"Is not the space between Heaven and Earth like a bellows?"
Tao Te Ching - Chapter 5
The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained
Heaven and Earth are not kind.
They regard all things as offerings.
The sage is not kind.
He regards people as offerings.
Is not the space between Heaven and Earth like a bellows?
It is empty, but lacks nothing.
The more it moves, the more comes out of it.
A multitude of words is tiresome,
Unlike remaining centered.
The Limit of Compassion
This chapter consists of three parts that have little to do
with one another. The first part talks about offerings, the
second about a bellows, and the third about words.
The division of the Tao Te Ching into 81 chapters was
not done by its author, but introduced much later. So, here I
suspect that three separate sayings have been combined
into one, although Lao Tzu did not intend it.
The first part speaks of a ruthlessness that seems
terrifying. The offerings that Lao Tzu mentions were straw
dogs used in religious rituals, and discarded afterward. We
have no doubt that nature treats all its components and
creatures with such indifference, simply because it lacks
awareness. Storms whip the forests, oceans chew on land, winter
kills what summer nourished, and beast feeds on beast that
feeds on beast. It's like a machine.
But why should the sage do the same? Should we not
be compassionate and do our utmost to save fellow men
from pain and misfortune?
Well, Lao Tzu probably refers to society as a whole –
like nature is a whole. Too much concern for single
individuals can bring mayhem on society. We should be like straw
dogs in the sense that none is worth more than the survival of
the society that contains us all.
So, the sage would not dream of harming society for
the benefit of a few of its members. On the other hand,
he would not hesitate to sacrifice a few for the need of all.
To guarantee the survival of society, he would be prepared
to offer almost all of its inhabitants.
Anyone who is given the power to rule a nation
would do the same. Actually, people demand it of their ruler.
It's the very basis of any society. Nothing within it is worth
sacrificing all of society for, and no price is too high to save
it from destruction.
This is not only the case in a crisis, but in everyday
life as well. Individuals cannot demand to be treated better
than what is good for the whole. On the other hand, there is
no reason for making the citizens suffer more than what
is needed for society to prevail.
The most precious society is the one that needs the
least sacrifice of its members.
Procreation between Heaven and Earth
In the second part of this chapter, Lao Tzu marvels at
the abundance of the world we live in – the space
between Heaven above our heads and Earth below our feet.
In this space we move about freely, and there seems
to be no end to what is brought forth in it: countless
generations of animals and vegetation, the cycles of the
seasons, the splendor of sunrise and sunset, the phases of the
moon. Everything moves and renews itself. The creatures feed
on what grows from the earth, they breathe the sky, and
The world is filled with tireless reproduction. It's as
if the sky is a breath of life, its winds stirring the
cornucopia that is Earth.
Truth in Silence
In the third part of the chapter, Lao Tzu seems aching to
halt his writing, although he is only in the beginning of his book.
Words and the thoughts behind them may be
clever, perhaps inspired, but still there can be enough of
them. Then it's better to take it all in silently. We don't need
to describe everything we experience, or to express all that
we learn. Words are mere shadows. If we focus on them
we may lose sight of the reality they try to imitate.
Instead, we should trust that our inner stillness finds
the Way, and makes us see the patterns in the constant
bombardment of information that is our daily life.
The word `centered' in my translation of this chapter
is jhong (or zhong) in Chinese. It means middle or center.
It's used in the name for China (Jhongguo or
Zhongguo, the Middle Kingdom), which makes the word a strong
symbol indeed for its people. The Chinese pictogram for the
word is a simplification of an arrow hitting the center of a target.
In Lao Tzu's use of the word, inner balance and
steadfastness is implied, somewhat like the keel of a boat
that's unaffected by the waves on the sea. That's how the
human mind should be – calm in whatever turmoil surrounds
it, confident even in a rain of urgent questions.
The answers are to be found in that calm.
© Stefan Stenudd.
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