1. The whole world recognises the beautiful as the beautiful, yet this is only the ugly; the whole world recognises the good as the good, yet this is only the bad.
This line and subsequent lines in this chapter could be interpreted in terms of the interconnectedness of opposites, yin and yang, each containing the seed of the other but Lao Tzu's concern is not with philosophical exposition. Lao Tzu is not concerned with the propagation of ideas, no matter how profound or mystical. He clearly states this in this line by devaluing the highest values of the worldly outlook - the beautiful and the good. The whole world refers to the way of the world, the worldly outlook. The translation given here lends itself to a slightly subtler understanding - it isn't the beautiful that Lao Tzu is describing as ugly. It is the recognising the beautiful as the beautiful which is ugly. So there is no denying the beautiful here. It is the lure of the beautiful, the pursuit of the beautiful, and the ongoing entrapment of our attention in the direction of this pursuit leading us from Here to there which is contrary to the spiritual - this is the ugly.
This line is in parallel with the first line of chapter one: The way that can be spoken of is not the constant way and establishes straight away what we're not interested in. The point is driven home by the second half of this first line: the whole world recognises the good as the good, yet this is only the bad. The good is the highest values you can imagine, whether moral, ethical, 'spiritual' or any kind of self-improvement. Getting caught up with notions of changing ourselves or the world for the better deeply and subtly entrenches the direction of our attention in the direction opposite to the spiritual. This is why Lao Tzu refers to it as the bad.
2. Thus Something and Nothing produce each other;
In the first chapter Lao-Tzu is directing us to flexing the muscle of our attention away from there to Here. He is doing this again now but more succinctly. The first line disengages our attention from the subtler aspects of there to the field of pure experiencing - Something. The attention has nowhere else to go but to turn back on itself to the Nothing, Here. Thus Something produces - in the sense of leads to - Nothing. This is not a metaphysical statement but a description of spiritual realisation. Nothing producing Something is the usual course of events; our attention being directed from Here when presented with the field of experiencing - Something - gets caught up in the beginning of the cognitive process, giving rise to there.
The first line primes us and this second line directs us to a complete flex of the attention. Now, the flex of the attention that brings us to Here is, apart from the first time, a conscious exercise in awareness. When the attention flexes back to there, becoming lost, this is an automatic, unconscious process. Spiritual practice consists of undermining this reflex of the attention. It is important not to get caught up in some dualistic notion of Here as opposed to there. There is no there. There is only Here. What happens is the there comes into focus as Here. This is indicated in the next five phrases which take their cue from from line one and elaborate the first phrase of line 2, flipping from Here to there and back again, with there becoming fainter and fainter.
The difficult and the easy complement each other;
The long and the short off-set each other;
The high and the low incline towards each other;
Note and sound harmonise with each other;
Before and after follow each other.
A gradation is indicated in the verbs used:
complement, off-set, incline towards, harmonise, follow
The sequence is from a state of apparent separation (complement each other) to one of essential non-difference (follow each other - ie they both go in the same direction).
It should be borne in mind that the Tao Te Ching is, from the spiritual perspective, a purely practical work not given to redundant statements or gratuitous metaphysics. Spiritual realisation is what is being addressed here and such realisation is the realisation of pure experiencing, the awareness of Here - this is where the introductory line - Thus Something and Nothing produce each other - left us.
Addressing the first part of each subsequent line, we have increasing refinement of cognitive experience but at the same time increasingly subtle challenges to full awareness of Here and Now. These refinements of the cognitive process which ultimately need to be let go off could be described as follows:
The visual field/Space
Time/causality - self-improvement
The difficult and the easy - Emotions
The difficult and the easy - it is the emotions and mental attitudes that accompany those aspects of our experience which must not be gone along with. It is not made explicit what exactly is difficult and what exactly is easy so it can be assumed that it doesn't matter. However, it is especially important not to get lost in the difficult and the easy as far as notions of spiritual attainment are concerned. For example, giving in to despair or elation in respect to notions of spiritual progress directs the attention from Here. The solution is to see that such apparently contrasting emotions actually complement each other - such emotion cannot exist without the experience of its counterpart at some point in time - and so one emotion should not be valued more or less than the other. The cognitive tendency to value is brought into awareness.
The difficult and the easy, emotions, then, represent the grossest aspects of the world created by the cognitive process. From the point of view of spiritual practice they present a frequent albeit uncomfortable reminder to practise. The challenge is akin to not scratching an itchy spot. The solution lies in grand acceptance from the perspective of Here rather than simply will-power.
The long and the short - Space
The emotions are the most immediate consequence of the results of the cognitive process. Next we have space as represented by the whole visual field. This is indicated by the long and the short. Rather than simply being with what is, the notion of a world 'out there' is created and all sorts of qualities are attributed to 'out there'. An excellent solution to this is given in Douglas Harding's On Having No Head (See http://www.headless.org). Douglas Harding adroitly uses the visual field to bring us back to right Here, to what he calls headlessness. This is the perspective of the artist. It is in contrast to that of the physical scientist. The scientist fixes the length of something, a tube say, regardless of perspective. The length of the tube therefore becomes an abstraction, a concept which matches the experiencing in only one case out of infinite possibilities. The length of the tube is defined as its maximum possible length. (Incidentally, this is also the point at which it has lost most of its 'tubeness'.) From Here, the absolute perspective, the tube can be seen from infinite perspectives. In each perspective it has a different length - from zero to its scientific maximum. Rotating the tube, the length constantly changes. Long and short are constantly moving into each other. What's long becomes short in a winking and what's short becomes long in a winking - the long and the short off-set each other.
