Tao Te Ching, or the Tao and its Characteristics
This commentary uses the passage enumeration of Project Gutenberg text 216.
When one treads a path, one leaves footprints, altering the path. Thus the Way that can be trodden is not the unchanging Tao, or Way.
The Tao is transcendental (like pi or tau), that is, it may be understood only by approximation. No finite expression, or name, captures it fully.
The outer fringe of desire: greed, envy, covetousness.
We, existing and knowing we exist, may conceive of nonexistence.
The sage does more with less. By our actions we leave footprints which mar the beauty of what we walk upon. Thus the sage limits his actions to only those whose footprint makes the Way clearer.
A flower grows and strives against the elements. When it is grown it is beautiful, but it makes no claim to be so. It has accomplished a great feat, but it does not boast of its achievement.
Referring to the same ideas as in 2:2, observing special treatment engenders the idea of poor treatment. Thus the haves will strive against the have-nots. This is true especially for possessions. We covet first what we see, so to prevent envy it is enough to prevent sight. Moreover, if the people are such that they want not for possessions, their minds will be free from this disorder.
He "empties their minds" in the sense of the Tao, 4:1. Once the will of the people is weak, that is, when they do not quarrel with the governing sage the sage can govern without acting, and thus remaining closer to the Tao. If they have no strife with their neighbors, there will be no border disputes. If they are hospitable to foreigners there will be no invasion. If their bellies are full there will be no hunger and hence no discontent with their position in this regard.
Taken literally this passage seems to promote ignorance. However such an interpretation is fundamentally at odds with even the idea of the writing this text. Despite this, in 80:3, the Sage advocates the return to knotted cords, a more primitive form of data storage than the written word.
Knowledge can be replaced with worry and this passage remains consistent. Considering that the idea of having knowledge gives rise to the idea of the idea of lacking knowledge, that is, the idea of the unknown. It is human nature to fear the unknown. Fear is thus the disorder of the mind, in this case naturally arising from knowledge.
Another perspective is that gaining knowledge is a form of change, as is acting on such knowledge. Desire, closely related to envy, is a yearning for change. Both these are therefore at odds with the Tao.
The excellence of an empty vessel is that it has the potential to filled. While empty its value is immeasurable; it can be filled by anything, but when full its value is limited. See also 9:1.
Ancestor worship is an important facet of Chinese thought, here the Tao is compared to the ancestor of all things. See also 4:3.
Blunting a sharp point, unraveling complications and fading into obscurity are all movements toward an unchanging state. It requires constant change to keep a point sharp or a light bright forever, thus the only change the Sage desires is change to a more permenant state.
If the Tao is the ancestor of all things and the son of none then it is more precious than anything.
Nature is not a benevolent force. The heavens and earth purport all sorts of catastrophes, floods, earthquakes, etc. But neither is it malevolent; rain nourishes crops, the sun gives energy and warmth. Nature itself is as indifferent to the things in nature as people are to prarie dogs. A more appropriate object to which humans are indifferent is the mushroom (this may be what is in the original, my translation has no commentary). If a man builds a house, he does not consult the mushroom. If a mushroom must be destroyed, no funeral is arranged. If one grows in a field, it is welcomed with little fanfare. Likewise, nature is as indifferent, even more so, to humans than humans are to mushroom.
The Sage seems to praise bellows technology. To do its work it needs to change little. Similarly, the wind blows, but is never exhausted. But our inner being provides us with energy, and speaking depletes it. Therefore speak only when necessary to preserve energy and peace.
One may interpret this as an analogy of bellows to a womb. It's gate, the vagina, is where men originate. Like the bellows, its use does not diminish its power. Humans still exist despite myriad opportunities to die out, thanks in part to the female mystery. A better translation of this passage would no doubt shed light on its meaning.
Heaven and earth, as the most permanent objects known to the Sage, hold the secrets of longevity. Do not live of, or for, yourself; this is the way of the Tao.
The sage wants for little and therefore almost always gets his way. Three properties of the sage are related here: humility, compassion and contentment.
Water not only goes with the flow, it is the flow, and is therefore like the Tao.
These are all things whose excellence is often thought of differently. To some, a place to live must look a certain way, but this is rarely connected with its suitability for sleeping. Some may think a mind full of knowledge is most excellent, but what is it worth if it comes with an equal amount of chaos?
Like a puddle on the ground the sage is content with his position and does not seek to usurp anyone else's, and it is hard to see a problem with that.
Presumably the vessel is large enough or it is so full that when you try to carry it you might spill or drop it which would make all your actions in vain. Similarly, keeping points sharp seems like vanity. The use of the point reduces its usefulness. See also 12:1.
One cannot be stolen from if one has nothing to steal. The best use of power is not using it. Using one's power, like feeling a point, only reduces its usefulness. Arrogance is the end of over-indulgence in the exercise of power. See also 3:1. This last point also lends itself to multiple interpretations. One is that it is good to purposefully descend into obscurity. The other is expressing a law of sorts. When the work is done, one's name is distinguished, and people may know of your accomplishments. Over time fewer people will know what you did. After a while people may not know any of your works; they all be lost to time. Even if people remember or learn of your work, they may misunderstand and fill the gaps with their own ideas. Ultimately the question of your existence may be all that is left of your acclaim and then only the topic of an arcane academic debate. Therefore it is better to never have acclaim for your work than to have it and lose it. This is strikingly similar to the former interpretation.
When instinct and sentience are brought together, say through meditation, they may seem as one. Meditation is a way of calming the mind so that it may be mastered. Mastery of the mind enables one to be flawless.
The one who was nearing the Tao is now cast as the Tao itself, as it presides over the people, the state and true heavens.
The mysterious quality of the Tao. How can it be responsible for all and yet not control all? See also 2:4.