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.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter seven, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
There are two things about philosophical Taoism that I want to talk about today. The first being, that Lao Tzu once again refers to the Tao as infinite and eternal. And the second being, the idea of paradox as a way of distinguishing reality from illusion, or how things are vs. how things seem to be. Both of these ideas are something that Lao Tzu will be coming back to again and again throughout the Tao Te Ching; so don’t be dismayed if we only scratch the surface today.
First, the Tao, as infinite and eternal. Because we have our own ideas of what it means to be infinite, and what it means to be eternal, I think it is a good idea to take a bit of time defining terms. And Lao Tzu provides us with all the help we need.
Why is the Tao eternal? It can never die, because it was never born. We tend to think of eternal as referring to time. But something that was never born and will never die is not in the realm of time, at all. It is outside, or beyond, time. And that is what we need to understand about eternal when referring to the Tao.
And the Tao is infinite. When we think of infinite we think of, well, not finite. That is what infinite means. But look at how Lao Tzu explains why the Tao is infinite. The Tao is infinite because it has no desires for itself.
We have desires. But the Tao has no desires. The Tao just is. Our desires cause us all kinds of grief. Lao Tzu has already told us that our desires trap us. So, of course, we want to be free. If only there was a way for the infinite, eternal Tao to free us. Well, I have good news. Because the Tao is eternal and infinite, it is present for all beings. And it is in that being present that we are set free from desires.
Which brings me to the paradox. We tend to think of ourselves, and all of nature as having a definite beginning and a definite end. We see ourselves bound by the framework of time. After all, we were born. And we will die.
Also, we see ourselves as being finite creatures. We do it all the time, looking at ourselves as small and insignificant, finite beings in the vast ocean of the cosmos. Just tiny specks on a tiny speck in a remote corner of a mediocre galaxy.
But Lao Tzu invites us to see beyond this illusion (of how things appear to be). Just like we said yesterday. The Tao only appears to be hidden from us. That infinite, eternal reality actually is present for all beings inside each of us.
I know we need to flesh this out; and I promise we will begin to do just that, with the help of the Master, shortly. But right now I want this to sink in. I am not talking about religion. This is philosophy. If religion aids you in your journey, then definitely use it. If religion hinders you, then I think you know what you need to do.
But I am not talking about religion. I am talking about how bound we seem to be by the framework of time and space. But all that seems to be is just an illusion. The reality is beyond all of that. We are infinite and eternal. That is reality. That is the paradox. That is what we keep bumping up against. Because we seem to be finite. We keep encountering the limits we put on ourselves as finite beings.
And this paradox is all the more vivid for us as we behold the Master. Why is the Master ahead? Because she stays behind. Why is she one with all things? Because she is detached from all things. Why is she perfectly fulfilled? Because she has let go of herself. She has let go of all of the constraints of time and space. She is beyond time and space. Beyond good and evil. Beyond beautiful and ugly.
And who is this Master? The Master is any of us. Just any one of us, and all of us, living in perfect harmony with the way things are. Perhaps, we are not ready to let go of the limitations we have put on ourselves. Maybe I am not, quite yet. But I know that the only reason I keep getting bogged down in the illusion, is because I still keep acting like the way things seem to be is the way things actually are.
And I know better.