Sunday, 19 December 2010

Original Formlessness (Lao-Tzu)

Verses 14-16 of the Tao Te Ching. This is my interpretation based on other versions.

Look, and you cannot see it. We call this "the infinitesimal".
Listen, and you cannot hear it. We call this "the background hum".
Touch, and you cannot grasp it. We call this "the straight and smooth".
These three cannot be examined to the limit.
Therefore they merge together as one.
"One" – there is nothing more encompassing above it
And nothing more infinitesimal below it.
Unceasing, continuous, it cannot be defined.
It reverts to the state of nothingness.
It is called the formless form;
For it is an image without substance.
It is called the subtle and indistinct;
For following it, you do not see its back,
And greeting it, you do not see its head.
Hold to the Way of the present
To guide the things of the present
And to know the primeval beginning.
This is the beginning of the thread of the Way.

The One who was skilled in practicing the Way in antiquity
Was subtle and profound, mysterious and penetratingly wise.
His depth cannot be known, and because it cannot be known,
We would sing his praises thus:
Cautious was he! Like someone crossing a river in winter.
Unresolved was he! Like someone in fear of his neighbours on all four sides.
Polite was he! Like a guest.
Self-effacing was he! Like broken ice.
Unrefined was he! Like a lump of wood.
Unparticular was he! Like muddy water.
Open was he! Like a valley.
If you let rest the muddy water, gradually it becomes clear.
If you make active the female roots, they gradually come alive.
The one who preserves the Way does not desire to be complete.
It is only because he does not desire to be complete
That he fulfils himself, yet does not need to be renewed.

Take emptiness to the limit.
Guard stillness at the centre.
The ten thousand things leap forth side-by-side.
Being at rest, I see their return.
Heaven's Way is abundant.
Each returns to its roots.
This is called stillness.
"Stillness" – this means to return to one's fate.
To return to one's fate is to be constant;
To know the constant is to be wise.
Not to know the constant is to be reckless and wild.
If you are reckless and wild, your actions will lead to misfortune.
To know the constant is to be all-embracing.
To be all-embracing is to be impartial.
To be impartial is to be kingly.
To be kingly is to be like Heaven.
To be like Heaven is to accord with the Way.
To accord with the Way is to live till death free from harm.


  1. I've made quite a few edits since I put this up.

    Verse 14 is about original formlessness of the Dao, of Oneness.
    Verse 15 is about original formlessness of the pure master, of wisdom and fulfilment.
    Verse 16 is about original formlessness of life and death? Of stillness.

    In 15, the master appears very ordinary or even foolish in seven different ways, but this is part of his obscurity, his moving unseen, unknown, invisible in accordance with the Way. There is a bit of cosmic imagery going on in these verses that makes some speculate an analogy with the "Milky Way".

  2. I'll be back...I'm full.
    I need to empty...LOL