The Tao

From Lao Tzu:

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.

The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.

The named is the mother of ten thousand things.

Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.

Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.

These two spring from the same source but differ in name;

This appears as darkness.

Darkness within darkness.

The gate to all mystery.

As translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English

The opening lines of the Tao Te Ching, the core document of ancient Taoism.  

No, I will not be “naming” the Tao or anything of that sort!   This will only be some scattered thoughts and various reflections.  There are many English language translations of the Tao Te Ching, but the one I will be using is by Feng and English.  Simply from an intuitive feel I sense that this translation has touched the reality of the text more than the others, though many are good and interesting and valuable for comparison and to gain an additional insight.  The ancient Chinese is especially difficult and even native speakers cannot always agree on what the text is getting at.  Thus there are various versions of the text, and the interpretive twist that is applied depends on what the translator brings to the text.  Finally, there are different spellings of Anglicized Chinese terms: as example, in years past it was “Tao Te Ching”—that has become in recent years as “Dao De Jing”—no big deal, the change has to do with politics and cultural/social issues.  I will use the older spelling for these notes.

Taoism has a long and complex history.  Its roots go back to prehistoric shamanism but it emerged as a refined and extremely deep spiritual consciousness around 600 BCE.  Its golden age was from about 600 to about 300 BCE.  Interestingly enough in the West this was also the golden age of Greek philosophy from Parmenides to Aristotle.  

From Jacob Needleman’s Introduction to the Feng/English translation:

“The word Tao…has been characterized as untranslatable by nearly every modern scholar.  But this statement should not lead us to imagine that the meaning of the Tao was any more easily understood by the contemporaries of Lao Tsu.  It would be more to the point to say only, half jokingly, that the word Tao, and even the whole of the Tao Te Ching, is not readily translatable into any language, including Chinese!….  The present translation generally leaves the word Tao in Chinese.  Those who have sought an equivalent in Western languages have almost invariably settled on Way or Path.”

The word “tao” appears all over the place in Chinese culture and in all the various traditions and schools of thought, including the historically dominant Confucianism.  It can have different senses in all these different contexts, and mostly it loses its mysticism and mystery.

Lao Tzu is a seminal figure for authentic Taoism.  Many scholars doubt he even existed and that the text attributed to him was composed by a variety of people.  Frankly I find that totally irrelevant to my purposes.  I know there is a text; there is a voice that speaks through the text; there is a vision that engages me.  Whoever Lao Tzu is, I consider him a dear friend who speaks to my heart.

There is another seminal figure for ancient Taoism: Chuang Tzu.  (Thomas Merton loved Chuang Tzu:  “Chuang Tzu is not concerned with words and formulas about reality, but with the direct existential grasp of reality in itself.  Such a grasp is necessarily obscure and does not lend itself to abstract analysis. It can be presented in a parable, a fable, or a funny story about a conversation between two philosophers….  The whole Chuang Tzu book is an anthology of the thought, the humor, the gossip, and the irony that was current in Taoist circles in the best periods, the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C.  But the whole teaching, the ‘way’ contained in these anecdotes, poems, and meditations, is characteristic of a certain mentality found everywhere in the world, a certain taste for simplicity, for humility, self-effacement, silence, and in general a refusal to take seriously the aggressivity, the ambition, the push, and the self-importance which one must display in order to get along in society.  This other is a ‘way’ that prefers not to get anywhere in the world, or even in the field of some supposedly spiritual attainment.”) 

Like all major religious traditions Taoism did not remain static.  Over time a lot of changes took place; it evolved, it transformed, it degenerated, it became infected with a lot of pop religiosity, which is its condition at present as it barely hangs on precariously in Chinese culture and society.  It has largely become a strange amalgam of superstition, health practices, alchemy, magic, body therapies, martial arts, religious rituals, etc.  This kind of religiosity seems to have been prevalent over the last thousand years or so, but even in ancient times there were figures who poked fun at it or critiqued  it, like the hermit-poet Han Shan.  Needless to say, all the major traditions have had similar problems, but Taoism experienced some special problems of its own in modern times:  Chinese Communism.

