When a superior man hears of the Tao,
he immediately begins to embody it.
When an average man hears of the Tao,
he half believes it, half doubts it.
When a foolish man hears of the Tao,
he laughs out loud.
If he didn’t laugh,
it wouldn’t be the Tao.
Thus it is said:
The path into the light seems dark,
the path forward seems to go back,
the direct path seems long,
true power seems weak,
true purity seems tarnished,
true steadfastness seems changeable,
true clarity seems obscure,
the greatest art seems unsophisticated,
the greatest love seems indifferent,
the greatest wisdom seems childish.
The Tao is nowhere to be found.
Yet it nourishes and completes all things.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 41, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
I want to get one thing out of the way, right upfront. While I generally find Stephen Mitchell’s translation “superior” to the other ones I have encountered, I don’t like that label, superior. When I first came across this chapter, I immediately found myself thinking of what Lao Tzu said, way back in chapter two. “When people see some things as beautiful, other things become ugly. And, when people see some things as good, other things become bad.” When we start identifying anything, or in the case of today’s chapter, anyone, as superior, we are by definition, identifying others as inferior. And, Lao Tzu has warned us about overvaluing things, or over-esteeming people. Things start to go horribly wrong, when we do. The so-called superior people are preferred over the so-called inferior ones. And, let’s be honest about human history. Humans have a dismal record when it comes to eugenics. Throughout our history, we have dabbled with eugenics programs. Those who think themselves superior, have few qualms when it comes to what to do with those who are deemed inferior. Horrifying experiments have been performed on them, sterilization has been forced on them, and all in the name of purifying the human race. Helping evolution along. So, I won’t be referring to superior versus inferior people, in my commentary, today. Thankfully, there is a better way to identify different responses from different people.
Some people can be said to be wise and virtuous, while others can be said to be foolish. Most of us fall somewhere in between these two extremes; like me, average. Now, what makes the wise and virtuous person, wise and virtuous, is they wouldn’t want to get rid of the fool. Wise and virtuous persons understand why the foolish person laughs out loud when they hear of the Tao. It isn’t because they are foolish, by the way. No, the foolish person laughs out loud, because it wouldn’t be the Tao, if they didn’t.
On the other hand, a wise and virtuous person is able to immediately begin to embody the Tao when they hear of it. And, let’s give props where they are due. Being wise and virtuous is to be preferred, if we can do anything to grow our wisdom and virtue. I happen to think we can. It happens during that incubation I was talking about, yesterday. I would certainly like to think I am a bit more wise and virtuous, today, than I was previously. And, the foolish person’s laughter is not the final word on the fool. They, too, can be shown the Way.
But, once again, these are still two extremes; between the wise who immediately begin to embody the Tao, and the fool who laughs out loud. Most of us are smack dab in the middle; average. That was certainly me. I heard of the Tao, and I half believed it, and half doubted it. Where was this Tao? Show it to me. I want to believe. But everything I perceive with my senses leads me to further doubt. The Tao is nowhere to be found. You say it nourishes and completes all things, but…
There is always that but.
Most of us, I think, can empathize with the average person who hears of the Tao. The path into the light seems dark. The path forward seems to go back. The direct path seems long. True power seems weak. True purity seems tarnished. True steadfastness seems changeable. True clarity seems obscure. I can tell myself, over and over again, that things are not as they appear, the way things seem to be are not the way things actually are. But we have grown rather accustomed to trusting our eyes and ears.
I, actually got rather excited, when I began reading some theoretical physicists’ arguments that the reality we are perceiving with our senses is actually a holographic image being projected by our minds. It is all just an illusion. The infinite and eternal reality is something beyond this finite and temporal reality we perceive with our senses.
But whether it is what we see and hear that is informing our minds, or our minds projecting a reality for our eyes and ears to see and hear, there is good reason for Lao Tzu to insist we empty our minds of all thoughts. Things are not what they seem to be. And we get a hint of that, when the greatest art seems unsophisticated, or the greatest love seems indifferent, or the greatest wisdom seems childish.
I, too, understand why the foolish person laughs out loud. And, as much as I hate to have to admit to it, I understand why I had my own doubts. So much preconditioning, so many preconceived ideas. All of that had to be discarded, thrown away.
Of course, we would like to think it would be so much simpler if the Tao would just make itself known. It nourishes and completes all things. Yet, it is nowhere to be found. How do we come to believe? How do we dispel the doubts?
How, indeed. For me, it was being willing to spend time incubating. Staying in the center of the circle, not intervening or interfering, not trying to control or force issues. Letting my doubts get washed away by the flow of the Tao. Finally perceiving, inside the core of my being, that all things truly are nourished and completed, without any assistance from me. “That is the Tao”, I keep finding myself saying. It comes from deep inside me. It comes spontaneously, and intuitively.