“Heaven will last,
Earth will endure.
How can they last so long?
They don’t exist for themselves
And so can go on and on.
So wise souls
Leaving self behind
And setting self aside
Why let the self go?
To keep what the soul needs.”
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, #7, “Dim Brightness”
Reading Lao Tzu reminded me of my experience of the Spirit in meditation. While abiding in the Spirit, peace and stillness is always at hand. There, contentment is a natural state; pressures from the outside world dissolve. The now is all that matters, and it is easy to recognize that past and future are mere shadows and figments of the imagination. Lao Tzu expanded that inner world, and I could see the bigger picture. I recognized the ways of God beyond myself.
In Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu captures the flow of creation in the embrace of the Creator and puts it into words. Written somewhere between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE, this sacred Chinese scripture is the basis for Taosim and highly influential in the Buddhist sphere. It is one of the most translated texts in the world, boasting over 250 translations. It is said to have been written by a scribe named Lao Tzu, or “Old Master.”
Through his poetry, Lao Tzu gives the reader a glimpse of God by exploring the way God moves and works in the world. God, called Tao (the Way), is nameless and indescribable, intangible yet the constant source of the tangible. This Tao flows and moves effortlessly, and by just being, causes all things to take place perfectly. The wise soul, or sage, never fights against this natural flow (Heb 3:15), but instead flows with it. These divine attributes are mirrored in Biblical passages:
• Indescribable: “Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways!” (Rm 11:33).
• Intangible: “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth,” (Jn 4:24).
• The source of the tangible: “In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He existed in the beginning with God. God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him,” (Jn 1:1-3).
• Flows and moves effortlessly: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit,” (Jn 3:8). (Note: the same Greek word means both wind and spirit.)
But although the topic is weighty, the Tao Te Ching never comes across that way. It deals with the most profound and sometimes even contradictory thoughts, but it does so in a lighthearted manner. Although similar to James 1:19, I found myself laughing when I read the following:
23 Nothing and not
Nature doesn’t make long speeches.
A whirlwind doesn’t last all morning.
A cloudburst doesn’t last all day.
Who makes the wind and rain?
Heaven and earth do.
If heaven and earth don’t go on an on,
Certainly people don’t need to.
Or the simple line, “To live till you die is to live long enough” (33).
Lao Tzu is at home in humility (Pro 8:12-13), and speaks of it in an unfamiliar way – as a path to true leadership. In many of his poems he advises leaders to become like water: molding and moving around the obstacles in its path with softness; willing to go to the lowest places. When he speaks of the greatest kind of leader in poem 17, he says they, “are hardly known to their followers,” which reminds the reader of God himself, willing to remain unseen yet leading all of heaven and earth.
The emphasis in the text remains firmly in the yin, or the female, quiet, meek and nurturing characteristics of all things, and Lao Tzu views these attributes as foundational. This echoed the personification of Wisdom as a female in the Proverbs. The yang, yin’s natural opposite (male, loud, strong, active), is reduced to something to understand and make use of if it makes sense to do so, like it is a tool. War and violence, clearly yang in their nature, are repulsive to Lao Tzu.
The irony of the Tao Te Ching is its ability to remain simple and complex all at once. The language comes across as almost elementary, speaking of nature and simple objects, yet the contradictions it offers invite the reader to pause and give it deeper thought. This is much like paradoxical scriptures such Proverbs 26:4-5, or Matthew 12:30 with Mark 9:40. It is full of wonderful truths put in ways seldom encountered in the West, but it won’t spoon-feed the reader. It rather plants a seed and lets the wise soul watch it grow.
Amy Arias is an instructor for the Holy Yoga Foundation, a non-profit organization that sends out teachers the world over to teach Christian yoga in their communities. She also writes a blog at JesusIsMyGuru.com, a site about all things Jesus and yoga