The Tao is like a well;
used but never used up.
It is like the eternal void;
filled with infinite possibilities.
It is hidden but always present.
I don’t know who gave birth to it.
It is older than God.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 4, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
In chapter one, Lao Tzu introduced the Tao, which has two aspects. There is the mystery, which is untellable, unnameable, and eternal. And, there are the manifestations, which we can see, and we can name. The Tao is the eternal reality, the way things are in our Universe.
Then, in chapters two and three, Lao Tzu talked more about how the Tao is manifest in our universe. It is manifest through the complementary and dynamic relationship of yin and yang, always working together to bring about balance. In those last two chapters, he also introduced the Master, someone who is in perfect harmony with the Tao. Being in perfect harmony with the Tao means going with the flow of yin and yang, instead of against that flow.
In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu uses metaphors to point at the mystery of the Tao; and, once again, yin and yang are very much apparent to us. The Tao is like a well. We are all familiar with wells. The purpose of wells is to be used. Just like the Tao. But the Tao has an extra-added bonus for us. While all the wells, with which we are familiar, are limited and finite, the Tao, Lao Tzu promises, can never be used up. It has no limits. It is infinite.
To make his point even stronger, he compares the Tao to the eternal void. When we think of a void, we think of a vast emptiness, like space. But, in the case of the Tao, this vast emptiness is filled; filled with infinite possibilities.
Used, but never used up. Empty, yet filled with infinite possibilities. That has yin and yang all over it. And, here is another one; it is hidden, but always present. Empty and full, hidden and present, never used up and always available to be used.
Yes, once again, we are heavy on the mystery with today’s chapter. What does it mean? Well, I hope you read the chapters before, since I think they help a lot with answering that question. Still, today, isn’t about answering those kinds of questions. Lao Tzu is more interested in pointing out the mystery, and leaving it at that. Who gave birth to it? What are its origins? I don’t know.
Those three words, the most honest words ever spoken. Why, you would have to go back to before God to have any understanding of that.
And, that won’t be satisfactory for a whole lot of people. We want the abstract to be more concrete. Here, I will make it more concrete for you. Don’t worry so much about the hows and the wheres and the whys. Just observe how it acts in our universe, in our world, and go with that flow. Why does the Tao operate the way it does? I don’t know. It just does. What is the Tao? I don’t know. It just is.