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"The high must make the low its base."

Tao Te Ching - Chapter 39

Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu.

The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained


39

These things of old obtained unity with the one.

Heaven obtained unity and became clear.

Earth obtained unity and became firm.

The spirits obtained unity and became deities.

The valleys obtained unity and became abundant.

All things obtained unity and became animate.

Princes and kings obtained unity and became rulers of the world.

They all obtained unity with the one.


If Heaven were not clear it might rend.

If Earth were not firm it might crumble.

If the spirits were not deities they might wither.

If the valleys were not abundant they might dry up.

If all things were not animate they might perish.

If princes and kings were not exalted they might be overthrown.


Therefore:

The noble must make humility his root.

The high must make the low its base.

That is why princes and kings call themselves orphaned, desolate, unworthy.

Is that not to make humility their root?


The separate parts make no carriage.

So, do not strive for the shine of jade,

But clatter like stone.



Unity with the One

The one is surely Tao, the Way. By conforming to Tao so much that it became unity, the powers of the world were established. Without that unity, they would lose their roots, and their substance would dissolve. This is no greater mystery to Lao Tzu, than it is to us that neither galaxies nor their stars and planets would have appeared without gravity to pull them together.

       The expression `all things' is literally `the ten thousand things,' an old Chinese expression meaning so many things that it has to be all of them. Animals and people are also included, but as can be seen above, some significant powers or entities are not.


Spirits

One of these singled out entities is the spirit world. Some translations call them gods, but that says more about them than Lao Tzu is confirmed to have intended. What a god is differs from one tradition to another. The writer of the Tao Te Ching only mentions the divine a couple of times, in passing, as if not at all convinced of their existence. He certainly doesn't give them a significant role in the universe he describes.

       The spirits he mentions might be ancestral souls. That's a common belief in many cultures of old. They might also be expressions of some animistic concept, regarding all things in nature as equipped with some kind of soul, life, or will. Whatever the case, they are not to be understood as spirits within living creatures, and Lao Tzu grants them no ruling role in his cosmos.

       The line about the spirits becoming deities is difficult to translate from the Chinese. The words used for spirit, shen, and deity, ling, are different, but almost synonymous. One might as well read the line as deities getting spirits – or even better: spirits getting souls.

       Of course, all these three concepts are vague and completely dependent on to what culture they refer. Exactly what Lao Tzu might mean with the words he uses for them is not possible to deduct with any certainty. Fortunately, it's not necessary, since he gives them minimal importance.

       In chapter 60, Lao Tzu mentions the ghosts, kuei, which are not identical to the deified spirits mentioned here, but the ghosts of deceased ancestors.

       This chapter focuses on the necessity for the main parts of the world to be in accordance with Tao, or they will cease to function and there will be disorder. That goes for all the parts. They are equally needed in the grand scheme of things. So, there is no point in any one of them being exalted above the others. It's a team work, one might say, a great harmony where every piece fits, and nothing could be removed without damage to the whole.

       That's reason for modesty. Humility is also the trait of Tao. Therefore, it would be hard to stay united without equal humility.

© Stefan Stenudd.

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Tao Te Ching Explained


Preface


Introduction


Literature


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translated and explained by Stefan Stenudd.
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Tao Te Ching Explained


James Legge's Tao Te Ching


Aleister Crowley's Tao Te Ching


The 1st Chapter of Tao Te Ching in 76 Versions


Lao Tzu - Legendary Author of Tao Te Ching





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Tao Te Ching - The Taoism of Lao Tzu Explained. Book by Stefan Stenudd. Tao Te Ching

The Taoism of Lao Tzu Explained. The great Taoist philosophy classic by Lao Tzu translated, and each of the 81 chapters extensively commented. Click the image to see the book at Amazon.

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Stefan Stenudd, Swedish author of fiction and non-fiction. Stefan Stenudd


About me

I'm a Swedish author and aikido instructor. In addition to fiction, I've written books about Taoism and other East Asian traditions. I'm also an historian of ideas, researching ancient thought and mythology. Click the image to get to my personal website.

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