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)
Back in chapter twenty-one, we were talking about how ungraspable, dark, and unfathomable the Tao is. Lao Tzu said, “Since before time and space were, the Tao is. It is beyond is and is not.” Today, he returns to talking about that “something” that is both before and beyond. How do you even begin to talk about “something” like that? How can something be without form and perfect? This oxymoron can only be explained by saying the Tao is beyond is and is not.
Lao Tzu goes way, way back in today’s chapter. Back to before space and time were. Back to before the Universe was born. There he points at what, for lack of a better name, he calls the Tao. Serene. Empty. Solitary. Unchanging. Infinite. Eternally present. These are all words, pregnant with meaning. And what else would we expect? The Tao is, after all, the Mother of the Universe.
None of those are new concepts for those of us that have been reading along in the Tao Te Ching. Lao Tzu has been describing the Tao, all along, using terms very much like these. Our concern is with how we can possibly be at one with it. And Lao Tzu has already confirmed it is impossible for us to do anything to make it happen. Impossible, save one very important thing. We can’t make it happen. But we can let it happen.
Letting it happen is a matter of realizing its flow through all things. As we realize how it flows inside and outside, always returning to the origin, we find we, too, are going with that flow. It isn’t a matter of exerting the right kind of effort to make that happen. It is a spontaneous and intuitive reality. When we are open to the Tao and trust our natural responses, everything just falls into place.
I call that “everything falling into place” the emergent order. It is the eternal reality, the way things are. And, today, Lao Tzu offers us just a glimpse at how it all flows.
He speaks of four great powers in descending order of greatness. Of course, he lists the Tao first. The Tao is the origin of all things. The Tao precedes them all. It has no beginning and no end. The Tao is the greatest of the great powers. Because the Tao precedes everything, it follows only itself.
The Tao gives birth to the Universe. How long has the Universe been around? I don’t know. It is very old. The only thing that precedes it is the Tao. The Universe follows the Tao; that is what makes it the second of the great powers.
Some time after the Universe was born, the Earth was formed. How long has the Earth been around? Once again, I don’t know. I just know it came after the Universe. Because it follows the Universe, the Earth is the third of the great powers.
Some time after the Earth was formed, along came humans. Trying to decide how long humans have been around, is just as challenging as trying to figure out the age of the Earth, or the age of the Universe. I saw in the news earlier this week, how a burial site was discovered in south Africa. Because the bones that have been discovered cannot be dated with any degree of accuracy, and given that these “humans” had brains a third of the size of modern humans – yet, they are thought to have been performing burial rites we have heretofore reserved for more modern species of humans, it throws into question a lot of our understanding of human evolution. This story fascinates me, because I think the whole question of what it means to be human is a fascinating one. I don’t doubt that as we continue to evolve, future “humans” will look back on today’s humans. and consider us primitive. Perhaps, too primitive to be called “human”. But maybe that whole discussion would be best saved for another platform. Lao Tzu has a very high opinion of us humans. He calls us one of the four great powers. Because we follow the Earth, we are the fourth greatest power.
I said this is Lao Tzu giving us a glimpse into how it all flows; how everything falls into place. I said that humans follow the Earth; and that is what makes us great. And that word “follow” doesn’t just mean “we came after” the Earth. Over and over again, Lao Tzu enjoins us to learn to follow the Tao. Yet, that would seem to be completely beyond anything we could ever do. The Tao is before and beyond; it is ungraspable, dark, and unfathomable. But Lao Tzu shows us how we are to follow the Tao. It is all about our relationship with the Earth. And the Earth’s relationship with the Universe. And the Universe’s relationship with the Tao. Our relationship with the Earth is our model for learning to follow the Tao, as we follow the Earth, as it follows the Universe, as it follows the Tao.
That is how everything falls into place. We are one with the Earth, which is one with the Universe, which is one with the Tao. But, I don’t see this as some kind of top-down hierarchical relationship. We aren’t only able to follow the Tao in a second or third-hand way. The Tao isn’t some far off thing. It flows through all things, including ourselves. The Universe isn’t some far off thing. It is all around us. Saying we are great because we follow the Earth is merely an expression of our relationship with the Tao. We follow the Tao by following the Earth.
The Tao follows only itself. This isn’t just an expression of its preeminence. Notice how it does this. It does this by flowing through all things, inside and outside, as it returns to the origin of all things. How does the Universe follow the Tao? How does the Earth follow the Universe? How do we, humans, follow the Earth? We do so by going with that flow through all things, inside and outside, returning to the origin of all things.