The Fountainless

A translation of the TAO TE CHING chapter four

道沖而用之或不盈。 Dào chōng ér yòng zhī huò bù yíng.
淵兮似萬物之宗。 Yuān xī sì wànwù zhī zōng
挫其銳,解其紛, Cuò qí ruì, jiě qí fēn,
和其光,同其塵。 Huò qí guāng, tóng qí chén.
湛兮似或存。 Zhàn xī sì huò cún.
吾不知誰之子, Wú bùzhī shéi zhī zǐ,
象帝之先。 Xiàng dì zhī xiān.

The Dao pours and yet it may be used to not be filled [empty].
Deep, it appears to all living things as their model.
[It] obstruct acuteness [blunts sharpness], solves confusion,
Blends/harmonises brightness, [and is] alike dust.
The clearness [of it] appears [as if] it may keep [forever].
I do not know whose child it is,
It takes a form that precedes the Supreme Ruler/Emperor

— Lao Zi, Tao Te Ching, my translation

This verse returns to descriptions of the Dào, and to a more mystical tone. It seems the writer here is wanting to once again emphasise the paradoxical nature of the Dào.

The group of people who were following and promoting this doctrine (they are not yet called ‘Taoists’) were setting up the Dào to be the ultimate exemplar for behaviour, morality, and structure of society.

The first line is one of those linguistic paradoxes. My translation is clumsy, but I have done so to show the metaphorical nature of the language. If something can be used to pour out a liquid, that means it needs to be filled first; but the line also states that it may also be used ‘not-filled’, so empty. The Dào can be either ‘full’ or ‘empty’ in its efficacy.

The way this line is constructed suggests to me that this verse pre-dates the ‘language crisis’ period; I feel this kind of saying was what the ‘Sophists’ (aka, the Dialecticians of the later Mohist movement) were attempting to clear up these kinds of gibberish statements. Although it could also be argued that adopting these kinds of statements were a kind of deliberate reaction against the ‘School of Names’ (as they were known in those times).

The other aspect of the first part of the verse is that it explains how the Dào can create balance in any context — it can blunt that which is sharp, untie any knot, bring order to any chaos, and harmonise or blend brilliance (presumably to turn it down or dim it). The statement about being “alike dust” is to contradict the depth and greatness of the Dào, mentioned at the beginning of the sentence: its humility.

The character 湛 Zhàn is used to describe the clear water, so clear you can see through it. This is a reference to it holding a quality of purity, while 存 cún is used to describe something that will remain preserved in its state for an extended period of time, as in “that will keep”.

The Dào is not subject to entropy and change (which comes afterwards), and its eternal nature is then referenced to the idea that it is not the child or progeny of anything — nothing precedes it, and it was even in existence before the earliest Emperor/Supreme Being.

I’m wondering if the intention behind this verse is to suggest that the Dào is the force of entropy/change. I guess my attention comes to the lines in the first part of the verse. If something becomes full, it will then become empty; if something is great, it will diminish. Certainly this notion was part of the consciousness at the time, as the I Ching was the foundational epistemology at the time.

I don’t believe the writers of the text were seeking to elevate the Dào to worship status, but wanting us (the reader) to be aware that there is a principle that existed before existence itself, before there were even any gods or creator-deities. I wonder if the Dào isn’t also simply ‘time’.

Certainly, a lot in this verse to contemplate.

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