imagining mystery

There is something
that contains everything.
Before heaven and earth
it is.
Oh, it is still, unbodied,
all on its own, unchanging,

So it can act as the mother
of all things.
Not knowing its real name,
we only call it the Way.

If it must be named
let its name be Great.
Greatness means going on,
going on means going far,
and going far means turning back.

So they say: “The Way is great,
heaven is great,
earth is great,
and humankind is great;
four greatnesses in the world,
and humanity is one of them.”

People follow earth,
earth follows heaven,
heaven follows the Way,
the Way follows what is.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Le Guin’s commentary is great for this poem so I’ll share it:

I’d like to call the “something” of the first line a lump–an unshaped, undifferentiated lump, chaos, before the Word, before Form, before Change. Inside it is time, space, everything, in the womb of the Way.

The last words of the chapter, tzu jan, I render as “what is.” I was tempted to say, “The Way follows itself,” because the Way is the way things are; but that would reduce the significance of the words. They remind us not to see the Way as sovereignty or domination, all creative, all yang. The Way itself is a follower. Though it is before everything, it follows what is.

What I like about this commentary (and this poem) is that it reminds us that the Way is not god. Or, to put it another way, the Way has no dominion over us. The Way is like us. As we follow, so too does the Way follow.

The previous poems make it seem like the Tao is forever above and beyond us, but here we get a transformative definition. The Way is not a prescription of behavior or a demand on how we live. It is an invitation.

It is a question.

Asking us to follow the earth, heaven, and finally the Way itself, which follows itself.

I think this is why people associate circles with Taoism. Or maybe that’s just me. Or maybe that’s just human: to see circles or cycles in existence.

So much of the Tao Te Ching seems like circular logic fallacy, which, I think, is why it’s so easy for so many people to dismiss it outright. But I think this poem illustrates something different. Though it reminds us of circles and cycles, it’s more like a ball rolling ever forward than it is a line of thinking that continually brings you back to the beginning or the end of the argument.

Part of it is that the Tao is not an argument.

It is an invitation.

A question continually asked.