Plain Words that Make No Sense

“Hold up the Great Image
and the world will come
and be beyond harm
safe and serene and at peace
fine food and song
don’t detain guests long
thus the Tao speaks
plain words that make no sense
we look but don’t see it
we listen but don’t hear it
yet we use it without end”

(Taoteching, verse 35, translation by Red Pine)

CH’ENG HSUAN-TING says, “Here ‘hold’ means to hold without holding, to hold what cannot be held.”

HUANG YUAN-CHI says, “The Great Image is the Great Way, which gives birth to Heaven and Earth and all creatures. It is called ‘great’ because it encompasses everything.”

LI JUNG says, “The Great image has no form. What has no form is the great and empty Way. To ‘hold’ means to focus or to keep. Those who can keep their body in the realm of Dark Virtue and focus their mind on the gate of Hidden Serenity possess the way. All things come to them. Clouds appear, and all creatures are refreshed. Rain pours down, and all plants are nourished. And these blessings come from such a subtle thing.”

WU CH’ENG says, “To come to no harm means to be protected. But when people turn to sage, sages use no protection to protect them. If they protected people with protection, protection and harm would both exist. But by protecting people with no protection, people are always protected and kept from harm.”

LU TUNG-PIN says, “Unharmed, our spirit is safe. Unharmed, our breath is serene. Unharmed, our nature is at peace.”

TE-CH’ING says, “Sages rule the world through selflessness. All things come to them because they are one with all things. And while they forget themselves in others, others forget themselves in them. Thus, all things find their place, and there are none that are not at peace.”

CHANG TAO-LING says, “What the Tao says is the opposite of the mundane or the clever. Most people find it completely senseless. But within its senselessness, there is great sense. This is what sages savor. The Tao prefers simplicity of form and a minimum of expression. Hence, it is hard to see and hard to hear and also hard to follow. But those who can follow it and use it enjoy limitless blessings.”

CHUANG-TZU says, “A great person’s words are plain like water. A small person’s words are sweet like wine. The plainness of a great person brings people closer, while the sweetness of a small person drives them apart. Those who come together for no reason, separate for no reason” (Chuangtzu: 20.5).

SU CH’E says, “Banquets and entertainment might detain visiotrss, but sooner or later the food runs out, the music ends, and visitors leave. If someone entertained the world with the Great Image, no one would know how to love it, much less hate it. Although it has no taste, shape, or sound with which to please people, those who use it can never exhaust it.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “If someone used the Tao to govern the country, the country would be rich, and the people would be prosperous. If someone used it to cultivate themselves, there would be no limit to the length of their life.”

And RED PINE adds, “The Great Image is Te, or Virtue, the manifestation of the Tao.”

In yesterday’s verse Lao-tzu said, “The Tao doesn’t speak when its work succeeds.” In today’s verse he says, “The Tao speaks plain words that make no sense.” So, does the Tao speak, or doesn’t it? The simple answer is that the Tao speaks without speaking. It doesn’t speak to draw attention to itself, with eloquent words; it speaks plain words, quiet and unassuming. It doesn’t make any sense. Why wouldn’t it want it to draw attention to itself? We certainly would, if we had something to show of our work. Something worthy of being praised. But, of course, if it did that, being great, it would be small. And it wouldn’t be the Tao.

Lao-tzu all along, in his Taoteching, has been holding up the Tao, holding up Virtue, because the Tao doesn’t hold itself up. And, he has been very forthcoming all along, as well, about the difficulty with holding up something which can’t be held. You have to “hold without holding,” for the Tao isn’t like any thing else in the world. Fine food and song may be attractive for a time. But eventually the food will run out, the music will draw to a close, and everyone goes on with their lives.

But the Tao is the Source of our lives. When we hold up the Tao and Virtue, we can expect the whole world to benefit from this. The more we hold it up, the more the world will benefit. Until it is “beyond harm, safe and serene and at peace.”

You may say these are grand words, not the plain words Lao-tzu claims the Tao speaks. And, you would be right. But the Tao didn’t speak them. Lao-tzu did, in holding up the Virtue of the Way.

When you look for it, you won’t see it. When you listen for it, you won’t hear it. Ah, but it is always there, wherever you turn, to be used without end.

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