TAO TE CHING Chapter 1

道 可 道 , 非 常 道 。
名 可 名 , 非 常 名 。

The tao that you can tao is not the enduring Tao
Names that you can name are not the enduring Name

無 名 天 地 之 始
有 名 萬 物 之 母 。

Without name is the origin of Heaven and Earth
Having names is the mother of the myriad things

故 常 無 , 欲 以 觀 其 妙
常 有 , 欲 以 觀 其 徼 。
此 兩 者 , 同 出 而 異 名
同 謂 之 玄 。
玄 之 又 玄
眾 妙 之 門 。

From of old, without desire, one sees into its wonder
Constantly with desire, one sees its boundaries
These two are exactly the same, but have different names
Both are called mysterious
Mystery of mysteries
Gateway to deep wonder

This is the opening section of the Taoist classic. One hesitates to try to write any kind of commentary at all. It is the kind of text that is meant to seep into one. like Scotch mist. You can read this passage over and over again and continue to glean something profound from it each time.

It speaks of a deep mysteriousness about life and experience. It tells us that there is a Way of Heaven and Earth - an enduring Way - that is different from the ways of human-kind. We can surmise that the Way of Heaven and Earth is to do with yin and yang and with the patterns that are discerned through the I Ching. So there is an interesting paradox here. What is enduring is change.

To the ancient peoples it was very important to know, as best one could, the way of Heaven. This was closely associated with ideas about the ancestors. What did the ancestors need and what did they intend? On the one hand the living had a duty toward the dead. On the other hand the dead had wisdom for the living. This wisdom, however, evolved with the changing situation. It is more intuitive than principled.

The Way of Heaven was often only discernible through signs in the Earth. The phenomena of the natural world give a certain access to the Way of Heaven. A person who would be a sage must pay attention to nature. It is in nature that the patterns that are formalised in the I Ching have their most spontaneous manifestation.

A good part of the philosophy that the book is going to impart has to do with spontaneity and authenticity, or, we can say, with not posing nor putting on affectations. These latter are very characteristic of the way of humankind. There is more than a hint in the first line that one cannot know the Way of Heaven and Earth by contrivance.

So the book is going to describe a certain kind of virtue (te), different from the norms of conventional society. We can already gather that this includes a facility in knowing what it is to have few desires, yet also knowing what it is to have desires. We are told that depending upon which state one inhabits one will get a different view of things, in one case entering into the mystery and in the other case seeing the surface or boundary. We can see these as related to the two different kinds of way. The human way is concerned with boundaries whereas the Way of heaven and Earth is limitless and free, yet not featureless. It manifests through signs that are ceaselessly evolving.

Also, this is not saying, imperatively, to never have desires and always be in the mode of simplicity, etc. It is saying that both modes exist and in one you will experience things one way and in the other the other. So there is no perfectionism - not even being perfectly Taoistic. There are many commentaries on this work and a number of them suggest a more perfectionist interpretation than seems to me to be supported by the text.

The first phrases have impact. If you can tao it it is not Tao. If you can name it, it is not the Name. So there is a sense of a Tao and a Name that are beyond our ken. This is like the idea of God having a hundred names but humans can only know ninety-nine of them. However, although the Tao is ungraspable, it is somehow very close at hand.

There is also something important here about process. The wonders that are referred to are not static. One has the impression that they seethe in a creative fashion.

This philosophy is opposed to the view that aims for clarity, consciousness, measurement, control and invariable principles. Such a view was held by the Legalists of Anceint China who wanted to codify everything and make it quite clear what was right and what wrong, what good and what bad and so on. That view assumes the humans are capable of a much greater degree of knowledge and self-control than Lao Tzu attributes to us. The philosophy of the Tao is one in which we are guided by messages that emanate from sources that we do not understand and do not control and the suggestion is that this is a much healthier and more realistic way to proceed.

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  • Interesting.  Thank you. Yes there are many translations.  It may be the most translated Chinese book into English, I suspect.

  • This character, 玄 is translated by Wang Pi, an early Taoist philosopher at "dark-enigma" which attempts to name the mystery as both Absence and Presence as a a single generative tissue. In Buddhist tradition we might use "suchness" here. 

    His translation:

    In perennial Absence you see mystery,
    and in perennial Presence you see appearance.
    Though the two are one and the same,
    once they arise, they differ in name.

    One and the same they're called dark-enigma,
    dark-enigma deep within dark-enigma,

    gate of all mystery.

    Wang Li

  • Very nice. Thank you. Yes.

  • “…without desire one sees its wonder

    … with desire one sees its boundaries

    These two are exactly the same but have different names…

    Gateway to deep wonder”

    While I am reading these powerful words, I am also studying the common factors and the exceptional ones in Buddhist Psychology. Inside the first ones are the others. Both the same, but with a different face.

    Contemplating these ideas make me feel, at least in this moment, a very compassioned vision of reality. In our path of dukkha lives the sacred, lives the Way. This makes me believe that there are no good or bad in a profound way, because that what I see as bad maybe the only way to the sacred. That is a powerful reason for not refusing dukkha when it appears, but opening to it as my sacred path, the only one that can teach me the wonder inside it. The sacred inhabiting the bombu nature in each instant of life.

    Thank you Dharmavidya

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