LAO ZI: A PRACTICAL AND COMPREHENSIVE TRANSLATION

    CHAPTER I

「道可道,非常道。名可名,非常名。無名天地之始;有名萬物之母。故常無欲,以觀其妙;常有欲,以觀其徼。此兩者,同出而異名,同謂之玄。玄之又玄,衆妙之門。」

「道[way, road, path, method] 可[can] 道[way],非[is not] 常[permanent, always, normal] 道[way]。名 [name, concept, designation] 可[can] 名[name, concept, designation],非[is not] 常[permanent] 名[name, concept, designation]。無[be not, have not] 名[name] 天[heaven] 地[earth] 之[this, that, ’s (genitive particle)] 始[beginning, start];有[be, have] 名[name] 萬[ten thousand] 物[thing] 之[’s] 母[mother]。故[therefore] 常[permanent, always, normal] 無[have not] 欲[desire, want],以[thus, thereby] 觀[see in detail] 其[its, his, hers] 妙[mysterious, subtle, exquisite];常[permanent, always, normal] 有[be, have]欲[desire, want],以[thus, thereby] 觀[see in detail] 其[its, his, hers] 徼[border, limit]。此[this, these; in this case, then] 兩[both] 者[that which/who is~(the preceeding)],同[same] 出[exit, origin] 而[and, but] 異[different] 名[name, concept, designation],同[same] 謂[say, tell; call, be called]之[this, that, ’s] 玄[deep, profound]。玄[deep, profound] 之[this, that, ’s] 又[again] 玄[deep, profound],衆[all] 妙[mysterious, subtle, exquisite] 之[this, that, ’s] 門[door, gate]。」

"A way which can [act as a] way, is not a permanent (absolute) way. A name which can [act as a] name, is not an permanent name. That which has no name (which is not perceived) is the beginning (origin) of Heavens and Earth (the whole universe). That which has names is the mother of ten thousand things (all particular things).
Therefore, to be always without desires, is to see (understand) one’s mystery (hidden perfection). To be always with desires, is to [merely] see one’s [outer] limits. These both are of the same origin but of different names. [Their] sameness tells of [their] profoundness. Profoundly profound, a door to all the mystery (hidden perfection).”

A GLIMPSE OF THE ABSOLUTE

道:Way, road, path, system, method, which although itself is fixed, unchanging, it facilitates movement, change. This applies to outer (physical) roads as well as to inner (spiritual) paths. Both allow us to move somewhere but the main requirement for a path to be useful is be fixed and unchanging (at least within its realm). When we cook a specific meal of a specific taste, we won’t get it unless we stick to a specific set of ingredients and a specific method of using them.

名:Name, label, description is a tool we use for describing things, concepts, phenomena. Nevertheless, any names or concepts are made by us and us alone. When such a name or label is agreed upon by many people, we tend to mistakenly absolutize it (consider it an intrinsic part of the object itself). Names, labels, concepts are not a problem themselves for they are the only method of formulating and communicating anything to someone else. The biggest sets of collectively agreed upon names and concepts are called “languages”. A problem arises when we forget that our descriptions don’t belong to the things themselves but merely to our perception of them. (more in chapter II)

This first chapter explains terms and the goal of the whole text. If something is truly absolute, it has to be itself outside the influence of conditions, outside causality, therefore it has to lack any perceivable/describable qualities or properties (more in chapter II), in addition to being nonlocal (being everywhere at once; more in chapter IV).

Because one spreads themselves too thin by attempting to describe the indescribable, the best way to do so efficiently is perhaps through negation. It is a very simple and effective mean vastly used in Indian logic for describing abstract phenomena such as Awakening in Buddhism, etc. For example, if you need someone to bring you a specific tool from your shed with which they aren’t familiar, instead of overwhelming them with the tool’s difficult features or names, you can say “it’s the one which has no holes and isn’t blue”, or something like that. Similarly, in our case the text suggests that if we are to find The Way which is absolute and permanent, it must not be capable of bearing any labels (or describable properties), therefore even calling it “The Way” is basically a necessary evil and would be misleading on its own without the consequent explanation in the very first sentence of the whole text.

This analysis implies that such a thing exists and continues by suggesting how to “get closer” to it. Considering that if something which is truly absolute/permanent is there, it is definitely worthy of our interest and investigation, because due to its absoluteness anyone can fully lean on it and it never yields, never lets us down. However, since our lives are fully immersed in our own worlds of subjective perceptions, qualities and properties, our way of living is governed by the almighty “I want”. And since these perceptions are indeed purely subjective, by chasing after them we’ll glimpse only the outer edge of their true essence (not to mention our own) and not its “heart” which is well hidden beyond shapes and forms, therefore one might call it “mysterious”.

Hence if we are to glimpse such a mystery, we have to let go of our preoccupation with attachments to superficial forms and glitter.

