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1.2 (Chapter 4)
The Dao is empty (like a bowl),[1] Its usefulness can never be exhausted.[2]
The Dao is bottomless (like a valley), Perhaps the ancestor of all things[3]
Invisible or formless, it appears non-existing But actually it exists.[4]
I don't know whose child it is at all.[5]
It seems to have even preceded the Lord .[6]
[1] The original expression dao chong is rendered in English as "The Dao is empty." Being empty, as one of the essential features of the Dao, can be said to have a twofold implication: Firstly, it signifies the essence or substance of the Dao as being indescribable and profound; Secondly, it means the subtle way the Dao functions inexhaustibly in itself. In chapters 5 and 11 Lao Zi goes on to offer a series of concrete examples to illustrate the functioning of the Dao.
[2] The Chinese term bu ying is rendered in English as "being inexhaustible." As has been discerned already, the Dao is the origin of all things, and the principle of all principles. Dynamic and productive, the Dao is the fountain head of the world and all its contents. Hence it is used without being exhausted, and functions without stopping.
[3] The Chinese phrase wan wu zhi zong is rendered in English as "the ancestor of all things." This implies that the Dao as an all-principle is powerful enough to produce and determine all things.
[4] The expression zhan xi literally means "what depth or profundity!" It is employed here to suggest the nature of the Dao. In plain words, it describes the Dao metaphorically as something hidden, potential and submerged.
[5] The rhetorical question shui zhi zi (whose child?) indicates the existence of the Dao which does know any ancestor or anything preceding itself. This tells us that the Dao is the initiator of all.
[6] The conclusion xiang di zhi xian (The Dao seems to have existed before the Lord) marks a very important concept in Lao Zi's philosophy. The Chinese word di refers to the Lord or God of Heaven, who would then be supposed to create and dominate all things under the sky. As far as natural religion is concerned, both primitive and ancient men used to believe that all their surroundings and all phenomena were derived from the magic power of the Lord of Heaven. In other words, the Lord of Heaven was the ancestor of all things. Nevertheless, Lao Zi's concept of the Dao is of something prior to the Lord of Heaven. This conclusion turns out to be incorporated in the description of the Dao in Chapter 1 (DDJ).
The Dao is depicted in this chapter as being empty. The state of being empty as such reflects the quality and substance of the Dao. Needless to say, the empty form which the Dao features does not mean that there is nothing inside it. The Dao actually embodies a dynamic potentiality and creative agency, which produces innumerable things and functions as such inexhaustably.
Though being empty and above form, the Dao is seen in Lao Zi's mind's eye to be far more essential and fundamental than the Lord of Heaven, who had previously been respected as the ancestor of all things in the universe. According to Lao Zi, the Dao, instead of the Lord, remains the origin of heaven and earth or the mother of the myriad things.
It is interesting to notice that in Christian culture the Lord or God has been all along worshiped as the creator of all things. This was also true of the natural religion of ancient China. That is to say, primitive men were convinced that everything was invented and controlled by a supernatural being, which was simply due to the fact that they were unable to understand or explain the natural elements and phenomena which they confronted. Their acquired knowledge of the external world was at a very low level. Hence they tended to ascribe whatever happened beyond their understanding to the divine power of the supernatural being they imagined to exist. There were therefore the notions of di (Lord), shen (deity), and gui (spirits). As time went by, people became skeptical about those notions, and in the era directly preceding Lao Zi's, the philosopher Zi Chan once remarked that "The Heavenly Way is remote while the human Way is close by." This sounds like a skeptical stance on the fancied existence of the Lord of Heaven. It seems to recommend a kind of not-to-bother attitude toward the Lord who was supposed to govern the Heavenly Way, and it reminds us of what Confucius said later about gui (spirits) and shen (divine beings) in a widely-quoted statement as follows: "We should respect but keep aloof from the spirits and divine beings."




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