Return is the movement of the Tao.
Yielding is the way of the Tao.
All things are born of being.
Being is born of non-being.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 40, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Nestled in the center of the Tao Te Ching, we find these four lines, identified as chapter 40. Don’t let the size of this chapter fool you. These four lines are very important for explaining the way things are. Four words stand out as the focus for today’s chapter, “return” the movement of the Tao, “yielding” the way of the Tao, “being” as it relates to all things, and “non-being” as it relates to being. We will take these one at a time.
Return is the movement of the Tao. Lao Tzu has talked a lot about returning in the preceding chapters, so saying that returning is the movement of the Tao, isn’t exactly surprising. But because this is an otherwise brief chapter, it does afford us the opportunity to understand better, what Lao Tzu means by returning. So, I looked up the original Chinese for the word which Stephen Mitchell translates, return. I think it helps greatly to understand how returning is the movement of the Tao. The word that Lao Tzu uses signifies reversing. I thought that was interesting. Return as a retrograde motion or movement, helps to make sense of what Lao Tzu is saying. He has said it before, “It is better to retreat a yard than to advance an inch.” That is an excellent way to look at it. We are all about advancing. But sometimes it is better to go back. Sometimes, it is the only way to go forward. Thus, Lao Tzu talks about returning to our primal selves. Or, to be like a newborn child. When we get to a point where we can no longer go forward, we may be wondering, which way to turn? Shall I go to the left, or to the right? What we always seem to resist is the very notion that the Tao, which is always returning to the Source, would ever be leading us to go backwards. Yet, that is often exactly what the movement of the Tao is going to be. A going back, a retrograde movement.
Yielding is the way of the Tao. I looked up the original Chinese for that word, yielding, as well; and I was more than a little surprised to find that it signifies weakness. But why was I surprised? Lao Tzu has had so much to say about the will to power, and none of it was good. We seem to think that the exercise of power, of strength, of the use of force, and sometimes even violence is the answer for just about any problem we face. But Lao Tzu has always turned the tables on those who think they know. It is through weakness that the Tao manifests its power. Yielding, weakness, is the way of the Tao. When we run up against an immovable object in our path, we don’t push forward, trying to force our way through, we go back. We yield. Submission is a good word to use here. We submit to the way things are. We accept our weakness. And use it, as our strength. Don’t try to be powerful. Be weak.
All things are born of being. The concepts of being and non-being are something that Lao Tzu introduced to us back in chapter two, when he was talking about yin and yang. He said then, they create each other, they support each other, they define each other, they depend on each other, and they follow each other. In chapter 11, he said, being is what we work with, but non-being is what we use. In this chapter he says, All things are born of being, and being is born of non-being. What he is talking about are two very distinct aspects of the Tao, the manifestations and the mystery. Both arise from the same Source. It is the Tao that gives birth to all things. Saying that all things are born of being is saying that all things are manifest through the Tao.
But how are those things manifest? Being is born of non-being. That is the mystery aspect of the Tao, the non-being that gives birth to being. Understanding that reversing is the movement of the Tao and weakness is the way of the Tao, we begin to realize the mystery of the Tao. It is the special complementary relationship of yin and yang. It goes backwards to go forwards. It shows its strength by being weak. Understanding and working with the complementary yin and yang is how we stay centered in the Tao. Yang is what we work with, but yin is what we use.