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What Are You Holding On To?

The Master gives himself up
to whatever the moment brings.
He knows that he is going to die,
and he has nothing left to hold on to:
no illusions in his mind,
no resistances in his body.
He doesn’t think about his actions;
they flow from the core of his being.
He holds nothing back from life;
therefore he is ready for death,
as a man is ready for sleep
after a good day’s work.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 50, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Today’s chapter may seem a bit morbid, with Lao Tzu talking about the inevitability of death. But I like to see it in a little more positive light. Sure, the Master knows he is going to die. And, he is ready for it. But death isn’t really what today’s chapter is all about.

Though it does involve a kind of death to give yourself up to whatever the moment brings. Giving yourself up does mean surrendering your self. Like in yesterday’s chapter, the Master has no mind of his own. He has surrendered that to the Tao. He is able to work with the minds of the people. He is prepared for anything, even death. Whatever the moment brings. But it isn’t about death. It is about what it means to truly live.

It is about living in the moment. The present moment. Not thinking about yesterday. Not thinking about tomorrow. Just surrendering yourself to this present moment. There is nothing left to hold on to. Not yesterday’s problems. Not tomorrow’s worries. Just today. Just now. The past and the future are all just illusions. They are either gone or may never happen.

And when you truly have surrendered, then all the resistances that your body otherwise has, are gone as well. You are free to live. Free at last.

You no longer have to think about your actions. They just flow naturally, from the core of your being. We talked about this a few chapters ago. About being in the zone. Wei Wu Wei, the practice of doing not-doing. All your actions are now effortless.

Because you know that you are going to die (you do know that, right?), you are now free to hold nothing back from living. Of course, it is important that we know we are going to die. Not just think we know. But really know. Because as long as our bodies are offering up resistances, as long as our minds are still filled with illusions, we can’t begin to truly live.

It is those illusions and those resistances which ever hold us back from living, truly living. And we have a whole lot of living still to do. There is work to be done before we can sleep. But we need to surrender to the inevitable. We need to be ready for death; just like we are ready for sleep after a good day’s work.

What is it you have been holding on to? Let it go, and live.

Every Day Is Mother’s Day! Thanks, Mom!

The Master has no mind of her own.
She works with the mind of the people.

She is good to people who are good.
She is also good to people who aren’t good.
This is true goodness.

She trusts people who are trustworthy.
She also trusts people who aren’t trustworthy.
This is true trust.

The Master’s mind is like space.
People don’t understand her.
They look to her and wait.
She treats them like her own children.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 49, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Today, Lao Tzu invokes the Master as our example of virtue, the Te in Tao Te Ching. Do you understand her? Most people don’t. They think she is out of her mind. Her mind is like space, like way out there. I mean, just look at her. She doesn’t act like so many other people do, with her own agenda, a mind of her own. No, she works with the mind of the people. What does Lao Tzu mean by that?

Perhaps a couple of examples will help. Most of us have no problem with being good to people who are good to us. Likewise, it isn’t difficult to trust people who have demonstrated their trustworthiness. When we fail to be good to those who are good, and to trust those who are trustworthy, we demonstrate that we aren’t very good or trustworthy, ourselves. It really is the minimum that is required of us as humans, isn’t it?

But the Master goes above and beyond. Demonstrating virtue for us. For it isn’t everyone that can be good to someone who isn’t good. And as for trusting someone who isn’t trustworthy? Well, that just doesn’t make any sense at all. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice shame on me. To trust people who can’t be trusted? That is just setting myself up for being taken advantage of. Right?

But wait. What if it isn’t about how it is going to affect me? What have I really accomplished by merely being good to those who are good? Anyone can do that? In fact, anyone should be doing that. But it takes an extraordinary person to be good to someone who isn’t good. That would be a virtue. That would be true goodness.

And, about that trust thing. You know, trusting people that you know can be trusted. To Lao Tzu that isn’t really trust at all. Because trust is a bit more significant than knowing people aren’t going to let you down. True trust means trusting those who aren’t worthy of your trust. Is the Master really setting herself up to be taken advantage of? Or, at the very least, very disappointed?

