Chapter Two of the tao te ching is possibly my absolute favorite. While I like the Ron Hogan version of ttc a lot, this particular chapter reads really well in Stephen Mitchell’s translation.
When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.
Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.
Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.
When we talk about the tao, we use words, because those are the constructs humans use to wrap up a concept and deliver it to someone else in a way that they can understand. But it’s limited – we use it because it’s the best of bad options. And sometimes the only one that we can legally use, or to get concepts across in a timely manner. They’re best when dealing with abstract concepts, like freedom. What does “freedom” mean to you? The dictionary says “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.”, or “the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved.” Both are true. Let’s talk about the feeling of freedom. The dictionary would give as one definition, the feeling of being able to act, speak, or think without hindrance or restraint, or the feeling of not being imprisoned or restrained.
Now, unless you’re been imprisoned or restrained, you have a concept of freedom which has been imparted by words, by language. The description is accurate and adequate as far as it goes, but it’s not “freedom”. It’s a picture of freedom. It’s the map, not the territory. If you really want to know what freedom *is*, someone would need to lock you up for ten or twenty years, control what you eat, when you can move about, how you can shower or use the bathroom (and when), etc. Then after those ten or twenty years, they open up all the doors and remove the locks and bars, and you walk outside, and after a few minutes of being able to walk in a direction of your choosing and coming to the realization that no one was going to come after you – then, right then, you will KNOW what freedom is. It’s not what I just related to you, which is words, and a picture of what freedom is, but not freedom itself. And with what I gave above, by defining what freedom is, I have also defined what freedom is not. (more about that in a minute) If you actually have been imprisoned and released, you may read what I just wrote and say “you’re full of shit, that’s not what freedom is at all, that’s not what the feeling is at all”, and you’re totally right – because I defined what freedom is to me, and my understanding of it is limited to the words that were used to describe it, and some experiences that are far less than being imprisoned and released (or escaped).
Our understanding of the tao (“the way” is how it’s translated from Chinese to English, but even that’s words) is similar. What it is is not how we describe it. It’s what it IS. And our understanding of that grows, deepens, and changes over time as our experience supplants our knowledge. So… back to Chapter 2’s meat: When you define beautiful, you’ve also defined “ugly” (or at least “not beautiful”). When you define “good”, you define “bad” (or at least “not good”). In the broadest strokes, it’s dualistic. But like a pointillist painting, each dot is not blank canvas, and each color is not the other colors – dualist when looked at coarsely, but step back and broaden your focus, and suddenly there’s a picture of people picnicking in the park. Similarly, we start out with a concept like freedom, and we think we know what it is, but as we move from reading / hearing about freedom to really experiencing it, we realize how our language and definitions limit our understanding, and how any language – any framework – which we try to impose from the outside actually limits our understanding of the thing we try to describe.
The last paragraph of Chapter Two has some really important stuff too, which will come back in later chapters – mostly about having without possessing, (more on that next time we see it in the tao te ching), but also wei / wu wei – doing by not doing, which we’re going to see a lot more of in the weeks to come. I wanted to say more, but I don’t have time (it’s already the end of the week) and it’s going to come back in future chapters, so consider this a preview of things to come.
Well, looks like I have a pretty aggressive schedule ahead to make it on Seattle to Portland this year. 😛
|Week||Mileage / Day (week)||Weekend Ride (1 day)|
|Apr 29-May 5||20||50|
|May 27-Jun 2||25||60|
8-9 miles of the daily rides is easy – all I have to do is ride my bike to the train station and back each day for work. It’s the longer rides on the weekend that are going to be problematic. It’s something I need to work out with Kristi (we have 2 kids under 5, and that can be a challenge), but probably that means getting up at 4am and riding then, so I can be done before 11am through mid-may, and done between noon and 2pm during that last 6 week period. I mean, there’s always going to be an option to bail, but I’d really rather not.
Although, to be honest, give me a pair of padded shorts and a tube of astroglide, and I can finish day one even as out of shape as I am. I just can’t do 2 century rides back to back right now – 100 miles would wipe me out for a week.
I’m going to try to make this a regular thing. Those of you who know me well know that I’ve tried out a number of religions over the years, and none of them really stuck. I’m a lapsed Catholic, a backslidden born-again Christian, a former Unitarian Universalist, and an ordained minister in both the Universal Life Church, and the Church of the Latter Day Dude – in which I am a Dudeist Priest. I’m also what I self-term a “Philosophical Daoist” (or Taoist if you prefer), which means that I recognize and try to emulate the wisdom of the tao de ching, but don’t adhere to the religious tenets of that longstanding Chinese religion.
I really like Taoism. (it’s pronounced Daoism, both spellings are acceptable in westernized speech, and which is more correct is both a debate for scholars and a good illustration of some of the tenets of the tao de ching. I usually go with the “t” spelling simply because it was the most common when I was growing up, and the first I was exposed to. Taoism was the underlying philosophy The Force in “Star Wars” was patterned off of, and Yoda in “The Empire Strikes Back” is the classic archetype of a taoist master. I like its dualistic nature, and circular focus – i.e. the notion of cycles, like life. So because I want to develop a writing habit again, and I’ve been wanting to blog, and I want to get back into my personal spiritual practice, I’m going to start a weekly thing on Wednesdays to comment on the tao te ching.
