"It seems to be the origin of all things."
Tao Te Ching - Chapter 4
The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained
The Way is empty, yet inexhaustible,
Like an abyss!
It seems to be the origin of all things.
It dulls the sharpness,
Unties the knots,
Dims the light,
Becomes one with the dust.
Deeply hidden, as if it only might exist.
I do not know whose child it is.
It seems to precede the ancestor of all.
The Hidden Cause
Lao Tzu returns here to the mysterious nature of Tao,
the Way. It's so vague and distant that we can only guess
its existence by the deductions we make from observing
the world around us. It's the inner working of the universe,
and probably therefore also the originator of it.
Tao is the natural law by which the universe operates.
A natural law has no form of its own, but governs
all there is, and never gets fatigued or diminished. Although
it causes all the magnificence of the world we live in, it's
infinitesimal, like the dust of the dust.
This law that governs all can have no preferences.
It treats the biggest things the same as the smallest, none
with less care. To Tao, they are essentially the same.
Mountains, planets, galaxies, they all consist of
atoms, which do in turn consist of particles so minute that
their existence may never be confirmed. Since everything in
the world consists of things small, the minute is closer to
the nature of Tao. And since most things in the world go
by unnoticed, the hidden is also closer to the nature of Tao.
Because Lao Tzu sees the Way as the reason behind
all, he concludes that it must have the most to do with
the things that we regard as lesser. The big events are rare,
while everyday proceedings take place constantly. The bigger
the size of things, the fewer they are. So, the Way deals
mainly with the small.
We should ponder this, so that we remember to pay
the most attention to the things that seem to be the least
The most enduring powers in the world are those
that stand out the least. Sharpness does not last, nor does
the tightness of a knot, or the brightest light. There is
nothing that remains longer than its own dust.
So, if we become like dust, we will prevail – and we
will be in unison with Tao.
That has not been the typical trait of mankind so far.
Instead, we ravel at burning down forests to build
temples and palaces, drilling tunnels through mountains,
and changing the courses of rivers. Ours is noisy species.
A Vague Deity
The last line of this chapter is the only clear occurrence of
a divine entity in the Tao Te Ching
. What I have translated
as the ancestor of all is Ti
, who was the first and supreme
god in ancient Chinese mythology.
Although Ti was indeed regarded as a creator god,
Lao Tzu doubts that he predates Tao. Even a creator god
must obey the natural laws that rule the universe, or it would
not have come into existence. If it did, it would not have
A natural law does not exist by itself, but through
nature, where it manifests itself. Therefore, it has no birth
date. There may be a starting point for its manifestation, but
the law itself is timeless. When a world of whatever kind
appears, it has to follow the law for such a world. But the
law does not change if the world appears or disappears. It
remains the same forever and anywhere. So, it's eternal
and ever-present. It was before the gods, and it's present
where they are not.
There can be a universe without any gods to rule it,
but not one without laws for it.
© Stefan Stenudd.
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