The Great Way runs
to left, to right,
the ten thousand things
depending on it,
living on it,
accepted by it.
Doing its work,
it goes unnamed.
Clothing and feeding
the ten thousand things,
it lays no claim on them
and asks nothing of them.
Call it a small matter.
The ten thousand things
return to it,
though it lay no claim on them.
Call it great.
So the wise soul
without great doings
It occurs to me that “the ten thousand things” may require a definition. Probably I should’ve included one a long time ago. It’s a simple phrase and essentially means “everything.”
With that defined, this poem is about the Way’s relation to everything. In a manner of speaking, the Tao is outside of time and the Tao Te Ching relies on non-linearity to be understood. Time isn’t a river or a line, but a circles. Or, rather, it’s like a great pool of water. Things arise from it and return to it, but there’s no clear time involved in the generative process or the return.
All things rely on the Tao. All things exist because of the Tao. all things return to the Tao in the end. Its greatness is its nature, and so the wise soul achieves greatness simply by virtue of following the Tao. Of being like the Tao.
Action is a tricky concept in Taoism because non-action doesn’t mean doing nothing. It’s hard to articulate, and it’s something I tried to explain way back at the beginning of this journey through the Tao Te Ching, but I really don’t have a definition. It kind of defies explanation, or at least it does to me. Because following the Tao is an action, but it’s more akin to falling into step with the natural, material world and her rhythms than it is, say, giving a speech or fighting a war.
And so the wise soul or the great person acts by following the Tao, which isn’t exactly an easy thing to grapple with either. What does the Tao ask of us from moment to moment?As I’ve said many times: the Tao Te Ching is not a prescriptive text. There’s no moral guidelines here, and there are no behavioral guidelines either. Not really.
So the Tao Te Ching is something that’s best understood as a whole. I actually think it’s best to read it through in one sitting first. Then maybe come back and examine it a bit slower, a bit closer.
Of course, if what you’re seeking is greatness, you’re unlikely to ever achieve it. And so if you’re reading this to find a way to become the wise soul, you may be missing the point entirely. Greatness and morality that are generated from us, not something given to us by others. And so Taoism sort of inverts what most ideologies describe, wherein our greatness or morality are validated by others.
Just as the Tao generates its own greatness, so too will we, when we follow the Tao.