Chapter 26 – Nada
The heavy is the root of the light;
The still is the lord of the restless.
Therefore the gentleman when travelling all day
Never lets the heavily laden carts out of his sight.
It is only when he is safely behind walls and watch-towers
That he rests peacefully and is above worries.
How, then, should a ruler of ten thousand chariots
Make light of his own person in the eyes of the empire?
If light, then the root is lost;
If restless, then the lord is lost.
Translation by D. C. Lau (1963)
D. C. Lau’s translation of Chapter 26 differs from most of the others I have seen. I have chosen it for this week’s belated Tao Te Ching Tuesday reflection because, at least in this English rendition, it plays with words in a way that I like to think a sage and a poet such as Lao Tzu may have done in his ancient Chinese.
I can picture a faint smile on his face as he wrote that “the heavy is the root of the light” and the still is the lord of the restless,” knowing that in just a few more lines he would tell us, “if light, then the root is lost” and “if restless, then the lord is lost.” Think about that; and as you do, let us consider the lines in between.
Those lines (at least in this translation) begin by talking not of a king or a sage but of a “gentleman.” It is not just any gentleman, either; it is a person who owns goods and has the wherewithal to travel with his worldly belongings. However, doing so can be a heavy burden to one who is attached or rooted to the material world. He must constantly be restless and vigilant, watching and protecting his property rather than taking in the beauty of nature. His rest and stillness are possible only at night, away from the light, when he is within the perceived safety of manmade walls.
In Chapter 25, leading up to the present chapter, we learned that Tao follows the laws of nature. Therefore, the gentleman of the world, attached to things of the world, is not following the Tao. We also learned that the ruler should be great on a par with the Tao, Heaven and Earth. Here, a ruler of 10,000 chariots – goods of considerably more worldly value than the carts of the gentleman – is asked to consider how to make light of himself.
That is another great English play on words. The ruler can “make light” by not taking himself and his attachments seriously or by standing in the light, being visible outside the confining walls that seem to separate the civilized human from Nature.
Then, returning to the last two lines, we know the heavy is the root of the light; but if light, then the root (that is, the heavy) is lost. We know, too, that the still is the lord of the restless; but if restless, then the lord (that is, the restless; and, to continue playing with words, also the ruler) is lost. Thus, the seeming opposites effectively cancel each other out and we are left with Nothing, Nada, the Void. I guess we should have known that is where the Old Master was taking us.
My wife Cathy and I just returned from a trip to the Florida Keys. First, I would like to make this relevant by mentioning that the Keys are just teeming with Nature (and hence the Tao) to the point that you don’t want to go too far off the beaten track without taking your insect repellant. Even more relevant to this particular chapter is that while in Key West we visited the former home of Ernest Hemingway. Thinking about the Void (nada) and the Light brings to mind a famous short story “Papa” wrote while residing on Whitehead Street called “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”
The whole story is not much longer than this essay, and you can read it at http://www.mrbauld.com/hemclean.html. James Joyce, who should have known good writing when he saw it, called it one of the most masterful short stories ever written.
In the story, two waiters are preparing to close a café, waiting only for one elderly, deaf, intoxicated man to leave. One of the waiters – which one, we are not told – mentions that the customer had recently tried to hang himself, but he was cut down by his niece who looks after him. They feel he was in such despair over Nothing because he has plenty of money.
The waiters watch a soldier walk by with a girl and remark that the guard who recently passed by “will pick him [the soldier] up.” One of the waiters says that won’t matter if he gets what he wants. The deaf old man then signals that he wants another brandy. The younger of the two waiters eventually brings the drink but remarks that the customer should have killed himself. This waiter is very impatient, wanting to go home to his wife who is sleeping in their bed. The older one recognizes that those who are lonely need a place that is light and clean and is willing to stay for those who need such a café in the wee hours.
In fact, the older waiter needs such a place himself. He understands the loneliness.
Finally, the elderly customer leaves (after being refused yet another brandy); the younger waiter says good night as he also departs. And then:
“Good night,” the other said. Turning off the electric light he continued the conversation with himself, It was the light of course but it is necessary that the place be clean and pleasant. You do not want music. Certainly you do not want music. Nor can you stand before a bar with dignity although that is all that is provided for these hours. What did he fear? It was not a fear or dread, It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee. He smiled and stood before a bar with a shining steam pressure coffee machine.
“What’s yours?” asked the barman.
“Otro loco mas,” said the barman and turned away.
“A little cup,” said the waiter.
The barman poured it for him.
“The light is very bright and pleasant but the bar is unpolished,” the waiter said.
The barman looked at him but did not answer. It was too late at night for conversation.
“You want another copita?” the barman asked.
“No, thank you,” said the waiter and went out. He disliked bars and bodegas. A clean, well-lighted cafe was a very different thing. Now, without thinking further, he would go home to his room. He would lie in the bed and finally, with daylight, he would go to sleep. After all, he said to himself, it’s probably only insomnia. Many must have it.
It is worth taking ten minutes to read the whole story thinking of the Tao and the opposites – the young and old, the rich and working class, the lonely and the lovers – and seeing how they fade and mingle in the intentionally ambiguous dialog until in the end they merge into Nada. Many must have it.
Playing with words: Hemingway and Lao Tzu.
Note: The above photo is from Wikimedia Commons (public domain)