The Tao is the center of the Universe.
The good man’s treasure,
the bad man’s refuge.
Honors can be bought with fine words.
Respect can be won with good deeds.
But the Tao is beyond all value;
and no one can achieve it.
Thus, when a new leader is chosen,
don’t offer to help him
with your wealth or your expertise.
Offer instead to teach him about the Tao.
Why did the ancient Masters esteem the Tao?
Because, being one with the Tao,
when you seek, you find; and,
when you make a mistake, you are forgiven.
That is why everybody loves it.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 62, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu takes a break from talking about how to govern a country. Or does he? He begins by laying on us a little Cosmology; and being as Lao Tzu wrote this sometime around 400 B.C.E., I am, of course, curious, to see what he has to say; and see whether it fits with our current understanding of Cosmology.
Lao Tzu says the Tao is the center of the Universe. This is an interesting beginning sentence to this chapter because Lao Tzu has been talking about centering our country, and indeed, ourselves, in the Tao. And I read that sentence, and my first thought was, “But if the Tao is somewhere out there, wherever the center of the Universe is, how am I supposed to center myself in it?”
But that was just my first thought. Then I really started thinking about what he means by that. Is the center of the Universe really some far off place? My own understanding of the cosmos is admittedly limited. But I don’t mean by limited, limiting. Bear with me while I explain what I mean.
To hear some people talk about the Earth in its relationship with the rest of the Universe, it is infinitesimally small and insignificant. We are, after all, just a tiny speck in a tiny galaxy in some remote corner of the Universe. The Universe is so much bigger than anything we can even imagine, let alone know. The actual center of the Universe must be a gazillion lightyears away, and who would even know which direction one would need to steer the ship that is going to transverse the darkness to find it.
But wait just a doggone minute. Is that really true? I was watching the fourth episode of the first season of the reboot of Cosmos, now with Neil Degrasse Tyson. I don’t care too much when that man is talking about stuff he knows nothing about; but I have to admit, I really enjoy listening to him talk about the Cosmos. Maybe it is just because my own understanding of the Cosmos is limited. But he said something in that fourth episode that really jumped out at me. I am going to paraphrase because I don’t have the exact quote in front of me. Wherever you are, you are in the center of the Universe. It doesn’t matter whether you are standing on Earth or some planet in the furthest known galaxy from us. When you look out on your Universe, you are in the center of it.
That resonates with me. If that is true, then Lao Tzu telling us that the Tao is the center of the Universe, is not sticking it some unknown place, far, far away. Instead, he is saying the Tao is very close, indeed. It is inside each of us. Which, of course, he has already told us before.
Okay, that was the lesson in Cosmology for today; now to what he really wants to talk to us about. The value of the Tao.
What does Lao Tzu have to say about the Tao today? Besides it being the center of the Universe, he calls it the good man’s treasure and the bad man’s refuge. Don’t forget those two, we will get to them toward the end of the chapter. Right now, he lays it all out on the line for us. The Tao is beyond all value.
Which gets me wondering, what is it that we value? Is it honors? Respect? Wealth? Expertise? Lao Tzu tells us that anything else that we can come up with has some price. Honors can be bought with fine words. Respect can be won with good deeds. But the Tao? There is no price that you can put on it. No one can achieve it.
If you are instantly dismayed at that last sentence, don’t be. No one can achieve it. But, Lao Tzu isn’t wanting to discourage us. He is wanting to encourage us. That is what today, and every day, is all about.
Given what we know about the Tao, which admittedly is still very limited – though, I hope not limiting – Lao Tzu has this advice for us, when we choose a new leader. See, Lao Tzu hasn’t stopped talked about governing a country, after all. He says, don’t offer to help your new leader with your wealth or expertise. Oh, they both have their value, but they aren’t beyond all value, like the Tao. That is why Lao Tzu tells us that we would do our best service to our new leaders by teaching them about the Tao.
And then he gives us the historical context for what he has been saying all along. Why did the ancient Masters esteem the Tao so? And this goes back to those two points I touched on earlier, but then left for now. It is the good man’s treasure and the bad man’s refuge. Lao Tzu explains what he means by that. He says that the ancient masters believed that when you are one with the Tao – and, guess what, that isn’t so hard to be, once you realize you are in the center of the Universe with the Tao – it doesn’t matter if you are a good person or a bad person. The Tao is exactly what you need it to be for you. Are you good? Then it is a treasure. A treasure is something we seek, and being one with the Tao, when you seek, you find. Oh, but what if you are bad? Then the Tao is your refuge. When you make a mistake, you are forgiven.
That is what makes the Tao beyond all value. That is why everybody loves it.