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 onto 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)
It is tempting to read through this chapter quickly, and say, “Well, all of this is just fine; but what does it have to do with me?” I continue to remind myself that Lao Tzu wrote this for me. He is giving me lessons that I need to be learning along the way.
So while he seems to be talking about the Tao, I know that he is telling me, “Given this, how will you then live your life?”
He says the Tao is great. But he also tells us how it is that the Tao is great. And this, my friends, is a lesson of supreme importance for us today.
I remember when I first read through this chapter, I thought it sounded kind of pantheist. But now as I read through these lines I can’t help but think this isn’t like any god we have ever heard of before.
The great Tao flows everywhere. Okay, so far so good. The Tao is always on the move. But it isn’t ever not everywhere.
And while all things are born from it, it doesn’t create them. Now that is something I wasn’t expecting. It isn’t claiming to be the Creator? It gives birth to all things; but makes no claim of supremacy over them. We owe it nothing in return? No worship, or adoration, or allegiance? Very interesting.
It doesn’t make any claim for itself. No matter how much it pours itself into its work. This goes back to it flowing everywhere. The flowing and the pouring are the same thing. The Tao is certainly hard at work. But it really makes no claim? Because, that seems to leave all of us, how shall I put it, free?
It nourishes infinite worlds, yet it doesn’t hold onto them. Giving birth to all things isn’t enough. All things require nourishing as well. Yet… That is a big yet. Yet, it leaves us be.
And now we get to the kicker. Having flowed everywhere, having given birth to all things, having nourished infinite worlds, it is thoroughly merged with all things, and hidden in their hearts. Where is this great Tao? It is everywhere, in everything; but so merged with all things that we can’t perceive it. That, my friends, is why it can be called humble. And that humility is everything.
For you see, all things vanish into it; and it alone endures. Therefore, it can also be called great.
Because the Tao is everything and everywhere, the Tao is great. Because the Tao makes no claim to greatness, and instead, seeks the lowliest of places, it is humble. The Tao is so humble that it isn’t even aware of its greatness. That is what makes it truly great.
And that, my friends is the lesson to be learned. Because, like I said at the very beginning, this isn’t really about the Tao, at all. It is about each one of us, vanishing in the Tao. We, too, can be great without being aware of our greatness. And that comes about as we go about everything we do in that same spirit of humility.