sourceless

The way is empty,
used, but not used up.
Deep, yes! ancestral
to the ten thousand things.

Blunting edge,
loosing bond,
dimming light,
the way is the dust of the way.

Quiet,
yes, and likely to endure.
Whose child? born
before the gods.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

The world is a mysterious place, even today, in a world of astrophysics, quantum mechanics, neuroscience, and microbiology. Despite all we know, we still know so little. We understand almost nothing.

The way is the dust of the way is a line I keep replaying in my head. The way is older than the gods. It’s older than everything. Old as the universe. When I think of the Tao, I often think of physics, rather than spirituality. I doubt I’m alone there.

But I find the Tao to resemble energy. Entropy. Energy is neither created nor destroyed. It only transforms, changes, spreads, condenses. Energy simply is, and so too is the Tao.

And while we read the Tao Te Ching, it’s impossible not to try to assign values and judgments or prescribe behaviors (that’s what humans do: find patterns and seek order), but I think this fourth poem in the text is one of the most elusive, and I think that matters. Even in placement.

At this point, we’re beginning to make assumptions about the text. We believe we’re taking hold of the Tao and finding a way to understand and examine it.

Here the language is so simple, yet the meaning is so elusive. What does it mean for the way to be the dust of the way? What does it mean for it to be empty yet still full?

I think it’s a foundational lesson in the Tao. That trying to control it and its meaning is to lose sight of the Tao itself. Every step towards definition is a step away from the way. The more we grapple with its meaning, the more it eludes us, slips through our fingers.

And so how do we follow an unknowable, unfathomable path?

That’s at the core of the text, I think. Clearly I don’t have an answer, but if I did, it would probably keep me from social media and the internet in general, which is an incredibly noisy, disruptive, and often destructive part of current human life.

But this fourth poem is, I think, a reminder or demonstration that the correct path is not quantifiable or qualitative.

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