Tao Te Ching Part II 道德经英文版

The whole world recognises the beautiful as the beautiful, yet this is only the ugly; the whole world recognises the good as the good, yet this is only the bad.

Thus Something and Nothing produce each other;

The difficult and the easy complement each other;

The long and the short offset each other;

The high and the low incline towards each other;

Note and sound harmonise with each other;

Before and after follow each other.

Therefore the sage keeps to the deed that consists in taking no action and practices the teaching that uses no words.

The myriad creatures rise from it yet it claims no authority;

It gives them life yet claims no possession;

It benefits them yet exacts no gratitude;

It accomplishes its task yet lays claim to no merit;

It is because it lays claim to no merit

That its merit never deserts it.

The whole world recognises the beautiful as the beautiful, yet this is only the ugly; the whole world recognises the good as the good, yet this is only the bad.

Those who are not Taoists often criticise those who are for following a philosophy or way of life that has nothing to say about morality. Will the Tao ever dictate that one course of action is more virtuous than another? Good and beautiful things contain virtue, evil and ugly things do not. If members of society hold moral viewpoints similar enough on a matter, then it may seem that the whole world recognises the virtue of a thing or action – so then how can a Taoist not recognise this same virtue?

Yet this verse expresses a strong unwillingness in the mind of a person who follows the “way” to recognise moral virtue or beauty. This unwillingness does not come from a desire to be sheltered from some aspect of reality, for instance morality. To be enlightened is to fully understand the universe, and this is the goal of a Taoist, so no aspect of the world should be ignored. The author’s unwillingness to acknowledge moral virtue must spring from some insight resulting from observation of the natural world.

What observation and insight could someone living in ancient Chinese society have make about the nature of moral virtue that could lead to such an attitude? Perhaps the same observation that can be made in any society that possesses moral values, from before the beginning of recorded history until today. This is that recognition of moral virtue is not universal.

At the same time, one group of people can claim to clearly perceive the moral virtue in a thing or event, and another group of people can claim that the same thing possesses no moral virtue. Furthermore, at different points in time the same group of people can perceive moral virtue in a thing or event, and then later fail to perceive any virtue in the same thing. Examples of such shifts in moral values are easy to find in the modern world.

Yet moral virtue, goodness, beauty, ugliness, evil – these concepts are by definition not in the mind of the beholder, they are inherent in things. Just as a thing may be green or soft or large or wet or cold or heavy, it may be good. If a thing is good then it will be good whether or not a person observing it acknowledges its goodness, or even if it is not observed at all. Why is it then that perception of good and evil, beauty and ugliness, is so varied and unreliable, across time and across social groups?

Either things possess moral virtue but our ability to perceive moral virtue is unreliable, or else things do not possess moral virtue in reality but only in our minds. We may assume that Taoist masters of ancient times found no reliable method to determine the moral virtue of a thing that would provide a consistent result across time and across social groups. However, it can be seen in the Tao Te Ching that there is scepticism regarding the existence of moral virtue in the real world at all.

For instance, if the entire universe is one connected entity, and perception of individual things existing independently within this whole is illusion, then how can any individual thing possess virtue in the mind of an enlightened person? To live as if something exists when it does not is to succumb to illusion and turn away from enlightenment. The goal of a Taoist is to turn away from illusion, towards enlightenment and the way.

Thus Something and Nothing produce each other;

The difficult and the easy complement each other;

The long and the short offset each other;

The high and the low incline towards each other;

Note and sound harmonise with each other;

Before and after follow each other.

The modern symbol of Taoism is the Yin Yang diagram. The diagram resembles two fish swimming into each other in a circle, one white and the other black, and each containing at its centre the essence of the other. The black and the white have been taken to represent forces of light and dark, order and chaos, but can be taken to represent any two things that are opposite. For instance, something and nothing, difficult and easy, long and short, high and low, etc.

