Trust Your Inner Vision

Colors blind the eye.
Sounds deafen the ear.
Flavors numb the taste.
Thoughts weaken the mind.
Desires wither the heart.

The Master observes the world
but trusts his inner vision.
He allows things to come and go.
His heart is open as the sky.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 12, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

A couple chapters ago, Lao Tzu talked about cleansing our inner vision until we see nothing but the light. Yesterday, he explained the value of nothing, or non-being. We work with being; but it is non-being that we use. To cleanse our inner vision is to understand the value of emptiness, nothingness, non-being. Today, Lao Tzu explains why it is that our inner vision is in need of cleansing.

He talks about how our inner vision is clouded by our outer vision. Colors blind the eye. Sounds deafen the ear. Flavors numb the taste. It is our physical senses that make up our outer vision. Everything that we see with our eyes and hear with our ears. Everything that we can smell, or taste, or feel tells us about the world around us.

I really appreciate my five senses. It annoys me that I have recently had to concede the reality that my vision is not what it once was. I have to use reading glasses, now. I hate having to do it. But, when I go to read labels listing directions on just about anything, these days, the writing is so very small, and blurry too. Then, there is my sense of hearing. Sadly, for some years now, I have had the constant drone of ringing in my ears. It is next to impossible for me to understand a conversation I am having with one person, while in a crowded room with simultaneous chattering around me. Oh, I can clearly hear the conversations going on around me. But I am not wanting to hear those. I want to hear the person I am actually speaking with. Growing old is not fun.

But the decline in function of my senses is not what Lao Tzu is talking about today. He is talking about how our outer vision impacts our inner vision. Notice that he doesn’t say that colors blind the eyes, plural. Nor, does he say sounds deafen the ears, plural. He isn’t talking about our physical eyes or ears; not even the taste buds on our tongue. When he talks about the eye and the ear and the taste. He is talking about our inner vision. Colors blind this eye. Sounds deafen this ear. Flavors numb this taste. Thoughts weaken the mind. Once again, we aren’t talking about the human brain, here. It is not a physical brain we are talking about. And those desires withering the heart? Yeah, he isn’t talking about your physical heart, either.

Obviously, Lao Tzu doesn’t want us to ignore what our five senses are sharing with us. We can’t very well live in this world without observing the world around us. And we shouldn’t want to. Even the Master observes the world. But what sets the Master apart is that he trusts his inner vision. That means that he understands the importance of letting go of the fleeting things that come and go around us. Let them come, yes. But let them go, too. So very important. Because when we won’t let them go, the colors start to blind us, the sounds deafen us, the flavors numb us, the thoughts weaken us, the desires wither us. There is just way too much of everything. And we fail to appreciate the value of nothing, of emptiness, of the non-being which we will need to use to keep our hearts as open as the sky.

Why Nothing Has Value

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, we return to something that Lao Tzu first introduced to us back in chapter two: The yin and yang of non-being and being. He said that being and non-being create each other. Today, Lao Tzu once again refers to being and non-being and their complementary relationship. But this isn’t something new. He has been talking about being and non-being all along; any time he has referenced yin and yang. Understanding how being and non-being create each other is going to help us to forget our work once it is done; to do our work; and then take a step back and wait on the Tao.

Understanding how being and non-being create each other will take understanding what Lao Tzu means by being and non-being. Being seems simple enough to understand. It is what we work with. The spokes of a wheel, or the clay of a pot, or the wood for a house. These are what we work with. But to only see the spokes, or the clay, or the wood, is not to see the complete thing. That is only what we work with. There is so much more to see. Being is creating non-being. And we often overlook that nothingness, that emptiness, that inner space; though that is what we end up using.

Today’s chapter is all about coming to appreciate that nothing. And finding out, it is everything. Lao Tzu began speaking about the importance of emptiness back in chapter three where he said the Master leads by emptying people’s minds. Then, in chapters five and six, Lao Tzu referred to the Tao by two different metaphors to talk about the importance of emptiness. First, he talked about the bellows being empty yet infinitely capable. Then, he talked about the Great Mother being empty yet inexhaustible. It was there, Lao Tzu told us to hold on to the center. And, that we can use that emptiness any way we want.

If we want that wagon to move, we need the center hole. If that clay pot is going to hold anything, we need that emptiness inside. If we want to live in that house, we need the inner space created by the frame we have constructed.