What is it then? The key may lie exactly in its absoluteness. If something is truly absolute and hence everywhere, then necessarily it must be part of everything, including us and all our perceptions. The “profoundness” then perhaps points at this fact that even though we cannot directly perceive it (for it has nothing to be perceived), it is the intrinsic part of us and therefore we are not different from it. That sameness is indeed profoundly profound and by realizing it we may perhaps come to glimpse its true perfection which is thusly hidden from perception.

    CHAPTER II

「天下皆知美之為美,斯惡已。皆知善之為善,斯不善已。故有無相生,難易相成,長短相較,高下相傾,音聲相和,前後相隨。是以聖人處無為之事,行不言之教;萬物作焉而不辭,生而不有。為而不恃,功成而弗居。夫唯弗居,是以不去。」

"Under Heavens (in the world) all learn “the beautiful" as beautiful and thereby [learn] the ugly as well. All learn “the good” as good and thereby [learn] the bad as well. Therefore being and nonbeing produce each other, difficulty and simpleness complete each other, length and shortness compare each other, height and lowness lean to each other, tones and sounds balance each other, before and after follow each other. Thus it is not the wisest ones’ place to act on [mundane] affairs; they act but do not proclaim their teachings. Ten thousand things [already] created, they of course do not reject; they produce but do not possess, act but do not cling, complete their work, but do not dwell. For what does not dwell, does not leave.”

UNDERSTANDING THE RELATIVE

In the first chapter, the text by explaining about the universal, ever-present and indescribable, lays grounds for us to understand the relativity of the describable, so we won’t fall victim to the sneaky ghosts of our own perception. The second chapter explains how properties and qualities come to existence, which itself since they bear names must be purely relative (dependently arisen). The main key to how we perceive anything is purely by comparison. If everything in the universe were red, we’d have no idea, because we’d have no concept of color. Theoretically, if you ever meet someone who’s always lived on an island with no caves and houses, ask them about “outside”. Now you may have concluded that the text concludes that there is no universal “good” and “bad” and your temper might be already shortening. On the absolute level, you are right, since truly absolute can be only ‘cause and effect’ itself and everything is part of the ever-spreading tree of causality. HOWEVER, exactly because any quality, property and perception exists solely on the relative level, its relativity is therefore ABSOLUTE. And since everything we know, we know through perception, there are innate concepts for “good” and “bad” for everyone, since we all know what is suffering, same as every other sentient being, but this innateness doesn’t extend beyond that. As for what’s good or bad considering anything else, it’s purely conceptual.

The next item on the second chapter’s menu is the text’s archetype, which it describes as 聖人 [sage person] and I translate as “the wisest one”, as opposed to for example the confucian archetype 君子 [ruler’s child] “the one of character”. The difference between these two is perhaps the key to understanding the main message of the whole Laozi. In 君子 [ruler’s child], the first logogram consisting of 尹 [to govern, oversee, director] and 口 [mouth], points at someone who is a living exhibit of qualities that a ruler is supposed to have (in an ideal world), such as honor, character, benevolence, etc. This choice of terms is very precise and based on the confucian predicament that human nature seems to be inherently faulty and problematic and it’s therefore necessary to correct our nature and hold it in shape by a complex and binding system of hierarchy and rituals, otherwise there is no possibility for virtue to arise. Anything of that sort appears to be vastly nonsensical within the context of Laozi, when all of nature is built on “The Way” which is absolute and therefore lacks any concept, including faultiness. In other words, nature is never wrong, therefore there is no need to fix it and thus no attempt to do so may lead to happiness or benefit (more in chapter V). In the Laozi’s archetype 聖人 [sage person] the first logogram is built from 耳 [ear], 口 [mouth] and 王 [king] - which may depict someone who has control over what they listen to and say. I.e. they don’t fall victim to false perceptions such as lies and gossips, or selfish politics for that matter. One becomes such a person by realizing the true way of all things and thus understanding the impermanence and trickiness of taking perceptions as objective and identical for all. Therefore they choose not to “act” (the word 爲 means “to act in order to secure a specific result”), for they know that every action is but a single branch of the all pervasive tree of cause and effect, thus the final result of anything isn’t for them to decide, so they act through non-action (doing the best one can but not dwelling on any specific “acceptable” outcome; more in chapter III).

On the other hand, they profoundly understand that who does not realize it is lost in their own convoluted web of objectified superficial perceptions, which make us suffer and even hurt others in our mistaken attempts to ease our own suffering. Therefore if the wisest ones wish to truly help others, it might be better to do things that bring benefit but without explaining too deeply why, which due to difference of perceptions could lead to even deeper misunderstandings and adverse effects. So they naturally tend to stay away from fame and glitter, as well as machinations and intrigues, they do what they can but don’t dwell on impermanent things and thus they don’t have to leave anything behind.

