Taoism, That which cannot be named


Welcome everyone to Sengoku Japan! Thank you for joining us here today. You can get a copy of the notes from the poster behind me, and if you feel so inclined please consider leaving a donation using the flower vase beside that.

Today we are going to discuss that which cannot be discussed – the Tao.

The first verse of the Tao Te Ching, the most comprehensive text on the Tao by Lao Tzu, reads:

“A way that can be walked
is not The way,
A name that can be named
is not The Name

Tao is both Named and Nameless
As Nameless, it is the origin of all things
As Named, it is the mother of all things

A mind free of thought,
merged within itself,
beholds the essence of Tao
A mind filled with thought,
identified with its own perceptions,
beholds the mere forms of this world

Tao and this world seem different
but in truth they are one and the same
The only difference is in what we call them

How deep and mysterious is this unity
How profound, how great!
It is the truth beyond the truth,
the hidden within the hidden
It is the path to all wonder,
the gate to the essence of everything!”

What this is saying, among various other interpretations, is that all of our experiences, including language, are merely a sign pointing to a non-conceptual ultimate reality. It is important to not focus on these sign posts but to focus instead on the ultimate reality (Tao) to experience it clearly.

So what is “Tao”? It’s literally translated to “way,” “path,” or “principle.” It is the underlying ultimate reality to all that is.

There’s a quote from “The Tao of Pooh” by Benjamin Hoff that explains it well:

“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”
“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”
“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.
Pooh nodded thoughtfully.
“It’s the same thing,” he said.

“What’s that?” the Unbeliever asked.
“Wisdom from a Western Taoist,” I said.
“It sounds like something from Winnie-the-Pooh,” he said.
“It is,” I said.
“That’s not about Taoism,” he said.
“Oh, yes it is,” I said.
“No, it’s not,” he said.
“What do you think it’s about?” I said.
“It’s about this dumpy little bear that wanders around asking silly questions, making up songs, and going through all kinds of adventures, without ever accumulating any amount of intellectual knowledge or losing his simpleminded sort of happiness. That’s what it’s about,” he said.
“Same thing,” I said.

As this tradition comes from Chinese philosophy which is steeped in the concept of yin and yang, or opposites coming together to form Truth or Reality. They are not necessarily two different things, but rather opposite and complementary qualities of the same basic Reality.

Within this philosophy is the concept of Wu. This is translated as “nothingness,” “emptiness,” or “non-existence.”

Verse 11 of the Tao speaks of this as:

“Thirty spokes of a wheel all join at a common hub
yet only the hole at the centre
allows the wheel to spin
Clay is moulded to form a cup
yet only the space within
allows the cup to hold water
Walls are joined to make a room
yet only by cutting out a door and a window
can one enter the room and live there

Thus, when a thing has existence alone
it is mere dead-weight
Only when it has wu, does it have life.”

Juxtaposed to this is the concept of Yu. These represent being and non-being. There are many philosophers who believe that Wu can be directly experienced by humans in certain forms, though I tend to prefer the idea that both are existent in all things, and one can perhaps not exist without the other.

Building from this is the concept of Wu Wei, or “actionless action.” Contrary to popular thought, this does not mean inaction or lack of action, but rather going along with the natural flow of things, acting in spontaneity and not obstructing the natural Tao.

The most common quote in the Tao Te Ching about this is as follows:
“When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.”

The last verse of the Tao, Verse 81, read as follows:

“Words born of the mind are not true
True words are not born of the mind

Those who have virtue do not look for faults
Those who look for faults have no virtue

Those who come to know It
do not rely on learning
Those who rely on learning
do not come to know It
*
The Sage sees the world
as an expansing of his own self
So what need has he to accumulate things?
By giving to others
he gains more and more
By serving others
he receives everything
*
Heaven gives,
and all things turn out for the best
The Sage lives,
and all things go as Tao goes
all things move as the wind blows”

This can be a lot to take in. Some people will follow the Tao for their entire lives and not necessarily understand. But, any comprehension is beyond language, study, and even maybe experience. It’s said to be a kind of dropping away into nothingness, while still being fully here.

This makes it difficult to discuss, but let’s try anyway. What do you think about this? How does it relate to your own experience of the world?

I open the floor.

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