Perhaps this all seems elementary to you. But that nothing is everything. If we are going to understand how to work with the Tao, we are going to have to understand the need to stop when enough is enough. To make that space that allows the Tao to work. We need to take a step back and wait on the Tao. Then, it will be time to work again.

Who Said It Was Going To be Easy?

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 ten, translation by Stephen MItchell)

Yesterday’s chapter ended with Lao Tzu telling us that we were going to have to take a step back after doing our work. It is that stepping back which is the only path to serenity. As long as we insist on more, on doing more, on being more, we will never experience serenity. In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu begins with six rhetorical questions designed to explain the virtue of taking that step back.

I read through these six questions and I begin to think, “Wait, maybe this isn’t going to be so easy to put into practice.” How my mind likes to wander. Can I coax it from its wandering? Actually, I can. And, I constantly have to do so. Because, to be completely honest with you, my mind still wanders. Even after going through these chapters over and over again, I still find my mind wandering. That original oneness is lost to me while my mind wanders. I don’t even notice it, at first. Suddenly, it hits me. It doesn’t do any good to beat myself up when that happens. It happens to all of us. Minds wander. That is the human condition. But we can coax our minds back from their wandering. That is something we do when we take a step back. We need to take a break from our work. We need to pause, to reflect, and to gently coax our minds.

The mind is easy. So what, it wanders; but, just as easily I coax it back. That is what I am thinking as I get to question number two. Now, Lao Tzu is talking about our bodies. And this seems infinitely harder to put into practice. How can I get my body as supple as a newborn child’s? But, I have it all backwards. I don’t have to do anything to my body. That isn’t what he is talking about. He said, can you let it become supple? It isn’t up to me to make my body supple. I just need to let it become that way. It helps to understand that the newborn child’s suppleness is a metaphor. And, he isn’t talking about physical softness. He is talking about a body that moves with the Tao, effortlessly. Our only responsibility is to let our bodies respond to the movement of the Tao. To not put up resistance. To let our bodies become supple.

Now, Lao Tzu is talking about cleansing our inner vision and seeing nothing but the light. This is giving your heart a bath. Just like the mind is prone to wandering, your heart is prone to getting sullied. That inner vision? It starts to get muddied. We forget where it is we want to go. We need to open our hearts to the Tao. Let it wash over us. You aren’t clean until you see nothing but the light.

Heart. Mind. Body. What else is there? Well, part of learning to master ourselves is how we deal with others. Can we love them and lead them without imposing our will? This is where the nitty meets the gritty. Lao Tzu is training would be leaders. We will have chapter after chapter devoted to this. What does it really mean to love people and lead them? Can you do it without imposing your will? Or, is imposing your will, really the antithesis to loving and leading?

We need to check our need to control, both others and circumstances, at the door. All that need to control is only going to ensure that our lives are forever out of control. Even when we are talking about the most vital of matters, we need to let go of our need to be in control. We need to let events take their course.

I know, I know, this is sounding not very easy; in fact, kind of hard, right now. But, that is exactly why we need to take a step back when our day’s work is done. We need to take a step back from our own mind and come to a place where we can understand all things. Lao Tzu says this is the supreme virtue. It is the “Te” in Tao Te Ching. Giving birth and nourishing. Having without possessing. Acting without expectation. Leading without trying to control. I don’t think I ever said it was going to be easy. But, if it wasn’t hard it wouldn’t be the supreme virtue.

Step Back

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 nine, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, Lao Tzu used the metaphor of water to talk about the Tao. It nourishes all things without trying, or doing anything; just by being itself. And, this being itself, is something that people disdain. We talked a little bit about why it is that people disdain being who and what they are. Why it is that we make our lives both stressful and complicated. Lao Tzu is showing us a better way. In today’s chapter, he says this better way is the only path to serenity.

I always am leery when I hear someone proclaiming there is only one path or way (and it is theirs) to get somewhere. So, I thought it would be a good idea to explain that this only way that Lao Tzu is speaking of should be understood in general terms. We have this tendency to want to get down to specifics. Tell me first all the specific steps I am going to have to take. But, that isn’t how things work. In general, there is only one path to serenity. But, when you get down to specifics, the paths are going to be myriad. We are all individuals. I can’t begin to tell you how your own specific path is going to be. I can’t see the path before me. I have merely learned to go with the flow, letting things come and go as they will. It is in letting go of the need to know, ahead of time, exactly what my next step is going to be, that has freed me, opening before me the only path to serenity.

