Return to Your Roots

“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 unconsciously 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 but 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 and 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.

Based on Red Pine’s addition that our knowledge is the knowledge of twigs, while Lao-tzu’s knowledge is the knowledge of roots, I will conclude that Lao-tzu doesn’t mean “ruler” in the sense we normally mean the word. Rulers, as we have come to know them, are only interested in ruling over others. But, where are those who only wish to rule over their own selves? I happen to live in the “Show-me” state of Missouri. And, if you show me that kind of ruler, that will be one we would all naturally follow.

Don’t Try to Be Seen

“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 consists 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, “Those who treasure the Way fit in without making a show and stay forever hidden. Hence, they don’t leave any tracks.”

Why describe these great masters of ancient times? Lao-tzu’s reluctance, aside, we might consider following their example. Be careful. Be cautious. Be reserved. Realize your own waxing and waning is natural. Be simple. Be open. And, be murky. Be murky? The sages, Red Pine assembled, do a wonderful job of explaining what these various similes mean. But, that one about being murky is definitely an interesting way for us to be. What does it mean? Don’t try to be seen. Be content to be murky. Yet, in stillness, that puddle will become clear. So, be still. Concentrate on cultivating the Tao within your own body.

In Praise of the Dark

“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 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.”

Today’s verse is much like verse one, with its “one we call dark the dark beyond dark the doorway to all beginnings”. Ho-shang Kung rightly calls today’s chapter, “In Praise of the Dark.” We can’t “know it” through external observation. You can’t see it with your eyes, you can’t hear it with your ears, you can’t grasp it with your hands. But, close your eyes and “look” within. In stillness you will find it.

Just like the Tao, it is in our nature to wax and then wane. We spring from nothing, and return to nothing. Forever changing. Forever remaining the same.

Red Pine introduces one additional sage, today:

CH’EN KU-YING (B. 1935). Classical scholar and philosopher who has taught in Taipei and Beijing and annoyed authorities in both places with his outspokenness.