About six months ago, I discovered the Tao te Ching, an ancient book of Chinese wisdom and spirituality that has dramatically influenced my spiritual formation. This may come as shocking to some people, but rather than driving me away from a Christ-centered faith, this book has actually helped me hold onto it. If you’re feeling skeptical, feel free to check out the introduction post to the series.
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Read the previous articles in this series here:
In this post, I want to look at chapters six and seven. I’ll start with chapter seven, which talks about the self-giving, self-emptying nature of the Tao and then uses it as a model for human selflessness. Then, in chapter six, we see this selflessness fleshed out (literally) with some very vivid feminine imagery used to describe the Tao. I see many parallels in both of these chapters to Christian teachings and practices, so let’s go ahead and jump right in.
Chapter 7: Letting go of yourself
Chapter seven is all about selflessness. In other words, you have to empty yourself, let go of yourself, and not live for yourself if you want to find fulfillment. Because the Tao is selfless, humans living in the virtue of the Tao, or “Teh,” should be as well.
Basically, this chapter kind of takes Tao and Teh and unites them in a parallel way. The first stanza talks about how the Tao is eternal because it is selfless and present to all of Creation. Then, in the second stanza, humans are called to selflessness, giving up authority and power and self-serving attitudes to better go with the flow of the universe, the way things were meant to be.
The Tao of Heaven is eternal,
and the earth is long enduring.
Why are they long enduring?
They do not live for themselves;
thus they are present for all beings.
The Master puts herself last;
And finds herself in the place of authority.
She detaches herself from all things;
Therefore she is united with all things.
She gives no thought to self.
She is perfectly fulfilled.
—Chapter 7, translator: J.H. McDonald
I love the last few lines so much, and I think these other translations capture some of the beauty even more vividly:
Because she has let go of herself,
she is perfectly fulfilled.
If you aren’t free of yourself
how will you ever become yourself?
They don’t hang on to things.
That’s how they manage to keep them.
They don’t worry
about what they can’t control.
That’s why they’re always satisfied.
This chapter is so clearly Christlike that it’s not difficult to “translate” into Christian terms at all. Some of Jesus’ most famous words — that we love to quote but also find easy to ignore — are “the last shall be first, and the first shall be last.” He also said that the person who loses their life will find it in him, and that in order to follow him we must take up our cross and go die to ourselves.
It’s amazing how much these words sound like an echo of what Jesus says — until we remember that they came three or four hundred years before Jesus was even born. But I don’t find this threatening. I don’t think it takes away from the authority or the uniqueness of Jesus in any way. In fact, I think the Bible gives us a compelling reason to believe that Lao Tzu was really seeing God’s heart here.
Paul says in Romans that some of what “may be known about God is plain to [all people], because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”
It seems to me that Lao Tzu clearly had a glimpse of what Paul calls God’s “invisible qualities” — his eternal power and divine nature, since that is exactly what the TTC talks about in chapter seven. So the fact that his words sound so similar to what Jesus would say isn’t problematic at all. It really makes me think about the way God has revealed himself in ways I could never imagine.
The TTC says the Tao is empty, which means selfless. The Bible teaches the same exact thing, and it is what C.S. Lewis called “the deep magic of the universe” in his book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. One of the most powerful passages in the whole New Testament to explain how God became man in Christ is at the beginning of Philippians chapter two. It says that Jesus,
being in his very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
Rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
And you know what comes just one verse before this little poem? (It was a poem in the Greek, by the way.) Paul says, “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Jesus Christ.” Paul’s logic is an almost exact parallel of the TTC here! In Lao Tzu’s words, Tao is empty and selfless, so you should be too. In Paul’s words, Christ — who shows us the very heart of God — is empty and selfless, so we should be too. Now, I strongly believe that Paul had more insight into the exact nature of the heart of God, but I think Lao Tzu also had about as strong of a glimpse as anyone could get without seeing God-made-flesh.
There’s so much here that goes contrary to our natural inclinations, and yet it is such a powerful truth. We can’t always trust the way we feel like we were designed. We have been shaped by a culture that is self-centered and materialistic and totally focused on what is best for me, myself, and maybe the people I love. But the more we try to cultivate what the Tao te Ching is talking about here — and what Jesus talked about — the more we find incredible growth, maturity, and even freedom.
There’s so much of this that we just can’t understand until we start to do it. Or at least, try to do it, although we’re bound to trip and fall flat on our faces on the way. I think this is one reason why Saint John of the Cross wrote almost 500 years ago, “Humans must keep their eyes shut and tread the path in darkness if they want to be sure of where they are going.”
