“The way that becomes a way
is not the Immortal Way
the name that becomes a name
is not the Immortal Name
no-name is the maiden of Heaven and Earth
name is the mother of all things
thus in innocence we see the beginning
in passion we see the end
two different names
for one and the same
the one we call dark
the dark beyond dark
the door to all beginnings”
(Taoteching, verse 1, translation by Red Pine)
TU ER-WEI says, “Tao originally meant ‘moon.’ The Yiching [see hexagrams 42 and 52] stresses the bright moon, while Lao-tzu stresses the dark moon” (Lao-tzu-te yueh-shen tsung-chiao, pp. ii-iii).
CONFUCIUS says, “The Tao is what we can never leave. What we can leave isn’t the Tao” (Chungyung: 1).
HO-SHANG KUNG says, “What we call a way is a moral or political code, while the Immortal way takes care of the spirit without effort and brings peace to the world without struggle. It conceals its light and hides its tracks and can’t be called a way. As for the Immortal Name, it’s like a pearl inside an oyster, a piece of jade inside a rock: shiny on the inside, dull on the outside.”
CH’ENG CHU says, “Sages don’t reveal the Way because they keep it secret, but because it can’t be revealed. Thus their words are like footsteps that leave no tracks.”
LI HSI-CHAI says, “Things change but not the Tao. The Tao is immortal. It arrives without moving and comes without being called.”
SU CH’E says, “The ways of kindness and justice change but not the way of the Tao. No-name is its body. Name is its function. Sages embody the Tao and use it in the world. But while entering the myriad states of being, they remain in non-being.”
WANG PI says, “From the infinitesimal all things develop. From nothing all things are born. When we are free of desire, we can see the infinitesimal where things begin. When we are subject to desire, we can see where things end. ‘Two’ refers to ‘maiden’ and ‘mother.’”
TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “‘Two’ refers to ‘innocence’ and ‘passion,’ or in other words, stillness and movement. Stillness corresponds to nonexistence. Movement corresponds to existence. Provisionally different, they are ultimately the same. Both meet in darkness.”
THE SHUOWEN says, “Hsuan [dark] means ‘black with a dot of red in it.’” This is how the darker half of the yin-yang symbol was traditionally represented. In Shensi province, where the Taoteching was first written, doors were, until recently, painted black with a thin line of red trim. And every road begins with a door.
TE-CH’ING says, “Lao-tzu’s philosophy is all here. The remaining five thousand words only expand on this first verse.”
And RED PINE adds, “During Lao-tzu’s day, philosophers were concerned with the correspondence, or lack of it, between name and reality. The things we distinguish as real change, while their names do not. How then can reality be known through names?”
I have a friend, who has encouraged me to write more of my own commentary with this cycle through the Taoteching. I told him that I really just wanted what these sages had to say on the verse to take root, first. But, maybe it is time to do a little more watering.
Te-ch’ing says “Lao-tzu’s philosophy is all here. The remaining five thousand words only expand on this first verse.” That may be so, but I am certainly glad that Lao-tzu went on to expand on this first verse. It is the one verse that, even after all these times through, still gives me plenty of trouble. He leaves so much unsaid. But, then again, I think that is the whole point. Don’t be attached to words. The lessons sages teach are wordless lessons.
Even now, I am anticipating what will come. The last line of the previous paragraph is from verse 2. But, Lao-tzu stops me right there. “The way that becomes a way is not the Immortal Way.” It isn’t about what will become, but of what is and what is not. We get so caught up in becoming. But, what can and does change, with time or circumstance, isn’t the Immortal Way.
And, Red Pine reminds us, name and reality don’t always correspond. “How then can reality be known through names?” Lao-tzu, I think, would tell us to be still. For it is only in stillness we will come to understand. Here, Lao-tzu is already introducing the perfect balance of yin and yang, of innocence and passion, of stillness and movement, of maiden and mother. Two different names for one and the same. The One we call Dark. The Dark beyond dark. The Door To All Beginnings.
“And,” the Shuowen says, “Every road begins with a door.” In other words, every journey begins by first walking through a door. Te Ch’ing says in his commentary on verse 71, “The ancients said that the word understanding was the door to all mysteries as well as the door to all misfortune.” The “door to all beginnings” here, in verse 1, certainly qualifies as the door to all mysteries. But, here is your caveat: It can also be the door to all misfortune. As Te Ch’ing continues, “If you realize that you don’t understand, you eliminate false understanding. This is the door to all mysteries. If you cling to understanding while trying to discover what you don’t understand, you increase the obstacles to understanding. This is the door to all misfortune.” Understanding, then, can result in either transcendence or affliction. Which will it be?