I don’t think so. And here is why? She knows they can’t be trusted. She isn’t going into this blind. She knows what she can expect. And when you expect people to disappoint you, can it really be a disappointment when they do?

But true trust goes even deeper than this. Ultimately, it isn’t about whether people are good and trustworthy or not so good and not so trustworthy. Ultimately, it comes down to whether or not you trust the Tao. People are going to be good or not. People are going to be trustworthy or not. But the Tao ever remains the same.

The Master demonstrates true goodness and true trust by not differentiating between persons. And instead, wholly relying on the Tao. People may not understand her. They may even think she is out of her mind. But they know she is a virtuous woman. She has demonstrated that quite definitively for them. Her virtue sets her apart from all others. That is why they will look to her and wait. Perhaps, for some, they just wonder what this crazy person is going to do next. Some people really like circus freaks. But I think there are those of us that see something more than a circus freak here.

Lao Tzu has referred to the Tao as the great Mother. And the Master demonstrates that virtue as well. She treats us all like her own children. And all I have to say to that is, “Thanks, Mom!”

Not A Trivial Pursuit

In the pursuit of knowledge,
every day something is added.
In the practice of the Tao,
every day something is dropped.
Less and less do you need to force things,
until finally you arrive at non-action.
When nothing is done,
nothing is left undone.

True mastery can be gained
by letting things go their own way.
It can’t be gained by interfering.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 48, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, Lao Tzu was describing the almost inverse relationship between knowledge and understanding. When you are looking outside yourself, the more you know, the less you understand. This isn’t a matter of being anti-knowledge. It is only recognizing that there is a big difference between knowledge and understanding. Lao Tzu wants us to practice knowing not-knowing. It may seem counter-intuitive, this knowing that we don’t know; because, when we know that we don’t know, won’t we be inclined to want to know more?

Lao Tzu addresses that very problem with today’s chapter. In the pursuit of knowledge, every day something has to be added. That word, pursuit, is very telling. It is a chase. And notice, that pursuit is ever on-going. Every day something more has to be added to your acquired knowledge. You never do quite attain enough. The practice of the Tao is very different. Oh, it starts out like it is an ever on-going thing as well. But notice that it does have an end. Every day something is dropped. Less and less do you need to force things. Until, finally, you arrive at non-action.

Here, Lao Tzu is expressing just how related the practice of knowing not-knowing and doing not-doing are. It isn’t a pursuit, a chase, after things that are lacking. There is nothing lacking. We only need to let go of our need to force things, to be in control, of our desire to interfere. And this practice doesn’t involve one huge dump. No, we let go of just a little something every day. Here a little, there a little. It would be too great a task to expect us to give up our need to be in control in one day. No, we do things nature’s way. The slow overcomes the fast. The soft overcomes the hard. Slow and steady gets the job done. We will, finally, arrive at non-action. That is the practice of doing not-doing, Wei Wu Wei. Just take things one day at a time. So, don’t despise small beginnings. Just keep letting go until there is nothing left to let go. When nothing is done, nothing is left undone. That is the way of the Tao. That is the practice of the Tao.

Being as what we are after is understanding, Lao Tzu explains the only way that true mastery can be gained. We have to get to the place in our lives where we just let all things go their own way. As long as we continue to nurture our need to force things, to be in control, to interfere with the Tao, we can never gain true mastery, aka understanding. So, let it go!

An Hour Without Power

Without opening your door,
you can open your heart to the world.
Without looking out your window,
you can see the essence of the Tao.

The more you know,
the less you understand.

