Chapter 21 – The Most Important Chapter?

The all-embracing quality of the great virtue (te) follows alone from the Tao.
The thing that is called Tao is eluding and vague.
Vague and eluding, there is in it the form.
Eluding and vague, in it are things.
Deep and obscure, in it is the essence.
The essence is very real; in it are evidences.
From the time of old until now, its name (manifestations) ever remains.
By which we may see the beginning of all things.
How do I know that the beginning of all things are so?
Through this (Tao). 

Translation by Wing-Tsit Chan (1963)

The note following the translation of Chapter 21 in Wing-Tsit Chan’s A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy says that philosophically this is the most important chapter in the entire Tao Te Ching.  While it would be interesting to consider the virtue (te – after all we are talking about the Tao Te Ching) following from the Tao, I will defer that discussion to our look at Chapter 38.  For this Tao Te Ching Tuesday let us consider why such an accomplished scholar thinks this chapter is so important.

Tai Chi SymbolMost people are at least vaguely familiar with the t’ai chi or yin/yang symbol.  Supposedly, that symbol was either created by the 11th Century philosopher Chou Tun-I or was given to him by a Taoist priest.  It is probable that a version of the symbol had been developed over the centuries by Taoists, but refined and explained by Chou.

His explanation is very interesting and reasonably concise, so it seems appropriate to include an extensive quote, again using Wing-Tsit Chan’s translation: 

The Ultimate of Non-being and also the Great Ultimate (T’ai-chi)!  The Great Ultimate through movement generates yang.  When its activity reaches its limit it becomes tranquil.  Through tranquility the Great Ultimate generates yin.  When tranquility reaches its limit, activity begins again.  So movement and tranquility alternate and become the root of each other, giving rise to the distinction of yin and yang, and the two modes are thus established. 

By the transformation yang and its union with yin, the Five Agents of Water, Fire, Wood, Metal and Earth arise.  When these five material forces (ch’i) are distributed in harmonious order, the four seasons run their course. 

The Five Agents constitute one system of yin and yang, and yin and yang constitute one Great Ultimate.  The Great Ultimate is fundamentally the Non-Ultimate.  The five Agents arise, each with its specific nature. 

When the reality of the Ultimate of Non-being and the essence of yin, yang and the Five Agents come into mysterious union, integration ensues. . . . The myriad things produce and reproduce, resulting in an unending transformation. 

It is man alone who receives (the Five Agents) in their highest excellence, and therefore he is most intelligent. . . .  The five moral principles of his nature (humanity or jen, righteousness, propriety, wisdom and faithfulness) are aroused by, and react to, the external world and engage in activity; good and evil are distinguished; and human affairs take place. 

The sage settles these affairs by the principles of men . . ., regarding tranquility as fundamental.  (Having no desire, there will therefore be tranquility.)  Thus he establishes himself as the ultimate standard for man.  Hence the character of the sage is ‘identical with Heaven and Earth . . .’The superior man cultivates these moral qualities and enjoys good fortune, whereas the inferior man violates them and suffers evil fortune . . . ‘

Wing-Tsit Chan’s note says that the “backbone” of Chou’s explanation is the statement in Chapter 21 of the Tao Te Ching that “the essence is very real.”

Certainly there is a Taoist flavor to Chou’s ideas, especially the concept of the Ultimate of Non-being as coexisting with the Great Ultimate.  They also derive from the Book of Changes – the I Ching – though substituting the concept of the Five Agents for the eight trigrams.  The I Ching was, in fact, central to his metaphysics; and his ideas were one of the most important bases of the so-called neo-Confucian ethics that shaped Chinese thought for centuries.

Precisely how these words are embodied in the t’ai chi or yin/yang symbol is very interesting and deserves a discussion separate from this look at Chapter 21 of the Tao Te Ching.  For anyone interested in that discussion, I would refer you to the work of Michael C. Kalton of the University of Washington, which may be found at

I would like to finish my thoughts with a little different approach to the idea that “the essence is very real.”  I learned yesterday that one of the recipients of this year’s Nobel Prize for physics is Peter Higgs, whose name became known to the general public several months ago when the CERN facility in Geneva may have detected what is called a “Higgs boson,” which has been described in a book by another Nobel laureate, Leon Lederman, as the “God particle.”

Like 99.999% of the world’s population, I don’t pretend to understand any of this – but I won’t let that stop me from making some observations.  First, we should understand that the standard model of particle physics tells us that there are two fundamental types of particles, bosons and fermions.  That fact is mentioned simply to explain the name – the Higgs part comes from Prof. Higgs.  However, what is more important than the boson itself is what is referred to as the “Higgs field.”

The problem to be resolved (at least based on my limited understanding) is that at a very early point in time following the “big bang” (which we will assume actually occurred), temperatures were so high that certain symmetries (following the theory that there are essential symmetries or super-symmetries) could not be broken and all elementary particles existed with no mass whatever.  In other words, the particles had too much energy to exist in what could be deemed a “physical” form.  Without that mass, and “physical existence,” the world as we know it – the Universe as we know it – and you and I – would have no physical existence.  Certainly, that would lead to a much different world than we observe day by day.

So, if all elementary particles were without mass and “moving” through a vacuum at the speed of light (or perhaps a little faster), what could cause them to change from massless energy into some form that has a mass?  Well, Prof. Higgs, and others conjectured some 50 years ago that empty space may not really be “empty.”  It may not be a vacuum the way we normally think of vacuums.  Rather, it may contain some kind of “quantum field” that somehow interacts with the particles to cause a spontaneous breaking of symmetry, creating a state of lower energy in which particles could have mass – could have what we would more normally consider a “physical” existence.

Of course in the quantum world, we don’t actually find our normal conception of “physical existence.”  Mass in this conception is not seen as something intrinsic to any particle or to matter in general.  Instead, it is a secondary quality created by an interaction with the quantum field.

Anyway, to make a long story short and simplify these concepts so that even I can make some sense of them, the theory required that the quantum field must have some sort of field particle associated with it.  That particle is the so-called Higgs boson.  After 40 years of experimenting, physicists finally detected a particle which has characteristics “consistent” with those of the standard model Higgs boson.

To paraphrase Lao Tzu in this Chapter 21:

The thing that is called a quantum field (Tao) is eluding and vague, but there is in it the basis for mass and physicality.  Eluding and vague, in it are things such as the boson.  Deep and obscure, in it is the essence of all mass and physical matter.  The essence is very real; in it is the evidence of all existence.

 Does any of this describe an absolute reality?  I doubt it.  Does any of this “science” describe anything that truly exists?  Who knows?  To me, the quantum field sounds very much like the “ether” which helped explain many scientific observations, but was discredited a couple of centuries ago.

The analogies between the quantum field and the Tao are certainly intriguing.  Perhaps this is the most important chapter of the Tao Te Ching not only as a basis for neo-Confucian thought but also as the explanation of life, the universe and everything – or 42, to those who are fans of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.



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