The beginning of the universe
Is the mother of all things.
Knowing the mother, one also knows the sons.
Knowing the sons yet remaining in touch with the mother,
Brings freedom from the fear of death.
Keep your mouth shut,
Guard the senses,
And life is ever full.
Open your mouth,
Always be busy,
And life is beyond hope.
Seeing the small is insight;
Yielding to force is strength.
Using the outer light, return to insight,
And in this way be saved from harm.
This is learning constancy.
Lau's version is startlingly different, and that of the Ma wang tui text different again. Lau says:
The world had a beginning
And this beginning could be the mother of the world.
When you know the mother,
Go on to know the child.
After you have known the child,
Go back to holding fast to the mother
And to the end of your days you will not meet with danger.
Block the openings,
Shut the doors (i.e., the senses and intelligence),
And all your life you will not run dry.
Unblock the openings,
Add to your troubles,
And to the end of your days you will be beyond salvation.
To see the small is called discernment;
To hold fast to the submissive is called strength.
Use the light
But give up the discernment.
Do not bring misfortune upon yourself.
This is known as following the constant.
 I find this word intriguing. The Ma wang tui text says simply that the beginning may be considered the mother.
It then continues...
... Having attained the mother, in order to understand her children,
If you return to and hold onto the mother, till the end of your life you'll suffer no harm...
which is quite an interesting take inasmuch as it leaves out the idea of going on to know the child, and then, once the child is known, returning to the fold of the mother. However, reading it as it is here, why 'return to' when you could just stay with her in the first place? And, if you're going to follow the children in order to understand them, how would returning to the mother save you from harm? If you've really attained the mother, the mother and the offspring are one, are they not? Why all the coming–and–going?
It continues by saying that if one blocks the openings and closes the doors, one will not labour for the rest of one's life. Why 'labour'?
The replacement of the word 'submissive' in the Lau text by 'pliant' in the Ma wang tui seems a good variant to me. And I very much like its last three lines:
... If you use the rays to return to the light,
You'll not abandon your life to peril.
This is called Following the Constant.
Wang Pi says:
Having been good at producing everything under Heaven, it is also good at rearing and nurturing it. This is why... we can regard it as the mother...
He translates the abovementioned lines on mother and child as follows:
Once one has access to the mother, through it one can know the child. Once one knows the child, if one holds again to the mother, no danger shall befall one as long as one lives.
The mother is the root, the child the branch tips. It is through having access to the roots that one knows the branch tips, so one should not discard the root in pursuit of them.
This again has a slightly different flavour, but — I think — clears up the above.
The 'apertures' are where the desire for things arises. The 'door' is where the desire for things enters.
Tending to matters without conscious purpose (wu shih), one is forever at ease. (Which also deals with that)
One who does not shut himself off from the source of desire and tries to deal consciously with things, might live his life to its end, but he will never find relief.
Success in government does not consist in just dealing with the obvious — this is not 'perspicacity'. It is seeing the small that is perspicacious. And nor does holding onto strength make one strong; it is rather a question of holding onto softness.
Let the Tao shine forth, thereby ridding the common folk of delusion, but do not engage in bright scrutiny.
Reading the last line as, 'Never let yourself become exposed to disaster: this is a matter of practicing constancy', he comments that the constancy spoken of here means the constancy of the Tao.
Cheng's commentary reads: 'Mother' is the Mysterious Female. This idea first appears in chapters 1, 4 and 6 (q.v.). 'Mouth' (or 'aperture') is related to Tui, the 58th. hexagram, one of whose meanings is 'speaking' or a 'mouth'. To 'close the door' is like sealing the mouth yet without using force. If one opens the mouth and actively pursues involvements, one will be helpless till one's very death. Hence, valuing the lesser is contrarily called 'enlightenment', and cleaving to the gentle is contrarily called 'steadfastness' and 'strength'. Those who can use the bright intellect and yet return to enlightenment will not bring trouble upon themselves. This is 'practicing longevity', an ancient phrase.
Generally speaking, meditation is of two distinct types. In one you examine 'reality' as you understand it in the light of the teachings you have received, correcting things here and there as your understanding of what the teachings are actually saying slowly deepens. In the Indian and Tibetan systems, this is called 'the analytical approach of the scholar'. In the other, 'the direct placing meditation of the simple yogin', having had the nature of mind — the ultimate point of the teachings — clearly indicated to you by a practitioner who has fully realised it himself, you simply place yourself in that state, allowing things to then arise or fall as they will.
As remarked before, however, for beginners such as ourselves, remaining in that state for more than an instant or two is nigh on impossible and therefore even contraindicated.
It's far more useful (as a practice) to remember the state, look into it for an instant, and then let it go... then remember it, look into it, and let it go... remember, look, let go... This technique is summed up in a Tibetan verse as being like water purifying itself by running over rapids and waterfalls. Trying to maintain this state over a longer period of time, what is called 'the naturally pure real face' becomes obscured by experiences of bliss, clarity and no–thought.
There is nothing inherently wrong with these states and the first two are even quite fun, but the problem with them is that they are just states... They're experiences, and — like all experiences — they slowly fade away like mist.
Bliss is the experience that everything is just as it should be — everything's cool — beautiful, even. There are no problems.
Clarity is the experience that whatever you turn your mind to immediately becomes utterly transparent — you understand everything... profoundly...
No–thought is the singularly rarefied experience where not even the subtle undercurrent thoughts are stirring anymore — where there is a definite pause between one thought and another — a pause in which the mind is actually quite lucid and still.
The other problem related to these experiences is the fact that, although really only husk–like states of delusion, they are extremely seductive inasmuch as the ego can set up camp there and once again start buying the place with beads.
Once one can free oneself from this to reveal 'the naked face of pure awareness' — the open becomingness of the Tao and not some dimly intuited and hopeful 'reflection' misted over by the breath of clever concepts — then the radiance of primordial awareness shines forth from within.
Very slowly the instants of recognition become imperceptibly more stable and more profound, infinitesimally longer in duration, and the whole warp and weft of the hand–woven 'universe' begins to unravel...
At this point, one really is 'one with the mother', and — as movement, stillness and recognition are all recognised as simply facets of the same mind — without any need on our part to either block or unblock anything at all, the children and the mother are genuinely recognised to be one.
There's a lovely Zen tale of a young nun sent down to the stream one evening with an ancient pail in which to draw water. As she is coming back with it, though, and examining the nature of the moon in the water as all good meditation students should, its suddenly starts coming apart (Japanese buckets are made of wood — upright planks tightly tied together at the top and bottom around a round wooden base). Since it is her responsibility to bring water for the kitchen and the other nuns this evening, and there is no other bucket, she does everything she can to hold it together, but to no avail...
... As the bucket falls apart, so does she... or, at least, so does her busy–making mind...
This is the poem she wrote to commemorate it:
This way and that I tried to save that old pail,
But the bamboo strip binding it was weakening and about to break.
Finally the bottom just fell out.
No more water in the bucket;
No more moon in the water.
And when we 'know the sons, yet remain in touch with the mother', no more flowers in the sky.