Realizing The Mystery Of The Infinite

The Tao is infinite, eternal.
Why is it eternal?
It was never born;
thus it can never die.
Why is it infinite?
It has no desires for itself;
thus it is present for all beings.

The Master stays behind;
that is why she is ahead.
She is detached from all things;
that is why she is one with them.
Because she has let go of herself,
she is perfectly fulfilled.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 7, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Lao Tzu has gone out of his way, the last several chapters, to emphasize that the Tao is both infinite and eternal. It is the eternal reality. And, like the eternal void, it is filled with infinite possibilities. Eternal is easy enough for us to understand. Why is it eternal? It was never born; thus it can never die. Everything that has a beginning, has an end. That is certainly why we are temporal. We all have a definite beginning and a definite end. At least we think we do. And, since the Tao has no beginning, it has no end. Like I said, we don’t really have that much difficulty understanding the Tao as the eternal reality. But infinity is another thing entirely.

Oh, it is fun for me to explain, to the six year old that I am tutoring, that there is an infinite number of numbers. They have no beginning and no end. Much like eternity, there. I tell her that no matter how small a number she can come up with, I can always name a number smaller. And no matter how great a number she can come up with I can always come up with a number greater. And she will test me on that, trying to come up with some large number, to see if I can outdo her. But she isn’t too sure about my insistence that 0 isn’t the smallest number. We talk often of the number line that stretches in both directions from the number zero. That there are both infinite numbers less than zero and infinite numbers greater than zero. I even had a bit of fun telling her there are infinite numbers between 0 and 1; though she isn’t quite ready to tackle decimal numbers, just yet.

We might begin to think that, perhaps, infinity isn’t any harder to grasp than eternity; thanks to the help of that number line. But when Lao Tzu talks about the infinite he isn’t just talking numbers. When Lao Tzu talks about the infinite he talks about how the Tao is like a well; used but never used up. How it is filled with infinite possibilities. And, how it is hidden but always present. He explains that it is like a bellows. It is its emptiness that makes it infinitely capable. The more you use it, the more it produces. I remarked, in my commentary yesterday, that I am beginning to think there must be something to this emptying and filling. Since Lao Tzu keeps returning to it. Yin and yang, emptying and filling, this is an expression of infinity to Lao Tzu. Yesterday, he once again remarked on the empty yet inexhaustible, by calling the Tao the Great Mother, giving birth to infinite worlds. It is always present within you. You can use it any way you want.

Today, Lao Tzu answers the question, Why is it infinite? I took a long while before I was ready for his answer. It is infinite because it has no desires for itself. How does the fact that it has no desires for itself make it infinite? What does that even mean? And, of course, I remember that Lao Tzu has also been making quite clear that it is our desires that prevent us from realizing the mystery. There, I am beginning to make the connection. My desires for myself are what makes me finite. As long as I am caught in desire, I can’t realize the mystery. The Tao is infinite because it has no desires for itself. Bear with me while I mull this over a bit.

It is because the Tao has no desires for itself that it is capable, infinitely capable, of being present for all beings.

Okay, I understand, at least a little, what Lao Tzu means when he says that the Tao is infinite and eternal. But I am finite and temporal. Blame it on my desires for myself, if you want. I am still finite. And while you’re at it, you can blame my birth, my having had a beginning, for being temporal. But that puts me in a quandary. Lao Tzu says the Tao is present within me. But how can I, a finite, temporal vessel, ever hope to contain the infinite, eternal Tao? Do you see how easy it is for me to place limits on those infinite possibilities? My problem is what I think I know. Lao Tzu has just the remedy for that: the practice of not-knowing. What if I accepted that I don’t know what I think I know?

What was it again that Lao Tzu has been saying about emptying and filling? Filling always follows emptying. Emptying always follows filling. It is because that bellows is empty, that it can be filled. And, it is because it is filled, that it can be emptied. Over and over again. Expansion follows, and is followed by, contraction. That is how the Tao can be infinite within me. Yin and yang is how the Tao can be present for all beings.

Notice how the Master comes along to show us the way; leading by emptying our minds and filling our cores, weakening our ambitions and strengthening our resolve. The Master stays behind. That is why she is ahead. Do you see how backwards we try to do things? We think the only way to be ahead is to get ahead and stay ahead. But that isn’t the Master’s way, the infinite way. Stay behind, and you will be ahead. She is detached from all things. That is why she is one with them. Just think of all the attachments we have with people, places, things, and ideas. But our attachment to them never does make us one with them. It isn’t through attachment, but detachment, that we can be one with them. She has let go of herself; completely letting go of her finite and temporal desires for herself. Thus, she is perfectly fulfilled.

We have so much more to unlearn, to not-know. Letting go of all our desire to be ahead. Letting go of all our attachments. Letting go of ourselves. Oneness and perfect fulfillment. Eternal and infinite. It is hidden, yet always present, within you. Use it any way you want.


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