LAO ZI: A PRACTICAL AND COMPREHENSIVE TRANSLATION
"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.
"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.
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.
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.
"Pour [anything] in The Way and it does not overflow. How deep it is! - as though it were the ancestor of ten thousand things. Softens its sharpness, unravels its disorder, dims its brightness, is equal with its mud. How profoundly tranquil! - as though it were to remain. I do not know whose child it is, it seems to predate the supreme one.”
FILLING A FORMLESS 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.
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 pull 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 piece itself, it was far from irreplaceable, hence after they serving its purpose, no one would cry over loosing them, nor would they 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 to which one can deepen their insight into comprehension of The Way and by which they can find piece 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”...