The Master arrives without leaving,
sees the light without looking,
achieves without doing a thing.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 47, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Today’s chapter is about opening your heart to the world and seeing the essence of the Tao. In Lao Tzu’s day, it would have seemed impossible to know much about what was happening in the world if you didn’t go look out your window, first, to see what kind of traveling clothes you should be wearing; and then opening your door and venturing out to gain knowledge. You certainly couldn’t turn on the radio or the television, or start surfing the internet to gain knowledge. And while there is certainly nothing wrong with availing ourselves of the opportunities which abound to gain knowledge, Lao Tzu is much less concerned with how much knowledge we may gain, and much more concerned with whether or not we have accrued any more understanding. Sure, there is knowledge to be gained by looking out our windows and opening our doors, by turning on our radios or televisions, by surfing the internet; but what have we really gained if the more we know, the less we understand?

I heard on the radio recently that Pluto is actually larger than we had once thought it to be. The verdict is still out on whether the 10 year trek across our solar system will add anything to our understanding of the dwarf planet. And as for our own world, the one that people insist is getting smaller all of the time, and that thanks to all our modern technologies, I think it is a fair question whether we understand more or less.

Now don’t misunderstand me here. I am certainly not anti-technology. Or anti-knowledge. I am standing here, typing away on my computer. I have the world at my fingertips with access to high speed internet. And, when I got home from tutoring today, just moments before a major storm blew in taking out my power for an hour, I spent that hour in the dark, with no external link to knowledge about the outside world. And it grieves me to admit that I wasn’t prepared to just sit still for that hour; and contemplate how I can open my heart to the world without access to my internet. Oh, I don’t like it, not one little bit, when I can’t avail myself of all of the modern conveniences.

But, of course, Lao Tzu would just shake his head at me. And taking his bony finger, he would point at my heart, not my head; and say, “It’s in there, silly.” If I want to see the essence of the Tao, I need to look no farther than within my own heart.

It isn’t knowledge for the sake of knowledge that we seek, it is understanding. And to gain understanding we need not go far from home. I think Lao Tzu would argue that the farther we go, the less we will know. Which is why the Master is such an excellent example for us. Arriving without leaving. Seeing the light without looking. Achieving without doing a thing.

There is a reason why Lao Tzu keeps telling us to practice knowing not-knowing and doing not-doing. It is because I constantly need reminding. I didn’t care for that hour without power this afternoon. But maybe, just maybe, I understand a little more than what I did before.

There Is None Greater

When a country is in harmony with the Tao,
the factories make trucks and tractors.
When a country goes counter to the Tao,
warheads are stockpiled outside the cities.

There is no greater illusion than fear,
no greater wrong than preparing to defend yourself,
no greater misfortune than having an enemy.

Whoever can see through all fear
will always be safe.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 46, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

What did Lao Tzu, some 2500 years ago, know of factories? Oh, good, you were paying attention. In the original, Lao Tzu spoke of horses being used to plow fields or being bred for war. Plowshares or swords, was the way many of the ancients spoke of the difference between peace and war. In the 20th century, when I took my economic classes, it was a choice between guns and butter. So, even though Stephen Mitchell took some liberties with making his more modern translation, the point remains the same: There is a world of difference between a country in harmony with the Tao and a country which goes counter to the Tao.

And that difference is fear. Our “elected” officials want us to be afraid, very, very afraid. They want us to fall for the illusion that we need them to protect us. And the world teeters on the brink of global economic collapse. Why? Because we aren’t living in harmony with the Tao. I am not trying to scare you. Far be it from me to use the illusion of fear to try and persuade you of my good intent. I will leave that to the warmongers, who manufacture enemies on the right and on the left.

We must see through all fear. It is all an illusion. There is none greater. And we must understand that those stockpiles of warheads are only enabling the greatest of wrongs. For there is no greater misfortune than having an enemy. Especially, when that enemy happens to be ourselves. No! We simply must see through all fear. See it for the illusion that it is. That is the only way to always be safe.

Allow, Shape, Then Step Out Of The Way

True perfection seems imperfect,
yet it is perfectly itself.
True fullness seems empty,
yet it is fully present.

True straightness seems crooked.
True wisdom seems foolish.
True art seems artless.

The Master allows things to happen.
She shapes events as they come.
She steps out of the way
and lets the Tao speak for itself.

