Keeping Your Balance Amid Dangers And Phantoms

Success is as dangerous as failure.
Hope is as hollow as fear.

What does it mean that success
is as dangerous as failure?
Whether you go up the ladder or down it,
your position is shaky.
When you stand with your two feet on the ground,
you will always keep your balance.

What does it mean that hope is as hollow as fear?
Hope and fear are both phantoms
that arise from thinking of the self.
When we don’t see the self as self,
what do we have to fear?
See the world as your self.
Have faith in the way things are.
Love the world as your self.
Then you can care for all things.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 13, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Such grand words fill today’s chapter: Success. Failure. Hope, Fear. Faith. Love. Only Lao Tzu could say so much in so few words. And I couldn’t possibly do one of them justice with my little post today…

And yet, here I am. There is something I think we can take away from the chapter today. Or I would just bid you all well, and leave it at that. But here goes…

When Lao Tzu warns us that success and failure are equally dangerous, he does tell us exactly why that is. It is that ladder. We all have spent time going up and down a ladder before. We understand how shaky our position is while going up or going down. The danger of a ladder in today’s chapter is contrasted with the ease with which we can maintain our balance when we stand with both feet on the ground.

What Lao Tzu seems to be telling us is that he wants us to stay grounded in reality, rather than pursuing the illusion that the ladder represents for us. Once I mount that ladder, and with each step I take, either up or down, I have left behind what is real, the ground beneath my feet. And am now seeking an illusion. I hope for success and I fear failure. Every step made on that ladder, I have those twin phantoms dogging me.

That is what he calls both hope and fear, phantoms. They both are hollow. Just wisps. They aren’t grounded in reality. They are nothing more than illusions. Which arise from thinking of the self. When I am merely focused on my self, that is when I entertain both hopes and fears. I want to succeed. I don’t want to fail.

Instead of being dogged on the ladder, Lao Tzu offers us a better way. He tells us that when we don’t see the self as self, we will have nothing to fear. But that sounds like a tall order, indeed. How do I shift my focus from me to the world, like he says?

To see the world as your self requires seeing beyond the illusion to what is real. And that means having faith in the way things are. We get distracted by that ladder. By the hope of success. By the fear of failure. But when we keep both feet firmly on the ground of reality we can see the ladder for what it is. Trust the ground you are standing on. Have faith that the way things are is the way things are.

As you look at the ground on which you are standing your focus has already changed from your self. Then you can look at the world with love and compassion. Because that is what is real. And that is where you are needed. Not that ladder. The illusory success or failure, hope or fear, melts away. It was ephemeral, after all.

The world is now your focus. Now you can care for all things. Grounded in reality. Instead of chasing dreams of what may or may not ever happen. You are living in the present moment. One moment at a time.

There is so much more that could be said. But I have said enough for today. That is the nice thing about taking this one chapter at a time. We will keep returning to these opportunities to explore things further, another day.

Trusting Your Inner Vision

Colors blind the eye.
Sounds deafen the ear.
Flavors numb the taste.
Thoughts weaken the mind.
Desires wither the heart.

The Master observes the world
but trusts his inner vision.
He allows things to come and go.
His heart is open as the sky.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 12, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

We were talking, yesterday, about how being and non-being work together. If you think that what you can observe with your five senses is all there is to reality, you are really missing out. Yes, we work with being. But it is non-being, which is created by being, that we actually use.

I know I keep bringing up reality vs. illusion, the way things are vs. the way things seem to be, but it is important. Our five senses do a fine job of giving us part of the picture. But only part. There is so much more than what meets the eye. So much more than what our ears can hear.

And the illusion that there is nothing more than what we can discover using our own powers of observation is a strangely powerful one. And it isn’t just powerful. It is also deadening.

This is the point of today’s chapter, where Lao Tzu warns us that colors blind the eye, sounds deafen the ear, flavors numb the taste, thoughts weaken the mind, and desires wither the heart.