For my part, I plan to keep on reminding myself of how much I don’t know. And so, onward through the door we go.
Who was Lao-tzu? There is a lot of disagreement over this question. Lao-tzu means “Old Master.” He was a legendary figure in history, and the reputed author of the Taoteching. Some place him as early as the 6th century B.C.E., others as late as the 4th century B.C.E.. I happen to like reading the many legends associated with him. Much mystery surrounds him.
Who is Red Pine? Red Pine is the pen-name Bill Porter, an American author (born October 3, 1943), uses as a translator of Chinese texts, primarily Taoist and Buddhist, including the translation of the Taoteching I am presently using for our journey.
Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:
TU ER-WEI (1913-1987). Scholar of Chinese religion and comparative mythology and proponent of the view that Taoism had its origin in the worship of the moon. Lao-tzu-te-yueh-shen tsung-chiao. He was a major influence for Red Pine in his translation of the Taoteching.
YICHING (BOOK OF CHANGES). Ancient manual of divination based on a system of hexagrams invented by Fu Hsi (ca. 3500 B.C.). with judgments attributed to Duke Wen and the Duke of Chou (c. 1200-1100 B.C.), and commentaries added some 600 years later, reportedly by Confucius.
CONFUCIUS (551-479 B.C.). Who hasn’t heard of Confucius? He was China’s most revered teacher of doctrines emphasizing the harmony of human relations. His teachings, along with those of certain disciples, were compiled into the Lunyu (Analects), the Chung-yung (Doctrine of the Mean), and the Tahsueh (Great Learning) and until recently formed the basis of moral education in China.
CHUNGYUNG (DOCTRINE OF THE MEAN). Attributed to Tzu–ssu, the grandson of Confucius. It forms part of a larger work known as the Lichi, or Book of Rites.
HO-SHANG KUNG (D. CA. 159 B.C.). Taoist master who lived in a hut beside the Yellow River – hence his name which means Master Riverside. His commentary emphasizes Taoist yoga and was reportedly composed at the request of Emperor Wen (r. 179-156 B.C.). It ranks next to Wang Pi’s in popularity. Some scholars think it was compiled as late as the third or fourth century A.D. by members of the Taoist lineage that included Ko Hung (283-343). There is at least one English translation: Edward Erkes, Artibus Asiae (Switzerland), 1950. Lao-tzu-chu.
CH’ENG CHU (1078-1144). Scholar-official and fearless critic of government policies. Lao-tzu-lun.
LI HSI-CHAI (FL. 1167). Taoist master, practitioner of Taoist yoga, and noted Yiching scholar. His commentary extends Lao-tzu’s teachings to the state as well as the individual. Tao-te-chen-ching yi-chieh.
SU CH’E (1039-1112). He, his father, and his brother are counted among the eight great prose writers of the T’ang and Sung dynasties. Although his commentary reflects his own neo-Confucian sympathies, it is also treasured by Buddhists and Taoists. Tao-te-chen-ching-chu.
WANG PI (226-249). Famous for the quickness of his mind as well as the breadth of his learning. He grew up with one of the best private libraries of his time. Although he died of a sudden illness at the age of twenty-four, he was among the first to discuss Taoism as metaphysics rather than religion. As a result, his commentary has been preferred over that of Ho-shang Kung by Confucian scholars. At least two English translations exist: Paul Lin, University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies, 1977; Ariane Rump, University of Hawaii Press, 1979. Lao-tzu-chu.
TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG (FL. SUNG DYNASTY: 960-1278). Taoist nun about whom I have found no other information. Lao-tzu-chu.
SHUOWEN Greatest of China’s early etymological dictionaries. It was compiled and first published by Hsu Shen in A.D. 121 and revised and updated with new materials in the T’ang, Sung, and Ch’ing dynasties.
TE-CH’ING (1546-1623). One of the greatest Buddhist writers of the Ming dynasty and responsible for revitalizing the practice of Zen in China. His commentaries on Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu are among the best ever written and are used by Taoists as well as Buddhists. Lao-tzu tao-te-ching-chieh.