrusively, the people hardly knew they were there, as we hear in a song handed down from that distant age: ‘Sunup I rise / sundown I rest / I dig a well to drink / I plow fields to eat / the emperor’s might / what is it to me?’ (Kushihyuan: 1).”

THE LICHI says, “During the High Ages people esteemed virtue. Then they worked for rewards” (1).

LU HSI-SHENG says, “The virtuous lords of ancient times initiated no actions and left no traces. Hence, the people knew they were there and that was all. When their virtue diminished, they ruled with kindness and justice, and the people loved and praised them. When their kindness and justice no longer controlled people’s hearts, they governed with laws and punishments, and the people feared them. When their laws and punishments no longer controlled people’s minds, they acted with force and deceit, and the people despised them.”

MENCIUS says, “When the ruler views his ministers as his hands and feet, they regard him as their heart and soul. When he views them as dirt and weeds, they regard him as an enemy and a thief” (Mencius: 4B.3).

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “The mistake of loving and praising, fearing and despising does not rest with the people but with those above. The reason the people turn to love and praise or fear and hate is because those above cannot be trusted. And when trust disappears, chaos appears.”

HUANG YUAN-CHI “What we do to cultivate ourselves is what we do to govern the world. And among the arts we cultivate, the most subtle of all is honesty, which is the beginning and end of cultivation. When we embrace the truth, the world enjoys peace. When we turn our backs on the truth, the world suffers. From the time of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors, this has never varied.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “When those above treat those below with dishonesty, those below respond with deceit.”

WANG PI says, “Where there are words, there is a response. Thus, the sage hesitates.”

WU CH’ENG says, “The reason sages don’t speak or act is so they can bestow their blessings in secret and so people can live their lives in peace. And when their work succeeds and people’s lives go well, people think that is just the way it is supposed to be. They don’t realize it was made possible by those on high.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “As long as the people think they did it themselves, they have no reason to love or praise anyone.”

The people hardly knew they were there! They exercised power so unobtrusively! Now, some 4500 years ago, and still, this is my ideal for how to properly govern, as it was for Lao-tzu in his day.

Alas, those days are long over. Lu Hsi-sheng gives us a bit of a history lesson, taking us line by spiraling line down. “The virtuous lords of ancient times initiated no actions and left no traces. Hence, the people knew they were there and that was all.” Ah, a golden age, but it didn’t last. “When their virtue diminished (this is the virtue of the rulers), they ruled with kindness and justice and the people loved and praised them.” Now, the rulers were noticed. But, at least they were kind and just. Yet, once again, this wouldn’t last. For, note, the rulers weren’t being virtuous by acting with kindness and justice. They were after something. Control. “When their kindness and justice no longer controlled people’s hearts, they governed with laws and punishments, and the people feared them.” For a time that worked. Controlling the people’s minds, if not their hearts. For a time, yes. But only for a time. “When their laws and punishments no longer controlled people’s minds, they acted with force and deceit, and the people despised them.”

As Huang Yuan-chi notes, “From the time of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors, this has never varied. When we turn our backs on the truth, the world suffers.” As Sung Ch’ang-hsing says, “The mistake of loving and praising, fearing and despising does not rest with the people but with those above. The reason the people turn to love and praise or fear and hate is because those above cannot be trusted. And when trust disappears, chaos appears.”

A lot of the various sages’ commentary for today’s verse is anticipating the next one. And, this being Friday, we will just have to wait until Monday to see how the next verse relates to this one. What happens when the Great Way disappears? When virtue is replaced with kindness and justice? When reason appears? Yes, there follows chaos. But where to from there?

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

KUSHIHYUAN. Anthology of pre-T’ang dynasty poetry compiled by Shen Te-ch’ien (1673-1769) and published in 1719.

The LICHI (BOOK OF RITES). Anthology of Confucian writings, including the Chungyung and the Tahsueh. It was first put together around the second century B.C. and was further edited by Tao Te and his cousin during the following century.

MENCIUS (390-305 B.C.). Ranked with Confucius and Hsun-tzu as the foremost teachers of the philosophy known as Confucianism. He studied with Confucius’ grandson Tzu-ssu. The work that bears his name records his conversations with his disciples and various rulers of his day.

