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)
A few days ago, I came across a meme on my tumblr dashboard that just blew my mind. It had as its source the Institute of Physics, and may have originated on curiosity.com. It said, “An atom is about 99.999999999% empty space. If you removed the empty space from the atoms of all people, the entire human race could fit in the volume of a sugar cube.” Lao Tzu has had me fixated on empty spaces for quite some time now, and this little tidbit of information fascinates me. It is one of those things that just doesn’t seem possible. Yet, I believe it is true.
Lao Tzu begins today’s chapter by talking about the Tao in sub-atomic terms. “Smaller than an electron.” Stephen Mitchell, I believe, was using as a metaphor the smallest thing he knew, then existed. His translation was published in 1986. We have since been able to perceive even smaller things than an electron, but don’t let that take away from the magnitude of what Lao Tzu is saying, here. The Tao can’t be perceived. It is so small, we can’t perceive it. Yet, within it are contained uncountable galaxies. Thinking back to that earlier meme, that is a whole lot of empty space.
When you think on things like these, is it any wonder Lao Tzu marvels at the transformation which would occur in our world if only powerful men and women could remain centered in the Tao? Don’t get too bogged down with the theological question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. I would rather think about the real world fantasy of what would transpire if powerful men could do, what for them, seems impossible. All things would be in harmony. The world would become a paradise. All people would be at peace. The law would be written in our hearts.
Understand what Lao Tzu is saying to us, here. The reason why all things are not in harmony. The reason why the world is not a paradise. The reason why all people are not at peace. Why? Powerful men and women can’t remain centered in the Tao. No, instead, they insist on interfering, on intervening and trying to control things, on using force to get their way.
Which is why the second half of today’s chapter is so important. They don’t know when to stop; so it is incumbent on us, that we do.
The “ifs” of the previous part of the chapter have now become “whens”. What might be possible, but isn’t very probable, becomes something we can know for certain.
Way back in chapter one, Lao Tzu talked about naming as the origin of all particular things. Today, he tells us the names, and even the forms of things, are only provisional. They serve for the time being; but they were never intended to be anything but temporary. The same can be said for our various institutions. We need to know when their functions should end.
If we know when to stop, we can avoid danger. All things are going to come to an end. Even, and especially, our reliance on powerful men and women. All things end in the Tao. Just like rivers flow into the sea.