Know its male, abide by its female,
. . . and be a small stream for all under heaven.
Being a small stream for all under heaven,
. . . constant virtue will never leave you,
And you will again return to infancy.
Know its white, abide by its black,
. . . and be a pattern for all under heaven.
Being a pattern for all under heaven,
. . . constant virtue will never be in error,
And you will again return to moderation.
Know its honor, abide by its disgrace,
. . . and be a valley for all under heaven.
Being a valley for all under heaven,
. . . constant virtue will be only then sufficient,
And you will again return to simplicity.
Simplicity loosens normalcy
. . . and allows a wise person to be a public elder.
This is how even the greatest control never cuts.
Limits: Translations, even the nearly literal one above, lose some of the original meaning due to the cultural context of contemporary words. Studying the numerous synonym-like meanings of the Chinese characters in the Word-for-Word translation mitigates this. (Click graphic at right for on-line Word-for-Word.)
Chapter of the Month
Archive: Characters and past commentary
I’m tempted again to update a few words. This time it’s abide by and normalcy. , which I’d change to keep watch and rule or standard… perhaps. But I won’t because I’d likely just want to change them again later. It makes more sense to refer to the alternative synonym-like meanings for the characters given below the translation. After all, blending these into a meta-meaning allows me to interpret more deeply than would be possible if just relying on one translated meaning for the character.
I’m going to do something a little different this time and combine the similarities in the first three “know its” sections. Doing this should permit me to make this reflection more comprehensive.
First, we have two principles, “know” and “abide”, to think about. Here it is important to consider the other related meanings (synonyms) for the character I translated as abide: Shŏu (守) = guard; defend; keep watch; observe; abide by; close to; near. A constant keep watch is a key prerequisite to “be a…”, “constant virtue will…”, and “you will again return to…”. This is no ‘one and done’ operation. (Note: The synonyms for the character for “know” are less important for us now. All the same, here they are: Zhī (知)= know; realize; be aware of; inform; notify; tell; knowledge; be in charge of.)
Know its male, its white, its honor, Abide by its female, its black, its disgrace
And be a small stream, a pattern, a valley for all under heaven,
Constant virtue will never leave you, will never be in error, will be only then sufficient,
And you will again return to infancy, to moderation, to simplicity.
The question becomes, just how does one abide by (keep watch, observe, defend…) these somewhat abhorrent qualities: disgrace, black, female? Yes, disgrace feels abhorrent, but certainly not black or female, per se. To truly understand this I need to plunge deeper… much deeper.
These Know its male…, Know its white…, and Know its honor… all align on the active yang side of the correlations column. Abide by its female…, abide by its black…, and abide by its disgrace…, all align on the passive yin side of the correlations column. “What?” you ask. I’m referring to the ‘dipolar perception’ that dominates the human mind, or at least our mind’s language. It may help to take a quick look at this example of a correlations column. Next, we need to take a closer look at this term “dipole”.
The Mind’s Perception Dipole
A dipole is a term in physics that refers to a pair of separated electric charges or magnetic poles, of equal magnitude but of opposite polarity, i.e., negative (–) vs. positive (+) or N. vs. S. Life has adopted this natural dynamic to perceive its surroundings in a way that promotes survival in a competitive environment. In life forms with a nervous system, neurons communicate through an electrochemical process… (–) vs. (+). Given this, it is not surprising we see reality in a (–) vs. (+) mode. This (–) vs. (+) dynamic influences how humans label their perceptions: yes vs. no, good vs. bad, yin vs. yang, life vs. death, active vs. passive, go vs. stop, hot vs. cold, before vs. after, hard vs. soft, heaven vs. hell, male vs. female, white vs. black, honor vs. disgrace, and so on.
This dipolar-like perception is essential for survival in the wild. It boils choices down to the simplest level — yes (+) vs. no (–). The human ability to think and remember makes this both a blessing and a curse. Chapter 1’s, These two are the same coming out, yet differ in name hints at the curse. Not only do we see things with a false ‘yin yang’ named simplicity, our dipolar memories nag our moment-to-moment awareness constantly. For us, dipolar-like perception hinders feeling “These two are the same coming out” reality.
