I have a reasonably specific set of beliefs. I converted to Catholicism, but I take a lot of it metaphorically, and I will admit to a supporting strata of beliefs that mines many traditions – I’m all over the map, I suppose. But at the deepest level, something essentially nameless is happening that constitutes my set of core beliefs, and I take great comfort in that. Why? Because I know that I don’t have to be right about the specifics of belief. I can rest in that nameless feeling, and know that the rest is nothing but detail. No pressure, as they say.
One of the world’s most profound books is also one of the shortest, and it captures that sense of the nameless better than anything I have ever heard or read. Indeed, it seems to rejoice in that.
That book is the Tao Te Ching. Maybe, I’m a Taoist at heart, or maybe I should call that my fall back position. It was reputedly written by Lao-tzu, a contemporary of Confucius, and consists of 81 shrot chapter, but may be the wisest book ever written.
This is the first chapter:
The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name
The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth
The named is the mother of myriad things
Thus, constantly without desire, one observes its essence
Constantly with desire, one observes its manifestations
These two emerge together but differ in name
The unity is said to be the mystery
Mystery of mysteries, the door to all wonders
(translation by Derek Lin)
I want to look at that in now some detail:
|– The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao
As Dorothy told Jerry McQuire (in the movie of the same nae), “You had me at hello.” The “tao” is usually translated as “the (right) way”. It is the underlying principle of the universe. It is what makes everything work. And all of those are wildly inadequate translations (if one takes the line that I have just quoted to heart). If you try to put it into words, you miss something just as putting a bird in a cage takes away some of its “birdness”. It is . . . ineffable. And I love that. The only thing that can do it justice is the pure experience of it, the epichany that defies words to describe it. Thank God for that.
– The name that can be named is not the eternal name
But there is a distinction between lines one and two: nameless versus named, even if all attempts at naming must be considered inadequate, potential and realised, the appearance of duality.
And duality is the system of classification that divides everything into two: potential and realised, good and evil . . . even all those tired old jokes that start, “There are two kinds of people . . .”
– The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth
Back to the nameless, the potential, but with a little more detail. It is divided into heaven and earth, which in Chinese philosophy are also called the creative and the receptive, male and female, yin and yang.
– The named is the mother of myriad things
Back to the named but, again, in more detail.
Note the pairing of lines: 1 = 3 and 2 = 4. That pattern is sustained throughout much of the chapter. It’s constructed like poetry. And it’s perfect.
– Thus, constantly without desire, one observes its essence
Back to the nameless. The primal, nameless force of the universe is without desire, and if you look at it without desire, you see it from an enlightened perspective; you see the heart of things; you live in the realm of the epiphany, the peak experience. And in that moment, you are a mystic.
– Constantly with desire, one observes its manifestations
Back to the named. Manifestations of the essential power of the universe, things like life itself, arise through desire, and when you look at the universe with desire in your heart, that is what you see.
The pattern of lines is continued, each building on the last in a leapfrog fashion:
Nameless: 1 = 3 = 5
Named: 2 = 4 = 6
This pattern imitates the very duality it describes – beautiful!
And then, that duality is resolved:
– These two emerge together but differ in name
They, the nameless and the named, are separate but they are also one, like two sides of a single coin, waves and troughs in the same ocean, folds in the same garment . . .
– The unity is said to be the mystery
Indeed! There’s a proposition to meditate on: the nameless and the named are united. There is real wisdom.
And we can see it in our lives. The deepest forces express themselves through our most mundane actions.
– Mystery of mysteries, the door to all wonders
And if we understand that, we understand everything.