Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Thoughts on the Tao Te Ching 2

Tao Te Ching

Poem 2

When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.

Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.

Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but she does not possess,
acts but does not expect.
When her work is done she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.


Paradoxes have long been a means of expressing an abstract thought or feeling or some experience that goes beyond the ordinary. A paradox is a statement that apparently contradicts itself and yet might be true (or, indeed false at the same time). Poetry is, by its very nature, replete with paradoxes. The most memorable paradox that we learnt at school way back in the early 1970s was one from the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth: "The child is father of the man," a line from a short lyric entitled "My Heart Leaps up When I Behold," a poem from 1802 that we all had to learn off by heart.  The line makes no literal sense obviously, but metaphorically it means much, as the child will eventually grow into a man who will in turn father a child.  So, therefore, humankind stretches language as far as it will go to get at a deeper understanding and meaning.  To remain at a literal level is to be two-dimensional and superficial.


Our poem above is replete with polarities.  In philosophy polarities are called dualisms, dichotomies or binaries.  In poetry/literature polarities are often referred to as opposites (Coleridge spoke a lot about this dynamism) and even antinomies (a word much favoured by our own national poet William Butler Yeats).  Anyway, it really does not matter what name you call polarities by, because they all amount to the same thing, viz., pairs of opposing concepts.  Our stanza above maintains that each side of a polarity requires the other.  These polarities shoot through much literature of either a religious or spiritual nature and even of none.  A partial list of such polarities would be:

  • Light vs Dark
  • Night vs Day
  • Clear vs Opaque
  • Heavy vs Light
  • Tall vs Short
  • Good vs Bad
  • Soft vs Hard
  • Rigid vs Loose
and so on and so forth - you can add your own examples to this list.  It would seem that like the positive and negative poles of a magnet or of a spherical body like the earth itself, it would seem that one pole cannot exist without the other.  In like manner, the great psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung spoke about there being a Shadow aspect to every Self.  He argued that it was by incorporating the shadow aspect of the Self that we become whole.

The above poem pushes these polarities even further and stretches language to the very  breaking point of incomprehensibility.  The poet tells us that the Master "acts without doing anything" and that he the Master is actually a "she" when we would be expecting a "he." Obviously Male vs Female would be another example of a polarity.  Bisexuality and androgyny obviously both share in this polarity. Indeed, the Master/Mistress can teach without saying anything.  It's often in silence that we learn much.  I love the healthy tension set up in the following polarity in stanza 3 above: "She has but she does not possess."  This is a wonderful spiritual insight and is really, once again, the second noble truth that dukkha or suffering is caused by our craving of or clinging to our baser and even higher desires.  How often do our possessions possess us?  It is surely possible to own something without being "possessed" by it? We could even be possessed by our relationships as in over-dependence on another.  Again the Master/Mistress is not possessed by her work as "When her work is done, she forgets it."

Again, there is much about "living in the now," that classic statement, that is a plank underpinning every spiritual tradition worth its salt hinted at and implied in the above poem. There is also in these lines a sense of the cyclic nature of things - that the cycle of life endures and perdures and goes on forever.  Maybe that is the sense of eternity hinted at here.  

Conclusion: One again, I invite you to read the above poem and meditate on it for 5 or 10 minutes.

Namaste, friends.

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