    CHAPTER III

「不尚賢,使民不爭;不貴難得之貨,使民不為盜;不見可欲,使心不亂。是以聖人之治,虛其心,實其腹,弱其志,強其骨。常使民無知無欲。使夫知者不敢為也。為無為,則無不治。」

Do not exalt the worthy and people will not fight. Do not praise goods that are difficult to obtain and people will not steal. Do not show [off] the desirable and hearts will not be in chaos. Hence the wisest ones’ rule: empties their heart (desires), enriches their belly (spirit); weakens their will (to fight), strengthens their bones (endurance). Always care that people have no (excessive) smart[ass]ness and no (excessive) desires. Care that those “smart” people are not action-takers. [When] acting through non-action, nothing is ever without rule.

HARMONIOUS SOCIETY

The third chapter again builds on that which has been explained in the two previous ones, where the main topic was how to live meaningfully as individuals, and hence moves to the case of the whole society of people. Even though the wisest ones tend to choose to stay away from politics and worldly ambitions, their teaching is nothing but useful when it comes to managing states and societies, given the goal is to have a peaceful, harmonious and content society. If their main goal is exploitation for power and luxury, then not so much. It is truly no wonder why the first part of this chapter describes the exact opposite to our modern society’s drive. It is April 2021 and we can safely say that something that we are and have been doing seems to be working not as efficiently as one may have thought... Ironically, our status quo might serve as kind of an insight-enhancer into the Laozi’s words.

The next part brings sets of opposites - as a method of specifying nuances. Heart as opposed to belly points to desires, because in Traditional Chinese medicine, heart is associated with emotions and belly with consciousness. But in the same time it also suggests satisfying their needs and filling their stomachs. Will or determination (though usually a good thing) is here opposed to bones, which points to the will for exertion and strife against bone strength for resilience and endurance. It is indeed much better to be conscious, peaceful and strong than blinded, vengeful and weak (more in almost every chapter).

Next, to ensure keeping a harmonious symbiosis, the wisest ruler must take care of the ever present smart-alecks, who are lurking in the shadows, waiting for a chance to exploit any way that leads to power. It is indeed and uneasy task to manage a state and one must sacrifice a lot of themselves - apart from their wisdom and moral principles - which are on contrary often the first ones to go in our world... Again, no wonder why.

However, preventing those from taking action doesn’t necessarily mean their physical elimination - again and again the utter uselessness of violence and its validity only as the very last of last resorts is being emphasized tirelessly throughout the whole text (explicitly in chapter XXXI). Since the unhappier people are, the easier are they to be manipulated, the best way to protect them from potential dictators is perhaps doing everything one can for their happiness (as opposed to personal profit); if they sincerely keep acting through non-action - helping, supporting and caring with no desire to push their personal interests, the people will naturally recognize that and protect them back. In that care, no one shall be ever in chaos... If only we had this text some thousands of years ago... Oh, wait - we did. Nevermind.

    Chapter IV

「道沖而用之或不盈。淵兮似萬物之宗。挫其銳,解其紛,和其光,同其塵。湛兮似或存。吾不知誰之子,象帝之先。」

"Pour [anything] in The Way and it does not overflow. How deep it is! - as though it were the ancestor of ten thousand things.[It] softens its sharpness, unravels its disorder, dims its brightness, is equal with its mud. How profoundly tranquil! - as though it is to remain. I do not know whose child it is, it seems to predate the supreme one.”

THE ALL-ENCOMPASSING VASE

After a necessary introduction into the basic principles, the text moves back (forward) on The Way. When you set out on a journey, you begin by defining a starting point and a destination. But when these two are identical in space and time, there is nowhere to go to, for you are already there and always have been. When you wish to fill a vase, you take something from outside the vase and put it in perhaps until it’s full. However, if the vase already contains everything there is, how could it ever overflow? If the vase creates everything there is (and perhaps vice versa), there is nothing whatsoever which is separate from it to be put in, so the vase appears to be eternally deep. In another context, if something is absolute, it is also perfect (it has no attributes to be perceived, let alone imperfect), this is sometimes called “spontaneous perfection” or “suchness”. Suchness means that a thing itself is its own point of reference, hence it is perceived it as “such”. Perfection means that there is no way to perfect it any further, for it already is everything there is, so in a Way, it creates itself, therefore it may be called spontaneous (not that it cares either way though). This exactly is the reason why it takes the wisest ones to figure it out on their own, and why those old sages fully deserve such a title (not that they’d care either way though; more in Chapter XV).

