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Fake Lao Tzu Quote

"Emptiness appears barren..."

Fake Lao Tzu quote: Emptiness appears barren, yet is infinite fullness

This is NOT a quote from Tao Te Ching:


"Emptiness appears barren, yet is infinite fullness"






This is a strange saying. The first part would work just as well reversed: barrenness appears empty. Of course, emptiness does not have the exact same meaning as barrenness. The former is an absolute, where the latter is somewhat relative - it can mean that something is missing, but something else is there. So, if the former is intended, the barren of the saying must be replaced by something as absolute, like void or for that matter empty. What is said is really just that emptiness appears empty.

       The problem with 'infinite fullness' is similar. If it's full, it's full, otherwise not full. Adding "infinite" makes no difference. The word implies that the fullness goes beyond the space it fills, and that would just be expanding that space endlessly - like our universe, which is anything but empty. Whatever space is intended in the quote, it's either full or not full of whatever is filling it. Finite fullness would make more sense, or just fullness. Thus, for example: Emptiness appears empty, yet is full.

       Yes, full of emptiness, in the sense that there is no part of it that is not empty.


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       The quote is not really something that Lao Tzu would claim. He enjoyed wordplay and paradoxes, but was also careful to make statements clarifying that he was indeed talking about something, not just nothing. Still, this is from a version of Tao Te Ching - that by A. J. Girling from 2015 (copyright 2014). It is from chapter 45.

       To make sense of it when compared to other versions, it is necessary to reflect on the first few lines of that chapter. Girling's version reads (page 61):


The seemingly defective
lacks no perfection
Emptiness appears barren
Yet is infinite fullness


       Here is my version of the same lines:


The most complete seems lacking.
Yet in use it is not exhausted.
The most abundant seems empty.
Yet in use it is not drained.


       D. C. Lau in 1963 had this wording (page 106):


Great perfection seems chipped,
Yet use will not wear it out;
Great fullness seems empty,
Yet use will not drain it.


       So, it's not that emptiness feels barren, but that the full seems empty. And the point is that still, it can't be drained. Also, it is not that the seemingly defective lacks no perfection, but the most perfect seems lacking. Yet, it is not exhausted.

       That full and perfect thing of which Lao Tzu spoke is Tao, the Way. To him, it was the driving principle of the whole world, and although as hard to see as if hidden, it never stopped and never failed. Lao Tzu more than once used the paradox of this the mightiest force seeming the vaguest. For example, chapter 4 states (my version):


The Way is empty, yet inexhaustible,
Like an abyss!


       And chapter 6:


Though gossamer,
As if barely existing,
It is used but never spent.


       And chapter 37:


The Way is ever without action,
Yet nothing is left undone.


       Girling might have been a bit eager to find a unique wording. On Amazon, the author is introduced by these words: "A J Girling was introduced to Taoism, and initiated by a Taoist Master, in the 1980's. Since then Girling has dedicated extensive time to the research and contemplation that resulted in the translation of this edition of the Tao Te Ching."

       The Taoist Master's name is not mentioned, nor anything about Girling's own background, academic or other.

       The bibliography in Girling's book contains 25 Tao Te Ching versions (pages 123-125), esteemed ones as well as some less trustworthy. Still, checking through the interpretations of some of the other chapters, I wonder with what intention the author has consulted all those versions.

       The same year as the above mentioned book, Girling released Tao Te Ching: with Comparative Quotes from Aristotle to Zhuangzi, which has more than twice the number of pages. I would be surprised if this were not the first manuscript. In it, each chapter of Tao Te Ching is followed by Girling's comments and quotes from a wide variety of thinkers. That is a splendid idea, provided that the versions of the Tao Te Ching chapters are trustworthy. I have my doubts about that.

Stefan Stenudd
September 14, 2020.



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Fake Lao Tzu Quotes - Erroneous Tao Te Ching Citations Examined. Book by Stefan Stenudd. Fake Lao Tzu Quotes

Erroneous Tao Te Ching Citations Examined. 90 of the most spread false Lao Tzu quotes, why they are false and where they are really from. Click the image to see the book at Amazon.

       More about the book here.



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