The Nourishment Of The Person

A translation of the TAO TE CHING chapter two

天下皆知美之為美,斯惡已。 Tiānxià jiē zhī měi zhī wéi měi, sī ě yǐ
皆知善之為善,斯不善已。 Jiē zhī shàn zhī wéi shàn, sī ě bù shàn yǐ
故有無相生,難易相成, Gù yǒuwú xiāngshēng, nán yì xiāng chéng,
長短相較,高下相傾, Chángduǎn xiāngjiào, gāo xià xiāng qīng,
音聲相和,前後相隨。 Yīn shēng xiāng hé, qián hòu xiāng suí

是以聖人處無為之事,行不言之教; Shì yǐ shèngrén chǔ wúwéi zhī shì, xíng bùyán zhī jiāo
萬物作焉而不辭,生而不有。 Wànwù zuò yān ér bù cí, shēng ér bù yǒu.
為而不恃,功成而弗居。 Wèi ér bù shì, gōng chéng ér fú jū
夫唯弗居,是以不去。 Fū wéi fú jū, shìyǐ bù qù

All under Heaven know the beautiful to be beautiful, thus ugliness [comes] afterwards.
Everyone knows the good to be good, thus the not-good [comes] afterwards.
Therefore tangible and intangible engender one another, difficulty and ease become each other,
Long and short compare each other, above or below overturn each other,
Musical notes and tones harmonise with each other, front and rear follow one another.

Therefore the Sage deals with his affairs with effortlessness, performs his teachings without speech;
All living things grow, and yet do not decline, give birth yet do not exist.
Action and yet no expectations, work is accomplished and yet there it never stops.
He alone does not come to a standstill, therefore is not gone.
— Lao Zi, Tao Te Ching, my translation

I love this verse!

Whilst the first verse is always the one that gets quoted when trying to explain what the 道 Dào is (well, usually only those opening lines), I think this verse explains the paradigm better. It presents a tension of understanding the paradox: striving and non-striving emerging from each other and yet being different to each other too!

What amazed me when I first read this was how it encapsulates Structuralist theory (from semiotics and linguistics, and also anthropology) over 2000 years beforehand. What’s even more amazing is how the work being done in neuroscience is showing that there is indeed something that happens in our neurological systems that shows that our perception of the world is in a sense dualistic and relativistic, in that we always ‘know’ something as it relates to something else.

I found the last two lines really hard to translate, and it’s helpful to have so many translations around as comparison… but other than the grammatical issues, I think my mind gets to the point of struggling to grasp these ideas.

It raises the question of whether states of being exist because of the existence of their opposites, independent of the awareness of an outside source, or whether the act of something or someone perceiving them gives rise to their interdependence.

My interpretation here is that it is both (of course). 天下 tiānxià is literally “below Heaven”, or the whole world. This is a pretty specific phrase, in that humans (and, interestingly plants and animals) are “below Heaven”. Heaven is to put it simply a realm of pure consciousness and potentialities. It is only because there is Earth (material existence, manifestation) that differentiations can come into being. A good metaphor would be that Heaven is like an ocean, but Earth is like a collection of individual molecules of water.

The point of this verse and verse 1 (as well as many other verses) is that we cannot have one without the other, and also we can’t know one without the other.

If we create distinctions, we are then presupposing Earth (yīn) to be the answer; if we create absolutely no distinctions (“all is one”) then we presuppose Heaven (yàng). This is the perpetual 道 Dào: it is both of these. So we get that awesome line “tangible and intangible create one another” (or “existence and non-existence”, — literally “to have” and “not”; to be and to not be).

In a sense, because we are material beings, dependent on physiological sense organs with which to experience reality, our perception can only limit our understanding of this. I’ve always wondered if these kinds of statements weren’t used by the students of this school to create ‘pattern interrupts’, similar to later zen koans.

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