Musings on the tao te ching – 2

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.

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