Three Cheers For The Nothing!

We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.

We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.

We work with being,
but non-being is what we use.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 11, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Today, Lao Tzu comes back to how being and non-being work together to create all things, to hold together the fabric of the Universe. It gives us another opportunity to try and wrap our minds around what non-being is. Being and non-being go together, like yin and yang. You can’t have one without the other. They create each other; and so, are dependent on each other. The Tao works with being and non-being to achieve balance in the Universe.

In our chapter today, Lao Tzu talks about three ordinary things. Things he was familiar with in his own time. Things his readers would immediately recognize. When he has a point to make he will point at something familiar, to illustrate that point. Often he paints quite the picture for us. Let’s look at these three everyday items.

First, we have the wagon wheel. We can immediately conjure in our minds exactly what Lao Tzu is describing for us. Spokes joined together in a wheel. Can you see it? That visual image in your mind is very important. Now, notice that without that center hole, the wagon will not move. The spokes are obviously important to the wheel. But what we don’t so readily see, is the necessity of that empty hole in the center. Without that hole, without that empty space, which has for its sole purpose, to be filled. Your wagon is going nowhere. This is Lao Tzu’s first illustration of the relationship between being and non-being. We work with being. Those spokes that we crafted. But that center hole. That is a whole other thing. That is an illustration of non-being. We don’t make empty space. We leave it. Or we fill it. Those are our only options. We can’t work with it. Not really. What is there to work with? But we can use it. That is its purpose. To be used.

Second, we have a very handy thing. A pot. Something we use just about every day. In talking about a pot, we can talk about what it is made of, or we could talk about what we want to use it for. If we are talking about what it is made of, then we are talking about the clay (that is being) that we shape into that pot. But if we were to stop there, we wouldn’t have any idea what it was going to be good for. What are you going to do with your pot? If you have some use planned for it, then we are going to leave the realm of being behind and venture out into the realm of non-being. Because it is non-being that we use. I am sure you have a picture of a pot in your mind. You have finished shaping it. It is now all ready to be put to some use. What are you going to do with it? You might put it on your head. Or you might put some dirt and seed in it. Perhaps, you are going to make something delightful to eat. Or pour yourself your favorite beverage. Whatever you imagine, you need that emptiness inside the pot. That is what the pot was made for. When you were shaping that clay, you thought you were creating that empty space. But the empty space was always already there. All you did was fill up space around that empty space. You worked with being, that clay. And you formed your pot. Now you can use that emptiness that always was there. That is non-being.

Third, something we all want to come home to, a house. Lao Tzu understands construction. He says we hammer wood for the house. I know you are picturing that right now. Maybe you are up on the roof, hammering away. Or maybe, you have just finished one of the walls and you are lifting it and pushing it into place. But once the house is done, as necessary as those four walls and the roof are. The one thing, we can never forget was the whole reason for constructing the four walls and roof. It’s the inner space. That is what makes the house livable. Without that inner space, your house is nothing. We like empty space in our homes; or at least, I think we do. We certainly seem to fill it up very quickly; and find our house is not so empty anymore. Then that house isn’t so livable.

Well, that’s it. That is all that Lao Tzu needed to say, today. We work with being, so being is important. But it is non-being that we actually use. Three cheers for the nothing. The most underrated important thing of them all.

Is This Like Right Out Of The Matrix?

Can you coax your mind from its wandering
and keep to the original oneness?
Can you let your body become
supple as a newborn child’s?
Can you cleanse your inner vision
until you see nothing but the light?
Can you love people and lead them
without imposing your will?
Can you deal with the most vital matters
by letting events take their course?
Can you step back from your own mind
and thus understand all things?

Giving birth and nourishing,
having without possessing,
acting with no expectations,
leading, and not trying to control:
this is the supreme virtue.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 10, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, Lao Tzu was all about the only path to serenity. It was about the art of contentment. Which is just another way of saying the art of living. Which is just another way of saying, the Way; which is the Tao. What we want is to be in perfect harmony with the way things are. That is the eternal reality, the Tao. If we are going to do that, we are going to have to learn the art of contentment. And that isn’t going to be easy. But then anything worth ‘being” never was going to be easy. I said being, because this isn’t about doing anything.

