Lao Tzu, Chapter 4

Tao Te Ching —
The Classic about Ways And Instances

Lao Tzu

(Translated, with comments, by William P. Coleman)

Chapter 4

Ways are empty, yet when used they’re somehow not depleted;
deep indeed, they seem the source for everything.

They blunt edges;
they loosen knots;
they soften the light;
they bring the floating dust into a pattern.

I don’t know whose children they are:
it’s as if they were there before the lord of heaven.

< — Chapter 3

Table of Contents

Chapter 5 — >


my comments:

My translation of the first sentence might seem to make less sense than Lin’s translation, below. He refers to the subject as “Tao,” as some kind of separate entity; and, as such, there’s no barrier to imaginine that Tao’s the kind of thing that might be exhaustible but actually isn’t.

In my translation, though, how can a “way” be “depleted?” Still, I resist the idea of objectifying a singular “Tao” and would like to see how far I can get with possibly multiple “ways.” My version admittedly makes even less sense if you think of a “way” as a pattern, a recipe, a method — something nonphysical that couldn’t in principle be depleted. And, in fact, I would like to retain those images in the set of metaphors we’re talking about.

There’s a different metaphor that makes more sense here. Think of a “way” as a trolley line with an overhead electric cable, or an electrified third rail, that supplies power to the cars. A “way” gives you a power — and a path — to do something. The electricity for a trolley car has to come from somewhere. If it’s from burning coal, then that’s an obviously deletable resource. Even “renewable” solar or wind energy derives from the sun, which is running down, undergoing entropy — even if not specifically for the sole purpose of enabling trolley cars.

So the first sentence might answer the question, “If I use the ways, doesn’t that take extra work, compared to just doing things regularly? Doesn’t it impose a cost that I or someone or something eventually has to pay?”

When I first started piano lessons (as an adult), I was self-conscious about how quiet my playing was, embarrassed that my muscles seemed too weak to play loudly. I bought a few different kinds of finger exercisers — some putty to squeeze, a ball, another contraption with springs — and tried to use them during times when I was physically inactive, for example while watching videos. This didn’t get me anywhere. Eventually, a new teacher convinced me to respect the reality of the situation.

The sound from the piano is produced by a complex escapement mechanism that throws a hammerhead against the strings after I actuate it remotely using the keyboard. The volume of sound is not proportional to the strength I use in pressing the key, but to the speed. Using strength does nothing much except to drive the key to the bottom of the key bed, which is useless since the hammer already starts flying shortly after the key leaves its rest position and long before it reaches the bottom. Applying force to it is as silly as imagining the force of my arm can influence the flight of a thrown ball after it’s left my hand. (You do indeed follow through with the key stroke, just as you do with a golf swing. But that’s my point: your motion as a whole has a multi-valent integrity in which force is only one, integrated compenent, not an end in itself.)

The shape and volume of the sound produced is a reflection of the path my finger follows, not of its force. That path of movement takes only a little physical effort, not much more than if the key weren’t there and I were moving my finger in the air. What’s hard is to let my hand and arm relax and get out of the way so my finger can do it. Otherwise, the various muscles and tendons produce too many competing, mutually nullifying, forces.

If I just let it happen “naturally” then the sound can have richness, shape, beauty, size, and almost as much volume as I might ever need. If more volume should be required, I can get it by letting my arm drop and coordinate with the finger. It takes lots of practice to learn to let your arm just fall gravitationally. Muscular effort just messes up the motion and the corresponding sound. As I pointed out in the comments to Chapter 2, the hard part of teaching someone, or teaching yourself — is to get them to stop doing most of what they unthinkingly think is obligatory — to do less.


For comparison, I’m including the translation by Lin Yutang, which I always love and respect, even when I disagree:

4. The Character of Tao

Tao is a hollow vessel,
And its use is inexhaustible!
Fathomless!
Like the fountain head of all things,
Its sharp edges rounded off,
Its tangles untied,
Its light tempered,
Its turmoil submerged,
Yet dark like deep water it seems to remain.
I do not know whose Son it is,
An image of what existed before God.

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