The Tao is like a well;
used but never used up.
It is like the eternal void;
filled with infinite possibilities.
It is hidden but always present.
I don’t know who gave birth to it.
It is older than God.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 4, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
It Is a Mystery, After All
It is so much easier to talk about the manifestations.
Those are my first thoughts, after reading through today’s chapter. But, we have been doing that for the last two chapters, talking about the manifestations. Lao Tzu warned us about this in chapter one. We want to be able to realize the mystery of the eternal Tao. But, we can’t, as long as we are caught in desire. That is why talking about the temporal manifestations is so much easier.
But, Lao Tzu did say he was going to tell of the mystery, too. He just warned us, what he can tell isn’t the eternal reality. He can point at it. He can come up with some useful metaphors to help to describe it. But, for now, that will have to be sufficient.
Thus, we arrive at today’s chapter. Where, Stephen Mitchell’s translation says the Tao is like a well, and like the eternal void. I have to be honest with you all. I don’t think this is offering much in the way of help with realizing the mystery. So, with apologies to Stephen Mitchell, I want to look at another translation, for inspiration.
Thankfully, I was introduced to Robert Brookes’ translation earlier this year.
“The Tao is an empty bowl
inexhaustible to those who use it.
Indeed, in its depths lies the origin of all things.
It dulls the sharp edges
softens the glare.
Yet it remains a part of the physical world.
This hidden tranquility –
I do not know its origin –
it has existed forever
it will endure forever.”
Subtle are its differences, with Stephen Mitchell’s translation. Subtle, yet profound.
I particularly like his use of an empty bowl as a metaphor for the Tao. We are going to be talking a lot, in the next several days, about the value of emptiness. We are going to be delving so deep into the depths of the value in emptiness, that I don’t hardly want to talk much more about it, today. Can we be content with knowing that emptiness makes it inexhaustible to those who use it? Is it enough to know you can “fill” that empty bowl anyway you want?
I’d like to think so; if for no other reason than that is only the first part of the chapter, and there is still the rest which needs talking about.
The Tao, infinitely empty, and eternal. How does it act in our world? Robert Brookes insists it remains a part of the physical world. But, how can this be? How can the eternal interact with the temporal? How can it be a part of the temporal?
So many questions. It is a mystery, after all.
It dulls sharp edges wherever they may be found. It resolves perplexities (good, I find myself quite perplexed, just now). It softens the glare. It is a hidden tranquility; no, make that, the hidden tranquility.
Hidden. Having existed forever. Enduring forever. Eternally tranquil.