So, what does serenity mean? I think we might better understand the term, happiness. Or maybe, true contentment. This is our pursuit. Lao Tzu tells us there is really only one way to it. And, that is the theme of today’s chapter.

We might begin by understanding why it is that we aren’t already happy or content. Lao Tzu has already told us it is because we disdain the path to it. We don’t know when enough is enough. We aren’t content with who and what we are. And, we aren’t content with what we already have. We insist on filling our bowl to the brim, only to be dismayed when some of it spills over. We keep sharpening our knife, not understanding that we only end up blunting it. We keep chasing after money and security. But, whole rooms full of money are hard to secure. And, we wonder why it is, our hearts never unclench. We place too much value on the opinions and approval of others. And, are surprised that we have become their prisoner.

We need to learn to be content with who we are and what we already have. We need to realize when enough is enough. The short answer is you already have everything you need. You are already exactly who you need to be. But, we aren’t content with the short answer. We raise objections. No, I need more. I need to be something else than I already am. The truth is, we will know when enough is enough when our bowl isn’t spilling over any more. As long as we keep filling that bowl to the brim, we haven’t realized when enough is enough. We need to do our work and then step back. There it is. We need to take that step back. Until we do we will keep filling, keep sharpening, keep chasing, and keep caring; until our very miserable lives grind to a lackluster halt. And, we will never know serenity.

Hamlet Asked The Right Question

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 eight, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

It has taken until chapter eight; but Lao Tzu has finally come to his favorite metaphor for the Tao, saying it is like water. Lao Tzu will return to this metaphor many times in the days and weeks ahead. Today, he wants to bring out only two aspects of water which make it like the Tao.

The first is that it nourishes all things without even trying. This is an illustration of the practice of wu-wei, doing not-doing. This is effortless action. How is it that water nourishes things? By being itself. It doesn’t have to do anything to nourish us. It simply has to be. This is also how the Tao nourishes all beings. By being itself. It doesn’t do anything. Yet through it, all things get done. We, too, need to be like water. We need to practice doing not-doing. Don’t do, be. Just be who and what you are. Don’t strive. Don’t force. Act effortlessly. This goes back to what I said in yesterday’s chapter. If it sounds easier said than done, perhaps you are trying too hard. That kind of defeats the purpose, anyway. We aren’t going to arrive at doing not-doing in one easy step, however. As we will find out in future chapters, this is a process. We let go of one thing each day until there is nothing left to let go of. Then we will have arrived at doing not-doing.

The second aspect of water that makes it like the Tao is that it is content with the low places that people disdain. This is humility. We don’t usually think of water as humble. But remember, water is only a metaphor here. Water is just being water. Lao Tzu observed water; and noticing these two attributes (and more), he sees a manifestation of the Tao. Humility. Being content to simply be yourself. Why do people disdain this? We live our lives as if we always have something to prove. Cease your striving. Don’t compare or compete. And, surprise, surprise… Everybody will respect you.

Now that we have a better appreciation for water simply being water, it is time for us to start seeing how to put these aspects of water, and the Tao, into practice in our own lives. You wanted to know how? Here we begin seeing just how easy (unless we try too hard) it is.

Lao Tzu lists six ways we can go about our daily living, practicing wu-wei (doing not-doing) and humility. I am going to resist going through each of these one by one. Lao Tzu keeps it short and sweet. Don’t make these harder than they are. Living close to the ground doesn’t preclude you from living in a high rise apartment building, or in a tree house, or in the international space station. The point isn’t where you dwell. It is how you live. Keep it simple. Nothing is near as difficult as we make it out to be. Stop making things so difficult. Don’t strive. Don’t force. Just be. That is how you arrive at doing not-doing. Will you be humble enough to eliminate all the stress you otherwise create in your life? To be, or not to be? That is the question.

How Do We Realize This?

