Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Verse 4


The Tao is empty but inexhaustible.
It is like the eternal void:
filled with infinite possibilities.
Infinitely deep, it is the source of all things.

Within it, the sharp edges become smooth;
the twisted knots loosen;
the sun is softened by a cloud;
the dust settles into place.

It is hidden but always present.
I do not know who gave birth to it.
It is older than the concept of God.

Lao Tzu here endeavours to describe the indescribable, to provide some pointers to this mysterious essence that is ‘the Tao’.

He tells us that the Tao is like an eternal void that is empty yet inexhaustible, filled with potentiality and that it is the source of all things. Later verses of the Tao Te Ching elaborate on this, suggesting that the Tao is ‘intangible and evasive’, that it has always existed and yet is beyond both existing and not-existing and that it might be regarded as ‘the mother of the universe’.

When reading the Tao Te Ching, it is perhaps best not to read with one’s analytical mind. In order to grasp the core of its teaching, it is necessary to go beyond our mind and thoughts, which comprise only the surface level of our awareness. Beyond the perpetual stream of thoughts that pass through our minds is a place beyond all concepts, ideas and beliefs – a place of pure knowing, the unconditioned awareness that exists prior to the content of our consciousness – and it is only from here that true understanding be gained.

We tend always to be focused on the outer manifestations of life; things, objects and outer appearances. If I were to ask you to describe a room, you would probably tell me about all the objects and furniture, as well as the colour of the walls and carpet. In all likelihood, the very essence of the room would be ignored. This essence – the very thing that allows the room to be – is space; empty yet inexhaustible, filled with infinite possibilities.

This verse suggests the Tao is a field of potentiality existing beneath, within and beyond all objects and forms, and which sustains and supports all phenomenal existence. Like air, it is invisible, yet ever-present and without it there would be no life.

“It is older than the concept of God,” Lao Tzu tells us, suggesting that any attempt to conceptualise it is futile. It’s beyond understanding. It simply is.


  1. The great power of taoteching is its disarmingly small size.
    It encourages one to not give great weight to its words.
    Thus one reads it differently than one would The Bible, or an encyclopaedia.
    So it is absorbed on a different level.

    "It is older than (the concept of) God."
    You inserted the words that were omitted in the Stephen Mitchell translation. They are the words that make sense of what made no sense to me, for ages. I was unable to process them :)
    I had, at length, to insert that concept, myself, before I grasped it.
    "The concept of" God!

    Nice one (:>

  2. Yes, I loved that line -- it powerful and presents a very deep truth in just a few short words.