In the course of his studies, he came across a phrase from the Vimalakirti-Nirdesa Sutra that he found puzzling. The phrase was "Mount Sumeru hides mustard seed; mustard seed contains Mount Sumeru."
It struck him as incomprehensible and illogical. How could something as small as a seed contain something as big as a mountain? It made no sense to him. Seeking to understand, he visited the Zen master Zhishang and asked for an explanation.
"One can certainly hide a mustard seed somewhere in Mount Sumeru," Li Bo said, "but how can a gigantic mountain fit inside a tiny seed?"
Smiling gently, Zhishang answered this question with a question: "People call you Li of Ten Thousand Volumes, right? So tell me, how can ten thousand books all fit inside your skull?"
What do you think of this story? Pause for a moment to contemplate what you have learned from it.
Now let's examine it together in greater detail. Just as the tiny mustard seed holds a huge mountain, this little story conceals great truths. It will take some work to bring them out, but the effort will be worthwhile.
We start with the concept that something small can contain something big. For the sake of simplicity, we'll do without Mount Sumeru for now. Also, the seed doesn't have to be something so specific as a mustard seed. It can be a generic seed of a generic plant - let us say a tree of some sort. You begin this thought experiment holding such a seed in the palm of your hand.
Right away we can see that even in this pared-down example, the concept holds up quite well. If planted, the seed can grow into a tree. Therefore, it is quite true that there is a full-size tree hiding inside the seed.
That's not all though. The tree that this seed can grow into will produce more seeds, and each seed will contain a full-size tree inside itself. Therefore, this seed contains more than just one tree. It also contains all the offspring-trees that the tree will produce in the next generation. This can add up to be quite a few trees.
Next, we realize that there is no need to stop at one generation in our thought experiment. The trees can reproduce generation after generation, multiplying their numbers with the passage of time. Soon, there are so many trees that they can cover an entire mountain - perhaps a mountain as large as, or larger than, Mount Sumeru. This is a great number of trees; yet they are all hiding inside the seed in the palm of your hand.
There is no need to stop at one mountain either. The trees can continue to multiply until they carpet an entire geographical region (perhaps covering multiple mountains and valleys), stopping only when they encounter a body of water.
Even water is no obstacle, if an animal were to carry a seed across a river, or if a human traveler decides to take some seeds to another continent. The trees can bridge across oceans; eventually they have the potential to turn the entire planet into one big forest.
Nor is one planet the final limit. In the distant future, when mankind terraforms other planets, the trees will bridge across space to take root in alien soils and bask under the rays of other suns.
Thus, to be as accurate as possible, we need to recognize that the seed in your hand contains a virtually limitless number of trees within it. The total mass and size of this incredible amount of trees far exceed those of any mountain. If a seed can hold the unimaginable potential for such a stupendous quantity, then holding Mount Sumaru would be easy in comparison.
Having peered into the far future, we now turn around to look at the other direction of time. What is the past of this seed? How did it come into being?
From its parent-tree, of course. And this parent-tree used to be a seed too. The same can be said for its predecessor, and the predecessor before that, going all the way back to the beginning of life on this planet. Where was the seed at that time?
Obviously, it did not exist as a physical object in the distant past. If it could be said to exist at all, it would be as pure potential. This potential expressed itself when the time was right, and manifested physical reality as the seed in your hand - a seed that, let's not forget, holds a virtually endless progression of trees inside.
We started this thought experiment with the idea that something big can be hiding inside something small. Somehow, we have ended up in a strange place, where we see that an almost infinite number of physical entities can come from the nothingness of pure potentiality. It seems to defy common sense, but when we look at the past and future together, we quickly realize that it cannot be any other way.
The Pregnant Void
This nothingness has many names. Ancient Hindus called it Sunya, the pregnant void. In his philosophical discussions, Bruce Lee called it voidness, or the living void. Modern physicists call an aspect of it the quantum foam.
This void is not an empty vacuum, nor is it the nonexistence of oblivion. There seems to be nothing within its emptiness, but in reality it is seething with infinite possibilities, all waiting to express themselves by taking form in the material world.
This is an important aspect of the Tao - without substance, without form, without shape, and yet containing all conceivable substances, all conceivable forms and all conceivable shapes. The phrase "In God all things are possible" is a glimpse into the divine genius of this supreme power.
Thus in chapter 4 of Tao Te Ching we see that:
The Tao is empty
Having completed the thought experiment, we can now look at this passage in a different light. It may have seemed puzzling before how the Tao can be empty and still be the source of everything. Now it begins to make more sense.
Everything comes out of nothing. Just as the source of all the trees in our example is the immaterial potential of the seed, the source of everything in existence must be the ultimate emptiness in the very beginning of time.
