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Thoughts from the Tao 1: Living the Mystery

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The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.

The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.

The unnameable 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. Mystery within mystery.

The gateway to all understanding.

tao 1

Lao-Tze sets out his stall in verse 1: he’s very clear that you can’t describe The Way, you can’t explain The Tao, you can’t walk The Path. Mind you, he’s going to take another 80 verses to try explain it, but I kinda understand what he means.

It’s pretty much indefinable. Elusive. The heart of the Tao seems to be a mystery: something impossible to explain. Linguists understand this – that as soon as we begin to name and describe a thing, we lose the thing itself. Psychologists often say that ‘the map is not the territory’: a way of saying that whatever we may write, or draw – however we may describe something, it is not the thing itself. And Buddha himself said ‘the finger that points to the moon is not the moon’.

The only way to experience The Way is to walk it. Or at least to try. We’re not going to get it right, if there is such a thing as ‘right’. And we’re not going to get anywhere just talking about it either. The Way is to be experienced, to be lived, viscerally. There are days when I know that what I am feeling and what I am thinking – and how I am being – has never been part of a formalised faith.. and yet it has more reality than any of these. I walk a line between faith and atheism that cannot be called agnosticism, but can be best described as ‘walking according to what I feel’. And that’s the best I can ever do.

You can have what you want, Lao-Tze suggests. You can have what you can describe, what you can name – all the goals, all the dreams. Or you can let go of all that, and simply experience the mystery that is life, lived. The Way, walked.

The moment we name something, it ceases to be truly real. The Tao asks us to live in the mystery. Not to seek to get everything explained, but simply to live what presents itself. In our modern, rational, scientific age we have become used to demanding explanations, to have things clearly organised and structured, to be able to know and to have certainty about the truth. As we seek to clear out our preconceptions, our previous understandings, our own personal myths, then things somehow become more transparent, more real. As Herman Hesse observed of his life: “I have been and still am a seeker, but I have ceased to question stars and books; I have begun to listen to the teachings my blood whispers to me.”

It seems to me that I understand less as I grow older – or perhaps that understanding has become less important, and experiencing and simply being has replaced that. Without grasping, we find a new level of peace and harmony. By allowing, we let the Universe unfold around us. Because as soon as we let go of trying to describe The Way, it opens itself up. As we seek to step into the mystery, not to understand it, but simply to experience it, then we step through the doorway to true understanding.

Find out more at www.timhodgson.org

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Thoughts from the Tao: An Introduction

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The Tao Te Ching was allegedly written by a Chinese writer, Lao-Tzu, some time around the 4th or 5th Century BCE. We know almost nothing about him – all that we have is this brief book of 81 verses. Lao-Tzu himself could even be a fiction – certainly we don’t even really have a good translation of his name. “The Old Master”, or even “The Old Boy” perhaps. So even the author is ephemeral, difficult to grasp, impossible to see. And it feels like that’s what Lao-Tzu himself would have wanted – to disappear so that the wisdom of The Way could be more clearly seen. Even the book’s title is cryptic “The Book of The Way”. It seems to almost beg to be treated as immaterial, ephemeral: Lao-Tzu writes with confidence and certainty about something that cannot be described, labelled, explained. And yet there is clarity and deep truth woven throughout these simple verses.

The Tao is full of paradox, riddles, contrasts. At times it seems that the meaning of the words is becoming clear – and then it slides off into an inscrutable mystery that hints at an answer, yet refuses to be pinned down. To me, there really is no one way to interpret the book. It demands to be read, and pondered, and reread. It demands us to consider its paradoxical thought, and perhaps then to be happy with unanswered questions – if it has caused us to think more deeply, then it has done its work. Even if it allows us to be comfortable with the idea that truth may not be absolute, that we have to live within the paradox, then it will have taught us well. Each of us will have our own insights into the book, our own interpretations – and that’s as it should be. For Lao-Tzu, truth is not rigid, or easily defined. It cannot be written down, it can only be discovered and experienced for each one of us personally – yet if we choose to hear, it will transform us.

One of the beauties of the Tao is that it doesn’t require a belief in any form of God or Supreme Being – yet equally its truth can equally be applied whether you are a theist, atheist or agnostic.

My journey with the Tao Te Ching began when I started studying with the Interfaith Foundation – one of our required reading books on the course was a translation by fantasy author Ursula K Le Guin – a translation that seemed both true to the original yet coloured by the author’s own search for meaning. I was also deeply inspired by spiritual author Wayne Dyer, who took a year out to meditate on the Tao verse by verse, a year of insight that became the book “Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life” – and I followed in his footsteps by embarking on a journey into the Tao that took me deep into one verse every week. I’m restarting that journey with the intention of publishing my own personal thoughts on the Tao each week here on this web site.

I believe that studying the Tao Te Ching has opened me up to a new way of looking at the mystery of Life, at my own spiritual journey, at my beliefs, behaviours and truth as I see it. I do not for one minute claim to be a definitive scholar of the Tao, if such a thing exists. But I hope that my thoughts will maybe help inspire you to look more deeply, to see perhaps way beyond my own insights and come to your own conclusions.

Find out more at www.timhodgson.org

For those of you who are interested, I’ve used translations from Ursula K Le Guin, Stephen Mitchell, Jonathan Star, Jane English and Wayne Dyer’s own paraphrase version. I’d say Stephen Mitchell’s is the version I like the best.

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