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)
Just taken by itself, outside of the context of what we have been talking about for the last few days, today’s chapter is simply an ode to the Tao. But I don’t think that Lao Tzu just randomly decided, here would be a marvelous time to talk of the greatness and humility of the Tao. I think he has a much larger purpose. Yesterday, he talked about true wisdom and true power. It comes from knowing and mastering ourselves. And then he went on to explain how we can come to know and master ourselves. He said it is realizing that you have enough, which makes you truly rich. And, that if we stay in the center, and embrace death with our whole hearts, we will endure forever. Today’s chapter, while explaining what it is that makes the Tao both humble and great, helps us to realize that we really have everything we need, and how to embrace death with our whole heart.
I am particularly interested in this notion of dying, yet at the same time enduring forever. We said, yesterday, that it is the self as self that dies, and the world as self that endures. I was talking about something Lao Tzu has talked about before. It is a matter of whether we are perceiving the eternal reality, or not. If we see the self as self, the phantoms of hope and fear arise. But if we see the world as self, we have nothing to fear. This has long been a difficult concept for me to try and explain. The easiest way for me to explain it is to say we are all much more similar than we are different. When our focus is on what makes us different from everybody else, what makes us separate selves, we have this self-preservation instinct that kicks in. We are literally afraid to die. Death is the end of me!
But, if we focus on what makes us one, our similarities, our connection with the Tao, then we see the world as self. That is the eternal reality. We all come from the same source and we all return to the same source. I was told, just yesterday, that if my head wasn’t stuck up my philosophical ass, I would be very afraid of Muslims, for instance. What I thought, then, was if having my head being lodged in my philosophical ass keeps me free of fear, I am rather inclined to stretch out my neck just a wee bit more. My son thought that was cheeky. Pun intended.
But none of that has taken any notice of today’s chapter, where Lao Tzu opens by telling us some things he he has said time and again: “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.” The first half of each of these sentences isn’t anything he hasn’t said many times before. It is the “yets” that intrigue me something fierce. Now, Lao Tzu would say, he is just talking about the Tao’s humility. And, I get that. But I still find it intriguing that it makes no claim to having created us, or holds us to any corresponding duty that we owe to it. It doesn’t even hold on to us, which would make us less than free. Part of knowing yourself is knowing that you are free. And, you certainly can’t master yourself, if you aren’t free to be your own master.
This gets into the whole debate over whether or not we have a free will. Are we really and truly free to resist the Tao? Because if we are not, then we can’t really and truly be free. And some of Lao Tzu’s language, referring to the Tao, certainly leaves us wondering to what extent we can resist, especially since we all come from the same source, and we are all going to return to the same source.
Whether Heaven is really Heaven, if we can’t choose not to go there, is interesting to me, philosophically. But then, my head is so far up my philosophical ass, would you expect anything less of me? As much as is possible, I would like to settle the argument; we are free. And that means, we are free to resist the Tao to the very end. And, since we are all returning to the common source, for some, life on Earth is sure to be Hell.
Here, I have used the names of Heaven and Hell, not because they have anything to do with philosophical Taoism, but because, figuratively, they mean something to my readers. Heaven and Hell don’t have to exist for you to understand exactly what I am getting at. When we go with the flow of the Tao, life is good. When we go counter to the Tao, life is tumultuous. It isn’t so much that resistance is futile, as resistance is foolhardy. Lao Tzu and I would like to spare you.
But I still haven’t gotten to the part where the death of self as self is accomplished, and the world as self endures. Don’t worry, I may be meandering, but I know where I am going.
Still talking about the Tao, Lao Tzu tells us it is merged with all things and hidden in their hearts. This he says, specifically, is why it can be called humble. But, it is the reality that all things vanish into it, until it alone endures, that makes it great.
And, it is that vanishing, which is death for the self as self. Everything that separates us from all other beings vanishes. It dies. Does that make you feel uncomfortable? I understand why it might. If you think what makes you unique, your individuality, is going to be swallowed up into some collective. But I don’t think that is what Lao Tzu means, at all. It isn’t our selves that dies. It is what separates us, the self as self, that dies. We are still all unique and different in myriad ways. But our uniqueness, our differences, no longer separate us. They unite us. We are one in the Tao; and we all, in the Tao, endure forever.
We are hardly aware that any of this even takes place. It happens spontaneously, intuitively, as we go with the flow of the Tao. And that is great. I didn’t have to do anything. I can’t screw this up!