As for The Way, every phenomena, every law and principle of nature is an expression of it, so there is nothing with which to truly contend, therefore no reason to show off or to impose, and thus attempting so would be futile. Since every exertion leads to exhaustion - directly proportional to its intensity and duration, if a sword is sharpened too hard or many times, its material is exhausted along with its qualities. Especially inner disorder or chaos requires a lot of extra energy and effort to be managed as compared to order and peacefulness. We all know those sayings: “live hard, die young”, etc. Similarly, The Way is everywhere so it needs not to shine too brightly for there’s no danger of loosing the way, neither it needs to attract attention - it really doesn’t matter whether people praise it with gold or smear it with mud, for it already is the gold, the same way it already is the mud. When there’s no preference, there’s no exertion, hence no exhaustion, therefore no reason not to remain forever. The wisest ones know this and although they exist within their relative, conceptual reality and composite bodies, by following its example as closely as they can, they live in accordance with nature, therefore may utilize much more of their existence’s potential and live perhaps much longer and fuller than those who exert themselves over everything (“Therefore, to be always without desires, is to see one’s mystery” Chapter I).

As for further details of the physics of the absolute, Laozi isn’t too much concerned with that, for the purpose of this text, is not strife for academical disputation, but a practical manual to a meaningful life. On the other hand, The university of Nalanda of the buddhist Mahayana tradition had long sparked a systematical analytical research effort into this very topic, which then spread all over its domains. Its based on the teachings of The Prajnya Paramita (transcendental insight) and formulated into many systems, such as Cittamatra, Yogachara and Madhyamaka.

Nevertheless, we are all part of The Way whether we realize it or not, therefore to become one with it we don’t need to exert any power - we already are. Hence by realizing the spontaneous perfection of all things, every reason not to rejoice spontaneously dissolves and we can live as one, we can live as such.

    Chapter V

「天地不仁,以萬物為芻狗;聖人不仁,以百姓為芻狗。天地之間,其猶橐籥乎?虛而不屈,動而愈出。多言數窮,不如守中。」

Heavens and Earth do not [act] benevolently, acting on ten thousand things [as though they were] straw-dogs. The wisest ones do not [act] benevolently, acting on hundreds of household names [as though they were] straw-dogs. The space of Heavens and Earth, does it not resemble bellows? Empty and [still] not crooked, [but] when it moves - it gives out more and more. Many words [spoken aloud lead to] exhaustion, which is not like protecting the center (balance).

THE WAY OF NATURE

In the commentary to chapter 3, we’ve touched the topic of the difference between Laozi and Confucian teachings, considering the approach to what’s natural and what’s not. Confucians presume that without artificial restrains such as social (especially patriarchal family) hierarchy, loyalty, respect for titles and ranks, benevolence, and so on, would society be in necessarily in chaos. Against this attitude is being systematically argued in Laozi, which appears to be also the point of this chapter. The Way of all things doesn’t discriminate, doesn’t hold grudges or sympathies based on perceptual merits. Doesn’t matter how wealthy or noble you are, gravity pulls you down the same way as it does everyone else. Rain, snow or hale avoid falling on neither those with resounding aristocratic names, nor billionaires, politicians or influencers. Dogs don’t hold their pee until they come across the nicest car in the neighborhood. For the nature, every thing has the same value, as though it were a dog-shaped figurine made from straw, which in Zhou times were used as a humble offering. Meaning it of course had its purpose in the context of everything else, but as for the object itself, it was far from irreplaceable, hence after serving their purpose, no one would cry over loosing them, nor would anyone build statues and compose poems to venerate their memory, apart from texts like this one, apparently... and thus from a different perspective, even those low-grade utilitarian straw-dogs can get a special suiting place as one of the key tool thanks to which one can deepen their insight into comprehension of The Way and by which they can find peace and harmony in being an equal part of the whole existence. Therefore when looking superficially (perhaps out of desire) we find in them no special value over everything else, for this way we cannot glimpse more than the outer limits of their true existence. On the other hand, when we look at them through a sincere observation that goes beyond these outer limits (not considering our preference for particular desirable properties), we can truly see them in detail as a product of The Way in which causes and conditions come together as the very building blocks of everything there is.

However, one should by all means not come to a conclusion that there was a social or political rivalry between these two schools of thought. Naturally, anyone who follows Laozi’s teachings and engages in such schemes, does so as the greatest display of hypocrisy. As for Confucians, they were sincere in their conviction that without a manmade perceptional virtue, the society would collapse in chaos, for they perhaps simply could not imagine that “lowly people” could ever truly grasp such a profound wisdom. That nevertheless didn’t prevent them from appreciating the depth of Laozi’s teaching. One of my favorite examples of this is master Kongzi (Confucius) himself saying: “To understand The Way in the morning and to die in the evening would be acceptable.” showing thusly his sincerity of conviction that true understanding of everything is the main goal of [his] life. He makes a similar point when asked by his disciple Ji Lu about death. Kongzi replies: “I have yet to know Life, how could I know death...”

