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 four, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Lao Tzu has been laying the groundwork to begin to talk about the mystery of the Tao. He first spoke of the Tao as the eternal reality, back in chapter one. There, he talked about our need to be free from desire in order to realize the mystery. Right now, we are caught in desire; so, we can only see the manifestations.
It was there, in chapter one, that he said that both the mystery and manifestations arise from the same Source. That Source is the Tao; and, it is shrouded in darkness within darkness. It is going to take awhile for our eyes to get adjusted to the dark. But, as we peer into the darkness, we will begin to see through the gateway to all understanding.
In chapter two, Lao Tzu addressed how someone who is in perfect harmony with the Tao, the Master, overcomes the problem of duality. It was our introduction to yin and yang; the way the Tao achieves balance and harmony in our Universe. I described the relationship between yin and yang, and between the Master and the Tao, as a loving and complementary relationship, a dance.
In chapter three, we talked about the need to not tip the scales. And, we talked a little about the need to practice doing not-doing. This doing not-doing is an expression of harmony with the Tao in all our actions; making everything that we do, effortless.
Today, we begin to talk about the mystery, while taking a closer look at the manifestations of the Tao. This is where Lao Tzu begins using metaphorical language to point at the Tao. The Tao is very much shrouded in darkness. We can’t really see it. All we can see is the darkness. But, we can see its manifestations, too. The manifestations are what reveal the mystery.
Lao Tzu begins by saying that the Tao is like a well and like the eternal void. It is here that Lao Tzu is explaining the harmony between emptiness and abundance. The well is used (that is, empty); but, it is never used up (its abundance is inexhaustible). When we think of a void, we can only picture a vast emptiness. Yet, this eternal void, this emptiness, is filled with infinite possibilities. What we can observe, its manifestations, is that it is empty, it is used. But there is more to the Tao than what the eyes can see. The eternal reality is that we can keep on using it; and, it is never used up. It appears empty; but it is filled with infinite possibilities. That is how the manifestations reveal the mystery. The manifestations reveal the paradox. It is empty; therefore, it should be of no further use. But we can go on using it, infinitely. That is the paradox.
This is the mystery of the Tao that is hidden from us. It is hidden from us; yet, it is always present. Lao Tzu is using language that is normally reserved for God: eternal, infinite, hidden, yet ever-present. But Lao Tzu doesn’t want us to get confused on this point. The Tao isn’t God; it precedes God. It precedes all things.