The Tao can’t be perceived.
Smaller than an electron,
it contains uncountable galaxies.
If powerful men and women
could remain centered in the Tao,
all things would be in harmony.
The world would become a paradise.
All people would be at peace,
and the law would be written in their hearts.
When you have names and forms,
know that they are provisional.
When you have institutions,
know where their functions should end.
Knowing when to stop,
you can avoid any danger.
All things end in the Tao
as rivers flow into the sea.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 32, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Lao Tzu begins today’s chapter by hearkening back to what he said about the Tao at the beginning of the Tao Te Ching. What Stephen Mitchell translates as imperceptible, in the original is nameless. Lao Tzu is talking about the mystery that shrouds the eternal Tao. We can’t perceive it. It is without form and nameless. That doesn’t make it any less real. It just makes it all the more real. However, it is a warning to us that what we are dealing with is beyond anything our minds can conceive.
But, since the Tao is not something that we can perceive, it would seem to be impossible to center ourselves within it. I mean, Lao Tzu comes right out and tells us that if powerful men and women could, then all things would be in harmony. The next few lines delight our imaginations. The world, a paradise. All people, at peace. The law, written in our hearts. This is beginning to sound like something right out of the sacred texts of our major religions.
Yet, we can’t shake that warning at the beginning. We can’t perceive it. And, if we can’t perceive it, we can’t center ourselves in it. Paradise seems hopelessly lost to us.
Well, human ingenuity being what it is, we sure try. We set out to give what is formless and nameless both a form and a name. Who can resist this? Even Lao Tzu couldn’t help himself. He is the one who gave it the name, Tao. Though he did acknowledge that name was only provisional. It is nameless. But I have to call it something. How can you begin to understand something until you apply some name to it? And, of course, Lao Tzu insists that what he is really talking about is the manifestations of the Tao, not the Tao itself.
While this doesn’t apply just to the Tao, today’s chapter is about the Tao. All our efforts to try and understand the mysteries of the Universe run up against this roadblock. The forms and names we come up with, they are only provisional. The institutions that we set up are always limited to a certain time. The danger isn’t in having forms and names and institutions. The danger is in not knowing when the time for such things is at an end.
I know, I know, this is a very difficult chapter. This imperceptible Tao that we are still trying to perceive has all the makings of driving us all insane. When does it end? And, if we can’t perceive it, no matter how great our efforts, then why keep talking about it?
When does it end? It ends in the Tao. And that, my friends, is much better news than we might yet perceive. You can’t center yourself in it. But, the Tao can center you in it. Just like all rivers flow into the sea. All things end in the Tao.
So, what does any of this mean to me? Well, knowing that all things end in the Tao, I can simply be like water. Be like all rivers, flowing into the sea. That is my place in the grand scheme of things. I am like water in a river, flowing, ever-flowing into the sea. Uncountable galaxies are contained within the Tao. And that includes me.