To be fair, Laozi doesn’t try to hide the awareness that freeing one’s self from the shackles of desire which leads to realizing one’s oneness with The Way of all things and hence living in the spontaneous and effortless virtue, though fully feasible and perhaps even unbelievably simple for an individual, seems vastly unrealistic for the great mob of society as a whole, which is constantly self-steering their hearts as described in chapter 3. This is perhaps the main reason why not only Laozi himself after serving a carrier in a high position decided to recluse himself from the turmoil in the center of society into the peaceful harmony of solitude. But even though Laozi openly displays his doubts, for example in chapter 70: “My words are so simple to comprehend, it is so simple to act by them. Under heavens no one can comprehend them, no one can act by them” and again in chapter 78: “That the weak wins over the strong, the soft wins over the hard, under heavens there is no one who doesn’t know. No one can act by it.”, neither he nor other have given up on trying to spread the teachings among those interested for those are nature the ones to benefit the most from them.

Zhuangzi (who became famous for his way of using humor and seeming contradictions as tools to break through others’ icy rigid perceptional stereotypes) made a strong point that because understanding The Way is the key to a universally harmonious happy life, it must not require one to live in seclusion. He is said to have lived in a big city, having a divination stand at a market place, which he used as a pretense to make people listen to his teachings... Once he had enough for the day, he would close the curtains and continued by directly teaching about The Way to anyone interested.

A good example of the very point of this chapter might be when master Zhuangzi is asked by master Dongguo about where does the thing called “The way” exist. He responds by saying “there is no place where it does not exist”. Master Dongguo is surprised and asks for specification, to which master Zhuangzi says “It is in the ant...” making master Dongguo display even greater surprise that something (which he considers) as noble as The Way can exist in such a lowly thing. But master Zhuangzi is far from finished and continues by gradually naming many examples which are generally considered to be lower and lower still, culminating by saying “It is in the piss and shit”.

The space between Heavens and Earth (the whole world or the whole universe), does in indeed not resemble giant all-encompassing bellows which neither ever discriminate nor complain about their content and always give out exactly that which they took in? Although they might seem empty and uninteresting in a very superficial point of view of someone who perhaps out of desire for what they prefer can see merely the outer limits of content of their true existence, however they somehow (“mysteriously”) continue to give out more and more without exhaustion, as long as causes and conditions exist. Why is that? Because it’s all-encompassing, therefore it neither takes “in” nor gives “out” and that’s the key to its inability to tire, which may seem “mysterious” if we see only what we “want” to see and not its whole context. Again, we come to a similar point as was mentioned in the previous chapters - that exhaustion arises from imbalance. If something tries to give out more than it takes in, it becomes depleted, it cannot support its own action anymore. The same principle applies to speech itself. In this case the author literally says: 多[many, much] 言[public words/speech] 數[number, amount] 窮[poor, destitute]. The most interesting part in this is (in my opinion) the character for destitution (窮). It consists of 穴[hole], 身[body] and 弓[bow] and literally depicts someone trapped in a hole (perhaps of one’s own making) being shot at with a bow (perhaps even their own). After the events of January 2021 and what had led to them, I don’t think that neither this nor the rest of the chapter requires anymore explanation. Instead I leave it to master Laozi repeating himself: “My words are so simple to comprehend, it is so simple to act by them. Under heavens no one can comprehend them, no one can act by them”...

    Chapter VI

「谷神不死,是謂玄牝。玄牝之門,是謂天地根。綿綿若存,用之不勤。」

The valley spirit does not die - that is called the profound female. The profound female’s gate - that is called the Heavens’ and Earth’s root. On and on [they] seem to remain [together], without toil.

THE GREAT CONNECTION

There is always a lot of discussion about the interpretation of this chapter. Unfortunately, one simply cannot interpret, let alone translate preclassical Chinese without making assumptions. However there are some things which seems pretty safe to assume (although when it comes to perception, one can only speak for themselves, right...) Therefore I’m making the assumption that (for example) “the text fully works only as a whole”. Next one is that “the key information is present already in the first chapter and the rest serves as specification, explanation and commentary. That being said, it makes perfect sense that every chapter and every sentence and metaphor must be understood within the context of everything else (which, by the way, itself is the main theme on the whole text).

