An Introduction to the Tao

An Introduction to the Tao


The Taoist symbol known as a "bagua"

Hello my friends,

We have embarked on a grand project – we are eavesdropping on a conversation between Mary Oliver and Tomas Transtromer in which they celebrate existence.  We warmed up with two introductory essays, getting to know our conversationalists.  Then we moved to the heart of our exploration, the shift in the last couple centuries towards finding spirit in the physical world.  The many ways in which our modern poets rejoice in the existential, wallow in the existential.  I packed a fair number of themes into “The Self and the Cosmos”, and we’re going to spend several essays unpacking them.

You will recall that Hinton drew a parallel between the shift in Western sensibility in the 1800s and a shift in Chinese sensibilities 2500 years earlier.  That transition in China is our focus today.  Prior to Lao Tzu and Confucius, under the Shang emperors, the people worshipped Shang Ti, the Celestial Lord, an omnipotent monotheistic god.  Through their ability to intercede with the Celestial Lord, the emperors controlled the weather, harvest, politics, economics, religion, everything.  The divine right of kings.  Under Lao Tzu and Confucius, a new philosophy developed, replacing this spiritual system with an existential one.  Heaven became a physical phenomenon, the “Way,” an empirical Cosmos as a single living tissue that is inexplicably generative in its very nature.  Our belonging to this magical tissue made the world of our immediate experience wholly mysterious and wondrous and sufficient in itself.

This is huge.  Huge enough that we are going to linger here for a while.

Here is the opening chapter of Lao Tzu’s book, the Tao Te Ching.

Chapter 1

Way-making that can be put into words is not really way-making,
And naming that can assign fixed reference to things is not really naming.

The nameless is the fetal beginnings of everything that is happening,
While that which is named is their mother.

Thus, to be really objectless in one’s desires is how one observes the mysteries of all things,
While really having desires is how one observes their boundaries.

These two – the nameless and what is named – emerge from the same source yet are referred to differently.

Together they are called obscure.
The obscurest of the obscure,
They are the swinging gateway of the manifold mysteries.

– Lao Tzu, trans. Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall

Because we are reading in translation, I find it necessary to look at several translations in order to properly explore the text.  Compare this from Ames and Hall, above:

Thus, to be really objectless in one’s desires is how one observes the mysteries of all things,
While really having desires is how one observes their boundaries.

With this from Stephen Mitchell:

Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

The Mitchell is more accessible, but the Ames/Hall is more comprehensive.  Looking at both together, I get a sense for what might be the original thought – that to be egoless in the manner to which the Buddhists aspire, one can perhaps imagine the underlying nature of existence, but in our normal state, we see only what we call “reality”, the world of things.

Ames and Hall describe the swinging gateway through which we move between these two states of perception.  We are never entirely egoless, nor are we always entirely lost in desire.  We have these moments in which we grasp the deeper picture, these glimpses of the immanent.

In case you are feeling the teensiest bit smug, as though you are actually grasping a moment of enlightenment, let me introduce a third translation.  Ursula LeGuin, like Stephen Mitchell, is not a student of the Chinese language.  Both of them rely on the study of multiple translations before creating their own renditions of these astonishing verses.  So we are looking through multiple lenses as we read.  Here is Ursula:

So the unwanting soul
sees what’s hidden,
and the ever-wanting soul
sees only what it wants

Notice the extraordinary shift in emphasis.  She starts out as both Mitchell and Ames/Hall do, focused on the insights we might achieve from the egoless state.  But then!  She doesn’t settle for the concept of objective reality, beloved of Mitchell and Ames/Hall.  She says if we are in the state of desire, what we see is not the reality of things, but the world of our desires.  We are lost in the world of what we want the world to be.

There is always another perspective available.  My daughter the budding philosopher thinks that to achieve a state of desirelessness is not so desirable.  For her, the opposite of desire for tangible things is the desire – the very desirable desire – for the intangible, for love or self-knowledge.

To be continued…