Sunday, September 6, 2015

Thoughts on the Tao Te Ching 14

Poem 14

Look, and it can't be seen.
Listen and it can't be heard.
Reach and it can't be grasped.

Above, it isn't bright.
Below, it isn't dark.
Seamless, unnameable,
it returns to the realm of nothing.
Form that includes all forms,
image without an image,
subtle, beyond all conception.

Approach it and there is no beginning;
follow it and there is no end.
You can't know it, but you can be it,
at ease in your own life.
Just realise where you come from:
this is the essence of wisdom.


I have remarked already that the poems of the Tao Te Ching bear some little similarity to the Book of Psalms in the Old Testament.  However, they also contrast with the psalms in one major respect. Take the following quotation about wisdom from Psalm 111:10 for example: The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: a good understanding have all they that do his commandments: his praise endureth forever.”  Notice here that the Psalms are essentially theocentric (or God-centered) in their approach to answering the mystery with which life confronts us, while the Tao Te Ching  is essentially anthropocentric. The last two lines of the final stanza above tells us that the essence of wisdom lies not in the fear of an external power like that of God, but rather in the internal realisation of one's depth of being. This is not surprising given the more psychological or anthropocentric approach of Eastern spirituality.

The above poem is basically describing the elusiveness of the Tao.  It also indicates its ineffability and mystery by using once again that union of opposites, that tension of polarities, that balance of binaries or axis of antinomies to which I have alluded many times in these reflections.  This tension of opposites essentially, then, captures skillfully the elusiveness and ineffability of the Tao. 

Raphael's painting, "The School of Athens." Plato is the bearded central figure

"Image without an image" is paradoxical in the extreme, though it bears some little parallelism with the thought of Plato.  Plato believed that any object was but a physical representation of the abstract idea which was in a sense "more real" that the actual material thing.  For example, a physical table is a representation of the abstract idea of table (the original form). In consequence art was very much a cheap representation as it was merely a copy of a copy of the original image or idea. [Plato's theory of Forms or theory of Ideas asserts that non-material abstract (but substantial) forms (or ideas), and not the material world of change known to us through sensation, possess the highest and most fundamental kind of reality. When used in this sense, the word form or idea is often capitalized.] Image of an image we can all understand as we can a copy of a copy.  However, image without an image is working as it were in the other direction towards the original idea or form which needless to say is totally ineffable and totally indescribable.  Once again, it is worth repeating here that when we are dealing with religious, psychological and spiritual depths we put language under great strain to express them.

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