The Tao can’t be perceived.
Smaller than an electron,
it contains uncountable galaxies.
If powerful men and women
could remain centered in the Tao,
all things would be in harmony.
The world would become a paradise.
All people would be at peace,
and the law would be written in their hearts.
When you have names and forms,
know that they are provisional.
When you have institutions,
know where their functions should end.
Knowing when to stop,
you can avoid any danger.
All things end in the Tao
as rivers flow into the sea.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 32, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Yesterday, I talked about how weary I have become; of war, and of all kinds of violence, particularly violence committed using guns as a tool. Our ego is so great that, always, when we perceive some problem, we think we can and should fix it. I said that I have good friends who think the answer is somehow restricting gun ownership. And, then I said, I would love to be able to offer some quick fix, some universal panacea which would solve the problem of violence, overnight. I, then, went on with an analogy I was talking about, of the effect made by a tiny stone being dropped in a pond. The ripples travel far. I said, we individuals can make a difference. I even went so far as to invite you all to come splash with me.
This was an epic fail on my part, if I led anyone to believe, we can do anything to directly improve our world. After all, it was only a few short chapters ago, where Lao Tzu said, we can’t improve the world. The world is sacred. It can’t be improved. So, what was the point of my analogy? What about those tiny stones splashing in the water? There truly are some things we can do. They work indirectly. We can receive the world in our arms. We can be a pattern for the world. And we can accept the world as it is. Those we can do. And, it was that being a pattern for the world that I really had in mind. Be a pattern for the world! If you don’t want the world to be a violent place to live, be a pattern of non-violence for the world. Then, rely on the Tao. It is a mixture of active and passive. Those ripples are how we cooperate with the Tao.
In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu brings us back to the effect on our world, if we will do what we can, but only what we can. We need to know, when it is time to stop. What are our own limits? The Tao is unlimited. It is infinite and eternal. We want to tap into that. The need is great to rely on the Tao. But we always must keep in mind that we live in a finite and temporal world. We are finite and temporal. There are limits to what we can do. If we know when to stop, when we have reached our limit, we can avoid danger.
So, what is it, again, that we can do? We can remain centered in the Tao.
Oh, but how can we possibly do that? The Tao can’t even be perceived. It is infinitesimally small; yet, it contains uncountable galaxies. How do we reckon with something like this? It does speak of our limits. The Tao is eternal and infinite; but we are temporal and finite.
However, there are those who think they, of all us mere mortals, can do what, practically speaking, is impossible. They can improve the world! They are the powerful men and women among us. But, Lao Tzu will have none of that. You can’t improve the world; but, if you could remain centered in the Tao, all things would be in harmony. The world would become a paradise. All people would be at peace, and the law would be written in their hearts.
But, that isn’t what the powerful want to hear. For, you see, it doesn’t give them anything to do. It doesn’t empower them. The world would transform itself, if only they wouldn’t interfere. But interfere is exactly what they will continue doing. It maintains their power.
That is why it is so important, when we are asked to participate in the illusion of power, to know what the limits of our power are. Understand, the reason we live in a violent world is not because anyone in power is centered in the Tao. Nothing about Lao Tzu’s description of what the world could be like is, in any way, violent. The reason our world is so violent, is because the powerful will it to be so, contrary to the Tao.
So, we need to know when to stop, when we have reached the limits of our own power. Remember, we remain finite and temporal. And, the world is finite and temporal, too. That means names and forms, which we have constructed, are only for a time. They are provisional. Institutions are temporal, too. We need to know when their time is at an end, when it is time for their functions to cease. Oh, they served for a time. And, in some ways, they served their purpose admirably. But, if we are going to avoid any danger, we need to know when to stop.
It all keeps coming back to that infinitesimal Tao, containing countless galaxies. That is where the eternal, the infinite, is to be found. If we don’t like our particular finite and temporal world, if we can imagine a better one from the infinite choices the Tao offers us, we have to return to the Tao, and center ourselves in it. The world will transform itself!
That is where all things inevitably end. Just like streams turning into great rivers, and great rivers turning into seas. That analogy is a lot more significant than my little stone causing a ripple, when it splashes in a small pond. Still, we can make our own splash, in our own little corner of the world.