Thursday, August 20, 2015

Thoughts on the Tao Te Ching 4

Tao Te Ching

Poem 4

The Tao is like a well:
used but never used up.
It is like the eternal void:
filled with infinite possibilities.

It is hidden but always present.
I don't know who gave birth to it.
It is older than God.


Wells are central to community just as water is central to life. Civilizations grew up around water, around rivers and lakes and wells. What could be more natural?  Indeed water is the source and summit of life.  Indeed, it is worth calling to mind that, depending on age, sex, health and weight, the human body is made up of anywhere between 55 - 75 % of water.  On a physical level water slakes our thirst.  In the Gospels, as in the Scriptural texts of all religions, water as an element and as a symbol features centrally.  One of the more popular of the stories relating to Jesus is that of his encounter with the woman at the well, where Jesus promises the woman "living water," a water that has the promise for the drinker that he or she will never get thirsty again.  Within traditional societies the well was the focal point of the very community because everyone had to go there to draw water.

The Woman at the Well by Carl Heinrich Bloch

Language works in a wonderful way by pushing its boundaries beyond its physical referents in order to attempt to describe abstract and theoretical concepts.  One might call this faculty within language the thrust to metaphor.  And so language pushes the word "heart" into more abstract territory to come up with a formula like "the heart of the matter" to express a more complex thought.  And so language always forces itself beyond its physical boundaries to embrace higher and loftier thoughts; ideas and experiences on many levels that must be explained.

There is a most famous and equally popular Christian spiritual classic based on Liberation Theology called We Drink From Our Own Wells: The Spiritual Journey of a People by the Catholic theologian of note Gustavo Gutiérrez, a classic well worth reading and pondering.  Once again it is about the wells of inspiration that give a whole people hope.

"Void" refers to "a completely empty space."  Emptiness is, once again, one of a binary pair; its polar bedfellow being the idea of "fullness."  Being empty seems to invite being "filled up."  Or to put it another way, how can I know what fullness is unless I know what its contrary is, namely, emptiness. Our poem above invites us to see the emptiness of the Tao, or indeed our own emptiness which shares in that ultimate emptiness, as inviting an "infinity of possibilities." The notions of inspiration and enthusiasm are indeed also linked insofar as these words also imply a filling of the emptiness within.  The Latin root "inspirare" means "to breathe into," while the root of the word enthusiasm is to be "filled with the divine."  Hence, the notion of "void" is not one of total sterility, a conclusion we might jump to rather superficially at first glance.

The word "void" used above reminds me of a related word, namely "abyss." An abyss is "a deep and seemingly bottomless chasm."  It is a word that appears in much religious and spiritual writing like that of "void."  When speaking of mysticism, we often used both these words in an attempt to describe a mystical experience.  The psalms speak and pray and meditate about "deep calls onto deep" as in Psalm 42:7 where we read: "deep calls onto deep at the sound of your waterfalls.  And your breakers and your waves have rolled over me."  This is pure poetry like the poem above from the Tao and its implications are similar  to that insinuated by the above quoted poetic lines. Nietzsche says somewhere that when one gazes long enough into the abyss that the abyss stares back into you. Unfortunately, Nietzsche's abyss does not promise a polar opposite or possibilities of creativity, and, like its author, his words are redolent of depression and negativity.  For Nietzsche, it appears to me, the abyss calls us to our destruction, unlike its function in mysticism where it is preparatory for being filled with the divine, that is, with meaning.

The mysterious or mystical Tao is at once hidden and present - here we have our polarities or binaries or pairs of opposites again.  And again the line "older than God" is somewhat mind-blowing.  It seems to suggest that any human notion of God is always redundant as it can never capture whatever the source of meaning to and in life may be.  Even all the various religions, with all their various dogmatic formulas, fall far short of capturing whatever God may or may not be.  Hence the Tao must surely be older than any conception possible of God.

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