I want you to keep that in mind as you read through this list of “Can you” questions with which Lao Tzu begins today’s chapter. Perhaps, they seem impossible to achieve. Or perhaps, they just seem hopelessly idealistic, and not at all realistic. But Lao Tzu has a reason for asking these questions of us. He is trying to draw something out of us: The Supreme Virtue.

I keep talking about this eternal reality. I have called it a mystery. It is a mystery because it is shrouded in darkness; and, well, mystery. But it is the gateway to all understanding. This eternal reality is to be contrasted with what I refer to as the illusion. Where the eternal reality is simply, the way things are, the illusion is the way things seem to be. The way things seem to be is really what shrouds the eternal reality and keeps it a mystery to us. So, one of the things we are going to be about as we are going through the Tao Te Ching, is recognizing the illusion for what it is. Once we have identified what is false, then the truth will be a lot easier to recognize.

Today’s “Can you” questions are going to help us with that.

Why are our minds so prone to wandering? Because of the way things seem to be. It clouds our understanding. Quite simply, we are distracted. You could call it “bread and circuses,” an apt metaphor. Lao Tzu believes that we all were born with an original oneness. This original oneness is a connection to the eternal reality, which is innate; but has been lost through years of conditioning. In the place of the eternal reality has been substituted the illusion. Can we coax our minds from its wandering? Well, of course we can. But it isn’t going to be easy. Because the illusion seems so very real, after years of conditioning. Most people don’t believe there is anything but the illusion. That is the only reality they have ever known. If this sounds anything like the movie “The Matrix” I am not surprised. I certainly can pick up on a lot of that theme in that movie.

What is this about letting our bodies become as supple as a newborn child’s? This seems kind of strange. What does Lao Tzu mean? I don’t think he means it to be taken literally, for one thing. Newborns are a favorite metaphor of Lao Tzu’s. When he sees a newborn, he is thinking about that original oneness. That suppleness. The beginning of life and all the promise and potential of the Universe in that tiny being. Don’t get stuck on the word “body” here. He isn’t referring to flesh. He is talking about something much more. He is wanting us to get back to our original oneness. Our original suppleness. And this isn’t something we have to do. It is something we simply let happen. We are going to talk again and again about effortless action or not-doing. Letting things happen is a pretty steady theme throughout.

Can you cleanse your inner vision until you see nothing but the light? Ah, now we are getting to the heart of the matter. We have been so focused on all that is going on around us, and our inner vision has become clouded. Things seem dark. The eternal reality is shrouded in darkness. But our inner vision can be cleansed. We can get to the point where we see nothing but the light.

Can you love people and lead them without imposing your will? I said earlier that this was a whole lot like the movie, “The Matrix.” Are you going to take the red pill or the blue pill? Do people really want to be unplugged? How do I help people to see the illusion for what it is? Well, one thing we are not going to do is force anyone to do anything. Lao Tzu will talk about this repeatedly throughout the Tao Te Ching. It is the art of governing. And the very first rule that we must follow if we want to govern well, is not try to control. We are to love and lead people by serving as an example of the art of living, the practice of contentment. The Tao doesn’t force and we won’t have to, either.

Can you deal with the most vital matters by letting events take their course? There is that word “let” again. You really do have a choice, you know. It requires patience. This letting things happen naturally. Letting things run their course. They do have a course. We get impatient and want to help things along. Or try to alter or abolish things before the time is ripe. And, of course, Lao Tzu would say this about the most vital matters. It is easy to let things happen naturally when our life doesn’t depend on it. That is what he means by vital after all. But letting events take their course when lives are on the line? That is going to be a challenge. Not only does Lao Tzu not want us imposing our will or forcing others, he doesn’t want us imposing our will or forcing events.

Finally, can you step back from your own mind and thus understand all things? This is another one of those that sounds kind of weird. How do we step back from our own minds? Let’s not make this too complicated. Lao Tzu is merely referring to the years of conditioning our minds have had, which have caused it to stray from its original oneness. We need to take a step back from all that conditioning. Get a fresh perspective. See the illusion for what it is.

Make no mistake about it, this isn’t an easy thing. We are talking about giving birth and nourishing. Having without possessing. Acting with no expectations. Leading, and not trying to control. “Be” these things and you will have accomplished the supreme virtue.

Knowing When Enough Is Enough

Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
and you will be their prisoner.

Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 9, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Today, we begin again where we left off yesterday, talking about the art of contentment. If you truly want to be content, the very first thing you will need to know is when enough is enough. Lao Tzu begins by giving us two every day object lessons. We all know better than to fill our bowls all the way to the brim, don’t we? And yet, how often do we over-fill our cups or bowls, only to spill some of the contents. That old saying, “waste not, want not,” applies here.

I have a friend that I visit every Sunday afternoon. He is very much into Japanese culture and he performs the Japanese tea ceremony for me every Sunday. Watching him preparing the different teas, we have been cycling through 8 different varieties, has been very enjoyable for me. I get to watch as he meticulously steeps each kind for different lengths of time and then pours them out into bowls for us to drink. I don’t think he has over-filled my bowl one time. And, of course, they are always prepared perfectly.

Now, is there anyone on here that would like to come by my house someday and sharpen a few knives for me? I seem to do a very good job of dulling them, but I am just terrible at sharpening them. The key is knowing when enough is enough. If you keep sharpening and keep sharpening, you will end up blunting them. But when is enough, enough?

The point of these object lessons goes way beyond how full our bowls, or how sharp our knives, are. As practical as knowing these things may be, he has something much more important for us to learn. Something that will help us with the art of contentment.

It has to do with what you are chasing after and what you care about. Most of us will spend a great deal of our time, perhaps years, chasing after money and security. But Lao Tzu warns us that this is far from the path to true contentment. It is no wonder that heart disease is the number one killer among men and women today. When we are always chasing after money and security, says Lao Tzu, our hearts will never unclench. It is the path, not to contentment, but an early grave. Yesterday, Lao Tzu said to be content to be simply yourself. I said trying to keep up with the Joneses was no way to live. The Joneses aren’t content either. Nor will they ever be.

Why do we care so much what other people think of us? Needing other’s approval. Yesterday, Lao Tzu talked about respect. Yes, we want other’s respect. But why do we care so much? And what does that desire for others’ approval do for us? Lao Tzu says it makes us their prisoners. Heartsick and in prison seems like no way to live to me. It is far from the path to true contentment; which today, Lao Tzu calls the only path to serenity.

When is enough, enough? We need to know when to stop filling our bowl. We need to know when to stop sharpening our knife. We need to know when is when. The chase after money and security is one that will leave you breathless and worn out at the end of every day. Your sleep will be troubled as you contemplate that tomorrow you will only have to begin the futile chase again. Do what you like. And who cares whether other’s approve, or not? You want the only path to serenity; and here it is, just do your work and then step back.

Learning The Art Of Contentment

The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.

In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don’t try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.

When you are content to be simply yourself,
and don’t compare or compete,
everybody will respect you.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 8, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu compares the Tao to water. Water is probably Lao Tzu’s favorite metaphor for talking about the Tao. Today he talks about two aspects of water which make it like the Tao, and, make it something that we can emulate as we go about the art of living. These are going to be major themes throughout the Tao Te Ching, that we will return to time and again.

The first, is that it nourishes all things WITHOUT TRYING TO. And the second, is that IT IS CONTENT WITH THE LOW PLACES that people disdain.

Those caps are the message he will be driving home with each chapter. The art of living involves both not-doing, or effortless action. And, being content with your simple life.

Before I go into those, I would like to take a look at what it is that Lao Tzu calls the supreme good. In the past, when I have read those first few lines I have equated the supreme good with the Tao. But I always questioned whether that was really what Lao Tzu was saying to us. Sure, it can be interpreted that way. But, I think Lao Tzu is hinting at something more than just that.

The supreme good is like water. And the Tao is like water. Therefore, the supreme good is like the Tao. But I think Lao Tzu is referring to the art of living when he refers to the supreme good. The supreme good is each one of us living in perfect harmony with the Tao. Just notice how Lao Tzu expresses it to us as he lists his short pithy ways of fleshing out this art of living.

In dwelling, live close to the ground. I want to be careful to not take any of these too literally. I always envision a hobbit hole when I think about living close to the ground. And, there is certainly nothing wrong with thinking of it that way. As long as I understand that as a metaphor for how to live. And don’t feel like if I don’t have an actual hobbit hole in which I live, I haven’t quite arrived at what Lao Tzu has in mind. Water always seeks the low places, that people tend to disdain. What Lao Tzu is saying is, “Don’t be like other people, who disdain the low places. Stay grounded. Keep close to the Earth. You can do that, even if you happen to be living in a high rise apartment building. Water and the Earth nourishes, not just our bodies, but our souls as well.

