The Great Tao flows everywhere, (like a flood) It may go left or right.
The myriad things derive their life from It, and It does not deny them.
When Its work is accomplished, It does not take possession.
It clothes and feeds the myriad things, yet does not claim them as Its own.
Often (regarded) without mind or passion, It may be considered small.
Being the home of all things, yet claiming not, It may be considered great.
Because to the end It does not claim greatness, Its greatness is achieved.
(Tao Teh King 34).
Here is the translation of Wu:
“The Great Tao is universal like a flood. How can It be turned to the right or to the left?
“All creatures depend on It, and It denies nothing to anyone. It does Its work, but makes no claims for Itself. It clothes and feeds all, but It does not lord it over them:
“Thus, It may be called ‘the Little.’
“All things return to It as to their home, but It does not lord it over them:
“Thus, It may be called ‘the Great.’
“It is just because It does not wish to be great that Its greatness is fully realized.”
You can see how different these are, often opposite to one another as the first verse of each translation shows. This is the problem with translating esoteric texts, especially those that are very ancient. This is why we must always base our spiritual life on our spiritual practice, our yoga, because that will never go wrong, whereas a text or translator may be completely erroneous. Therefore in all of these commentaries of mine I hope you are keeping it in mind that not only can the truth not be perfectly expressed in words, so also the approximate truth of scriptures may be completely missed or even suppressed or falsified by translators. That is why I am using eight translations as the basis for this commentary.
Ultimately it is up to the aspirant to decide what is true or false, valuable or worthless, in any spiritual text. That, again, is why it is so crucial that he develop his spiritual intuition through yoga meditation.
I am going to be commenting on Wu’s translation because I believe it is closer to Lao Tzu’s preceding teaching, and it is certainly in total harmony with the yogic understanding.
The Great Tao is universal like a flood. How can It be turned to the right or to the left?
The Tao–Parabrahman, Dharmakaya, or Supreme Spirit (God)–is infinite, and therefore can neither be conditioned, influenced or directed in any manner, because that is contrary to Its nature. Just as we cannot dry water or color the sky, we can in no way control or direct the absolute Reality (and very little of relative existence, either). Therefore the wise person seeks to know the Tao as much as It can be known so he can conform himself to It. For it is when we go contrary to the Tao that we suffer and fall into confusion. Obviously the “knowing” I am speaking of is a direct, experiential matter and has nothing to do with the intellect, though afterwards the intellect can legitimately attempt to make some sense of it and apply it in a practical manner.
It is yoga we need for this, and any religion that is not essentially a yoga, but only a system of belief and conduct, is worthless. It is not true that yoga is not a religion–quite the opposite. Yoga is the only true religion there is. Originally every true religion was a system of how to know and ascend to infinite Reality. If we can find the yoga aspect of a religion then we have found the true form of that religion. If there is no yogic aspect, then the whole thing is false and we should have the wisdom to look elsewhere for truth.
All creatures depend on It, and It denies nothing to anyone. It does Its work, but makes no claims for Itself. It clothes and feeds all, but It does not lord it over them.
The Tao is the Ground of Being. We exist because It exists. Everything to do with us, including our many births and deaths and their resulting effects on us, arises from the Tao. It responds to our will and action, denying us nothing.
Therefore our past, present and future conditions may arise from the Tao but they are utterly our “creation.”
The Tao never interferes or refuses. For that reason there are few more inappropriate questions than “Why does God…?” This is because God, the Tao, does nothing, but allows all things. All action is solely our doing. We are the sole creators and shapers of our destiny. All that we do is really a kind of echo: we send out the message and the Tao sends back exactly what we sent. The Tao does nothing, but It does respond. Yet the response in no way affects the Tao, so we can say that it does nothing since the reaction is a continuation of the acting. We act upon the Tao, but the Tao does not act upon us. And It remains unaffected. This makes no sense only because the Tao lies far beyond any human comprehension or experience. And that is the truth about our real nature which is the Tao. We really need to know this lest we mistake something for the Tao that is no such thing. When we finally get the sense of this we will realize that heretofore we have lived in total non-sense like Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.
If we do not like the way things work in relation to the Tao, we need to change ourselves, not the Tao. We must accommodate the Tao, or the Tao will accommodate us and the ring-around-the-rosy will continue. That is why C. S. Lewis wrote that there are two kinds of people in this world: those that say to God: “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says “Thy will be done.”
Since the Tao only responds, and that is Its sole “work,” It cannot claim anything for Itself. We receive all from the Tao, but the Tao in no way controls or even influences us.
Thus, It may be called “the Little.” It is common to speak of the Great Tao, but we will naturally draw on our experience to define that. And since great things have tremendous influence on us and control us and our environment we will mistakenly think the Tao is doing all things and ordering all things, that the Tao has a will and a purpose, that we are helpless in relation to It. But the opposite is true: the Tao is helpless in relation to us. We alone are the doer, we alone are responsible for the Tao’s response. Thus the Tao is Little, even Nothing or No Thing in relation to us. We are all very Big in contrast to Its Smallness.
All things return to It as to their home, but It does not lord it over them. We are being inexorably drawn back to the Tao, to our point of origin, but it is not the Tao that is doing the drawing: we are. Whether we leave the Tao or return to the Tao: that is our concern and our willing and doing. We are in total charge at all times. That is why we must completely rethink every aspect of our life and existence, including our religion.
Thus, It may be called “the Great.” Since the Tao is the only thing that exists, is that of which all things consist, the Tao is truly Great. In fact, “great” is a very feeble word; but since the Tao cannot be conceived or really spoken about, it does not matter much.
It is just because It does not wish to be great that Its greatness is fully realized. The very fact that the Tao is “beyond it all” proves Its infinite greatness. All relative things are nothing like the Tao and therefore are essentially nothing. The Tao, not being like anything, is therefore everything. That is Its nature, Its sublime simplicity.
Blackney renders this verse: “The wise man, therefore, while he is alive, will never make a show of being great: and that is how his greatness is achieved.” This is so interpretive that it is more comment than translation, but nevertheless valuable for us, because all that we learn about the Tao should be applied to us and to anyone we might consider a person of wisdom. For the evolving individual becomes more and more like the Tao.
The child in the womb does not look at all like its parents or ancestors, and although there is a lot of talk about babies having someone’s eyes, etc., the true likeness, especially psychologically, will not really be apparent until adulthood, though there will be hints, that nevertheless may lessen or vanish as the child grows. It is the same with the consciously evolving yogi. All kinds of phenomena may manifest and even miracles occur. But none of that means anything, for such things are not the Tao at all, just the responses of the Tao.
There is a story in India of a man who had a magical dye vat. A person said what color they wanted and the man dipped it in and brought it out the exact color desired. But one day a man said: “I want the color of the dye itself: your color.” To learn the color of the Tao is the goal. So the more Tao-like we become, the higher we are evolving. But what is the Tao like? And how will we know? An outside observer cannot know, and the Tao-like person will never say that he is like the Tao, for he knows that is not enough: he must be the Tao.
This makes no sense to the non-yogis, but Lao Tzu did not write for them.
Next in the Tao Teh King for Awakening: The Peace of Tao