-Lao Tzu- (Tao Te Ching, chapter 45, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, we were talking about the choices we make determining our destinies. Where is fulfillment and happiness to be found? Can we be content with what we have? Can we rejoice in the way things are? What is it going to take for us to realize there is nothing lacking?

Today, Lao Tzu brings us back to what is probably our greatest stumbling block. Things are not the way they appear to be. How can we rejoice in the way things are, when things appear to be so very wrong? Lao Tzu keeps insisting that things are perfect; but all we see around us is imperfection. Why is it that fullness seems empty? When straightness seems crooked and wisdom seems foolish and art seems artless, we can’t allow ourselves to be led by our senses.

And, we simply must not try and fix the mess we think the world is in. I know this sounds crazy; especially, coming from someone who spends a great deal of his time railing against the evils of the State. Don’t get me wrong, I want the world to be rid of the State, in all its forms, like no other. But do I think we can somehow hasten that day? If there is one hard lesson I learned from Lao Tzu, it was that if I want to shrink something, I must first allow it to expand; if I want to get rid of something, I must first allow it to flourish. This is the subtle perception of the way things are. The soft does overcome the hard. The slow does overcome the fast.

No matter how great our desire to control, we mustn’t give into that desire. The way things are is the way things are; and that is something in which we can and should rejoice. Therefore, I am passive. Not passive aggressive. Just passive. And disinterested. We need to be like the Master and allow things to happen. Don’t resist. Allow. Then, we can shape events as they come. We do our work; then we step back. Once we step out of the way, the Tao will speak for itself.


The Choices We Make

Fame or integrity: which is more important?
Money or happiness: which is more valuable?
Success or failure: which is more destructive?

If you look to others for fulfillment,
you will never truly be fulfilled.
If your happiness depends on money,
you will never be happy with yourself.

Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 44, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

One thing I think we humans have wrestled with, since we started walking on this Earth, is the question of whether or not we really have any say in our destiny. We want to believe we are the masters of our destiny; but there has always been this nagging doubt that someone, or something, else is in charge. We might call that God or Fate; but the question of free will is something that we always seem to be debating. With all of Lao Tzu’s teaching on the Tao, could there be answers here? Whether or not today’s chapter sheds any light on the question, I will leave to my readers.

Lao Tzu begins by asking us some rhetorical questions. If we want a life of fulfillment, these are good questions to be asking ourselves. What is it that you think is more important, fame or integrity? Which is more valuable, money or happiness? And the most interesting question of all, of success and failure, which is more destructive?

These are all interesting questions, actually; but the first two seem the easiest for us to answer. Unless, of course, we want to play games, and try to get away with having our cake and eating it too. But enough of games. If we really had to choose between fame and integrity, I think the majority of us would choose integrity. Fame just seems a fleeting thing, even if it were to last for a lifetime. Integrity, on the other hand, is something intended to last. And the same goes for the choice between money and happiness. Obviously, we would like to have both. And Lao Tzu isn’t saying we can’t have both. He just wants to know which we value more. And I think, once again, that the majority of us would rather die penniless and happy, than rich beyond our wildest imaginations yet unhappy.

But, there is more to these questions than this obvious choice. Why ask us to choose between fame and integrity? Because, if we look to others for fulfillment, we will never truly be fulfilled. And, why ask us to choose between money and happiness? Because, if our happiness depends on money, we will never be happy with ourselves.

What we really want out of life is true fulfillment and happiness. And, that can’t depend on others. Nor, can it ever be achieved based on how much we have in our bank accounts. This isn’t anything that we haven’t heard over and over again. But it does lead to the next rhetorical question, the one I find the most interesting of the three. Of success and failure, which is more destructive? We weren’t expecting that one. We were prepared for a nice fat fast ball right over the plate, and Lao Tzu threw us a curve ball. Which is more destructive? We swing and we miss.

But this isn’t the first time that Lao Tzu has talked about success and failure. He talked about it when he mentioned that illusory ladder with rungs that take us both up and down. As long as we are on that ladder, our position is shaky. It is only with both our feet on solid ground that we can maintain balance. It was in that chapter, that Lao Tzu first said that hope and fear were twin phantoms, arising because we are thinking of ourselves as separate from the whole.