There are not many who wouldn’t have heard of the two aspects, potentials or roles of all things - 陰[Yin] and 陽[Yang]. The way they work is that Yang is gives and impulse or energy to Yin, which uses it as fuel to a product. For example, the sun gives radiation to the earth which then creates Life. A male gives semen to a woman who creates an offspring. A teacher gives instructions a student who uses it to create other things, etc. Basically every thing, every particle has both potentials within itself and each time things interact, they ideally do so by each assuming one of these two roles, whichever is most suitable at the moment. Interaction itself is then the key part of all, for without it, nothing could exist. The valley's spirit (神 can mean “spirit” “magical force” or “divinity”) which doesn’t die seems to be a truly elegant metaphor for gravity, because gravity facilitates interactions, thus indeed can be viewed as the profound (mysterious, beyond mundane) female who is the mother ten thousand things. The profound female’s door is the place where both the energy of Yang enters her womb and the child exits - therefore it represents the very connection of Yin and Yang which is the base of existence - how it couldn’t be called the foundation of Heaven and Earth? (根 [root, foundation] can also represent phallus, which is the means of the connection itself, therefore I choose the original meaning because it represents everything together.) When each subject taking part in the interaction assumes a role which benefits their nature the most, then the purpose of the connection can be fulfilled smoothly and gently and the product can arise effortlessly (in a theoretical, ideal case). The main point is that each time there’s conflict which always leads to friction/aversion the only product is exhaustion. This applies to every interaction whatsoever, including every fight or altercating, every dominant-dominant encounter. This text never ceases to point out that Yin the basis of all things, the aspect to which everything inclines, the one which is the true leader if you will, for it is the facilitator and the factory altogether. Yang is the one who provides charge, but Yin is the one in charge. A bulb without electricity still exists together with its full potential to create light and heat, merely waiting for its energy. Therefore when Yin and Yin interact, they easily become one, and when Yang and Yang interact, they easily deplete each other. About the implication of this, we will learn throughout the whole text.

Given the nature of the times when this commentary is being assembled, I feel more than obliged to address the sexual problematics in order to at least try to prevent misconceptions (pun not fully unintended). This text in any of it’s possible interpretation does not imply that same-sex affairs are against nature. The only thing it warns is that it cannot produce an offspring (in case you disagree, you are welcome to try to disprove it by experiment). However the last part of the chapter exactly implies that if subjects in the same roles(Yin+Yin or Yang+Yang) attempt to create a product (offspring), it will only result in toil which must lead to either recognition of failure or complete exhaustion, whichever comes first. Nothing more, nothing less.

    Chapter VII

「天長地久。天地所以能長且久者,以其不自生,故能長生。是以聖人後其身而身先;外其身而身存。非以其無私耶?故能成其私。」

Heavens [last very] long and Earth prevails. That which can [last] long and prevail as Heavens and Earth [do], does so by not living off itself, therefore it can live long. Thus the wisest ones [leave] their body behind as well as their previous [ties] ; [get] out of their body and [thus their] body survives. Isn’t it because [they] do not have personal (private) [interests]? Therefore [they] can [truly] complete their personal [interests].

SELFLESSNESS, COMPASSION, ALTRUISM

This topic seems to be almost inexhaustible, although at the first look it might seem strange why the wisest ones should shed their bodies and cut ties with their families, etc. That seems like something very sad and not very considerate towards both themselves and their close ones, right? Why they should get rid of their belongings and how that can even conserve their bodies and their existence... How could they then live and bring any benefit, right? Despite the seemingly strange phrasing and wording the chapter itself makes perfect sense once the relations are clarified a little bit.

The first sentence is somewhat challenging to translate because of its comparative nuance. 長 [long] also can be used for “seniority”, “the eldest” (son, daughter etc...), as well as a designation suffix of a leader in some cases. 久[to last a long time] although means something very similar in this case, when used after 長 [long], it makes it superior, therefore it suggests that Heavens are perhaps very close to eternal (at least from our perspective) and Earth (despite its physical nature) is in such a harmony that it may truly last and prevail. Again, this chapter builds on everything that has been said before. If something is to last, it must not exhaust itself by friction which arises from being dominant where its not suitable or needed and therefore in conflict. This chapter then specifies how exactly one avoids getting into conflict which leads to exhaustion culminating in demise. Therefore those who wish to last as long as Heaven and Earth, should thus adopt their Way[s] and by (truly) doing so they can be sure that even though they might not fully succeed, they may accomplish much more than they could ever dream of otherwise.

How does one “not live off themselves”? By going or getting past their bodies and dependences. The exact word is 後[behind, rear, after] which here serves as the verb of the sentence, therefore “to make something be behind or past (us)”. It obviously doesn’t mean that one should physically get rid of their body, but rather to accept them and move on, for the opposite of that is to keep obsessing with it. Once we start getting ensnared into the cyclic obsession with our selves, our bodies and our future, we immediately start to drain our life energy. Imagine an electric circuit where everything which is plugged into it shares the energy from the same power source, which is indeed so strong it can support energizing every part of it. Believe it or not, our lives, our minds are made to be part of everything else, so our “power source is indeed so powerful to support our mental connectedness to the whole world.

However, once we get attached to something in the future as well as the present which we want, the more we want it, the more we become focused on that one thing, and in case we indeed allow ourselves to become overwhelmed by this sneaky fellow called “want”, we wind up putting most of our energy output into the object of our desire, somehow being sub/consciously convinced that this way we can will it in our grasp more easily. Thanks to this ignorance of ours, we totally forget to mitigate our power output, putting more and more, which leads to over-pressuring our circuits thus experience anxiety. The more we engage in this unnecessary dominant conduct, the more we deplete ourselves which can lead to breakdown until we stop draining ourselves of life-force and let it recharge again. Once we get attached to something in the past, over which we are fully aware that we have no control whatsoever, we short-circuit again, becoming fully concentrated on our ego and its misfortune.