Knowing How to Endure

“Keeping emptiness as their limit
and stillness as their center
ten thousand things rise
we watch them return
creatures without number
return to their roots
returning to their roots they are still
being still they revive
reviving they endure
knowing how to endure is wisdom
not knowing is to suffer in vain
knowing how to endure is to yield
to yield is to be impartial
to be impartial is to be the ruler
the ruler is Heaven
Heaven is the Way
and the Way is long life
a life without trouble”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 16, translation by Red Pine)

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Emptiness is the Way of Heaven. Stillness is the Way of Earth. There is nothing that is not endowed with these. And everything rises by means of them.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “What is meant here by emptiness is not utter emptiness but the absence of fullness. And what is meant by stillness is not complete stillness but everything unconsicously returning to its roots.”

HUANG YUAN-CHI says, “Heaven has its fulcrum, people have their ancestors, and plants have their roots. And where are these roots? They are where things begin u have not yet begun, namely, the Dark Gate. If you want to cultivate the Great Way but don’t know where this entrance is, your efforts will be in vain.”

SU CH’E says, “We all rise from our nature and return to our nature, just as flowers and leaves rise from their roots and return to their roots, or just as waves rise from a river and return to the river. If you don’t return to your nature, even if you still your actions and your thoughts, you won’t be still. Heaven and Earth, mountains and rivers might be great, but none of them endures. Only what returns to its nature becomes still and enduring, while what does not return to its nature is at the mercy of others and cannot escape.”

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “Those who embrace all things are impartial and selfless become great examples to others, who thus turn to them as their rulers.”

TE-CH’ING says, “To know what truly endures is to know that Heaven and Earth share the same root, that the ten thousand things share one body, and that there is no difference between self and others. Those who cultivate this within themselves become sages, while those who practice this in the world become rulers. Rulers become rulers by following the Way of Heaven. And Heaven becomes Heaven by following the Tao. And the Tao becomes the Tao by lasting forever.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “To know the unchanging course of the Way is to be free of passion and desire and to yield. To yield is to be free of self-interest. To be free of self-interest is to rule the world. To rule the world is to merge your virtue with that of Heaven. And to merge your virtue with that of Heaven is to be one with the Way. If you can do this, you will last as long as Heaven and Earth and live without trouble.”

LI JUNG says, “Sages enjoy life without limits.”

And RED PINE adds, “Our knowledge is the knowledge of twigs. Lao-tzu’s knowledge is the knowledge of roots.”

Emptiness and stillness are themes on which we have been spending a considerable amount of our time. And, it was good to be reminded, again, what Lao-tzu means by emptiness and stillness. As Lu Hui-ch’ing points out, “What is meant by emptiness is not utter emptiness but the absence of fullness. And what is meant by stillness is not complete stillness but everything unconsciously returning to its roots.”

Keeping this emptiness as their limit, and stillness as their center, see how the ten thousand things rise, only to return to their roots. They rise from their roots and return to their roots. And it isn’t a conscious thing. This is important to understand. Trying to return to your roots is not the Way. Be still. Don’t try.

In returning to their roots they are still, and in being still they endure. Knowing how to endure is wisdom. Not knowing how to endure is to suffer. We suffer, and it is all in vain, because we don’t know what we think we know.

Knowing how to endure is to yield. To know that we don’t know. To be impartial. It is an unconscious thing. It is to overcome being self-aware. To not try, to just be.

To know how to endure is to know what truly endures, the Unchanging Course of the Way. As Te Ch’ing teaches, “Heaven and Earth share the same root, the ten thousand things share one body, and there is no difference between self and others.”

Stop making distinctions. There is no difference. Cultivate this understanding within yourself. Put it into practice in your world.

As Ho-shang Kung says, “To know the unchanging course of the Way is to be free of passion and desire and to yield.” It is to be free of self-interest.

Free, here, doesn’t mean the absence of passion and desire and self-interest. Just like emptiness doesn’t mean utter emptiness. It is the absence of fullness that sets you free. Of passion, of desire, of self-interest. Trying to empty yourself of these things won’t work. Maybe I need to say that again. Trying to empty yourself of passion, and desire, and self-interest won’t work. Trying to do so, you will suffer in vain.

This isn’t something you can be conscious of. That thread we have been talking about isn’t discernible. But knowing your limit and guarding your center, you can let it happen. Creatures without number returning to their roots.