When we rely too much on our five senses, it weakens our mind’s ability to perceive reality. When desires are inflamed by the dazzling array of colors, sounds, and tastes, our hearts are prone to withering.

Eyes which are blind, ears that cannot hear, a tongue that is numb – these are useless to us. We must be on our guard against relying too much on them.

And Lao Tzu offers us a better way. The Master, he tells us, observes the world, but is not enthralled by it. He trusts his inner vision to show him what is real. Because he is not captivated by all that is going on around him, he can allow things to come and go, without letting it weaken his mind. His heart is open as the sky. The very opposite of a heart withered by desires.

On this path, desires are let go, our inner vision is cleansed, and we are able to trust our inner vision to show us what is, indeed, real.

Don’t Fear The Nothing

We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.

We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.

We work with being,
but non-being is what we use.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 11, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Today, Lao Tzu returns to how being and non-being work together to hold together the fabric of the Universe. It gives us another opportunity to try to wrap our minds around what non-being is. Being and non-being go together. They create each other. They are how the Tao achieves balance in the Universe, like yin and yang.

Lao Tzu uses three ordinary things, things he was familiar with in his time. And things that his readers would immediately recognize in order to illustrate this point. Let’s look at them one at a time.

First, the wagon wheel. He begins by talking about being. We join spokes together in a wheel. Those spokes are what we work with to make the wheel. But it is the center hole that makes the wagon move. Without that center hole, the spokes in the wheel would be of no use. It is that hole that Lao Tzu wants to highlight for us. It is the center hole that we actually use to move the wheel.

Second, Lao Tzu draws our attention to a pot. We work with our hands to shape clay into a pot. But, it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever it is we want to put inside the pot. So once again, Lao Tzu highlights the emptiness inside the pot. That is what we ultimately use.

Third, the house that we build by hammering wood. But it is the inner space in the house that makes it livable. Without that space, it isn’t a house. It is that space inside that we use.

Now, I can already hear you all arguing with me that without those spokes the wheel wouldn’t turn either. Without that clay there wouldn’t be a pot. Without hammering the wood for the house, there wouldn’t be a house. And I don’t think Lao Tzu would argue with you. That isn’t his point.

What he is trying to get us to understand is the relationship between being and non-being. That hole, that emptiness, that inner space may not be all that is important. But they are of vital importance. Just as vital as the being that we work with to create that hole, that emptiness, that inner space.

I don’t intend to read more into the chapter than what he is saying. We work with being. So being is important. That is what we work with. But non-being is equally important. That is what we ultimately will use.

To me, it makes the classic question of whether a glass is half full or half empty, a very silly question, indeed. It doesn’t make you an optimist or a pessimist to choose which one it is. The realist looks at the glass and determines its use. If you are filling it up, it is half full. But if you are emptying it out, it is half empty. Either way, the glass is being used for its purpose. And isn’t that the point?

This Is The Supreme Virtue

Can you coax your mind from its wandering
and keep to the original oneness?
Can you let your body become
supple as a newborn child’s?
Can you cleanse your inner vision
until you nothing but the light?
Can you love people and lead them
without imposing your will?
Can you deal with the most vital matters
by letting events take their course?
Can you step back from you own mind
and thus understand all things?

Giving birth and nourishing,
having without possessing,
acting with no expectations,
leading, and not trying to control:
this is the supreme virtue.

-Lao Tzu-

(Tao Te Ching, chapter ten, translation by Stephen MItchell)

If we want to be in perfect harmony with the way things are, we must learn to be content with the way things are. And that isn’t going to be easy. It isn’t going to be easy, because we are so easily distracted by the illusion, how things seem to be. Reality is hidden from us. What we see all around us, what we hear, everything we can detect with our senses, is a huge distraction from what is real.

When we tune into the news we hear about passenger planes with hundreds of people on board, being shot down out of the sky. What is it that makes humans do such things to their fellow humans? I don’t think I have any answers today. All I have is questions. Why? Why?