A view of Oneness informs the core of most religions, even though each expresses it differently. The funny thing is, even this meta-view of a Oneness versus the many arises out of the brains dipolar-like perception. This feels like a house of mirrors.
Breaking Out of this House of Mirrors
Chapter 52 begins to offer a solution of sorts. The first four lines read:
All under heaven had a beginning; consider the origin of all under heaven.
Already having this origin, use this to know its offspring.
Already knowing its offspring, return to observe its origin.
Nearly rising beyond oneself.
Our escape route out of this house of mirrors is “to observe its origin”. This “observe its origin” is the same character we’re discussing here — shŏu (守 ) = abide by, keep watch, observe, defend! This sounds just fine. Now all we need to know is how in fact to do it.
Having faith in word meaning keeps the mind stuck in the ‘perception dipole’. This just keeps the issue, any issue, ping ponging between yang and yin, spinning around and never resolving. Of course this faith in word meaning lies at the core of the disease to which chapter 71 refers… Realizing I don’t’ know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease. Loosening word-meaning’s hold on the mind corresponds to chapter 56’s Subdue its sharpness, untie its tangles, Soften its brightness, be the same as dust. Otherwise, we are left with the only other option in life, as chapter 52 reminds us… Open the exchange, help its affairs; to the end, oneself no relief. (See Tools of Taoist Thought: Correlations for one way to help loosen word-meaning.)
Why the Focus on the Yin Side of the Perception’s Dipole?
Note that while both the yin/yang poles are acknowledged, the yin pole is the one to abide by. Similarly, Buddha’s Noble Truths begins by stating that “Life is sorrow” and then proceeds to offer way to mitigate this. Why this emphasis on the yin side of things?
Compare the yang qualities on the left side of this chart with the yin qualities on the right side. Note that the “know its” refers to those on the left while the “abide by” refers to those on the right. Does anything jump out at you right off the bat? Ponder!
Can you see that the qualities on the left side correspond more to characteristics that energize life. They are innate de facto attributes of youth. We all experience them to one degree or another from the cradle on. Therefore, we innately “know” these qualities. They drive survival. In addition, these survival instincts drive us to do all we can to avoid most of these yin qualities. Of course, it is not all ‘black and white’. Indeed, we need some of those yin qualities to have a healthy balanced life, e.g., sleep, silence, surrender, relax, passive, female. Nevertheless, we generally need and push for the ‘life’ qualities, and fear and pull back from ‘death’ qualities.
This innate bias for the ‘life’ supporting yang side is the central reason for the emphasis on the yin qualities. We desire the yang all too naturally. We turn away from the yin side… it’s no ‘fun’. By emphasizing the yin side of the coin, the Tao Te Ching and Buddha are calling us to confront our fears and weakness if we wish to return to a more natural equilibrium. We need to give ‘equal time’ to the yin side, especially in the circumstance of civilization. Why? Civilization does all it can to minimize the yin side of the reality. (For a deeper look at this, see The Tradeoff. )
Note: Need and attraction are emotions underpinning the left YANG. These drive survival’s ‘fight’ instincts. Fear and aversion are emotions underpinning the right YIN. These drive survival’s ‘flight’ instincts. By the way, don’t think of ‘female’ as a woman. ‘Female’ is a broad YIN principle, and has little to do with gender.
Abide by its disgrace is supporting the lower position
Of all under heaven, The female normally uses stillness to overcome the male.
Using stillness she supports the lower position. #61
If you take an honest deep look within, you’ll discover some degree of all those qualities you find so abhorrent in others. Once discovered, abide by its disgrace will mean taking responsibility for the state of the world. That is what “support the lower position” suggests. From this angle, it is ‘me’ and not ‘them’ that is the cause of the world’s sorrows. Taking responsibility eliminates contention. Absent contention, endless possibility opens up. As chapter 68 has it…
One adept in being a person is not militant.
One adept in battle is not enraged.
One adept in victory over enemies does not participate.
