When a superior man hears of the Tao,
he immediately begins to embody it.
When an average man hears of the Tao,
he half believes it, half doubts it.
When a foolish man hears of the Tao,
he laughs out loud.
If he didn’t laugh,
it wouldn’t be the Tao.
Thus it is said:
The path into the light seems dark,
the path forward seems to go back,
the direct path seems long,
true power seems weak,
true purity seems tarnished,
true steadfastness seems changeable,
true clarity seems obscure,
the greatest art seems unsophisticated,
the greatest love seems indifferent,
the greatest wisdom seems childish.
The Tao is nowhere to be found.
Yet it nourishes and completes all things.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 41, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Things aren’t always what they appear to be. I was thinking about that after posting yesterday’s chapter on the movement and way of the Tao. Where is the balance? That is the self-doubt that creeps into my consciousness every time I post a chapter like yesterday’s, where Lao Tzu told us that the movement of the Tao is a reversing, a going backwards, a return. And, that the way of the Tao is one of yielding, of weakness, of submission. Sometimes, I think Lao Tzu leans pretty heavily on the yin side of the equation. Where is the yang in all of this? As much as I want to be that superior man who hears of the Tao and immediately begins to embody it, I still find myself being an average man, who sometimes only half believes it. Worse yet, I tend to get a bit puffed up, when my commentary is met with scorn, with laughter. It starts making me feel like maybe I am not nearly so average, after all; well, at least, I am not fool enough to laugh out loud. Truth be told, it is easy to preach detachment, disinterest, and indifference. It is quite another thing to consistently practice such things.
We want to be able to look back and see that we are making progress. We want to be able to look forward and see that we are getting closer to our goal. But what happens when the path we are on is sending us confusing signals, when things are not what they appear to be? The path into the light seems dark. The path forward seems to go back. The direct path seems long. Talk about frustrating! We can’t trust our senses to give us reliable information on this path, my friends. When we seem to be going back, we might actually be going forward. That reversing movement of the Tao undoes things that need undoing. It brings balance and order and harmony. But that isn’t the way things seem to be.
And that weakness? Yes, I am talking about the way of the Tao. It only seems weak. But in reality, it is true power. What seems tarnished is true purity. What seems changeable is true steadfastness. What seems obscure is true clarity. Here, we are differentiating between the way things are and the way things seem to be. There are things that are truly weak, truly tarnished, truly changeable, and truly obscure. We need to realize the differences between them. Things aren’t always what they appear to be.
How do we realize those differences between the eternally real and the illusion? Is there a dead giveaway, a telltale sign that the way things seem to be is only an illusion? That there is an eternal reality before and beyond what your eyes and ears are showing you? I think there is; but it isn’t something that mere words can explain. I think it is something you have to experience for yourself, as you center yourself in the Tao. That was the problem Lao Tzu addressed back in chapter one. Anything I can say about the Tao is not the eternal Tao. It is a mystery that can’t be realized as long as we are caught in desire.
But I notice it when the greatest art seems unsophisticated, when the greatest love seems indifferent, when the greatest wisdom seems childish. For me, that is my giveaway, my telltale sign. For I know better. Show me indifference, disinterest, and detachment and I will say, that shows me what is real. I think the illusion tries too hard. That’s it. The amount of effort put into trying to pull off the illusion, gives it away as the illusion it is.
So, call it childish, if you want. Call it weak. Go ahead, laugh out loud. You will say to me, where is the Tao in all of this? Because it seems nowhere to be found. Yet, without effort, without making a big show of itself, it nourishes and completes all things. And that, my friends, is how I know it is real.