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)
In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu returns to the great themes which have resonated throughout his Tao Te Ching: The greatness and humility of the Tao. How it flows everywhere and pours itself into its work. How it nourishes. How it is hidden. And how all things end in it. The way in which Lao Tzu sings the praises of the great Tao, sound very much like an ode. But it is much more than an ode. It is really a continuation of what he was saying in yesterday’s chapter: About our need to center ourselves in the Tao, and about embracing our own death. It is about our relationship with the Tao as we come to know and master ourselves.
As we center ourselves in the Tao, we become one with the Tao. As the Tao is like water, we, too, become like water. Water, as we have said before, is Lao Tzu’s favorite metaphor for the Tao. Just like water, the Tao flows everywhere, and all things are born from it. Yet, just like water, the Tao doesn’t create them. Just like water, it pours itself into its work; yet, it makes no claim on them. Just like water, the Tao nourishes infinite worlds; yet it doesn’t hold on to them. The Tao is like a vast ocean of water. And we are like all the rivers and streams that flow into that ocean.
We all merge into the Tao and the Tao merges into all things. It is hidden in the hearts of all beings. That it is hidden, Lao Tzu says, shows its humility. But, since all things vanish into it, until it alone endures, is what makes it great. That it isn’t even aware of its greatness is what makes it truly great.
Yes, we could talk on and on about the humility and greatness of the Tao. But let’s not miss out on the other thing that Lao Tzu would have us understand, today. Yesterday, we were talking about embracing death with our whole heart. We talked of how we fear death. The finality of it. Losing our sense of self. Today, Lao Tzu describes this death as a great vanishing act.
A vanishing act is a staple with magicians, illusionists, the world over. How do they do it? We are always amazed by these feats. But they aren’t going to reveal their secrets to us. And they always end up reappearing before the conclusion of the show, anyway. But the vanishing act that Lao Tzu describes is one from where we never expect to return. All things vanish into the Tao. All things end in the Tao. Like rivers flow into the sea. All things vanish into it, and it alone endures. That vanishing is the death that we were told to embrace with our whole hearts, just yesterday.
And I spent some time thinking about this vanishing, this death to myself as separate. And that got me thinking about what it means to know and master ourselves. Yesterday, Lao Tzu said that required true wisdom and true power. He also said that when you realize you have enough, you have the true riches. And I realized how right he was. Knowing and mastering myself is to be known and mastered by the Tao. Our goal is to be lived by the Tao. That is the only way to truly be ourselves.
We have been programmed into thinking that death is final. In spite of the fact that magicians always reappear before the conclusion of their show, we think they will vanish, for good. In spite of the fact that we can see the circle of life all around us as we observe the Earth in its natural rhythms; and we can see that death is but one part of the life cycle; and there is no concluding part, it just keeps endlessly repeating; we still think that death is the end of us.
What does Lao Tzu mean by this vanishing act? What has become of us, when the Tao alone endures? What does it mean to be a molecule of water in a vast ocean of water? Water, the Tao is like water, we need to be like water, too. That is what it always comes back to, for me. All rivers flow into the sea. That is where they end. But are there no more rivers, then? Do we lose our own identity, when like a molecule of water, we vanish into that vast ocean of water? No! We are more than just a part of that ocean. We are complete, in and of ourselves. In some ways, we are more complete than we have ever been. Yes, we are surrounded by other molecules of water. But that ocean would not be complete without each and every one of us.
I don’t fear death because I know what always follows death. I see it every Spring as I witness death give way to rebirth. The circle of life continues endlessly. What do I have to fear, as I reside in the center of it? Now, I know that some of you might take issue with being compared to a molecule of water surrounded by a whole lot of other molecules of water; but it is just a metaphor for how complete we are in the Tao. “But I don’t want to be just like everything else?” Oh, but you already are. That is the way things are. You aren’t separate. You never were. That was all an illusion. Embrace the death of that illusion. Let the very idea of your separateness vanish in the Tao. Then, you can truly be yourself; as you always were and always will be.