Chapter 39 – One Body
Of old those that obtained the One:
Heaven obtained the One and became clear.
Earth obtained the One and became tranquil.
The spiritual beings obtained the One and became divine.
The valley obtained the One and became full.
The myriad things obtained the One and lived and grew.
Kings and barons obtained the One and became rulers of the empire.
What made them so is the One.
If heaven had not thus become clear,
It would soon crack.
If the earth had not thus become tranquil,
It would soon be shaken.
If the spiritual beings had not thus become divine,
They would soon wither away.
If the valley had not thus become full,
It would soon become exhausted.
If the myriad things had not thus lived and grown,
They would soon become extinct.
If kings and barons had not thus become honorable and high in position,
They would soon fall.
Therefore humble station is the basis of honor.
The low is the foundation of the high.
For this reason kings and barons call themselves the orphaned, the lonely ones, the unworthy.
Is this not regarding humble station as the basis of honor?
Is it not?
Therefore enumerate all the parts of a chariot as you may, and you still have no chariot.
Rather than jingle like the jade,
Rumble like the rocks.
Translation by Wing-Tsit Chan (1963)
This is a long chapter. What is said here is important, but it is not terribly difficult to
understand. Therefore, I will try to be as succinct as possible in this commentary – which is not like me at all.
If one were to study Chinese medicine or various forms of Qi Gong (Chi Kung), he would learn about what have been called the “three treasures of life” – Jing (essence), Qi (or Chi) (energy) and Shen (spirit).
Jing is seen as the genetic potential of the body, so to a large extent it is inherited from one’s parents. However, it is also the essential building block of physicality, so it must be nurtured through eating wholesome food, drinking pure water and breathing clean air.
Qi is the life force energy. When it flows freely – through meridians in the human body – the body is healthy. When Qi is weak or blocked or out of balance, illness is experienced. When Qi is finally dispersed, death results. Our initial Qi is also something that is inherited; but, as in the case of Jing, its continued healthy flow depends on the nutrients and air that are provided throughout life.
Shen is the spiritual power that guides us, and which keeps our energy vibrating and directs or permits the cellular and organic activities necessary for life to function. Again, the initial allocation of Shen comes to us at birth. Thereafter, the Shen is affected by our interaction with the world around us in the form of our mental activity.
All three of these “treasures” are necessary for life, and none is more important than either of the others. Nevertheless, in order to make an analogy, I would like to emphasize the importance of spirit. Jing would represent the purely physical, in that it is matter that exists like a rock or a piece of dead wood. For Jing to be the essence of a living thing, though, it must be energized. We will then consider Qi to be less physical and compare it to electromagnetic energy. When the energy is applied to a physical conglomeration of cells in the proper manner, the cells become energized and are able to move, eat, drink and generally act like a living creature. Still, with only physical mass and energy, there would be no more than an android or a robot, and not true life. For true life to exist, there must be a spiritual component, and that is supplied by Shen. The life force which comes from Shen exists in every living thing from protozoa to plants and animals and human beings.
In this chapter, Lao Tzu tells us that everything that exists – not just those things we would normally consider to be living – is infused with some sort of special force that is referred to as “the One.” For purposes of this analogy, the One is for all the universe quite like the Shen is for us humans and our fellow life forms.
So what is the One? It is the Tao, the void which is the source of all.
Of course the Tao is source of Jing, Qi and Shen, so the analogy gets strained. Let us change our focus a bit, then. Since Jing, Qi and Shen each result from the One –the ONE, meaning undivided – all three must co-exist for any of us to experience life. Also, since heaven and earth and the spiritual beings and the valley and 10,000 things are extant because they have obtained the One – the ONE – all must co-exist for any type of life or energy to exist.
I mentioned at the beginning of this essay that this concept is not difficult to understand. I think that is especially true for those who have been raised in a Western, Christian culture because what I have discussed to this point is quite like a famous passage in St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. It goes like this:
As a body is one, though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one spirit.
Now the body is not a single part, but many. If a foot should say, “Because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. Or is an ear should say, “Because I am not an eye I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as He intended. If they were all one part, where would the body be? But as it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I do not need you.” Indeed, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are all the more necessary, and those parts of the body we consider less honorable, we surround with greater honor, and our less presentable parts are treated with greater propriety, whereas our more presentable parts do not need this. But God has so constructed the body as to give greater honor to a part that is without it, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the parts may have the same concern for one another. If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy. (1 Corinthians 12:12-26)
Accordingly, since you and I and everything else in our universe, and beyond, are from and part of the One, it is our responsibility to treat all with respect. We are required to honor life and be environmentally conscious. Are we human beings doing that? Sure, some of us are, but not all.
Not all, and perhaps not enough of us. The failure of one or many to respect the all-encompassing One can be dire. This chapter tells us that the heavens could crack, the earth could be shaken, the spiritual beings could wither away and the myriad things become extinct. That does not sound good; but look around and it may surprise you that some of those things are happening as we speak.
Lao Tzu and St. Paul both tell us what is necessary to correct the imbalances that are being created in the natural world. They tell us to be humble, and not place ourselves above any other part of the body or any other part of nature.
In this chapter, it is said that “the humble station is the basis of honor” and “the low is the foundation of the high.” Once again, Lao Tzu is saying the same thing that many have discovered in their Bibles:
Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth. (Matthew 5:5)
Whosoever … shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18: 1,4)
Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled ; and he who humbles himself shall be exalted. (Luke 14:11)
Learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart. (Matthew 11:29)
I could go on, but I am afraid that might not be succinct. I hope these reflections have rumbled like rock and not simply jingled like jade. For further thoughts on these concepts, I would invite you to read the comments on Chapter 30 of the Tao Te Ching on the” Cascadian Wanderer” web site, which you can find by clicking here.
In the meantime, we should try not to destroy any part of the One, for that is surely self-destruction.