Can you coax you mind from its wandering and keep to the original oneness? With so many distractions our minds do tend to wander. But as long as our minds are wandering, they can’t know peace. We must find a way to keep our minds fixed with unity of purpose.

Can you let your body become supple as a newborn child’s? Lao Tzu loves the metaphor of the newborn child. Their bodies so soft and supple. It speaks of fullness of life and vitality.

Can you cleanse your inner vision until you see nothing but the light? Lao Tzu has told us before that the Tao that we are searching for is to be found by looking inside ourselves for it. But over time, our inner vision has become clouded. What can we see when we look inside ourselves? We have heard it said before that the world around us is a reflection of the world in our minds. With all that is going on in the world today, our minds are murky places, indeed.

Can you love people and lead them without imposing your will? The will to power is strong among us. We like the illusion of being in control. When I first got into libertarian thinking, which was back in college, too many years ago, I would come home and have long talks with my dad. He said there was really only one problem with the way I was thinking. And that was that people just couldn’t be trusted to do what is right on their own. They must be controlled. Because they couldn’t be trusted. I asked if he could be trusted. Oh yes, he would do the right thing without needing to be controlled. And there were plenty of other people that could be as well. But not enough. Not enough. And that is still what is holding us back today. Too many people believing too many people can’t be trusted. Oh, but we are supposed to trust those holding onto the illusion of power over others. But those are just the people I don’t trust. The ones with a monopoly on violence.

Can you deal with the most vital matters by letting events take their course? That need to be in control. How can I be expected to just let events take their course? And it is vital matters we are talking about here. How can we not seek to try to control events when we are speaking of the most vital of matters. All I can tell you is that there came a moment in my life, and that moment has repeated itself over and over again since then, when I realized that the most vital matters happen with or without my consent. The sun rises and sets each day, a most vital matter, and I can do nothing about it. If I can’t control that most vital of matters, then maybe, just maybe less vital matters can get along without my intervention as well. Maybe, just maybe it is better, indeed, when I don’t try to interfere. And just let nature take its course.

Can you step back from your own mind and thus understand all things? What it all comes down to is that we have entrenched our own minds so deeply in the illusion that we can be in control, that we can impose our own will, that we don’t understand the reality at all. To understand the way things are and to be content with the way things are, requires that we take a step back from our murky thinking. And no, that isn’t an easy thing to do. For the illusion screams out for attention everywhere we turn.

But it is just because it isn’t easy, in fact, it is the most difficult thing to achieve, that Lao Tzu calls what is required of us the supreme virtue. Giving birth and nourishing. Having without possessing. Acting without expectations. Leading, without needing to, or trying to, control.

The Only Path To Serenity

Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
and you will be their prisoner.

Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.

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

Today might be a good time for me to remind my readers that when Lao Tzu originally wrote the Tao Te Ching, he did not divide it into chapters. He wrote it as one continuous stream. Later, editors came along and divided it into chapters. I like it divided up into chapters because it makes it easier for me to take a chapter every day. But there are times, and today is one of those times, where Lao Tzu started a thought in one part that gets continued after the chapter division. Lao Tzu didn’t intend for this break. And it is important that we keep in mind what he has already said as we continue with each new chapter.

So it was that yesterday, Lao Tzu started talking about the need to be content. And he continues talking about that in today’s chapter. I do recommend that you look back at the previous chapter for context. But just to keep it all within context I want to begin by quoting the last line of yesterday’s chapter.

“When you are content to be simply yourself, and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you.”

Today, Lao Tzu tells us that the only path to serenity is to learn how to be content.

Why do we have such a problem with being content? Maybe one of our bigger problems is that we don’t ever seem to know when enough is enough. We are quite confident that if we ever had enough, then we would be content. But when is enough, enough? Can you truly be content with enough?

