The Knowledge of Good and Evil

The Tao doesn’t take sides;
it gives birth to both good and evil.
The Master doesn’t take sides;
she welcomes both saints and sinners.

The Tao is like a bellows;
It is empty yet infinitely capable.
The more you use it, the more it produces;
the more you talk of it, the less you understand.

Hold on to the center.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 5, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

One thing that can never be said about Lao Tzu, and that would be that he shied away from tackling the great questions that have always troubled humanity. The great question that Lao Tzu is tackling today is the problem of the existence of good and evil. Perhaps we don’t see the problem with the existence of good. Our problem is with the existence of evil. But, Lao Tzu tells us not to choose sides. The Tao doesn’t. The Master doesn’t. He even goes so far as to say that the Tao gives birth to them both. And I think that is about the boldest statement that anyone ever made regarding their philosophy. Most philosophers and theologians really wrestle with this. I know I do. We don’t like being forced to explain the existence of evil. Or, what to do about it. And, then there is Lao Tzu. He seems rather nonchalant about the whole thing.

Why is there evil in the world? Lao Tzu would tell us that the answer for that is the same as the answer for the question, why is there good in the world? And the answer is, drum roll, please: “It is the way things are.” I warned you (yesterday, I think it was) that sometimes we may not like the way things are. But, the way things are is the way things are. And, the sooner we accept that is the eternal reality, and work with the Tao, instead of against it, the happier we will be.

In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu is showing us how the Tao governs the whole Universe. There are natural laws at work here. He tells us how to be in harmony with the way things are. And, thankfully, one of the lessons that we get to learn along the way is how to deal with the existence of evil.

Today, he tells us that our knowledge that both good and evil exist should not compel us to take sides. Whenever he starts talking about what the Master does, he is telling us, “Hey, this is how you should be.” Lao Tzu will be returning to this theme again and again throughout the Tao Te Ching; so don’t worry, we aren’t finished with evil. For today, he wants us to welcome both saints and sinners. Don’t take sides. Don’t prefer one to the other. Just welcome them both. Now, I know that is not going to be satisfactory to a good number of you. But I hope you will hang in there with me. Lao Tzu will have plenty more to say.

For now, he wants to talk more about this Tao; using similes, metaphors, and riddles. If we are paying attention, we may just get the answers we are looking for. Or, at least, the answers we are going to get; whether we were looking for them, or not.

Yesterday, we talked about the infinite usefulness of the Tao. He said it is like a well. And, like the eternal void. Today, he says it is like a bellows. Once I start thinking of bellows, I can finally understand how a void can be filled with infinite possibilities. For that is exactly what a bellows is like. If you don’t use it, it won’t be of any use to you. Go ahead, use it. It is empty, yes; but, look what it can do. The more you use it, the more it produces.

I suppose I could talk, on and on, about it. But, there is a danger. The more I talk of it, the less I understand. And, that is why Lao Tzu says just one thing more. Perhaps, the most important thing. “Hold on to the center.” And, I am going to say even less about that. It is an intriguing sentence that almost seems out of place in today’s chapter. Suffice it for me to say, that is what the art of living is all about. It is the practice of philosophical Taoism. It is the practice of wu-wei, effortless action. It is the practice of unknowing. It is something we will be talking about over and over again, until we find it as easy as breathing in and breathing out.

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