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.
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