Moved by Tao one returns
Used by Tao one is meek
All beings under Heaven are born from desire
Yet desire is born from emptiness.


Some translators render the last line “something is born from nothing” or, even “being is born from non-being” which gives it a more ontological or metaphysical ring. I have preferred to put it in a slightly more psychological way. The character 有 you, in ordinary Chinese, means "to have” and 无/ 無 wu means "to not have". They are very common terms. So we could take it that creatures are begotten because the parents want to have them and the desire to have them arises from not having them. This gives the verse a very prosaic, everyday, sense. Translators generally, however, see a more philosophical or spiritual meaning in it.

The notion of 无/ 無 wu (Japanese mu) has played a substantial part in the development of Sino-Japanese thought both in Taoism and in Buddhism. Thus in Zen/Ch'an wu is the gateway to enlightenment. The Wumenguan (J. Mumonkan) 無門關 is a famous collection of koans and the first is the Wu (Mu) Koan in which Zhaozhou is asked whether a dog has Buddha nature and he replies “wu”, adding, "because it has the nature of karmic delusion". Many Zen students have spent many years studying this story.

So we can take it that wu here in this very short chapter indicates something akin to the Buddhist idea of shunyata, the void, emptiness, which signifies the nature of mind prior to the arising of karmic delusion.

The first line of the verse can signify that the Tao moves in cycles, though one would have to add that no two cycles will ever be the same, rather as waves are cyclical movements of water, but without ever any perfect repetition. It can also signify that the person of Tao returns to the old ways. We have seen how Taoism looks back to a former age of plenty when all was in accord with the Tao. It can also, thirdly, indicate that the Taoist does not go far from his roots. He may take the yang role when it is necessary, but he returns to the yin position as soon as possible. When the battle is won, he does not revel in the glory, but simply goes home. Fourthly, returning can refer to death. We are all going to die, to return to where we came from, though not exactly. While we are in this realm of form we are blind to the other side, but Taoism is aware of the spirit world where we began and to which we return with whatever real learning or development we have experienced in this fleeting visit to what we unknowingly call the “real” world.

So the method of the Tao is to adhere to meekness. The weak shall overcome the strong. Meekness that is not a pose is a form of emptiness. The person lays claim to nothing. In this sense they are wu. It is because he lays claim to nothing that everything he actually needs appears naturally.

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