In thinking, keep to the simple. KISS or keep it simple, stupid, is appropriate here. Lao Tzu is aiming us toward a life of contentment, if only we will listen. We have this tendency, as humans, to complicate things. And that complicating always starts with what we are thinking. Keep it simple.

In conflict, be fair and generous. This may just be the six most powerful words regarding conflict resolution that were ever written. As I was growing up with a younger brother and sister there were plenty of sibling conflicts. Something my parents were constantly telling me was, “Chuck, it takes two to argue.” I was particularly hard-headed, and never did like the sound of that, so it go repeated a lot. But Mom and Dad were right, of course. I had the power to stop this, all by myself. I was the oldest, so I was expected to act like it. And, after I became an adult and had two children of my own, it was something I tried to instill in my own children. When we are in the midst of a conflict, we like to think that we aren’t being treated right. Not fairly and not generously. And we want what we know should be coming to us. Then, we will be fair and generous. But Lao Tzu doesn’t say to be fair and generous after others have been fair and generous to you. He says for each one of us to lead, by serving as an example. You have that kind of power. Put it to use. It doesn’t even require effort. Just be fair and generous. At all times. Practice it, daily. You will find it is a lot easier than you imagine. You can avoid conflicts before they start, if you will embody this practice always. Oh, I know, I know, “But he started it.” Yes, but when did whining about it ever solve anything. And, of course, I also know that there are no assurances that your example of fairness and generosity are going to be reciprocated. So what? Do the right thing. Just do it.

In governing, don’t try to control. Lao Tzu is going spend whole chapters on the art of governing. And everything he is going to have to say about it is neatly encapsulated in those four words. Don’t try to control. Governing is leading. Leading is serving as an example. Governing is serving. Not controlling. We will go into this much more in the chapters yet to come.

In work, do what you enjoy. Of all these little sayings, this one seems to be the most trite. How many times have we been told this? Do what you enjoy. I am sorry if it seems trite to you. All I can really say to you is that it is very good advice. I am now 51 years old. And I spent all but the last two years of my life not following it. If my years of drudgery at work can serve as an example of how not to do things, then I have accomplished something, indeed. Seriously. Do what you enjoy. Will you be able to “Keep Up With The Joneses” by doing what you enjoy? Perhaps, not. But I happen to know a little something about the Joneses. They aren’t really happy. They aren’t content. And that is what the art of living is really all about. Being content. We will have plenty more to say about this one too.

Finally, in family life, be completely present. This is another one of those three most powerful words that you are every going to encounter. This isn’t about quality time vs. quantity time. This is about who and what you are. Next to your self, your family is the most important thing you are ever going to have. Children grow up so fast. I know. My oldest is 24 and my youngest will be 22, a little over a month from now. That, of course, is impossible. So many years went by, so very quickly. Yes, every parent is told this very thing. But that doesn’t make it any less important. Value each and every moment you have with your children, your parents, your siblings. Value those moments enough to be present in each one of those moments. Not distant. Not thinking about the past. Not thinking about the future. Be present. I am trying to save you a lifetime of regrets.

Well, there you have it. Of course, Lao Tzu has a gift for saying it so much more succinctly than I. What it all comes down to is being content to be simply yourself. We want to compare and compete. And that is what gets us into trouble. We want to earn respect. We have been taught from early childhood that respect is something that must be earned. But Lao Tzu tells us something a little bit different. Earning respect isn’t about doing anything. It is about who and what you are. Be content to simply be yourself and everybody will respect you.

What Does Infinite Even Mean?

The Tao is infinite, eternal.
Why is it eternal?
It was never born;
thus it can never die.
Why is it infinite?
It has no desires for itself;
thus it is present for all beings.

The Master stays behind;
that is why she is ahead.
She is detached from all things;
that is why she is one with them.
Because she has let go of herself,
she is perfectly fulfilled.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 7, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, we really started to try wrapping our minds around the infinite. It wasn’t an easy thing, was it? Today, we are going to expand on the eternal and infinite nature of the Tao. Eternal seems to be the easier of the two. Why is it eternal? Because it was never born. Thus, it can never die. I don’t know why this is easier for me to wrap my mind around. It just is. Everything that has a beginning has an ending. Because the Tao has no beginning, it has no end.

