“The Tao is like a well:
used but never used up.
It is like the eternal void:
Filled with infinite possibilities.
It is hidden but always present.
I don’t know who gave birth to it.
It is older than God.”
~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.
Alan Watts liked to tell the story of the astronaut who, upon returning to earth, was asked if he saw God in the heavens. He replied, “Yes. And she is black.”
One thing this chapter does is disabuse us of the idea that Dao is “God.” Many of the early translators imposed their own Western, Christian assumptions onto the text, supposing the Dao to be some transcendent super-being separate from nature, distorting a very different tradition with very different priors.
But not entirely different. While it would be wrong to regard the Dao as a cypher for a monotheistic God, it would be just as wrong to put it in the camp of atheism. One reason for this is that atheism is a Western phenomenon that emerged precisely as the rejection of a kind of God that Eastern cultures never embraced in the first place. It would be like addressing a man who never played baseball as a “non-baseball player,” only to receive the puzzled reply, “What is baseball?”
Nonetheless, as I’ll discuss later, the Daodejing—and Zen, the child it bore with Buddhism—is closer to Western spirituality than you might expect. My students are often surprised to learn that St. Thomas Aquinas, the Philosopher in Chief of the Catholic Church, wrote: “We cannot know what God is. We can only know what God is not.” Despite the magnificent cathedral of the mind he constructed—the Summa Theologica, a veritable Theory of Everything—here he gives voice to the mystics, what came to be called the tradition of “negative theology.” For the Hindus, this is the practice of neti, neti, “not this, not that.” We move closer to true reality not by addition, but by subtraction, eventually even letting go of the very idea of “true” reality. As legend has it, just before his death, Aquinas was reported to have uttered, “All I have written is so much straw.” Was this Aquinas’ realization, or perhaps confession, of the Zen formula that “form is emptiness, emptiness is form?”
Watts’ little parable, and this chapter, tell us three related things about the Daodejing.
First, while we Westerners tend to value the positive—I can think of no book title more representative of our “toxic positivity” than The Power of Positive Thinking, whose author’s church Donald Trump attended as a child—this tradition recognizes the power and potential of the negative. When Pascal, gazing up at the night sky, wrote “these eternal spaces fill me with dread,” he was voicing the idea that unfilled space is an abomination, neutral at best, negative at worst. The empty is the dead.
The alternative brings us to the second point: recognition and respect for the feminine principle. Arguably no major religion gives greater priority of place to the feminine principle than Daoism. Accordingly, the nothing is not a terrifying void which should lead us to “rage, rage against the dying of the light,” but a creative matrix pregnant with possibilities. Empty space is less a tomb, more a womb. As Martin Luther King wrote, “Only in the darkness can you see the stars.”
Lastly, we don’t just find empty space scary, but empty time. Pascal also wrote: “The problem with man is that he cannot sit quietly in a room.” If we are not doing something, we are “wasting” our time, not “making use” of it. Here, time is taken as a kind of raw material that has no value in itself. It only becomes valuable when we “mix our labor” with it. I take that phrase deliberately from John Locke, who laid the philosophical foundations for our understanding of private property and the “labor theory of value.” In this view, nature is not enough. For the Daoist, though, this attitude is premised on an un-useful understanding of what is truly useful.