If, according to my judgment, Taoism is the purification rather than the metaphysicalization or the total denounciation of Confucian hermeneutics, Tao as the focal insight of Taoism must be purely hermeneutic and appropriating. This is certainly a quite different understanding of Tao from the popular one that holds Tao to be the highest and invariable rule. In the latter, because the hermeneutic and regional sense of Tao is concealed, Tao is presented conceptually as the highest principle. On the other hand, due to the “unnameable” character of Tao and a representative understanding of language or “naming”, Tao is asserted to be a mysterious “black hole” or “Non-being” that has nothing to do with language experience and intelligible thinking. In other words, the “unnameable” (wu suing) of Tao is not taken as refuting merely the conceptual saying but language experience as a whole. The “Nothingness” of Tao is also absolutized as a substantial Non-being that denies any understanding belonging to “this world”. This dichotomous perspective of Tao is to me the biggest obstacle to properly apprehend Taoism and its relation to Heidegger ’s thinking.
In the following, I will analyze the first chapter of Lao Tzu , in order to show the difference of my understanding of Tao from the conceptual one and support my view with evidences. The popular translation of this important chapter is like this:
The Tao (Way) that can be told of is not the eternal [ch’ang] Tao; / The name that can be named is not the eternal name. / The Nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth; / the Named is the mother of all things. / Therefore let there always be non-being so wel may see their subtlety; / And let there always be being so we may see their outcome. / The two are the same, / but after they are produced, they have different names. / They both may be called deep and profound (hsuan). / The door of all subtleties! [Tao Te Ching I: O Tao]
One of the key words in this chapter is ”ch’ang”, translated by most scholars as “eternal” to mean “unchanging” or ’invariable”. For instance, Yu-lan Fung says:
The “invariable” is a translation of the Chinese word ch’ang, which may also be translated as eternal or abiding. Though things are ever changeable and changing, the laws that govern this change of things are not themselves changeable. Hence in the Lao Tzu the word ch’ang is used to show what is always so, or in other words, what can be considered as a rule. For instance, Lao Tzu tell us: “The conquest of the world comes invariably from doing nothing”, (ch. 48) Or again: “The way of Heaven has no favorites, it is invariably on the side of the good man”, (ch. 75)
This is a very popular version of reading “ch’ang”, i.e., taking “ch’ang” as the attribute of “the laws that govern this change of things”, which actually is the result of confusing different meanings of this word. In Lao Tzu as well as Chuang Tzu , “ch’ang” basically has two meanings: one is ”eternal” or “unchangeable” used derogatorily and negatively, another can be translated as “appropriating”, “recursive”, or “original”, used to describe the essence of Tao. The occurrence of the first usage is much less frequent than the second one. The forty-ninth chapter of Lao Tzu says, for instance: “The sage has no fixed [ch’ang] (personal) ideas. / He regards the people’s ideas as his own”. In the second chapter of Chuang Tzu, we reads Chan ’s translation: “In reality Tao has no limitation, and speech has no finality [ch’ang]”. Gile’s translation, although less strict literally, is more interesting: “Before conditions existed, Tao was. Before definition [ch’ang] existed, Speech was”. I would translate this sentence as: “Originally, Tao submits to no limitation, and Speech to no conceptual fixation [ch’ang]”.
Lao Tzu gives a direct interpretation of the second meaning of “ch’ang”, i.e., “appropriating and recursive”, in two places. The first is in the sixteenth chapter:
Attain complete vacuity [hsu], / Maintain steadfast quietude [ching]. / All things come into being, / And I see thereby their return [fu]. / All things flourish, / But each one returns to its root . / This return to its root [kui ken] means tranquillity [ching]. / It is called returning to its destiny [fu ming]. / To return to destiny is called the eternal [ch’ang] (Tao). / To know the eternal [ch’ang] is called enlightenment [ming]. [Tao Te Ching VI: a mãe misteriosa de todos]
Here, “ch’ang” is said to mean “returning to its destiny [fu ming]” or ”returning to its root [kui ken]”. Of course, the “returning” hermeneutically presupposes a “standing-out”, indicated in this chapter as ”All things come into being”, which is the result of the command: “Attain complete non-substantiality [hsu]”. The “destiny” (ming) and the “root” (ken) of all things is the hsu, the non-substantial, and the ching, the quietude or the tranquillity. In this light, Ch’ang is essentially the returning in a productive and hermeneutic circle. So, “To know ch’ang is to be enlightened” rather than be informed. Another interpretation of the positive meaning of “ch’ang” given by Lao Tzu perfectly accords with the above one. Chapter 55 runs:
He who possesses virtue in abundance may be compared to an infant. / Poisonous insects will not sting him. / Fierce beasts will not seize him. / Birds of prey will not strike him. / His bones are weak, his sinews tender, but his grasp is firm. / He does not yet know the union of male and female, / But his organ is aroused. / This means that his essence is at its height. / He may cry all day without becoming hoarse, / This means that his (natural ) harmony [he] is perfect. / To know harmony is the eternal [ch’ang]. / To know the eternal is to be enlightened [ming].
