“Imagine a nebulous thing
here before Heaven and Earth
subtle and elusive
dwelling apart and unconstrained
it could be the mother of us all
not knowing its name
I call it the Tao
forced to describe it
I describe it as great
great means ever-flowing
ever-flowing means far-reaching
far-reaching means returning
the Tao is great
Heaven is great
Earth is great
the ruler is also great
the realm contains Four Greats
of which the ruler is but one
Humankind imitates Earth
Earth imitates Heaven
Heaven imitates the Tao
and the Tao imitates itself”
(Taoteching, verse 25, translation by Red Pine)
WU CH’ENG says, “‘Nebulous’ means complete and indivisible.”
SU CH’E says, “The Tao is neither pure nor muddy, high nor low, past nor future, good nor bad. Its body is a nebulous whole. In Humankind it becomes our nature. It doesn’t know it exists, and yet it endures forever. And within it are created Heaven and Earth.”
LI HSI-CHAI says, “It dwells apart but does not dwell apart. It goes everywhere but does not go anywhere. It’s the mother of the world, but it’s not the mother of the world.”
SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “The Tao does not have a name of its own. We force names upon it. But we cannot find anything real in them. We would do better returning to the root from which we all began.”
Standing beside a stream, CONFUCIUS sighed, “To be ever-flowing like this, not stopping day or night!” (Lunyu: 9.16).
TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “Although we say it’s far-reaching, it never gets far from itself. Hence, we say it’s returning.”
HO-SHANG KUNG says, “The Tao is great because there is nothing it does not encompass. Heaven is great because there is nothing it does not cover. Earth is great because there is nothing it does not support. And the king is great because there is nothing he does not govern. Humankind should imitate Earth and be peaceful and pliant, plant and harvest its grains, dig and discover its springs, work without exhaustion and succeed without fuss. As for Earth imitating Heaven, Heaven is still and immutable. It gives without seeking a reward. It nourishes all creatures and takes nothing for itself. As for Heaven imitating the Tao, the Tao is silent and does not speak. It directs breath and essence unseen, and thus all things come to be. As for the Tao imitating itself, the nature of the Tao is to be itself. It does not imitate anything else.”
WANG PI says, “If Humankind does not turn its back on Earth, it brings peace to all. Hence it imitates Earth. If Earth does not turn its back on Heaven it supports all. Hence, it imitates Heaven. If Heaven does not turn its back on the Tao, it covers all. Hence, it imitates the tao. And if the Tao does not turn its back on itself, it realizes its nature. Hence, it imitates itself.”
And RED PINE adds, “The character for ‘ruler’ (wang) shows three horizontal lines (Heaven, Humankind, Earth) connected by a single vertical line. Lao-tzu’s point is that the ruler, being only one of the four great powers of the world, should not be so presumptuous of his greatness, for he depends on the other three.”
In today’s verse, like the ones which precede it and those which will follow it, Lao-tzu is being forced to describe a subtle and elusive thing. He tells us to imagine a nebulous thing. Wu Ch’eng offers us help by saying, “‘Nebulous’ means complete and indivisible.” But, I don’t know that that is any help at all.
Nebulous actually means not clear, difficult to see, understand, describe, etc. It means this thing is cloudy, misty, or hazy. It lacks definite form or limits. It is vague. I got that definition from a variety of sources, and I am quite certain, that is exactly what Lao-tzu means. Just try to imagine that thing! John Lennon insisted in his “imagine” song that it wasn’t hard, if you try. But, this? This nebulous thing? I think Lao-tzu fully intends for us to understand just how difficult it is.
Yet, he is forced to describe it; forced to give it a name. I call it the Tao. I describe it as great.
But what does any of this mean? Su Ch’e says, “The Tao is neither pure nor muddy, high nor low, past nor future, good nor bad….It doesn’t know it exists, and yet it endures forever.” And, Li Hsi-chai says, “It dwells apart but does not dwell apart. It goes everywhere but does not go anywhere. Its the mother of the world, but it’s not the mother of the world.”
Those of you who have been following along with me for some time know what these sages are describing is yin and yang. It is and it is not; it is not and it is not is not. Are you confused yet? Confused is just another definition for nebulous.
Because it is nebulous, we are going to have a pretty hard time trying to imagine it. That is the whole point. Or, maybe there is something more to it. Let’s look again at what Lao-tzu has to say about what “great” means:
“Great means ever-flowing, ever-flowing means far-reaching, far-reaching means returning.” So, great means returning. Ts’ao Tao-ch’ung explains, “Although we say it’s far-reaching, it never gets far from itself. Hence, we say it’s returning.”
Returning. Don’t despair! Lao-tzu goes on to explain exactly what he means by this.
But first he describes three other “great” things. Because in describing what makes them great, he can return to that nebulous Tao’s greatness.
The ruler is great, but shouldn’t get cocky, because the ruler is only one of the four great powers, and is dependent on the others. Humankind imitates the Earth, that makes Humankind great. The Earth imitates Heaven, that makes the Earth great. Heaven imitates the Tao, that makes Heaven great.
Shouldn’t the Tao be flattered by all of this imitation?
The Tao, returning to itself, having never actually left itself, just goes about its business of imitating itself.
That is its nature. And that, my friends is the key to understanding this nebulous thing. It is its nature. It is the nature of Heaven. It is the nature of Earth. And yes, even in Humankind, it becomes our nature. The great imitates.