The great Tao flows everywhere.
All things are born from it,
yet it doesn’t create them.
It pours itself into its work,
yet it makes no claim.
It nourishes infinite worlds,
yet it doesn’t hold on to them.
Since it is merged with all things
and hidden in their hearts,
it can be called humble.
Since all things vanish into it
and it alone endures,
it can be called great.
It isn’t aware of its greatness;
thus it is truly great.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 34, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Today’s chapter, Lao Tzu devotes to talking about what it is that makes the Tao truly great. If you skipped reading the chapter and just came straight to the commentary, this is a spoiler. What makes the Tao truly great, is its humility. We were talking, in yesterday’s chapter, about knowing and mastering ourselves. Today’s chapter, has Lao Tzu offering the example of the Tao to show us how to know and master ourselves.
The great Tao flows everywhere. Nothing really new here. Lao Tzu has already told us the Tao flows through all things, inside and outside, and returns to the Source of all things. But, then, he moves on to talking about how the Tao’s greatness is tempered by its humility. All things are born from it. Yes, he has told us this before, as well. But, look at that next line. Yet, it doesn’t create them. That always threw me for a loop, whenever I would read this chapter. The Tao, being the Great Mother, gives birth to infinite worlds, but it doesn’t “create” them?
What does Lao Tzu mean? I have finally come to realize that to create involves something a whole lot more personal. It is more “hands-on”. And, I think, Lao Tzu is describing a more impersonal action on the part of the Tao. All things are born from it, but it is something almost incidental. It is just the way it is. The Tao isn’t controlling. It doesn’t use force, or try to dominate events. It just flows. And, everything either goes with that flow, or tries to go against the flow. Obviously, things would go so much better for us, if we would only learn to go with that flow. Swimming against the current, wears you out over time. But, the Tao will never make you swim with the current.
This “humility” becomes more clear as we continue to read the chapter. Flowing becomes pouring. The Tao pours itself into its work. Yet, it makes no claim. It just does what it does, and it does it with all its might; there is a deliberateness in pouring, which isn’t evident in flowing. But even so, it doesn’t demand any credit for its work. It simply does its work, and then moves on. There is still a lot of flowing to do.
It nourishes infinite worlds. That is good, since it gave birth to them. Yet, it doesn’t hold on to them. In other words, the Tao merely continues on its way, infinite worlds are nourished by it; but, they can either go with the flow of the Tao, or struggle against that current.
Because the Tao flows through all things, inside and outside, the Tao is merged with all things. It is hidden in all of our hearts. Remember, yesterday, when Lao Tzu said the Tao is too small to be perceived? It is hidden. We all have something of the Tao inside of us, flowing through us. But, it doesn’t put on a big show. There is no pomp and circumstance. The Tao doesn’t make any great speeches, or share its itinerary. It just goes about its business, quietly, behind the scenes. See, how humble it is!
But wait! What is this? All things vanish into it, and it alone endures. Wasn’t it just yesterday, when Lao Tzu promised us we can endure forever? Should I be fearing death, once again? But, just hold on there. Lao Tzu also exhorted us to know when to stop, so we can avoid danger. Then, he said, all things end in the Tao, as rivers flow into the sea.
There is that flowing again. Are we going to go with the flow, or not? Are we really going to endure forever? But, what does that mean, if all things are going to vanish into the Tao, like rivers vanish into the sea, and nothing, but the Tao, endures?
I could take the easy way out here. It is tempting. I could say, this just has to do with the greatness of the mystery of the Tao. And, the Tao isn’t even aware of its greatness, so how can we expect to understand it?
I could. But I won’t. Because Lao Tzu provides answers for us in the metaphors he has been using for the Tao. All of that flowing. Rivers flowing into the sea. That is a lot of water. And, water is a favorite metaphor, of Lao Tzu’s, for the Tao. And, he tells us to be like water, too.
So, I start imagining myself as the smallest unit of water, a molecule of water, flowing for a time in a river. Even though I am surrounded by lots of other molecules of water, have I lost my own identity? Nope. I am still that molecule of water. My presence, along with a lot of other molecules of water, doesn’t change that.
Then, after some time, the river ends in the sea. And, little ol’ me, a molecule of water, “vanishes” into the sea. All you can see is a vast ocean of water. The sea is all that endures. But, wait. What about little ol’ me? Guess what? I still endure, as one molecule of water. Along with all the other molecules of water, having returned to our common Source.
Perhaps, you don’t much care to think of yourself as a molecule of water. You want to think of yourself as something so much greater than that. But that molecule of water is great, in and of itself. Without just one molecule of water, the sea wouldn’t be so vast.
Still, I know my little metaphor for how we all can endure forever, while nothing but the Tao endures, is only that, a metaphor. So, I will return to the true greatness of the mystery of the Tao. It isn’t even aware of its greatness, so how can we expect to understand it?