Inner Sanctum
 Derek's Private Study

Possibilities vs. Actualities

In studying the Tao, it is important to recognize possibilities versus actualities. All possibilities exist within the Tao, just as it is possible for water to flow in any direction. At the same time, in actuality the flow of reality -- the Tao -- tends to go in certain particular directions, exactly as water does.

A river doesn't go off in random directions, in a chaotic and unpredictable fashion. Observing nature, we note that it follows a certain course dictated by geography, rainfall, and a number of other factors. Once in a while it changes and shifts course, so it is not completely predictable, but most of the time you can count on the river behaving in a certain way.

In physics and mathematics we recognize the possibility of reverse time. All the calculations, all the formulas can be done in reverse and still hold true. But then, we look at reality and we see that time flows in one particular direction and not the reverse. Nor does time behave in an unpredictable, chaotic fashion. Thus the second law of thermodynamics: the universe tends toward high entropy. Time is a one-way street.

It is the same with the Tao of human behavior. It recognizes everything - peace as well as violence. It recognizes the possibility that violence can, theoretically, produce some sort of positive result. But just like the river and the flow of time, in actuality we note and observe that violence rarely achieve anything helpful in the long term. This is because the Tao inevitably, invariably flows in a particular direction.

Over time, we can tell that the customary direction of the Tao has very much more to do with peace and harmony, and very little to do with struggle and contention. Realizing this, Lao Tzu wrote Tao Te Ching exactly the way he did, thus unifying the greater Tao (where all possibilities exist) and the actual flow of the Tao (how things tend to work in reality). The two are in fact one and the same.

Many, many Western students of the Tao understand the first part of this (the greater Tao encompasses all) without advancing beyond that to the second part (in actual practice things like friendship, fellowship, respect, encouragement, nurturing tend work a whole lot better than debates, arguments, contention and intellectual sophistry). That's just the way reality works - and a true Tao cultivator always makes assessment based on results, rather than how he imagines reality ought to be.

Side note: This is why many Tao-oriented forums are the way they are ("we accept everything because the Tao accepts everything"), with foul-mouthed members who revel in their "freedom" to express themselves and people who attack one another. The contentious people at such forums know the shallow waters of the Tao but have yet to be immersed in the real depths. Perhaps they never will.

This is also why I believe it is important for the Tea House to be an example of the real Tao - as opposed to McTao, the fast food Americanized version of the Tao practiced by so many self-styled Taoists.