TAO TE CHING 21: Just Thus


The appearance of a person of high Te (virtue) is due to nothing except the Tao.
The activity of Tao is vague and indistinct:
so indistinct, so vague, yet within it has form;
so vague, so indistinct, yet within it has matter;
so dark, so deep, yet within it has potency.
This is the potency of truth; within it one has faith
From antiquity to now it’s reputation never left it because you can read it in the origins of everything.
You might ask, how do I know the origins of everything?
Just thus!

This is, again, a passage about genuineness and authenticity as self justifying and sufficient, but here this is related to the Te, this being the book of Tao and Te, to how Te emerges from Tao and how Tao emerges from the primal source of all. This is a summary of the whole Taoist philosophy: the notion of a primal matrix from which emerge forms, matters and power and how this presents in the world as authentic being, or Te.

The person of Te does not put on airs, but presents him or herself in a completely authentic manner. without trying to do something called being authentic, but rather simply by having the kind of faith and confidence that comes from staying in touch with what is true, real and fundamental. In the case of a person of Te, what you see is what you get, and this is the case because that person is wholly grounded in the Tao. Te, virtue, has both the meaning, as it does in English, of ethicality and of power or utility, as when we say the virtue of something lies in what it is good for.

However, the question of what "authenticity" consists of is important. A person may have certain characeristics, but where do they come from? Are they simply a sign of what has been internalised or is there a deeper source. Taoism takes the latter view. There is something deep and mysterious that is all the time in process of emerging into the world, which also means within oneself. In more modern terms we might call this the unconscious or even the collective unconscious. It is this fount of hidden meaning that is regarded as most real and therefore as the foundation of authenticity and this is understood as in contradistinction to social convention which is more in the nature of a mask that not only disguises the emergent power but even distracts us from it so that the person who is dedicated to self-presentation in a social context never even notices what is happening at a soul level.

The person of Te, however, is not shaped by anything except the Tao and the Tao is the original nature - or rather the origin of the nature - of everything. Things may evolve into artificiality or over-sophistication under the influence of conditions, but they all started out from something genuine: they all come from the primal matrix which is endlessly functioning. Thus, we can say that Tao is embodied in actual things and actual processes that occur in the world, but, at the same time, it is actually beyond these ephemeral facticities since it is the principle underlying all.

The passage puts us in mind of the power of dreams. Dreams emerge out of sleep. Sleep is vague and unformed, but dreams contain form and important matter that has a great potency. Taoism values the understandings that come from the dream world. If one is in touch with the messages that come from the unconscious, a great potency is liberated. This gives one faith in the intuitive side of life. One learns how wisdom emerges from the mysterious source.

In our modern way of thinking, we tend to take it that waking consciousness is most real and dreams are unreal, but in the way of the ancients, dreams were also real or even more real. They came from a deeper source. They yield wisdom where ordinary consciousness only reveals information.

Taoism is concerned with the hidden world and dreams are one way of accessing that world. However, the point is not so much to aid us in accessing it, as to alert us to the way that it is constantly accessing us. The effect of the hidden deep pattern of things is continually breaking into our experiential world. The follower of Tao has faith in this, does not reject, ignore or denigrate it, but "values being fed by the Mother".

Faith is cemented by experience. Dreams are also experience. When one has relied upon what is learnt from dreams and this has served well, one has greater faith in the hidden world and intuitive meanings. When one has learnt to see the patterns represented in the I Ching in the unfolding sequences of nature and life, one's faith is similarly strengthened.

The chapter ends with the author being asked how he could know the origin of things and he simply says, like this. in other words, by experience. The matter is circular in a certain way. If one avoids being artificial, then naturally one will be in touch with things in their statu nascendi. One will notice the actual arising of things out of the unconscious, or, we could say, out of the unseen. One will notice because one's vision is not obscured by prejudgement nor attachment, nor artificial attempts to present oneself in a particular way. This contact with the base of things in turn comes to be recognised as virtue in the world.

We can also understand this question as a kind of seduction, an invitation for Lao Tzu to enter into the social game of sophisticated arguments and justifications, but he refuses to go there.

We can understand the phrase "The appearance of the person of Te" in two ways. On the one hand it refers to how such a person seems to be. We find them straightforward, intuitive, retiring, modest, uncomplicated yet somewhat enigmatic. On the other hand it also refers to the fact that such a way of being is the arrival of the influence of Tao, it is Tao appearing, erupting in the midst of things. It is both inconspicuous and disruptive, quietly revolutionary, perfectly natural yet capable of changing everything. Te, therefore, is powerful but not in the sense of force, rather by being so in touch with the structure of things that it naturally changes conditions in ways that have great consequence, even though ordinary people have no idea how it happens. Thus form, matter and power emerge from what seems vague, indistinct, dark and deep, though to the person in question it all just seems perfectly obvious and simple. It is just thus.

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  • I keep coming back to this - thank-you david.

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