Tao-te Ching Chapter 16 : Returning to the Root
This chapter reads as a meditation text, as does Ch.10 What Can You Do? If we can enter into an ‘utter emptiness’ within, we maintain a ‘deep sense of peace’. Wangbi explains this is ‘to enter into the utmost depth of things’. All things are created, they rise and fall, but all return back to their root and so find peace. This explains Heshang Gong’s title Returning Back to the Root. Returning to the root is finding peace.
“I watch the world’s phenomena rise and fall, flourish and return back to the root just as leaves and flowers are produced from the roots of a tree, and yet eventually return back there. Thus they peacefully ‘return back to their origin’. This is the eternal rule of the Way: its realisation brings about the highest understanding in the person. Indeed ‘knowing the eternal’ ourselves we become radiant and ‘shining’.”
“But when one is removed away from this eternal rule of the Way, one acts blindly and with so-called ‘knowledge’. Only when I understand the rule of the Way, can I act with forbearance. With forbearance, I become openhearted and can act royally. Then truly I ‘merge my virtue with the shining stuff of life’. I am communicating with Heaven and at one with the Way.”
Wangbi says that ‘I reach the point of touching ultimate non-being.’ Then I may live a life everlasting and never perish. Non-being is eternal. It can never be ‘destroyed by water or fire, or crushed by metal or stone.’ These rhyming lines describe the ecstasy central to Taoist meditation. The condition of the ‘big me’ (dawo), one with the universe, is opposed to that of the ‘small me’ (xiaowo), empty within. The humility spoken of in the first few lines allows us to ‘communicate with Heaven’. In static Qigong (or sitting meditation) this basic principle also applies. As we guard a ‘sense of peace’ we set in motion the passage of body’s qi-energies along the acupuncture channels which criss-cross the skin-surface, as well as passing deep within. As the midline vessels activate we are brought into the ‘lesser circulation of Heavenly power’ (xiaozhou tian). To achieve this is to achieve the aim of Taoist alchemy.
Entering utter emptiness, I guard a deep sense of peace. All the ten-thousand things are created while I watch their rise and fall…
All things flourish, each one returning to its root. Returning to the root they are at peace, this means they return to life; returning to life they are eternal.
Knowing the eternal they are shining, not knowing the eternal is to blunder into disaster. Knowing the eternal, I find forbearance; with forbearance, I am openhearted; being openhearted, I act royally; acting royally, I communicate with Heaven.
Communicating with Heaven, I am one with the Way; one with the Way, my life is everlasting. The body dies but I never perish.
TEXT AND COMMENTARY
Entering utter emptiness,
The one who attains the Way can destroy all passions and cast off desire. His inner organs become pure and chaste, and he enters a condition of utter emptiness.
I guard a deep sense of peace.
He guards this purity and chastity, acting from a deep and profound sense of peace.
Courtier Wangbi: Laozi enters into the emptiness which is the uttermost basis of all things. He guards the true peace and correctness of all things.
All the ten-thousand things are created
Whilst they are created, they are given birth. The ten-thousand things are all given birth together.
Courtier Wangbi: They become active, grow and develop.
While I watch their rise and fall…
Laozi means he watches the ten-thousand things. Each one of them will eventually return back to its root. Man should think hard on this root.
Courtier Wangbi: Their rise and fall can be observed from a place of emptiness and peace. All being arises out of emptiness, and all movement out of peace. So although the ten-thousand things are created together, they finally return back to emptiness and peace. This is the uttermost basis for all things.
All things flourish,
They flourish as abundantly as spreading leaves.
Each one returning to its root.
Laozi means all the ten-thousand things must eventually wither and fall, each one returning back to its root from which it is then reborn.
Courtier Wangbi: Each one reverts back to its origin.
Returning to the root they are at peace,
At peace, meaning at the root. At the root it is peaceful and quiet, conditions are mild and they are well protected. They are humbly and singly dwelling below, and will never again perish.
This means they return to life;
Laozi means being peaceful and quiet is truly to return again to life. It means to never die.
Returning to life they are eternal.
Returning to life means they will never die. This is the Way which is eternally functioning.
Courtier Wangbi: Those who return to the root are at peace. Thus they are said to be at peace. Those who are at peace return to life. Thus they are said to return to life. Those who return to life attain eternal life. Thus they are named eternal.
Knowing the eternal they are shining,
If they can know the Way which is eternally functioning, they become shining.
Not knowing the eternal is to blunder into disaster.
If they do not know the Way which is eternally functioning, they blunder into the artful and deceitful. Then they lose the shining stuff of life and walk blindly into disaster.
Courtier Wangbi: The eternal is something neither partial nor prominent. It appears neither bright nor dark – it feels neither hot nor cold. So it is said, ‘knowing the eternal they are shining’. Only through this return can one reach and embrace all the myriad things, without missing a single one of them. If you lose this and act, duplicity enters your lot and things are separated from their fate. So then it is said, ‘not knowing the eternal is to blunder into disaster.’
Knowing the eternal, I find forbearance;
If I can know the Way which is eternally functioning, cast off all emotion and forget about desire, there is nothing I cannot accept or find forbearance with.
Courtier Wangbi: There is nothing that is not reached and embraced.
With forbearance, I am openhearted;
If there is nothing I cannot accept or find forbearance with, I become openhearted over the truth and unselfish. Then the various falsities of life can find no way in.
Courtier Wangbi: When I reach and embrace everything, I reach the point of being completely and totally openhearted.
Being openhearted, I act royally;
Being openhearted over the truth and unselfish, I am able to act royally under heaven. If I order myself properly then my whole body is as one, the mind illuminates a thousand, ten-thousand differences but together they all reduce back to simply me and myself.
Courtier Wangbi: When I am completely and totally openhearted, I reach the point where there is nothing in the whole world I do not universally embrace.
Acting royally, I communicate with Heaven.
If I am able to act truthfully and merge my virtue with the shining stuff of life, I am one with the Son of Heaven.
Courtier Wangbi: When there is nothing in the whole world I do not universally embrace, I reach the point of forming a unity with Heaven.
Communicating with Heaven, I am one with the Way;
As my virtue and Heavenly virtue join together, so they are merged into one with the Way.
Courtier Wangbi: When I communicate with Heavenly virtue, my body and the Way become one, and I reach the point of touching ultimate non-being.
One with the Way, my life is everlasting.
Merged into one with the Way, I am able to reach a life everlasting.
Courtier Wangbi: As I reach the limit of ultimate non-being and enter the eternal state of the Way, I reach the limit of no limits.
The body dies but I never perish.
I can be openhearted, can act royally, can communicate with Heaven, and be at one with the Way. These four states are not different but the same. With the Way and its virtue spread out and expanded afar, I am free from danger, free from blame. I am merged totally with Heaven and earth, beyond any trouble or pain.
Courtier Wangbi: This thing called ‘non-being’ cannot be destroyed by water or fire, it cannot be crushed by metal or stone. If I exercise it in my mind, the tiger cannot tear into it with its teeth, nor the wild buffalo’s horn butt into it – nor can weapons of war thrust their blades through it. So how could I ever perish!