The Human Seed
This is a great truth that applies to human beings as well. You started your physical existence in this lifetime as a fertilized egg - the human seed. Like the seed of a plant, it doesn't look like much in the beginning. In terms of size, the egg is smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. But just as the seed grows into a tall tree eventually, in the course of time the tiny egg develops into the life-size individual you think of as yourself.
Just as the seed contains not only a tree, but also all the trees of successive generations, a fertilized egg contains not just a person, but also all the descendants of that person. In a dozen generations or so, this potential expresses itself as an army of individuals, each with his or her unique quirks and foibles. As time marches into the future, this army will continue to grow, until it becomes a virtually endless parade of human beings.
How about in the past? Prior to the beginning of your physical manifestation, you also existed as pure potentiality, just like the seed in our thought experiment. In that state, you existed as a part of, or in oneness with, the infinitely creative emptiness that is the Tao.
This is how we can say that you come from the Tao, and that the Tao is within you. The connection between humans and the Tao lies at the most fundamental level of reality. This explains why innovation and adaptability are such basic attributes of human nature. The infinite creativity of the Tao is mirrored within you as human creativity. Just as the power of the Tao gives rise to the myriad things, you were born with the potential to reproduce and multiply, and also to invent and build.
This is also why Tao practitioners tend to be remarkably creative individuals. They are often artists, designers, writers, poets, musicians, dancers, composers, programmers, or some combination of the above. Those who do not follow these paths invariably express their creativity in other ways - the commonality is the importance of creative endeavors in their lives.
These people can feel their connection with the Tao. When they say the "creative juice" is flowing, they are tapping into their personal pipeline to the ultimate source. It is little wonder, then, that Tao philosophy resonate with them so powerfully. To these people, being in touch with the Tao is both familiar and comfortable. Others may see this sort of spirituality as quaint or exotic, but creative types see it as the most natural thing imaginable. The Tao has always spoken to them; they feel perfectly at home with it.
The Tao Seed
When Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu wrote down their thoughts 2,500 years ago, they planted a seed. In the course of time, this seed grew into a tree with two large branches: religious and philosophical Taoism.
The Chinese did not regard the two branches as distinct and separate from one another. They tended to the whole tree. Their practice of Taoism mixed religious and philosophical elements freely.
The trees of Taoism did not develop as Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu had envisioned. On the religious branch, Tao practitioners deified these humble and self-effacing philosophers. This was rather ironic since they had never claimed to be divine in any way, and probably preferred to remain out of sight. Their deification was, in many ways, completely contrary to the spirit of their words.
The philosophical branch did not fare much better. Somehow misguided quests for physical immortality came into being. They grew as twisted new branches that eventually withered and fell off the trees.
The Tao tree did not grow properly because the soil did not have the proper nutrients. Nevertheless, the Tao seed persisted. The potential within it passed from one generation to another, remaining the same all the while. Century after century, it waited patiently for the appropriate time to manifest its true potential.
That time came when the Tao seed was carried by human travelers into the Western continent. The Tao tree had bridged across the ocean into a new place where it had never been planted before.
Something interesting happened. The rich soil of the Western continent had all the elements of nutrition the Tao tree needed to thrive. These elements included the rugged individualists, their ideal of independence, the freedom from artificial constraints, and a sense of humor - a perfect echo of the characteristics of the ancient sages.
Only a few seeds had been planted thus far, so society at large did not pay them much attention. Some people noticed the new growth, but reacted in different ways.
Some Chinese people looked at the Tao tree and thought of it as no more than an obsolete relic from the past. They had already stopped tending to it, so they continued to ignore it. They took it for granted and did not realize what a treasure it was.
Others looked the same tree and noticed its remarkable elegance, beauty and strength. They tasted its fruits and found them delicious as well as healthy. They looked around for books about it; they studied whatever they could find with great enthusiasm. Then they began to plant more seeds.
Today, delicate saplings are poking out of the rich soil tentatively and gingerly. They still have a long way to go, but at least they have taken root.
If you are reading these words, then the Tao seed has already been planted in your heart. You may have come across the Tao unexpectedly, or it may have manifested in your life out of nowhere. You can say that the Tao seed has arisen from the pregnant void to occupy an appropriate place in your reality.
Like any other seed, the Tao seed has unlimited possibilities inside of you. It may not seem like much just now, but there is no telling how it will express its incredible potential as time goes on. The question is if you will allow the seed to grow into a great Tao tree, and allow the tree to multiply into a bountiful Tao forest.
Just as the mustard seed contains Mount Sumeru and Li Bo's mind holds ten thousand volumes, within your heart you possess unlimited capacity for the unlimited Tao. It is time for you to tap its power of divine creativity as you move through the barren spiritual landscape of the materialistic society today. The seed of Taoism is finally ready, 2,500 years later and thousands of miles from its point of origin, to transform the desolate plains into the garden of paradise!