The Origin of Origins
Confinement brings with it its own set of unique joys. Months of cloistered existence brought upon us unheard of challenges but, thankfully, also revived interest in long-forgotten subjects. The origin of everything is one such subject, and it typically meanders through some captivating theories. After all, the idea that at some point there was only emptiness and void, nothingness, with no notions of time and space, has always been intriguing. It was the chance discovery of a small book that brought the subject to the fore. The book, a translation of the Daodéjing, an ancient compilation of verses attributed to the legendary Chinese spiritual master, Laozi1, contains one of the most evocative descriptions of the origin of everything.
There is a thing inherent and natural
Which existed before heaven and earth.
Motionless and fathomless,
It stands alone and never changes;
It pervades everywhere and never becomes
It may be regarded as the Mother of the Universe.
I do not know its name.
If I am forced to give it a name, I call it Dao,
and I name it as supreme.2
Through a mere eighty-one cryptic verses, some of them only a couple of lines in length, the Dao is glorified as the origin and essence of everything, beyond existence and non-existence, and predating all that is known and unknown.
Like a fountain head of all things...
Yet crystal clear like still water it seems to remain.
I do not know whose Son it is.
An image of what existed before God.3
The Daodéjing loosely translates as the Practice (Dé) of the Way (Dao). It sounds simple and functional, though it is far from it. One of its highlights is, in fact, concealed in its hazy origin and history. However, a researcher’s nightmare can sometimes be an advantage for the open-minded reader. Whether Laozi existed or not, or whether he expressed these teachings or not, becomes secondary to the verses themselves. And they are unambiguously in praise of the Dao. Verse after eulogizing verse calls it an ethereal power, swirling through all of creation, impeccable and flawless, creating, sustaining, and taking back, without so much as a whisper or a quiver. Reading the Daodéjing kindles our interest in the Dao. Majestic but humble, uncomplicated but indecipherable, how can we know this silent origin of origins?
Throughout the ages its Name has been preserved
In order to recall the Beginning of all things.
How do I know the ways of all
things at the Beginning?
By what is within me.4
The Daodéjing states that the Dao is present within us, just as it is in every infinitesimal particle of the creation. It is, however, hidden and needs to be realized. And according to Laozi, its realization depends on the crossing of a significant hurdle – the stilling of the mind resulting from the elimination of desire. He points to that as being the way to manifest the Dao within us.
Those constantly without desires,
by this means will perceive its subtlety.
Those constantly with desires,
by this means will see only
that which they yearn for and seek.5
Desire stems from the mind, which yearns and seeks all that the five senses beguile it with. And, as the above verse indicates, the mind is incapable of holding on to its own frenzied cravings and to the Dao at the same time. The first must give way for the second to be revealed. Laozi’s advice, therefore, is to empty the mind, thus creating a necessary vacuum, a hallowed space for the subtle and sublime essence, the Dao, to occupy.
Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;
It is the centre hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore benefit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.6
Laozi uses everyday examples to give a complete picture of the human being. He considers the human body to be the edifice, the superstructure, containing the all-important, useful centre within it. The centre can be seen as the mind, but, like the hole in the wheel, and the space within the clay pot or the room, it needs to be hollow and empty in order to be useful. The emptiness is synonymous with stillness, where the mind has no thoughts and desires, and nothing intrudes upon its mirror-like calm.
Negative prefixes abound in the Daodéjing – un-learning, non-desiring, de-tachment and, most important, non-action or wu-wei, all of which describe the way to stillness and tranquility of the mind. None favor indolence, escapism, or asceticism. Ultimately, the struggle is with the mind which cannot be calmed by outward activity and change.
Having come this far, we come face to face with a simple problem – a still, tranquil mind does not magically appear and become receptive to the presence of the Dao. Unlocking the mystery requires the help of someone with intimate understanding of both the mind and the Dao, and the power to manifest the Dao in ourselves. Fortunately, coming into contact with a realized spiritual master places us in this enviable position.
The five colors blind the eye.
The five tones deafen the ear.
The five flavors dull the taste.
Racing and hunting madden the mind.
Precious things lead one astray.
Therefore the sage is guided by
what he feels and not by what he sees.7
As we can see, the Daodéjing points out a distinguishing feature of the sage or master – one who is beyond the realm of the senses or the mind – one who identifies with, and is guided by, the Dao itself and ceaselessly strives to help people achieve the same goal.
Therefore the sage rules
By emptying their hearts,
Filling their stomachs,
Weakening their ambitions
And strengthening their bones.8
The Daodéjing is brevity itself when it condenses the entire unlocking of the secret of the Dao into “the sage rules by emptying their hearts and filling their stomachs.” In other words, the master empties people of their desires and fills them with spiritual contentment. At the same time he firms their resolve (to merge with the Dao). The verse makes the Herculean task – of vanquishing desire and stilling the mind while instilling resilience and perseverance – seem effortless and doable. That is the hallmark of the spiritual master.
