February 23, 2009


All beneath heaven knows beauty is beauty only because there is ugliness,
And knows good is good only because there is evil.
Thus, Something and Nothing produce each other.
Difficult and easy complete each other.
Long and short measure one another.
High and low fill one another.
Voices and instruments harmonize with one another.
Front and back follow each other.

Therefore, the shèng rén keeps to the deed that consists of taking wú wèi and practices the teaching that uses no words.
Ten thousands things arise and he does not initiate them.
They come to be and he claims no possession of them.
They go through their processes, and there is no expectation (for reward for the results).
He accomplishes his tasks, but does not dwell on them.
It is only because he does not dwell on them
That they do not leave him.

COMMENTARY by Koeng S. Wan:
The shèng rén (sage) refrains from making judgments using words (see also Division 5). The human mind can comprehend long and short as being the comparison of objects in length. However, the mind cannot comprehend the root aspects of beauty and ugliness, or good and evil. So, once one's mind judges something to be ugly (or evil) then beauty (or good) is defined whether or not others share the same judgments. Ambiguity, inconsistency, and misunderstanding can lead to misjudgment, so all judgments should be distrusted. The Lǎo Zǐ admonishes the shèng rén "to practice the teaching that uses no words" an approach to learning about a world without beauty, ugliness, goodness, evil, long or short. And, as a further consequence, the shèng rén is also admonished to emulate the wordless way of things in nature in which tasks are accomplished for there own sake, not for rewards.

Beauty and ugliness, and good and evil are judgments. But, can beauty be real if it only exists because of ugliness? And, can goodness be real if it only exists because of evil? We do know this, that things that people regard as beautiful, ugly, good, and evil are replete in nature, yet things in nature are not guided by people's judgments as to their beauty, ugliness, goodness, or evilness. Thus, those words are not relevant to anything but people.

However, it doesn't seem that all opposites are simply judgments created only by the human mind, as some opposites exist apart from human experience:
Something and Nothing. The British philosopher, Alan Watts (1915-1973) said, "You can't have something without nothing"[1]. Watts observed that physical things must be separated by nothingness otherwise they would not be the distinct things they are. His conclusion that things can't physically exist without the nothingness that separates them enables us to say that nothing exists as we say something exists, which is the basis for the Lǎo Zǐ expression here that "Something and Nothing produce each other".

Long and short. The existence of physical objects means that they have dimensions, so the long and short exist because things can be measured.
The other pairs of opposites are the product of judgments. Tasks are difficult or easy in different ways, say in how long a task takes or how many errors are made while completing it. The combination of voices and instruments may be perceived as pleasant or in discord. What is high and what is low depends on the observer's elevation. The front and back of a physical object depends on the location of the observer.

Overall, understanding of any thing can be wrong because perception is a combination of observation and judgment. Even worse, words (names) are particularly poor for understanding any thing (Division 1). So, the shèng rén distrusts words and practices ways that avoid using them. The practice enables the shèng rén to view everything impartially which he is admonished to do in Division 5.

As for things in nature, they arise, grow, and transform on their own accord without any desire to achieve rewards. In doing so, things in nature appear to accomplish things for their own sake. So, the shèng rén emulates natural things, accomplishing tasks for his own sake, and in doing so, acts without acting (wú wèi).

[1] Alan Watts: An Interactive Experience of the Story and Life Works of Alan Watts". Accessed March 30, 2009. The Watts' lecture is available for viewing on YouTube.