Tao can be talked about, but not the eternal Tao.Names can be named, but not the Eternal nameAs the origin of heaven-and-earth, it is nameless:As ‘the mother’ of all things, it is nameable.So, as ever hidden, we should look at its inner essence:As always manifest, we should look at its outer aspects.These two flow from the same source, though differently named,And both are called mysteries.The Mystery of mysteries is the Door of all essence.
From the first line of the Tao Te Ching we have a problem, which unless solved, will make reading this book a pretty baffling experience. How can we know anything that can’t be talked about? Surely anything can be given a name? And why is this old writer blatantly doing the opposite of what he says can be done?
Immediately it is clear that we are expected to possess ways of ‘knowing’ that are quite different from our usual ways of knowing. And if we can’t use words and language, then we need to find something else.
Fortunately, we all have this other way of knowing already, we all use it countless times in every day, and there is nothing fundamentally new we need to acquire. We just need to have it pointed out to us. When we realise how we can know things, then we can relax a little and actually start to enjoy the rest of the book.
But for the time being we must learn about two ways of viewing reality, or reality’s two aspects. The first is very familiar to us: it is the normal world of things and events that occur in time and space and governed by the laws of causality. It is called in the Tao Te Ching ‘Earth’ and in this realm we can give things names, and talk about them to our heart’s content.
The second aspect, ‘heaven’, as we call it here, is less familiar to us, even though we are dipping into it for brief flashes all day long. We are in heaven when we aren’t thinking about things with names. But because we are all acutely and chronically addicted to thinking about things with names, this place called heaven never really commands much of our attention. In fact, most people don’t even believe it exists.
Sometimes heaven gets called the Now, because the past and the future only exist in the realm of thought, which as we know, is also Earth. But Now is a word thoroughly tainted with notions of time, and therefore misrepresents heaven. Heaven is the one aspect of reality that has absolutely nothing to do with time.
We live so much in thought that we completely miss the fact that thought can stop, while awareness continues, and that the place we become aware of is a wonderful alternative reality. The more we dwell in it, the more we get to know it. And the more we get to know the more beautiful, meaningful and joyful our existence becomes. Earth, with its passage of time and space, of birth and death, is where misery occurs – this is what we come to realise. But first we must get to know heaven better: this is the point of all spiritual practice, and it is the point of reading texts written by ancient spiritual masters like Lao Tzu.
Getting to know heaven requires practice, but happily it is a practice which is already its own full fruition and achievement. Being in heaven is called meditation, but all spiritual techniques attain to heaven if they succeed in holding thought in abeyance for prolonged periods. Our first successes come when heaven is held long enough for us to notice it. This is a big moment in anyone’s life, though the sensations may be ever so subtle. For perhaps the first time you have realised that You are not your thoughts. You are a basic raw awareness in which perceptions and thoughts pass by at lightning speed. Time, and the whole realm of time and space are just a fleeting concern to You – arising one moment, and then passing in the next. You are something that can’t be named, but are the place where things with names appear for the briefest flash before disappearing. Just as the cinema screen is not wet by the stormy seas in the movie, You have nothing permanently to do with any of the passing things that can be named.
Earth, and all the things that go on there, is from now on to be understood alongside this new view that you have discovered in your spiritual practice. Just as a coin passing through our fingers is displaying now the heads side, now the tails side, You are seeing reality now through time and space, and now through eternity and infinity. Now things seem to exist outside of you and independently of you, now they are within You and just a flashing aspect of You.
Earth then heaven, heaven then earth. We have a situation that seems to contain the realm of time and the realm of timelessness. This situation we may refer to as the Tao, for the Tao is nothing in particular. It is therefore quite nameless, and can’t even be thought about.
As the origin of heaven-and-earth, it is nameless:
As ‘the mother’ of all things, it is nameable.
If we acknowledge that there are many ‘things’ then we have already bought into the world of multiplicity, where things can be differentiated according to the portion of time and space they occupy. And when these things interact with each other we think about the laws that govern these interactions. What causes what? we ask. Where does that come from? In this scheme we can’t help but wonder what created all that exists, and in this scheme the Tao can be said to have given birth to all. In the realm of the many things, Tao adopts the creator role of ‘mother’.
But as we know from our meditations, there is more to reality than the time and space aspect. In heaven such questions about causers and creators make no sense at all. Talk about things in general makes no sense. So from the aspect of heaven all things are nameless, the Tao included.
So we have it that the Tao is nameable, and also not nameable. It depends on which aspect of reality you are assuming.
So, as ever hidden, we should look at its inner essence:
As always manifest, we should look at its outer aspects.
The John Wu translation here doesn’t use the term desire which we see in most versions. In the Addiss & Lombardo we read here:
Empty of desire, perceive mystery. Filled with desire, perceive manifestations.
The place where things manifest is earth, the realm of time and space. And here we are told something very important and which is stressed in all the world religions. When we perceive various things separate from us, we are going to form desires for some of them and not for others. We are going to go seeking out some of the ‘ten thousand things’, ignore some of them, and the rest we will positively flee from. Our hearts will be troubled, and we will remain unsatisfied by anything that appears in time and space because all things there are transient and perishable. We get good feelings when we obtain the ‘thing’ of our desire, but then we get bad feelings if we ever come to lose it again. This is how life is when we only see things in the earthly way.
Once we have started to live in heaven we realise that all these things in time and space are also quite empty of any objective existence. Whatever they are, we already have them in full, because they do not and cannot exist anywhere except Here and Now. To desire them is nonsensical and so we don’t desire them. Our heart is left untroubled and we are free to enjoy them, as and when they appear. What we enjoy and how we enjoy them can’t be talked about. The normal rules that makes some things enjoyable to us and not others do not apply at all. There is just enjoyment. And it is deep and rich and peaceful, and it is there whenever we wish it. It is a permanent version of all the pleasures we have ever enjoyed, and we realise, when we have it, that this is the pleasure we searching for all along.
These two flow from the same source, though differently named,
And both are called mysteries.
Whatever is a thing, is also not a thing when viewed from the other perspective. Existence and non-existence are both just perspectives and not the final truth of the matter. As perspectives they are equal and equivalent, and therefore equally mysterious. And what about the source itself? What can possibly be said?
The Mystery of mysteries is the Door of all essence.