The Tao is (like) the emptiness of a vessel; and in our employment of it we must be on our guard against all fulness. How deep and unfathomable it is, as if it were the Honoured Ancestor of all things!
We should blunt our sharp points, and unravel the complications of things; we should attemper our brightness, and bring ourselves into agreement with the obscurity of others. How pure and still the Tao is, as if it would ever so continue!
I do not know whose son it is. It might appear to have been before God.
(Tao Teh King 4:1)
There is something inexpressibly thrilling about the Eastern expositions of the Absolute Reality. How far these words are from the Western fawning and flattering matter-and-power-oriented effusions of those who seek to placate a testy and haywire deity made in the image of their own flawed egos. Even though no words can really approach the Tao’s essence, yet Its glory flows in superabundance into and throughout the worlds of relative existence. Actually those worlds are Its superabundance. And when the sages who are united with It speak of Its wonder, those who have evolved to the point of conscious seeking respond with joy and acclamation.
The Tao is (like) the emptiness of a vessel. It is not easy for Western students to understand what is meant in Taoist and Buddhist philosophy by “emptiness.” (Especially if they are used to Indian philosophy which refers to the same thing as “fullness.”) Just as the No Thing of both Western and Eastern philosophers is in no way “nothing,” so also Emptiness does not mean nothingness. It is not a lack of something, but rather The Thing Itself devoid of relative labels.
The little bit we know about the nature of matter can help us comprehend this. “Things” are made of identical components: protons, electrons, and neutrons. Only when these components are set in specific patterns or quantities do they form the elements and their countless combinations. So the Power fundamental to all things is Itself free from “thingness.” It is devoid (“empty”) of all form or attribute. It is the Primal Being without which none of the superimpositions we experience as objects or qualities could exist (or appear to exist). Unconditioned and Empty are the same thing. The Tao is Unconditioned, Qualitiless and Transcendent. The moment there is even the shadow of the shadow of a quality or relativity we are no longer in touch with (or in) the Tao.
Yet we (and somehow the Tao) have a capacity for conditioning, for quality and thingness. And that capacity is the vessel, the “shell” that can either be empty or with some degree of contents. The Tao embraces this shell, and the shell contains the Tao, but does not confine It. It may be “empty space,” but It is conscious space (chidakasha).
And in our employment of it we must be on our guard against all fulness. There is nothing but the Tao; therefore to “live” and evolve we have to “employ” the Tao in Its conditioned and relative mode. But if the Tao is to free rather than bind us through our “using” of It, we must be on guard against allowing any kind of Its “contents” to touch our inner being. We must preserve our consciousness free from conditioning or “containingness” to any degree. Certainly our body, feelings, senses, intellect, will, and so forth will indeed be “full” and conditioned, composed of myriads of “things.” But if we will keep (know) them separate from our true self we will ourselves be within the Tao and be the Tao.
How to keep the heart from being defiled by “fulness” is no simple thing. But why should it be, when Infinity is our ultimate goal? The fact that it is realizable should be enough for us and make us ready to tread the path that the Katha Upanishad says is “sharp as the edge of a razor and hard to cross, difficult to tread is that path [so] sages declare” (Katha Upanishad 1.3.14). But again, so what? Is it easy to fly high into the sky? But what else will eagles do?
Lao Tzu is assuring us in these words that we need not fall into the mistaken idea that the only way to manage spiritually is to withdraw from all things and shun all contact with material things, to bury ourselves in inactivity, denying all existence as much as possible. No; rather we should be using our body, mind, intellect, and our life in this world to transcend them. On the battlefield of Kurukshetra, when Arjuna quailed at the sight of the prospective carnage, Krishna told him: “Perform your duty, for action is far better than non-action. Even maintaining your body cannot be done without action” (Bhagavad Gita 3:8). The wise, whether Lao Tzu, Jesus, or Krishna, give us the same message. The rest is up to us.
Meditation is the key here, just as it is in all things pertinent to the spirit and its liberation.
How deep and unfathomable it is, as if it were the Honored Ancestor of all things! The Tao is beyond measure–Its height, Its depth, and Its breadth are impossible to define. It is so far beyond all we know as “existence” that It really does not “exist” in our limited and illusory experience. It is the Source (“Honored Ancestor”) and yet It is not. Here again Krishna gives us a hint when he says of the Gunas, the modes of material existence: “Know that sattwic, rajasic and tamasic states of being proceed from me. But I am not in them–they are in me” (Bhagavad Gita 7:12). And regarding the cosmos: “All this world is pervaded by me in my unmanifest aspect. All beings dwell within me, but I do not dwell within them. And yet beings do not dwell within me: behold my Divine Yoga. Sustaining beings and yet not dwelling in them, I myself cause all beings to come into manifestation. As mighty winds move everywhere, yet always dwell in the ether, know that even so do all beings dwell within me” (Bhagavad Gita 9:4-6).
