Sunday, March 08, 2009

Tao te Ching

The Tao te Ching is a book that cannot be read directly. Unfortunately, I have little experience reading books indirectly, so I found this a difficult book to read, end even more difficult to discern what was being said by the author.
A friend told me that he thought Heraclitus, the Greek pre-Socratic philosopher, was somewhat like Lao Tzu. Heraclitus said "you can't step in the same river twice". He believed that reality was a flux composed of a unity of opposites.
I suppose it is possible to consider Lao Tzu's "the way" in this manner and see it as a unifying force. I liken it to the ancient Greek notion of substance that underlies all things but does not have a separate existence.

The Tao te Ching, or Daodejing, is widely considered to be the most influential Taoist text. It is a foundational scripture of central importance in Taoism and it has been used as a ritual text throughout the history of religious Taoism. However, the precise date that it was written is the subject of debate: there are those who put it anywhere from the 6th century BC to the 3rd century BC.

Taoist commentators have deeply considered the opening lines of the Tao Te Ching. They are widely discussed in both academic and mainstream literature. A common interpretation is similar to Alfred Korzybski's observation that "the map is not the territory". The opening lines, with literal and common translation, are:

道可道,非常道。 (Tao (way or path) can be said, not usual way)
"The Way that can be described is not the true Way."
名可名,非常名。 (names can be named, not usual names)
"The Name that can be named is not the constant Name."

Tao literally means "path" or "way" (and also means "say" or "be said"), and can figuratively mean "essential nature", "destiny", "principle", or "true path". The philosophical and religious "Tao" is infinite, without limitation. One view states that the paradoxical opening is intended to prepare the reader for teachings about the unteachable Tao. Tao is believed to be transcendent, indistinct and without form. Hence, it cannot be named or categorized. Even the word "Tao" can be considered a dangerous temptation to make Tao a limiting "name.

The Tao te Ching seems to suggest action is good, except when inaction is required; that it is good to experience things with an open mind, but do not become too attached to one way of looking at reality for it may suddenly be going in the other direction. In other words, it is difficult to determine exactly what this book is saying, especially when it suggests that words cannot describe the way; thus the way is not that which is called by that name (don't worry - I don't know what that means either).

The best thing about the Tao te Ching is that the act of reading it stirs your mind, gets you thinking about deep questions and others. That alone makes it worth the effort, even though it may take a lifetime to make some progress toward answers.

Perhaps it is appropriate to turn to a twentieth century poet and thinker for some Tao-like advice. Here is a stanza from "Burnt Norton"

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.

T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. Trans. by D. C. Lau. Penguin Books, New York. 1963.
The Classic of the Way and Virtue: A New Translation of the Tao-te ching of Lao Zi. Interpreted by Wang Bi. Trans. by Richard John Lynn. Columbia University Press, New York. 1999.
Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot. Faber & Faber, London. 1968.

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