The sage is self-effacing
and scanty of words.
When his task is accomplished
and things have been completed,
All the people say: “We ourselves
have achieved it!”9
The master’s method is outwardly unassuming and unobtrusive so it all seems natural, but fundamental changes occur within us. Thus is the master instrumental in removing what clogs the mind and cloaks the Dao – desire, ego, and attachments. At the same time he awakens and then nurtures in us an eternal love for the Dao. It is a fine line he helps draw between renouncing gross worldly desire on the one hand and striving to achieve the ultimate – merging with the Dao – on the other.
In fact, it is only in the company of the master that we first become aware of these myriad distinctions, of mind as a separate entity and its limitless wants and desires. We begin to understand the mind’s subservience to the senses and its voracious appetite for sensual pleasures. Gradually, we embark on the practice to quieten it by following the Master’s method.
In the beginning one has to go against the mind’s very grain and wrench it away from its inclinations – such is the abrasive struggle to calm it. In the course of time, however, something unexpected happens. We gradually return to our natural and original state. We take back control of the mind, of something that was not meant to dominate in the first place, but was intended to be a mere tool for helping us to exist in this world. The master aids in this and demonstrates our oneness with the Dao, not with the mind, by revealing our true selves to us. “He only helps all creatures to find their own nature.”10
And yet, like the Dao, his way is gentle, soothing and patient, without a hint of coercion or insistence. People are drawn to him for his seamless love and his endless compassion. He does not judge, distinguish, or discriminate. His message and love are for all.
He who holds the Great Symbol (the Dao)
will attract all things to him.
They flock to him and receive no harm,
for in him they find peace, security, and
The Daodéjing frequently draws parallels between the Dao and the sage or master. For instance, it describes the Dao as doing everything while not doing anything. Laozi calls it a defining characteristic of the Dao. “Dao is ever inactive, and yet there is nothing that it does not do.”12 Here, action is separated from desire and expectation; hence the Dao is inactive and yet achieves everything. The sage, as the verses below reveal, acts precisely in the same way.
It [The Dao] accomplishes its task,
but does not claim credit for it.
It clothes and feeds all things
but does not claim to be master over them.
Always without desires it may be called the Small.
All things come to it and it does not master them;
it may be called the Great.
Therefore (the sage) never strives himself
for the great, and thereby the great is achieved.13
The Daodéjing considers the master or sage as being one with the Dao and speaks of him in the same vein. The sage –
Manages the affairs without action;
Preaches the doctrine without words;
All things take their rise, but he does not
turn away from them;
He gives them life, but does not take
possession of them.
He acts, but does not appropriate;
Accomplishes but claims no credit.14
In the end, what shines through is the master’s ability to join us to the Dao. In fact, since his true form rises up and flows out of the vast Ocean of Truth, it is indistinguishable from the Dao. His inner, radiant form answers to the same description as the Dao – mysteriously unfathomable by the physical senses, but magically alive to the spiritual being:
Looked at, but cannot be seen –
That is called the Invisible;
Listened to, but cannot be heard –
That is called the Inaudible;
Grasped at, but cannot be touched –
That is called the Intangible;
These three elude all our inquiries
And hence blend and become One.
Not by its rising is there light,
Nor by its sinking is there darkness.
It cannot be defined,
And reverts back to the realm of nothingness.
That is why it is called the Form of the Formless,
The Image of the Nothingness.15
Boisen, B., Lao Tzu’s Tao-Te-Ching: A Parallel Translation Collection, Boston, MA: Gnomad Publishing, 1996
Ch’u Ta-Kao, Tao Te Ching: A New Translation, London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1959
Feng, Gia-Fu and English, Jane, The Tao Te Ching, London: Vintage Books, 1989
Lin, Derek, Tao Te Ching: Annotated & Explained, Nashville, TN: SkyLight Paths, 2006
Lin, Yutang, The Wisdom of Laotse, NY: Random House, 1948
- The book’s title appears as Daodéjing instead of Tao Te Ching and its author Laozi instead of Lao Tzu, as this essay has adopted the Pinyin system of transliterating Chinese words into the Roman alphabet.
- Ch’u Ta-Kao, 1959, Verse 25
- Lin, Yutang, 1948, Verse 4
- Wu, John C.H. in Boisen, B., 1996, Verse 21
- Henricks, Robert in Boisen, B., 1996, Verse 1
- Feng and English, 1989, Verse 11
- Feng and English, 1989, Verse 12
- Ch’u Ta-Kao, 1959, Verse 3
- Wu, John C.H. in Boisen, B., 1996, Verse 17
- Wu, John C.H. in Boisen, B., 1996, Verse 64
- Wu, John C.H. in Boisen, B., 1996, Verse 35
- Ch’u Ta-Kao, 1959, Verse 37
- Chan, Wing-tsit in Boisen, B., 1996, Verse 34
- Lin, Yutang, 1948, Verse 2
- Lin, Yutang in Boisen, B., 1996, Verse 14