The high and the low - status/self-image
The high and the low is about hierarchy. Hierarchy was a fundamental notion in ancient China with the structure of government supposedly mirroring the hierarchy of heaven. It is a fundamental notion in one form or another in all societies and cultures both ancient and modern. Hierarchy defines exactly who you are in societal terms. It is fundamental to your image of yourself. In modern society the role of hierarchy is much less overt but it is far more insidious. Our self-image is tied up with how we think others perceive us, with how we feel we fit into the scheme of things. Our self-image is continuously inclined to the low if we have a tendency to feel superior (high) or to the high if we have a tendency to feel inferior (low). This is particularly true with respect to spiritual practice. Any notion whatsoever of being spiritual (the high) inclines itself immediately to the worldly (the low) and is in fact non-different from it.
Self-image is a result of the cognitive process and the development of the cognitive process is also a function of self-image. Most experience is filtered through our self-image and as a result much of our outlook and life choices are determined by our self-image. It is essential to gain a perspective on the subtlety of this aspect of the cognitive process otherwise our attention will always be getting lost in it. This was the initial impetus behind taking recourse to the 'homeless life' in ancient India, divesting oneself of one's social identity and opening oneself up to the possibility of fresh experiencing. I'm reminded of a modern Zen story about a monk who was found living with some tramps under a bridge shortly before his death. The monk had not only divested himself of his social trappings but also of similar trappings which could have developed even within a monastic situation.
All tendencies to judge, all tendencies to feel superior or inferior should be brought into awareness. Appreciating that such tendencies offer no refuge to us because they have no absolute worth and are purely relative to each other, we stop investing in them.
Note and noise - Aesthetics
Note and sound harmonise with each other. The translator is tentative about the use of the word 'sound'. This paragraph features pairs of opposites and one might expect a contrast between sound and silence. However, the Chinese obviously doesn't allow for this and Mr Lau has opted for 'note' and 'sound'. In the context of sound, 'note' refers to pitch and pitch is structured sound. The opposite to this is unstructured sound, ie noise. So perhaps the line should read:
Note and noise harmonise with each other.
The image is of a musician constructing a chord. The musician is looking to select another note to harmonise with the first. A fine aesthetic, a selection process is in play whereby some sounds are chosen over the rest. Lao Tzu is directing us to bypass this process.
The previous line directs us away from making value judgements with respect to others and ourselves. Here we are directed away from the subtler tendency to make value judgements with respect to sound, ie music and noise. Why sound in particular? - Sound is the primordial sense, cf the Word, Om. There is a reason for this - the exercise of listening (to the silence that is always there) is itself pure awareness. However, there is no reason to exclude other sensory aesthetics. Lao Tzu's caveat here is particularly apt given that people who typically get involved in the so-called 'spiritual' are often of a highly sensitive disposition with a fine sense of aesthetics. The world can appear so brutal and the spiritual appears to offer an alternative to this brutality. The spiritual can appear to offer its own aesthetic and the Tao Te Ching, as witnessed in some of its many editions, is often hijacked into this aesthetic. Now there is nothing wrong with this in itself if that is what people want but this commentary is indicating that the term 'spiritual' is independent of any kind of aesthetic and is suggesting that the Tao Te Ching is pointing to so much more.
To get caught up in this aesthetic is to get caught up in the romance of the spiritual. One's attention has been waylaid by something subtle and delicate. The direction remains in the direction of there. Such an aesthetic involves valuing one aspect of the cognitive process higher than another. Lao Tzu punctures this tendency by telling us that music and noise harmonise with each other. In other words,
The aesthetic and non-aesthetic harmonise with each other.
They are both equally relevant so don't get caught up in one over the other. Leave them both alone and turn once again to the experiencing Here.
Before and after - Time/Causality
Before and after follow each other. The translator suggests that this refers to a ring. Samsara is often referred to as a cycle, something that continuously feeds and builds on itself. But what is the practical lesson here? If before and after follow each other then that means that they are going in the same direction. And that direction is always away from Here. Before represents preoccupation with the past and after represents preoccupation with the future. Most of us are, most of the time, preoccupied with what has happened or with what might happen. We are rarely in the Now. The exercise then is to look at our thoughts. Are they concerned with the past or the future? It doesn't matter which. In both cases they lead us from the Here and Now.
(Eckhart Tolle's book "The Power of Now" is an excellent aid in this respect)
The spiritual practitioner is often caught up in notions of self-betterment; an image of a better self which will be actualised at some point in the future. All notions of self - past, present or future - before or after, follow each other away from Here. Realising this we can cease to be occupied with any image of ourself, disengaging from such images, viewing them as something firmly there.
