Saturday, November 19, 2005

tao teh ching 35

All men come to him who keeps to the one,
For there lie rest and happiness and peace.

Passersby may stop for music and good food,
But a description of the Tao
Seems without substance or flavour.
It cannot be seen, it cannot be heard,
And yet it cannot be exhausted.

Lau is significantly different:

Have in your hold the great image
And the empire will come to you.
Coming to you and meeting withe no harm
It will be safe and sound.
Music and food
Will induce the wayfarer to stop.
The way in its passage through the mouth is without flavour.
It cannot be seen,
It cannot be heard,
Yet it cannot be exhausted by use[1].

[1] Henricks reads the Ma wang tui text which agrees with Lau in most other particulars including terminology slightly differently here. He interprets the last six lines as:

Music and food - for these the passing travellers stop.
Therefore, of the Tao's speech we say:
Insipid it is! It lacks of flavour.
When you look at it, it is not sufficient to be seen;
When you listen to it, it is not sufficient to be heard;
Yet when you use it, it can't be used up.

In this it comes very close to the Ch'an saying that whereas the intoxicating wine of excitement always leaves us thirsty for more, the Way is like water, has no special taste as such, and yet it definitely quenches the thirst.

Wang Pi says:

The 'great image' is the mother of the images of Heaven. It is neither hot nor cold, neither warm nor cool, thus it can perfectly embrace the myriad things and none suffers any harm. If a ruler could grasp it, all under Heaven would turn to him(*).

(*) In the Commentary on the Appended Phrases in the I Ching, we have 'Heaven hung images in the sky revealing good fortune and bad, and the sages regarded thes as meaningful signs'. The 'images of Heaven' are the sun, moon, planets and constellations. The 'great image', however, is another way to refer to the Tao.
In his commentary to chapter 41, Wang says of the passage , 'the great image is formless': As soon as there is form, distinctions exist, and, with distinctions, if something is not warm it must be cool; if something is not hot it must be cold. Thus, an image that has form is not the great image' (cf. also his commentaries to chs. 16 and 55). In his Introductory Outline, he says, 'The formless and nameless (the Tao) is the progenitor of the myriad things. It is neither warm nor cool... Try to capture it as an image, and it is utterly formless... If it were warm, it could not be cold... Thus an image that takes an actual form cannot be the great image'.

Such a one is formless and without consciousness, has neither predelictions nor outer signs and characteristics, thus the myriad beings can turn to him and stay free from harm.

...Speaking of the profundity and greatness of the Tao, when one hears the words of the Tao, one doeas not find them at all like wine and fine food, which, when one responds to them, cause a reaction of heartfelt pleasure. With music and fine food one can detain a passing visitor, but the words that come out of the Tao are so bland that they are utterly without flavour. We look for it but there is not enough there for us to see anything, so not enough to please the eye. We listen for it but there is not enought there for us to hear anything, so there is not enough to delight the ear. It is as if it has nothing at all within it, and this is why - in using it - it is inexhaustible

Cheng's commentary here is rather facinating. He says: From the beginning of this chapter up to the words 'the passing guest pauses for sweetmeats and music', the language is unusual and the sentence construction extraordinary. It does not conform with Lao-tze's claim, 'my words are very easy to understand'. Ho-shang Kung, Wang Pi, et al., give rather forced explanations about which I am at a loss to comment. I feel it is better to suspend judgement and avoid overdoing things by 'adding legs to a snake' (i.e., not knowing when to stop).

I, however, am unfortunately nowhere near as wise as Professor Cheng, and will thus stick my neck out here and say that - particularly as it seems to be in line with the Ch'an saying cited above - I believe Wang Pi's interpretation to be correct, not least since he himself insists upon it in his own introduction to the text... As he says (in his Introduction quoted above): 'You can listen for it, but it is impossible to get a sense of its sound; you can look for it, but it is impossible to get a sense of its appearance; you might try to understand what it is like, but it is impossible to grasp it wthin the terms of understanding; you may try to taste it, but it is impossible to get the flavour of it'.
Oddly enough, though, it is not impossible to touch... In fact we touch nothing else.

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