When a superior man hears of the Tao,
he immediately begins to embody it.
When an average man hears of the Tao,
he half believes it, half doubts it.
When a foolish man hears of the Tao,
he laughs out loud.
If he didn’t laugh,
it wouldn’t be the Tao.
Thus, it is said:
The path into the light seems dark.
The path forward seems to go back.
The direct path seems long.
True power seems long.
True purity seems tarnished.
True steadfastness seems changeable.
True clarity seems obscure.
The greatest art seems unsophisticated.
The greatest love seems indifferent.
The greatest wisdom seems childish.
The Tao is nowhere to be found.
Yet, it nourishes and completes all things.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 41, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Look all around and you will see it. The way things seem to be. The path into the light? It seems dark. The path forward? It seems to go back. The direct path? It seems long. That is what confronts us as we trust our senses to show us the way forward in our journey. The way things seem to be confound us and keep us from following the right path. The one that is the eternal reality.
Our senses enamor us with the illusion. What seems powerful? What seems pure? What seems steadfast? I understand how our thinking gets all muddled. The way things seem to be seem so very clear. Why can’t what we see? What we hear and smell and taste and feel? They seem so real. True power? It seems weak by comparison. True purity? It seems tarnished. True steadfastness? It seems changeable.
The illusion has really messed with us. The greatest art seems unsophisticated. The greatest love seems indifferent. The greatest love seems indifferent. The greatest wisdom seems childish.
This is why Lao Tzu opens today’s chapter by saying it takes a superior person to immediately begin to embody the Tao. It takes an extraordinary person to see beyond the illusion. Beyond the way things seem to be.
I wish I could say that I was one of those truly extraordinary persons. It has been years since I first heard of the Tao. I was reading C.S. Lewis, of all people to be getting information on the Tao. Of course, I wasn’t looking for the Tao then. But he talked about the Tao. And what he said intrigued me. It sparked an interest in me that lay dormant for many years. So, I can’t say that I immediately began to embody it.
Perhaps, I just wasn’t ready yet. Maybe, I just had too many things to unlearn. It was years before I again thought of the Tao and began to actually try to find out more about it. I found various copies of translations of the Tao Te Ching. As I began reading through them, I found myself half believing and half doubting. Yes, I was merely average.
I am thankful, I suppose, that I didn’t respond like the foolish person. I didn’t laugh out loud. Not about the Tao. No, I just had that wrestling thing going on in my mind. The wrestling between belief and doubt. Perfectly normal reaction, actually. I am even thankful for the years of wrestling. It was necessary for my journey. And, I came out on top. That is when I laughed out loud. Because it was all so very simple. That is why I missed it for so very long. I was making it a whole lot more complicated than it ever had to be.
I understand why the average person only half believes it. Why they also have their fair share of doubt. Because I understand my own journey. I understand, too, why the fool laughs. Perhaps most importantly, I understand why it is that the superior person can immediately embody it.
The fool laughs because the Tao is nowhere to be found. I get that. Look, and it can’t be seen. Listen, and it can’t be heard. With the way things seem to be, why wouldn’t the fool laugh out loud. It’s okay. Go ahead and laugh. If you didn’t laugh, it wouldn’t be the Tao.
The superior person is able to immediately embody it because they can see what the fool will never see. They see beyond the way things seem to be, the illusion. They see what it is that nourishes and completes all things. They perceive the eternal reality behind it all.
But me? I just get glimpses of it. Maybe out of the corner of my mind’s eye. When and where I wasn’t looking for it. But that is okay, too. Because that doesn’t change the eternal reality. And, I am still being nourished and completed.