If you realise that all things change,
there is nothing you will try to hold on to.
If you are not afraid of dying,
there is nothing you cannot achieve.
When we try to control the future
we are like an inexperienced child
trying to take the place
of a master carpenter.
When try to you handle the blade
of a master carpenter,
chances are you will cut your hand.
Contemplation of impermanence is one of the cornerstones of Buddhist teaching. It may at first seem morbid and depressing to focus on the transience of life and the fact that all things eventually pass away. Yet the very root of our suffering is our attachment to the world of the transient. When that’s our only reference point, our only measure of fulfilment and stability, then each time something passes away, it’s a tragedy of universal proportions. It’s as though our entire world collapses, leaving a gaping void until next we find something upon which we can build a ‘stable’ structure. The problem is that no structure is stable. Everything in this world of form exists in a state of entrophy and erosion, diminishment and dissolution.
When we know the Tao, this is no longer a problem, because we are rooted in something far deeper, something that can never collapse or disappear. It’s as though we’re plugged into the mains rather than relying on battery power alone. To be willing to surrender everything and know that we are sustained by an inexhaustible fire within is the first step to living a life free of the fear of change and the fear of death.
Another important aspect of this verse is Lao Tzu’s suggestion that we not try to impose too much control over the future. Fear and desire form the basis of most human behaviour. It’s deeply ingrained into us that we should plan for the future and be sufficiently adept at manipulating events and circumstances to our advantage. There may be a place for this, but Lao Tzu appears to suggest that when we act from fear and desire, we’re like a blind man fumbling in the dark, desperately trying to grasp at things but clearly unable to see what he’s doing.
We can only see a small part of the overall picture. Often the things that seem most desirable are the things that would prove most detrimental to us. So why not work with the Tao and not against it? The Tao is like the master carpenter of the universe. It’s not a good idea to steal its tools and try to take over its job. You’re only likely to hurt yourself and make a mess. Instead, why not trust in the Tao? As much as it pains the ego to hear this, the truth is, it knows better than you do.