Look, and it can’t be seen.
Listen, and it can’t be heard.
Reach, and it can’t be grasped.
Above, it isn’t bright.
Below, it isn’t dark.
It returns to the realm of nothing.
Form that includes all form.
Image without an image.
Subtle, beyond all conception.
Approach it, and there is no beginning.
Follow it, and there is no end.
You can’t know it, but you can be it.
At ease in your own life.
Just realize where you come from;
this is the essence of wisdom.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 14, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Today’s chapter reads likes a riddle. Lao Tzu is really continuing what he was talking about yesterday, when he talked about the proverbial ladder of success being all an illusion, with its twin phantoms of hope and fear. I talked a lot yesterday about the phantoms. But I realize I didn’t talk very much about what the allure of the ladder is. Why do we seek out the ladder? It is because we have been led to believe that the ladder offers us a life of ease.
Lao Tzu wants us grounded in reality and living in the present moment. What that ladder offers us is illusory. That life of ease isn’t something we can know. That is what today’s riddle is all about. If you look for it, it can’t be seen. If you listen for it, it can’t be heard. If you reach for it, it can’t be grasped. That life of ease, at least the one promised to us if we will only get on that ladder, is not just illusory, it is elusive.
Once you get on that ladder, you find that above, it isn’t so bright. And below, it isn’t so dark. All that the ladder promises, where does it take us? To the realm of nothing. A life of ease is subtle, beyond all conception. As you approach it, you find it has no beginning. And when you follow it, there is no end.
If you find the riddle confounding, good. That is the kind of picture, Lao Tzu is trying to paint for us of a lifetime spent on the ladder. But don’t despair. While you can’t know it, you can be it. But being isn’t something which belongs in the phantom zone of the ladder. The ladder isn’t about being, it is about doing. And you will find that there is no end to the doing. Being is firmly in the realm of what is eternally real. The eternally real is the Tao, the Source. That is our beginning. And that is where we need to return. Lao Tzu tells us that if we want to be at ease in our own life we must realize where it is we came from. It is having faith in the way things are. That is the essence of wisdom. Being in harmony with the way things are.