It is, as Li Jung puts it, to “enjoy life without limits.”

Those Who Can Be

“The great masters of ancient times
focused on the indiscernible
and penetrated the dark
you would never know them
and because you wouldn’t know them
I describe them with reluctance
they were careful as if crossing a river in winter
cautious as if worried about neighbors
reserved like a guest
ephemeral like melting ice
simple like uncarved wood
open like a valley
and murky like a puddle
but those who can be like a puddle
become clear when they’re still
and those who can be at rest
become alive when they’re roused
those who treasure this Way
don’t try to be seen
not trying to be seen
they can hide and stay hidden”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 15, translation by Red Pine)

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “Although the ancient masters lived in the world, no one thought they were special.”

SU CH’E says, “Darkness is what penetrates everything but what cannot itself be perceived. To be careful means to act only after taking precautions. To be cautious means to refrain from acting because of doubt or suspicion. Melting ice reminds us how the myriad things arise from delusion and never stay still. Uncarved wood reminds us to put an end to human fabrication and return to our original nature. A valley reminds us how encompassing emptiness is. And a puddle reminds us that we are no different from anything else.”

HUANG YUAN-CHI says, “Lao-tzu expresses reluctance at describing those who succeed in cultivating the Tao because he knows the inner truth cannot be perceived, only the outward form. The essence of the Tao onsists in nothing other than taking care. If people took care to let each thought be detached and each action well considered, where else would they find the Tao? Hence, those who mastered the Tao in the past were so careful they waited until a river froze before crossing. They were so cautious, they waited until the wind died down before venturing forth at night. They were orderly and respectful, as if they were guests arriving from a distant land. They were relaxed and detached, as if material forms didn’t matter. They were as uncomplicated as uncarved wood and as hard to fathom as murky water. They stilled themselves to concentrate their spirit, and they roused themselves to strengthen their breath. In short, they guarded the center.”

WANG PI says, “All of these similes are meant to describe without actually denoting. By means of intuitive understanding the dark becomes bright. By means of tranquility, the murky becomes clear. By means of movement, the still becomes alive. This is the natural Way.”

WANG CHEN says, “All those who treasure the Way fit in without making a show and stay forever hidden. Hence, they don’t leave any tracks.”

And RED PINE adds, “It would seem that Lao-tzu is also describing himself here.”

In yesterday’s verse, Lao-tzu was describing the thread of the Tao as it weaves its way through the fabric of our universe. And we immediately saw the difficulty: this thread eludes inquiry. It can’t be seen. It can’t be heard. It can’t be felt. It is indiscernible, so dark…

in today’s verse Lao-tzu offers a solution to our dilemma; but he does so reluctantly. Maybe, if he describes how the ancient masters went about the task of focusing on the indiscernible, and penetrating the dark, maybe we could understand how to focus on the indiscernible for ourselves, and likewise penetrate the dark.

Lao-tzu’s reluctance is well justified, as Huang Yuan-chi points out. In fact, all that he has to say on this verse is worth repeating:

“Lao-tzu expresses reluctance at describing those who succeed in cultivating the Tao because he knows the inner truth cannot be perceived, only the outward form.” It can’t be perceived. That has been the whole point of so much of what he has been saying so far about the Tao. What you can see, what you can hear, what you can feel; that couldn’t possibly be the Tao. The outward form is an illusion. What matters is the truth on the inside.

“The essence of the Tao consists in nothing other than taking care.” This is so simple and profound that if you take away nothing else from today’s verse, I hope you get this one thing. “If people took care to let each thought be detached and each action well considered, where else would they find the Tao?” Indeed.

Watch them, now. “Those who mastered the Tao in the past were so careful they waited until a river froze before crossing. They were so cautious, they waited until the wind died down before venturing forth at night. They were orderly and respectful, as if they were guests arriving from a distant land. They were relaxed and detached, as if material forms didn’t matter. They were as uncomplicated as uncarved wood and as hard to fathom as murky water. They stilled themselves to concentrate their spirit, and they roused themselves to strengthen their breath.”

They waited. Orderly and respectful They were still. Relaxed and detached. Waiting until the right moment. Then, they acted. Uncomplicated and yet hard to fathom. That is why Lao-tzu was reluctant to describe them.

