The greatest perfection seems imperfect, and yet its use is inexhaustible.
The greatest fullness seems empty, and yet its use is endless.
The great straightness looks like crookedness.
The greatest skill appears clumsy.
The greatest eloquence sounds like stammering.
Restlessness overcomes cold, but calm overcomes heat.
The peaceful and serene is the norm of the world.
(Tao Teh King 45–Wu translation)
What we are given here, and which has confused and stymied many translators, is a diagnosis of the way the world of human experience looks to those immersed in delusion and confusion. Being truly negative and therefore seeing everything opposite to the way they really are, ordinary people will naturally go toward the false and the harmful and suffer as a consequence. The more intense their search for these things, the greater their misery, so much so that many of them crown their self-destruction with the ultimate folly of suicide. Frantically seeking peace and happiness, they run from the very things that will give them what they seek. Regarding enemies as friends and friends as enemies, what can result but what the Bhagavad Gita calls Mahato Bhayat, the Great Terror or Great Fear? Abhorring the great joy and peace that is the Tao, what hope is there? Lao Tzu is trying to shake us awake.
The greatest perfection seems imperfect, and yet its use is inexhaustible. Blackney: “Most perfect, yet it seems imperfect, incomplete: Its use is not impaired.” First of all, the entire universe being a manifestation of the Tao, it is perfect. The imperfection we see is due to both ignorance and limitation of experience, potential and actual. Since the universe is a mixture of black and white as shown in the yin-yang symbol, which includes karmic forces positive and negative, naturally we see conflict and confusion in the universe. And it is there, only it is not a flaw but a working out of the potential perfection of creation which is moving toward the inevitable manifestation of that perfection. When that happens, the universe dissolves (in a precise manner) and remains unmanifest for as long as it was manifest; then it returns to manifestation.
Creation is inexhaustible, occurring again and again eternally. It had no beginning and it will have no end because it is a manifestation of the beginningless and endless God. The Bhagavad Gita describes it this way: “The worlds up to Brahma’s realm are subject to rebirth’s return,…. They know the true day and night who know Brahma’s Day a thousand yugas long and Brahma’s Night a thousand yugas long. At the approach of Brahma’s Day, all manifested things come forth from the unmanifest, and then return to that at Brahma’s Night. Helpless, the same host of beings being born again and again merge at the approach of the Night and emerge at the dawn of Day. But there exists, higher than the unmanifested, another unmanifested Eternal which does not perish when all beings perish. This unmanifest is declared to be the imperishable, which is called the Supreme Goal, attaining which they return not. This is my supreme abode” (Bhagavad Gita 8:16-21). It is the Tao.
The greatest fullness seems empty, and yet its use is endless. Blackney: “Filled, and yet it seems an empty void: it never will run dry.” “Where is this God of yours? Where is he to be found, to be seen?….” So runs the old objection. In India they say that if fish were told about water they would make the same objection: Where is it and how can you see it? Kabir wrote about such unphilosophers: “Verily it makes me smile to hear of a fish in water athirst!”
Thomas Hardy wrote the following poem, “New Year’s Eve,” satirizing the “rational” and “scientific” that miss the point.
“I have finished another year,” said God,
“In grey, green, white, and brown;
I have strewn the leaf upon the sod,
Sealed up the worm within the clod,
And let the last sun down.”
“And what’s the good of it?” I said.
“What reasons made you call
From formless void this earth we tread,
When nine-and-ninety can be read
Why nought should be at all?
“Yea, Sire; why shaped you us, ‘who in
This tabernacle groan’–
If ever a joy be found herein,
Such joy no man had wished to win
If he had never known!”
Then he: “My labours–logicless–
You may explain; not I:
Sense-sealed I have wrought, without a guess
That I evolved a Consciousness
To ask for reasons why.
“Strange that ephemeral creatures who
By my own ordering are,
Should see the shortness of my view,
Use ethic tests I never knew,
Or made provision for!”
He sank to raptness as of yore,
And opening New Year’s Day
Wove it by rote as theretofore,
And went on working evermore
In his unweeting way.