For Lao Tzu, success and failure are equally destructive. Why? Because they have us climbing on that shadowy ladder; our feet, far from solid ground. Hoping for success and fearing failure are equally dangerous because they aren’t grounded in reality. What we need to do, what we really must do, if we really want to be truly fulfilled and happy, is to be content with what we already have. We need to rejoice in the way things are; rather than holding out for what they might be. Once we realize (there is that word realize again, that is important) that there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to us.

Can we be content? Can we rejoice in the way things are? I said earlier that so much of this is stuff we have heard over and over again throughout our lives. We know this! But what difference is that thinking we know, making in our lives? We must do more than know. Much like I said yesterday about being in the zone, the practice of Wei Wu Wei, doing not-doing, we need to know that we don’t know. That is another important tenet of philosophical Taoism: The practice of knowing not-knowing. When you know that you don’t know, then you can begin to realize the truth. The truth is that there is nothing lacking. As long as you are ever reaching for more, you will never have enough. But when you realize you already have everything, when you are truly content, then the whole world belongs to you.

Which brings us back to what I was saying at the very beginning of today’s commentary. Do we or don’t we have free will? Are our lives, our destinies, ruled by someone or something else? It seems to me, we have a choice to make.

Getting In The Zone

The gentlest thing in the world
overcomes the hardest thing in the world.
That which has no substance
enters where there is no space.
This shows the value of non-action.

Teaching without words,
performing without actions;
that is the Master’s way.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 43, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Today’s chapter is about the fundamental tenet of philosophical Taoism: The value of non-action. Non-action is a translation of the Chinese, Wu Wei, which could be translated doing nothing; though doing nothing doesn’t really mean what our westernized minds think it means. Because it is so important to philosophical Taoism, I want to spend a little time explaining what Wu Wei means.

This is a concept that permeates all of the Tao Te Ching. The Tao does nothing, yet through it all things are done. The Master does nothing, yet nothing is left undone. This is a great mystery. How is it that not doing can result in all things being done?

To explain this mystery, Lao Tzu points at the operation of nature as the most obvious example of this principle at work. His favorite metaphor of Wu Wei is water. Water nourishes all things without trying. And, the soft overcomes the hard, the gentlest thing in the world overcomes the hardest thing in the world.

Water is an apt metaphor. But it isn’t the only way that Wu-Wei can be exemplified. He also says that something with no substance enters where there is no space. That only intensifies the mystery. But it does show the value of Wu Wei.

Since there is value to it, I want to better understand it. Because doing nothing isn’t really doing nothing, in this context. Water still nourishes, even if it doesn’t have to work at it. And the soft and gentle does overcome the hardest thing. Overcoming without having to try to overcome sounds really good to me. I want to be able to put Wu Wei to work for me.

So, what is Lao Tzu getting at? I think he is defining a state of being in harmony with the Tao. That is, behaving in a completely natural, not-contrived way. We want to be in harmony with the Tao. That has certainly been Lao Tzu’s theme, all along.

I want to better understand what Wu Wei means. Because I have already decided that doing nothing doesn’t cut it. Wu could be translated “not have” or “without” and Wei could be translated “do”, “act”, “serve as”, “govern”, or “effort”. The most common translations for Wu Wei are “non-action” like Stephen Mitchell is translating it here. But it can also be translated; without action, without effort, or without control. Notice how all of these words have been used over and over again by Stephen Mitchell in his translation. He really gets it right.

The other way that we see it presented is in the paradox Wei Wu Wei, which could then be translated as acting without acting, or doing without doing. Here, we can plainly see that there is something to do. We are getting closer, but we aren’t quite there.

To better understand Wu Wei, let’s consider some less commonly referenced senses of it. For instance, “Action that doesn’t involve struggle or excessive effort.” In this case, Wu means “without” and Wei means “effort” and now we are really getting somewhere. For “effortless action” is probably the best way of explaining it. Instead of thinking that you should be doing nothing, something that leaves us thinking we should, well, just do nothing, think of all your actions being effortless.

