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)
Here we are, already to chapter four, and Lao Tzu hasn’t really told us much yet about the Tao. It is almost like he is following his own advice from chapter one. “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.”
But, of course, he has already told us a lot. We know it is eternal. We know it is a mystery. We know it has manifestations. So, he hasn’t been entirely elusive. What he has been talking about is how the Tao is manifest in our universe. Not so much what the Tao is, as what it is about. And, what it is about is bringing about balance and harmony; order, if you will, in what would otherwise be a chaotic universe.
Today, Lao Tzu begins describing the mystery. He is going to point at it with his finger, and if we don’t get distracted by his finger, we might just see what he is pointing at. Today, he begins using similes and metaphors and riddles to tell us about the Tao. He says it is like a well. It is there to be used, but is never used up. I like that imagery. Then he says, it is like the eternal void. When I think of a void I think of a vast open space, a vacuum, all empty inside. How can the Tao be like a well which can’t be used up; and, like a void which should be empty?
I said yesterday, that we are going to encounter paradox, over and over again, on our journey through the Tao Te Ching. The paradox yesterday was that naming things is both the origin of all particular things and not an accurate representation of what is eternal. That is a clue to how to interpret what Lao Tzu is saying to us today. He didn’t say the Tao is a well. He said it is like a well. It isn’t finite. It is infinite. It is meant to be used. But it can never be used up. He didn’t say it is the eternal void. He said it is like the eternal void. And, in the case of the Tao, this “eternal void” is filled, with infinite possibilities.
Lao Tzu kept this chapter brief and I am wanting to keep things brief today, too. I simply don’t need to try to say everything that I have to say about this today. I have 81 chapters worth of days to do this.
With that said, Lao Tzu does have some closing words for us for today. The Tao is hidden. Yet, it is always present. What does he mean by that? I think he is merely pointing out that it is us that have put the blinders on. It is hidden in plain sight. Why can’t we see it? Back in chapter one, Lao Tzu told us what our problem is. Caught in desire we can only see its manifestations. But, once we are free from desire, then we will realize the mystery.
And, then Lao Tzu tells us a joke. He has already said that the Tao is eternal. But there is one more thing that Lao Tzu wants to make clear. And, he uses humor to do it. The way he has been describing the Tao is using the same kind of language and imagery which is often used to describe a deity. But the Tao is not God. That is why he says, “I don’t know who gave birth to it. It is older than God.”
In talking about the Tao, Lao Tzu is imagining a Universe, and a Principle governing that Universe, which is older than God. That governing Principle, he calls the Tao. Continue with me on this journey and we will learn more and more about how the Universe works. And, as an extra added bonus, you, and you alone, get to decide where, or if, God fits into the picture.