Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Thoughts on the Tao Te Ching 32

Poem 32

The Tao can't be perceived.
Smaller than an electron,
it contains uncountable galaxies.

If powerful men and women
could remain centered in the Tao,
all things would be in harmony.
The world would become a paradise.
All people would be at peace,
and the law would be written in their hearts.

When you have names and forms,
know that they are provisional.
When you have institutions,
know where their functions should end.
Knowing when to stop,
you can avoid any danger.

All things end in the Tao
as rivers flow into the sea.


Stock illustation of the universe
Ever since Galileo first turned his telescope to the heavens, the wondrous and wonderful exspance of the universe has been open to our ever more humbled gaze.  I never tire of reminding the reader of the poet-philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge's comment that ever since a child when his father used bring him out in the dark of the night to view the heavens overhead, his sensitivities had become "habituated to the vast."  This is the macro or large and expanding universe.  On the opposite pole, there also exists the wondrous and wonderful world of the micro-universe opened to our ken by ever more powerful microscopes.  As well as there being a macro-universe out there, there is also a micro-universe down there at cell level and further down still at atomic and subatomic levels.

Our translator, Mr S. Mitchell, is undoubtedly taking liberties with the English language, indeed indulging in wholescale anachronisms in using the terms "electron" and "galaxies" in translating a two and a half thousand year old text.  However, we will forgive him his excesses here due to his passion for his subject.  Obviously, translators do far more than transliterating a text or translating it word for word.  If such were the task of translators we could just pour our text rather carelessly into Google translate and come up with senseless garbage that isn't language at all.  We understand what Mr Mitchell means.  He is attempting to capture the sheer wonder and awe of physical reality.  I am reminded here of the Kantian concept of noumenon or thing-in-itself, which most, if not all, philosophers agree that none of us will ever get to know.  Physics, and especially quantum physics, are in a sense engaged in a sort of quasi-Kantian quest, in attempting to find out what sub-atomic life is in itself.  Of course, the mystery is further complicated by the fact that even our most powerful microscopes disturb so much what they are looking at that essentially there can never been an objective observer at all.  It is here at this epistemological level that scientism runs its ship aground and founders on the jagged rocks of its own weak axioms.  It seems mystery and wonder are at the heart of our awesome universe. In short, I am all for good science and for the exspansion of our human knowlege, but very much against a scientism that allows no further questions beyound its axioms.  Metaphysics will always rear its head, and it is all too easy to rule the asking of such questions out of court so arbitrarily.  Once again, these are questions for a more philosophical blog, and yet they do deepen our spiritual quest here in meditating on the Tao.

The Tao, our poet-author tells us, is simply beyond visual or aural observation.  It is something deeper, something that can only be experienced at a deep level or intuited from the heart, or again "proved" by a process of induction from, what the great Victorian theologian, John Henry Cardinal Newman called "a convergence of evidences."  Such convergences always involve the heart as well as the head and intuitions that go so much deeper than more superficial axioms.  The Tao is elusive and yet the whole universe is shot through with it.  It is the source and summit of all that is "created."

Our poet-philosopher, our Taoist author is more than a little pessimistic about the world's politicians who certainly have their motivations centered anywhere but in the Tao.  More likely still, those motivations will be based in nationalism and national pride and perhaps even in personal greed and petty jealousies. The goal of the disciples of the Taoist way is that the law of the Tao should be written in all hearts.  Indeed, let me strike a pluralist note here. We could simply substitute God, Allah, Shiva, Vishnu, Krishna, Buddha, Elohim, Jahweh and so on and get exactly the same message of peace and compassion and care for all sentient and non-sentient things we encounter in the world. Indeed, a true pluralist would be able to substitute "agnostic or atheistic humanist" into the about statement just as easily. How harmonious and peaceful our world would be then!!  Possible or impossible?  Most definitely possible, I believe, but very definitely most improbable.

There is no better way to conclude these few thoughts then with repeating the final two lines of our Taoist poem and letting them accompany us as a mantra on a short interval of meditation.

All things end in the Tao
as rivers flow into the sea.

Namaste, friends.

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