What we want to do is practice Wei Wu Wei. And Wei Wu Wei is a state of being where all of our actions are without effort. How do we achieve this state of being? It isn’t as hard as we might make it out to be. It really is the most natural way to be. What is unnatural is trying to fit substance in where there is no space. It really is a lot like being like water, just going with the flow.

And we actually are in this state of being all of the time. We just don’t realize it while we are. I am certain that you can think back on it, after the fact. A time that things just flowed and you lost track of time. You became one with the world and what you did just happened so naturally. You were in the zone. But the moment you actively began to think about being in the zone, when you became aware of that, things started breaking down. Then our minds got into the action and we started exerting effort to maintain this state of being. Nope! That isn’t how it works.

That is why we only seem to be able to reflect back on it, after the fact. While we are in the zone, we aren’t thinking, we aren’t doing, but things are getting done. This is the state of being where all our actions are without effort. So, Wei Wu Wei is something that is beyond the realm of thinking. It is on a whole other level than acting by thinking. I know we have been taught all along to think before we act. But this state of being is a whole other dimension. We don’t think. It isn’t goal-driven. It isn’t something driven by our desires.

We have all experienced those moments. I know we have, because we are human beings not human doings. We have gotten a bit confused on that point; but that truth remains the truth. And obviously, we would like to string more of those moments together. But that would seem impossible. We can’t do it consciously, anyway.

So, that is where Lao Tzu finds it necessary to bring in the Master to show us the way. Teaching without words. Performing without actions. That is the Master’s way. As long as we are trying to make it happen, we are exerting effort. So, that isn’t the way. Effortless really means without effort. So, what can we do? Let the Tao be your guide. Be an observer of nature. Nature isn’t in any hurry. But it does have a pace to it. Pick up on that. Get yourself in tune with the waves of motion in the Universe. It isn’t in any hurry; but all things do get done. Pick up on those natural rhythms, the flow. Everything acts according to its nature. Even you. Just go with that flow. When you are in the zone you won’t even be aware that you are. But what does that matter? Don’t think about it. Just go with it.

It All Started With A Big Bang

The Tao gives birth to One.
One gives birth to Two.
Two gives birth to Three.
Three gives birth to all things.

All things have their backs to the female
and stand facing the male.
When male and female combine,
all things achieve harmony.

Ordinary men hate solitude.
But the Master makes use of it,
embracing his aloneness, realizing
he is one with the whole universe.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 42, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

This mysterious chapter used to catch me by surprise as I journeyed through the Tao Te Ching. My early attempts at trying to demystify it were, to be generous with myself, a little less than adequate. But after several cycles through the Tao Te Ching, and a lot of research, I finally feel like I have a passing understanding of what it is that Lao Tzu is saying. I was determined; and that helped. I consulted multiple translations, including the original. I looked into the writings of the second most familiar early Taoist philosopher, Chuang Tzu. What Lao Tzu said in few words, Chuang Tzu expanded on. But simply getting familiar with the whole of the Tao Te Ching, has helped me the most. Context rules! What was this mysterious One to which the Tao gave birth? What was the Two? And, the Three? Was this some esoteric mystery that only a select few could know? Was it something that his immediate readers would readily understand, but my westernized mind could not? Here are some things that I needed to remind myself of. Lao Tzu isn’t writing to confuse us. He is writing to enlighten us. He wants us to understand the mystery of the Tao, as best we can.

So, let’s look at the context first. This isn’t a few isolated words. We have the whole of his writings before us. When I begin to think of the Tao as the Source, as the great Mother, who gives birth to all things, I have a starting point. Then, I consider what Lao Tzu said about the Tao just a couple chapters ago. All things are born of being. Being is born of non-being. We are talking about giving birth. First the Tao gives birth to One. One gives birth to Two. Two gives birth to Three. And, Three gives birth to all things. And I keep reminding myself that it is the Tao that gives birth to all things. The One, the Two, and the Three must be very much related to the Tao. So far, so good.

