Monday, August 17, 2015

Thoughts on the Tao Te Ching 1

Writing any kind of spiritual diary is a very difficult task as one finds one begins to to exhaust the well pretty quickly as it were, and, indeed, the worst results of that is the dreadful experience of repeating oneself to such an extent that one begins to doubt whether one has really progressed any further along the road to spiritual enlightenment.  That is the way I feel about this spiritual journal in the shape of this particular blog. I have often found, that in such periods of aridity and emptiness it is better to go to another well to slake one's spiritual thirst.  Over the next several posts, I am going to visit Lao Tzu's well by way of commentary on that wonderful spiritual work attributed to his hand, namely the Tao Te Ching. Lao Tzu, according to some sources, was a philosopher and poet and founder of the philosophical school called Taoism and author of the spiritual/mystical book just quoted above, and on which I'll attempt to comment here.  Some scholars say that he lived around the 6th century BCE and was a contemporary of Confucius while others reckon that he existed some time during the Warring States period of the 5th or 4th centuries BCE.  Others still, argue that he was a purely legendary figure and that, like the works of other spiritual traditions, there may have been more than just one person involved in the composition of the Tao Te Ching.  While a little bit of background information is always good for us, there is really no need to know much about the author of this spiritual classic as its riches lie purely in the text and its transformative spiritual power on its meditative reader.  Therefore, let us turn now to a meditation on the text itself.

A depiction of Lao Tzu

For my purposes here, I shall be commenting on the following version of the text: Tao Te Ching: An Illustrated Journey, translated by Stephen Mitchell, London: Francis Lincoln Ltd., 1999.

Poem 1:

The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

The unnameable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.

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

Yet mystery and manifestation
arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.

Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding. 

If we think about it, even a little, it is very hard to determine what is actually real. What is the real? What is reality?  These are deep philosophical questions that have been dealt with by great philosophical minds over the long history of philosophy.  From Plato's discussion of this question in his story of The Cave in his book The Republic right down through the centuries, through the works of many philosophers, most especially that of René Descartes on the cusp of the modernist period, right down to the recent film The Matrix (1999) where the character Morpheus raises this question with another character named Neo, the burning issue of what reality actually is has besotted us as human beings and obviously still does. Being a spiritual being, as well as a material one, or being a material-spiritual reality and often being quite troubled as to the interrelationship between both, our journey through life is often painful and not a little interesting, intriguing and wonderful at times in consequence.

Our life journey is a meaning-making one, a project in which we are called upon to create our own selves, our very own identity or indeed, often our own reality.  It is up to each one of us to fashion our own meaningful self from a world of myriads of often mind-blowingly different choices. And that is no easy task.  To say the least, it is a life-long undertaking.

And so, we might do worse than turn to some of the spiritual classics like the Tao Te Ching.  the first stanza quoted above resonates with a Buddhist-like sensibility.  What is real may indeed be somewhat nebulous and intangible, always somewhat beyond us and yet somehow we are attracted by its mysterious magnetic pull.  Somehow, the truth or the tao cannot be caught - it is like the wind, in that regard. It certainly cannot be caught in words.  Anyone who has ever attempted to explain what his heart desires is often stuck for words.  In the Jewish tradition, the name of God is so revered that it cannot be spoken aloud and even today some Jews write G-d or G!d when they have to inscribe or write his sacred name.  This is a way of stating that whatever absolute "meaning," "truth" or "reality" may be, it is always unutterable and ineffable and certainly cannot be captured in words. This, I feel, is the sense of the first two lines in our first stanza above, and indeed that of the entire stanza.

I am also struck by the power of the second stanza which also has resonances with Biblical texts as the capacity to name a thing was always traditionally seen as being very much an act of creativity and creation.  To name is to exercise power and control over others and over things.

The third stanza is very Buddhist in its meaning and is basically the second noble truth of Buddhism, namely that our cravings and desires cause us to transform our pains into deep suffering.  We can so easily get so caught up in our weaker and baser desires whether they be material or emotional or ego-based.  When we free ourselves from our desires and the all-too-easy clinging to the crutches of material or emotional supports, this stanza promises us more than a mere taste of mystery.

The fourth stanza brings us to the much disputed area of the relationship between material things "out there," as it were, "in the world" and our perceptions of those things.  The reader of these words will think of the many philosophers who were concerned with these questions over the past two and a half thousand years - Locke, Hume and Berekeley et al to name several.  Reality exists perhaps somewhere between "the world out there" and my experience or perception of it "in here.".  And yet, all of this is so mysterious and wonderful really as it defies our very thinking powers, and any statement of it seems to fall so far short of what we would wish to express.  However, some wonder is the very heart of spirituality really, is it not.  After all, they used to say that philosophy begins in wonder (Socrates said this, according to Plato in Theaethetus).  Surely, the same may be said of spirituality, that it, too, begins in wonder at the mystery of things as we encounter them.

Like all traditions, the Tao Te Ching suggests that much wisdom begins in darkness, and even in "the darkness within darkness."  Resonances here would be the "dark night of the soul" as found within the Roman Catholic Spiritual tradition of St John of the cross.  A scriptural text that comes to mind here, as I finish these reflections, is that from St Paul that here on earth "we see through a glass darkly."(1 Cor 13:12)

Exercise: Now that you have read the above words from the Tao Te Ching you could do worse than meditating upon them for five minutes or so as a way of centering yourself.


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