Saturday, October 29, 2005

tao teh ching 21

The greates Virtue is to follow the Tao and only the Tao.
The Tao is elusive and intangible.
Oh, it's elusive and intangible, and yet within is image.
Oh, it's elusive and intangible, and yet within is form.
Oh, it's dim and dark, and yet within is essence.
The essence is very real, and therein lies faith.
From the very beginning until now its name has never been forgotten.
Thus I perceive the creation.
How do I know the ways of creation?
Because of this.

Both the Lau and the ma wang tui text are different enough from this to warrant my giving both in detail. Lau has:

In his every movement, a man of great virtue
Follows the way and only the way.
As a thing the way is
Shadowy, indistinct.
Indistinct and shadowy,
Yet within it is an image;
Shadowy and indistinct,
Yet within it is a substance.
Dim and dark, yet within it is an essence.
This essence is quite genuine
And within it is something that can be tested.
From the present back to antiquity
Its name has never deserted it.
It serves as a means for inspecting the fathers of the multitude.
How do I know that the fathers of the multitude are like that? By means of this.

And the Ma wang tui:

The character of great virtue follows alone from the Way.
As for the nature of the Way, it is shapeless and formless.
Formless! Shapeless! Inside there are images.
Shapeless! Formless! Inside there are things.
Hidden! Obscure! Inside there are essences.
These essences are very real;
Inside them is the proof.

From the present back to the past,
Its name has never gone away.
It is by this that we comply with the father of the multitude (of things).
How do I know that the father of the multitude is so?
By this.

Wang Pi's line-by-line commentary says:

K'ung (which usually means 'great') here means (a different character also pronounced k'ung) 'empty'. Only by embracing emptiness as virtue can one ensure that one's actions conform with the Tao... 'Dim' and 'dark' refer to the appearance of that which is formless and not attatched to anything... The tao originates things due to its formlessness and brings them to completion due to its freedom from attachment. The myriad things are originated and completed in this way, yet do not know how it happens... 'Abstruse' and 'indistinct' refer to an appearance of unfathomable profundity. It is so unfathomably profound that we cannot treat it as something seen, yet the myriad things all proceed from it... (W)e cannot see it and so fix what its authentic existence is,... 'but within it the essence of things (ching) is there'... When things revert to the unfathomably profound, the ultimate state of authentic essence is attained and the natures of all the myriad things is fixed... The ultimate of perfect authenticity cannot be named. Because it is nameless (wu ming), this is its name. From the present and back into antiquity, nothing has ever reached completion except through it... Chung fu - the father of everything - means the origin of all things. 'Nameless' is used to convey what the origin of the myriad things is... 'This' in the last line means what has just been said above. In other words, if you ask how I know that the myriad things originate in nothingness, I know it by this.

(That's the first time, so far, that I've really appreciated - or probably even properly understood - Wang Pi's commentary)

Cheng says that the Tao becomes Tao when, in the midst of evanescence and elusiveness, there is form and substance; when, in the midst of vacancy and darkness, there is a real essence. It is verifiable since its name has never been lost, and the origins of all living creatures are evident within it. Consequently one can know the circumstances of the phenomenon of the Tao: b dint of the form and substance within it, it reveals the presence of an essence so genuine that it is the authentification of the Tao, indicating also the depth of one's moral cultivation. 'In the 81 chapters of the Tao Teh Ching,' he points out, 'there are a total of seventeen properties ascribed to Teh'... These include 'primal Teh', 'best Teh', 'everlasting Teh' and so on, but the point is that, the more mysterious the Tao, the more real the Teh; the more vacant the tao, the more concrete the Teh; the more obscure the Tao, the more obvious the Teh. (Cheng reads Teh here as 'moral cultivation', but I think 'virtue' - or, as Waley renders it, 'power' - comes far closer to the original meaning... One is almost tempted to say 'manifestation' or 'energy'). He continues: When the Tao is cultivated in a person, his Teh is 'real'; when cultivated in a family, it's Teh' has 'greater influence; when cultivated in a village, state, or the world, Teh is 'lasting', 'abundant' and 'universal'.
He disagrees vehemently with Wang Pi, however, as to the meaning of the term k'ung mentioned above, and he contends that it must mean high as in 'high moral development' and cannot possibly mean 'empty'. 'Tao takes teh as its root and trunk, he says. 'If this root is made 'hollow' or 'empty', the Tao has no base on which to stand. If one does not allow this single word its true meaning, then the five-thousand-word Tao Teh Ching will be shaken to its foundations.'
Again I find myself in disagreement with him. Tao does NOT stand upon Teh. If anything takes a stand upon anything (which I'm not at all sure it does), then surely Teh, as the 'manifest energy' of Tao, must be rooted in and take its stand upon it?