Our thoughts are racing either just regretting the past in which case we become depressed or worrying about the consequences of the past, in which case we are also attached to the future, so we add anxiety to the depression hence creating a truly delightful tournament. Among the contestants, we have many famous champions - just to name a few: “Why did that had to happen to me?”, “Why is everything against me?” “What’s gonna happen if I do/n’t...” and in the lead, the all-time champion - “Am I a bad person?”... As our attention is fully drawn to this thought-racing arena what has become of our mind, our thoughts are circling around an around in a race that has no defined end, therefore no winner and the only way it can ever end is by being forgotten. Sometimes we get bored with it, sometimes some fortunate circumstances startle us with a dose of endorphins other times we deplete our source and breakdown again. In that case, we should stop fighting ourselves at once, which will allow us to quickly recharge again.

All of the above has one common denominator, which is focussing on our ego, our thoughts endlessly racing in circles. Despite everything the modern society teaches us, our nature is inclusive, not exclusive. The only problem arises when we start worrying about our selves, therefore creating aversions. Thereby we might come to the conclusion that someone or something bothers us or blocks our happiness so we assume an adversarial stance, trying to dominate it, which is exactly the origin of aversion. Hence it all goes down as described in the previous chapters.

If we are to examine what is indeed the factor which separates us from other animals, it is our (sometimes) high IQ, our (sometimes totally suspended) compassion, our superior capabilities to solve (and create even more) complex problems. And where does this lead? Surely, we have evolved. We don’t fight just to stay alive, we don’t kill just for food, we fight and kill for money, and if you think about it, pretty much for anything. When we are overwhelmed, we get angry and jealous, terrified and depressed.

That being said, we the human species are (believe it or not) creatures of compassion, and the capability of universal compassion is the one thing that sets us aside the rest of species whose minds can be seen as purely instinctual. Our capacity for calculated decisions and controlling our instinctive emotional behavior is something truly remarkable and perhaps even worthy of our supremacy over the animal kingdom. Unfortunately we oftentimes strive for the royal seat of the king of beasts, instead of effortlessly assuming our proper place as the kind protector of the natural wisdom, caring for the weaker, unfortunate ones, instead of boasting and bragging over some imaginary fame based on acting exactly like that to which we consider ourselves so superior, hence falling victim to our own maze of subjective perceptional delusion which we may or may not share with a number of others, yet collective delusion is delusion nonetheless. All of which leads us only to attachment to our egos and bodies, which is the foundation, the actual arena where our thought-races take place. Therefore this attitude leads to exhaustion as described earlier and therefore is not in harmony with The Way of all things. Just a quick note: animals kill each other out of hunger or immediate danger, not out of sport or spite. And “Homo homini lupus” we should not take as a fixed rule which governs us no matter what, but merely as a warning not to forget what does our superiority over animals really mean.

If we live off our selves, we become fearful of our existence, which is the opposite of happiness, for happiness is not an essence but merely the absence of self-worrying, same as darkness is the absence of light, silence is the absence of sound and cleanness is the absence of dirt. When we wish to sleep at night, we don’t have to run to a store and buy us a fresh box of darkness and silence, we just turn off the light and noise-makers. Therefore happiness cannot be found, bought, or acquired in any other way, nor its necessary to keep it in the fridge, for it can never rot. The only reason we disregard this fact is because we confuse happiness with enjoyment. Happiness by its nature the constant and ever-present foundation of our mind, whereas enjoyment is fluctuating spike based on very limited range of temporary conditions.

As the text explains, by concentration and worrying about our selves, we effectively exhaust them. Therefore by not being attached to our selves, we will effectively protect them from exhaustion and thus preserve them. And how do we do it? By not keeping a selfish agenda - in other words: by being altruistic, compassionate. If we make caring for others our personal agenda, we avoid our own exhaustion by wrestling with our own ego which is perhaps not much different to standing in front of a mirror and hitting ourselves, or masturbating... As much as one can enjoy both temporarily, neither makes us truly happy and both require exertion and thus lead to exhaustion.

    Chapter VIII

「上善若水。水善利萬物而不爭,處衆人之所惡,故幾於道。居善地,心善淵,與善仁,言善信,正善治,事善能,動善時。夫唯不爭,故無尤。」

The supreme Good is like water. Water does good and benefits ten thousand things without contending, [it accepts even] places which everyone loaths, therefore it is almost [like] The Way. The Good (benefit) of dwelling is its place, The Good of heart is in its (all-encompassing) depth, The Good of gift is in its kindness, The Good of speech is in its truthfulness, The Good of righteousness is in its administration, The Good of [inter]action is in its capability, The Good of movement is in its timing. [All] that [comes from] just not contending, therefore there is nothing particular to it.

