The Tao can’t be perceived.
Smaller than an electron,
it contains uncountable galaxies.
If powerful men and women
could remain centered in the Tao,
all things would be in harmony.
The world would become a paradise.
All people would be at peace,
and the law would be written in their hearts.
When you have names and forms,
know that they are provisional.
When you have institutions,
know where their functions should end.
Knowing when to stop, you can avoid danger.
All things end in the Tao,
as rivers flow into the sea.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 32, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
At first glance, Lao Tzu’s introduction to today’s chapter would seem to provide us with little hope. The Tao can’t be perceived. That is pretty black and white. If it can’t be, it can’t be. But we have been talking about the imperceptible for thirty-one chapters now. Let’s not give up hope just yet. After all, what is smaller than an electron does contain uncountable galaxies. And that certainly means that within it is contained all the potential in the Universe. If that doesn’t fill you with hope, you might already be dead.
So let’s talk about that imperceptible Tao. In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu offers us an “if” and a “when” which speak to the potential contained within the Tao. And, I think those two words are powerfully distinct; because they offer the difference between dreams and reality.
The “if” comes first. This one is about hopes and dreams for a far better world in which to live. If only powerful men and women could remain centered in the imperceptible Tao.
Imagine, with me, the kind of world that we would have. If only…
All things would be in harmony. The world would become a paradise. All people would be at peace, and the law would be written in their hearts.
Does it all sound too good to be true? Who wouldn’t want to live like this?
But, like I said before, this is a dream; it isn’t reality. Oh, it could be reality. If powerful men and women could stay centered in the Tao. But Lao Tzu has been talking about that imperceptible Tao for awhile now, and if there is one thing I have learned, it is that the only way to be centered in the Tao is from a position of humility. The powerful are far too lofty in their ivory palaces; and will never lower themselves to try to perceive it, let alone center themselves in it.
And let’s not forget what Lao Tzu has been telling us in the previous chapters. The world is sacred and can’t be improved upon. Our job is to accept the world as it is; and, to be content with it. It is the only one we have.
Still, I don’t mean to make light of the importance of dreams. Dreams may not be reality; but they do give us a reason to hope. The potential in that imperceptible Tao is eternally real. And that brings us to the “when” that Lao Tzu offers us today. Where the “if” dealt with dreams, the “when” does speak to us of reality.
I fear that while holding out for the “if” we may miss out on the “when” and the “when” is upon us.
It is the election season. A time when quite a few people go to the polls with hopes and dreams that they will elect the right powerful men and women into power; and they will center themselves in the Tao, hand the world a coke, and have us all singing of peace in perfect harmony.
The rest of us are sane. We understand that election after election we are given the choice between tweedledum and tweedledummer. That that isn’t any real choice. And because there isn’t any real choice, nothing is ever actually going to change. So, we opt out.
But this particular election, you will just have to count me with one of the insane. In my own 8th district in Missouri, we actually have a friend of mine running as an independent, Terry Hampton. She isn’t affiliated with any political party. Hasn’t taken any corporate money. And offers the people of the 8th district something they haven’t had in eons. An actual real choice. An independent citizen representative in the U.S. Congress.
I know this means I will likely have to hand over my secret decoder ring. And I have wrestled with this all year long with her. Like I told her, if she had told me she was running as either a Republican or a Democrat, I would have wished her the best and not been at all involved with her campaign. If she was taking corporate money I would have said, “You’re being bought and paid for, and I will have nothing whatsoever to do with you.”
But, Terry is different. That is why I signed the petition to get her on the ballot, and encouraged others to do the same. It is why I have been helping staff her campaign headquarters. And, why I have been assisting her with treasurer duties. I like Terry. And, I don’t mind admitting it. Even if my anarchist credentials are taking a pounding. The truth is that it changes nothing about the “when” in today’s chapter.
Because the “when” is now. When you have names and forms and institutions, know that they are provisional, know where their functions should end. What exactly is Lao Tzu talking about? What are these names, forms, and institutions? Well, I think he was talking about powerful men and women just a little bit ago. Perhaps, he was talking about them. What are the names and forms and institutions that make them powerful? If names and forms are only provisional, if they are only meant to provide or serve for a certain time, wouldn’t it be good to know when their time is up? When and where are the functions of institutions supposed to end? Don’t you think you ought to know?
If we know when to stop we can avoid danger. But what is the danger? All things are going to come to an end. Whether we are prepared for their end, or not. Sometimes, that end is long in coming and can be seen a long way off. Sometimes, it is swift and sudden; giving you little time to prepare. But there is danger in not being prepared.
Maybe powerful men and women will never condescend to center themselves and stay centered in the Tao. But we can. Then we can know when enough is enough. Then we will be prepared for the end. All things end in the Tao, just like rivers flow into the sea.