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 seven, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

In talking about the various aspects of the Tao, Lao Tzu has said that the Tao is infinite and eternal. In today’s chapter, we are going to get a better understanding of what Lao Tzu means by these terms. What is infinite? What is eternal? These are hard things to define. Why? Because we are finite and temporal. We are limited in our ability to understand these things; they are too great. However, Lao Tzu made a bold claim in yesterday’s chapter: The infinite and eternal Tao resides within each one of us. That should encourage us. The infinite resides within the finite. The eternal resides within the temporal. So let’s begin by understanding what it means to be finite and temporal.

Temporal seems simple enough to define. Everything that has a beginning, has an end. We were born; therefore we will die. What makes the Tao eternal is that it doesn’t have any beginning. Thus, it can have no end. When Lao Tzu said back in chapter four, “It is older than God.” He was saying that nothing precedes it and nothing is a precursor for it. “I don’t know who gave birth to it.” That is how Lao Tzu very humbly says it was never born. Because the Tao was never born, it can never die. The significance that we have something eternal within us will become clearer to us in the days and weeks ahead. We get all hung up on our temporal life, desperate in our efforts to hold on to this fragile temporary existence. It is quite easy to think we know we have something eternal within each of us. It is quite a different matter to come to realize that we have eternity dwelling within each and every one of us.

What makes it difficult to move from thinking we know to realizing is that we are finite. That is where understanding infinity becomes important. That the infinite dwells within the finite. And defining infinite is not possible without first defining finite, since infinite means not finite. Then again, Lao Tzu doesn’t define finite in the same way that we might. We think of finite as limited. Therefore, we think of infinite as unlimited. That isn’t a bad starting point. But, Lao Tzu means so much more. When Lao Tzu talks about finite he is talking about desires and attachments. He talks about our struggles to get ahead and why we will never find true fulfillment.

It is our desires and attachments which limit us. That is what makes us finite. That is why we struggle. That is why we never get ahead. But we have the infinite within us. This is another thing that we can’t simply think we know. We must come to realize it, in order for it to make a bit of a difference in our lives. The Tao is infinite because it has no desires for itself. Our desires are limiting us. Lao Tzu told us this in the very first chapter. As long as we are caught in desire, we will never realize the mystery of the Tao. The Tao has no such limitations, thus, it is present for all beings. It is because it is infinite that it can be present within us.

Do you know the struggle of being present? Why are we always bothered by our past, and fearful of our future. We need to be present. Just like the Tao. This would be impossible for us. But, we have the infinite within us. That eternal presence is infinite in all of us.

I was talking with a friend today. He has been trying to keep up on my blog. And he asked the million dollar question. He said that he saw the value in what I have been saying. He knows he needs to let go of every thing that is limiting him. But, after a lifetime of bad habits he wants to know, how? How? Yeah, that is the million dollar question. So, I smiled. Because I understand all to well why we continue to struggle. It isn’t a lack of knowledge. That is why I told him that I know it is easier said than done.

Hey, I told you all from the start, I don’t consider myself a Master. I am only an apprentice. There is a big difference between knowing and realizing. We need to realize. And that is going to take mastering ourselves. I can master myself. But, I am not going to attempt mastering others. I can be an example to others. Show them the way. That is what I am about. But ultimately, it is on you to realize the infinite, eternal Tao in you. That is just mean of me to say, I know. I wish I had a magic wand. Really, I do. But there is no magic wand.

We have to master ourselves. The Master no longer struggles to get ahead. The Master is content to stay behind. That is why she is ahead. She has let go of all attachments. Guys, I know how real the struggle is. And, I promise you that if you will stick with this, you will find your way. Once you have mastered yourself, once you are detached from all things, you will find yourself one with them. I know, I know, this is all crazy talk. Stay behind to get ahead. Be detached from all things to become one with everything you have let go. Let go of yourself. Become perfectly fulfilled. Easier said than done? You bet. But only because we only think we know these things are true. Stick with it until you realize it. Knowing that you don’t know is the first step.

The Blessing Of Fertility

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 six, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday’s chapter was one I wrestled with for hours. That isn’t normal for me. If all my commentaries were that much of a struggle, I’d have figured out a long time ago that I have no business talking of such matters. It was the knowledge of good and evil that I was wrestling with, of course. The part about bellows – that is easy. But, when you start wrestling with good and evil, you really find yourself in very strange territory. That really was the point. Leave such things to the Tao. Focus on what us mere mortals were meant to concern ourselves: How to care for all beings. Lao Tzu will have more to say about the problem of evil in later chapters. As we continue insisting on treading where we don’t belong. The better news is that we will learn much more about how to care for all beings. But the best news of all, at least for me, is that, today, we are back to talking about the empty yet inexhaustible, Tao.

