One looks at it and does not see it, so that it is called invisible
One hears it and does not understand it, so that it is called soundless
One touches it and does not grab it, so it is called incorporeal
These three characteristics of the transcendent
Mix together and say one thing.
It is the negation of the higher luminosity
And of the lower darkness
It is immense and insusceptible of name
It returns to what stands before (and above) being
Its form is the absence of form
Its figure is the absence of figure
If you look ahead, you will not see the end
If you look behind, you will not see the origin
In action now [as in every time = perennially current]
One follows the way of the Ancients
And one will know the eternal essence of the Principle
The ninth line can be understood both metaphysically: The Tao is before and above being – as well as in these terms, referring to individual beings: the Tao brings them back from the current of transformations to that which is before and above being (in the pre-formal state).
In the first lines: the Principle, tangible but elusive. Non-being, which is not the not-existent. This passage of Kuan Tze (XIII, 36) will be interesting, for the meeting of the attributes of the principle with the technique of realization:
The Tao is not far, yet reaching it is difficult … Empty and non-being, incorporeity and immateriality, that is called Tao. Heaven is empty, Earth is calm, neither one nor the other struggles. The I is discarded and falls silent: then divine clarity will persist in you. Who understands silence (p’u jen) and immobility profoundly will understand the essential drama of the Tao… If (man) will renounce craving, the emptiness (hsu) will entirely compenetrate him; compenetrated by it, he will remain calm and non-acting; calm and firm, he will take up contact with the vital ether; whoever possesses the vital ether is detached (from terrestrial form); detached, he will radiate light like a god (ming shen).
The Masters of ancient times
Were free, clairvoyant, mysterious, intuitive
In the vastness of the forces of their spirit they did not know of an I
This unconsciousness of the inner force gave greatness to their appearance.
To characterize them with images:
They were prudent, like those who traverse a stream of water in winter [ice]
Watchful, like those who know the enemy around themselves
Cold, like a stranger
Dissolving [elusive], like ice that thaws
Rough, like rough-hewn wood
Vast, like the great valleys
Impenetrable, like turbid water.
Who today with the greatness of his light could lighten the inner darkness?
Who today with the greatness of his life could reanimate inner death [inertia]?
In those men was Life
They were individuals and lords of the I
And their non-being [their emptiness=non-grasping, taking, or filled up in the figurative sense]
In them was perfection.
The characterization of the Masters of ancient times, models of Taoism, appear associated with the traditional idea of the regressive course of historical humanity, warned in a living way in the Far-Eastern world (a Chinese proverb says: “Antiquity was like a full laughter, we are like empty shells” – see also the reference of Lao Tzu to the “way of the Ancients” in Chapter 14.) It is about a teaching of general importance, and whatever in the Tao Te Ching reflects it, must not be related to merely local Chinese political conditions, to the decadence of the Chou dynasty, under which Lao Tzu would have lived, like the banal interpretation of different commentators or translators.
A living light endangered high antiquity, but some of its rays have reached us. To us it seems as if the Ancients lived in darkness because we see them through the thick fog from which we are emerging. Man is a child born at midnight: when he sees the sun rise, he believes that yesterday never existed” (Taoist text cited by R. Remusat). See Chuang Tzu (XXXIII, 1) “The ancients collaborated with the transcendent celestial and terrestrial influences, with the action of Heaven and Earth” (it is the concept, previously noted, of the Great Triad)
Because of their structure in the original, the last lines of the chapter are controversial. It essentially followed Ular’s reading as that which connects organically such lines with the rest and that maintains them at the level of the whole.
Whoever realizes extreme emptiness
Finds what exists unmoved and calm (beyond the changeable and the particular)
In the flux of countless beings
He sees them emerging [passing into the formal state] and proliferating
And like everything, they return to the root.
