Newsletter - May 2022

The Tao Is Like...


This newsletter is going to be about words. We use them to distinguish things from each other, and they work very well. Calling different things by different names means we all know what we’re talking about. But what happens when we want to refer to the Oneness/Wholeness that is everything? The answer is we get stuck. This newsletter looks at why we get stuck, why it matters, and what some solutions might be.


Here’s why we get stuck. What is the one word for the thing that is everything? It’s not obvious, is it? The reason why we get stuck is because we’re not trying to distinguish it from anything else – because it already is everything else. Any word we try to use to do this job will fail because all words distinguish the thing they’re referring to from everything else which they’re not referring to. And, in this case, we’re talking about everything, all of it, all at once.


Why does this matter? Because words are how we communicate. No words mean no communication, at least not communication using words. And words are very handy because we don’t have to be in the same place at the same time. For example, one of us can be dead for around 2,500 years and still communicate with someone alive today – as Lao Tzu does through the words of his Tao Te Ching.


The Tao Te Ching sees the Oneness/Wholeness that is everything as the only thing which is “eternally real.” Everything else is just a temporary illusion. Hence the opening lines of chapter 1: “The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal Name. The unnamable is the eternally real. Naming is the origin of all particular things.” That’s the problem in a nutshell. Words are good only for referring to particular things.


Will we succeed if we use more words? Here's a shot. “There was something formless and perfect before the universe was born. It is serene. Empty. Solitary. Unchanging. Infinite. Eternally present. It is the mother of the universe. For lack of a better name, I call it the Tao” (chapter 25). Does Lao Tzu succeed with these words? If he does, then it is only to a limited extent. Can he do any better? The answer is yes. This brings us to the third part of this newsletter, which is what some solutions might be.


Remember English language classes? Remember learning about similes such as “like a candle in the wind” or “as cold as ice”? Lao Tzu reaches out for similes to refer to or describe the Tao. Let’s look at some examples he uses and see if they do a better job.


“The Tao is like a well: used but never used up. It is like the eternal void: filled with infinite possibilities” (chapter 4). “The Tao is like a bellows: it is empty yet infinitely capable” (chapter 5). “The Tao is called the Great Mother: empty yet inexhaustible, it gives birth to infinite worlds” (chapter 6). “All things end in the Tao as rivers flow into the sea” (chapter 32).


So we’ve got a well, an eternal void, a Great Mother who gives birth, and we’ve got the sea into which everything flows. Is that better than serene, empty, solitary, unchanging, infinite, eternally present? I think so. It’s easier to grasp. But how, you might ask, can we possibly grasp the ungraspable? Lao Tzu recognizes this when he says “My teachings are easy to understand and easy to put into practice. Yet your intellect will never grasp them…” (chapter 70). I think what’s cool about similes is they encourage us to put our intellect aside.


For example, the Tao is like a well because it is used, yet never used up (leaving aside the well that runs dry). An eternal void can never be full, and it too can never be used up. In fact, if an eternal void is full of anything it is full of infinite possibilities. Similarly we might think a bellows is empty, yet it can produce red hot coals. How so? Because “The more you use it, the more it produces…” (chapter 5). This is why the Tao is “empty yet inexhaustible.” This is how it can “give birth to infinite worlds.” This is how everything that appears separate is in fact part of the Tao, in the same way as what we call a river is no longer a “river” when it flows into the sea.


My favorite overall image is “The Tao gives birth to all beings, nourishes them, maintains them, cares for them, comforts them, protects them, takes them back to itself, creating without possessing, acting without expecting, guiding without interfering. That is why love of the Tao is in the very nature of things” (chapter 51). Does the Tao do all these things literally? Well, if the Tao is the Oneness/Wholeness that includes everything then the answer is yes. So has Lao Tzu succeeded in pointing at the Tao? Given the limitations of words, I think he does a pretty good job.


In summary, we get stuck because words refer to particular things. This matters because words are one of the main ways we communicate. One solution is not to think of words as direct references but as pointers. The Buddha once said “I am a finger pointing to the moon. Don’t look at me; look at the moon.” With respect to the Tao, all words are simply pointers because none of them can refer directly to it because it is not an “it.” The best words can do is help turn our heads in a direction where we stand a good chance of seeing what they’re pointing at. If we see, all we can say is “Aha!” because, in the case of the Tao, there’s really nothing else to say.


Lao Tzu recognizes this limitation when he says “Teaching without words, performing without actions: that is the Master’s way” (chapter 43). What’s left if we don’t have words? The answer is “The Master, by residing in the Tao, sets an example for all beings” (chapter 22). Examples don’t need words. Perfect. Perhaps I can parody the credit card advertisement. “Becoming aware of the Tao: priceless. For everything else there are words.”

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(In Harmony with the Tao: A Guided Journey into the Tao Te Ching is available as an e-book or as a paperback from your nearest independent book store, from White Cloud Press, from, or from