February 28, 2009


The Dào is empty,
Use it; it never needs filling.
Like an abyss! It seems to be ancestor to the ten thousand things.
It blunts the sharp,
Unties the tangles,
Softens the glare,
And settles the dust.
Submerged! It seems perhaps to exist.
I do not know whose son it is.
It is an image of what precedes God.

COMMENTARY by Koeng S. Wan:
The Dào is an ancient, limitless void that is the ancestor of all creation. Though it is empty but somehow like water, the Dào can be used to help bring peaceful relations between people and bring peace of mind.

The sharp, tangled, glared, and dusty are all extreme states, and the Dào moderates them by dulling, untying, softening, and settling them, respectively. As both abyss (yuān ) and submerged (zhàn ) have etymologies related to water[1], the Lǎo Zǐ compares the effects of the Dào to the effects of water. (Division 8 says water is close to the Dào, and Division 34 compares the Dào to a flood.) Sharpened metal implements become dull as they oxidize and react with other compounds in water. A tangled or knotted cord loosens when it shrinks after water expands it or as water facilitates rotting. Clouds and fog block light. Rain removes the dust from the air.

The physical transformational effects of water are metaphors for the transformational effects of the Dào on people. As opposed to glare and dust which occur naturally, the sharpened and the knotted result from the efforts of people, though we can have glare from one's attire (see Division 3).

As for sharp, the Lǎo Zǐ uses it to describe the violent capacity of weapons (see Divisions 36 and 53). The dulling effect of the Dào on weapons is peace. So the dào is to blunt the sharp (see Division 56), a general call for pacifism.

As for tangles, contention among people is brought about by entangled human relationships rooted in ambitions and desires (Division 3). Contention is reduced when the roots of conflict, personal ambitions and desires, are extinguished (see Divisions 19 and 57). So the dào is to loosen tangles (see Division 56).

As for glare, people can flaunt “alluring things” to cause others to be confused (Division 3). The softening effect of the Dào is modest attire, that will reduce confusion. So the dào is to soften the glare (Division 56).

See Division 42 on the Dào's role in being the ancestor of all things.

[1] Sears, Richard, Chinese Etymology. Accessed February 28, 2009.