We have all filled our bowl to the brim before. And we knew better, even as we did so. But, life has a way of reteaching us lessons that we never really learned before. And so, the bowl spills.

I don’t know whether I am the least bit qualified to talk about how to know when you have sharpened your blade enough. I don’t think there is a sharp blade, anywhere to be found in my house. I am really good at dulling them. And I am generally adept at making do with a dull blade.

But I do know that sharpening a blade requires a certain skill. You need to know when to stop. Just like filling a bowl too full. You can keep sharpening and keep sharpening, and only end up blunting it.

Bottom line, there comes a time when it is time to drink what is in the bowl. If you have filled it to the brim, you haven’t actually prepared it for its purpose. And now some of it is wasted. That blade you have been sharpening, is to be used for some purpose. You have something to cut or to slice. Know when to be content with the blade’s sharpness, and you will find it is perfectly prepared for exactly its purpose.

Chase after money and security and your heart will never unclench. This one right here is a biggie. Here is one most all of us can relate to. A heart that never unclenches. What a price to pay for money and security. Learning how to be content living within our means. Not always needing more, more.

Being content with simply being ourselves, with occupying whatever low place in which we find ourselves, doesn’t mean we will always occupy that low place. The Tao does have a way of lifting up the humble. But that will never happen until we know when enough, is enough.

And I know of no surer way of staying in a rut, than when you care what other people think of you. Needing their approval. We all want other people to like us. We want to be respected. But when is enough, enough? That cage just seems to get smaller and smaller the longer we insist on staying in it.

Lao Tzu is sharing with us the only path to serenity. The willingness to do our work and then step back. We have done all that needed to be done. It has been enough. All that remains is to be content.

When you are content to be simply yourself

The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.

In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don’t try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.

When you are content to be simply yourself,
and don’t compare or compete,
everybody will respect you.

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

Lao Tzu uses a variety of different metaphors to tell us of the Tao. But none, more than water. How is the Tao like water, and what can we learn from water as a metaphor for the Tao?

Without having to try, water nourishes all things. That “not having to try” is significant. It is the practice of non-action, which many sadly interpret as passivity. But Lao Tzu isn’t promoting passivity. Far from passivity, water is just being what it is. It doesn’t have to try. It doesn’t have to do. It just is. Everything about water flows (pun intended) from the essence of its being. And that is certainly a property of the Tao.

And Lao Tzu doesn’t intend for us to content ourselves with just agreeing with this idea. Yes, water and the Tao behave according to their natures. But what is that to me? No, Lao Tzu is wanting us to draw a lesson for how to live our own lives. The art of living is all about all of our actions being effortless. Just like water. Just like the Tao. We will have much more to say about this in the coming days and weeks as we go through the Tao Te Ching a chapter at a time.

Another property of water that makes it like the Tao, is that it is content with the low places that people disdain. This is another property that we will return to again and again. But Lao Tzu is talking about the reality that water is humble. Water is humble? Well, it always seeks out the low places. It is a strange thing indeed to find water running uphill. You know something is amiss when you find that happening.

Whole volumes could be written (and they probably have been) on why people disdain low places. Oh, to be content. Being content with the way things are. Remember, the way things are is likely to be very different from the way things seem to be. I am not talking about being content with the way things seem to be. But knowing the difference between the two, between the truth and the lie, between reality and illusion, between the way things are and the way things only seem to be, that, is liberating. That is something that makes you free to pursue your own happiness to your heart’s content. And being content beats being miserable, any day.

And being content, is what this chapter, and indeed, the whole Tao Te Ching is all about.

So to help us along our journey, and to really give us much more practical advice on how to learn the art of living, or the art of being content, Lao Tzu gives us the rest of the chapter. These one-liners are short and pithy. And they pack a punch.

Are you interested in finding contentment? Or will you disdain what Lao Tzu has to offer?

In dwelling, live close to the ground. I envision a hobbit hole.

