Saturday, February 27, 2016

Thoughts on the Tao Te Ching 47

Poem 47

Without opening your door,
you can open your heart to the world.
Without looking out your window,
you can see the essence of the Tao.

The more you know,
the less you understand.

The Master arrives without leaving,
sees the light without looking,
achieves without doing a thing.


Windvane on the lungomare in Catanzaro Lido, January 2016
It is becoming increasingly hard  to come up with new insights with respect to the Tao Te Ching and consequently avoid boring the reader unduly by too much repetition.  I have referred to the balance of opposites many times here already.  However, a central pair of polar opposities that springs to mind is that between Inner and Outer. Indeed, this polarity is quite common in early philosophy and theology in general.  The great early Christian scholar St Augustine of Hippo (354 - 430) was one of the scholars within the early Church to highlight its importance.  Augustine was a restless seeker who sought the meaning of life both in the outside material world and also in the inside spiritual world.  According to his own account of his quest for meaning which he delineated in his wonderful classical biography The Confessions he found the former, while sensually stimulating, to be spiritually stultifying:

Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you.  And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged in to those lovely created things which you made.  You were with me, but I was not with you.  The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you they had no existence at all. You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness.  You were radiant and resplendent - you put to flight my blindness.  You were fragrant, and I dew in my breath and now pant after you.  I trusted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you.  You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.
Admittedly, Augustine went on to condemn the material things of this world, most especially those related to the body as vitiated with evil and to elevate the spiritual realm to a rather esoteric stratosphere.  In other words, I believe he did not manage to hold the two poles in a healthy balance.  However, whatever about our criticisms of Augustinian philosophy and theology, we cannot overlook his insight that a spiritual dimension inheres within us.  In fact, Augustine spoke of his community of fellow friars as being on a shared journey to God and that this same God could be met in their code of practice (moral behaviour), the priciples they subscribed to (the Christian creed) and in their cultic practices (what I mean here by the word "cult" is any particular system of religious practice or worship: religious ceremones like Mass and so forth). He aslo recommended a life of prayer and meditation that followed a process which he called "interiority," namely that it was by a process of "going within" in prayer that one communed with God.

Now back to poem 47.  Our Taoist author is in essence doing exactly as St Augustine recommended above, namely that he suggests that we can be open to the Tao without physically opening our door and going outside.  Even without doing that, we can open our hearts out to the whole world.

Again, the idea of humankind's ignorance is an old epistemological tenet dating back many years.  Socrates encouraged his hearers to continually declare their ignorance as they sought out deeper and wider knowledge.  That knowledge could best be discovered by a process of asking tough questions to elicit ever clearer answers.  Augustine built on Socrates through Plato by recommending what he described as a "docta ignorantia" or "learned ignorance." This is the sense of the second stanza which declares that "the more we know, the less we understand." If one imagines a sphere as being the amount of accumulated knowledge learned by humankind then as knowledge grows the sphere obviously grows and while we have amassed more knowledge and wisdom there is a gowing surface of knowledge over against an ever-expanding universe of unknown knowledge and wisdom.  In that very same sense, it is often said that the more we know, the more we know what we don't know. This is, in effect, the epistemological thrust behind the lines of the second stanza.

Sometimes we need to rest and to cease from all activity to be open to life.  To be busy is a great pastime but it can often lead to mindlessness and drift on the one hand or an obsession with work or with pleasure on the other.  It is in this sense that we must read the lines of our final stanza:

The Master arrives without leaving,
sees the light without looking,
achieves without doing a thing.

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