I think this all clears up in the note appended to this chapter by Professor Cheng himself: I give it here in its entirety.

This chapter describes what it is about the Tao that makes it the tao. Those who sincerely desire to aproach the Tao of Lao-tze will have no place to get a handhold without this chapter and chapter 14.
Lao-tzu has his own Tao, attained through breathing techniques. If those who wish to cultivate their health and enrich their lives follow the principles of non-action and no desire and practice them seriously and with discipline, they will certainly get results. That is why the text says the Tao has a form, substance and essence so real that it is verifiable.
How do I know that Lao-tze is capable of all this? When I was young, I was sick unto death, and, to make a long story short, I followed Lao-tze's method of cultivating chi (the psycho-physiological energy that is an amalgam of breath, generative energy and mind), enabling me to lengthen my life for more than forty years. How can I ever forget the rewards Lao-tze has given me?
Nevertheless, I am a human being, and, as such, must speak of the Tao of Mankind. My real desire, therefore, is to follow Confucius to the end. If it were otherwise, even if I lived as long as P'eng Chu (who is reputed to have lived to be 800 years old), of what use would my life be to mankind? Although to seek a long life has its purposes, they are at a far remove from the study of the Tao of Mankind.

I'd like to take issue with this here.
If Professor Cheng - by his own admission here, a card-carrying Confucian - imagines that the Tao of Lao-tze comprises nothing but a few breathing exercises and increasing the length of one's life, he has either entirely missed the point or is actively (and somewhat dishonestly) trying to dissaude his reader from following this path.
There is no rejection of the 'Tao of Mankind' in the Tao as expressed by Lao-tze. On the contrary, all he rejects is self-conscious and self-righteous deception of both oneself and others, and the sort of activities that lead to hollow 'successes' or to downright suffering.
He does, certainly, believe that - left to itself and not distorted by extraneous hopes and fears - nature always knows best, that water will always seek the lowest place and somehow - even by dissolving back into vapour - find its way home to the sea...
He also feels - quite correctly - that encouraged desires and anxieties, and the laws and strictures that soon after become necessary to police them - are far more dangerous than they at first seem. We, in the early 21st. (as we so arrogantly call it) century, are living with the rather disquieting results of just such. It may be, as Cheng contends, that the Tao of Mankind is to seek some ultimate utopian paradise, but - as Confucius himself points out - for human society to attain such a state, the first consideration is the appearance of the genuine 'emperor'. Confucius notes sadly that the real emperor appears only every thousand years or so, and that everyone else in between is simply either setting him up or tearing him down.
It might be worthwhile here to quote the root text of the so-called 'Great Learning' - the Ta Hsüeh - which, although ascribed by Chu-hsi to Confucius, was originally part of the Li-chi, the "Book of Rites," one of the five Chinese classics, dated to the 3rd. c. BCE... I follow Legge:

What the Great learning teaches is to illustrate illustrious virtue; to renovate the people; and to rest in the highest excellence.
The point where to rest being known, the object of pursuit is then determined; and, that being determined, a calm unperturbedness may be attained to. To that calmness there will succeed a tranquil repose. In that repose there may be careful deliberation, and that deliberation will be followed by the attainment of the desired end.
Things have their root and their branches. Affairs have their end and their beginning. To know what is first and what is last will lead near to what is taught in the Great Learning.
The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the kingdom, first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lay inthe investigation of things.
Things being investigated, knowledge became complete. Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts were sincere. Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were then rectified. Their hearts being rectified, their persons were cultivated. Their persons being cultivated, their families were regulated. Their families being regulated, their states were rightly governed.Their states being rightly governed, the whole kingdom was made tranquil and happy.
From the Son of Heaven down to the mass of the people, all must consider the cultivation of the person the root of everything besides.
It cannot be, when the root is neglected, that what should spring from it will be well ordered. It never has been the case that what was of great importance has been slightly cared for,and, at the same time, that what was of slight importance has been greatly cared for.

What is blatantly obvious here (or blatantly obvious to me, at any rate) is that what these texts are saying - one to a would-be civil servant and one to someone who simply wished to live out his years doing what seemed useful and pleasant to him - is exactly the same thing: No matter what you want, the root of it lies in sorting out yourself first. Then, whether you take 'the path of learning, where something is gained every day', or 'the path of the Tao, where something is given up every day', it's the same thing. This is the whole point.
The Tao embraces everything.
That's why Lao-tze is so keen that you give up holding on to clever but intricate and crabbed little versions of what might might be possible.

Cor! Really sounded off on that one, didn't I?


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