In thinking, keep to the simple. Why must we make things so very complicated? It always starts with how we are thinking.

In conflict, be fair and generous. Those are some of the most important words you are ever going to read. If people were fair and generous, there wouldn’t be any conflict.

In governing, don’t try to control. Lao Tzu will have a whole lot to say about the art of governing. But everything he will have to say, he says in a nutshell, right there. Don’t try to control. There. That solved everything.

In work, do what you enjoy. It isn’t like we haven’t heard this in so many words over and over again. If the work that you do is a drudgery for you, you will never be content. You really must make changes. I know how difficult this can be. I spent a good deal of my adult life with my work as drudgery. And that is no way to live.

In family life, be completely present. This isn’t talking about quality time vs. quantity time. Just in case you were thinking that was where he was going. It isn’t about making sure that you spend a little quality time each day with your children, parents. It is about being completely, one hundred percent, present with your family. But it isn’t about time at all. It is about presence. Be completely present.

I think I understand why it is that people disdain the low places. It is because we want respect. We want other people to respect us. We want to respect ourselves. And somehow, we have the mistaken notion that by being content with the low places, we can’t possibly be respected by others, let alone ourselves.

That is what drives us to compare and compete. But Lao Tzu has a very interesting prescription for just what ails us: Learn to be content with simply being yourself.


Why does it seem paradoxical? Reality vs. Illusion

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.

-Lao Tzu-
(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.


As Plain As The Nose On Your Face…

The Tao is called the Great Mother:
Empty yet inexhaustible,
it gives birth to infinite worlds.

It is always present within you.
You can use it any way you want.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter six, translation by Stephen MItchell)

Day Six. Lao Tzu has been pointing us in the direction of the Tao. Showing us how the Tao manifests itself in our Universe. Desires hinder our ability to understand the eternally real. Our senses can’t really experience the Tao. We have eyes to see and ears to hear, but they can’t see and hear it. It is incomprehensible. And some of you, might just be thinking, “Then, why bother?”

And I would answer, “Don’t. Seriously. Don’t bother.”

Bothering isn’t going to help us along our journey. Trying to understand, trying to grasp something that is ungraspable, is foolishness. Instead of trying, instead of doing anything at all, just stop and breathe and relax. And just be. Don’t make this so hard.

At least, that is what I keep telling myself. Because I, too, get frustrated with the pace sometimes. Wouldn’t it be so much nicer if we could just see it with our eyes and hear it with our ears? I don’t know about that. What I do know is that we cannot experience the Tao like that.

But we can experience its manifestations. And we will be able to trace those manifestations, right back to the Source.

So, I am going to follow my own advice and just let Lao Tzu lead the way. What have we learned so far? The Tao is like a well, used but never used up. It is like the eternal void, filled with infinite possibilities. It is like a bellows, empty yet infinitely capable. And today, Lao Tzu builds on all of that.

The Tao is called the Great Mother. Empty (there is that word empty again), yet inexhaustible. That word empty is important. Because of the paradox. When we think of empty, we don’t think of infinitely capable. And we certainly don’t think of inexhaustible. When we think of empty we think this is the end. The well has run dry. It is finished. We are done for. The fat lady has sung. But the fat lady needs to be escorted from the stage, because her presence on the stage was a bit premature. For the Tao’s emptiness is not like any emptiness we have ever experienced before.

Calling the Tao the Great Mother is just another metaphor. We just keep pointing a finger at the moon. Do you see it? Do you see it? No, not with your eyes looking outwardly. That isn’t where we will find the Tao.

But the Tao is called the Great Mother for a very good reason. It truly is inexhaustible; and, it gives birth to infinite worlds.

Oh, but why does it have to be hidden from us? Why can’t it be as plain as the nose on my face? Well….

It is. I know it doesn’t seem that way, at all. Appearances can be deceiving. This shroud of mystery surrounding the Tao. Darkness within darkness. This gateway to all understanding. But reality is so much better than our clouded perceptions. It really is as plain as the nose on your face.