If you’re not up on the tao te ching, there’s a billion translations, but I’d recommend one like Stephen Mitchell’s. (which is awesome, and very accessible) Or you could go with Ron Hogan’s “translation”/”paraphrase”, which you can find here, or buy the print/Kindle version. (which is better formatted) Ron Hogan’s version reads like it was written by David Mamet, or spoken by Samuel L. Jackson. Which makes it far less stolid than most so-called “religious tomes”. Also, regardless of the translation, it’s 81 super-short chapters, so it’s not exactly The Bible. If you don’t want to pay for the Mitchell version, Google “Stephen Mitchell Tao” and you can probably find a thousand copies online. I own something like 6 different translations, so each week I’ll try to list a different one until I run out of them.
So, with that – Chapter One.
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.
Those two sentences
mean the same thing.
Figure them out,
and you’ve got it made.
(Attribution: Ron Hogan – direct link: http://www.beatrice.com/TAO.txt)
If you’re like me, this should trigger a “The first rule about Fight Club is nobody talks about Fight Club” moment. Which is not what Hogan, or Lao Tse was saying. (just realized, I forgot to talk about Lao Tse – so let’s have an aside)
Lao Tse was supposedly a Chinese governmental functionary who reportedly got sick of his job and decided to go sit on a mountaintop somewhere. He was apparently insanely good at what he did, which seems to be mostly being wise and saying things that made sense, and everyone knew who he was, or at least everyone in government. Lao Tse decided to exit the country, and on his way out the door, the gate guard (remember, unlike Trump, China actually built a big-ass wall) (Yes, I know this probably not how it happened, and I’m conflating history – poetic license, just go with it) … as I was saying, the gate guard stopped him, and said “Ima let you go, but first you gotta write down some wise shit for me”, and Lao Tsu either said “ok”, or (my version) gave the guard a “seriously?” look, huffed, and said “fine. Gimme a pen.” and spent the next several hours/days/months/years writing the tao te ching, and possibly other stuff, and then said “Seeya, wouldn’t wanna be ya!”, and sauntered off into the sunset never to be seen again. Although apparently other people went west into the mountains and reportedly learned at his feet on his mountaintop, or whatever – that’s beyond the scope of this series.
Ok, so what does chapter one mean? First off, “tao” is nebulous. The act of defining it makes whatever you defined to be something *like* the tao, but not actually the tao. Kind of like the map isn’t the territory, or how a photograph is not the person/thing/landscape. It might give you an idea of what I look like, but just as a photo doesn’t capture my whole personality, defining the tao doesn’t tell you everything you can know about the tao.
The other part of chapter one is just saying “don’t focus on stuff” – this is basically similar to the commentary on the whole “things” vs. “experiences” argument that’s resurfaced recently with the minimalism movement, and Marie Kondo, and other discussions. The key to taoism is to live in the moment, to experience the now. It doesn’t mean ignore the future, or the past, it means pay attention to what’s going on around you, and focus on the now. Yes, be aware of the future, but don’t *worry* about it. Be aware of the past, but don’t *live* in it. And that’s what the deal is with the tao – you have to experience it, not quantify it. Don’t label it. You can’t put tao in a box, or in a binder, or on the shelf. tao is tao. Like the Supreme Court definition of obscenity, you’ll know it when you see it – you’ll know tao when you experience tao.
And with that thought, I’ll leave you to your day. Cheers!
Well, here we are in the third month of 2019, and I’m finally getting around to updating my blog. So, what *do* I have planned for this year?
Well, first of all, I’m planning to ride StP (Seattle to Portland) for the 5th time. This year is the 40th StP. They started in 1979, and only took 1 year off – in 1980, due to the Mount St. Helens eruption. 206 miles biking with 8,000 of my closest friends… and complete strangers. Seriously, there’s a LOT of riders on this ride, and you sometimes see 10, 20, 30 person pace lines. It’s insane. The last 2 times I rode it, I said that would be the last time. So, why am I riding it again? Well, in short, I’m using it as a training goal (in theory), and also because it’s the 40th StP, so it’s a “big number” year. I might ride it once more in 10 more years for the 50th one. I mean, I’ll be 60 then – so actually I might just ride StP every decade from now on, because it’ll be more badass each time then. I think it’s going to be pretty awesome this year even though I am going to remember all the reasons I hate it. (I’m really selling this, aren’t I?)
Also, the best part is I have a built-in bail out point 54 miles in, in Spanaway. If I am done, I can just put my bike on the #1 Bus, and ride back to 3 blocks from my house in Tacoma. If I didn’t ride at all between now and then, I could manage 54 miles. But I’m not going to settle for the bail-out point, I want to ride the whole thing. 206 miles to Lloyd Center in Portland. At which time I will promptly hit Burgerville for a milkshake, hang out with my Portland peeps and drink microbrews, and then grab a couple of bagels at Bowery Bagels the next morning before heading home to Tacoma.
So, what other plans do I have this year? Well, I still have a 60k word half-finished novel, and ideas for at least 3 other stories, so I’m going to write something, and continue developing my fictional space universe towards publishing at least one of a potential series of novels. We’ll see. I have high hopes, but I also have a goal of completing a novel by end of year.
Also for this year – a camping bikeshed map for the Puget Sound region, and at least 5 camping trips this year, 2-3 of which will be by bicycle. I also have a goal for a late September / early October mini- bike tour (5-9 days, probably 5. I don’t think I can sell 9 days away to my wife)
That’s it for the moment. more updates sooner or later – hopefully sooner!