Sunday, January 3, 2016

Thoughts on the Tao te Ching 34

Poem 34

The great Tao flows everywhere.

All things are born from it,
yet it doesn't create them.
It pours itself into its work,
yet it makes no claim.
It nourishes infinite worlds,
yet it doesn't hold on to them.
Since it is merged with all things
and hidden in their hearts,
it can be called humble.
Since all things vanish into it
and it alone endures,
it can be called great.
It isn't aware of its greatness;
thus it is truly great.


Pond, Parc de Montsouris, Paris, June, 2006
From the beginning of civilisation, human beings have been preoccupied with getting to know and understand the things of the world and indeed themselves.  It is perhaps beyond argument that self-consciousness was and is the key to all civilisation.  One of our early musings as to what life was about concerned the nature of the environment that surrounded us.  The earliest philosophers proposed the make-up of that environment to be the four essential elements, namely earth, air, fire and water.  One can readily understand why a lot of cultures proposed their surroundings to be constituted by these basic elements, for they were self-evidently in front of them, and they needed all of them to survive.

Turtle on the same pond of Parc de Montsouris
What may not be so evident is that ancient cultures also proposed that there was a fifth element that made up reality, viz., an element called "quintessence" from the word "quint" which means "fifth." Hinduism and Buddhism proposed this fifth element as did the Greeks, with the Hindu calling it "akasha" and the Greek philosophers naming it the "aether," a term indeed that persisted in the history of science right up to the late nineteenth century. Indeed, it is also worth noting here that what we now call the natural sciences were once called natural philosophy and that the knowledge of the sciences grew out of the thrust to and thirst for knowledge which began in wonder, that is, in philosophy itself.  Moreover, it is worth noting here also that one of the big questions in philosophy is that of the nature of reality? Is reality all that is noted/noticed/documented by the five senses, that is empirically or is there more to reality?  The idea of the fifth element brings with it all these bigger questions of philosophy as the nature of reality is inextricably linked with other big questions like the origin and destiny of life and all its possible meanings.  The WIKI article on the classical elements is worth perusing for those who require a little extra background on the subject than is demanded in this brief post. See Classical Elements.

My footprints in the sand, Donabate, summer 2006
Living in our modern world where global warning is without doubt drenching, swamping and even drowning our places of habitation and work in water, we cannot but be ever more cognisant of this major element of the four.  Water, both fortunately and unfortunately, will manage to get anywhere at all as those poor souls who have been flooded out in their very homes will attest to.  The human body is mostly water, and we are anywhere between 50 and 75 per cent constituted of it depending on our age, sex and physical condition.

Is it any wonder, then, that the essence or quintessence (that fifth element!) of life, the very Tao is imaginatively described as having the attributes of water, that it "flows," that it "pours itself into its (creative) work," "it nourishes infinite worlds." and yet it does not hold on to them; rather it lets them go to flourish on their own.  Like water, the Tao does not cling onto things, it flows through and by them and lets all things go.

Indeed, all things, our Taoist poet tells us, vanishes into the Tao, and s/he reliably tells us that it alone will endure forever.  Interestingly, and paradoxically, our author believes that the Tao is not conscious of his/her/its own greatness.

Once again, by way of conclusion please read over the above poem and let a line, a phrase or a word suggest itself as a mantra for five minutes meditation.

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