There was something formless and perfect
before the universe was born.
It is serene. Empty.
Infinite. Eternally present.
It is the mother of the universe.
For lack of a better name,
I call it the Tao.
It flows through all things,
inside and outside, and returns
to the origin of all things.
The Tao is great.
The universe is great.
Earth is great.
Man is great.
These are the four great powers.
Man follows the earth.
Earth follows the universe.
The universe follows the Tao.
The Tao follows only itself.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 25, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
“Trust me. I’m going to make America great, again.” I don’t have to tell any of you, who it is that keeps repeating this mantra, over and over again. Even those, of my followers, in other parts of the world can’t have been spared “The Donald”, with his bombastic persona. He seems to thrive on being a caricature of himself. If I haven’t already made it perfectly clear before, I don’t trust him. And, I don’t think his version of “America being great, again” is anything you or I should support. Of course, I don’t believe in the concept of American exceptionalism, either; and, I think that must be a prerequisite for supporting “The Donald”.
Our rulers, and would-be rulers, will say anything to whip up enthusiasm for their version of making the nation great. I have little doubt that this is true, wherever in the world you may be living.
Today’s chapter has Lao Tzu offering a different take on what it means to be great; and, how to be great. Here is a clue, it isn’t something you can make happen; but, you can let it happen.
But, I am getting a little ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the beginning of the chapter. This is a chapter which hearkens back to earlier chapters (most recently, chapter 21); but it goes even further back than that, all the way to chapter one. Lao Tzu refers, once again, to the Source, or origin of all things; and the dark and unnameable Tao.
None of these descriptions are necessarily new to any of us who have been reading along; but, they are a good way of introducing a further way to understand how we can be in accord with the Tao. It was in chapter twenty-one Lao Tzu said, “Since before time and space were, the Tao is. It is beyond is and is not.” Calling the Tao “before and beyond” has always been my favorite way of describing the Tao.
In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu is going way back, and way beyond. Before our universe was born. Beyond anything mere words can define. How can you tell of something which is both formless and perfect? This was the dilemma Lao Tzu addressed in chapter one. We want to realize this mystery; and, if we were free from desire, we could. All our efforts at attaining true contentment are always frustrated; because, as he said in chapter fourteen, it has a form which includes all forms. You can’t know it. You can, only, be it.
So Lao Tzu rehearses other words he has used to describe the original Oneness, which exists before and beyond. Serene. Empty. Solitary. Unchanging. Infinite. Eternally present. Mother of the universe. We could go on and on. Finally, he settles with calling it the Tao.
What were we talking about, again? Oh yes, greatness. What is it that makes the Tao great? It flows through all things, both inside and outside, and returns to the origin of all things. It flows through us, and always leads us back to the beginning, back to the Source. That is why the Tao is great.
That is what greatness means. Returning to the Source is the serenity we have been seeking.
So, the Tao is great; but, it is, only, the greatest of four great powers. The universe is also great. But why? Because it follows the Tao. Where is the Tao leading, once again? Back to the Source. And, the earth is great. Why is it great? Because it follows the universe, as it follows the Tao, back to the Source. And, we humans can be great, too.
But, what is it which will make us great? Can we make ourselves great? Can we be made great by following another person, just as finite and temporal, just as prone to failure as ourselves? Nope! What will make us great is following the earth, as it follows the universe, as it follows the Tao, back to the Source.
Greatness follows greatness follows greatness follows greatness, back to the Source of greatness.
Sorry, Donald, and all you would-be rulers; but, greatness can’t be had by following any of you. But, if you want to be truly great, you will learn how to follow, too. Learn how to follow something much greater than yourself. Don’t try to force or control others. But, placing yourself beneath and behind, be an example of how to follow; and, we’ll certainly follow your example.