The great straightness looks like crookedness. Blackney: “The straightest, yet it seems to deviate, to bend.” I well remember the time I played a recording of some exquisite singing by a group of people with no musical training for my great uncle Riley Maxey. At the end both my grandmother (his sister) and I expressed our amazement. But Uncle Riley pulled a sour face, looked at us and pronounced: “There’s something fishy about that!” My grandmother looked at me, smiled and shook her head. Nothing more was, or could be, said. A bent mirror gives a distorted image and so does a bent mind. As a result, personal experience often counts for very little and we must realize that someone’s sincere assertion about something may have little value as well, and that includes our own opinion. Caution is always wisdom.
For some people clarity is confusion and truth sounds like lies. Conversely, for them confusion is clarity and lies are truth. This is a state of thorough negativity. Here, too, the supposed rationalists and scientists (including the Amazing Randy who is amazingly unamazing) have their input–often unasked and certainly without real relevance or factual reality.
It is essential that we both think and live in a straight line; but we can be assured that many people will see us as bent and deviating from reason and reality. I have known parents who had no objection to their children engaging in heavy drug use and immorality, but truly did go ballistic when their children turned around, cleaned up their lives and took up yoga meditation. People commonly think that morality is not only harmful but mental illness, that freedom is slavery and the quest for a higher life and consciousness is purposeless and a dead end. Once we step out of that crowd we can be assured of their opposition and censure. We must be prepared for that and learn to calmly hold to our principles and convictions despite protestations, threats and even active persecution.
The greatest skill appears clumsy. Many great geniuses have been considered fools and incompetent and their work garbage. This is true in every field including science that is often a haven of bigotry and resistance to progress. The wise appear fools and the fools appear wise. That is the world in which we live.
The greatest eloquence sounds like stammering. “What you say is nonsense,” “You make no sense,” “Your ideas are contrary to all reason,” and so on and on and on. Many times I have seen people who were awakened and helped by spiritual books give away copies to their friends only to have those friends viciously denounce and mock them in return. I cannot count the number of people who have told me as they mailed a book or letter to a good (or best) friend: “He/She was always more interested in these kind of things than I was.… We used to talk for hours about spiritual subjects.” Then BANG came the response in the form of a phone call or letter filled with contempt and hostility. My friends would be completely shocked and bewildered. They did not realize that those who love to talk and theorize about something almost always hate encountering it as a reality. ”Oh, how I wish…,” they lament, only to explode when the possibility of their wish being fulfilled confronts them. I knew a woman who lamented the lack of a certain kind of spiritual group in her town. When such a group was formed she attended once and in two or three weeks moved to a distant state to get away from having to be a part of it. Another acquaintance of mine began making plans to move out of the country (!) when what she claimed to always have wanted spiritually suddenly was made available.
Restlessness overcomes cold, but calm overcomes heat. Blackney: “Movement overcomes the cold, and stillness, heat.” The molecules of cold objects move slowly, but those of warm or hot objects move quickly. Molasses and wax are often cited as proof of this. Getting busy and engaging in meditation and spiritual disciplines and practices is the way to overcome the inertia and resistance often encountered when we try to lead a spiritual life. Cutting back or slacking off is disastrous. In Sanskrit spiritual practices are called tapasya, the generating of heat. On the other hand, when mental fever and passions erupt, being calm and relaxed is the remedy. In acupuncture some points are increased in energy levels and others are decreased. In the same way judicious action and judicious inaction can ensure spiritual health.
The peaceful and serene is the norm of the world. Blackney: “The wise man, pure and still, will rectify the world.” The ideal world is peaceful and serene, in fact that is its real nature though outer and internal disorder makes it seem just the opposite. Blackney’s translation is very meaningful for us. Being pure and still is the way of setting things right. Not only will it help us, it will help the world, for after all we are a part of this world. Everyone believes that the world affects them, but overlook the fact that they affect the world. For example, terrible and destructive upheavals in nature are the result of the thought and deeds of the people in those areas. The world is a mirror that reflects the group karma of humanity.
Let there be peace on earth
And let it begin with me.
Next in the Tao Teh King for Awakening: Racing Horses