But what of its infinite nature? That is a lot harder to wrap my mind around. Thankfully, in today’s chapter, Lao Tzu helps us with that. Why is it infinite? And here, Lao Tzu’s answer is not like anything that I ever imagined. It is infinite because it has no desires for itself. Thus, it is present for all beings. In all my attempts to explain infinite, all I could ever come up with is what it is not. It is not finite. But that isn’t really helpful at all. Lao Tzu frees me of my limitations by changing how I look at the thing.

Being infinite is having no desires for itself. Being infinite is being present for all beings. Of course, this isn’t anything that Lao Tzu hasn’t already said about the Tao. But it still is important for us to understand, if we are ever going to realize the mystery. And, we will.

Having no desires for itself. Being present for all beings. It would be nice if we could have some way of fleshing that out. And once again, Lao Tzu doesn’t let us down. Here is the Master. The Master is the one who is one with the Tao. In harmonious accord with it. The Master will flesh this infiniteness out for us.

The Master is going to be helpful to us because any of us can be the Master. We keep talking about the Tao as eternal and infinite; and it seems so beyond anything related to any of us. How can I put the Tao to use in temporary, finite me? Because that is what I am. I am limited by space and time. The Tao is limitless. How can the Tao in me, be of any use to me? The Master shows us how.

Lao Tzu uses the Master to illustrate for us what is the eternal reality as opposed to the illusion we spend most of our lives experiencing. I look at myself and I see myself as bounded by space and time. But Lao Tzu says the eternal and infinite is always present within me. All that remains for me is to realize that paradox and accept the reality.

The Master is ahead because she stays behind. That is paradox. Because she is detached from all things, she is one with them. That is paradox. She is perfectly fulfilled because she has let go of herself. That is paradox.

Bounded by space and time I fear that I will always be behind. I will always be attached to things. I will never be perfectly fulfilled. But the Master doesn’t fret that she is always behind. She gladly stays behind and that is why she is ahead. Her focus was never on getting ahead. She simply stayed behind.

This is good news for all of us. Are you behind? Good. You are right where you need to be. Now stay there. That is how the Master is ahead. Why am I so attached to things? What does this attachment accomplish in my life? The Master has let go of all things. She is completely detached from them. This only sounds difficult because you don’t realize how strong a position you are in when you consciously choose to stay behind. All these things you have been so attached to? They are only means you have been holding onto in order to get ahead. But once we have given up that, the attachment to things is loosened.

Remember, we are fleshing out the eternal and infinite nature of the Tao. It is eternal because it was never born; and thus, will never die. It is infinite because it has no desires for itself; and is therefore, present for all beings. The Master stays behind. The Master is detached from all things. All desires melt away. The Master is perfectly fulfilled because she has let go of every thing, even her own self.

What can the Tao do for you? What will perfect fulfillment look like for you? I can’t begin to describe it for you. There are infinite ways that it might play out in your life. A life of detachment? Whether or not that sounds good to you, may just be a measure of how attached to things you are. Perhaps, it just sounds like a pipe dream.

We are so bound by space and time that we find it difficult to embrace the eternal reality, which is the infinite and eternal Tao, always present within us. The illusion of our limits is a whole lot easier for us to see and believe. But the Tao is infinite and eternal; and it is always present within us. That is the reality, if only we can realize the mystery.

What Are Its Limits?

The Tao is called the Great Mother:
Empty yet inexhaustible,
it gives birth to infinite worlds.

It is always present within you.
You can use it any way you want.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 6, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu says the eternal Tao is called the Great Mother. Here we have yet another metaphor to point at the mystery, which is the eternal reality, that Lao Tzu calls the Tao. He has already said it is like a well and like the eternal void. He has said it is like a bellows. And, it is called the Great Mother. Why is it called the Great Mother? Because, though it is empty, like the eternal void; like a bellows, it is inexhaustible. Yes, we are continuing and expanding on this theme of infinite usefulness. The Tao gives birth to infinite worlds.

Right here, we might be tempted to think that the Tao is off in some far corner of the Cosmos, a nursery for stars. The language of those first few lines certainly paints that picture for us. But Lao Tzu has much better news for us than that. The Tao isn’t distant from us, an infinite number of light years away, at all. It is always present within each and every one of us.