There is very little trace of pristine Taoism left, but it can be found here and there, especially in the hermit subculture of China.  And this is a most remarkable story in itself.  There is probably no other culture in which the hermit monk has been more valued than in this especially communal culture of China.  An amazing paradox, and this has been going on for several thousand years.  When the Communists took over there was a strong repression of the hermit movement as with all other religious expressions.  However, “the way of the hermit” was still not lost among the common people no matter the ruling ideology, and so some folks headed out into the wilderness and lay low, albeit not in the numbers of past years.  As the repression began to lessen in the 1980s and 90s, their presence began to be noticed.  The American poetry translator and scholar and travel writer, Red Pine,  went to China in 1989 to see for himself if there were any hermits still in China.  Chinese officials told him there were none; even the monastic centers and temples in the cities that were beginning to be allowed once more to open told him not to waste his time looking for what is not there.  But he decided to visit the legendary mountain wilderness areas where hermits used to inhabit, and to his surprise discovered a remarkable number of them.  Certainly not in the numbers of old, but still an astonishing presence considering the recent history.  He wrote a book about it: Road to Heaven, Encounters with Chinese Hermits.  The really interesting thing about this is that when the book was translated into Chinese in China, it became a big seller.  The general populace of China was still very enchanted with their hermits and wanted to know more about them!  The situation is not unlike the one depicted in another documentary about Tibetan Buddhist nuns in a particular monastery on the Tibet/China border, how their monastery was demolished by the Red Army and they were scattered.  But a number of them kept up the monastic life in secret and the whole thing came back to life when the repression was alleviated.  In any case, inspired by Red Pine’s book, a short documentary was made about these Chinese hermits a few years later (“Amongst White Clouds”).  It is in these circles that you can still find the authentic pristine Taoism.  And of course not only there.

There is another place where you might find authentic Taoism but you might not recognize it there—Chinese Buddhism or to be more precise, Chan, Chinese Zen.  A very elaborate, speculative Buddhism traveled from India primarily to two places, Tibet and China.  In Tibet it got even more elaborate,  and it developed an enormous system and methodology.  In China the opposite happened.  When Indian Buddhism encountered Chinese culture and ancient Taoism, it was transformed into Chinese Zen, which is then the source of what we know as Japanese Zen. (Of course there was also other forms of Buddhism in China.)  For the most part, for the Chinese the incoming Buddhism seemed to them a bit like their native Taoism.  They just stripped it of all its “luggage” and “decorations” and so developed Chinese Zen, an amazingly austere, simple path.  This is a controversial point because many scholars of Taoism simply study what is practiced and taught at the pop Taoism level and which practically what millions of Chinese around the world engage in to some degree.  This is a complex question, and it is probably a worthwhile thing to do, but not what I am interested in.  I think it is important to get a sense of authentic, pristine Taoism, and the roots of this incredible mystical path.    I follow people who are so inclined and who have a deep sense of Taoism, not just a sociological/anthropological interest.  So I follow folks like Merton, Burton Watson, Red Pine, etc.

 In ancient times there were figures like the hermit-poet Han Shan who seemed to combine both a Buddhist vision and a Taoist vision.  Such figures can be found even today, and there is one characteristic that they all seem to share: a very keen sensibility for wilderness and the natural world.  And this greatly influenced Chinese art and poetry.  (You can read about this in a work like David Hinton’s Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China.)  This relationship to the wilderness and a sensibility for its spiritual significance is scarce in the West, but here and there you can catch a glimpse of it in various figures like John Muir and Ansel Adams.  Some of Adams’ photographs from the Sierras and other places remind one of some Chinese scroll paintings.  The human being is “de-centered” in this vision—still there but no longer the center or the “main part” as in Western art.  The human is there as a small but integral part of a much larger Whole, which in itself opens up as a window to the Ultimate Mystery.   In the West the natural world is there for our exploitation, the extraction of resources for our benefit, the source of power and wealth, the playground of our ego self.  Or, the wilderness can be an “obstacle” to be overcome. The Bible and Western Thought are almost of no help here—in fact by some considered the cause of the problem.   (When the first Europeans came to the Grand Canyon, they lamented what an obstacle that was to their explorations for wealth.  When the pioneers came upon the Sierras during the Gold Rush, they only saw the mountains as another obstacle to the gold.  And so on.  Our attitude and treatment of the Native Americans is not unrelated to this mindset.)  After that we become “tourists” in nature; the wilderness is there for play, a theme park of sorts.  Edward Abbey has written bitterly about all that.  Rare is that person who has that Taoist spirit and sees the spiritual significance of the wilderness. 

Merton:  “Chinese Buddhism is in fact an amalgam of Taoism and the ‘Great Vehicle’ (Mahayana Buddhism) of India.  The Taoism that still goes by that name is in fact much further from the original Taoism of Lao Tzu than Zen Buddhism, which preserves intact the living thought of the Tao Te Ching, while popular Taoism is a hodgepodge of quasi-magical rites, folklore, and superstition.”  One might also add that there is a lot of that kind of stuff in many Christian circles also!!

