The Tao can’t be perceived.
Smaller than an electron,
it contains uncountable galaxies.
If powerful men and women
could remain centered in the Tao,
all things would be in harmony.
The world would become a paradise.
All people would be at peace,
and the law would be written in their hearts.
When you have names and forms,
know that they are provisional.
When you have institutions,
know where their functions should end.
Knowing when to stop, you can avoid danger.
All things end in the Tao,
as rivers flow into the sea.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 32, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
A couple of chapters ago, I said that our rulers are compensating for something. Today, we are going to begin by talking about why it is that size doesn’t matter. It all has to do with that “if” and that “when.”
The Tao is small, smaller than an electron. That is pretty small. It is, in fact, so small that it can’t be perceived. So, yes, we have pretty much established that the Tao is quite small. But size doesn’t matter. Oh, I guess it matters if you are trying to perceive it. But, when you consider that it contains uncountable galaxies, then its size doesn’t matter, after all.
But, if our rulers could perceive it – no, it would take more than perceiving, it would take centering themselves in it, and remaining centered in it – then all things would be in harmony. That is, after all, what they claim to be after with all their power. They make all kinds of promises. Promises of harmony. Promises of peace. They promise us a paradise.
And Lao Tzu, too, makes promises. If it were possible for the powerful to be in harmony with the imperceptible Tao, then the whole world would become a paradise. But, for our rulers, size does matter, after all. They can’t perceive the uncountable galaxies that the Tao contains. They are too distracted with how very small it is. And, if you can’t perceive it, you can’t center yourself in it. You can’t become it.
The “if” seems pretty hopeless. We have talked about our desires for improving the world. Lao Tzu has warned us that the world is sacred. And, that which is sacred cannot be improved. Tampering with it only results in ruining it. That is what our rulers have been doing for generations now. Which brings us to the “when.”
Knowing “when” is the only way to avoid danger. Lao Tzu is talking about names and forms, and saying they are provisional. And, institutions, whose functions should end. Now, he doesn’t say specifically what these names, forms, and institutions are. And, I think trying to figure out what specifically he could be referring to is very much like peering at that tiny Tao, smaller than an electron; yet, we strain our eyes to perceive it.
What I want to concentrate on is the uncountable galaxies that it contains. And, that means going back to the very beginning chapter of the Tao Te Ching, where Lao Tzu first talked about the temporal and the eternal, the named and the nameless, that which has form and the formless. Back to the difference between the manifestations and the mystery. You may recall that we can’t perceive the mystery because we are caught in desire. That is why we can only see the manifestations. Names are temporary. So is form. Oh, they serve a purpose for a time. But we need to understand when their time is up. Oh, and institutions? Yes, there is a time for their functions to end as well.
This is what we are in danger of missing. Knowing when it is time to stop. And the powerful are not being helpful here. Even their name, the powerful, is not an eternal name. Which should be a clue to the danger. Can we avoid the danger? Because all things are going to come to an end. All things end in the Tao. Just like rivers come to an end where they flow into the sea. Can you perceive when? That moment when the river meets the sea?