The Tao has “given birth” to all things, yet at no time do those things “touch” the Tao. For “the Tao is like the emptiness of a vessel.” We must bear in mind the relation of the Tao to us, even though we cannot “relate” to the Tao in our present status. As long as we are in the Here we cannot have anything to do with the There. This is confusing, so what shall we do? Lao Tzu continues:
We should blunt our sharp points, and unravel the complications of things; we should attemper our brightness, and bring ourselves into agreement with the obscurity of others. How pure and still the Tao is, as if it would ever so continue! This is not easy to comment on, not because it is hard to understand but because it is most difficult to apply correctly. All we need do is look at the mess and tangle in the thinking and society of the East to see the truth of this. What we see is wisdom gone awry in misapplication. As Vivekananda said, the problem is not the religion but the fact that it has not really (correctly) been practiced. Frankly, not just the East but a great deal of the world is content to passively sit in the dirt and do nothing, avoiding all conflict or ambition that might result in discontent. (Though they have no objection to being virulently jealous of those who get out of the dirt and succeed in material life.) This is a serious charge, but it is a much more serious fact. Vast numbers of people do prefer accepted misery to discontent arising from a determination to better things. As you read what follows, please do not think I am advocating the Oriental distortion of Lao Tzu’s principles.
We should blunt our sharp points. By “sharp points” the sage means our simplistic thinking which entails intense either/or insistence and demand. Extreme black/white attitudes are very much sharp points on which we impale others and eventually ourselves. Children are very prone to this; that is why every time their wishes are thwarted, even if only verbally, they cry and go into a kind of emotional fit or seizure. Later they may learn to control the fits and the tears, but the mentality persists. Throughout history, whatever the culture, “youths” have been extraordinarily troublesome to family and society because of their insistence on “truth” and “right.”
Since the advent of systematic education in the West, students (usually of university age) have been at the forefront, if not the fomenters, of riots and revolution. That is because they still think in the simplistic manner of the nursery. If anyone expresses an ideal and then fails to embody it perfectly, they begin to scream about deception and hypocrisy. Even though a government may be extremely benevolent and provide much benefit to the citizens, if these young people learn of a single breach or inconsistency in policy by even a single governmental official or agency, then it is time to demonstrate and riot.
As children they could not comprehend the difference between a mistaken statement and a lie, and they still cannot. They would not think of discarding a machine simply because it had a defective part, but they insist that a religion or political policy be totally scrapped if any inconsistency, error or defect be discovered in it. No matter how much their parents have sacrificed and put up with during their upbringing, all it takes is a single denial or demand to make them denounce their parents as “not really caring at all.” (Though they will usually be there to collect the next dole from them.)
Most people grow out of this simplistic way of thinking and acting, but many do not. We have all known these types and heard from them about how they “have principles” and “hate hypocrisy” and “mean what they say” and do not “believe in not telling the truth just because of what people will think.” They pride themselves on their “honesty” and “truthfulness” and lack of hypocrisy. “People know where I stand,” they announce (unnecessarily!), and: “You know me; I believe in speaking my mind.” Yes, we all know such people, but none of us knows a single person who likes them for it. “I know people think I talk too much,” they growl as they stomp along through life.
Sri Ramakrishna put it in a very homely manner: people with “crazes” do not succeed in spiritual life. There is nothing wrong with having principles, but those who beat the drum and bully others under the guise of having “strong convictions” have much more ego than ideals. We should be firm in our principles, but not be stabbing others with them. There is a difference between expressing ideals and bludgeoning others with them.
Buddha said that “views” can be a terrible defect in a seeker for enlightenment. He did not mean that we should have no opinions, but that we must not bully others with them–nor ourselves, either. We should understand the limitations of our intellect and always be ready to reconsider and even alter our ideas if we find them mistaken or wanting in any way. We should be neither rigidly dogmatic nor wishy-washy. Much of the problem is not in the idea, but in the way we express or try to impose it. Attitude is the problem here, along with egoic attachment to “my convictions.” Closed-mindedness is not really firmness in principles any more than vagueness, flabby-mindedness, and lack of principle is open-mindedness. Really, it is our egos that need the blunting.
And unravel the complications of things. Human beings have a natural pendulum action in just about everything. So when we guard against something we have to consider whether we are indulging in its opposite. Simplistic thinking is at one end of the pendulum swing and over-complex thinking is at the other. Many people tangle up their mental feet the moment they look at something. Just as simplistic-minded people blunder on heedless of the consequences, the over-complex dodge and feint and end up in a heap or paralyzed into inaction, overwhelmed by what they think is the complexity of the situation or problem. Of course a lot of people try to avoid responsibility by claiming the situation is too complex. Russians especially like to say: “It is so complicated” when what they mean is: “I don’t want to bother,” or “I don’t want to take responsibility.” (They also call someone “a complex personality” when they mean they are nuts or a pain in the neck.) Italians on the other hand like to say: “Ma, se difficile,” “But it is difficult.” Sometimes it is our laziness and sometimes it is our thinking that is at fault. And sometimes things really are complicated or difficult, but we need to put forth our intelligence and initiative and figure (and work) them out. To a great extent Lao Tzu also means that we need to see through complexities to the simple principles beneath their outward appearance and then act.
