Saturday, August 29, 2015

Thoughts on the Tao Te Ching 11

Poem 11

We join spokes together in a wheel, 
but it is the centre hole
that makes the wagon move.

We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want,

We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.

We work with being,
but non-being is what we use.


Once again when it comes to the big questions of life, like the" why" of it, we are singularly at a loss, and are indeed left existentially in a chasm of doubt or in an abyss of mystery that can invite different responses according to our culture and our physical/mental make-up.  Some will respond by faith in a religious deity, others by an atheism that denies all possible design by a higher power and still others will declare their inability to be sure about what life is about at all - that position is known as agnosticism.  In between these three major options a myriad of other nuanced positions can be held.  None of us, as we grow older, will be satisfied with asking merely the "how" questions of science and digesting their rather dry bland answers alone.  We somehow desire and demand  a more appetizing and tastier meal of knowledge.  In this regard, we are in the company of the great Nobel Prize winner for Theoretical Physics, Richard Feynman who declared: "I would rather have questions that can't be answered than answers that can't be questioned!"  This statement appeals to me because it shows the thrust towards knowledge and truth which, I would argue, is at the centre of all good religious inquiry as well as that of the sciences.  I would also believe firmly in the contention of the great nineteenth century theologian and scholar, John Henry Newman, that no truth in any area of human exploration into knowledge can contradict another truth found in another area of such exploration: he declared that no truth can contradict another truth as such was axiomatic by very definition of truth in the first place.

And so we return to the paradoxes and the unity of opposites or of binaries or of polarities. I have spoken of this concept many times in the preceding posts. A partial list of such polarities would be:

  • Light vs Dark
  • Night vs day
  • Clear vs Opaque
  • Heavy vs Light
  • Good vs Bad/Evil
  • Rigid vs Flexible
  • Emptiness vs Fullness
The poem above returns us once again to the image of the wheel which is a wonderful symbol for life which continues to persist and perdure in a cyclical sense.  The paradox at the heart of the first stanza of the above poem is worth repeating: "it is the centre hole that makes the wagon move."  This is obviously paradoxical.  I remember once, when attempting to write on the mystery of suffering as an undergraduate in philosophy and theology, coming across the image of a word carved in stone which sought to contend that the word itself exists for us in the emptiness carved from the stone.  I also remember finding an image of the word "evil" carved in stone in some book or other.  What these artists and authors were getting at is the Augustinian theory/theodicy that evil is simply a lack of the good that should be there in the first place: "MALUM EST PRIVATIO BONI."

In the second stanza above, we are presented with the image of the emptiness in the pot having the potential to hold the substance of its contents.  The potential of emptiness for fullness is also paradoxical and essentially mysterious, belonging to the sense of wonder which is the beginning of all philosophy and indeed of all knowledge.

And then we are faced with the final paradox that Being and non-Being are the major balance of opposites that we encounter in human existence.  That tension of polarities suffuses everything we do in life.  Life occurs somewhere somehow as the very energy that shoots between both those poles of Being (Life) and Death (Non-Being).  In a sense, to live is to die and mortality is central to what life essentially means.  I wrote more fully on this particular tension by way of reference to the Second Law of Thermodynamics HERE in this blog so I shan't run the risk of repeating myself ad nauseam

Meditating on non-being as well as being is important, and that's the reason why Buddhists place a lot of significance upon the student in search of enlightenment learning to meditate upon his/her dying and death.  Such a meditation is never in any way morose or depressing as it essentially liberates the meditator to more fully live in the "now" and to embrace the presence of his/her existence.

Conclusion: One again I invite the reader of these few words to re-read the above Taoist poem and to let a remembered word or phrase or line act as a mantra for a meditation session of say five or ten minutes.

No comments:

Post a Comment