Yesterday, Lao Tzu said the Tao is like a bellows. Today, he says it is called the Great Mother. In earlier chapters, Lao Tzu has already established the harmony that exists between emptiness and abundance. This is simple yin and yang. The more you use it, the more it produces. Calling it the Great Mother, however, introduces to us a further aspect of the Tao.

When we were saying the Tao is like a well or a void, we were focusing on its emptiness. Saying that it is like a bellows, helps us to realize how we can get abundance out of that emptiness. But, once you start referring to the Tao as the Great Mother, it becomes abundantly clear that the Tao is very fertile. Today’s chapter is all about yin. And, fertility. The Tao gives birth to infinite worlds.

Fertility has long been considered a blessing; while barrenness is considered a curse. There is nothing barren about the Tao. Everything it sets out to do comes to fruition. Lao Tzu will refer to the Tao in feminine, yin, motherly, terms. That is going to be Lao Tzu’s way throughout the Tao Te Ching. He will refer to various aspects of the Tao which affirm its yin qualities.

Understanding how inexhaustibly fertile the Tao is, the next thing for us to understand is it is always present within each and every one of us. It isn’t in some far off and remote corner of the Universe, giving birth to infinite worlds. It is within you and me and all beings. It is from within each of us that the Tao’s inexhaustible fertility gives birth to infinite worlds. You don’t have to go on some pilgrimage to find the Tao. It is already present within you.

Now, how are you going to use it? Go ahead, start thinking creatively. Let your imagination be as fertile as the Tao. You can use it any way you want. What kind of world do you want the Tao to give birth to within you?

The Bellows Knows

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 five, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Today, Lao Tzu begins discussing how the Tao, and someone who is in harmony with the Tao, deals with the problem of good and evil. Back in chapter two, he first talked about people seeing some things as good. And that necessarily meant other things become bad. That was our introduction to yin and yang; and, how the Tao achieves balance and harmony.

I suppose humans have been wrestling with the knowledge of good and evil as long as we have been humans. It has been something which has occupied great minds for millenia. Lao Tzu identifies the problem as one of duality. A duality that we actually create when we insist some things are good. Everyone seems to agree that evil is a problem. But few seem to understand that good is a problem. Therefore, everyone wants to try and solve the problem of evil, without ever addressing the problem of good. Lao Tzu insists the problem isn’t singular. Duality is the problem. We must get beyond good and evil. Only then, will our problem with evil cease to be a problem.

So, how do we do this? We accomplish this, quite simply, by not taking sides. That is the way of the Tao. It doesn’t take sides. Not even the side of good over evil. If you want to understand just how impartial the Tao is, consider this: The Tao gives birth to them both. How could it choose one over the other?

But, how can we translate this into something that we can do? I know I shouldn’t take sides. But, who doesn’t want good to triumph over evil? The problem is that we need to master ourselves. As we learn to master ourselves, to become the Master, in perfect harmony with the Tao, instead of just knowing not to take sides, we won’t take sides. We need to be the Master of ourselves. Of both our minds and our bodies.

Notice how the Master leaves the problem of good and evil to the Tao. The Master knows better than to be concerned with such things. Once you leave the problem of good and evil to the Tao, your only problem is practicing hospitality. The Master welcomes all. Both saint and sinner. Don’t miss the significance of what Lao Tzu is saying here.

We, humans, like to concern ourselves with great things. It makes us think great things of ourselves. And, humans are great. But, as great as we are, there are some things that are too great for us. The problem of good and evil is one of those things. All of our concern with it, has not dealt with it. If you think evil has been diminished in any measurable way since we began concerning ourselves with it, you haven’t been paying attention. The reason we haven’t been able to deal with it, is because that isn’t our problem to deal with. But, once we have mastered ourselves, then we can start actually solving the kinds of problems humans should be concerned with. We will be able to care for our fellow humans in ways that we didn’t think possible before we mastered ourselves.