It is infinitely present within each and every being in the Universe. That is the Tao, the Great Mother, giving birth to infinite worlds. Beginning with your own world. Today, I want you to begin to realize that we don’t have to travel to some distant galaxy. We don’t even have to go on some pilgrimage to some remote corner of our own world. The Tao is present within you, right where you are. The Tao is present in every member of your family. The Tao is present in your neighbors and your friends. The Tao is even present in people you mistakenly consider your enemies. The Tao is present in all of nature. In all creatures great and small. The Tao is present in the smallest microbe and the largest thing you can imagine.

I am belaboring the point, I know. But I want you to get a firm grasp on this. The Tao is present, always present, within you. And you can use it anyway you want. Lao Tzu doesn’t tell us how to use it. He doesn’t start listing off ways it can be used. He doesn’t tell us to use it for this, but not for that. He says we can use it any way we want.

What is the takeaway from this chapter? The Tao, the Great Mother, the eternal reality, is always right where you need it to be. Though it is empty, it is inexhaustible. Really let this sink in. It is infinitely capable of giving birth to infinite worlds. What limits are you going to put on that? Lao Tzu doesn’t put any. Are you going to? You can’t say, “No, I am not worthy. I am not good enough.” For the Tao doesn’t take sides. It is beyond good and evil. Both sinner and saint are welcome to use it. Is there anything the Tao can’t do in and through you?

The Philosophy Of An Ent

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)

Wow! Lao Tzu has so much to say in so few words. When I figure out his secret, you all will be the first to know. Today we are going to tackle the concept of good and evil. And we are going to continue to describe what the Tao is like. Before we tackle good and evil, I want to continue what we started yesterday, talking about what the Tao is like.

Yesterday, Lao Tzu likened it to a well and the eternal void. I said the takeaway from that chapter was the infinite usefulness of the Tao. Today’s chapter continues talking about that infinite usefulness, when he says the Tao is like a bellows. It is empty (just like a void); yet, it is infinitely capable. The more you use it, the more it produces. That is infinite usefulness. We may not understand yet, how to use it. But don’t worry, that will come. For now, let’s simply accept that it is like a bellows.

And now for the concept of good and evil. I want to be careful right here, the more I talk about this, the less I understand. Unfortunately for you, my readers, that translates into confusion. I don’t want to confuse you on this. The less I talk, the better for all of us.

Lao Tzu says the Tao doesn’t take sides. It gives birth to both good and evil. Lao Tzu actually already talked about good and bad, back in chapter 2. He warned us, then, to be careful about naming anything as good. When people see some things as good, other things become bad. Being and non-being create each other. The Tao gives birth to them both.

I find this very interesting because humans have been discussing and debating this idea of good and evil for millenia now. People like to ponder what kind of role God has in this whole good and evil thing. In the Bible there is a little story about a tree in a garden whose fruit was supposed to grant the eater the knowledge of good and evil. This goes way back in our history. People contemplate how an all powerful God can be good. Or, if God is only good but not all-powerful.

Lao Tzu dispensed with the question of God in yesterday’s chapter. The Tao precedes God and the Tao is beyond good and evil. We humans are going to continue to discuss and debate good and evil. I suppose it is just our lot as humans. But Lao Tzu has already warned us, that isn’t fruitful. (Yes, the pun is intended)

Anyway, Lao Tzu, of course, has an entirely different way for us to look at things. Instead of taking sides. Instead of saying, this is good. And that? That is evil. He doesn’t want us taking sides at all. The Master, he says, welcomes both saints and sinners. Lao Tzu wants us to hold on to the center.

I am going to keep this brief today. There is plenty more to say. But Lao Tzu is going to keep coming back to this problem of good and evil, over and over again, throughout the Tao Te Ching. He understands it is in our nature to ponder this question over and over again. Never being fully satisfied, no matter how much we continue to ponder it. I am going to accept the wisdom of one ent by the name of Treebeard (see J.R.R. Tolkien’s, The Two Towers). He said, “I am not altogether on anybody’s side, because nobody is altogether on my side…. And, there are some things, of course, whose side I am altogether not on….”

What Is Older Than God? It’s A Mystery To Me.

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.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 4, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu begins talking about the mystery, which is the eternal Tao. Keep in mind that anything that can be said of it is not the eternal Tao. We will have to be content with telling what it is like. It is not a well. It is like a well. It is not the eternal void. It is like the eternal void. It is important to keep this distinction in mind because Lao Tzu is going to paint various pictures with his words to tell us what it is like. It is the closest that he can come to identifying the mystery of the eternal reality, the Tao.

