The Door to All Beginnings

“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 Tzussu, 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.

Helping Without Harming, Acting Without Struggling

“True words aren’t beautiful
beautiful words aren’t true
the good aren’t eloquent
the eloquent aren’t good
the wise aren’t learned
the learned aren’t wise
sages accumulate nothing
but the more they do for others
the greater their existence
the more they give to others
the greater their abundance
the Way of Heaven
is to help without harming
the Way of the Sage
is to act without struggling”

(Taoteching, verse 81, translation by Red Pine)

HUANG-TI says, “There’s a word for everything. Words that are harmful we say aren’t true” (Chingfa: 2).

TE-CH’ING says, “At the beginning of this book, Lao-tzu says the Tao can’t be put into words. But are its 5,000-odd characters not words? Lao-tzu waits until the last verse to explain this. He tells us that though the Tao itself includes no words, by means of words it can be revealed – but only by words that come from the heart.”

SU CH’E says, “What is true is real but nothing more. Hence, it isn’t beautiful. What is beautiful is pleasing to look at but nothing more. Hence, it isn’t true. Those who focus on goodness don’t try to be eloquent. And those who focus on eloquence aren’t good. Those who have one thing that links everything together have no need of learning. Those who keep learning don’t understand the Tao. The sage holds on to the one and accumulates nothing.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “True words are simple and not beautiful. The good cultivate the Tao, not the arts. The wise know the Tao, not information. Sages accumulate virtue, not wealth. They give their wealth to the poor and use their virtue to teach the unwise. And like the sun or moon, they never stop shining.”

CHUANG-TZU says, “When Lao Tan and Yin Hsi heard of people who considered accumulation as deficiency, they were delighted” (Chuangtzu: 33.5). Lao Tan was Lao-tzu’s name, and Yin Hsi was the man to whom he transmitted the Taoteching.

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “People only worry that their own existence and abundance are insufficient. They don’t realize that helping and giving to others does them no harm but benefits themselves instead.”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “The wealth that comes from giving generously is inexhaustible. The power that arises from not accumulating is boundless.”

WU CH’ENG says, “Help is the opposite of harm. Wherever there is help, there must be harm. But when Heaven helps, it doesn’t harm, because it helps without helping. Action is the start of struggle. Wherever there is action, there must be struggle. But when sages act, they don’t struggle, because they act without acting.”

CHIAO HUNG says, “The previous 5,000 words all explain ‘the Tao of not accumulating,’ what Buddhists call ‘nonattachment.’ Those who empty their mind on the last two lines will grasp most of Lao-tzu’s text.”

WANG CHEN says, “The last line summarizes the entire 5,000 words of the previous eighty verses. It doesn’t focus on action or inaction but simply on action that doesn’t involve struggle.”

And RED PINE concludes the commentary by saying, “At the beginning and at the end of the Taoteching, Lao-tzu reminds us not to become attached to the words. Let the words go. Have a cup of tea.”

What lessons might we glean from this concluding verse? Perhaps, we might consider whether our priorities are what they should be. Truth or beauty? Goodness or eloquence? Being wise or being learned? And, what’s with our need to accumulate things? What are we doing for others? What more could we give? If we would follow the Way we would master the art of helping without harming. And, saving the most important one for last, if we could understand that the central tenet of philosophical Taoism wei wu wei isn’t a choice between action and inaction but of acting without struggling.

Don’t take life so seriously. You worry too much. Let the words go. Have a cup of tea.

We have come to the end of yet another cycle through the Taoteching. I never cease to be amazed at how quickly these 81 days fly by. And, I can hardly wait to begin with verse 1 again, tomorrow. I find myself understanding, more, with each time I go through it with you all. And, it is because I believe I am understanding things so much better that I am always delighted to begin the journey again. I hope you all are enjoying the journey with me.

Join me tomorrow, I will be using Red Pine’s translation again, with all of these wonderful sages inspiring me with their commentaries. I wonder what new insights to be shared are in store.

