There was something formless and perfect
before the universe was born.
It is serene. Empty.
Infinite. Eternally present.
It is the mother of the universe.
For lack of a better name,
I call it the Tao.
It flows through all things,
inside and outside, and returns
to the origin of all things.
The Tao is great.
The universe is great.
Earth is great.
Man is great.
These are the four great powers.
Man follows the earth.
Earth follows the universe.
The universe follows the Tao.
The Tao follows only itself.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 25, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Every few chapters, it seems, Lao Tzu returns to talking about the mystery of the Tao’s origins. We have always been fascinated with origins. Over many thousands of years we have crafted stories, creation myths, to explain how it all began. We would like to think we are quite a bit more sophisticated now. We have science to tell us the way things are. Yet, even science has multiple theories to explain how it all began. At least the last time I heard anything new from the world of science, they were still trying to define what took place in that moment before the Big Bang. If the Big Bang was the moment the Universe was born, it has always fascinated me, our fascination with what came before it.
What is before time and space? Lao Tzu has already named it. There was something formless and perfect. Serene. Empty. Solitary. Unchanging. Infinite. Eternally present. This lines up with all the creation myths I have ever heard about. Others call it God. Lao Tzu says it precedes God. It is the mother of the Universe. Giving birth to infinite worlds. For lack of a better name, he calls it the Tao.
Of course, he never can tell us of the origin of the Tao, itself. It precedes everything. But what of its beginning? It has no beginning. Thus, it has no end. It flows through all things, both inside and outside, always returning to the origin. That explains why Lao Tzu keeps returning to the origin of all things.
The Tao is the origin of all things. The Tao was here first. Always has been. Always will be. That makes the Tao the great power. The Tao gave birth to the Universe. The Universe follows the Tao. For a long time, millions(?), billions(?), of years it was just that. The Universe following the Tao. That makes the Universe another one of the four great powers. Then, the Earth was born. How many millions of years the Earth followed the Universe while the Universe followed the Tao, I cannot say. May it suffice to say that it has been something that has been going on for a very long time. That makes the Earth another one of the four great powers. Cosmologically speaking, humans have only been around for a very short while. Yet, humans, as far as we humans can tell, are alone, of all the Earth’s creations, to rise to a standing of being one of the four great powers.
How did we accomplish this? Was it our ability to think? Our ability to communicate? Our ability to reason? Our opposable thumbs? How did we evolve to such a place? Lao Tzu says it is because we follow the Earth. As we have followed the Earth, we have managed to adapt, to evolve, to survive. Humans are great. And we will always remain great; as long as we continue to follow the Earth, as it follows the Universe, as it follows the Tao.
Which, of course, brings us back to the Tao. We always return to the Tao. Without form, yet perfect. Always serene. Forever unchanging. Infinite and eternally present. What more can we say of this Tao? It follows only itself.