Daily Daodejing, Part 4

For information of what this thread is about, see the parent thread

The vessel of the Dao is empty, so use it but do not try to refill it. It is such an abyss, oh, that is appears to be the progenitor of the myriad things. It blunts the sharp, cuts away the tangled, merges with the brilliant, and becomes one with the very dust. Its depth is so deep, oh, that is seems somehow to exist. I do not know whose child it could be, for it appears to have been born before the Lord.

1. Adhering strictly to the measures of the noble household cannot keep that household whole, and adhering strictly to the measures of one state cannot keep that state intact. Even if one were to use up all his strength in lifting heavy burdens, it could not be of any use. Therefore, although one might know about government as it applies to the myriad folk, if he governs without regard to the Dao with its two modes [the yin and the yang], he cannot serve to support them.

Wang Bi’s commentary here comes very close to recognizing an objective viewpoint. He recognizes that the arbitrary and subjective systems created by man are bound to be twisted and abused by the limited perspective of man. So, it then becomes important to think back to the perspectiveless perspective of the Dao to correct this human failing. In this way the Dao “blunts the sharp, cuts away the tangled, merges with the brilliant, and becomes one with the very dust.”

2. Although Earth consists of physical forms with their earthbound souls, if it did not take its models from Heaven, it could not keep its quietude intact. Although Heaven consists of embryonic essences with their images, if it did not take its model from the Dao, it could not preserve its purity. Used as an empty vessel, its [the Dao’s] use is inexhaustible, but if one tries to fill it in order to make it into something full [shi], if any filling is brought to us, it just overflows. Thus, “the vessel of the Dao is empty, so use it but do not again try to refill it,” for what makes it inexhaustible already fills it completely.

I think that Rodger Ames and David Hall grasped this portion of the commentary when they wrote:

From this, I think that the notion of ‘emptiness’ can actually be used to address the problem of the ‘Prime Mover’ in Whiteheadian process philosophy. In its emptiness, the Dao’s perspectiveless perspective allows for the context of change that is the world made manifest. The emptiness of the Dao is continually refilled by the meaning and perspective that we apply to it but their their application they are emptied out and are continually replaced with new meanings and perspectives as the situation is changed by their application – just like the “Goblet” words.

3. No matter how vast a physical form [xing], nothing could hamper its [the Dao’s] power to embody [ti]. No matter how great an undertaking [shi], nothing could utilize its entire capacity [liang]. If the myriad things were to abandon it and seek a different master, where would such a master be found? Indeed, is it not true that “it is an abyss, oh, that is appears to be the progenitor of the myriad things”? It blunts the sharp but suffers no damage; it cuts away the tangled but is not worn out; it merges with the brilliant but does not soil its power to embody [ti]; it becomes one with the very dust but it does not compromise [yu] its authenticity [zhen]. Indeed, is it not true that “its depth is so deep, oh, that is seems somehow to exist”?

This passage would define the way the relationship between ti and yung (substance and function are the most common translations) for the majority of Chinese thinkers, essentially any discussion about those two elements would be either an amendment to Wang Bi’s relationship of a thoughtful co-option of it.

I favor Wang Fuzhi’s take on this discussion, a classic example of the second option, where the function of a thing allows its substance to be fully manifested, “Substance gives rise to function, and function further develops substance.” An example of this would be metal-working. While everyone agrees that the substance of a metal exists well before a function is applied to it (the metal is self-so [ziran]), its true nature won’t actually manifest itself until after it has been applied to a particular function, which in turn hones its substance further. Iron ore is brittle stuff; however, as people give this substance a function, the hardness that is already present in the iron becomes manifest. As time goes on, the application of iron has lead to it becoming increasingly harder and better suited to the task. The history of ferrous metallurgy is a perfect example of this relationship.

What is different about the Dao in this case, is that it is able to go through this transformation of ti-yung back to a more refined form of ti, which again will be applied and further refined without losing its authenticity. When iron is turned to steel, there is a triumph of yung over ti as the metal has become divorced from how it originally existed, and as I discussed in part three, nature re-asserts itself when artifice is applied – we see this when steel turns to rust. However, because the Dao is empty, there isn’t anything to revert back to yet the constant filling of this emptiness allows for progress along the ti-yung trajectory.

In learning to follow the Dao, then, it becomes important to learn and benefit from this vital aspect of it. I am reminded of Liu Xia Hui from the Mencius:

In this way, anyone can become an ‘unmoved mover’.

4. As Earth must keep its physical form [xing], its virtue [de] cannot exceed what it upholds, and, as Heaven must remain content with its images [xiang], its virtue cannot exceed what it covers. Thus neither Heaven nor Earth can equal it [the Dao]. Indeed, is is not true that “it appears to have been before the Lord”? “The Lord” [Di] means the Lord of Heaven [Tiandi].

Given the strongly metaphysical bent of the rest of the commentary, this last part serves as a corrective to overly enthusiastic readers. While the metaphysical Dao is vast, we are limited by our physicality; indeed, I would argue that the Dao is similarly constrained. It is tempting to liberate ourselves from the ti-yung dichotomy as the Dao does and manifest authenticity of ourselves. However, that begs the question of what is truly authentic? The constant Dao exists before everything, yet the named and unnamed Dao emerge together. So, the notion of the Dao predating existence should not be conflated with the Dao being independent of existence. Indeed, existence is the manifestation of the Dao. That leads us to ask the question: is it iron’s nature to be brittle or is it iron’s nature to be hard? Is authenticity achieved by stripping away negative influences or is authenticity achieved by taking every influence as they are and not seeking to react to them?

The Doctrine of the Mean says:

But evolution will increase our ability to process stimuli. The brain and its’ neurons can only fire at a certain rate and capacity. We are presently dense course material and a brain to match. An increase in our capacity will bring us presently unknown manifestations. There are other truths(authenticity) not presently known to most of us.
The transformance is coming.


If I were to wax metaphysical about evolution . . . which given that it is 2 AM on a Saturday night, I am more inclined to do than I might do otherwise, I would suggest that it was a prime example of the Fuzhian interpretation of ti-yung, since we have the initial state (which we can arbitrarily define, a perfectly Daoist stance) which is modified by its situation (as applied, yung) which responds to the selective pressure whereby a new ti is created . . . which further has to adapt and function in its situation in a never-ending cycle.

But that is off-the-cuff-of-my-sleeve editorializing.

The cup is painted beautifully
But the space in the middle
Cannot be painted
We oversee the depth
And the purpose
Of all things.

keen spirits become dull
obstacles are overcome
intensity is tempered
dust to dust!

The profundity of it all!
An ongoing revelation.

Where does it come from?
It is an image of what was
Before the beginning!