專氣至柔 能 嬰兒乎
Unite body and soul – can you, without being dispersed?
Master the breath and be supple – can you, just as a child?
Cleanse the (inner) mirror - can you, free of all blemish?
Love the land and people as your own – can you, without putting on airs?
As the gates of heaven open and close, can you take the female part?
Make to shine the four attainments – can you, without affectation?
It gives birth and nurtures
Gives birth, yet without possessiveness
Nurtures, yet without oppression
A mysterious belly of kindness
This chapter lists four attainments that are goals of Taoist practice. They are as follows.
Firstly, to unite body and soul. This is essentially the same as the idea that we are both angels and beasts. Our animal nature involves us in instinctive behaviours and this is how we have our being within this material world. At the same time we also have intuitions of spiritual life that manifest at least as ideals. However, there is generally quite a gap between the ideal and the actual. This is a cause of inner tension. In the poem Sandokai, it says “With the ideal comes the actual, like a box all with its lid.” The encounter with reality often does “put the lid on” our ideals. The goal, therefore, is to arrive at a harmony between these sometimes seemingly irreconcilable dimensions. We could say, to find inner peace.
Secondly, to become supple as a child through mastery of the breath. It seems that yogic practices have been part of Taoism from an early date. We admire the carefreeness of the child. The child falls, cries for two minutes, and is then once again playing and climbing up the same branch that it fell from, with mother, heart-in-mouth, watching from a distance. The child has the capacity to bounce back where the adult tends to harbour hurts and defeats and make a much biggr meal of them. Of course, some of this is simply physical. Old bones are more brittle. The Taoists, however, believe that the suppleness of the child can be extended by living in accord with the Tao and one method for this is through attention to the breath.
Thirdly, cleansing the mirror. The “mirror” basically refers to what we might call the unconscious mind. There is, here, an ideal of emptiness. The notion of the mirror mind is of one that has no prejudice, no prior judgement nor hidden agenda. Generally, when we encounter something, we immediately fit it in to our pre-existing schema and so do not really stop, look and listen. The things that blemish our mirror are bitterness, greed, self-centredness, neuroses – our own personal madness. Can we let it go? Can one arrive at open-mindedness, open-heartedness? Without losing the fruits of experience, can there yet be a freshness to each perception, so that each new day is indeed new? each new encounter with an old friend a new discovery? with an old enemy a new beginning?
Fourthly, to love the land and people as one's own. We all love some things and some people, but universal love is another matter. We might hold it as an ideal, but that is likely only to lead to us putting on airs. The politician says how he deeply cares about the people, even if the only thing he cares about is getting their vote. We are all socialised into many ways of appearing to care even when we are bored or disinterested. Generally we care about the things we own or are associated with and not far beyond that. The ideal Taoist lives a simple life and, as he has little or nothing to defend “the world is his oyster.” The sage is kindly disposed to whoever comes along.
All this is called “taking the female part”. This is the yin part in the dance of yin and yang. The female part is to receive and to nurture. The yang, masculine, part is left to Heaven. Heaven's doors swing open and closed unpredictably. Good fortune comes. Bad fortune comes. Who knows what next? The person before you may be a saint or a villain – the heart is hidden. We undertake things and sometimes it brings success, sometimes failure, but, as often as not, some completely unexpected result that was not on our original list of possibilities. We discover there was what we expected, what we feared, but also other things that had not entered out imagination. Heaven is like that and we do best to receive and nurture what comes our way without chasing the water that is now gone under the bridge.
So, the text asks, can we manifest these four attainments – can we take the yin part – without pretending. As soon as we are given a goal, even a Taoist goal, we are likely to start scheming how to make it appear that we are closer to the goal than others. We pose and put on airs. Humans have a greater capacity for dissemblance than any other creature. The ideal Taoist employs this dissemblance the other way: he presents him or herself as further from the goal than is actually the case. In the sage, the four attainments are manifest, but only to those who look carefully and who know how to look.
The second part of the chapter describes the Tao and so, by implication, also the sage. It is a picture of generous fertility: to generate without possessiveness, to nurture without becoming authoritarian. Nature gives rise to huge diversity and each goes its way. This is like the parable of the Dharma rain in the Lotus Sutra: the rain germinates and nurtures all manner of plants, big and small, each with its own inherent characteristics. The rain enables each to thrive in its own way without seeking to control or make them all fit into a standard form. The sage is like this, wishing only that all beings may thrive, each on its particular path. The sage is a mysterious belly of kindness.
Can you be at peace?
Can you have the resiliance of a child?
Are you free of bitterness?
Do you really care for all beings?
No matter what comes along, can you receive it graciously?
Is your real nature exemplary?
Generate and nurture
Generate but don't dominate
Nurture and set free
Be a mysterious belly of kindness.
It is difficult to read this chapter without suspecting some Buddhist influence. The earliest extant manuscript in which this passage is found dates to around 200BC. More fragmentary texts from around 300BC do not include it. This does not prove that it did not exist at the earlier date, but it leaves the possibility open. If this chapter was actually composed between 300 and 200BC, then it is conceivable that Buddhist ideas had arrived in China by then, though this is a long time before current scholarship generally dates the arrival of Buddhism in China, which is usually much closer to the beginning of the common era. However, Buddhism was a missionary religion from the outset, so it is not impossible for its ideas to have arrived in China during the third century BCE and become incorporated into Taoist practices for extending longevity, much as methods rooted in Buddhism are getting into our own culture and being used within popular psychology.