Sunday, August 23, 2015

Thoughts on the Tao Te Ching 7

Poem 7

The Tao is infinite, eternal.
Why is it eternal?
It was never born:
thus it can never die.
Why is it infinite?
It has no desires for itself;
thus it is present for all beings.

The Master stays behind;
that is why she is ahead.
She is detached from all things;
that is why she is one with them.
Because she has let go of herself,
she is perfectly fulfilled.


The great enigmatic pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus (c. 535 - 475 B.C.) springs to mind immediately when I ponder this seventh poem from the Tao Te Ching. He is famous for his insistence that all life is in motion and that everything is change or flux as expressed in his famous line, known to anyone who ever studied philosophy, viz., "you cannot step into the same river twice."  Another famous phrase attributed to him comprises two words only, viz., "panta rhei" = "everything flows."  This latter Heraclitean quotation is mentioned in Plato's Cratylus.

Heraclitus, unknown artist, Sheffield Museum

Heraclitus is also renowned for his enigmatic style and paradoxical expression leading him to be called "Heraclitus the obscure."  Also, his style has been described as "wondrous," that is, in the sense in which Plato has defined the beginnings of philosophy as being in wonder. In this sense much ancient philosophy is spiritual in effect and thrust.  Hence this style of philosophizing has much in common with the spirituality and philosophy set before us in the Tao Te Ching. 

Once again, it is no surprise to learn that Heraclitus was much concerned with what I have termed in these several posts on Taoism the tension of opposites or binaries or polarities. Commentators on Heraclitus call this his predilection for the "unity of opposites," and his most famous statement in this regard is that "the path up and down is one and the same." This idea as we have seen is common to a lot of religious and spiritual traditions.

Now, our poem above is about time vs timelessness as our author mentions both infinity and eternity.  Time may be defined as the measure of change and this is where both the Tao and Heraclitus come in for my commentary here.  What does infinite mean?  All religions speak of their God as being both eternal - always having existed - and infinite - without beginning or end.  The author tells us, then, that the Tao was never born, that it existed always. He/she also describes the notion of infinity in an interesting and unusual way, viz., in that it is present for all beings consequent on its having no desires for itself.  One needs much meditation and consideration on these sentiments to tease out the possible meaning of that line. However, we are in the realm of mysticism where paradox and enigma abound.  Much of that area of study is ineffable and can only be expressed in a poetry that stretches language almost to breaking point.

Again the second stanza of the above poem is replete with paradoxes expressed by way of the "unity of opposites," e.g., "Behind" and "Ahead" and "At One" and "Detached"  at one and the same time.

Invitation to Meditate

Once again as what we are engaged with here is more a spiritual practice than an intellectual exercise it would be profitable to read the above poem again and to let a line or a word therefrom jump from the page as it were into your mind.  Then, with eyes closed, you could do worse than meditating for five or so minutes using that word or phrase as a mantra.

Namaste, friends.

No comments:

Post a Comment