The Great Imitates

“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, Lao-tzu asks us to imagine a nebulous thing. Wu Ch’eng says “nebulous” means complete and indivisible. And, I think, whether or not we can imagine this nebulous thing sets the course of our lives.

We have said it so many times before, the way of Humankind is not the Way of the Tao. The Tao is that nebulous thing we have been challenged to imagine. The way of Humankind can’t wrap its mind around something complete and indivisible. We, instead, want something that needs us to complete, something we can divide (and attempt to conquer).

Alas for us, for the Tao is subtle and elusive. It dwells apart and is unconstrained. Try as we might to constrain it, it cannot be constrained. Lao-tzu explains the struggle as both forcing names on the Unnameable (it could be the mother of us all), and forced descriptions of it (I describe it as great: great means ever-flowing, ever-flowing means far-reaching, far-reaching means returning). I think you can see the dilemma.

While we try to constrain the Tao, it is we who are constrained. And we just keep doing the same thing, though it has been proven time, and time again, that this way doesn’t work.

So, what to do? Well, we need to return to what he said at the beginning of the verse: Imagine a nebulous thing. And, having imagined it, stop trying to constrain it. Instead, we need to let go of that desire. If we are going to be great, and Humankind can be one of the four great powers, we need to practice imitating. In other words, go with the flow, rather than struggling against it. It is the way of Humankind to struggle against it. And we can see just how well that is working out for us. At least I hope my readers are seeing that. But it is only through seeing that, imagining a better Way, and practicing the virtue of following (imitating) it, that the course of our lives can be turned for good.

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