It is like a well. If it was a well, we would have a hard time believing that it could never be used up. But that is the mystery of the Tao. While it is like a well, which is available to be used; unlike a well, it can never be used up. When describing it as like the eternal void, we can see that that void is filled with infinite possibilities; where as an actual void is just a vast emptiness.

It is this infinite usefulness that is the mystery. All particular things that we could name are finite. They have a definite beginning and a definite end. The Tao isn’t like anything that we could name. It is hidden, but always present. In describing the Tao, Lao Tzu says it is older than God. Who gave birth to it? I don’t know.

The actual answer to the question is that it has no beginning and no end. Often, this kind of language is reserved for something like a God. But Lao Tzu is quite clear on this point. The Tao was around well before any conception of God.

The Tao is eternal. It is the Source of the natural laws which govern the Universe. Any God of which we can conceive, follows the Tao; and is subject to the laws that govern the Universe.

We are talking about the mystery now. And I keep having to remind myself that anything that we can say about it is going to fall far short of the mark. When we get back to talking about the manifestations, we will be on firmer ground. The manifestations are readily available for all to see. They are manifest in all of nature.

For today, the takeaway is the infinite usefulness of the Tao. It may be hidden, shrouded in mystery and darkness, but it is always present for us to use. Like a well. Infinite possibilities await us every step of the way we take, along this journey through the eternal void.

Everything But The Practice Of Not-Doing

If you over esteem great men,
people become powerless.
If you overvalue possessions,
people begin to steal.

The Master leads
by emptying people’s minds
and filling their cores,
by weakening their ambition
and toughening their resolve.

He helps people
lose everything they know,
everything they desire,
and creates confusion
in those who think they know.

Practice not-doing,
and everything
will fall into place.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 3, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Everything Lao Tzu writes, he writes for the benefit of people. He is writing for those who wish to be leaders of the people. He gives us ways of leading people in ways that will most benefit them. In doing this, he takes what he has learned from the observation of nature. All of nature, yes; but human nature in particular. Lao Tzu understands human nature so well, because he has observed it inside himself. Lao Tzu understands that if you want to be a good and effective leader, you too, must understand human nature. By understanding how humans interact with nature. By understanding how humans interact with each other. If you want to understand human nature, you must, first, understand yourself. Sometimes, perhaps it is because we are only human, we don’t do a very good job of interacting with nature and each other. Sometimes, we do things that harm nature and harm each other. This is because we fail to understand the laws of nature and the laws of human nature. The purpose of the Tao Te Ching is to help us to understand those laws of nature and of human nature. By understanding them, we can lead by serving as an example of how to live our lives in such a way that we work with nature, instead of against nature. And to work with our fellow human beings, rather than at odds with them. The Tao is the Way. Nothing more and nothing less. We will learn how to be at one with or in accord with the Tao. Which is the Way of the Universe.

Today’s lesson begins with the need for the practice of moderation. We, as humans, sometimes over do things. We need to practice moderation. And when we don’t, there are consequences. One of the things that we over do is we over esteem great men. Esteem is a good thing. But only in moderation. When we over esteem we make other people powerless. Why is this? I don’t know. Maybe it is because we are setting the bar too high. Maybe it is because we are stirring up anger and resentment. Whether it produces hopelessness and despair, anger and resentment, or any number of other desires, we render the people powerless.

Another thing we often over do is overvalue possessions. Obviously, possessions have value. Everything has some value to us. And value isn’t a bad thing. But when we over value, we, once again, stir up desires. I am sure that there are plenty of reasons that we could come up with for why people begin to steal. For some, it is no doubt the thrill. For many, no doubt, it is true need. And for a good many, it is desire, covetousness, for what others have. Moderation is important here. By placing too high a value on possessions, we stir a desire in people’s hearts to have more and more and more possessions. If people feel powerless, in other words, they don’t believe they can earn things on their own, they will turn to stealing. This is human nature. This is what we have to work with as leaders.

Plenty of people think that the best solution for this is to lock up a whole bunch of people. After all, stealing is wrong. We’ll just build more and bigger prisons and we’ll deal with the problem. But Lao Tzu has, I think, a much better solution. First, he identifies stealing, not as the problem, but as a symptom of a much greater problem. People are resorting to stealing because they feel powerless and they want stuff they know they can’t have. Prisons only address the symptom without dealing with the root of the problem.