“In short, they guarded the center.” I see this as having two meanings. First, they avoided extremes. Secondly, they protected what’s on the inside.

And that is what we must do. To guard the center. To be careful. To be still. To wait until the right action arises all by itself. Until what is murky becomes clear.

This Is the Thread of the Way

“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”

-Lao-tzu-
(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.”

That which is not seen, that which is not heard, that which is not felt; together, these things elude inquiry. Indistinct. Faint. Ethereal. This thread which weaves its way through the very fabric of our Universe. It weaves its way through each one of us, uniting us, and making us one. Without beginning or end. Always returning to nothingness. Empty but inexhaustible. We can only discover it in stillness. We can only experience it inside of us.

What more can I say about today’s verse? Can I make what is intangible, tangible? Can I shine a light on this darkness? I would only reveal there is nothing there. The mystery can’t be explained.

In tomorrow’s verse, Lao-tzu will describe the great masters of ancient times. They focused on the indiscernible and penetrated the darkness. Perhaps, there is something we could learn from them. Perhaps, it will be that we, too, can discover and experience this thread of the Way inside of us.

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.

As Yang Bends Toward Yin, Will You Be Bound or Boundless?

“Favor and disgrace come with a warning
honor and disaster come with a body
why do favor and disgrace come with a warning
favor turns into disfavor
gaining it comes with a warning
losing it comes with a warning
thus do favor and disgrace come with a warning
and why do honor and disaster come with a body
the reason we have disaster
is because we have a body
if we didn’t have a body
we wouldn’t have disaster
thus those who honor their body more than the world
can be entrusted with the world
those who cherish body more than the world
can be encharged with the world”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 13, translation by Red Pine)

WANG CHEN says, “People who are favored are honored. And because the are honored, they act proud. And because the act proud, they are hated. And because they are hated, they are disgraced. Hence, sages consider success as well as failure to be a warning.”

SU CH’E says, “The ancient sages worried about favor as much as disgrace, because they knew that favor is followed by disgrace. Other people think favor means to ascend and disgrace means to descend. But favor cannot be separated from disgrace. Disgrace results from favor.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Those who gain favor or honor should worry about being too high, sa if they were at the edge of a precipice. They should not flaunt their status or wealth. And those who lose favor and live in disgrace should worry more about disaster.”

LU NUNG-SHIH says, “Why does favor become disgrace and honor become disaster? Favor and honor are external things. They don’t belong to us. When we try to possess them, they turn into disgrace and disaster.”

SSU-MA KUANG says, “Normally a body means disaster. But if we honor and cherish it and follow the natural order in our dealings with others, and we don’t induge our desires, we can avoid disaster.”

HUANG YUAN-CHI says, “We all possess something good and noble that we don’t have to seek outside ourselves, something that the glory of power or position cannot compare with. People need only start with this and cultivate this without letting up. The ancients said, “Two or three years of hardship, ten thousand years of bliss.”

WANG P’ANG says, “It isn’t a matter of having no body but of guarding the source of life. Only those who refuse to trade themselves for something external are fit to receive the kingdom.”

WANG PI says, “Those who are affected by favor and disgrace or honor and disaster are not fit to receive the kingdom.”

TSENG-TZU says, “The superior person can be entrusted with an orphan or encharged with a state and be unmoved by a crisis” (Lunyu: 8.6).

RED PINE adds, “The first two lines are clearly a quote, and the last four lines are also found in Chuangtzu; 11.2, where they are used to praise the ruler whose self-cultivation doesn’t leave him time to meddle in the lives of his subjects. They also appear in Huainantzu: 12, where they are used to praise the ruler who values the lives of his people more than the territory in which they live.”

Robert Brookes’ translation of today’s verse is, I think, especially helpful:

“As yang bends toward yin honor turns into dishonor.  Be wary of becoming bound up in yourself.

What does it mean that honor turns into dishonor? The need to maintain honor makes one dependent on praise, so the wise person avoids honor to begin with.

What does it mean to be wary of becoming bound up in yourself? You become focused on a limited sense of yourself. But if you are selfless, what misfortune can occur?

Therefore those whose actions accord with the Tao can be trusted with the greatest responsibility.”

As yang bends toward yin… Just picture the familiar yin-yang symbol. Yang bends in a curve toward yin, which bends in a curve toward yang.

