Thursday, 16 December 2010

Emptiness (Lao-Tzu)

Verses 4-7 of the Tao Te Ching, based on the Ma-Wang-Tui manuscript (168 BC) discovered in 1973.

The Way is empty,
But when you use it,
You never need fill it again.
Deep and still like an ancient ravine,
It seems to be the source of the ten thousand things.
It files down sharp edges,
Unties knots,
Softens glare
And settles dust.
Submerged, we think it might be present,
But we don’t know whose child it is.
It seems to predate its maker.

Heaven and Earth are without mercy, unswerving.
They regard the ten thousand things like straw dogs.
The master is without mercy, unswerving.
He regards the common people like straw dogs.
The space between Heaven and Earth – is it not like a bellows?
It is empty, yet not depleted. The more you move it, the more it produces.
Fill it up with airs of knowledge and it is quickly exhausted.
That is not so good as staying in the middle.

The valley spirit never dies;
We call it the mysterious female.
The gates to the mysterious female–
These are the roots of Heaven and Earth,
Subtle and everlasting, seemingly ever-present,
And in being used, never exhausted.

Heaven endures; Earth lasts a long time.
The reason why Heaven and Earth can endure and last a long time
Is that they do not live for themselves.
Therefore, long do they endure.
Consequently, the master:
Puts himself in the background, yet finds himself in the foreground;
Puts concern for himself behind him, yet finds it in front,
Puts aside concern for himself, but finds it preserved.
Is it not because he has no self-interest
That he therefore realizes self-interest?


  1. " oh ... the infinite potential ... when the vessel is empty ... "

    *she slips quietly into song*.


  2. Oh, thank you Tamara!! Emptiness... I knew there was a common thread there somewhere... that really helped clarify this for me. ;^p

  3. " in the silent spaces
    between the thoughts you entertain
    there is no room for reason
    this is true love's domain

    if you try to go there
    the slightest effort that you make
    will only kick up the dust
    and hide forever
    true love's domain.."

    *she quietly sings*


  4. Awww, Tamara, that was beautiful. OMG! I wrote a poem last night called story of a sing song girl based on a Chinese folk tale. I'm going to post it. It is indeed all in a song!

  5. Oh love this version too.
    Have to compare....(But not tonight! LOLOL)
    I may gain more insight to the mysteries of the Tao :)

  6. Maybe you could post these interpretations under each of mine ???
    In the comments.....

  7. Will do in time:) I've tweaked these myself though. All the Chinese versions are probably closer to each other than ever English meaning can be, so this is NOT to be read as knowledge.

  8. I'm back at a computer now... Now, see what Tamara noticed? I had a sense of a common thread, but didn't see it explicitly. Naming things and perceiving underlying structure is a great aid to the clarity of the "thinking mind"... and indeed once things are neatly filed away, the mind can stop thinking.

    So notice... just as verses 1 to 3 were about the Dao or The Way (verse 1 was the Dao of the Dao, verse 2 the Dao of the mind's duality, and verse 3 the practical Dao in action), so this is similar but on the subject of Emptiness:

    verse 4 is the emptiness of the Way,
    verse 5 the emptiness of the space between Heaven and Earth, the mind?,
    verse 6 the emptiness of the roots of the feminine,
    verse 7 practical emptiness, of self-interest.

    This might be a good structure to keep in mind for later sequences of verses, passing from the very abstract about the Dao or Way itself, to the philosophical, or consciousness, and ending with the practical in worldly affairs and government.

  9. Something else I noticed is that verses 5 and 6 might have been one verse once. I'm just speculating, but because verse 5 is about the emptiness of the male (Heaven and Earth, the master), and verse 6 about the emptiness of the female (the roots of Heaven and Earth, and the source of the master's wisdom).

    The "straw dogs" incidentally referred to something substituting for a real animal which was offered in sacrifice and then discarded.