Discourse on All Things As Equal (Part 1)

Nan Guozi1 sat leaning forward on a small stool, breathing gently and gazing skyward. In his abstraction, he seemed to have lost all contact with his body. Standing and roaming about in attendance was Yan Chengzi.2 Yan inquired, “How can a body be made to resemble a dead tree and a heart and mind like dead ashes? You are not sitting and leaning now the way you used to.”

“What a good question, Yan. You notice that I have lost all contact with myself! You may have heard notes of humanity, but not yet that of Earth, but even if you had heard the notes of Earth, you have not heard the notes of Heaven.”  

Yan asked, “Please describe these for me.”   

Nan Guozi said, “The belches from the Great Mass [nature] are called winds. When they arise, the myriad crevices shout out in anger.  Are you the only one who has not heard their gales and whistles? The cliffs in the mountains and forests and the crevices in the enormous trees resemble noses, mouths, ears, beams, tubes, and mortars. Some resemble stagnant pools. Others, swamps. Some splash up, others make bubbling sounds; some shout, others inhale; some blow, others laugh; some squeak, others chirp. When the first one shouts out, the following one echoes it. When the wind is gentle, there is a lower harmony; when gusty, a louder one. When the violent wind stops, all the crevices become empty. Are you the only one who has not noticed the howling and the gradual subsiding.

“When Earth plays its notes, it is merely the mass of crevices, Earth’s apertures, in operation; and in comparison when humans play its notes, we are dealing with sounds blown through tubes of bamboo, human apertures.” 

Yan requested, “Now please teach me about Heaven’s playing its notes.”   

Nan Guozi responded, “Heaven’s notes are vastly different from the Earthly and Human notes, in that they are spontaneous both in the movement and with the cessation of movement. All the notes of Earth and Humanity are generated from the wind blowing past their crevices and apertures. But who could be the blower of the wind?”


  1. Nan Guozi (南 郭 子).
  2. Yan Chengzi (顏 成 子). Nan Guozi’s disciple.

* * *

Great knowledge is all-encompassing and wide, and petty knowledge is just hairsplitting and restricted. Great speech is exact and brilliant, and petty speech is verbose.

While we sleep, our Hun Spirit1 makes [internal] contacts; and when we are awake, our physical senses and Po Spirit2 are freed and make [external] contacts. The two types of contact lead daily to conflict of the heart and mind. Some develop gradually, others explode, and others remain secret. Small fears put us on our guard, but the greater ones overwhelm us.

When speech comes at us like an arrow from the crossbow, the rights and wrongs of it are then in question. When the speech comes at us slowly, like someone reading the conditions of a covenant, we then deal with it as a purely defensive situation, where only winning can be seen. The weakness of these [two types of] responses is like the decline of daylight during autumn and winter, it only shows the failing [of some minds] from day to day. Or like water, once emptied out of a vessel, cannot be gathered up again, so it is with a torrent of speech no reply can be made.

When speech comes at us like mumbles, like something bound fast with ropes, it shows a mind that is like an old and dry moat. Nothing can revitalize the vigor of the heart and mind on the brink of death.

Take joy, anger, grief, pleasure, worry, sadness, misfortune, anxiety, rashness, overindulgence, frankness, and sensuality. As music proceeds from voids and damp produces mushrooms, they succeed one another day and night, but nobody knows from whence they spring.

Enough of this!

Between dawn and sunset can we discover their birthplaces? Without B, A would not exist; and without A, nothing would be chosen. This is an approximation of truth, but we do not know what causes this situation. If there is a True Director, we certainly cannot see him. He can indicate his presence, but he cannot reveal his shape. He has function, but he is invisible.


  1. Hun (魂, Heavenly Spirit) are the three immortal spirits that influence a person’s spiritual nature.
  2. Po (魄, Earthly Spirits) are the Seven Earthly Spirits that influence a person’s more carnal or emotional activities.

* * *

The hundred joints,1 the nine apertures,2 and the Six Storehouses3 exist here in union. To which of them am I to show a preference? Are you pleased with them as a whole? Either way, we should be showing a preference. Do all of them take positions of lesser importance? Servants cannot govern one another! Do they take turns as sovereign and subject? I promise you that there is a real sovereign there, and whether or not we put a finger on his presence, it neither augments nor diminishes his reality.

Once we have gotten our physiques we await extinction without running away. As the physique makes contacts with all creation it moves like a rushing steed, and nobody can halt it. Isn’t it sad? Always hard at work on this or that, it never sees what is accomplished. Weak and sickly, it does not understand what it is moving. Can we fail to lament it? What advantage is there in saying that it is better than death? This physique changes, and the heart and mind, too. Can we fail to call that highly lamentable? 


  1. Hundred joints is a term actually referring to the entire body. Hundred is sometimes used to mean “all.”
  2. Nine apertures are the two eye sockets, two nostril openings, two ear channels, the mouth, urethra, and anus.
  3. Six Storehouses are the heart, liver, spleen, lungs, and two kidneys.

* * *

Is man’s life actually as confused as it seems to be? Or am I the only one confused? If one abided by his own heart and treated it as a teacher, who would be the only one without a teacher? Why must knowledge vary so that our hearts and minds exercise choices? Stupidity lies therein. To be in the clutches of right and wrong before one’s own mind is made up is the paradox of setting out for Yuan today but arriving there yesterday.  Or, the paradox of “nonexistence is existence,” which even the divine Yu the Great1 would have been unable to understand. So what can I do all alone?


  1. Yu the Great (大 雨, Da Yu) is normally referred to as the God of Wind and Water (風 水, Feng Shui), as legends of him relate that he devised the means for stopping the great flood of his era. He is sometimes called Xia Yu (夏 禹), as it was under his rule that the first actual dynasty in China was installed, the Xia dynasty (2070–1600 BCE). The art and science of Feng Shui developed out of the Ho River Map and the Lo River Script, and they are still used today as the authoritative guides in determining the spatial arrangement and orientation of objects as they relate to the flow of energy (氣, qi).

Translation © 2019 by Stuart Alve Olson.

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