Chapter 24: Bitterness and GraceMar 17, 2023
Translation © 2023 by Stuart Alve Olson
These translations of the Scripture on Tao and Virtue by Lao Zi (道 德 經 著 老 子) include the rare commentary by Taoist Immortal Bai Yuchan (白 玉 蟾, 1194–1229 CE), more popularly called the Jade Toad Immortal. Bai Yuchan was the fifth patriarch of the Southern School of Internal Alchemy. Even though he only lived to age 33, he was one of Taoist history’s most prolific writers, and is most well known for his discourses on Thunder Rites (雷 禮, Lei Li).
The following texts present Bai’s insightful commentaries inserted within the Tao De Jing. Although there have been many excellent English translations published on the Tao De Jing, Bai’s commentaries give a fresh outlook on the inner meaning of this incredible work by Lao Zi, so it’s worthwhile to begin presenting Bai Yuchan interpretations to Taoist English readers.
Bitterness and Grace
The Meaning of Chapter 24
Commentary by Stuart Alve Olson
The first six verses of this chapter (Section One) is pointing out that all extremes and excesses are harmful, and the last three verses (Section Two) show that a person of the Tao will naturally avoid actions that are extreme. Bai Yuchan is making the case that a person in a fully conscious state (using the mundane calculating mind) loses the natural and spontaneous ability to do what Nature/Tao so easily accomplishes without calculation. We can see this clearly in his commentary on the first verse, “The mind is like a wall, yet the Tao can enter it.” The mind is like a wall because of the extremes and excesses it can adhere and attach to. So, ridding the mind of extremes and excesses the Tao can find entrance. Therefore, excess in this chapter is being defined as actions and perceptions that occur both physically and mentally. Such as, moral actions, these can become superfluous and extreme if we do not allow the natural processes of Nature/Tao to guide us into states of Wei Wu Wei (Active Non-Action) and the Zi Ran (Naturally-Just-So). In Bai Yuchan’s titling of this chapter, Bitterness and Grace, it can be determined that the ‘bitterness’ comes from adhering to excess and ‘grace’ comes from simplifying and abiding in the Tao so allow Tao to enter (our mind and actions).
Bai Yuchan’s last comment in this chapter, “Don’t be afraid of pondering it [Tao], be afraid of not awakening to it [Tao],” is reminiscent of another Taoist adage, “Don’t be afraid of thoughts, be afraid of not being aware of them.” For it is one thing to attempt to intellectualize about the Tao, yet quite another thing to actually cultivate the Tao relying purely on empirical experience rather than on intellectual assumptions.
Bai Yuchan Text
[Lao Zi] Those who tiptoe cannot stand.
跂者不立, Qǐ zhě bù lì
[Bai Yuchan] The mind is like a wall, yet the Tao can enter it.
心如墻壁乃可入道, Xin ju qiang bi nai ke ru dao
[Lao Zi] Those who straddle cannot walk.
跨者不行, Kuà zhě bù xíng
[Bai Yuchan] If only the mind could be unblemished, the body would then reveal the True and Constant.
心惟無染體露眞常, Xin wei wu ran tI lu zhen chang
[Lao Zi] Those who perceive a self are not illuminated.
自見者不明, Zì jiàn zhě bù míng
[Bai Yuchan] Absolutely everything is empty and false.
凡所有相皆是虛忘, Fan suo you xiang jie shi xu wang
[Lao Zi] Those who are self-righteous are not distinguished.
自是者不彰, Zì shì zhě bù zhāng
[Bai Yuchan] They are unable to hear or see, and unable to seek out a position.
不可以聲色求不可以名相見, Bu ke yi sheng se qiu bu ke yi ming xiang jian
[Lao Zi] Those who boast of their deeds are not meritorious.
自 伐 者 無 功, Zì fá zhě wú gōng
[Bai Yuchan] A hundred thoughts disperse into the clouds, the wind ceases, the heart turns to Frost Descends, and the water drains away.
百念雲消而風止寸心霜降而水涸, Bai nian yun xiao er feng zhi cun xin shuang jiang er shui he hao
Note: “Boasting” is deemed as intangible and not useful, as a myriad of thoughts dispersing into airy clouds, as dead wind, and as parched ground. Frost Descends (Shuang Jiang) is a reference to the 18th solar season when the seasonal climate is on the decline towards winter. Hence, boasting of deeds only depletes a person of merit.
[Lao Zi] Those who are arrogant cannot lead.
自 矜 者 不 長, Zì jīn zhě bù cháng
[Bai Yuchan] The True [Tao] is bright, profound, void, pervasive, and spiritually penetrating.
眞淨明妙虛徹靈通, Zhen jing ming miao xu che ling tong
[Lao Zi] To a person of the Tao these are all like leftover foods or superfluous actions,
其在道也曰餘食贅行, Qí zài dào yě yuē yú shí zhuì xíng
[Bai Yuchan] The benevolent see the so-called benevolent and the wise see wisdom.
仁者見之謂之仁智者見之智, Ren zhe jian zhi wei zhi ren zhi zhe jian zhi zhi
[Lao Zi] as some things should be loathed.
物或惡之, Wù huò è zhī
[Bai Yuchan] Quick glancing at things is a disease, to discontinue doing so is the medicine.
瞥起是病不續是藥, Pie qi shi bing bu xu shi yao
[Lao Zi] Therefore, the person of the Tao does not indulge in them.
故有道者不處, Gù yǒu dào zhě bù chù
[Bai Yuchan] Don’t be afraid of pondering it [Tao], be afraid of not awakening to it [Tao].
不怕念起惟恐覺遅, Bu pa nian qi wei kong jiao chi
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