Tao Te Ching: Interpretation (7)

Translation:

Heaven is long-enduring and earth continues long. The reason why heaven and earth are able to endure and continue thus long is because they do not live of, or for, themselves. This is how they are able to continue and endure.

Therefore the sage puts his own person last, and yet it is found in the foremost place; he treats his person as if it were foreign to him, and yet that person is preserved. Is it not because he has no personal and private ends, that therefore such ends are realised?

Interpretation:

This, IMHO, is one of the most beautiful chapters of the text. It enunciates the true meaning of selflessness.

The sage has realized his essential nature, viz. that he is — and hence, isn’t identified with his own body. This relieves him from all attachments and preferences. Therefore, he never acts in favour of the part against the whole.

He does what is right in his own nature — which is also in unison with the whole. This is how the whole, including his own person, is preserved.

Epilogue:

This is beautifully illustrated in the Mahabharata of Krishna: on the Kurukshetra battlefield, Arjuna, the greatest of warriors, when faced with his own kith and kin, turns sentimental and refuses to engage in war with them.

That is when Krishna says that he is about to act not like a sage but like a cowardly fool, and reminds him that it does not become him to eschew his duty as a warrior (to protect the Dharma) and think from a place of attachment to worldly things.

Tao Te Ching: Interpretation (6)

Translation:

The valley spirit dies not, aye the same;
The female mystery thus do we name.
Its gate, from which at first they issued forth,
Is called the root from which grew heaven and earth.
Long and unbroken does its power remain,
Used gently, and without the touch of pain.

Interpretation:

This chapter is devoted to praising The Mother (Root Substance or Prakriti).

Tao Te Ching: Interpretation (5)

Translation:

Heaven and earth do not act from (the impulse of) any wish to be benevolent; they deal with all things as the dogs of grass are dealt with. The sages do not act from (any wish to be) benevolent; they deal with the people as the dogs of grass are dealt with.

May not the space between heaven and earth be compared to a bellows?

‘Tis emptied, yet it loses not its power;
‘Tis moved again, and sends forth air the more.
Much speech to swift exhaustion lead we see;
Your inner being guard, and keep it free.

Interpretation:

The wise man doesn’t act from any wish to be ‘good.’ He is forever true to his own nature and regards men as vessels for divine use.

The celestial space is similar to bellows — though containing nothing solid, it nevertheless never collapses.

Inversely, the inflated man is soon exhausted. Thus, than self-restraint there is nothing better.

Epilogue:

Ramana Maharshi was once asked what he thought of Hitler, and his answer was extremely surprising and dismal to most. He said, “Who knows but that Hitler is a Jnani, a divine instrument.” (For more, go here.)

Tao Te Ching: Interpretation (4)

Translation:

The Tao is (like) the emptiness of a vessel; and in our employment of it we must be on our guard against all fulness. How deep and unfathomable it is, as if it were the Honoured Ancestor of all things!

We should blunt our sharp points, and unravel the complications of things; we should attemper our brightness, and bring ourselves into agreement with the obscurity of others. How pure and still the Tao is, as if it would ever so continue!

I do not know whose son it is. It might appear to have been before God.

Interpretation:

As far as I understand, this chapter has two major lessons: the causelessness of Tao, and humility.

Tao Te Ching: Interpretation (3)

Translation:

Not to value and employ men of superior ability is the way to keep the people from rivalry among themselves; not to prize articles which are difficult to procure is the way to keep them from becoming thieves; not to show them what is likely to excite their desires is the way to keep their minds from disorder.

Therefore the sage, in the exercise of his government, empties their minds, fills their bellies, weakens their wills, and strengthens their bones.

He constantly (tries to) keep them without knowledge and without desire, and where there are those who have knowledge, to keep them from presuming to act (on it). When there is this abstinence from action, good order is universal.

Interpretation:

This chapter describes the correct way to govern a people.

Tao Te Ching: Interpretation (2)

On to the second chapter.

Translation:

All in the world know the beauty of the beautiful, and in doing this they have (the idea of) what ugliness is; they all know the skill of the skilful, and in doing this they have (the idea of) what the want of skill is.

