上士聞道勤而行之 Good students hear about Dao and work hard, but they follow it. 中士聞道若存若亡 Average students hear about Dao and some are saved, some are damned. 下士聞道大笑之 Bad students hear about Dao and laugh at it.
不笑不足以為道 故建言有之 If it weren't so hilarious, it wouldn't be Dao, so here are some of the jokes it plays.
明道若昧 進道若退 夷道若纇 Observing Dao obscures it, proving Dao refutes it, sorting Dao scatters it. 上德若谷 太白若辱 Praising De degrades it and preaching defiles it. 廣德若不足 建德若偷 質真若渝 Developing De depletes it, supporting De demeans it and believing denies it.
大方無隅 大器晚成 大音希聲 大象無形 道隱無名 夫唯道善貸且成 A school with no lessons, a method too subtle to learn, a lecture too faint to hear, a metaphor with no meaning, Dao is a riddle with no answer, and Dao is only as convincing as it is a good sport.
This poem makes sense to me as bad puns to keep normals and nit-pickers on board.
The following Kroll vocabulary notes are meant to support my solution to what I take as two distinct puzzle grids.
In the 道德 expressions, 若 joins a descriptive complement to an introductory verb phrase.
- 明道若昧 illuminating, explaining Dao == bedimmed, clouded vision
- 進道若退 advancing Dao == retreat
- 夷道若纇 leveling Dao == a knot
- 上德若谷 exalting De == a valley, chasm, cave, impasse
- 太白若辱 great declaring == humiliating, insulting
- 廣德若不足 broadening De == inadequate
- 建德若偷 building De == contemning
- 質真若渝 adjudging what is really meant to be == changing, renouncing
The 大 and 道 punchline expressions all describe Dao.
- 大方無隅 big method, technique has no niche, corner
- 大器晚成 big implement, vessel late to finish
- 大音希聲 big sound, voice faint message
- 大象無形 unifying patterns that underlie variegated phenomena have no shape, structure
- 道隱無名 Dao is reticent, obscure, has no names
- 道善貸且成 Dao is good at both absolving, forgiving and causing to conform, reconciling, accommodating
I'm not sure what to make of 大器晚成. It's a modern saying for something like, "Great talent takes time to mature," but that's out of sync with the irony of the other expressions. Cook's Guodian footnotes cover alternatives 曼成, 免成, 慢成, 縵成, 無成 and 勿成, and summarize the use of 晚成 in Lushi chunqiu as, "An analogy of how great men undertake great things only after a long period of preparation and observation, ... [and] that undertakings of great forethought are unappreciated until after their benefits are realized."