The Tao isn’t off in some far flung corner of the Universe giving birth to infinite worlds, inaccessible to us mere mortals. The Tao may be hidden to your senses, but it is always present within you. And once you have discovered it there, you can use it any way you want.

What is beyond good and evil?

The Tao doesn’t take sides;
it gives birth to both good and evil.
The Master doesn’t take sides;
she welcomes both saints and sinners.

The Tao is like a bellows:
It is empty yet infinitely capable.
The more you use it, the more it produces;
the more you talk of it, the less you understand.

Hold on to the center.

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

One of the things that I really admire about Lao Tzu is that he isn’t afraid to tackle the big questions. Yesterday, we talked about origins. And where does God fit in the big picture. Today, Lao Tzu tackles the question of good and evil.

Yesterday, Lao Tzu likened the Tao to a well and the eternal void. Today he incorporates those two ideas into one image. That of a bellows.

Like a lot of the chapters of the Tao Te Ching, this chapter can easily be divided into two parts So I want to take these two parts, one at a time.

Being as Lao Tzu begins with the concept of good and evil, it seems like the best place for us to start.

Back in chapter two, Lao Tzu taught us that when people see some things as good, other things become bad. Lao Tzu was introducing us to the idea of good and evil right there. And warning us against choosing sides. Be careful about seeing some things as good. And, I am going to cheat a little bit right here, I am going to go ahead and tell you that Lao Tzu will be returning to the concept of good and bad (evil) over and over again throughout the Tao Te Ching. He has plenty to say about the subject, but he only gives it to us in bite size amounts, giving us a little something to chew on, a bit at a time. The temptation is great for me to expand further than what he has said so far. But I think we would be better served by letting Lao Tzu set the pace for the discussion.

I do think that Lao Tzu feels compelled to discuss the concept of good and evil. After all, we humans, have been troubling ourselves over this for millennia. It seems so very important to us. Interestingly enough, I can’t imagine other beings in our world, troubling themselves with it. But that is neither here, nor there. And it doesn’t necessarily help us to move forward on our journey. For today, I want to limit myself to understanding that the Tao is beyond good and evil. The Tao is simply the way things are. If we can find our way to understanding that, we have come a long way indeed. The more clearly we can see what is beyond good and evil, the more we can embody the good.

The Tao doesn’t take sides. It gives birth to them both. This needs fleshing out; so, thankfully, Lao Tzu brings in the Master as one who is in perfect harmony with the way things are. The Master doesn’t take sides either, she welcomes both saints and sinners.

And isn’t that what it always comes down to when we are asked to choose sides? It isn’t really about whether we are going to stand on the side of good or the side of evil. Ultimately, the art of living concerns itself with something a lot more real. It isn’t concerned with the abstract. What it is concerned with, is flesh and blood. What are you going to do with those saints and sinners? You know, your fellow human beings on this planet.

The Tao doesn’t take sides. And neither should we. We need to hold on to the center. That is where the Master dwells. When we hold on to the center, we won’t be thinking of our fellow human beings as enemies. We will see them as brothers and sisters, just as in need of love and compassion as ourselves. Welcome saints and sinners as you would have them welcome you.

There is, of course, so much more that needs to be said, but I have to keep reminding myself, bite-sized morsels, Chuck, bite-sized morsels. Just give them something to chew on, we will get more as we go further in the journey.

Meanwhile, there was something about a bellows in today’s chapter. Ah, yes, the Tao is like a bellows. It is empty, but it is infinitely capable. The more you use it, the more it will produce. This is really what Lao Tzu wants us to understand. That emptiness, that nothing, is everything. We want to chase after things, Lao Tzu wants to direct our gaze on nothing.

But the more I talk of it, the less I understand. So this would be a very good time for me to stop talking.

But What About God? A Question Of Origins.

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.

-Lao Tzu-
(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.