Here the meaning of “ch’ang” is the “knowing harmony (he)”. “He” (harmony) means the productive meeting and the “back and forth” of two opponents (yin and yang). In chapter 42, it is said,
The ten thousand things carry the yin and embrace the yang, and through the blending [ch’ung, the fully and mutually penetrating] of the material [regional] force (ch’i ) they achieve harmony [he].
The “blending” (ch’ung) may be understood in various senses, one of which, as chapter 2 describes, is to let the dichotomous partners be interpenetrated:
Being and non-being produce each other; / Difficult and easy complete each other; / Long and short contrast each other; / High and low distinguish each other; / Sound and voice harmonize with each other; / Front and back follow each other. / Therefore the sage manages affairs without action (wu wei ),
In terms of “wu wei” or “release”, a Taoist region is provided for the mutual producing, completing and following of the opponents, such as being and non-being, the difficult and the easy, and the front and the back.
Combining the two interpretations, we can say that the second and deeper meaning of “ch’ang” is the “returning to root within a productive and hermeneutic circle” as the “knowing harmony between dichotomies”. Accordingly, Lao Tzu says in chapter 40: “Reversion is the action of Tao. / Weakness is the function of Tao”. “Reversion” signifies returning to the root in terms of knowing harmonies. The “weakness” or “weakening”, as the function of Tao, is the elimination of conceptual attachment (stiffness) and causal action (wei), and thus can follow the non-substantial (hsu).
For all these reasons, I believe that it is misleading to translate and interpret “ch’ang” in the first chapter as well as in its most occurrences in Lao Tzu as “eternal” or “unvarying”. This version fits merely the first and the derogatory sense of this word.
Out of the second and positive sense of “ch’ang”, derive such meanings as “lasting”, “often”, and “always” in Lao Tzu. They are the results of the “returning to root” and “knowing the harmony”, rather than the attribute of an apriori “eternity” and “invariable rule” that is ontologically separated from the changing world. So, in the second half of the chapter 16, we read:
To know ch’ang is called enlightenment. / Not to know ch’ang is to act blindly to result in disaster. / He who knows ch’ang is all-embracing [yielding]. / Being all-embracing, he is impartial. / Being impartial, he is kingly (universal ). / Being kingly, he is the one with Nature [heaven]. / Being one with Nature, he is in Tao. / Being in Tao, he is everlasting [chiu]. / And is free from danger throughout his lifetime.
”Knowing ch’ang” means to be “blended” (ch’ung) with or “appropriated” by the Tao-region — “being one with Nature” and “in accord with Tao”, — and thus “is free from danger throughout his lifetime”. The result is, therefore, a long “lasting” life, “always” wandering in the region of Tao.
In light of above discourses, I think “ch’ang” in the first chapter and many other places should be interpreted “ecstatically”, signifying a mirror-playing harmony of under-standing in order to return to the original ontological region . With this new interpretation, the first chapter of Lao Tzu is quite transparent as a whole. Because the Way (Tao) that is essentially unconceptualizable is “the appropriating [ch’ang] Way”, non-being (the nameless) and being (the named) “are the same” in the hermeneutic sense; and they both may be called “hsuan”, that which is too deep to be seen conceptually. So, the hermeneutic and reciprocal identity is “the door of all subtleties!”. To interpret the “ch’ang” as “eternal” and “invariable” is virtually to shut down “the door”. The same is true for translating “ch’ang” as “itself” or “reality”, since the hermeneutic and regional structure of “ch’ang Tao” in these interpretations is still not unfolded in terms of appropriation.