Considering things completely in the abstract,
with no bias nor personal interest,
I can perceive the repeating patterns
as all things act and grow together,

Though beings are myriad
each returns to its root.

This section tells us that there are discernible patterns in the unfolding of things that can be known if one is not swayed by personal investment. The first two lines, if translated very literally, come out as
Take to utmost emptiness
guard stillness sincerely

The emptiness referred to is emptiness of personal bias and the stillness is that of one's own passions that might distort one's judgement. One could take this as a reference to a certain kind of meditation, but it is almost certainly a mistake to think that it refers to a formal sitting practice or technique. What is being referred to is a way of viewing the world.

Since things affect one another and give rise to new things, forming and informing one another, there emerge repeating patterns and these can be known. We can see a close relationship between this way of thinking and the philosophy of the I Ching. Whether one is talking about a herd of cows, the people in a family or the population of a nation, there are certain patterns of group dynamics that occur over and over and if one understands these patterns, then as you see certain tendencies building up, you know broadly how it will end and how that will transform into something else.

We can also liken this to the waves on the sea. There is never exact repetition - each wave is unique - but still there is a discernible pattern in how the waves approach the shore on a particular beach in particular weather conditions. One can sense the relationship between the conditions and how they unfold in the phenomenon.

This all happens because things have a root nature. Waves act as they do because of the nature of wind and that of water. Things may appear in diverse forms, but they tend to be true to type in the long run and the ways that they act on one another are broadly understandable.

There is also here implied advice. If one can see such patterns in one’s own life, then one can get to know better one’s root nature and thus avoid undertakings that are bound to fail.

Some patterns are universal. Even though each individual is unique, some tendencies assert themselves whenever the corresponding conditions obtain. This is rather the way that statistics reveal patterns in a mass of people even though not every individual necessarily follows the pattern.

The passage advises us of the value of being able to regard things objectively without personal bias. It is thus a teaching of non-self. It tells us that there are patterns to be seen when one takes a step back and sees the bigger picture.

One can also read the Chinese as saying that when I am still and at peace through reading the pattern of things, then this allows others to return to being natural. We rescue others by getting self out of the way.

不知常, 妄作凶。

Returning after absence is known as peace.
Being peaceful is known as coming back to life.
Coming back to life is known as being ordinary.
To know ordinariness is radiant.
Those who do not know it pretentiously put on airs. How inauspicious!

This section follows on from the phrase “returning to its root”. Taoism recommends returning to one’s roots, both in the sense of going back to one’s old home and following the old ways and also in the sense of returning to one’s root nature. These things bring peace. They bring us back to life. This philosophy is opposed to wandering far away and putting on false appearances. It is a warning against trying to be too clever.

The person who is at home in his own valley is ordinary. Yet this ordinariness is rather special, because most people do not want to be ordinary. Most people resist taking on their ordinary nature and secretly regard themselves as something special. Simply performing one's duty without fuss is commonly considered dull, but the people who accept their own nature and that of the world naturally attain to a state of peace and harmony. This praise of ordinariness is quite similar to the recognition of bombu nature in Pureland Buddhism.

The person who is at ease in his or her ordinariness is actually radiant. We might say that such a person is at home in his body or that she is at home in her world. Such a person is a shining example. In his or her unpresumptious manner one feels at ease, troubles are allayed and calm returns. This is not an artificial or enforced quietness, but a state of being naturally at ease. Those who lack such ease - and they are legion - put on airs and pretend to be what they are not, but this is inauspicious and only brings trouble.


Knowing ordinariness, one is accepting,
accepting, then noble,
noble then kingly,
kingly then heavenly,
heavenly then in the Tao,
In the Tao then eternal.
Physical death carries no danger.

This passage tells us of the nobility of the truly ordinary person and about how such people not only provide the best example, they also have a spirit that transcends ordinary physical life. The noble person is one who takes things in his stride. He or she is not flustered by obstacles or mishaps. They are not at war with themselves nor others. This is how a ruler should be, big-hearted, magnanimous, of wide vision, quick to understand but slow to act, taking great care. It is the way of heaven. To follow the way of heaven is to be in tune with the Tao. This overcomes mortality. The heroes of the Taoist religion are called immortals. They have no fear of physical death because their spirit is in harmony with the eternal.

This passage equates what most people think of as the lowest and most mundane with what they consider highest and most divine. In Taoism, it is the ordinary person who shines and the ordinary ways that manifest eternal truth and it is the person who is in tune with the basic nature of things who is also in tune with the divine.

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