What is the meaning of this symbol of Taoism, the concept of Yin and Yang? Let’s begin with something and nothing, swimming into each other, producing each other, each containing the seed of the other. If our solar system began as a cloud of particles distributed more or less evenly through space, then what if over time these particles were drawn together through gravitational forces into bodies of mass such as asteroids, moons, planets and Sun?

If we could observe this process then from a soup of space and matter we would see over time the formation solid things, and in this process of drawing matter together into heavenly bodies empty space would also be created – space empty of the matter needed to form our world and other worlds. Did the formation of the Sun and planets create the empty space around them? Or was it the emptying of matter from this space surrounding the Sun and planets that created these solid things?

To take a simpler example, if I dig a hole I create an empty space, a place that contains nothing. However, at the same time I create a mound of dirt, a solid thing in a place previously empty. Now let’s look more deeply into this process of something and nothing producing each other. In the case of our solar system, we can look at the beginning of the process and say, here is a cloud of particles floating in space. Then we can take a point in time where the Sun and planets are clearly formed and say, here is a solid mass floating in space, and here is another, and here is emptiness.

Then after the Sun has exploded we can look at the destruction left behind, at the place where our solar system was and say, here is a cloud of particles floating in space. The thing is, we have chosen points in time from which to make our observations that are consistent with a world view which proposes that things are different from each other, separated and not connected. Something is different from nothing, solid matter is different from emptiness. A cloud of particles distributed in space can exist, and can be to some extent solid and to some extent empty, but this is only a transition period.

Why is it that the point in time where the heavenly bodies are most clearly formed and most clearly separated from each other, and the space between them most empty, is not treated as the transition point, a state of affairs removed from normality? Why is the perspective which perceives the solar system as a single entity, a swirling and connected cloud of matter and space, excluded from our concept of what the solar system is? Why not pose this same question when considering our entire galaxy, or the cluster of galaxies we circle, or the universe itself?

Before I dig a hole, there is flat earth. As I am in the process of digging the hole, a space is gradually opened up in the earth below me. After the hold has been dug then rain may fall, and my pile of earth washed back to where it came from, eventually leaving flat earth again. Language says there was flat earth, then there was a hold and a pile of dirt, then there was flat earth. If we put aside language we see a process of transition, not divided into stages but flowing and connected. The earth, the dirt mound, the empty space inside the hole, these are not separate things.

The difficult and the easy complement each other;

Some things are easy and some things are difficult, most people would agree. However, no matter how difficult a thing, there is always something more difficult. No matter how easy a thing, there is always something easier. So something is only difficult when compared to something else that is easier, and vice versa. To see events and actions as being either difficult or easy, to categorise and name reality in this way is therefore unrealistic. In reality a thing always contains some difficulty and some simplicity, no action or event can ever be entirely one or the other.

The long and the short offset each other;

The high and the low incline towards each other;

This rope is long, that rope is short. However, there will always be a longer rope, and there will always be a shorter rope. This mountain is high, that valley is low. However, there is a higher mountain, and there is a deeper valley. Even on the summit of the highest mountain, a cloud may pass over your head. So, something is long only compared to something that is shorter, something is high only compared to something that is lower. All these concepts are relative and rely on the perspective of the observer.

Then what is the right perspective? Realise that reality is not divided into neat categories. A high place is always higher than some places and lower than others, and from a different perspective can be seen as low not high. Opposites are not separate, they form part of a connected whole. If you walk from a mountain summit down into the depths of the deepest valley, there will be no point at which you cease to be high and begin to be low. You will go through an unbroken process of altitude adjustment, a period of transition during which you will always be higher than some things and lower than others.

 

Note and sound harmonise with each other;

Before and after follow each other.

All things are connected. Events are not separate from each other but follow on in an endless process of causation and determination. Theoretically, the chain of causation leading up to any event can be traced back to the beginning of time. I may clench my fist and strike a person because I want to. But what has put that desire in my mind, and what process has given my body the strength to strike, and what process has brought us together at this moment?

