"The high must make the low its base."
Tao Te Ching - Chapter 39
The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained
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
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.
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.
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
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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