Where is the Tao?

One day, a scholar by the name of Donguozi asked Chuang Tzu: “That which we call the Tao — where is it?”

The two of them were outside, and Chuang Tzu said: “Everywhere. There is no place where the Tao isn’t.”

Donguozi didn’t quite understand this, so he asked: “Can you be more specific and point it out for me?”

Chuang Tzu looked around and saw ants crawling underfoot, so he pointed to them: “The Tao is among these ants.”

This surprised Donguozi. He asked: “Why such a lowly place?”

Chuang Tzu pointed to a blade of grass: “The Tao is in the weeds.”

This puzzled Donguozi. The ants at least could move around. You couldn’t say that about the grass! He asked: “Aren’t the weeds even more lowly than the ants?”

Chuang Tzu pointed to some discarded construction material: “See that clay tile? The Tao is in it.”

This puzzled Donguozi even more. He asked: “Why do you keep going lower and lower? At least the ants and weeds are alive. The clay tile is a dead thing!”

Chuang Tzu pointed to a pile of manure: “The Tao is in urine and defecation.”

Donguozi’s puzzlement turned into frustration. He closed his mouth and said nothing more.

The Tao

This story inspires deeper thinking. On the surface, it seems like the Tao is nothing special, since it is everywhere, even in places that appear to be worthless or insignificant. Beneath the surface, what Chuang Tzu is really saying is that the Tao is all the more incredible precisely because it is everywhere. The Tao is not limited in where it can be. We can find it not only in the holiest places, but also the lowliest — and everywhere in between.

Most people divide up the world into categories and rank them against one another. To them, it makes sense that some places and things should be set aside for special treatment, while others should be cast aside to be ignored or ridiculed. Therefore, the Tao should be reserved for temples and sites of religious significance, and if the Tao is to be represented in a statue or sculpture, then it should be made of the most precious material available.

The thinking of the sage is the complete opposite. To a sage, the entire world is one sacred creation, and everything in it comes from the same sacred source. Places and things may appear different in human perception, but all partake in the essential oneness of the totality. Everything is connected with everything else — birth is connected to death, survival is connected to elimination, living organisms are connected to inorganic objects, and so on. A flower cannot live on by itself, separate from its roots that dig deeply into the mud. Thus, when Tao cultivators appreciate the beauty of the flower, they recognize also the goodness inherent in all other parts of the plant, and the soil that gives it life. Everything about the flower, not just its petals, has its own special beauty.

Today, the sage’s way of perceiving the world is still not widely understood. We may be far more technically advanced than the people of ancient China, but we haven’t advanced much at all in terms of our essential nature. Thus, it is very common that when people refer to the divine, they look up or point up to the sky, or they talk about “the man upstairs.”

Tao cultivators know the truth that transcends the mundane mind. The divine is not just up in the sky; it is also all around us and below us. It is inside and outside of us; it extends in every direction. God is not a man, and lives not just upstairs, but also downstairs and in every room simultaneously. The divine manifests not just in every nook and cranny inside the house, but also everywhere outside the house. To look only to the heavens is to limit that which cannot be limited in the first place.

The end of the story depicted the dramatic difference that the Tao can make in one’s life. People who do not understand the Tao fail to see anything special in everyday things, unless they are highly valued in terms of material wealth. The focus and pursuit of such values never leads to happiness, and that is why they are often beset with annoyance and frustration.

You do not need to think as they do. When you understand the Tao, you become more like Chuang Tzu. You see the Tao everywhere, so you can experience the exquisite essence of existence. You do not need to search anywhere for the Tao, since it is right in front of you no matter where you turn. You live each day surrounded by the mystery and miracle of life itself. This is why you are often smiling — your smile comes from the joy within, and from your appreciation for the incredible beauty of it all.

Latest posts by Derek Lin (see all)