The Tao is like a well:
Used but never used up.
It is like the eternal void:
Filled with infinite possibilities.
It is hidden, but always present.
I don’t know who gave birth to it.
It is older than God.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 4, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
As anyone who has been following my little blog for long can tell you, I like to spend a great deal of time outside in my backyard; perhaps, in an attempt to connect with nature. During the day time I enjoy sitting out in the sunshine (though I have been known to spend time in the rain, as well). I like looking at the trees and the plants (especially in my garden) and watching the birds and the squirrels and the myriad insects just doing their thing, largely oblivious of my presence in their moment. And during the night time I like to go sit outside while smoking my pipe and gaze up at the great expanse of night sky. If you were to call me something of an amateur astronomer, I would probably laugh and say, let’s just call me an amateur and leave it at that.
But, of course, I couldn’t resist sitting outside this past Friday night and gazing up at what NASA refers to as a super moon. I can only imagine they delved deep into their great scientific vocabulary to come up with that name. Supposedly, our moon was at its closest to the Earth while being full, and I have to admit, I was expecting something a little more spectacular. After all, it was supposed to be super. And I couldn’t help but go, “Meh.”
I guess you could also call me an amateur critic. But I said all of that as an introduction to this chapter, which you would think would have very little to do with the moon after reading it. But, I had been thinking back on Stephen Mitchell’s introduction to the Tao Te Ching which I have relistened to recently. In the first chapter of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu told us that the Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. And so, Stephen Mitchell explains, all Lao Tzu can really do is point at it and tell us what it is like. It is sort of like pointing a finger at the moon. If you look at the finger, you won’t see the moon
So you see, there really is a method to my madness. I wanted to talk about pointing my finger at the moon. Which, by the way, I did on Friday night. And lo and behold, I completely blocked the moon with the tip of my finger. All I could see was my finger. I didn’t see the moon at all. Which is probably the best explanation for my “Meh” moment Friday night.
But that is just my long-winded way of saying that Lao Tzu is showing us what the Tao is like. Don’t get distracted by his finger.
He tells us that the Tao is like a well. Which means, it is to be used. But unlike an ordinary well. It isn’t finite. It can‘t be used up.
He also tells us that the Tao is like the eternal void. Now, when I think of a void, I think of a vast emptiness. But Lao Tzu promises us that this eternal void is filled, not with emptiness, but with infinite possibilities.
So, like a well, we should plan to go to it, over and over again. Using it. Daring to try to exhaust its supply. And when we peer down into the darkness, into that vast nothingness, we will find infinite possibilities await us. If only we will dare to accept the challenges of plumbing its depths.
Our journey will be a rewarding one. Just like drawing water from a well. But realizing the eternal reality, which is the Tao, isn’t going to be some easy task. While the Tao is always present; it is also hidden from us. Lao Tzu has warned us from the beginning that our desires hinder our ability to see what is plainly before us.
But, most of us are looking for meaning in our lives. Where did I come from? Where am I going? What exactly am I doing on Earth? We wonder about the origins of things. Like the Universe. And what about God? And what exactly is the relationship between the Tao and God? Science tries to answer some of these questions. Religion has its own take on these things. I find it, oh so, interesting, that Lao Tzu seems content with leaving a lot of it to mystery.
Still, in what I believe is the only reference to God in the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu does take a rather playful look at the question of origins. “I don’t know who gave birth to the Tao. It is older than God.”
Older than God. Sounds like a joke to me. Lao Tzu simply gives God a passing mention and then moves on to what he really wants to talk about, the Tao.
Lao Tzu envisions a Universe that is governed by Natural Law. That Natural Law is the Tao. It isn’t that I think Lao Tzu means to be antagonistic toward religion. I just think he believes that any belief in God is of secondary importance; because he believes that any God that could exist, would have to obey the natural laws that govern the Universe. This God, after all, comes after the Tao.
Now, a natural law does not exist by itself; but through nature, where it manifests itself. Therefore, it has no birth date. It just always has been. Though we might only be able to trace back its origins as far back as its first manifestations. But then again, as long as desires are hindering us, we are only going to see the manifestations, anyway.
There may be a starting point for its manifestations. But the Tao is timeless; eternal, and ever present. People have long associated this kind of description to a God or gods. And some have likened the Tao, itself, to God. But Lao Tzu is pretty clear that the Tao existed first. It was present before anything else ever existed.
Clearly, in Lao Tzu’s mind, there can be a Universe without any gods to rule it. But there can’t be a Universe without natural laws, which even the gods must obey.