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 the 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”

(Taoteching, verse 10, translation by Red Pine)

RED PINE says, “The Chinese say that the hun, or bright, ethereal, yang soul, governs the upper body and 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.” (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, there 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.’”

Lao-tzu’s seven rhetorical “Can you” questions are both deep and dark, just like the virtue they call for. The various commentators do a much better job, than I could, of explaining their mystery. All I would add is this: While they can all be answered in the affirmative, few are those who put this virtue into practice. I guess it wouldn’t be considered a virtue, if it was otherwise. Still, if we would live our lives in such a way that we had without possessing, and never sought to control, we would immediately know the contentment, Lao-tzu offers those who follow the Tao.

Red Pine introduces the following sages in his commentaries for 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.

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.

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).

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