One adept in utilizing people acts from the lower position.
This is called the moral character of not contending.
This is called employing the ability of the people.
This is called matching of Nature’s ancient utmost.
Of course, taking responsibility for the state of the world becomes much less possible if one believes people have free will, and can be held responsible for their actions. Then, “It’s your fault, not mine” easily becomes the biological default response to what trouble us.
You can’t lose supporting the lower position
Naturally, you will fail at abiding by its disgrace. That’s ironically not a problem; if fact failure may even be an asset unrealized. Is not failure a disgrace of sorts? Failure is approximately equal to disgrace. These correlate. These are the yin qualities this chapter counsels us to abide by. So, even if you lose, you win, as it were. Take the lower position, female role.
The subtler aspect to abiding by the yin is that it vanishes. Let me put this in other words. If the whole universe was the color blue, would you be able to see blue? No. You wouldn’t be able to see blue because there would be no contrast vis-à-vis not blue. The Zen riddle, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” comes to mind. It is the dipolar distinction that makes something… anything… thinkable (i.e., cognitively observable). Without that, it is Nothing. If you embrace the yin totally, the yin vanishes into a singularity. Of course, that’s not entirely possible with the brain we have, but it is possible to begin to… Subdue its sharpness, untie its tangles, Soften its brightness, be the same as dust (#56).
Finding Natural Simplicity in Civilization’s Complexity
Simplicity loosens normalcy and allows a wise person to be a public elder. It helps to consider the other meaning for the character I translated as normalcy. Zé ( 则) = standard; norm; criterion; rule; regulation. This pretty much describes civilization’s modus operandi. Civilization is the hierarchical establishment of standards, norms, criterion, rules, and regulations.
Abiding by the yin side results in, as chapter 52 puts it, Already knowing its offspring, return to observe its origin Nearly rising beyond oneself…. and in the process, nearly rising beyond civilization. This may parallel Christ’s advice, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” In any event, if one wants to regain some natural equilibrium, one needs to rein it in, slow down, be still. And with that…
This is how even the greatest control never cuts.
Chapter 56 sums it all up
Chapter 56 blends the ‘one’ and the ‘many’ like dust. The less sharply and hard you define matters, the better able you are to “observe its origin”, not the dipolar-like labeled model.
Knowing doesn’t speak; speaking doesn’t know.
Subdue its sharpness, untie its tangles,
Soften its brightness, be the same as dust,
This is called profound sameness.
For this reason,
Unobtainable and intimate,
Unobtainable and distant
Unobtainable and favorable
Unobtainable and fearful
Unobtainable and noble
Unobtainable and humble
For this reason all under heaven value it.
‘Profound sameness’ is the name of the Taoist game.
‘Profound sameness’, or simply sameness, is a yin quality and so would be on the right side of the preceding YANG vs. YIN chart above. Conversely, difference is a yang quality and so would be on the right side of the chart. Knowing differences is an innate characteristic from birth on. Observing similarity is much more tentative and subtle. Biologically speaking, differences stimulate us and sameness tends to bore us.
‘Profound sameness’ is simply an attempt to describe how the non-dipolar ‘original’ feels. This description can serve as your ‘canary in the coal mine’ of your mind. When we see differences, we know we are seeing an illusion projected by our dipolar perception and narrow self-interests. When we see similarities, we know we are seeing more of the ‘bigger picture… nearly rising beyond oneself as chapter 16 (and 52) says. Certainly, we can’t help feeling a dipolar-like reality; the trick is to resist thinking and believing that reality is dipolar-like. This is why chapter 28 counsels us to abide by, keep watch, defend, observe, etc., the dark and shady (yin) side of the reality’s coin.
I finish with the last three lines from chapter 52.
Seeing the small is called clarity, abide yielding is called powerful.
Use the light, and again return to clarity, not offer oneself misfortune.
This serves as practicing of the constant.
Dian Reed says
Very helpful, Carl! The part I try to remember: “we can’t help feeling a dipolar-like reality; the trick is to resist thinking and believing that reality is dipolar-like. “