Let this be a warning to you, favor and honor are merely external things. They don’t belong to us, and when we try to possess them, they will naturally turn into disgrace and disaster (Lu Nung-shih).

Just having a body leads to disaster. But, if we will cultivate the body, not trading what we are for what we think we can have, we can avoid disaster (Ssu-ma Kuang).

What Lao-tzu is asking of us, especially of those who wish to govern us, is to be unaffected by what is external to our body (Wang P’ang and Wang Pi).

Don’t let yourself form attachments to things which are only temporal, which come and go. External things. Be detached. Don’t form affections for things outside yourself. Cultivate the eternal and immortal Tao in you. Be so focused on your own inner workings you won’t have time to meddle in others’ affairs.

But shouldn’t we be wary of becoming bound up in ourselves, with all that focusing on what is internal? That is a reasonable question. I even asked it myself. But, here is where I take us back to that familiar yin-yang symbol, and what I noted before. Yang bends toward yin, yes. But yin also bends toward yang.

Our focus on the external is focusing on a limited sense of ourselves. Yang bends toward yin. But when we focus on what is internal, on yin, we open ourselves up to experience yang, as yin bends toward yang. Instead of being bound, be boundless.

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

TSENG-TZU (B. 505 B.C.). Disciple of Confucius and author of the Hsiaoching (Book of Piety). His views are also quoted at length in the Lunyu and the Tahsueh.

The Rule of the Sages: They Pick This Over That

“The five colors make our eyes blind
the five tones make our ears deaf
the five flavors make our mouths numb
riding and hunting make our minds wild
hard-to-get goods make us commit crimes
thus the rule of the sages
favors the stomach over the eyes
thus they pick this over that”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 12, translation by Red Pine)

RED PINE begins by explaining, “The early Chinese liked to divide everything into five basic states of existence. They distinguished things as made up of varying amounts of water, fire, wood, metal, and earth. And each of these came with its corresponding color: blue, red, black, white, and yellow; its corresponding flavor: salty, bitter, sour, pungent, and sweet; and its corresponding tone: la, sol, mi, re, and do.”

YEN TSUN says, “Color is like an awl in the eye. Sound is like a stick in the ear. Flavor is like an ax through the tongue.”

TE-CH’ING says, “When the eyes are given free rein in the realm of form, they no longer see what is real. When the ears are given free rein in the realm of sound, they no longer hear what is real. When the tongue is given free rein in the realm of flavor, it no longer tastes what is real. When the mind is given free rein in the realm of thought, it no longer knows what is real. When our actions are given free rein in the realm of possession and profit, we no longer do what is right. Like Chuang-tzu’s tapir [Chuangtzu: 1.4], sages drink from the river, but only enough to fill their stomachs.”

WU CH’ENG says, “Desiring external things harms our bodies. Sages nourish their breath by filling their stomach, not by chasing material objects to please their eyes. Hence, they choose internal reality over external illusion. But the eyes can’t help seeing, and the ears can’t help hearing, and the mouth can’t help tasting, and the mind can’t help thinking, and the body can’t help acting. They can’t stay still. But if we let them move without leaving stillness behind, nothing can harm us. Those who are buried by the dust of the senses or who crave sensory stimulation lose their way. And the main villain in this is the eyes. Thus, the first of Confucius’ four warnings concerned vision [Lunyu: 12.1: not to look except with propriety], and the first of the Buddha’s six sources of delusion was also the eyes.”

LI YUEH says, “The eyes are never satisfied. The stomach knows when it is full.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “The main purpose of cultivation is to oppose the world of the senses. What the world loves, the Taoist hates. What the world wants, the Taoist rejects. Even though color, sound, material goods, wealth, and beauty might benefit a person’s body, in the end they harm a person’s mind. And once the mind wants, the body suffers. If we can ignore external temptations and be satisfied with the way we are, if we can cultivate our mind and not chase material things, this is the way of long life. All the treasures of the world are no match for this.”

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “‘Hard-to-get goods’ refer to things that we don’t possess by nature but that requires effort to obtain. When we are not content with our lot and allow ourselves to be ruled by conceit, we turn our backs on Heaven and lose the Way.”

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “‘That’ refers to the blindness and delusion of the eyes. ‘This’ refers to the fullness and wisdom of the stomach.”

