The Tao is an empty bowl
inexhaustible to those who use it.
Indeed in its depths lies the origin of all things.
It dulls the sharp edges
softens the glare.
Yet it remains a part of the physical world.
This hidden tranquility –
I do not know its origin –
it has existed forever
it will endure forever.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 4, translation by Robert Brookes)
Who Doesn’t Like a Good Origin Story?
You might have noticed, but just in case you didn’t, I substituted Robert Brookes’ translation of chapter four, for the translation by Stephen Mitchell I normally use. It is one of those rare instances when I haven’t been all that satisfied with Stephen Mitchell’s translation. In Mr. Mitchell’s translation, he compares the Tao to a well, and then the eternal void. In Robert Brookes’ it is compared to an empty bowl. And, for me, that empty bowl metaphor makes things much more clear. The other significant difference between Mitchell’s and Brookes’ translations comes at the end, where Mr. Mitchell, in what I would characterize as “with tongue in cheek” says the Tao is older than God. But, there is actually no reference to God in the original, throughout the Tao Te Ching. So, Robert Brookes does better, saying simply, I do not know its origin – it has existed forever, it will endure forever. In both translations, we have the infinite and eternal nature of the Tao. And, today’s chapter is where Lao Tzu begins to use metaphors, for the first time, to tell of the Tao.
If I were to set an empty bowl in front of you, I would hope you would immediately realize its utility. What might you fill it with? How many uses might you get out of it? That empty bowl is inexhaustible to those who use it. You might be wondering if that all depends on the size of the bowl. But, let me help you with that. Take a closer look at the bowl. Look down at its depths. You won’t be able to see its bottom, but in its depths lies the origin of all things.
Lao Tzu first talked of this in chapter one, where he talked about naming being the origin of all particular things. The Unnameable, the eternally real, is the Source, the darkness in the depths of that empty bowl. Whatever we fill that bowl with, whatever we can name, has its beginnings right there.
What more can I tell you of the Tao, today? Understanding the nature of our universe, the way things are, (which we have learned about in the last two chapters) we can know the Tao dulls the sharp edges, it resolves perplexities, it softens the glare, yet it always remains a part of our physical world.
Marvel not at how it can be a part of our physical world, marvel at the hidden tranquility in its depths. That empty bowl. The bowl, itself, is being. But, the emptiness inside the bowl, that is non-being. The two create each other.
Who doesn’t like a good origin story? But, the Tao has no beginning. It has always existed. It will always exist.