The way you can go
isn’t the real way.
The name you can say
isn’t the real name.
Heaven and earth
begin in the unnamed:
name’s the mother
of the ten thousand things.
So the unwanting soul
sees what’s hidden,
and the ever-wanting soul
sees only what it wants.
Two things, one origin,
but different in name,
whose identity is mystery.
Mystery of all mysteries!
The door to the hidden.
—Ursula K. Le Guin
The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.
The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.
Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.
Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.
If you can talk about it,
it ain't Tao.
If it has a name,
it's just another thing.
Tao doesn't have a name.
Names are for ordinary things.
Stop wanting stuff. It keeps you from seeing what's real.
When you want stuff, all you see are things.
These two statements have the same meaning.
Figure them out, and you've got it made.
I first encountered the Tao Te Ching when I was 22 years old. I don't remember how I came across it. Maybe I'd heard that it was a book of wisdom, and decided I could use some of that.
It's not the sort of book that tends to leave one's mind easily, once it enters. It has a timeless quality to it, seemingly as relevant today as it must have been over two millennia ago when it was penned (brushed?). Recently, thinking about creativity, the Tao bubbled to the top of my mind again, and I cracked open one of my favourite translations of it, by the inimitable Ursula K. Le Guin.
Mostly as a way to trick myself into spending more time with this beautiful text, I thought it would be a good idea to read through a few different translations and write a little about what meaning I'm finding in each chapter. I'm far from a scholar of the Tao Te Ching, and I know nothing whatsoever about religious Taoism. But Laozi teaches, fill the bowl to the brim and it will spill. So, perhaps, my bowl is half-full. No chance of a spill!
The three translations I've chosen are Le Guin's (which is by her admission more of an interpretation than a translation), that of Stephen Mitchell (which is trying to be more faithful to the original, though is still fairly modern), and Ron Hogan's (which attempts as far as possible to extricate the text from the 'wisdom of the ancients' feeling that other translations ooze). Hogan's was the version that spoke to me the loudest when I was 22. It seems a little hokey to me now, and I prefer Le Guin's version. But I still think there's something lovely about Hogan's friendliness and straightforwardness.
So, the opening verse of the Tao Te Ching. Le Guin calls it "Taoing" and writes that to her, it encapsulates the entirety of the rest of the work. Perhaps I'm insufficiently enlightened, but I don't see it, at least not today.
The idea that if I can talk about it, and name it, then it isn't Tao, bothers me. Isn't that a bit of an evasion? A way to say, "ah, sorry, I can't just tell you the secret"? Though at the same time it seems obviously, self-evidently true. If it could be spoken, simply told to you, then life would be a solved problem. It's also sort of a warning against taking advice—"if someone tells you how to live, then they're definitely wrong", which just about captures how I feel about books like 7 Habits and Getting Things Done. Pretty self-deprecating, for a book that's sometimes thought of as containing the meaning of life.
I have to be honest, I don't really understand the bit about names being the origin of everything. Hogan dodges that bit, even. My best guess here is maybe this is about defining the self. It's pointing out that naming things, and thus dividing the world, is a personal thing that happens in your mind, not a property of the world itself. Like Lesson 51 (you may prefer Pilote's version), "I have given what I see all the meaning it has for me".
(Side note: ACIM's Lesson 51 has a lot of Tao in it, like "I am willing to recognize the lack of validity in my judgments, because I want to see" vs the TTC's "Can you step back from your own mind and thus understand all things?" in chapter 10. I have no idea what ACIM is, but their website is killer.)
The third bit—about the unwanting and the ever-wanting—gives me strong echoes of a feeling I wrote about last week. I wrote about wanting to create things, about wanting to create things I'm proud of. I want that a lot. The Tao is telling me, here, that the wanting is showing me lack. It's showing me what I don't have. And offering that, maybe, to unwant would be to see past that and connect to something truer. Or would that just be a salve to make me comfortable with my current status quo? I don't know. A lot of the Tao Te Ching is about wei wu wei, doing not doing, acting by inaction. I wonder sometimes about whether that is implicitly supporting the way things are, encouraging complacency.
But what would I know? My bowl is only half full.