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,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 2, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Yesterday, Lao Tzu introduced us to what he calls the Tao, the infinite and eternal reality, the Nature of things, the Way things are. He also introduced the one problem we all have with realizing the mystery of the Tao – our desire. In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu will begin to delve into the problem of our desire. And, as he introduces the Master, for the first time, he begins to show us all, through the example of this wise and virtuous person, how to deal with the problem of our desire.
So, first, it is best to explain what Lao Tzu means by desire. By desire, Lao Tzu means how we see things. There is an infinite and eternal reality, which for us is shrouded in darkness. What we see with our eyes, and hear with our ears, everything we perceive with our senses, show us the way things seem to be. But, that is only a finite and temporal reality. Some theoretical physicists have suggested that everything we perceive with our senses is a hologram. I would call it, straight up, an illusion. How we see things, or perceive them, traps us in this finite and temporal reality, an illusion. Lao Tzu suggests we can be free from this illusion, finally beholding the infinite and eternal reality, by tracing back the manifestations of the infinite and eternal reality, to their source. The manifestations are something we can see; though our minds, having become accustomed to seeing things a certain way, will try to explain them away, as only part of the “reality” we see all around us. The infinite and eternal reality is very different. And, we will begin to see that, as we trace back those manifestations. So, let’s begin.
Lao Tzu opens today’s chapter by talking about how we perceive a duality in our universe. Many philosophers call it the problem of duality. Lao Tzu, though, will remind us, the problem isn’t duality, the problem is our desire. When people see some things as beautiful, or good, other things become ugly, or bad. In the infinite and eternal reality, there is no such division. There is no beautiful, no ugly, no good, and no bad. These are human constructs. We speak them into existence in our “reality”. They are our perceptions of the way things are. But, they are only the way things seem to be.
What there is in the infinite and eternal reality, and here is where we are introduced to our first manifestations of the Tao, is yin and yang.
Yin and yang are not opposites. That is a common misconception; but, it is a misconception. Yin and yang are complements of each other. Yin and yang is how the Tao brings balance, harmony, and order in our Universe. Where there is yin, there must be yang, and where there is yang, there must be yin. They complete each other. They balance each other out.
To further explain the operation of yin and yang in our Universe, consider the familiar Tai-Chi symbol. It is a circle, representing everything that is, our Universe. Within it, you find the black yin and the white yang, swirling around in constant motion. The relationship between yin and yang is not a static one. It is dynamic. When you look at yin and yang in that circle, you will see that each contains a seed of the other within itself.
Yin and yang, non-being and being, create each other. Like difficult and easy, they support each other. Like long and short, they define each other. Like high and low, they depend on each other. Like before and after, they follow each other. That is why you can’t have beautiful without ugly; or, good without bad. But, that is the problem of desire, how we see things.
Yin and yang are manifestations of the Tao we can see. We see them in female and male, dark and light, negative and positive, passive and active, closed and open, back and front. If we see these as opposites, if we prefer one over the other, we are upsetting the balance, and going against the current of the Tao.
The Master, a wise and virtuous person, shows us the way to overcome and free ourselves from the problem of desire. We will talk further about the Master throughout the Tao Te Ching. I did want to explain, when I refer to the Master as a wise and virtuous person, what I mean by wise and virtuous. Wisdom, for our purposes, doesn’t refer to an abundance of knowledge. And, virtuous does not mean good, like we think of good. Wisdom means trusting your inner vision. And, virtue is being in harmony with the Tao.
Wise and virtuous persons overcome, and free themselves from, the problem of desire, by acting without doing anything, and teaching without saying anything. Things arise, and they let them come. Things disappear, and they let them go. They have, without possessing. They act, without expectations. They do their work; and, when it is done, they forget about it. Because of this, what they do lasts forever.
These are attributes, of the wise and virtuous person, which we are only introducing today. We will go into them in more depth as we go on through the Tao Te Ching. The thing to understand about them, today, is this is how to free yourself from the finite and temporal reality, and enter the realm of the infinite and eternal.
Tomorrow, we will talk more about the problem of desire, and how a wise and virtuous person shows us the Way out of the self-imposed trap in which we find ourselves.