These things from ancient time arise from one:
The sky is whole and clear.
The earth is whole and firm.
The spirit is whole and strong.
The valley is whole and full.
The ten thousand things are whole and alive.
Kings and lords are whole and the country is upright.
All these are in virtue of wholeness.
The clarity of the sky prevents its falling.
The firmness of the earth prevents its splitting.
The strength of the spirit prevents its being used up.
The fullness of the valley prevents its running dry.
The growth of the ten thousand things prevents their dying out.
The leadership of kings and lords prevents the downfall of the country.
Therefore the humble is the root of the noble.
The low is the foundation of the high.
Princes and lords consider themselves 'orphaned', 'widowed' and 'worthless'.
Do they not depend on being humble.
Too much success is not an advantage.
Do not tinkle like jade
Or clatter like stone chimes.
Lau (confirmed by Wang Pi) reads this somewhat differently, and - I think (although I have my doubts about the last section) - slightly more cogently. His version is:
Of old, these came to be in possession of ther One:
Heaven in virtue of the One is limpid;
Earth in virtue of the One is settled;
Gods in virtue of the One have their potencies;
The valley in virtue if the One is full;
The myriad creaturesin virtue of the One are alive;
Lords and princes in virtue of the One become leaders in the empire.
It is the One that makes these what they are.
Without what makes it limpid heaven might split;
Without what makes it settled earth might sink;
Without what gives them their potencies the gods might spend themselves;
Without what makes it full the valley might run dry;
Without what keeps them alive the myriad creatures might perish;
Without what makes them leaders lords and princes might fall.
Hence the superior must have the inferior as root;
The high must have the low as base.
Thus lords and princes refer to themselves as 'solitary', 'desolate' and 'hapless'. This is taking the inferior as root, is it not?
Hence the highest renown is without renown,
Not wishing to be one among many like jade
Nor to be aloof like stone.
The Ma wang tui text is significantly different from both of these, omitting, for example, the lines concerning 'the myriad things' in both of the first two verses.
The second verse (following on the line concerning princes and lords above) commences with the line: 'Taking this to its logical conclusion we would say...' rather than the later 'It is the One that makes these what they are' as we have here.
The final verse (which is apparently problematic in that the word for 'praise' (yü) and that for 'carriage' (yü) seem to have been interchanged by scribal error) reads:
Therefore they regard their large numbers of carriages as having no carriage
And because of this, they desire not to dazzle and glitter like jade
But remain firm and strong like stone.
Wing-tsit Chan translates the first of these lines as: 'Therefore, enumerate all the parts of a chariot as you may, and you still have no chariot'.
This is an intersting translation for me, personally, inasmuch as it comes very close to the Madhyamika idea (also found in the Chinese Buddhist Hua-yen School), that 'things' are always reducible to their endlessly smaller parts and inevitably form part of ever larger wholes, none of which has any of the essence of the thing as such.
To illustrate this, the so-called 'hand' is a composite of fingers, thumb, palm, back, knuckles and wrist. These, in turn, are a composite of skin, flesh, blood, bones, marrow and so on. These again are made up of cells, atoms, atomic particles and the like, ad infinitessimum. And the hand is part of a forearm, arm, upper body, person, etc., ad infinitum. No one part of these can be pointed at as the independent, permanent and partless entity 'hand', as such, to the extent that - in fact - it is only the name 'hand' that seems to be of any reality at all - until we remember that 'hand' is only the Germanic variant of the word which is variations of manus in the Latin-based languages and utterly different again in the tongues outside the Indo-European fold.
The purpose of this sort of analysis is not to negate the relative reality of things as such, but to cut through our unconscious clinging to them as monolithic, 'solid' and absolutely 'real' in what they seem to be, or, as we would say, 'are'.
However, I digress...
Wang Pi's commentary is as follows:
'Long , long ago' means at the beginning. One is the beginning of numbers as well as the ultimate number of things. Each thing, as such, is produced by the One, and this is why it is the master of them all. All things attain completeness by obtaining this One, and, once complete, the exist as complete entities by separating themselves from the One. Once they exist as complete entities, they lose the mother, and this is why all things deteriorate, disintegrate, terminate, dry up, expire and collapse.
Each of the entities mentioned in the text respectively attains purity, stability, capacity to be filled, life and constancy thanks to its access to the One.
Heaven attains purity by making use of the One; it is not pure through making use of purity. Because it holds to the One, its purity is not lost, but if it tried to make use of purity, 'it would, we fear, deteriorate'(*). Thus one must not separate from the mother, the source of efficacy. For this reason, if all these did not adhere to this source of efficacy, it is to be feared that they would lose their roots - the basis of what they are.
