When a superior man hears of the Tao,
he immediately begins to embody it.
When an average man hears of the Tao,
he retains some and loses some.
When a foolish man hears of the Tao,
he laughs out loud at the very idea.
If it were not for that laugh,
it would not be the Tao.
Thus it is said:
the path into light seems dark,
the path forward seems like retreat,
the direct path seems empty,
the easy way seems hard,
true power seems weak,
true purity seems tarnished,
true steadfastness seems changeable,
true clarity seems obscure,
the greatest art seems unsophisticated,
the greatest love seems indifferent,
the greatest wisdom seems childish.
The Tao is hidden and nameless;
Yet it alone nourishes and brings
all things to fulfilment.
When I first heard words of truth that seemed as undeniable to me as the brightness of the sun, I wondered why so many others scoff, deride and deny them. I came to understand that if we don’t realise the truth in ourselves, then we won’t be able to recognise it any place else. The wisest words in the world will sound foolish if it’s a fool that’s listening. Yet Lao Tzu here suggests that it is part of the balance of the Tao that foolishness coexist alongside the deepest of wisdom. It also pays to remember that at some point we’ve all played the fool.
The core of this verse points out the seeming paradox of authentic spiritual realisation. There’s nothing glitzy or glamorous about it and it’s rarely as rapturous or mystical as we might expect. It might seem more like diminishment than gain. This is the opposite of the way it’s painted by those trying to sell us the fast-track to enlightenment. It’s often more of a destructive process than a constructive one; for we’re not adding anything special to ourselves, rather we’re scraping away all the illusions and obstructions that hinder an experience of reality as it is, free from distortion, conditioning and mental filters.
It’s more a process of dissolution than expansion. It’s not what the mind thinks it ought to be. That’s why it’s necessary to move beyond the mind and to settle into the vast sea of emptiness, stillness or s p a c e that lies at the core of our being. To be rooted in this is far more wondrous than anything the mind could ever have conceptualised.