So here is my complete commentary on Chapter four...


LAO TZU: TAO TE CHING: Chapter 4


TEXT:

道 沖 , 而 用 之 或 不 盈 。
淵 兮 , 似 萬 物 之 宗 ﹔

挫其鋭,解其纷,和其光,同其尘。

湛 兮 , 似 或 存 。
吾 不 知 誰 之 子 , 象 帝 之 先 。


The Tao flows out, and yet use will never exhaust it.
How it gushes forth! It is like the ancestral temple of the myriad things;

Broken up its sharpness
Delivered its multiplicity
And its light
With its dust

So deep! It could be existence itself.
I don’t know whose child it is,
It is like a trace of the First Emperor.



COMMENTARY

道 沖 , 而 用 之 或 不 盈 。

The Tao flows out, and yet use will never exhaust it.

The text actually says, “use will not fill it”. The sense here, therefore is of the fertile void. From emptiness comes everything. Even in modern physics, the implication is probably that everything comes from nothing, that for all this matter that we encounter, there is, somewhere, anti-matter, so that the whole cosmos originates from a void. In the ultimate analysis, everything cancels out. However, from that void comes forth everything. The Chinese equivalent is the idea that with yin, yang and with yang, yin. So the Tao, which is the mysterious whole, is endlessly generating yin and yang out of its fertile voidness. We make use of what emerges, but we tend to not take into account its endless fecundity. We like completeness, but the Tao is always overflowing.


淵 兮 , 似 萬 物 之 宗

How it gushes forth! It is like the ancestral temple of the myriad things.

Gushing forth 淵 gives us the image of a plentiful spring coming from deep in the ground, charming, life giving, fresh and mysterious.

We come from our ancestors. Everything has an ancestry. The ancestors are the source. This is karma. Therefore, the Chinese say it is good to worship ancestors because they are the source and so in Chinese religion, as in many ancient religions, there is little distinction between ancestors and gods. The gods are the ancestors and the ancestors are gods. The Tao is the ancestor of everything. We go to the ancestral temple to give thanks, praise and ask for help and guidance. The Tao is endlessly beneficent.

I have translated 物 here as “things” because, clearly, the Tao is conceived as affecting everything, not just what we now regard as animate beings. However, 物 can also mean “creature” and the character is definitely a schematic picture of an animal. If we go back to the epoch in which the book was composed, it is probable that a much wider range of “things” were considered to be “animate” than is the case today. The ancients had a much more vitalistic perspective. Rocks, rivers, clouds, mountains and seas all had their spirits and dragons. It is difficult in a modern translation to get across this very different sense of the world.


挫其鋭,解其纷,和其光,同其尘。

Broken up its sharpness
Delivered its multiplicity
And its light
With its dust

The translation of this section is not certain. Different translators have taken it in different ways and Chinese writers too. It is probably a quote from another work now lost. It may well refer to a beam of light in a room. The yang energy of the sun is broken up by the dust giving an image of multiplicity. This would certainly be a good image of the Taoist message. The yang light of the sun is pure but we cannot look at it directly without blinding ourselves. It is too sharp. Yet if we think of a beam of light across a room, it is beautiful to see all the tiny dust particles floating in it breaking up the light. Dust is yin, being dark and of the earth. This interaction of dust and light is an established trope in China. It famously reappears in the story of Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch of Zen, in an exchange of poems that are all about mirrors, dust and light, illustrating the meaning of Zen in terms that would readily resonate in Chinese minds. Thus, in the Taoist scheme, from the Tao come yin and yang and the interaction of yang and yin give rise to multiplicity, so this image is a fine illustration, and more than just a metaphor since it is an instance.

Other translators have made different things of this passage.

D.T.Suzuki & P.Carus have: “It will blunt its own sharpness/ Will its tangles adjust/ It will dim its own radiance/ And be one with its dust.”
Tam C.Gibbs has: “Blunting sharp edges/ Resolving confusions/ Diffusing glare/ Uniting the world”
Arthur Waley has “In it all sharpness is blunted/ All tangles untied/ All glare tempered/ All dust smoothed.”

I think that these all attempt to preserve some of the poetry of the original, but do depart somewhat from the Chinese, especially in the third and fourth lines. To make sense of it there has to be an under-lying image and I feel that my suggestion of the beam of light does the trick, but there is no way of knowing for sure.

“Dust” 尘 does have the implication in Chinese as in English of the dust of mundane life, hence Gibbs' final line, and an implication of this kind is not out of place, but I think it is an allusion not the direct intended meaning of the phrase.

As you can see by looking at the 12 characters, the Chinese is more elegant than the English, rather as though the English were written...