(*) This idea - 'we fear ' - is expressed in the Ma wang tui text as well.
Purity cannot provide purity, fullness cannot provide the capacity to be filled. As long as they all keep to their mother, the preserve their forms accordingly. Therefore purity is unworthy of being thought noble and fullness is insufficient to be considered much. Nobility resides with the mother, but the mother is without noble form. Thus it is that 'nobility uses humility as its roots and loftiness uses lowliness as its foundation'. 'Therefore the ultimate number of praises' is really 'no praise'. Jadestone is lustrous and as hard as can be, but what it embodies is found entirely in its form. Thus one should not seek to be praised as if one were jadestone.
Professor Cheng's commentary says: Chapter 22 says, 'The Sage embraces the Oneness of the Tao and becomes a guide for the whole world'. Later, in chapter 28, it says, 'to be a guide for the world, follow your innate nature without changing'. Here, to attain Oneness is to become clear, settled, numinous, filled, reproductive and a true leader, all of which illustrates 'the Sage embraces the Oneness of the Tao'.
Reading the second verse as:
In the heavens, that which is not clear eventually settles.
On earth, that which does not settle dissipates.
Spirits which are not numinous disappear.
Valleys not filled will dry up
Creatures thatdo not reproduce become extinct.
Kings and officials, if not honoured and esteemed, will fall.
he says: 'The heavens attained Oneness and became clear' refers to ch'i (breath) or Tao. If the heavens were not in a stae of Oneness, they would not be clear, they would be turgid. That which is turgid has weight, which is not the quality of the heavens but that of earth. Therefore it is obvious that 'in the heavens, that which is not clear eventually settles'. The sense of the text harmonises with 'the Sage embraces the Oneness of the Tao...' and '...follow your innate nature without changing'. That what is not numinous disappears and what is not filled dries up also accords with the same idea. It is ch'i that fills valleys. Without ch'i they are arid.
Reading the line concerning officials as, 'That is why officials call themselves the lonely, the hubless', he continues: The Ho-shang Kung edition says, 'the analogy of lonliness and hublessness describes the iability to be like a hub, a centre for converging spokes'. Our text continues, explaining, 'therefore it is better to consider the vacancy of the vehicle rather than its appearance'. This reference to a hub echoes that in chapter 11: 'thirty spokes converge at a single hub; it is its vacancy that begets the vehicle's usefulness'. Wang Pi changes 'hubless' to read 'grainless' (*) which in this context makes no sense at all. He uses 'carriage' instead of 'vehicle', and he uses 'hardness' in place of 'ordinary'. His efforts are not as well-directed as those of Ho-shang Kung, who goes on to say that without a foundation or a trunk neither the high nor the honourable can succeed; that officials who are 'lonely' cannot become 'hubs'; and that to be 'shiny and attractive' puts a premium on rarity, while the 'ordinary' is so commonplace that it is quite inexpensive and available to all.
(*) This is certainly not the case in Richard Lynn's translation, which - I am assured - is not bad at all.
Here, again, we are brought face-to-face with the idea that 'reality' is not in things as such, but in their connection with the open-endedness that is the Tao... That what makes things what they seem to be is this connection and nothing else. The Tao is the nameless source and guardian of the life-energy of all that exists. It is their emptiness - their open-endedness - and, as such, 'begets their usefulness'.
There is much talk, in psychology, of 'projection', and projection is generally regarded as a self-deception, but the truth of the matter is that the entire universe is actually just a projection... It's not just the projection of a positivie, negative or nugatory quality onto certain persons and things that is off the mark: our entire reading of the data of our senses is completely shot through with it. The idea that 'concensus reality' is 'normal' - or even that there is such a thing as concensus reality - is purely wishful thinking.
The contemporary Dzogchen teacher Künzang Dechen Lingpa expresses this quite clearly in a brief teaching-poem of his, as follows:
It's like this: All phenomena of the world of appearances and possibilities, be they of cyclic existence or of ultimate peace,
Utterly transcend the extremes of either having or not having substantial existence.
No matter what manifests or how you perceive it, its inherent nature is that of a magical illusion
And clinging to it as actually possessing material characteristics is simply the error of wishful thinking.
Beyond acceptance or rejection, just remain in an uncontrived and effortless state of total relaxation.
Even if the waves that are the self–expression of the vast and swirling expanse of the ocean of ultimate reality
Should rise up to stream through the very heavens,
They never depart from being of the nature of the great ocean itself.