The great Tao flows everywhere.
All things are born from it,
yet it doesn’t create them.
It pours itself into its work,
yet it makes no claim.
It nourishes infinite worlds,
yet it doesn’t hold on to them.
Since it is merged with all things
and hidden in their hearts,
it can be called humble.
Since all things vanish into it
and it alone endures,
it can be called great.
It isn’t aware of its greatness;
thus it is truly great.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 34, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Yesterday, we talked about how to know and master ourselves. It means we have to stop lying to ourselves, that we don’t have enough and that we can, somehow, avoid death. Knowing and mastering ourselves means we realize we have enough, which makes us truly rich; and, we stay in the center of the circle, embracing the death of our selves as self, with our whole heart. To do this is to endure forever.
Today’s chapter, an ode to the great and humble Tao, shows us how this “death” is accomplished. It shouldn’t be any surprise that it requires no effort on our part. Stay in the center of the circle. Don’t resist the Tao, as it accomplishes everything in us. That is it, in a nutshell. But, perhaps, I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s look at what Lao Tzu actually says in today’s chapter.
“The great Tao flows everywhere.” This has been a constant theme for Lao Tzu. Like water, the Tao flows. “It flows through all things, inside and outside, and returns to the Source.” What do you have to do for the Tao to flow through you? Just like with every other being, nothing is required of you. The Tao flows through you, whether or not you are aware of it. That we pretty much go about our lives, unaware of the flow of the Tao doesn’t change the reality that the Tao is flowing through you.
The Tao is called the great Mother. Why? Because all things are born from it. It is the Source. Because the Tao flows, it pours itself into its work (us). It nourishes infinite worlds (including us).
But here is where it gets interesting. The Tao gives birth to all things; yet, it doesn’t create them. It makes no claim to having created us. A Creator would. But the Tao does not. It makes no claim on the work it accomplishes. Though it is solely responsible for giving birth to us and nourishing us, it doesn’t hold on to any of us. We are free! This is important for us to understand. You can’t know your self, unless you know you are free. And you can’t master your self, unless you are free to be your own master.
I want to pause here, before I go on with the rest of the chapter, just because it is so very important that we understand this. We can resist the Tao. In fact, we often do. If we weren’t free, we couldn’t resist it. Much of what we have been talking about, as we have been journeying through the Tao Te Ching, is Lao Tzu saying, “Don’t resist it.” Those would be just idle words, if we weren’t free to resist.
Okay, all of you free beings, yes, you can resist it. But your life will be so much better, if you don’t. Why do we resist, then? We resist, because of what we were talking about, yesterday. We resist, because we see the self as self; and, seeing the world as self, involves dying to the self as self. And death to us, seems like annihilation. “I” will be no more. But, is what it seems to be what it really is? The answer to this question is found in the rest of the chapter. Let’s read it carefully.
The Tao is merged with all things and hidden in their hearts. Lao Tzu says, because of this it can be called humble. But don’t pass over the significance of this too quickly. The fact that the Tao is merged with all things and hidden in their hearts, points to exactly how the very next thing that he says does not end up being nihilistic.
All things vanish into it and it alone endures. There is that death that we were afraid of. I am going to vanish. There isn’t going to be anything left but the Tao. And yet, what has Lao Tzu been saying, all along. Being centered in the Tao is the only way to be truly your self. If you embrace death with your whole heart, YOU will endure forever. But wait, if I vanish into it and it alone endures, how do I endure?
It is the great philosophical question. And, it is what makes the Tao great. I think it is a matter of understanding what is meant by the death of self as self. We see examples of this all around us, but though we have eyes to see, we somehow miss this. Death isn’t the final chapter. The life cycle, which nature exhibits for us, demonstrates that death is only part of the cycle. The cycle endlessly repeats itself. The Tao is merged with all things and hidden in their hearts. The Tao has vanished, too. Yet, it endures. We merge with the Tao and are hidden inside of it. Yet, we endure, too. It isn’t the self that dies. It is the self as self that dies. What emerges from death is your true self. The self that endures forever.
We don’t have to be aware of this. The Tao isn’t even aware of its greatness. Which makes Lao Tzu wax eloquent in his praise of it, “Thus, it is truly great.” But, if you are like me, you are probably wondering about our freedom to resist any of this. I know I said we are free to resist. But, this all seems to suggest that resistance is futile.
The best answer to that question is that there are a whole lot of things that we can and do resist that happen anyway. Does that mean resistance is futile? Wait, stop here. I do need to say that in spite of my insistence on using that “resistance is futile” line I am not referring to Star Trek and being assimilated in the Borg. I do not believe that is what Lao Tzu means, at all. I very much believe the self, your true self, endures this death.
But, is it futile to resist the knowledge about yourself that you already have enough, just because you, in reality, have enough? Is it futile to resist embracing the death of self as self, just because you are going to die to self, anyway? No! It isn’t futile. Because it matters. It matters, because it affects how you live your life, right here, right now. When you lie to yourself, telling yourself that you don’t have enough, you rob yourself of true contentment. When you resist embracing death with your whole heart, you cheat yourself out of fully living, of being your true self.
I am not going to lie about this. The Tao is our beginning, and it is our end. We really are, just along for the ride. That is the way things are. But we can make the ride a bumpy one. We can make ourselves miserable along the way. We are free to do so. But why do we?