And RED PINE adds, “‘This’ also refers to what is within easy reach, while ‘that’ refers to what can be obtained only with effort…. Until as late as the early twentieth century, vast tracts of land in northern China were set aside for the exclusive use of the nobility and the military for conducting group hunts to practice their riding and archery.”

I don’t think I can over-stress the importance of today’s verse in explaining how sages practice the Way. Instead of me going back over each of the sages’ commentaries, I would simply recommend that you go back and reread through them, again and again, until you get what they are saying.

I am not just living my life casually. I am serious about wanting to cultivate my mind and body, and deliberate in my practice of Taoism. I hope my readers will be serious and deliberate with this practice, too.

I do want to add the importance of self-regulation here. It is easy for those who want to control others to try to regulate others by imposing certain rules on how others may choose to live their own lives. History is replete with examples of these attempts at outward control.

But that, of course, is the antithesis of what Lao-tzu is teaching. I think that is one of the reasons Lao-tzu writes so much about the art of governing; and, it always boils down to “Don’t try to control, let others be.”

However, Lao-tzu also explains that when we don’t control ourselves internally, we invite external control from others.

Still, it isn’t just avoidance of external control which should be our motive. As Te-ching says, when we give our senses free rein, when we give our mind free rein, when our actions have free rein, we aren’t dwelling in reality, and suffer from delusions. How do sages overcome delusions and dwell in reality? By understanding, as Li Yueh points out, ‘The eyes are never satisfied. The stomach knows when it is full.” My mother always warned me, “Your eyes are bigger than your stomach.” She was always telling me, “Don’t put too much food on your plate.”

My mother also insisted I eat everything I put on my plate, for there were starving people all over the world (she was particularly fixated on starving people in China for some reason); and somehow, by not leaving food on my plate which would invariably end up being trashed, I could somehow help them? Yeah, I never understood that one. But, the adage that my stomach could be trusted to know when to stop, if only I would let it, stuck with me. That, I am certain is Lao-tzu’s point, here. Don’t let your eyes mislead you.

Yet, as Wu Ch’eng tells us, our eyes can’t avoid seeing, nor our ears hearing, nor our mouth tasting, nor our mind thinking, nor our body acting. Sages understand this. But while we can’t stay still, we can move in such a way we never leave stillness behind. This requires practice to master. So, don’t beat yourself up because you aren’t perfect at it.

Just remember, in choosing “this” over “that” we are choosing what is best, what is real. That is what leads to true contentment. And, that is the whole point of the practice of the Way.

The Emptiness Which Makes It Work

“Thirty spokes converge on a hub
but it’s the emptiness
that makes a wheel work
pots are fashioned from clay
but it’s the hollow
that makes a pot work
windows and doors are carved for a house
but it’s the spaces
that make a house work
existence makes a thing useful
but nonexistence makes it work”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 11, translation by Red Pine)

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “Thirty spokes converging on a hub demonstrates that less is the ancestor of more.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Ancient carts had thirty spokes in imitation of the lunar number.”

LI JUNG says, “It’s because the hub is empty that spokes converge on it. Likewise, it’s because the minds of sages are empty that the people turn to them for help.”

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “A cart, a pot, and a house can hold things because they are empty. How much more those who empty their mind.”

WU CH’ENG says, “All of these things are useful. But without an empty place for an axle, a cart can’t move. Without a hollow place in the middle, a pot can’t hold things. Without spaces for doors and windows, a room can’t admit people or light. But these three examples are only metaphors. What keeps our body alive is the existence of breath within us. And it is our empty, nonexistent mind that produces breath.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “In this verse the great Sage teaches us to understand the source by using what we find at hand. Doors refer to a person’s mouth and nose. Windows refer to their ears and eyes.”

CHANG TAO-LING says, “When ordinary people see these things, they only think about how they might employ them for their own advantage. When sages see them, they see in them the Tao and are careful in their use.”

TE-CH’ING says, “Heaven and Earth have form, and everyone knows that Heaven and Earth are useful. But they don’t know that their usefulness depends on the emptiness of the great Way. Likewise, we all have form and think ourselves useful but remain unaware that our usefulness depends on our empty, shapeless mind. Thus, existence may have its uses, but real usefulness depends on nonexistence. Nonexistence, though, doesn’t work by itself. It needs the help of existence.”