Where Is This Place?

“Imagine a small state with a small population
let there be labor-saving tools
that aren’t used
let people consider death
and not move far
let there be boats and carts
but no reason to ride them
let there be armor and weapons
but no reason to employ them
let people return to the use of knots
and be satisfied with their food
and pleased with their clothing
and content with their homes
and happy with their customs
let there be another state so near
people hear its dogs and chickens
but live out their lives
without making a visit”

(Taoteching, verse 80, translation by Red Pine)

HUANG-TI says, “A great state is yang. A small state is yin.”

SU CH’E says, “Lao-tzu lived during the decline of the Chou, when artifice flourished and customs suffered, and he wished to restore its virtue through doing nothing. Hence, at the end of his book he wishes he had a small state to try this on. But he never got his wish.”

YAO NAI says, “In ancient times, states were many and small. In later times, they were few and great. But even if a great state wanted to return to the ancient ways, how could it?”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “When sages govern great states, they think of them as small states and are frugal in the use of resources. When the people are many, sages think of them as few and are careful not to exhaust them.”

HU SHIH says, “With the advance of civilization, the power of technology is used to replace human labor. A cart can carry thousands of pounds, and a boat can carry hundreds of passengers. This is the meaning of ‘labor-saving tools.’”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “When the people are content with their lot, they don’t concern themselves with moving far away or with going to war.”

THE YICHING CHITZU says, “The earlier rulers used knots in their government. Later sages introduced the use of writing” (B.2).

WU CH’ENG says, “People who are satisfied with their food and pleased with their clothes cherish their lives and don’t tempt death. People who are content with their homes and happy with their customs don’t move far away. They grow old and die where they were born.”

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “They are satisfied with their food because they taste the Tao. They are pleased with their clothing because they are adorned with virtue. They are content with their homes because they are content wherever they are. And they are happy with their customs because they soften the glare of the world.”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “Those who do their own farming and weaving don’t lack food or clothes. They have nothing to give and seek nothing. Why should they visit others?”

Red Pine wonders, “Where is this place?” And, I would have to echo him. In his penultimate verse, Lao-tzu is done (not literally, but figuratively). Lao-tzu imagined a better world for us all. One where people are content. Don’t get too caught up in the description, your mind may start raising all sorts of objections. And, Lao-tzu wasn’t interested in arguing. Lao-tzu’s point, I think, is that all these things, we don’t think we can live without, have failed in their purpose to make us content. Does Lao-tzu have a problem with labor-saving tools? Not at all. He says, “Let them be.” He just thinks we would be much happier if we had them, but never saw the need in using them. Boats and carts (in his time) had made life so much better. Look at how much easier it is to move people and products from place to place! Look at all your choices regarding food, regarding clothing, regarding homes, and even customs… You have so much! Yet, you don’t know how to enjoy them. Lao-tzu isn’t meaning to limit our choices. He is wanting us to be happy. Wouldn’t it be far better to have armor and weapons with no reason to ever employ them, than to live in a constant state of war? Lao-tzu did seem to think his dream of a people content could never be realized in a large state. This is why he envisioned a small one. The lesson I draw from today’s verse, “The reason you aren’t content isn’t because you have too many choices, it is because you aren’t satisfied with all that you have.”

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

HUANG-TI (27TH C. B.C.). Known as the Yellow Emperor, he was the leader of the confederation of tribes that established their hegemony along the Yellow River. Thus, he was considered the patriarch of Chinese civilization. When excavators opened the Mawangtui tombs, they also found four previously unknown texts attributed to him: Chingfa, Shihtaching, Cheng, and Taoyuan.

YAO NAI (1732-1815). One of the most famous literary figures of the Ch’ing dynasty and advocate of writing in the style of ancient prose. His anthology of ancient literary models, Kuwentzu Leitsuan, has had a great influence on writers and remains in use.

THE YICHING CHITZU (APPENDED JUDGMENTS ON THE BOOK OF CHANGES). Attributed to Duke Wen. The 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.