“There was something formless and perfect
before the universe was born.
It is serene. Empty.
Infinite. Eternally present.
It is the mother of the universe.
For lack of a better name,
I call it the Tao.”
~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.
In this chapter Lao-tzu comes the closest to violating the precept he lays down in chapter one: “the tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.” It’s probably the most concerted attempt to describe the Dao in the entire text.
So stated, it sounds similar to the monotheistic idea of a God hanging out in the eternal void before creating the universe—except for two things: it is empty, and it is female.
Modern thinking is allergic to seeing the universe anthropomorphically. Postmodern thinking is allergic to seeing it patriarchally. It’s easy to see how ancient societies’ views of the cosmos were refracted through the structure of their societies, with a despotic God being depicted as king of the universe. It’s easy—and kind of fun—to debunk those mythic stories.
But Daoism offers a subtler way of thinking about the cosmos and our place in it. The masculine and the feminine are not simply features of human sexuality and gender identity, but basic principles of the cosmos. Put another way, the polarity between male and female in the human drama is just one iteration of the play of primal energies that suffuses the cosmos.
This is not the same as magical thinking and childish superstition, in which we project our wishes and imaginations onto the world. It’s the recognition that we should fully expect the basic elements of our being to reflect and cohere with the order of things that gave birth to us. The existentialist notion that we are “strangers in a strange world” is a strange doctrine, the sign of an age that has forgotten where it came from.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”