Chains of causation may be considered separately from each other, events may be considered separately from each other, but an event can never be completely isolated from its environment, a single cause never completely separated from its surrounding and contributing factors. Before and after follow each other. The entire universe moves and unfolds, always in transition, bringing about all events within itself. Nothing happens for no reason.

Things may seem separate from each other, opposite to each other, black and white, empty and full but in time they always flow back into each other, into the connected whole. Even at that moment when things seem to be most distinct, as separate and opposed to one other as possible, each thing will contain within itself the seed of its opposite, and only time is needed for the illusion of separation to resolve itself. This is true even of life and death.

Therefore the sage keeps to the deed that consists in taking no action and practices the teaching that uses no words.

A Sage is an enlightened person connected with the Tao, with the ability to lead people and act with great effectiveness due to a deep understanding of the natural world. Why would a person with such power keep to “the deed that consists in taking no action”, and practice “the teaching that uses no words”? Firstly, to enter into a state of no action and no words is to enter into a state of meditation and connection with the Tao, which is not without value and essential to being a Sage in the first place.

Secondly, when confronted with circumstances that would normally motivate action, either for self preservation or to protect others, the way of the Taoist is to avoid confrontation and the use of force wherever possible. Rather, a Sage may bring about an outcome which is consistent with nature and to the benefit of the people by means so subtle it appears as if he has not acted at all. For to openly claim merit for actions, seek reward for good deeds or seek an improved position in society through achievement are not the goals of the Sage.

The myriad creatures rise from it yet it claims no authority;

It gives them life yet claims no possession;

It benefits them yet exacts no gratitude;

It accomplishes its task yet lays claim to no merit;

It is because it lays claim to no merit

That its merit never deserts it.

Where the author refers to “It” this is the Tao, the one thing that contains all things. In life there are many who would claim our respect and enforce authority over us through reinforcing the idea that we would not be alive, or would not continue to live, without their effort and favour, or who point out the many benefits we have received at their discretion, and then explain how we might repay our debt. Parents and relatives, employers, people in authority and others may make claims of duty on us in this way.

However, an event will never have one single and isolated cause. You work and your employer benefits you through payment, so you owe a debt of gratitude to your employer. However, your employer could not pay you unless the product your business produced was purchased by consumers, so you owe a debt to them. Also the product could not be produced without your co-workers, so you owe a debt to them. Consumers could not purchase your product unless their prosperity was sufficient, so you owe a debt to the government. Are there other events that have contributed to the benefits you receive as an employee? Yes, an infinite number.

Your mother gave birth to you, so you owe her a deep debt of gratitude. However, conception could not have taken place without your father, so you also owe a debt to him. Your mother could not have carried you safely from conception to delivery without assistance from the social network surrounding her, so you owe a debt to society. Neither your mother or father could exist without their parents, so you owe a debt to your grandparents. A debt to the medical profession for delivering you into the world. A debt to society for providing you with nourishment, education and a safe environment in which to develop. Never ending debts of gratitude in all directions, towards all those who have contributed to your creation, development and prosperity.

The more deeply you consider those factors and events that have made your existence, lifestyle and position possible, the more apparent will become the number and complexity of causes interacting to bring about your present situation. Furthermore, each of these contributing events was itself brought about, caused by something else. This process of cause and effect is endless, infinitely complex and goes back to the beginning of time. So where should gratitude be directed? Where is the entity that has originated all those factors necessary to bring you to your current state of existence?

The entity is the Tao, the Universe itself. Yet this entity that has given all living creatures life and has made possible all benefits enjoyed by all things claims no possession, and exacts no gratitude. All great events flow naturally from the Tao itself, yet unlike those who merely participate in events set in motion by causes beyond their perception, the Tao lays claim to no merit. If the entity that has ultimately brought about all that is through a chain of causation more intricate than any ever expressed by the human mind claims no possession over us, no merit or gratitude, then why should such claims made by a person merely participating in the final outcome of events already set in motion be respected?

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