Heaven Endures, Earth Lasts

A translation of the TAO TE CHING chapter seven

天長地久。 Tiān cháng dì jiǔ.
天地所以能長且久者, Tiāndì suǒyǐ néng zhǎng qiě jiǔ zhě,
以其不自生, Yǐ qí bù zì shēng,
故能長生。 Gù néng chángshēng.

是以聖人後其身而身先; Shìyǐ shèngrén hò qí shēn ér shēn xiān;
外其身而身存。 Wài qí shēn ér shēn cún.
非以其無私耶? Fēi yǐ qí wú sī yé?
故能成其私。 Gù néng chéng qí sī.

Heaven endures while the Earth lasts a long time.
The reason Heaven & Earth can both grow old and last together,
Is because they are not born from themselves,
And so they are able to have a long life.

Thus sages place themselves in the after others and yet their life comes first;
They keep themselves out in the open, and yet they are stored within.
Is this not by means of their selflessness?
Hence they are able to fulfil themselves.

Lao Zi, Tao Te Ching, my translation

In this verse we are told what was allegedly an old saying in Laozi’s time: “Heaven endures whilst Earth lasts”. According to Zhu Qianshi, this verse was an explanation of this old proverb (Red Pine 1996: 14).

So how is it that Heaven & Earth can both endure? It is because they are not born from themselves — 不自生 bù zì shēng. Nothing can actually give birth to itself; it always requires the polarity of masculine/feminine. Everything in existence (the “ten thousand things”) came about because of the coming together of Heaven and Earth.

The presupposition is that immortality comes because new life can be renewed. We live on in the lives of our children, and their children. Immortality comes from what we create and continues to endure in the world. Things endure not because they exist in isolation, but because they are constantly renewed and refreshed by coming together with new people, new audiences, new users.

The second part of the verse tells us how the ‘sacred people’ (sages) emulate this by being selfless. “Placing themselves in the rear” means that they are putting others first, but that by this action they are putting their own needs first. Presumably, they live to serve others.

The next line was a little harder for me to translate, but I take it as meaning that they place themselves out in the open, or in the exterior, but yet their lives survive and remain stored internally. In ancient China, placing something outside (especially in the older, northern parts of China) would mean it would perish. So, storing something inside meant keeping it safe (and presumably alive). 

There is another way of saying this line which may make more sense in the modern understanding:

They externalise their life, and yet their life is stored away.

Externalising our lives is what we do when we compare ourselves to others, or put our lives on show (on social media for example), or live a life based on the expectations and needs of others. This in itself is not healthy, it can generate anxiety, and a depletion of energy and essence. However the sages are able to maintain themselves living that way, but can continue to somehow store their energy/essence and maintain an internalised, and generative private life.

If such a life was driven by the inspiration to serve others selflessly, then one would be able to establish and maintain healthy boundaries. They would be able to be unselfish and live ‘out in the open’, and yet continue to endure and live a long time.

This is what the examples of Heaven, Earth, and Sages represent in my opinion; and this is what I feel Laozi was trying to teach with this verse. The last line summarises why we would want to pay attention to such exemplars — because this is what leads to living a meaningful and fulfilling life.

I’ve been working on translating the Tao Te Ching for a while now, having done different chapters in different order, as I’ve found myself reading and contemplating the verse for a little over a year now. This project really slowed once I began on the fairly mammoth task of translating the I Ching with the plan to work work on a hexagram each week for 64 weeks.

Ever since @kennyskitchen and @thelynx started their #tuesdaytaoteching posts last year on Steem, I began to revisit the verses I had started to translate as they came up each week. It was a wonderful exercise in revisiting the verses. That project seems to have been put on hold, which is a pity. But then, so has my own translation project of this particular text.

Whilst I was working on one of the recent sections of the I Ching, I had to revisit the previous verse on the Valley Spirit. I’d started publishing the early chapters of the Tao Te Ching some months back, so I thought to myself, “why don’t I take some time to go back to this?”

So as I began work on this verse, the words jumped out at me. How does something truly endure? Why do some projects last, whilst others do not. I began to consider the teaching of this verse in light of that.

My daily work with the I Ching has endured because there is a relational existence. What I am creating is born out my fascination with that text and its meanings, as well as my desire to learn from it to truly change my thoughts, words, and deeds. The words of that text inspire me to write every day (I don’t always publish what I write, but I am writing every day). The few verses I have already translated from Laozi have also had a purpose. I never really did any of these just for sake of it.


They are not born from themselves

There is an inter-action that occurs between myself and the text. The original text I read is like the initiating creativity of 天 Heaven; it inspires my thinking. I take that inspiration, and I walk out into my day with that filter, always asking, “what in my field today will teach me about the meaning of these words?”

Then, I re-write the words and create something that articulates my thoughts, feelings, and what I have learned and discovered. The writing is like 地 Earth, the creativity of Heaven made manifest into something real and tangible.

There needs to be an engagement between the two abstracts — Yáng and Yīn — for anything to endure. Yes, I may have the idea to translate the an ancient text, but unless I actually do it, and that act has a purpose, it will not last… and it will be yet another unfinished project.

The project also has to have a purpose beyond the mere aggrandisement of the Self. It has to serve something greater the the Self. And at risk of pissing off religious nutters, there is nothing greater to serve than the wellbeing of other humans. Even by Laozi’s standards, serving other people meant you were at the same time serving Heaven and Earth, and therefore the 道 Dào (this comes from a later verse, stay tuned…).

This verse had given me at least some fresh insights into how (and why) to endure.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.