When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.
Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.
Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 2, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Yesterday, we began another cycle through the Tao Te Ching with what I would describe as a slow and halting introduction to the Tao. It wasn’t the best of beginnings for me; and, I could certainly understand if those of my readers, who are being exposed to philosophical Taoism for the first time, were left scratching their heads. That was certainly my own reaction to it the very first time I read it. But, I kept reading; and, little by little, it began making sense.
Now, the problem I face, probably the same one Lao Tzu faced, is how do I convey all that needs to be said, when I am talking about something which is shrouded in mystery. Especially because I know how much our desire hinders us from being able to realize the mystery. Of course, Lao Tzu had no intention that his words would be cut off at the end of the chapter. Those chapter divisions were an addition by editors, who came along later.
So, today, we will really do a much better job of introducing the Tao Te Ching. In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu will introduce everything he is going to cover in his work. But, before we get into today’s chapter, it would be a good idea to remind us exactly what we learned about the Tao in chapter one.
One thing we learned about the Tao is that it is the eternal reality, what Lao Tzu called the eternally real. But, what exactly does that mean? I think Lao Tzu means that the Tao is the nature of our Universe; or, the way things are. Lao Tzu lived in a pre-scientific age; so, he isn’t using physics to explain the nature of the Universe, he is using philosophy. But, I don’t think anything Lao Tzu has to say about the nature of the Universe is at odds with physics. For someone like myself, who is disenchanted with religion’s answers, but also aware enough, that there is something more to the way things are than science can strictly account for, that is very appealing.
Another thing we learned is while the eternal reality is a mystery to us, and certainly one we can’t expect to realize, caught, as we are, in desire, all particular things are manifestations of the Tao, and we can trace these manifestations back to the Source.
One further thing, which I really should have noted in yesterday’s commentary, is what does “Tao Te Ching” mean, anyway? Tao could be translated “Way” as in the way things are. Te means virtue. Virtue, here, means “following the Way”. And Ching could be translated “book”. So, Tao Te Ching is “Way Virtue Book”.
Okay, with that settled, let’s delve into chapter two. I had a friend who messaged me about yesterday’s chapter, “The only ‘problem’ with the Tao … people.” I thought that was a great way to introduce chapter two. “When people see some things as beautiful, other things become ugly. When people see some things as good, other things become bad.” Remember, the Tao is the eternal reality, the way things are. And, how we relate to the way things are will, most definitely, make all the difference in our lives. My friend says people are the problem. And, with these first two sentences in chapter two, it is hard to disagree with her. But let’s be clear about what the problem with people is. In chapter one, Lao Tzu identified the problem as our desire.
In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu explains what he means by desire. It is how people see things. This is often referred to as the problem of duality. How we see things, some things are beautiful, some things are good… comes up against the nature of our Universe, the way things are. Our desire for the beautiful and the good fails to take into account the eternal reality; being and non-being create each other. If one thing is beautiful, another thing must then be ugly. If one thing is good, another thing must then be bad.
This is our introduction to yin and yang. The Tao, the way things are in our Universe, always brings about a state of balance. Where there is yin, there must be yang, and vice versa. This is something we simply must understand. Our desire is a real problem. But we tend to want to blame the nature of our Universe, and try to somehow circumvent it. Realize the Tao, which is the Source of all particular things, doesn’t differentiate between things in this way. It is an impersonal force operating in our Universe to bring about balance. This is the way things are. All our efforts to get around that reality will only make things that much worse for us.
To further explain the operation of yin and yang in our Universe, let’s talk about the familiar Tai Chi symbol. It is a circle representing the Universe, everything that is. Within it, you find the black yin and the white yang swirling around in constant motion. The relationship between yin and yang is not static, it is dynamic. As you picture it in your mind, or look at my icon, you will see both yin and yang contain a little bit of the other within themselves. In the black yin there is a white dot. And, in the white yang there is a black dot. Because they are in perpetual motion I like to think of them as what is now, and what is yet to be. This symbol represents the dynamic and complementary relationship between yin and yang. You can’t have one without the other. They complete each other.
This is what Lao Tzu means when he says being and non-being create each other. Difficult and easy support each other. Long and short define each other. High and low depend on each other. Before and after follow each other. You can’t have beautiful without ugly. And you can’t have good without bad.
Yin and yang, female and male, dark and light, negative and positive, passive and active, closed and open, back and front. Please don’t think of these as opposites. That is a common misunderstanding about yin and yang. They aren’t opposites; they are complements of each other. And they work together to bring about balance. Also, don’t fall into the trap of treating one of them as being good, while the other is bad. Good and bad, like beautiful and good, are our own human constructs. Constructed because of our desire. This is simply the nature of our Universe, the way things are. And, if we want to be virtuous, not good, but virtuous, we will learn to follow the way things are in our Universe; and not seek to go against the current of the Tao.
Okay, enough about yin and yang for today. Now, Lao Tzu introduces the Master, and everything else he will have to teach in the Tao Te Ching. I am going to cover these all, quite briefly; being as we are going to have the opportunity in the next several days to cover them all in much greater detail.
Who is this Master? First off, when Lao Tzu refers to a master, he is contrasting it with an apprentice, not with a slave. The Master with a capital M refers to someone who is living in perfect harmony with the way things are in our Universe. Lao Tzu will refer to the Master, quite often, any time he wants to point to someone for us to follow as an example.
I have decided to do something different with this cycle through the Tao Te Ching. In the past, I have followed Stephen Mitchell’s method for being gender neutral when referring to the Master. To do that he alternates between using female pronouns and male pronouns to refer to the Master. I have decided I am going to try to go one step further. Instead of using gender specific pronouns I am going to use “they”, “them” and “their”, and treat those as singular pronouns. I welcome any questions or concerns you have with this treatment.
So, what is the Master’s example for us today? Remember, we have been talking about how we as humans relate to the nature of our Universe, given the problem of our desire. This is where Lao Tzu introduces everything he is going to be discussing at great length in the days and weeks ahead. We have to overcome, or be free of, our desire. I have already made this post way too long, and really need to save discussing these “solutions” until later. Suffice it to say that the Master’s approach is a radical one compared to the way we normally see things being done. Acting without doing anything, teaching without saying anything. Letting things come and go, without intervening or interfering with them. Having without possessing. Acting without expectations. Doing their work, and forgetting about it. Yet, that is why it lasts forever.
This chapter was packed full, and I only scratched the surface of what we are going to get into, in the days and weeks ahead. The Master has lots to show us. Thanks for joining me on this journey.