Chapter 6: The feminine side of the Tao
Chapter six is a fascinating one. This is the first time we hear the Tao talked about in any personalized terms whatsoever — and Lao Tzu chooses feminine language. But he’s not really saying the Tao is a “she.” Remember from chapter one that if we can name it or define it, it isn’t the Tao. As in all places, Lao Tzu is talking about the Tao by making a comparison, because analogy is the only way we could even begin to talk about it.
In this chapter, some translations call the Tao the “Great Mother” that gives birth to all things. At first glance, it could sound like we’re talking about Mother Earth and moving totally into pantheism, and you could definitely read chapter six this way, but I don’t think you have to.
Interestingly enough, classical Christian theologians have usually recognized this about God. Anything we say about God can only be “true” so far as it is an analogy, because God-in-Godself is beyond human language and comprehension except in the ways he has revealed himself to us, which are also analogies in the sense that they are described in terms of things we know and understand, whether that is the physical world or our personal thoughts and feelings.
So here in chapter six, we have an emphasis on the mystery of Tao. We cannot fully understand it, and it is only in recognizing this that we can understand it at all. The name he chooses can be translated as the “mysterious feminine,” the “Great Mother,” the “spirit of emptiness,” or the “spirit of the valley,” which is itself the empty space between the mountains and hills. Here are three different translations:
The valley spirit never dies —
it is called “the mysterious female”;
The gate of the mysterious female
is called “the root of heaven and earth.”
Gossamer it is,
yet never consumed through use.
—translator: Victor Mair
The valley spirit never dies;
It is the woman, primal mother.
Her gateway is the root of heaven and Earth.
It is like a veil barely seen.
Use it; it will never fail.
—translator: Gia-fu Feng
The spirit of emptiness is immortal.
It is called the Great Mother
because it gives birth to Heaven and Earth.
It is like a vapor,
barely seen but always present.
Use it effortlessly.
—translator: J.H. McDonald
So again we’re talking about the mysterious nature of the Tao. Yet unlike in chapters one and four, we’re given a pretty down-to-earth metaphor here: the TTC talks about the gate (or gateway) of the mysterious female Tao. If that’s not clear enough for you, McDonald makes it clearer: it’s the part that gives birth. This “valley spirit” isn’t just a nature metaphor, the “valley” is between the woman’s legs.
Now, it sounds pretty crass when you put it that way, but I don’t think Lao Tzu was trying to write softcore porn here. Instead, he is looking at things in the world and trying to describe the Tao by analogy. I don’t really like gender stereotypes, but let’s consider the context of the time.
He doesn’t talk about the Tao as a macho man, going around flexing his power everywhere to make things, planting his seed into a woman to make a life. Instead, the Tao is like a gentle, passive woman, and as we said before, in her emptiness and selflessness she brings forth all life. Out of her gateway come all things in heaven and earth, and we are told that the gateway itself is immortal and inexhaustible but also insubstantial and imperceptible. It is a “simple presence” always with us to be used/drawn upon without ever running out.
We actually have plenty of parallels of describing God with feminine imagery in the Bible. God talks about himself as bearing Israel as children, as holding them gently nursing them at his breasts. Wait… his breasts? That can't be right. So, might we have to say God nursed Israel at “her” breasts? Maybe it’s best just to say God nursed them at God’s breast.
Now if it’s offensive to you to suggest that God might also be described as female, well then you need to check yourself. Why does nobody bat an eye to say God nursed Israel at his breast, but if you say God nursed Israel at her breast then people start squirming? Because God is beyond gender, it’s just as inaccurate to call God him as it is to call God her. He created both male and female in his image, so clearly whatever the image of God is (and there’s plenty of debate around that), it isn’t about gender. And yet, if I say “she created male and female in her image” you might get a weird itch in your brain even if you think you get the point here. Once again, we have to stick with the limitations of human language — we can only talk about God in analogy, and if we want to talk about God as a person, we’re going to have to choose a pronoun.
But when we try to pin a gender on God, the Bible forces us to recognize that we couldn’t ever do that. The problem is, we’ve heard Scripture so many times that we’re often deaf to it. Maybe when we hear something as unfamiliar as the TTC, it can shake us up enough that when we come back to our Bibles, we hear them with fresh ears. This is what I’ve seen over and over again, and it’s another reason I read the Tao te Ching.
Listen to episode five of the podcast below or on the author’s website:
Corey Farr is a graduate of Northern Seminary. He is currently located in the Middle East in Lebanon, a tiny country next to war-torn Syria, where he lives and works onsite at a residential facility and elementary school for both Syrian and Lebanese orphans and children at risk. A singer-songwriter and wannabe author, Corey blogs about faith, spirituality, poetry, and (of course) the Tao te Ching at www.coreyfarr.com, where this article originally appeared. It is reprinted here with permission.
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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10247