We began by quoting in full the first lines of the Tao Te Ching.  This first chapter or first part or first poem, whatever you call it, is pretty much the essence of it all.  Everything else in the Tao Te Ching is a kind of drawing out the implications and the full meaning of these opening lines.  Unless you get the deep sense of the opening, at least a glimmer of it, the rest of it will seem opaque or banal or just a pile of inscrutable paradoxes (the Christian Gospels have some of this kind of language too).  What might strike you is how much there is of focused ethical language—not abstract, vague mystical language.  For the true Taoist there is a definite way of living and acting in the concrete.  Here I would like to quote a famous and profound Chinese scholar, Wang-Tsit Chan:

“But there is in Lao Tzu a peculiar emphasis on what is generally regarded as negative morality, such as ignorance, humility, compliance, contentment, and above all, weakness.  Lao Tzu is very insistent that we avoid the extreme, the extravagant, and the excessive, do away with desires, knowledge, competition, and things of the senses.  He wants us to be ‘contented with contentment’ and know ‘when to stop.’  He encourages us to ‘keep to humility’ and accept disgrace, to be willing to live in places which others detest, to be low and submissive, to be behind others but never ahead of them, and to ‘become one with the dusty world’….”

For Lao Tzu, Wang-Tsit Chan continues, “water, the infant, the female, the valley, and the uncarved block are used as models for a life according to Tao.  No other school has deliberately selected these as symbols for a good life.  Practically all of these symbolize the life of simplicity.  Some people have therefore regarded the teachings of Lao Tzu as negative and defeatist.  But this is not the case…. Knowledge in the sense of cleverness and cunning  is to be discarded, but knowledge of harmony and the eternal, contentment, where to stop, and the self is highly valued.  Or take simplicity.  The symbol for it is the uncarved block which is not spoiled by artifice.  Metaphysically it stands for the original purity and unity of Tao and ethically it stands for a simple life that is free from cunning and cleverness, is not devoted to the pursuit of profit or marked by hypocritical humanity and righteousness, but is characterized by plainness, tranquility, and purity.”

(from the Introduction to The Way of Lao Tzu by Wing-Tsit Chan)

But, as I said above,  all this can be relegated to a very superficial and stultifying modality unless one has a sense of the depths which that word, “Tao,” opens up—as in the opening lines of the Tao Te Ching.   And there are also other parts of this work that invite our hearts into the depths.

I remember many years ago sitting in the chapel of a Benedictine monastery in the desert in Southern California, just beginning a retreat before I was going to start my own monastic journey in another community.  It was time for vespers, evening prayer, and the community was gathering.  Several dozen other people were there also; it was the end of a prayerful weekend workshop on pottery at the monastery.  Many of the participants were there, and this prayer service was the close of the workshop.  Evening prayer went along in a traditional way, except for one of the readings—they are usually from the Bible, but this one was suppose to be a final thought for the pottery folks but it hit me extra hard:  it was from the Tao Te Ching:

“Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;

It is the center hole that makes it useful.

Shape the clay into a vessel;

It is the space within that makes it useful.

Cut doors and windows for a room;

It is the holes that make it useful.

Therefore profit comes from what is there;

Usefulness from what is not there.”

(Feng, English translation)

Most people, especially us Westerners, fixate and value “what is there,” the stuff of reality, that which is.  Normal and understandable, but the Taoist sensibility is keen on “what is not there,” that which is not, emptiness.  It understands the mysterious and profound value of that emptiness—without any need to explain the unexplainable.  The mysterious fruitfulness of this emptiness.  

If I were writing a book on what is called Christian contemplative prayer or meditation, I would begin with this little poem.  The key to going deeply into “contemplative prayer” is to value this particular emptiness and recognize its presence ( a paradox of course, because it is the essential absence!!). 

Let me conclude with one more excerpt from the Gia-Fu Feng, Jane English translation:

“Look, it cannot be seen—it is beyond form.

Listen, it cannot be heard—it is beyond sound.

Grasp, it cannot be held—it is intangible.

These three are indefinable;

Therefore they are joined in one.

From above it is not bright;

From below it is not dark:

An unbroken thread beyond description.

It returns to nothingness.

The form of the formless,

The image of the imageless,

It is called indefinable and beyond imagination.

Stand before it and there is no beginning.

Follow it and there is no end.

Stay with the ancient Tao,

Move with the present.

Knowing the ancient beginning is the essence of Tao.”