Now, let’s look at how Chuang Tzu expands on what Lao Tzu has said. “At the beginning, there is Nothing. No existence. No names. Where One rises up, there is One, but it doesn’t have a form yet.” When I read that, a light bulb went on in my head. That got me thinking about being and non-being as aspects of the Tao. And it especially got me thinking of non-being, that pesky nothingness, that is the key to everything. Non-being is nothing. It has no existence, no name, no form, yet. Non-being is very hard to explain. I think of it as pre-manifestation of the Tao. It isn’t yet manifest. It is the Tao as mystery. Being is so much easier to understand. Being is the Tao manifest. Non-being gives birth to it. Out of nothing comes something!

And interestingly, every Creation myth, I am familiar with, seems to start out with nothing. And, so we get back to today’s chapter where the Tao gives birth to One. Chuang Tzu identifies that One as Nothing. Non-being seems to fit. It seems a rather inauspicious beginning, but the initial action of the Tao is to give birth to nothing, non-being. Other creation myths start out with the nothing and then add light. But Lao Tzu takes us back to the birth of nothing. It would be an even less auspicious start if we didn’t already know that that nothing, non-being, is what gives birth to being. No wonder we had to start with nothing. Nothing but the Tao, that is.

Understanding what the One must be, helps us to understand what the Two is. The One gives birth to Two. Non-being gives birth to being. This has yin and yang written all over it. The One gives birth to Two: non-being and being. That would be Wu and Yu in Chinese philosophy. What we have here is two very distinct aspects of the Tao. The Tao that gives and the Tao that receives. And these aspects of the Tao rise up spontaneously, almost simultaneously. The One rises up first, yes; just like giving precedes receiving. But until what is given has been received nothing has been given. So, almost simultaneously, we have being being birthed by non-being. This is how yin and yang work.

Now that we have the Two, yin and yang, what is the Three that gives birth to all things. I said earlier that we have to remember that it is the Tao that gives birth to all things. When Lao Tzu talks of being and non-being he is talking about the Tao. So, too, when he is talking about the Three. But we need something more than just to say that the Tao gives birth to the Tao over and over again. To understand the mysterious Three I had to delve a little bit deeper into Chinese philosophy. We understand that yin and yang are always in a state of motion. All things are in a constant state of motion. But what is the prime mover? What initiates the motion? Obviously it is the Tao; but we have been describing different aspects of the Tao. First, there is Wu, non-being. Second, there is Yu, being. And third, there is Chi.

Chi could be translated as energy. Or, the life force. I have also seen it described as breath or spirit. All of these are helpful for understanding what Chi is. Chi is what gets the ball rolling, so to speak. It puts everything into motion. The Two, Wu and Yu, being and non-being, combine; and, like the splitting of an atom, they give birth to Chi. Once again, I would say that this is both spontaneous and almost simultaneous. I don’t think it is really helpful to try and think of the passage of time between the Tao giving birth to non-being, non-being giving birth to being, and non-being and being giving birth to Chi. They are all aspects of the Tao. And together they make a big bang.

In all respects, the Tao gives birth to itself. That is the beginning. That is the beginning of all things. It is your beginning. It is my beginning. The Three give birth to all things. And that brings us to the next part of today’s chapter. All things have their backs to the female and stand facing the male. Say what? It helps to remember yin and yang here. Lao Tzu is actually saying what he just said in reverse order. He starts out with all things. Why do they have their backs to the female? Female, we know is yin. But the back is yin, too. I only recently came to understand this. They stand facing the male. We know male is yang. And the front is also yang. Yin facing yin and yang facing yang. That isn’t going to work. Thankfully, Chi, gets things turned around where male and female, yin and yang combine to achieve harmony.

And, we are back to the solitary One. Lao Tzu says, ordinary men hate solitude; but the Master makes use of it. We don’t want to be merely ordinary. We need to embrace our aloneness. We need to realize the power of One. We need to realize that we are one with the whole Universe.

