Musings on the tao te ching – 1
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!