So, how does the Master deal with the root of the problem? Remember, the root of the problem is two-pronged. People are powerless and they want stuff they know they can’t have. It is a problem of both heart and mind. The mind is obsessed and the heart is sick and weak. Lao Tzu says the Master leads by using a two-pronged approach. Emptying the people’s minds (weakening their ambition) and filling their cores (toughening their resolve).

First, the Master works to empty the people’s minds of all their obsessions. He helps people lose everything they know. Everything that they desire. This is a weakening of ambition. This is not an easy task. People are full of pride. They are not always amenable to being helped. The Master’s ways are confusing to those who think they already know. When we only want to cut off branches instead of dealing with the root, we won’t succeed.

Even so, emptying or weakening is not enough. If you send the people away only emptied, they will only find ways to fill themselves up again. The root is two-pronged. We must deal with both prongs. After emptying and weakening, it is time for filling and toughening. But the Master doesn’t fill their minds, he fills their cores. I said earlier that this isn’t just an issue with the mind. It is also a condition of the heart. The mind has been dealt with, but the heart is still sick. The very core of our beings must be filled. This is a toughening of our resolve.

The difference between ambition and resolve is as great as the difference between our minds and our hearts. Ambition is directed outwardly. It is about fulfilling desires. Resolve, on the other hand, is an inner discipline. It has little, if anything, to do with what is going on outside of us. The Master set about the task of weakening our ambition because he understands that as long as we are looking outside of ourselves at great men and women, at our neighbors, at what they have and we don’t, we are going to be miserable. The Master wants our gaze turned inwardly. Not at how small and weak and inconsequential we are, but at our strengths, our talents, our value. Our focus had been on what we didn’t have. Now it is on all that we do have. All that we are.

That was a whole lot to cover in just one chapter; and yet, Lao Tzu leaves us with one more thing at the end. “Practice not-doing, and everything will fall into place.“ In many ways, this just sums up the whole chapter. And in many more ways it is the sum total of the whole of the Tao Te Ching. I am not going to say anything more about the practice of not-doing, today. My reason for this is that I have already made this post plenty long. That and the reality that the practice of not-doing is what we are going to be talking about a lot of the time in the next several weeks. For today, let’s just give it the same mention that Lao Tzu gives it. Continue along with me on this journey. We will learn how to practice not-doing. And, we will see everything fall into place.

You Can’t Have One Without The Other

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.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 2, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu begins to expand on what he said yesterday about naming and talking about things. Naming is the origin of all particular things; but none of those things are the eternal reality. What is eternally real can’t be named. We are differentiating the manifestations from the mystery. The manifestations are what we can see. The mystery can’t even be talked about.

Lao Tzu is talking about being and non-being creating each other. When people see some things as beautiful or good other things become ugly or bad. This is not to say that being is beautiful and good and non-being is ugly and bad. It is to understand that being and non-being are two sides to the same thing. You can’t have the one without having the other. This is represented in Taoist philosophy with the familiar yin yang symbol. The Tao always balances things out.

Difficult and easy, long and short, high and low, before and after. There will never be one without the other. Being and non-being are dependent on each other. They support and define and follow each other. They are a creative force.

Of course, when you think about naming something beautiful and good, and realize that by doing so you are also allowing for the ugly and the bad; it shows us how powerful, naming a thing really is.

The Master, who Lao Tzu introduces to us for the first time in today’s chapter, understands this eternal reality. That is why she acts without doing anything and teaches without saying anything. If this seems strange to you, I only point out to you that we are talking about the mystery of the eternal reality. Don’t worry that it isn’t easy to understand what the Master is about right now. We will come to understand her better as we progress in our journey. Just watch her. Listen to her. And don’t try to complicate things by trying to understand her right now.

Things arise and she lets them come. They disappear and she lets them go. This is really a simple explanation of accepting that the way things are is the way things are. Things are going to arise, whether or not I allow it to happen. And things are going to disappear, with or without my consent. We are going to learn a lot from the Master. She doesn’t force anything. And she doesn’t try to hold on to anything. That is having without possessing. And, acting without expecting. What the Master does lasts forever. Why? Because when her work is done, she forgets about it. Like I said, we have plenty we can learn from the Master. Or maybe unlearn would be a better word to use. We don’t tend to think that anything that we do will last, if we don’t work at making it last. But letting things come and go without desire, that is what this journey is all about.