Give Your Doubts A Rest, And Believe

When a superior man hears of the Tao,
he immediately begins to embody it.
When an average man hears of the Tao,
he half believes it, half doubts it.
When a foolish man hears of the Tao,
he laughs out loud.
If he didn’t laugh,
it wouldn’t be the Tao.

Thus it is said:
The path into the light seems dark,
the path forward seems to go back,
the direct path seems long,
true power seems weak,
true purity seems tarnished,
true steadfastness seems changeable,
true clarity seems obscure,
the greatest art seems unsophisticated,
the greatest love seems indifferent,
the greatest wisdom seems childish.

The Tao is nowhere to be found.
Yet it nourishes and completes all things.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 41, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, Lao Tzu told us about both the movement and the way of the Tao. The movement is a reversing. Instead of going forwards, we go backwards. Instead of advancing, we retreat. The Tao is always bringing us back to the Source. The way in which it does this is through yielding, weakness. It doesn’t use force, it doesn’t do anything; it does nothing, yet through it all things are accomplished. Because this is the movement and way of the Tao, we need to submit to the way things are, to its movement, in order to embody the Tao. And submission is not very easy for us. It is our own desires that make it difficult for us. We want to go forward, not back. We want to appear strong, not weak. We want to be in control, not let the current of the Tao direct us. So we resist. Because of our many wants, our desires.

In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu explains just the kind of troubles our desires cause us. And, why it is the Tao evokes such different reactions in people.

What we want is a path that goes into the light; one that goes forward; and one that is clear and direct. But the path before us seems only to get darker; we don’t seem to be advancing, at all; instead, we appear to be losing ground. The path seems long and dreadful. Talk about something that frustrates our desires! But this is our dilemma. It is the way things are versus the way things appear to be. We are frustrated because the way things are, appear to be something very different.

This Tao which is the way of the Universe, seems beyond our reckoning. We can’t perceive it. It conceals itself from us. It is nameless. How can we know it? This path of life that we are on seems like it is going backwards. But we want to go forwards, damn it! This is the tragedy of life. We keep looking forward for happiness. But it always appears still far off, beyond some distant horizon. No matter how far we advance, it never gets any closer. And, the idea that maybe that happiness we seek is but an illusion, that going forward won’t get us any closer to it, that true happiness is being content with who and what and where you are, right now, just seems foolish.

It truly takes a superior person to hear of the Tao and immediately begin to embody it. A round of applause is really due them. Because they got it, right at the start. How I wish that could have been me! I am merely average. I think most of us are. We all wrestle with our doubts. And why wouldn’t we? The kind of power that the Tao wields seems like weakness. Its purity seems tarnished. Its steadfastness seems changeable. Its clarity seems obscure. Of course we have doubts. The way things are is not the way things appear to be.

Lao Tzu keeps on insisting we already have everything we need. And we doubt that. We aren’t content. We desire more. But, the more we get, the less we seem to have. Our cravings are unquenchable. We never learned how to appreciate what we already have. We always want more. When is enough, enough? We tell ourselves that we will be satisfied with just this much more. But even then, we aren’t. The only way to be content is to appreciate that you already have everything. As long as we insist we don’t have enough, we will never have enough.

Our desires create a vicious cycle: The more we desire, the more we seek; the more we seek, the less we appreciate what we have; the less we appreciate what we have, the more we desire; it goes on and on and on. We have it all backwards. Which explains why it is the Tao is always moving to reverse things. And, this is a way of yielding, of weakness: The less we desire, the less we seek, the less we seek, the more we appreciate what we already have, and the more we appreciate what we have, the more content we are. True contentment is freedom from desire. We already have everything we need.

To the fool, the greatest art seems unsophisticated, the greatest love seems indifferent, the greatest wisdom seems childish. That is why the fool laughs out loud. Of course, the fool laughs. They always want and expect there to be something more.

And where is the Tao? Nowhere to be found! The fool dismisses it. The average person half believes it and half doubts it. And right in our midst, the Tao keeps on nourishing and completing all things. Don’t you think it is time to give your doubts a rest and begin to embody the Tao?