Good people of old
penetrated subtle mysteries.
They were indecipherably deep.
The ordinary person cannot understand.
They contained actions that were instances of power.
They had great energy as if wading a river in winter,
Were wily as if wary of their neighbours,
Respectful as if guests,
Yielding like melting ice,
Like uncarved wood,
Like a valley,
Like dark, deep water.
Who can, by persistent polishing, bring out the sheen of dark jade?
Who can, by persistent stillness, bring clarity from murky water?
Who can, by persistent cultivation, bring peace?
One who protects this Tao does not desire excess, believes in incompletion.
As he would rather remain hidden, so he is renewed.
This chapter is in two halves. The first half describes the characterisatics of “people of old” who are the exemplars of the Taoist way. The idea of things of old does not here just refer to ancient history, but implies being close to original nature. Thus the first sentence could be construed as “people good at being close to original nature penetrate subtle mysteries”. The text contrasts such “deep” people with shallow ordinary people caught up in worldly concerns. It then gives a list of similes that can be used to describe the character of such people. This is a kind of check list, itemising metaphors commonly used in Taoism.
Such people have great energy as if wading a stream in winter. Wading across a stream in winter is difficult. The stones beneath your feet are treacherous and likely to move. The current is difficult to judge. One has to be extremely careful and make sure each step is secure before taking the next one.
They are wily, as if wary of their neighbours. When you cannot trust the people around you, you have to take precautions and watch out. This is a bit like the Buddha saying that the world is on fire and one must be careful not to get burnt.
They are respectful, like a guest. A good guest conforms to the customs of the house, does not make trouble and does not insist on having things the way he is used to having them. He is flexible and accommodating and makes life easy for the host.
They are yielding like melting ice. When ice is about to thaw, it breaks easily. This is a metaphor for giving way, for not being hard or confronting.
They are like uncarved wood. This is a much used Taoist metaphor indicating being in a natural state, unpolished and not made into something by others. The Taoist ideal is to stay close to one's original nature and not fashion oneself into a social performance. The natural grain of wood is its most beautiful feature, even when it is twisted. The wood could be planed smooth but this would not be more beautiful.
They are like a valley. This is another favourite Taoist idea. The valley is the lowest land, yet the most fertile. It is not prominent, yet it is most hospitable. It is not outstanding like a mountain, yet all the waters of the mountains naturally flow into it. By being lowest it receives most and gives most.
They are like dark, deep water. So this section ends as it began with depth and mystery. Such a person is not shallow nor frivolous. It is not easy to see into their depths, but one is aware that the depths are there. They contain a great deal of wisdom, but make no show of it.
The second half of the chapter begins with three rhetorical questions. These speak of patience and application. By long gentle persistence things are transformed in the most ideal way. Taoism is not in favour of quick fixes nor sudden revolutions. Things take time, and, especially, things of quality are the product of perseverance, tenacity and diligence. Taoism cultivates staying power as the basis for a worthwhile life. Polishing jade is a good metaphor for bringing out the inherent beauty of something by persistent care and attention. Bringing clarity to murky water by stillness is a well known metaphor for allowing heightened emotions to settle. It is also part of the idea that if one still the onward rush of ideas in one's head, a natural wisdom and clarity will naturally appear. All this is in the service of making one's life and instrument of peace for self and others.
Finally, we have two pieces of advice. The person of Tao believes in incompletion. The penultimate line could be rendered simply "incompletionism" and this could be taken as a term for an important aspect of Taoist philosophy. He is not all the time trying to reach a destination. Travelling is hindered by arrival. Taoism is not about forcing a result. Results come naturally when one does not seek them.He is in the middle of doing whatever life presents him with and doing it carefully, modestly, intensely and meaningfully, but is not in a rush to get to the end.
The Taoist might be required to act or occupy a prominent position, but he would rather not. It is because he is not pushing himself forward that he survives and is nurtured by the universe. As he does not seek anything for himself, so he is naturally renewed.
Thank you Dharmavidya