Avoiding all of these misdirections brings us to Here. The sage is not caught up with their emotions; the sage is not caught of with notions of the nature of the world; self-image is not a concern; the subtle misdirections of aesthetics and self-actualisation practices are avoided. This section is an elaboration of the first line at the beginning of this chapter which warned of focussing on the beautiful and the good.
3.Therefore the sage keeps to the deed that consists in taking no action and practises the teaching that uses no words.
The first section renounces there. The second undermined the pull of there. The current line keeps us established Here. The sage dissociates themself from all courses of action and teaching systems. This does not mean that the sage enters into physical quietude - the sage keeps to the deed. The sage does what needs to be done. There is no personal element involved and it is in this sense that they take no action. Doing so, the sage moves in the opposite direction to words. Words are to do with there and the sage is moving to Here. The teaching that uses no words is the teaching that is moving in the opposite direction to words. It is the teaching that keeps us Here. Our mental conditioning although weakened has not necessarily disappeared. The following section helps us to remain Here in the face of this pull.
4. The myriad creatures rise from it yet it claims no authority;
There is an obvious way and an unobvious way of understanding this phrase and the next one. The unobvious, more useful way incorporates the obvious way.
The obvious way is to regard it, the Tao, as a creator god in some context. If so, then it is quite different from the Middle Eastern creator god because the one referred to here claims no authority. In this context, myriad creatures could be taken to mean all things or all living things at least. The dualism of creator and created is avoided by describing the myriad creatures as arising from it, suggesting a far more intimate connection than that between creator and created, suggesting possibly that the myriad creatures are an emanation of the Tao and are therefore in a sense non-different from it.
Let's follow this intimacy a little deeper, and shift from the obvious, exoteric understanding of this line to the less obvious, esoteric meaning as suggested in the previous section. The purpose of the Tao Te Ching is to direct consciousness back to itself. The field of experiencing is what is arising at this very moment. It is what presents itself to consciousness right now. This includes not only objects but thoughts and feelings as well. The myriad creatures rise from it describes the cognitive process which takes us from Here to there. There is the concepts and notions which we mistakenly consider reality and in which we lose ourselves through emotional identifications. It's as if we've lost ourselves in a game of dream chess. To annul this tendency the Here claims no authority over the there, over the myriad creatures. In other words we stop getting involved in the game of emotional identifications. This reinforces what was said in the first two sections of this chapter. The sage does not take responsibility for what is 'out there' in the sense of making judgements and trying to 'sort things out' one way or another for the better. To do so would be to become lost.
It gives them life yet claims no possession;
The myriad creatures, the notions and concepts of our conditioned minds (the results of the cognitive process), do not have a life of their own. It's the cognitive process - which is the interaction of our innate tendencies with the field of experiencing (realise that our innate tendencies are also part of the field of experiencing) - that gives them life. Gives them life describes the tendency to move from Here to there. The myriad things appear to have a life of their own making some of the objects 'out there' objects of desire. The annulment of this tendency lies in claiming no possession. The myriad creatures, the notions and concepts which we invest so much in, do not belong to awareness. So leave them alone.
Our usual situation is reminiscent of the sculptor who carved a figure from a block of rock and subsequently fell in love with the figure. The absurdity lies in the fact that the figure was essentially no different from the original rock and that its creation is solely the creation of the sculptor. There was actually no independent object to fall in love with or claim possession of.
It benefits them, yet exacts no gratitude;
The myriad creatures are obviously benefited by the cognitive process in the sense that they are reinforced and sustained by it. The tendency to move from Here to there is ongoing. It is an entirely natural process. Spiritual realisation is the completion of the cycle - the return from there to Here. The process is analogous to that of the salmon swimming upstream to its birthplace. No gratitude means no more appreciation, no more enamourment of losing ourselves in there. It is time to stop indulging it. By continually returning to Here the turmoil that is the myriad things lessens and in this way it could also be said that they are benefited. In this case it is important to simply accept this and not enter into satisfaction or gratitude. Gratitude is also one of the myriad things and to enter into it is to once again become lost.
The first line of this section (line 4) informs us that the workings of the myriad creatures (ie our mental conditioning and psychological tendencies) are of no consequence to the Tao. So we turn to the Tao. Then, given that the myriad creatures do not belong to the Tao, they loosen their grip and we turn to the Tao more often. And, given that it benefits them by lessening them and, in not exacting gratitude, does not lead to the rising of new creatures, in this way we can say that:
It accomplishes its task yet lays claim to no merit.
Its task being to bring consciousness that is identified with objects (ie notions and concepts) - lost consciousness - back to itself (the Tao).
It lays claim to no merit because it is only following its own nature. Claiming merit, indulging in satisfaction, is what could once more divert us to there just as we are reaching Here. The sage does the work of the karma yogi doing only what needs to be done with no emotional investment in the results nor hope of reward.
5. It is because it lays claim to no merit that its merit never deserts it.
Practising so, the sage remains Here. There is no greater merit.