The Canon of Purity and Tranquility

Lao Zi speaks of the Canon of Purity and Tranquility (Qingjing Jing)



Lao Zi said:
The great Tao is formless, it gives birth to heaven and earth.
The great Tao does has no sentiment, yet it moves the sun and moon.
The great Tao is nameless, yet it always nurtures everything;
I do not know how to name this: I name it Tao.



This Tao: 
We can have clarity or turbidity. We can have movement or stillness. Heaven can be clear and the earth can be turbid. Heaven can move and the earth can be still. The male can be clear and the female can be turbid. The male can move and the female can be still. What flows from the root births the ten thousand things.

[Notes: 1) The word for “clear” is the same as the word for “pure.” 2) None of the descriptions—clear, turbid, movement, or stillness—should be read with any value judgments. 3) The associations with male and female do not carry any value judgments or imply any superiority. The canon is establishing a yin-yang duality; both sides are integral to the whole. 4) All of the associations are reversible. For example, the reverse is equally true for “The male can move and the female can be turbid.”]



Purity is the source of turbidity, movement is the foundation of stillness.
 If people can be pure and tranquil, all in heaven and earth will know returning.

[Note: 1) The word for “purity” is the same as the word for “clarity” in the previous passage. 2) Note the duality of purity and turbidity, movement and stillness. That one leads to the other means that yin and yang create one another. 3) Again, all attributes are reversible, so that turbidity can just as easily lead to purity and stillness, or that stillness is just as easily the foundation of movement. 4) “Return” means that all will revert to the natural source, which is pure.]



The human spirit is quite pure, yet the mind disturbs it. The human heart can be quite tranquil, yet desire leads it. If one can vanquish desire, one’s mind will be tranquil on its own,
and when one’s mind settles, the spirit will be pure on its own.

[Notes: 1) The word for “heart” also means mind, intelligence, and soul. It’s important to read the phrase using all meanings. 2) The word for “settle,” means allowing sediment to settle to purify water.]



Then on its own, the six desires will not arise, and the three poisons will vanish.
If you are unable to do this, it is because the mind is not yet settled, and desire has not yet been vanquished.

[Notes: 1) The six desires are what the five senses lead us to crave plus what the ego wishes to possess and control. 2) The three poisons are lust, anger, and greed. 2) Chinese pronouns are not specific. “You” is used here as a matter of choice. 4) The use of the word “settle,” implies that stillness and calm allow the mind to return to its inherent purity without any special effort. Just as sediment in water will settle, so too will the mind settle simply by taking the time to be still.]



If you can vanquish in this way, and you look inside at your heart, it may outwardly have a form, but that form will be formless. If you look widely at all things, things will have no substance.

[Notes: 1) “Vanquish” is the overcoming of desire, as mentioned in the previous passage. 2) Remember the multiple meanings for “heart,” which also means mind, intelligence, and soul. 3) Things having no substance signifies that nothing has inherent or independent meaning; we project our values upon them.]


观空亦空, 空无所空 。

Once you realize these three situations, you indeed see emptiness, and observe that emptiness is also empty, and that nothing more can be emptied from emptiness.


Such emptiness is already nothingness, nothing is not-nothing. [When there’s] nothing [but] nothing from nothing, [all is] placid and constant stillness.

[Notes: 1) Following from the previous passage, the three situations are to vanquish desire, look inside to see the formless heart, and seeing that all things are without substance. 2) This passage uses both the word for “emptiness” (空) and “nothingness” 无。3) In saying that “emptiness is also empty,” the canon is careful not to set up a duality between emptiness and our normal world. Emptiness is not “superior,” it’s just a state in which there is nothing truly to contend over. 4) In the second sentence, I’ve inserted more words to try to make the passage clear. I understand this to mean, “when all is seen as complete nothingness.” 5) The word here translated as “placid” also means deep, profound, clear, and tranquil. Thus, it’s a synonym for the tranquility in the title of the canon. 6) Stillness can also mean silence.]



When quiet has no more to be quieted, how can desire arise? If desire does not arise, that is immediate and real quietness.



True constancy in all things, achieves true constancy of character. Such constancy means constant stillness, achieving constant purity and tranquility.

[Note: The use of the word “constant, or “chang” (常) in so many different ways is interesting because of its echo of the opening of the Daodejing: “The Tao that can be spoken is not the constant Tao, the name that can be named is not the constant name.”]



If you have purity and tranquility, you will gradually enter the true Tao. Once you enter the true Tao, it may be called “gaining Tao,” but while it may be called gaining Tao, in actuality, there was nothing to gain.


To helping all living things to change, we call it gaining Tao. If you can realize this, then you can transmit this holy path.

[Note: The canon grapples with how to talk about a non-dualistic subject in a dualistic way. One has to grasp the idea of working toward purity and tranquility, but accept that there was nothing to work toward in the first place. Why? Because we are already pure and tranquil. We may be disturbed by worldly involvements, but there was nothing wrong with us to begin with. One realizes that there was nothing that had to be done—thereby avoiding dualistic entanglements. Only when you are clear on this can you transmit the holy path—because it flows through you.]



Superior persons do not contend. Inferior persons contend. Superior virtue is beyond morality. Inferior virtue keeps to morality. Those who cling solely to morality do not comprehend the virtue of Tao.

[Notes: 1) The word translated here as “person,” has many meanings: feudal lord, senior official, scholar, bachelor, military rank (and part of the word for warrior). The advice is intended for someone who is wanting to be cultivated. So one might read this as “cultivated person.” 2) Many people have trouble with Taoism’s attitude toward morality, sometimes accusing it of being immoral. But the canon is attacking dogmatic and petty morality exercised without critical thinking.]



Therefore the reason that people don’t realize the true Tao is because they have confused hearts. If they have confused hearts, it quickly unbalances their spirits. Since their spirits are already unbalanced, they immediately attach themselves to everything, promptly giving rise to desire. Once desire arises, there is anger. Once there is anger, your thinking becomes reckless, and grief and bitterness fill your body and heart. Yet you still stay in the muddy and abusive, drift wastefully through life and death, always sunk in the sea of suffering, forever missing the true Tao.


Realizing the truly constant Tao must be gained yourself. Realize the Tao, and you will have everlasting purity and tranquility.

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