And, RED PINE adds, “Lao-tzu’s ‘existence’ and ‘nonexistence’ are tantamount to yang and yin…Until recently, the people who lived in the middle reaches of the Yellow River watershed, where the Taoteching was composed, carved their houses out of the loess hillsides. As long as the ceilings of the rooms were carved in an arch, the compactness of the soil made support beams unnecessary. Thus, the only building materials needed were for doors and windows.”

Existence makes a thing useful, but nonexistence makes it work. Yang makes a thing useful, but yin makes it work. This verse is about the emptiness inside. The emptiness of the hub; the emptiness of the pot; the emptiness, the space for windows and doors, in your house; the emptiness inside your mind. No, not your brain. Don’t equate your brain with the mind, here. The mind, here, is the nonexistent part inside of each one of us.

The nonexistent mind. Empty, it produces the breath we need to live. I like what Sung Ch’ang-hsing says, here: “Doors refer to a person’s mouth and nose. Windows refer to their ears and eyes.” Be careful what you allow in and out of your doors, what you allow your eyes to see and your ears to hear.

In a later verse (verse 47), Lao-tzu will tell us we don’t have to go out our doors or look out our windows to know the whole world and the Way of Heaven. It is all within us, that emptiness inside, the nonexistent mind. Thus, sages know without traveling, name without seeing, and succeed without traveling.

Ordinary people, as Chang Tao-ling says, see these things, and only think about how they might employ them for their own advantage. Sages see them, and see in them the Tao, being careful in their use.

Yes, what exists is important. Of course it is. But what is not, what is nonexistent, is all the more important. For without it, your existence wouldn’t work.

It is a lack of understanding with regards to the value of nonexistence which gives us so much trouble. We are all for yang, and disdain yin. But yang without yin doesn’t work. Yang can exist without yin, but not for long. Without it, it grows old, withers, and dies.

Without emptiness how will that cart move, or that pot be useful, or your house be livable? Without that empty breath you cease to live.

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

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING (FL. 647-663). Taoist master and proponent of using an eclectic approach to explain the teachings of Lao-tzu. His commentary was recently reedited from portions found in the Taoist canon and in the Tunhuang Caves: S.2517. It reflects the influence of Chuang-tzu along with Buddhist Sanlun and Tientai teachings and was required reading for Taoists seeking ordination during the T’ang dynasty. Lao-tzu-shu.

CHANG TAO-LING (A.D. 34-157). Patriarch of the Way of Celestial Masters, the earliest known Taoist movement, which emphasized physical and moral training along with spiritual cultivation. His commentary was lost until a partial copy, including verses 3 through 37, was found in the Tunhuang Caves: S.6825. Lao-tzu hsiang-erh-chu.

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”

-Lao-tzu-
(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, therre 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.’”

This is Dark Virtue… Once we get beyond our precious bodily fluids, which might be difficult for some of the more hard-core “Dr. Strangelove” fanatics, this is Dark Virtue. I would remind those still tripping over those precious bodily fluids to remember they are metaphors, just metaphors. And what the metaphors are pointing to is what we need to be focusing on.

So, what is the point? The rhetorical “Can you” questions are best explained by a couple of the sages Red Pine quotes with today’s verse. Let’s look back at what they had to say.

Wu Ch’eng said, “Our spirit dwells in our eyes. When the eyes see something, the spirit chases it. When we close our eyes and look withing, 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.”

It takes dark virtue to close your eyes, to stop looking outside yourself, and chasing after the things which delight your eyes. Once you spend some time looking within yourself, you inner eyes get adjusted to the dark inside. Delusions can then be swept away.

Wang An-shih says, “The best way to serve is by not serving. The best way to govern is by not governing.”

That is what Lao-tzu means by “without effort.” You merge yourself with the efforts of others. This isn’t just letting others do all the work. Being lazy. This is letting things arise and fall, come and go, naturally. I especially appreciate what Wang Pi says at the end.

“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.”

Those mysterious depths are within you. Watching, and being still, you give birth without possessing, you nurture without controlling.

Your vital essence, which is more than just precious bodily fluids, is your Chi, your life force. It is renewed moment by moment, day by day. It is a spirit that never grows old.

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).