The Tao is not substance, it is inexhaustible activity
Acting does not increase it
As it is unfathomable!
It is like the primordial source of all things.
It blunts the sharp
It clarifies the confused
It dims the bright
It orders the elementary parts [“powder”] (of matter)
It is elusive and yet omnipresent
How could it have been begotten?
It is anterior (and superior) to the Lord of Heaven
The insubstantiality (“emptiness”) is emphasized, the pure activity of the Principle, that neither expands nor diminishes it (therefore in opposition both to the theory of “becoming” of the Spirit, and to that of its deterioration through emanation). The Taoist image is also that of a vase that, while turning continually, what it contains remains full and in order to fill itself, still remains empty. “Primordial source” is the abstract meaning of tsung in the text, which is literally ancestor, the original father. If the image is conserved, given the part of the regulator typical of the Chinese head of the family, in the fourth line, following some translations, the idea of an ordering power can also be included. Then a natural connection is established with the four successive lines that are about the action of the Tao.
For Taoist metaphysic, the two last lines are important, where the principle is called “without origin” – wu yuan – superior and anterior to the King of Heaven (the Shangdi), i.e., to the personal God. In this passage a certain circumspect way of expressing itself was emphasized linguistically, due to the part that the Shangdi had in the cult of the State under Chou’s dynasty, when the Tao Te Ching was composed. It is like that through a concern for that conception of exoterism. But in the Introduction, we noted the irrelevance of the personal, theistic and anthropomorphic conceptions of the divine to the primordial tradition of the Far East, taken up in its abstract, metaphysical orientation by Lao Tzu. Chuang Tzu (II,3) makes clear that one can admit the principle of a universal regulator (from which the principle of every unity, family, people, etc. derives through participation) but on condition that one does not make a distinct personal being out of what is intended “as an influence without a comprehensible form”.
The Universal [Heaven and Earth] is not humane [compassionate]
All things (products) use them as means
True Men are not humane (jen)
Beings use them as means
(Like) emptiness between Heaven and Earth [in its Virtue]
The Principle is like a bellows
It is emptied yet unexhausted
Even if creating inexhaustibly with its motion
(Thus) it is vain to multiply words and projects (in the care for individuals)
Keeping in the middle is the best
In the word translated as “means” (second and fourth lines) is literally “straw dogs” (ch’a kou), likenesses fabricated in ancient China for certain rites and then abandoned, thrown away. It wants to express that the Absolute considers individuals only as a universal function, i.e., as a function of that which transcends them, for every other verse, that is for what are simple ephemeral apparitions in the current of forms, the Principle not taking care of them (non-humanizing), against the religious conception of Providence and the God of Love.
Since he reproduces in himself the detached quality of the Principle, the True Man likewise ignores human concern, even as the Confucian jen (sympathy, sociality), from some Taoist comments called the “small virtue” or the “lower virtue”. In the last two lines, in word and action in view of the particular as such, the action from the “center” is counterposed, that is to say, from a neutrality free from preferences and sentimentality, in view not of part, but of the whole, of the Universal. It makes the virtue of the Tao from the model, which even if producing inexhaustibly remains “empty” (image of the bellows), that is, pure simple, “free from the I”. See Chuang Tzu (V,2) who says, referring to Wang t’ai, whose influences “derive from its transcendence”: Reaching perfect impassability “lf beings evolve according to their destinies and maintains himself as the immobile center of all fates” (as in another passage, II, e, it is said, of the Principle: “The immobile center of a circle on the circumference of which run all contingencies, distinctions, and individuals” since “there are two ways to consider beings, as distinct individuals or as all in a great whole”. It is the imperturbability of a spirit that, “higher than heaven, earth, and all beings, lives in a body. Absolutely independent, he is lord of men”.
There are those who have wanted to see the reflection of a cold Machiavellianism without scruples in the ideas just expressed. Also the descent down to the political plane that could be right only if the reference point was a powerful individual’s will to dominate, that is, the intensification of a particular I who, on the contrary, is the first thing that True Men destroy in themselves.
About the last line, we read also in the Chung Yung: “To maintain the middle path is perfection, but there are very few in the world who can keep it”. That is to say, the metaphysical meaning is opposed to that of moderation, of the practical “golden mean”. About the noted relativity of the divergence of the views of Las Tzu and Confucius, we can cite, still in the same context, the following passage of the latter: “Who rules according to the virtue of Heaven resembles the polar star: it is immobile, but all revolve orderly around it” (Lun you, II, 1 [Analects]).
The energy of middle space [the valley] is eternal
It is the Mysterious Female
The gate of the Mysterious Female
Is the root of Heaven and Earth
Continuous and invariable
It acts and does not exhaust itself
There is a possible interaction in this chapter of the doctrine of the Tao with residues of the archaic conception of the primogenial maternal Feminine (Magna Mater Genitrix, i.e., Great Mother). “The Power of middle space” — literally in images: “vital force (or spirit) of the valley”. The valley, understood as the space between two mountain ranges, goes back to the idea both of Emptiness and of the central space where the virtue of the principle is manifested, in the eternal emanation and transformation (contrary to the meaning of the valley – and of the feminine – in chapters 61 & 66).
The gate with two shutters in some commentaries referred to the Principle that acts through the Dyad, the yin and the yang. The whole does not become clear because here the idea of Virtue is superimposed, in a certain way, onto the idea of the Principle. Finally, it has to do with the etheric fluid (chi). This is one of the more convoluted chapters, explained in various ways. It is also about those things that were made objects of esoteric interpretation in operative Taoism, with reference to the human being occultly considered. Characters were used with technical significance whose meaning is difficult to track down. As a hint to interpretations of this type, the Mysterious Female is the principle or energy of the yin soul (po) from which those who seek corporeal immortality much extract and coagulate the subtle essence. The gate with two shutters alludes to the nose. The allusion to the technique of breath is learned from the last two lines: “for long, long stretches one breathes as if one wished to hold the breath, remaining immobile” (see J J M DeGroot, Universismus, Berlin 1918, pp 110-111). The Mysterious Female is the “interior woman”: “she is continually in us”, says Kuan Tzu.
The Universal is eternal
It is eternal
Because it does not live for itself
Therefore: The True Man
By retreating, he advances
By remaining outside, he is always present
By not acting for himself, the center
Although the characters used in the first line are “Heaven and Earth”, here they express the idea of totality, and it is not the “nameable”, qualified Principle, that is referred to here but to action that makes it eternal: it “is” in the transcendent sense since it is denied.
The word “retreating” = not to put in front of himself. Reproducing in oneself the way of the Tao, the True Man advances, rises transcendentally, as the absolute individual in so far as he does not make his human individuality the center (it can also be translated: not having person – inclinations of person — becomes person, he obtains a persona). Technical Taoist expressions: “to drop the persona like a habit”.