Commentary on Laozi’s Daodejing, no. 34: ‘The great Way floods her banks…’

The excerpt, below, is from Laozi, Daodejing, trans. Edmund Ryden, intro. Benjamin Penny, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 71. Bracketed numbers, e.g., [1], occurring at the end of the lines correspond to my notes following the text.

Bear in mind that I have never studied Daoism and, in fact, had not picked up Daodejing before this past Monday, so my commentary is more Borgian than scholarly. In this respect, I am an amateur avant la lettre. As the Oxford English Dictionary reminds us, before the 19th C. the amateur was (1) “one who loves or is fond of; one has has a taste for anything” and (2) “one who cultivates anything as a pastime, as distinguished from one who prosecutes it professionally; hence, sometimes used disparagingly, as = dabbler, or superficial student or worker.” The slippage in the second quote intimates the subsequent reversal of meaning of the concept of amateurism, a reversal that begins around the end of the 19th C. when the lawyerly, medical, and engineering professions began to seek legitimization, and that reaches a finale by the middle of the 20th C.

Today, the amateur is only a “mere dabbler” and, it is said, typically a fool, someone who lacks the expertise of the professional, an individual who does not get paid, and has no claim to getting paid, to make, potter about with, or tinker with something. But then the philosopher is not a professional but a serious amateur.

No. 34
The great Way floods her banks; she can go left or right. [1]
She completes her tasks, pursues her affairs, yet she is given no ownership for this. [2]
The myriad things flow back to her, yet she does not lord it over them, [3]
On the contrary,
She is ever without yearning and can be named among the small things. [4]
The myriad things flow back to her, yet she does not lord it over them.
She can be named among what is great.
For this reason,
The reason why the Sage can do great things is because he never himself acts as great, [5, 6]
There he can be great. 


[1] The Way is like a flood, so plentiful as to rise above the river banks. Fullness itself, the Way bathes all, bringing nourishment to the myriad things it touches.

The Way is absolutely indifferent with respect to “the left” and “the right.” If the Way flows over all things, this it does without making any distinctions between “things.” For in the “eyes” of the Way, there is no thinghood, hence it can make no difference to the Way whether it goes “left” or “right”, “up” or “down,” “backward” or “forward,” for these are human concerns derived from all too human concepts. Therefore, the word “can” marks the power of the Way to go wherever it may and in going wherever to wash over all. The Way, like the flood waters, simply goes.

[2] The Way flows “outward” with the power of doing enough. Flowing “outward,” the Way completes its movement as far as finality goes. The Way sweeps the porch of leaves and then, in the next breath, leaves. It is of particular importance that the Way does not own or possess, does not grab and take what it uses or completes. Neither the porch nor the broom nor the leaves nor the stone upon the path are the Way’s. Of course, all myriad things, inasmuch as the Many belongs to the One, belongs to the Way, yet belonging is not to be confused with owning. The Way is invited into the house, dwells within it, takes care of it, and then puts the keys under the pot beside the doormat.

[3] All things flow “back” into the Way. The Way welcomes all things, receiving all gifts. The Way, a great recipient, does not subdue the stranger or the guest. The Way is not a master, and the other is not a servant. The Way has no thumbs.

From [1-3], it follows that the Way bathes all yet holds none.

[4] It is for this reason that the Way is without yearning, for yearning requires lack. The one who yearns for something lacks that which he longs to possess or secure or re-possess. For how could the Way yearn since it passes over and through myriad things, completes every assignment, but takes nothing with it? If the Way cannot grab, how can it hold? And if it cannot hold, then how can it lose? And if it cannot lose, then how can it yearn? In essence, the Way is all there is, and all there is, full and entire, can never want for “something.”

[5] The third and final stanza introduces us to the Sage. The Sage is the figure who lives according to the Way. In this, ethics is at one with metaphysics. As a result, the Sage cannot be estranged from life, estrangement being a logical impossibility.

Now, the Sage would be the one who acts simply: giving forth, receiving unto, holding nothing, and thereby incapable of yearning. It could be said that the Sage is without properties and thus is perhaps invisible when he walks among the common people. Like the Way, the Sage goes unseen.

[6] Not being as great as the Way and perceiving this, the Sage is humble. The Way is great and utmost, the Sage is in the Way, of the Way, but never as magnificent as the Way. This mystery–the Sage’s partaking of the Way, being of the Way’s being, but not being as great as the Way–doubtless leaves the Sage overawed.

3 thoughts on “Commentary on Laozi’s Daodejing, no. 34: ‘The great Way floods her banks…’

  1. There’s a famous story about Aquinas. He’s in the midst of completing his magnum opus, the Summa. On the road to Rome (I think it is), he claims to have had a mystical experience. Soon after, he leaves off finishing the Summa. When asked, he says, “That is all as nothing now.” Truly remarkable.

  2. The Tao is such a rich text. I have enjoyed Mitchell’s translation since it came out in 1988 – it provides an interesting counterpoint:

    The great Tao flows everywhere.
    All things are born from it,
    yet it doesn’t create them.
    It pours itself into its work,
    yet it makes no claim.
    It nourishes infinite worlds,
    yet it doesn’t hold on to them.
    Since it is merged with all things
    and hidden in their hearts,
    it can be called humble.
    Since all things vanish into it
    and it alone endures,
    it can be called great.
    It isn’t aware of its greatness;
    thus it is truly great.

    While somewhat out of context, there are interesting parallels between these sentiments, and the justification of action as propounded by Kṛṣṇa in the Bhagavad-gītā: “The superior man performs the yoga of action while renouncing its fruits” (quoted in van Buitenen’s introduction to the bilingual edition, 1981, p21).

    1. Misha: Thanks for this lovely reply. And the other translation also…sparkles. I’ve a question for you: Would you mind pointing me toward some good commentaries on the text? I’d like to get an idea of what the Daoist metaphysic looks like, would like to be able to make out better what Part 2 on Dejing is about, what the relationship is between the Dao and the Dejing, and what the basic ‘ethic’ is in connection with the metaphysic. I grant that these may very much be live, rather than settled, matters.

      Around this time in the Axial Age, we begin to see many philosophies say: “Live according to nature” and then try to work out what that means. The Epicureans say one thing, the Stoics another, and so on. I take it–very roughly–the Daodejing is one excellent answer to that question. And in some basic but still inchoate sense I find my life moving in this direction.

      I’d be grateful for some good guidance, my friend.

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