1. We look at it, and we do not see it, and we name it 'the Equable.' We listen to it, and we do not hear it, and we name it 'the Inaudible.' We try to grasp it, and do not get hold of it, and we name it 'the Subtle.' With these three qualities, it cannot be made the subject of description; and hence we blend them together and obtain The One.
2. Its upper part is not bright, and its lower part is not obscure. Ceaseless in its action, it yet cannot be named, and then it again returns and becomes nothing. This is called the Form of the Formless, and the Semblance of the Invisible; this is called the Fleeting and Indeterminable.
3. We meet it and do not see its Front; we follow it, and do not see its Back. When we can lay hold of the Dào of old to direct the things of the present day, and are able to know it as it was of old in the beginning, this is called (unwinding) the clue of Dào.
贊玄, 'The Manifestation of the Mystery.' The subject of par. 1 is the Dào, but the Dào in its operation, and not the primal conception of it, as entirely distinct from things, which rises before the mind in the second paragraph. The Chinese characters which I have translated 'the Equable,' 'the Inaudible,' and 'the Subtle,' are now pronounced Yí, Xī, and Wēi, and in 1823, Rémusat fancied that they were intended to give the Hebrew tetragrammaton יהוה which he thought had come to Lǎozǐ somehow from the West, or been found by him there. It was but an interesting fancy of the ingenious writer, and the elaborate endeavour of Victor von Strauss to support it in 1870 has failed to make me think more favourably of it.1
Dr. Edkins, in an article in the China Review for July and August, 1884, takes a different view of the chapter. He reads the monosyllables Yí, Xī, and Wēi according to his view of the old names of the Chinese characters, and calls them Âi, Kâi, and Mâi, considering them to be representative of one or three names of God. He says:—'I am inclined to find here marks of the presence of Babylonian thought ... . We have not the original words for the first trinity of the Babylonian religion. They are in the Assyrian or Semitic form Anu, Bel, Nuah. In Accadian they were Ilu, Enu, Hia. Of these Ilu was the supreme God, source of Chaos, in Chinese Hwun tun or Hwun Iun. In this chaos all forms were confounded as is the case with the Daoist chaos. Bel or Enu is the word which separates the elements of chaos. Nuah or Hia is the light of God which penetrates the universe, and maintains the order established by the word. It was this Trinity of God, in the language of some intermediate nation, which Lǎozǐ appears to have had in view in the various passages where he speaks of the original principle of the universe in a triple form.'
This reading of our chapter is not more satisfactory to me than that of Rémusat and I am content, in my interpretation of it, to abide by the aids of Chinese dictionaries and commentators of reputation who have made it their study.
Lǎozǐ has not in the chapter a personal Being before his mind, but the procedure of his mysterious Dào, the course according to which the visible phenomena take place, incognisable by human sense and capable of only approximate description by terms appropriate to what is within the domain of sense. See the Introduction, pp. 14, 15.
This sentence and the following two paragraphs are from a corrigendum in the 1927 second printing and replace the original 1891 text that read as follows:
It was a mere fancy or dream; and still more so is the recent attempt to revive the notion by Victor von Strauss in 1870, and Dr. Edkins in 1884. The idea of the latter is specially strange, maintaining, as he does, that we should read the characters according to their old sounds.