So it is that existence and non-existence give birth the one to (the idea of) the other; that difficulty and ease produce the one (the idea of) the other; that length and shortness fashion out the one the figure of the other; that (the ideas of) height and lowness arise from the contrast of the one with the other; that the musical notes and tones become harmonious through the relation of one with another; and that being before and behind give the idea of one following another.

Therefore the sage manages affairs without doing anything, and conveys his instructions without the use of speech.

All things spring up, and there is not one which declines to show itself; they grow, and there is no claim made for their ownership; they go through their processes, and there is no expectation (of a reward for the results). The work is accomplished, and there is no resting in it (as an achievement).

The work is done, but how no one can see;
‘Tis this that makes the power not cease to be.

Interpretation:

This chapter is about the paradox of opposites, and says two antithetical ideas are opposite only insofar as they are existent (in the world of things), while in fact, being identical in reality. (For example, ugliness is merely a lower degree of beauty; modesty, a lower degree of rank; and existence and non-existence, merely states of being.)

The only way to accomplish everything is to realize this subtle truth and hence, to refrain from letting one’s speech or one’s actions side with one of a pair of such opposites (because that would lead to endless contradictions). This is attained by doing one’s duty without attachment to the result (known as Karma Yoga in Hinduism).

Tao Te Ching: Interpretation (1)

For a long time lately, I’ve been pondering the nature of Truth.

Man has wrestled with this subject ever since he has been able to think. We have profound meditations on this subject from every imaginable region inhabited by homo sapiens, several of which, due to their inaccessibility to the mere intellect, have been turned into systems of religion, complete with their own sets of rites and rituals.

This endeavour has branched into three primary areas (which aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive):

  • Metaphysics: On what is and what isn’t, what being entails, and the structure and interaction of everything that is.
  • Ethics: On the right way to be.
  • Epistemology: On the nature and limits of knowledge.

Tao Te Ching is an ancient Chinese religious text written by Lao Tzu. (For more information, go here.) It focuses primarily on the former two areas above.

The text is said to be extremely ambiguous and hence, difficult to translate and interpret. It is my humble project to try to interpret the text, following the well-known translation by James Legge. (I’m able to include the translation here, thanks to the fact that it is in the public domain.)

A separate post will be reserved for each chapter (of which there are 81 in all), and we shall include the translation of the chapter, followed by my (modest) commentary on it.

Let’s start with the first chapter.

Translation:

The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Tao. The name that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging name.

(Conceived of as) having no name, it is the Originator of heaven and earth; (conceived of as) having a name, it is the Mother of all things.

Always without desire we must be found,
If its deep mystery we would sound;
But if desire always within us be,
Its outer fringe is all that we shall see.

Under these two aspects, it is really the same; but as development takes place, it receives the different names. Together we call them the Mystery. Where the Mystery is the deepest is the gate of all that is subtle and wonderful.

Interpretation:

The word ‘Tao’ literally means ‘way,’ which is to be taken as the way (or nature or essence) of all that is. It stands for what is popularly known as Truth (or Ultimate Truth).

Truth may not be expressed in words (i.e. by a name) nor may It be conquered through action (i.e. following a path). It is formless, silent, without smell, tasteless, subtler than the subtlest and beyond description or analysis. Thus, It is absolutely simple and without existence, and therefore, not possibly a subject of knowledge.

Conceived strictly thus, it is the Originator of all that is. But if It were to be given a name, it would be apt to call It, The Mother (of all things).

This identity of the Non-Existent and the Existent is called The Mystery, which is the gate of bewilderment.

The only way to enter this gate is to be free of desire (and thus, see one’s own true nature). This is called Total Surrender. In the presence of the subtlest desire, all that will be seen is things born of It (viz. the subject and the object of desire), and never Itself.

Epilogue:

The branch of Hindu philosophy known as Sankhya is conceptually similar. The Nameless Tao is referred to as Purusha, while The Mother, as Prakrti.

Entering the gate is popularly known as enlightenment (and many other names such as Moksha and Nirvana).

A temporary glimpse of Truth is termed as Manolaya (lit. mind in unison), but true enlightenment is only achieved with Manonasa (lit. annihilation of mind). (For more, go here.)

Manolaya is the same as the state of Satori in Zen, and was called Peak Experience by Maslow.