We were talking just yesterday about abundance coming out of emptiness. This is what being in perfect harmony with the Tao means. It is hard to realize the mystery of abundance coming out of emptiness. How exactly does that work? Yesterday, in picturing a used well and a void, all we could see was emptiness. But Lao Tzu helps us out today with the image of a bellows. The Tao is like that bellows. It is empty, yet infinitely capable. Now, we can begin to see how that emptiness can produce abundance. The more you use it, the more it produces.

There is so much more I would like to say. Of that bellows. Of the problem of good and evil. Of how to welcome both saint and sinner. But the more I talk of it, the less I find I understand. So, I will conclude today with one last thing: Hold on to the center. That is how to keep from taking sides. The bellows knows.

Out Of Emptiness, Abundance

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 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.

It Is All About Balance

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 that they know.

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

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

Yesterday, we talked about the Tao as the great equalizer. Bringing all into balance through the loving and complementary relationship of yin and yang. We also talked about the Master’s relationship with the Tao. The Master is any one who is in perfect harmony with the Tao. Near the end of the last chapter, Lao Tzu was describing the dance between the Tao and the Master. The Master lets the Tao lead throughout the dance. The first component of that dance is that the Master acts without doing anything. I didn’t say much about that then. And, I didn’t want to begin going through the list that follows, the different components of the dance, because we are going to be covering them so thoroughly in the days and weeks ahead. My commentary tends to get overly long. I don’t want to discourage my readers with too much information.

That concept of acting without doing anything is something we are going to begin to talk about today. But first, Lao Tzu has plenty more to say about the need to keep things in balance.

Let’s just be clear right from the get go. There is nothing wrong with holding great men and women in esteem. That is, as long as the scales are well-balanced. It is when we start tipping the scales, when we start over-esteeming them, that the problem of duality arises. The more you tip the scale, the greater the problem. The powerful become more and more powerful, while other people, of necessity, become powerless.

Lao Tzu will have plenty to say about possessions. In the previous chapter, he said that the Master has but doesn’t possess. The problem with possessions is in overvaluing them. Everyone and everything has value. The things we have have value to us. But when we overvalue having things then the scales, once again, are tipped. Our possessions, and even lack of them, becomes something not in keeping with the Tao, which keeps all things in balance. Those overvalued possessions become the target of thieves.

Understanding all of this, through his dance with the Tao, the Master leads by emptying people’s minds and filling their cores. This is still a balancing act. Emptying people’s minds means teaching them knowing not-knowing. That is a teaching that we will cover more in the days and weeks ahead. Today, to keep today’s commentary as short and sweet as I possibly can, it just means teaching people to know that they don’t know. As long as people think they know, their ambition will know no bounds. The Master wants to help people lose everything they think they know. He wants to weaken their ambition. Ever keeping things in balance. Those that think they know will easily get confused right here.

While emptying their minds, the Master fills their cores. I have read a variety of different translations that have “bellies” for cores. Filling their bellies sounds like they are having their minds emptied and their stomachs filled. The end result being very fat ignoramuses. But that certainly isn’t Lao Tzu’s intent, here. I think “cores” is a better word than bellies because what Lao Tzu seems to be talking about is something a lot more significant than our stomachs. That would be the heart. The very core of our being. The Master is filling hearts, toughening resolve. For those of you that wonder what is wrong with ambition, you might consider that resolve is a much better thing for keeping things in balance.

Finally, we get to the last sentence of today’s chapter. Where Lao Tzu once again brings up acting without doing anything. This is part of the Master’s dance with the Tao. Lao Tzu wants each and every one of us to practice not-doing. And for those of you that are new to philosophical Taoism this may seem a very strange practice. What? We aren’t supposed to do anything? That is what he seems to be saying. But things are not always what they seem to be. This is wu-wei. Which means doing not doing. Yes, we are going to do. We are going to act. But our actions, our doings, are going to be effortless. They are going to flow with the Tao, instead of at odds with it. Much like the Master in his dance with the Tao. The Tao leads. The Master follows. The Master leads the people by following the Tao. We follow the example of the Master. We are going to learn how to never interfere with the Tao. We are going to learn not to force things. We are going to learn how to follow the Tao. Until we, too, are in perfect harmony with the Tao.

If you don’t quite understand doing not-doing just yet, don’t worry. This is going to be a major component of the dance. We will be talking more and more about this in the coming days and weeks.