                     Broken up   its   sharpness                       挫其鋭,
Delivered   its   multiplicity                       解其纷,
And   its   light                       和其光
With   its   dust                       同其尘



The character 解 that I have rendered “delivered” and others have glossed in a variety of ways, is, inter alia, the name of the fortieth hexagram in the I Ching, “Deliverence”. This hexagram is about restoring peace and security. This is brought about by, on the one hand, clarity, yet, at the same time, pardon and forgiveness. The superior person sees clearly what needs doing and restores harmony by being kind to those who have made mistakes or committed misdeeds. The image of the hexagram is “arousing thunder above and water of the abyss below.” Thus yang and yin are in their proper places and order is about to be restored in a peaceful manner. Following from this, I think that delivering multiplicity with its light and its dust is about right. The dust of mistakes and misdeeds is transformed into a means of enhancing the clarity and light.


湛 兮 , 似 或 存 。

So deep! It could be existence itself.

The Tao is unfathomable, like water rising from the abyss. Since everything arises from it, it is existence itself, but not in a mundane sense. It is the sacredness of existence: it's profundity. The character for deep 湛 also contains the water element. So this is a bit the same as life deriving from the ocean and also consciousness from unconsciousness, light in the midst of the dark.


吾 不 知 誰 之 子 , 象 帝 之 先 。

I don’t know whose child it is.
It is like a trace of the First Emperor


If the Tao is the source of everything, what is the source of the Tao? I don't know, says, Lao Tzu. In other words, there is a limit to human enquiry. there are things we cannot know. There will always be a stopping point beyond which one cannot go. In Buddhist philosophy, Nagarjuna made the same point, but Lao Tzu does it in much simpler language. The word that I have translated as trace - 象 – is actually a picture of an elephant. In China you do not find elephants in historical times, though occasionally one might come across a skeleton of one from prehistory. From the skeleton you can try to guess what the beast actually looked like. Hence this character has come to imply a vague appearance of that kind. Chinese history goes back a long way. The first emperor is a very shadowy figure. In Chinese culture, the first emperors were rather super-human figures who did things like establishing civilisation and teaching the people the art of irrigation and flood control which are absolute essentials in Norther China where the headwaters of the Yellow River are erratic easily leading to disastrous floods downstream where most people live. The river also brings the loess soil that makes the plains fertile and gave rise to the earliest cultures. Thus, the first emperor is both the supreme ancestor and, therefore, a bit like God.

The image of the Tao flowing out is not unlike the image of the live giving river upon which Chinese civilisation depended. The Yellow River plays an enormous part in Chinese mythology, story telling and literary imagery. It is both the provider and the divider. The Tao likewise. The Yellow (or Golden) River thus symbolises everything on earth, both its fertility and also its problems and divisions. The Chinese also saw the Milky Way as the equivalent phenomenon in Heaven. To them, the Milky way is the Silver River. It similarly symbolises the beneficence of Heaven, but also its division. For the Chinese, the equivalent of Shangri La was the place where the two rivers met. Various folk stories talk of people riding fragile boats to this wonderful place, and sometimes, but not always, returning

Views: 169

ITZI Conference 2019

Subscribe to ITZI Conference Newsletter

* indicates required

Blog Posts

MY MEDICAL CONDITION

Posted by David Brazier on June 26, 2019 at 18:04 6 Comments

My medical condition continues to be a mystery. It is clear that I do not have any of the big nasty things - brain tumour, cracked skull, stroke, etc - as these have been ruled out by MRI investigation. Nonetheless I continue to have persistent, continuous head pain that varies in intensity and I become exhausted by the least effort so that I am functioning like an invalid incapable of doing very much. There is always a possibility that the whole syndrome is a…

Continue

Grace.

Posted by Dayamay Dunsby on June 2, 2019 at 1:02 4 Comments

“Do we know what it means to be struck by grace? It does not mean that we suddenly believe that God exists, or that Jesus is the saviour, or that the Bible contains the truth. Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark Valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us… Continue

Sit

Posted by Geeta Chari on April 26, 2019 at 22:13 3 Comments

This is a short video of a Buddhist monk and his family. 

It raised questions on parenting and Buddhism - does detachment (or perhaps quietism), as practiced here, lead to demotivation and disengagement with the world around one?

His children find the detachment practised by the monk disquieting. They appreciate the irony of detachment, which is supposed to…

Continue

Zero Limits

Posted by Dayamay Dunsby on April 20, 2019 at 14:13 0 Comments

 

 

 

I have recently been made aware of a practice known as Ho’ponopono. Ho’ponopono is an ancient Hawaiian healing practice, based on universal forgiveness, that was rediscovered and popularised in the 80s. A man called Joe Vitale(Hawaiian I think)  became enchanted by the practice after his daughter was healed from an…

Continue

© 2019   Created by David Brazier.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service