When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.
Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.
Therefore, the Master acts
without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has, but doesn’t possess;
she acts, but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter two, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
In yesterday’s chapter, Lao Tzu told us that the eternally real is unnameable. That was immediately after he named the Tao. We could then decide that Lao Tzu was just messing with us. But, I don’t think he was just messing with us. I think he was introducing us to the first paradox. We will encounter a lot of them on our journey. But, here is the first.
Because anything that can be told about the Tao is not the eternal Tao, and any name that can be named is not the eternal Name, it would seem pointless to talk about it at all. And ascribing a name to anything would, likewise, seem an exercise in futility. But that is the paradox. Because naming is the origin of all particular things. It simply must be done. Do you see the paradox? If only the unnameable is the eternally real, why would we want to even begin naming? The paradox occurs because the way things are is not the way things seem to be.
Today’s chapter is all about naming particular things. It is no surprise to me that creation myths tend to include some naming ceremony. The creation myth from my own childhood is found in the book of Genesis, where Adam names all the animals; and, whatever name he gives them is the name they get stuck with. We have a naming ceremony in today’s chapter, as well. But, it isn’t about animals.
Still, just like animals, they do come in pairs. Here is our introduction to yin and yang. Being and non-being. In the past, I have made the mistake of referring to these as opposites. You name one thing, you get its opposite, too. Oh, be careful little tongue what you speak. But, like I said, calling them opposites was a mistake. They aren’t opposites. They are complements. Not to be confused with compliments.
What is a complement? It is something that completes something else, or makes it better. This is important for us to understand, because we tend to think of beautiful and ugly, or good and bad, as opposites. They are not. Like yin and yang, female and male, dark and light, negative and positive, passive and active, closed and open… they sometimes seem to be opposites, but what they really are are complements of each other. They complete each other. One is not complete without the other. You can’t have one without the other.
If we see some things as yin, then other things must be yang. And, we really must not be confused on this point. Yin is not good and yang, bad. What would be bad is if there was not balance. Yin and yang create each other. They support each other. They define each other. They depend on each other. They follow each other. That is what Lao Tzu is meaning when he talks of being and non-being, difficult and easy, long and short, high and low, before and after.
When we think of them as opposites, we think of them as being in conflict. What Lao Tzu is wanting us to do is to embrace them as complements of each other. Welcome the balance. People may wish to argue whether what Lao Tzu is talking about is subjective or objective. For instance, people have long argued whether or not there is an objective standard for beauty. Is beauty merely in the eye of the beholder? And, my question is, why does it have to be one or the other? Why can’t it be both?
The same goes for good and bad. Lao Tzu isn’t talking about good and evil here. He isn’t saying that for there to be good in the world there has to be evil. He will help us address the problem of evil, later. But today’s good and bad is an entirely different thing. He is saying that for someone to see something as good, like, you are good at something, there must be a way to be bad at that something. There wouldn’t be any way to measure it, objectively or subjectively, otherwise.
Those last two paragraphs are going to hopefully spawn messages in my inbox. As long as humans have had the mental capacity to think about these issues, people have been arguing about them. For now, let’s move on to the rest of today’s chapter. Lao Tzu introduces us to the Master, today, for the first time. She’s a mysterious one, that one is. And, she will be reappearing throughout the Tao Te Ching to help us to flesh out what Lao Tzu is teaching us.
Today, she is helping us to understand the concept of being and non-being complementing each other. He says that she acts without doing anything. That is yin and yang in perfect balance. She teaches without saying anything. Things arise and she lets them come. Things disappear and she lets them go. I see it as a dance. She doesn’t interfere with the Tao. She merely lets nature take its course. She has, without possessing. She acts, without expectations. She does her work and then forgets about it. When Lao Tzu says she forgets about it, he isn’t talking about some short term memory problem. She forgets about it like when a mafia don says “forget about it.” You best forget about it. Because all the fussing and fuming and stressing and worrying are never going to help you. Just forget about it. And, you know what? It lasts forever.