Know the masculine, keep to the feminine,
Here under Heaven, be as a ravine.
Being as a ravine here under Heaven,
do not lose common virtue (Te).
Return to the childhood state.

Know the bright, keep to the dark,
This is the rule here under Heaven.
This being the rule here under Heaven
common virtue (Te) does not change.
Return to what is always so.

Know glory, keep to the humble,
Here under Heaven, be a valley.
Being a valley here under Heaven
common virtue (Te) is sufficient.
Return to the plain and simple.

Plain and simple is free and unfettered
yet can be a tool in the hands of the sage.
For the high government official:
The best making involves no cutting.


The symbolism of the ravine and the valley is important in Taoism. They are the low places. They are the places of water, which is also an important symbol. The ravine is a place of secrets. The valley is a place of fertility and settled homes. To be like the valley and like the ravine is the way to stay in tune with common virtue (Te).

Common virtue means a plain and simple life. In popular society, people try to climb to the highest positions. They follow the way of the mountain rather than that of the ravine. They compete to get to the top. The Taoist benefits them by not competing. Those who climb mountains have to come down again eventually and the Taoist will be there with a cup of tea and a bowl of rice.

This is similarly symbolised by the Chinese ideas of yin and yang, feminine and masculine. In this traditional view of roles, the male sallies forth to do battle but at the end of the day must come back to be healed and nurtured by the female. In our modern society these roles are not so distinct and it may nowadays be the woman who goes out to adventure or gather resources or run the country, but she still needs replenishment when the battle is over. We all, male or female, have masculine and feminine parts in this old Chinese sense. The Taoist idea is that the yang roles are sometimes necessary, but are wearing and costly and to be avoided when possible. Our modern idea is to hail winners and despise losers, but the Taoist will point out that the meek person who holds to a less competitive ethic will win on the end without making any effort to do so, because he or she will survive and prosper while those who compete for high positions and wealth become encumbered with heavy responsibilities, attract envy and often end up miserable and defeated.

Return to the childhood state means to maintain a position of innocence. Even though one has seen it all before, still it is important to look at each occurrence with new eyes. The combination of the wisdom of the old with the innocence of the young is the hallmark of Taoism. Thus the supposed author of the book is called Lao (old) Tzu (child).

In this context it is also worth remembering that on the night of enlightenment, Buddha recalled his experience under the rose-apple tree. When he had been a child he had been taken to the spring ploughing festival. It was a happy festive occasion, but Gotama was disturbed to see that when the earth was cut open by the plough, little creatures lost their home and were thrown up only to be eaten by the birds that swooped down. Distressed, he slipped away and sat under the tree to think about these things. He fell into a rapture. In due course his nursemaids came and found him and marvelled that such a young child should be in such a state of rapture. When, later, Buddha had met with defeat in his efforts to conquer the body and will by asceticism, he recalled that childhood experience. It was this recollection that triggered the sequence of experiences that we call his awakening. The great awakening was not brought about by dwelling in the present moment, but by reminiscing about the state of innocence of childhood. Bringing together his recent experience of extreme practice with that early memory produced the necessary chemistry.

We may reflect, therefore, that spiritual awakening arises from tensions within, both the tension between original innocence and long experience and the tension between shock and inspiration. These two pairs are not wholly unrelated. When we reflect upon long experience we can be shocked and dismayed at human cruelty and stupidity, yet when we reconnect with original innocence we may find a source of renewed inspiration. When we meet others who are in contact with that source, we are affected and, indeed, infected, by their joie de vivre.

This source is a spring of living water that constantly flows and nourishes the valley, the heart, the deeper mind. It is what is always so, through all the vicissitudes. Yin and yang take their turns, but the sage remains true to Te. In his plain, simple, free and unfettered way he naturally benefits all beings simply by living such a life.

This is the spiritual way. Yet this way is not merely of value to those who choose to live a completely spiritual life apart from the hurly burly. Even the person who does venture into high office can benefit from it. She should avoid being over-mighty, listen to people and care for them, act decisively when this is absolutely necessary but avoid setting up quarrels and divisions.

The very best making involves no cutting means that although, here in the land under Heaven, it is inevitable that we break things in order to make new ones, the damage should be reduced to a minimum. This is a conservative philosophy in the original sense of the world. Don’t change things unless you are quite certain that you really are making an improvement. Don’t tear things down just because they are old. Respect what has taken generations to evolve. Take steps carefully.

Thus, the philosophy of Tao is a practical matter for people high and low even though it up-ends many commonly practised assumptions.

The Way of Tao is sometimes called Dark Wisdom. The law, here under Heaven, is "know the light, keep to the dark". The mountain top is in the bright sun, the valley bottom is in shade. The sage is happy to stay in the shade and is not clamouring for the bright lights of fame and fortune.

Yang is bright and yin is dark. Yang demands precision and sharpness, whereas yin is comforting and soft. Know the one but keep to the other.

We can also relate this to consciousness and the unconscious. Taoism is not a pursuit of sharp consciousness or alertness. It values dreams, day dreaming, jokes and ironies, the twists and turns of fate that defeat logic, the dawn and the dusk rather than the midday sun. The Taoist is not looking for a kind of meditation that is the expansion of consciousness or twenty-four seven awareness. He is more at home with twilight states where mystery can be experienced.

Similarly, this wisdom manifests by becoming dark. When I did my research in order to write the book Dark Side of the Mirror, I came to realise that Dogen was not just drawing on Buddhism. In the Chinese monastery where he studied he would have been exposed to Chinese culture that was deeply penetrated by Taoist thinking. When his master said, “Let body and mind fall away” which became the trigger for his awakening experience, this had many resonances in Taoist thinking rather than in traditional Buddhism. One of the difficulties that modern readers have in interpreting his text Genjo Koan is due to the fact that they are not used to having the dark side praised and the light seen as less important. Our modern approach is all about pursuing the light. Taoism is different.

When we think of the dark side, we think of the shadow. This means all of the things about the person that we think of as negative - our foolishness, pride, hidden motives, resentments, greed, animosity and so on. This is like the compost of the mind. When we recognise that we have all of these passions working in ourselves we become more realistic about life. Instead of presenting an idealised version of ourselves and criticising anybody who does not do likewise, we become more humble naturally, just by being sincere.

When you meet somebody who only shows and admits to the socially acceptable aspects of him or herself, such a person can only be related to in a rather formal manner, whereas when we meet somebody who is open about the whole of human nature we feel more at ease and safer to disclose our own peculiarities.

Thus, the person who does not idealise himself becomes somewhat like a mirror for others and this enables everybody to be more relaxed and open.

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Replies to This Discussion

This spiritual map is comforting and frightening at the same time. We have the ability every second of the day to see the light but we are mired in compost. Lessons from the garden.

Thanks Dharmavidya. Brings back memories of France for me and discussing the Yin Yang. Good times. I just got my copy of your book and am well in to it. Namo Amida Bu(   ;

Yes, there is lots to discuss in TTC. I shall keep on working on it.



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