We look at it, and we do not see it, and we name it ‘the Equable.’ We listen to it, and we do not hear it, and we name it ‘the Inaudible.’ We try to grasp it, and do not get hold of it, and we name it ‘the Subtle.’ With these three qualities, it cannot be made the subject of description; and hence we blend them together and obtain The One.
Its upper part is not bright, and its lower part is not obscure. Ceaseless in its action, it yet cannot be named, and then it again returns and becomes nothing. This is called the Form of the Formless, and the Semblance of the Invisible; this is called the Fleeting and Indeterminable.
We meet it and do not see its Front; we follow it, and do not see its Back. When we can lay hold of the Tao of old to direct the things of the present day, and are able to know it as it was of old in the beginning, this is called (unwinding) the clue of Tao.
The Tao is termed Brahman in Hindu philosophy and there is a hymn called Nirvana Shatakam (due to Adi Shankara) which describes it. For more, go here.
Favour and disgrace would seem equally to be feared; honour and great calamity, to be regarded as personal conditions (of the same kind).
What is meant by speaking thus of favour and disgrace? Disgrace is being in a low position (after the enjoyment of favour). The getting that (favour) leads to the apprehension (of losing it), and the losing it leads to the fear of (still greater calamity):- this is what is meant by saying that favour and disgrace would seem equally to be feared.
And what is meant by saying that honour and great calamity are to be (similarly) regarded as personal conditions? What makes me liable to great calamity is my having the body (which I call myself); if I had not the body, what great calamity could come to me?
Therefore he who would administer the kingdom, honouring it as he honours his own person, may be employed to govern it, and he who would administer it with the love which he bears to his own person may be entrusted with it.
Following the idea preached in chapter 2, favour and disgrace, honour and calamity and such are but two sides of the same coin. The one with a personality may rule for a time, but the one without may rule forever.
Colour’s five hues from th’ eyes their sight will take;
Music’s five notes the ears as deaf can make;
The flavours five deprive the mouth of taste;
The chariot course, and the wild hunting waste
Make mad the mind; and objects rare and strange,
Sought for, men’s conduct will to evil change.
Therefore the sage seeks to satisfy (the craving of) the belly, and not the (insatiable longing of the) eyes. He puts from him the latter, and prefers to seek the former.
Indulgence in pleasure through the five senses, and running after captivating objects that are difficult to obtain, harm the body and turn the mind evil. Therefore, all the wise man cares about is fulfilling his basic needs, viz. food, clothing and shelter, and once these are reasonably met, he contents himself with his lot.
This chapter reminds one of one of UG Krishnamurti’s popular sayings:
“If you need anything beyond food, clothing and shelter, that is the beginning of self-deception.”
The thirty spokes unite in the one nave; but it is on the empty space (for the axle), that the use of the wheel depends. Clay is fashioned into vessels; but it is on their empty hollowness, that their use depends. The door and windows are cut out (from the walls) to form an apartment; but it is on the empty space (within), that its use depends. Therefore, what has a (positive) existence serves for profitable adaptation, and what has not that for (actual) usefulness.
This chapter is a metaphor that implies the utility of a man in the greater order of things (and hence his suitability to the latter) is only insofar as his non-existence, i.e. the degree to which he has subdued his ego (and thus realized his true nature, which is non-existent). In other words, a man who has successfully annihilated his ego, is holy, a perfect divine instrument.
When the intelligent and animal souls are held together in one embrace, they can be kept from separating. When one gives undivided attention to the (vital) breath, and brings it to the utmost degree of pliancy, he can become as a (tender) babe. When he has cleansed away the most mysterious sights (of his imagination), he can become without a flaw.
In loving the people and ruling the state, cannot he proceed without any (purpose of) action? In the opening and shutting of his gates of heaven, cannot he do so as a female bird? While his intelligence reaches in every direction, cannot he (appear to) be without knowledge?
(The Tao) produces (all things) and nourishes them; it produces them and does not claim them as its own; it does all, and yet does not boast of it; it presides over all, and yet does not control them.
This is what is called ‘The mysterious Quality’ (of the Tao).
This chapter talks about one way of perfection, viz. pointed concentration on the breath (until all one can feel is the breath).
A man who can achieve this permanently will have lost his ego and thus, become one with the All. Such a man has no imagination because he is perfectly in tune with reality as it is.
To all external appearances, he will be but a fool. However, he has unlocked the greatest treasure there is, viz. his own being.
Such a man is perfectly fit to complete the daunting tasks of nature, such as ruling the people.
Ramana Maharshi says breath control is temporary, and there are only two permanent methods to completely annihilate the mind:
- Self-enquiry, viz. diving deep into one’s own heart to find out who it is that one knows to be ‘I.’ (This is also termed the Jnana Marga.)
- Total surrender to the Lord, in the spirit that He is the sole doer (of everything that is done by or happens to the body) and that whatever He wills is right. (This is also termed the Bhakti Marga.)
It is better to leave a vessel unfilled, than to attempt to carry it when it is full. If you keep feeling a point that has been sharpened, the point cannot long preserve its sharpness.
When gold and jade fill the hall, their possessor cannot keep them safe. When wealth and honours lead to arrogancy, this brings its evil on itself. When the work is done, and one’s name is becoming distinguished, to withdraw into obscurity is the way of Heaven.
This chapter enunciates the values of emptiness, dullness, modesty and obscurity.
The highest excellence is like (that of) water. The excellence of water appears in its benefiting all things, and in its occupying, without striving (to the contrary), the low place which all men dislike. Hence (its way) is near to (that of) the Tao.
The excellence of a residence is in (the suitability of) the place; that of the mind is in abysmal stillness; that of associations is in their being with the virtuous; that of government is in its securing good order; that of (the conduct of) affairs is in its ability; and that of (the initiation of) any movement is in its timeliness.
And when (one with the highest excellence) does not wrangle (about his low position), no one finds fault with him.
In this chapter, eternal virtue is being compared to water.
This reminds us of a famous quote by Bruce Lee:
“Don’t get set into one form, adapt it and build your own, and let it grow, be like water. Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; You put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”