Today we are beginning our journey with the Tao Te Ching, and it is a day I have been looking forward to so much that I wanted to postpone starting with the series indefinitely. Why? Because the Tao Te Ching is an incredibly insightful book that I can’t hope to do justice to at this point.
However, as we might conclude from the insights of chapter one, there is never a point in waiting for tomorrow with anything we’ve set our heart on doing. So here we are, jumping in the deep end with perhaps the greatest philosophical work of all time.
When I wrote the majority of this post, by the way, I was sitting by a lit fireplace in a wooden cabin, stars and moon shining outside, with a glass of whiskey by my side. I figured I wouldn’t stumble upon a better opportunity to spend some time with one of the finest books ever written, the Tao Te Ching, and I hope I was right about that. So without further ado, let’s get started.
First, a bit of a back-story
One evening back in 2005, as I was sitting at my desk googling various spiritual topics, I stumbled across a website that would change my life. The website can still be found at www.taoism.net and there I found an online forum full of wonderful people: Taoists.
Most were not Taoists in a religious sense, and indeed, opponents of the Taoist philosophy will often reject people who seek enlightenment through Taoism as new-age buffoons.
Taoism, however, is not essentially about spirituality, although a common denominator of many people who embrace Taoism is open-mindedness towards spirituality. Understanding the value that a spiritual outlook on life can bring is a great advantage if you want to study the Tao. Most philosophies, spiritual or not, have something to add to a well-lived life.
To me Taoism is mostly about philosophy; to other people it might be something more spiritual of nature. Both are fine approaches to the teachings of the Tao.
And the Tao, which translates as the way, is about finding your own place in the world; about making peace with and finding enjoyment in the ways of the universe. In this day an age it is a natural consequence of our culture that many people seek fame and fortune. We want only the best for ourselves.
However, as the Tao teaches, we all have limits, and sometimes it can be in our best interest to know of and accept those limits sooner rather than later in life. Some will be on their deathbed and still not have embraced who they truly are. Living in accordance with the Tao is to live a life without regret and to live in acceptance of reality, about breaking out from your own little bubble.
I mentioned taoism.net because the owner of this website, Derek Lin, also wrote the (in my humble opinion) best translation to English of the Tao Te Ching that is out there. There are plenty of reasons why I think so, but the most important is the fact that Derek is both bilingual and bi-cultural, being a Chinese-american. Anyway, it is his translation that we will be discussing in these weekly meditations.
Among other places, you can pick it up here.
Chapter one of the Tao Te Ching
The first chapter of the Tao Te Ching reads as follows:
The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name
The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth
The named is the mother of myriad things
Thus, constantly without desire, one observes its essence
Constantly, with desire, one observes its manifestations
These two emerge together but differ in name
The unity is said to be the mystery
Mystery of mysteries, the door of all wonders
Before addressing each line one after another, a quick note on the fact that the Tao should not be thought of like one might think of a religion. No place in the Tao Te Ching does it say that its content should be considered truth or the only way to live your life.
In fact, the first chapter of the Tao Te Ching can be read as warning to thinking of the Tao in absolutist terms. There is no right or wrong, no better or worse according to the Tao, only different manifestations of the universal flow of energy.
Dissecting the individual lines of the chapter
I will now say a few words on each line before drawing a conclusion on the chapter as a whole.
1. The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao
This line can be confusing. According to Derek Lin the Tao is something to be experienced, words are not enough. I take it to be a bit like love in this aspect. Poetic words of love like the praise of Goethe or the agony of Kierkegaard can be beautiful to read but they have nothing on the passionate embrace, kiss and touch of another person. We only truly grow through first-hand experience. Be it with love, the Tao, or with anything else.
2. The name that can be named is not the eternal name
Just as I can’t tell you what the essence of the Tao is through spoken words, I can’t tell you about it through a blog post. Language can be a great help in communicating our thoughts and feelings, but ultimately true understanding of the Tao – and of one another – is up to us using our intuition and to us getting in touch with our own feelings and emotions.
3. The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth
The closest I can come to make sense of this line right now is to say that you can think of the laws of physics as being a part of the Tao. Ultimately, no answer to our origins will be sufficiently satisfying for small beings such as us, but through the Tao we can come to an acceptance of the circumstances we find ourselves living under. Once we accept the difficulty in finding true purpose to life, the universe and everything (perhaps expect for 42) we can begin to embed our own lives’ with personal truth and meaning according to our own hearts and minds.
4. The named is the mother of myriad things
We, along with everything else alive, are children of the Tao. Reiterating Carl Sagan, we are here as a way for the universe to know itself. That is a beautiful thing in itself.
5. Thus, constantly, without desire one observes its essence
This line, as well as the rest of the chapter, is more practically applied in life than previous lines. We should try to understand and find joy in the way things work in itself, without using this knowledge in a selfish way. As Derek says in his book, we should focus on being there for other people, and as a result we will find a deep sense of calm through being selfless and through non-attachment to absolute truths.
6. Constantly with desire, one observes its manifestations
While we shouldn’t be selfish we should be passionate about the world around us; about our friends and family, about nature, and about everything else. There is beauty in even the ugliest of creatures; there is goodness in even the most evil of souls.
7. These two emerge together but differ in name
‘These two’ refer to the material world and the spiritual realm. We should not consider mind to be over matter (or matter to be over mind for that matter). Through Taoism we investigate how spiritual mindfulness can lead to a more fruitful physical coexistence with other people, and how experiences in the physical world can lead to spiritual and personal growth.
8. The unity is said to be the mystery
9. Mystery of mysteries, the door to all wonders
These last two lines put an emphasis on how important the two sides of the Tao are to each other. We cannot live a truly satisfying life if we’ve got our heads in a book most the time! But neither can we do the same through purely physical experiences. If we feed both body and mind we get soul as a result. If we value doing, but value thinking just the same, we might find ourselves one day just being. Life should not be more complicated than that.
With that we are through the first chapter of the Tao Te Ching. I hope I’ve succeeded in providing an introduction of some value to the chapter.
By now the Tao is still an enigma to us, difficult to understand.
But as we go through more verses we will slowly become more and more familiar with what kind of force the Tao really is.
Living in accordance with the Tao has often been described as being like water. Here is how another Chinese-American, martial artist Bruce Lee, described this way of thinking:
Don’t get set into one form, adapt it and build your own, and let it grow, be like water. Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; You put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.