Scripture on the Way and Virtue, Chapter 21

With Bai Yuchan’s Commentary

Translation Copyright ©2019 by Stuart Alve Olson

Empty Mind
虛 心

The vastness1 of virtue2 appears (a big container of everything) only in accordance with the Tao (a small entrance to everything).

Tao as a thing (O [Wu Ji]).4 is entirely elusive and vague3 (unable to accord with the knowing of it, unable to be in accord with common sense of it).

Within, there is the appearance of the elusive and the vague (this is Mind, and this is Tao).

Within, there is the appearance of the vague and the elusive (this is Tao, and this is Mind). Within it, there is an image (O [Wu Ji]) of darkness and obscurity (this is the Mind and Tao united).

Within it, there is essence,5 (O [Wu Ji]) and this essence is the Real.6 (O [Wu Ji]). Within it there is Truth.7 (O [Wu Ji]).

As it is now, so it was in days of old (Mind is nothing in the beginning and if also nothing in the end),

Its name does not disappear (people are capable of the magnanimous Tao, but without the Tao there is just magnanimous humanity).

By it the beginnings of all things are then known (within the Ten Thousand Things, only the Tao becomes great).

How do I know the beginnings of all things are such? (Within the Five Activities8 there is a divine immortalhood (the Tao) all people can acquire).

Because of this (O [Wu Ji])!


  1. Vastness (孔, Kong) was translated by Wang Bi (王弼, 226–249 CE a neo-Taoist philosopher whose most famous commentaries are found on the Tao De Jing and the I Ching) to mean “emptiness,” and “vastness.” Heshang Gong (河上公, the Riverside Elder, a first-century Taoist recluse who wrote the earliest commentary of the Tao De Jing) also took the term Kong to mean “vastness.”
  2. Virtue (德, De), interpreting this term in the Chinese meaning indicates a state of spiritual power and influence derived from serious cultivation.
  3. Elusive and vague (恍惚, Huang Hu). In chapter 14 the Tao is called “elusive” and “vague.” Huang Hu indicates “Primal Chaos” or the Hun Tun, as found in chapter 25. 
  4. O is the image of Wu Ji (無極, the Illimitable). From Wu Ji comes the Tai Ji (Supreme Ulitmate) or, stated differently, Wu Ji is emptiness, Tai Ji is the something coming from nothingness.
  5. Essence (精, Jing). The idea of essence here is meant to mean the very root power of the universe and Tao, sometimes called Ji (機), the root mechanism of all things.
  6. Real (眞, Zhen). This term can also be viewed as “perfection,” such as seen in the name Zhen Ren (眞人),  the Perfected Person, the ideal of an accomplished Taoist cultivator.
  7. Truth (信, Xin). Within the Tao, there is a truth, and that truth is the Wu Ji (the Illimitable). The term truth (xin) here, like in the Book of Changes, also indicates the ideas of expansion and growth, just as the sun expands during the day and retreats during the night—the fluctuation of sun and moon. Wu Ji, likewise, expands and grows out to Tai Ji, and this is the working of the Tao.
  8. Five Activities (五行, Wu Xing), the activities of the Five Elements (Earth, Metal, Water, Wood, and Fire), which by extension is referring to the Five Internal Organs (stomach, lungs, kidneys, liver, and heart). In Ge Hong’s Master of Simplicity, he states that unless the Five Internal Organs are in optimum health, one cannot attain immortality.

The Meaning

Lao Zi is stating in this chapter that virtue is a power that issues from the  Tao, just like a magnetic field around a magnet. The magnet then controls its field of influence and shapes the field, so the Tao controls and shapes the power of virtue. The Tao, Lao Zi implies, is unobservable and immaterial (non-existent), yet from it, all life is issued (existent). From ancient times until the present day the Tao has been thought of with an endless number of names, and we might ask which one is really it? But Lao Zi here is stating that by his insights, intuitions, and experiences with what we call eternal, it is always just-so. It is by these things that he understands the Tao. Bai Yuchan is making the point that through his knowledge and wisdom of Wu Ji (the Illimitable), he can understand this dual reality of existence and non-existence.

When examining chapter 14 a little closer, we see that the Tao is called “elusive and vague” and that the Tao is to be viewed as Primal Chaos or Hun Tun (see chapter 25). In chapter 14, the Tao is returning to nothingness, but in this chapter, the Tao is defined as advancing towards somethingness. The difference between these two chapters (14 and 21) is that in chapter 14 the Tao is nameless and the Tao is formless. But here the Tao is eternally named and it contains all the workings of form. The basis for these differences is seen in the ideas of Being (有, You) and Non-Being (無, Wu) as first indicated in chapter 1 (“Hold onto Being yet keep to Non-Being”). Chapter 14 is then discussing Non-Being (Wu), and this chapter, Being (You). Chapter 14 also indicates that the Tao is the beginning of the old (ancient timelessness), but in chapter 21 Lao Zi indicates that Tao is in the “here and now.” Again, when viewing this chapter as holding onto existence (Being), and chapter 14 as keeping to non-existence (Non-Being), then Lao Zi’s words here are much easier to understand.

Bai Yuchan’s Original Chinese Text

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