Putting the two imperatives together we understand that Lao Tzu is warning us against looking at things either simplistically or in a complicated or complicating manner. Intelligence and insight are the needful.
We should attemper our brightness. Again moderation and circumspection in thought and outlook are being urged upon us by the sage, especially in relation to others. How easy it is for childish people to burst upon the world as “the wise” with “a message for all.” There is an old joke about the farmer who claimed he looked up in the sky and saw the gigantic gold letters GPC. Interpreting this as “Go Preach Christ,” he became a traveling evangelist. But those who heard him tell of this experience and heard him preach expressed the opinion that the letters really meant “Go Plow Corn.” I have met a lot of “New Age Messengers” operating on a similar flimsy basis.
What Lao Tzu is pointing out is our valuation and attitude toward our own understanding of things. Ego often makes us over-value our ideas. And here, too, we can become a nuisance to others when we want to “share the light” that is really no more than our idea about things. Also, I have seen that the truly wise never push their understanding forward and even on occasion silently let ignorance be expressed if they have not been specifically asked about their opinion. “Ephraim is joined to idols, let him alone,” (Hosea 4:17) is good advice when dealing with ignoramuses who idolize their own “wisdom.”
And bring ourselves into agreement with the obscurity of others. This does not mean that we should adopt a “dull like you” policy in order to get along with people, nor is it a plea for the dumbing down of ourselves and others (this is currently very popular). It means that we must strive to comprehend the view of those we may think have a lesser understanding than ourselves, for we may be the uncomprehending ones and need to learn from them. Again, children are particularly prone to label something or someone not in alignment with their ways as “dumb.” We must avoid this. Often we think that those who do not see things our way are not seeing at all. And we are usually wrong. Also it means that we must establish communication with those who do not see as clearly as we do and make our view comprehensible to them. Yes, we may persuade, but should never coerce.
The idea is that we should learn to see with others’ eyes and share our vision with them in a unity of spirit that is all too rare in this world. It also means that we should give people the freedom to be “wrong” since we may be the ones that are wrong, and even if we are not, others need to discover the truth for themselves in many instances. The tolerance of the East for divergent opinion is a good example for us as long as it is not a cover for lack of principle or mental vigor. A lot of people say “be tolerant” when they really mean: “Don’t have any principles or express them.” And as already pointed out, we need to realize that our ideas may not be as “bright” as we think, and those of others may not be as “dull.”
How pure and still the Tao is, as if it would ever so continue! This final part of the second section of the fourth chapter of the Tao Teh King is both interesting and at first puzzling because it seems a non sequitur. Why does Lao Tzu speak of the purity and stillness of the Tao at this point? Because those who follow the preceding advice will experience these aspects of the Tao.
The Tao is unchanging, so why does the sage then say: “…as if it would ever so continue”? Because the aspirant will certainly enter into a state of mind approximating the purity and stillness of the Tao, but since it is a state of mind, and the mind is ever changing, the experience will not last forever, however much it may seem it will.
One of the most frustrating illusions of the mind is its false assurance to us that at last we are “home free” and there will be no more wandering or change. But there will be. That is the law of relative existence. Only when we step out of the world of body and mind and into the realm of the spirit is there a chance of everlasting peace, and not even then until we are permanently established in spirit consciousness. Until then there is a movement back and forth from silence to the hubbub of conditioned life. Yet for that time Lao Tzu is speaking of we are experiencing just a touch of the Tao. It is real, but not permanent. So he lauds our attainment but cautions us against mistaking its real nature: only a reflection of the Tao proceeding from our nearness and affinity to It. We must strive, then, to enter the Tao and leave all else behind.
Finally, we are told a basic truth that only seems vague:
I do not know whose son it is. It might appear to have been before God. Here we find the concept of the Son of God over five centuries before Jesus was born. For Lao Tzu is certainly saying that the Tao is a Son. We have covered the subject of the Trinity so often in my commentaries that it will be a relief to skip it in this place. Let it suffice to say that the “Son of God” is God (Tao) in His immanent, personal aspect, the Way (Tao) to the Transcendent Reality.
Lest we make the mistake of Arius (and others) and think that the Son of God is a being other than God, lesser and only existing in the relative realm of time, the text says: “It might appear to have been before God,” before the emanation-manifestation of the Mahat Tattwa or immanent extension of God into creation. And indeed It was before such an extension occurred. For: “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1) That is, when a “beginning” began, the Word already was: It is eternal. “And the Word was with God” in a seemingly separate existence, but “the Word was God.” There was only the One.
How, can the Son of God be before God? In the sense that That which we think of as God in the relative communicative sense was preceded by Its own self in Its transcendent reality. Before there was anyone to say “Tao” the Tao already was.
If we follow the counsels of Lao Tzu we shall become like–and then become–the Tao.
Next in the Tao Teh King for Awakening: Nature