The Tao is infinite, eternal.
Why is it eternal?
It was never born;
thus it can never die.
Why is it infinite?
It has no desires for itself;
thus it is present for all beings.
The Master stays behind;
that is why she is ahead.
She is detached from all things;
that is why she is one with them.
Because she has let go of herself,
she is perfectly fulfilled.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 7, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Perhaps, a lot of my readers are just like I was, in their understanding of words like eternal and infinite. For many years, I believed I knew exactly what these words meant. To envision eternity, all I did was imagine a very long time line, infinitely long. I could look at any point on that time line and know that, if I were able to look infinitely into the past, or infinitely into the future, from that point on the time line, I would never come to an end. That was what eternal meant to me. I have to credit C.S. Lewis for actually helping me to see that I had it all wrong. I was certain I was understanding eternity, but I had confined it to a time line. C.S. Lewis explained eternity to me by starting with that time line, yes; but then, he pointed at the space apart from that time line, and said, that is what eternal means. It is timeless. It isn’t part of the time line, and has nothing to do with the time line. All a time line does is give you points in time. Points in the past and points in the future. Our lives began somewhere on that time line. And, they will end somewhere on that time line. C.S. Lewis would go on to say that “God” isn’t on the time line. God can see all of the past, and all the future, at once, spread out as if it is always now.
Enter Lao Tzu. Lao Tzu says the Tao is eternal. Why is it eternal? Because it was never born; thus it can never die. Yes, I understand this, now. The Tao isn’t on that time line, either. It was never born, so you can’t point to the time line and say, “There, is its beginning.” And, since it has no beginning point on the time line, it can’t have an end point, either. The Tao is always present. That is how Lao Tzu explains it.
And the Tao is infinite, too. We have been talking about the infinite Tao for a few days now. It is its emptiness that makes it infinite. It makes it infinitely capable. Its possibilities are infinite. It gives birth to infinite worlds. But, does that really explain what infinity means? Well, the emptiness does hint at it. But, Lao Tzu explains it in a way, in today’s chapter, which was all new to me.
It has no desires for itself. Ah. Now, that emptiness is taking on even more meaning to me. Having no desire. Being empty. Having no desire for itself, it can be present for all beings. Infinity and eternity are forever intertwined with each other. The Tao is always present. It is always present for all beings.
Okay, that should be enough about the infinite and eternal for today. What am I supposed to do with this? This is when I ask myself what wise and virtuous persons do to harmonize with this infinite and eternal reality. Am I forever stuck on this finite and temporal time line; or, is there some way to tap into the infinite and eternal?
Understanding the Way things are, wise and virtuous persons find themselves ahead, because they stay behind. They are one with all things by being detached from them. They are perfectly fulfilled, because they have let go of themselves.
What exactly has happened here? It is what we learned about the Tao, yesterday. A wise and virtuous person begins with yin, not yang. Yang is all about getting ahead. But, yin is content with staying behind. Yang wants to be one with all things, while yin remains detached from them. However, by leading with yin, yang naturally follows. If we had led with yang, we would have had much different results. You will never be perfectly fulfilled by seeking to be perfectly fulfilled. Contentment isn’t about the things we don’t yet have, that we want so very much. Contentment is about being content, right now, in the present, the always present. If you want to be perfectly fulfilled, let go of all your desire, be empty, let go of all of yourself; you begin to realize fulfillment, contentment, isn’t something to attain, it is something to be, right here, right now. It isn’t something postponed. Because, that is what desire does for us. It postpones contentment, fulfillment, until later, once you have the object of your desire. But, when you are empty, it is always present.
Tomorrow, we will talk more about what wisdom and virtue mean. How do we harmonize with the Way things are?