THE SUPREME GOOD

This chapter seems pretty much self-explanatory because again, everything which was said before was slowly building to it. Water is itself a very good example of non-discriminating benefit to every living thing everywhere and anywhere. I guess Laozi wouldn’t be surprised at all by our modern findings that water most probably was the solvent in which Life itself arose, therefore even though it may not be the mother of all things, it definitely seems to be the mother of all living things. Water itself never strives for recognition, has no personal agenda and every harm it has ever done was due to other causes and condition. Water has no intention to drown anyone, it has no intention to save anyone for it doesn’t contend, it doesn’t strive either way, on contrary, it indiscriminately offers itself anything that can benefit from it. This is because benefit is its innate quality within its realm. Therefore the true good or benefit always comes from the innate quality of a thing within its realm. When you’re choosing an apartment or house, you do so by its location, because of that innate quality of a dwelling. If you a house by something else, for example if you have two options, one is closer to your work and one is much farther but you choose it because in style its more to your liking (i.e. has a nicer view than the other one), it might bring you some limited pleasure, but ultimately it’ll cost you much time and gas, as well as perhaps sleep, because you may need to get up much earlier and travel farther to make it to work on time. Therefore when deciding the main purpose of anything, one should always take into account what real benefit does that thing bring them innately - just by the way it is. Everything else is forced, therefore creates friction, therefore leads to exhaustion, therefore isn’t sustainable... - we know the drill by now. The same goes for the innate qualities of everything else - if you appreciate someone for their shallow and ever-changing heart, opulent but ultimately self-serving gifts and untruthful speech, preaching morality with no intention of implementing it, screwing most of what they touch as well as untimely actions, it’s a clear sign that something is very very wrong and you should really think twice which way you vote next time.

Therefore, the wisest ones dwell on places where they can naturally be of most benefit, Their heart is deep enough to encompass everyone and everything without discrimination, they are always kind and acting in the way which truly benefits the others most, if they choose to talk openly, their speech is never divisive thus hurtful, they always do what is in true accordance The Way of all things, they choose to deal or otherwise interact with others only if it’s within their capability and skill, and they are never impatient and wait with every action and movement for the right time. How does one determine the innate benefit, “the supreme good” of anything? By finding what it does naturally without (or with the least) strife or friction. All of existence is based on the principle of the least action - there is indeed nothing more to it, nothing special, no necessary divine intervention, no magic, or anything like that.

    Chapter IX

持而盈之,不如其已;揣而銳之,不可長保。金玉滿堂,莫之能守;富貴而驕,自遺其咎。功遂身退天之道。

Grasp it and it overflows, [for] it doesn’t seem like stopping . Cover and sharpen it, it will not be able to hold for a long time. A chamber full of gold and gems, no one can protect ; [who has] abundance of riches and is haughty, brings fault on themselves. To accomplish one’s work and retreat one’s self is The Way of Heavens.

AVOIDING EXTREMES

This chapter again recapitulates the previous points, putting emphasis on attachment to the excellencies of life. The river of time and causality keeps flowing no matter what, therefore there is no point in trying to stand in its way or stopping it, it will flow right over you, possibly even dragging you along the way which you may not enjoy... If you have a precious valuable sword no matter if you keep safe covered in cloth, once you keep sharpening it, it’ll wear off eventually, there’s no point in convincing one’s self that it can last forever, even much less so to be attached to it the way it’ll hurt after loosing it.

Accumulating unnecessary wealth might be a way to temporarily distract our focus from the imminence of death, making us subconsciously hope that either we have a higher chance to escape it, or we at least have something substantial to pass on to our heirs (as if some thing were more valuable than a stable environment full of love and compassion, which we often sacrifice to get “something more”) but the only thing what it really does is attract the desire of others, which will necessarily bring you much much trouble, if you care to keep it. Friends you make using your wealth are more often friends of your wealth than yours.

On the other hand, if we have wealth and it makes us arrogant, selfish and dominant - the word 驕 literally consists of 馬[horse] and 喬[tall] therefore showing a horse standing on its hind limbs, we again act against the ever-repeating from the previous chapters, for such actions necessarily create conflict, therefore lead to exhaustion and fall.

Once our work is finished, to what more should we be attached still? What purpose is in keeping the lighter burning after the fire has already been kindled, other than wastefully exhausting its fuel or perhaps causing an unnecessary and undesired accident? What purpose is in rigidly holding on to a knife after the dinner has already been prepared? We always pay attention not leave the lights on when leaving the house simply out of care. Even the most thoughtful way of using anything including our bodies causes wear and therefore shortens its/our lifespan. When we are so fearful and unsure about death, why do we sometimes seem to be exponentially more considerate of the wellbeing of our phones, houses and cars, and in the meantime we are living in the way that is so exhausting to both our minds and bodies that we are quite literally draining ourselves of life-force. Not to mention causing in/voluntary suffering to others around us. Why?...

慧淨



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