To return to the root means the state of repose
From such repose, a new destiny appears
This is the immutable law (of transformation)
Knowledge of the immutable law brings vision to clarity
Non-knowledge of the immutable law leads to blind and detrimental acting
Knowledge of the immutable law leads to detached impartiality
To be detached means to be superior
To be superior means to be regal
To be regal means to be like Heaven
To be like Heaven means to be similar to the Principle
To the eternal and identical
And he will forever be beyond harm.
The chapter often goes under the title kuei ken = “return to the root”. The two ways of which we spoke in the Introduction are briefly sketched out. On one side, the eternal law of the flux of transformations, of the “entry” and “exit” of beings, happens through what in the comments the image of being exhaled (exiting, being born, in the sign of yang) and inhaled (return, die, in the sign of yin) is also used, or that of the forward and backwards motion of a weaver’s loom (Lieh Tze). On the other side, the contemplation of this law, contemplation that begins detachment, and the perception of the immobile substrate of the transformation, that leads back “to the root”, makes the Real Man similar to Heaven and puts him outside of danger (only in the exoteric interpretation, from dangers and risks inherent in this unique way – esoterically: immunity in respect to that which may initiate the crises tied to the ontological changes of state).
It is good to emphasize that Taoism knows this double possibility, that therefore its horizon is not at all exhausted – as more than one commentary has held – in the eternal monotonous sequence of events of appearance and disappearance, of exiting and returning of beings, with a consequent fatalist indifference as the norm of wisdom. Lieh Tze (I,9) calls this “lower knowledge”. The higher knowledge concerns instead the knowledge of the Principle and reintegration into the root (indicated by Lieh Tze, IV, 2, in these terms: first of all deep union of the body and spirit, then integration of such unity in the forces of the world, brought from “non-being”, that is from transcendence. For whoever succeeds in that, says Lieh Tze (VI, 2), the existence in the current of forms appears like a long sleep, and death as the great reawakening from a dream (Chuang Tze, II, 8 and VI, 8: “You and I who are speaking in this moment, are like two unawakened dreamers.
Chuang Tze himself (XIX, 3, 2) says that those who, having the body and the spirit intact and united to nature, “having absorbed all its powers”, “has reached the starting point of the transformations and continues there”, to the self-production of the dissolution of the form “is capable of transmigrating”. He is not dissolved but, “quintessentially becomes the cooperator of Heaven”.
The people at the beginning hardly knew that there were (sovereigns)
Their successors (i.e., sovereigns) were loved and exalted
Their successors were feared
Their successors were despised
Their perfidy [lacking loyalty] destroyed all trust
The first, solemn, reserved in speaking
Fulfilled their function perfectly
And the ten thousand beings said:
“We are living according to our nature.”
Up until recent times in China the “invisibility of the Emperor” (because, by custom, he rarely showed himself alone) was an outer symbol of the invisible “not-acting” government. The text indicates the successive forms, always more degraded, assumed by the type of the leader. First of all “distance” fails (the first principle was: “he exercised an influence, only keeping himself distant”). The sovereign is visible and “popular”: he loves popularity and needs it. This prestige is not based on the feeling of distance, but on that of closeness to him of the governed mass; for this reason he is loved. In the third case the type of the prince follows, who governs only because he is feared. We finally reach the leader who is feared and despised at the same time, failing every relationship of loyalism and mutual fidelity, and the structure of a State reaches the limit of instability.
The sovereign of the origins, “whose power derives from that of the Principle”, was called “The Mysterious One” – says Chuang Tze. He transmits the influence of the Principle to all beings, making their natural capacities develop in them; at the origin his “politics” consisted “in leading the individual nature of being back to conformity with the universal acting virtue.” (XII, 1-10) The general idea is summarized rather well by Granet (La pensée chinoise, p 547) in the following terms:
For the benefit of all things, but without charity nor pride, he is limited to concentrate in himself an intact Majesty … this sovereign Majesty is not distinguished from pure Power nor from integral knowledge (i she) … An unknown Autocrat, he does his work without anyone noticing it, and this work is accomplished without affecting in any way the one from which it emanates.