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;
she acts, but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter two, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
I guess it wouldn’t be philosophy if we didn’t have some discussion about being and non-being. So, with philosophical Taoism. And here in chapter two, Lao Tzu introduces the concept of being and non-being creating each other. We will have plenty to say about being and non-being throughout the Tao Te Ching. I think for the present, if you are having a difficult time wrapping your mind around this right now, it might help to think of these two as being and nothingness or something and nothing. I certainly don’t want us to get in the trap of over-thinking or even trying to understand right now. Over-thinking and trying to understand is not the Way. It is enough right now just to accept that the Tao is the Source of all being and non-being.
But then Lao Tzu does give us plenty to chew on with this chapter concerning being and non-being. Maybe the best way to begin to understand is to recognize how things are manifested by naming them. We often talk about how limiting words can be. Certainly words cannot adequately express all that the Tao is, for instance. Still, naming things is more powerful than we dare imagine.
And that is what this chapter sets out to illustrate for us. By naming something we get both being and non-being. We get both what it is and what it is not. So, when you name something beautiful, something else must be ugly. When you name something good, something else must be bad.
Why is this necessarily so? Because the Tao always brings about balance. That is why Lao Tzu goes on to say that 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. You simply can’t have one without the other. This is being and non-being in a nutshell. And it is the great balancing act of the Universe.
We might try to conceive of a Universe where everything is beautiful and good. In fact, I just did. But then instantly in my mind, I conceived of an alternate Universe where everything is ugly and bad. I just can’t imagine the one without imagining the other.
The Master is introduced to us for the first time in this chapter. In the original Chinese there is no distinction between pronouns identifying the gender of the Master. Stephen Mitchell, in his translation, chooses to go back and forth between the feminine and masculine gender pronouns to identify the Master. I certainly understand why some of you might find that problematic. I do wish there was a commonly used genderless yet personal pronoun in the English language that I could substitute for he and she and him and her. Until such time, I will try to maintain Stephen Mitchell’s practice of using the feminine one day and the masculine the next.
It is important to understand that for Lao Tzu’s purposes, the Master isn’t some mythical creation. Any of us can become a master, as well. Lao Tzu simply uses the Master to illustrate someone who perfectly embodies the Tao. She is a model for us. This is our standard. I suppose he could have simply referred to himself as the Master. And then we could strive to emulate him. But I think, as we continue reading through the Tao Te Ching, we will find that humility would constrain him from claiming that mantle.
For today, let’s just look at what behavior the Master models for us in this chapter. I have been rambling and we need to get back to the point of the chapter ,which is that the Tao is always balancing things out in the Universe. The Master certainly understands this. This is why she acts without doing anything and teaches without saying anything.
Acting without doing anything? Teaching without saying anything? Yes, early on we are hit with what will seem paradoxical. How does anything get done without something being done? This is simply the Master illustrating going with the flow of the Tao in the Universe. Things arise, and she lets them come. And when things disappear, she lets them go. I promise, this will all get easier once we have quieted our questioning minds down.
The Master has without possessing. She acts without expectaton. And when her work is done, she simply forgets all about it. Yes, I know, it is paradoxical. But this is why the Master’s work lasts forever.