Day 13 – One Teaching – The Tao That Can Be Told

Tao Te Ching was written by Lao-tzu thousands of years ago.  It is the foundation of Taoism and a collection of 81 poems which attempt to explain, “The Way.”  In fact, the title Tao Te Ching translates from Chinese to, “The Book of the Way”.

The first four lines of the very first poem, in the translation by Stephen Mitchell, read:

The tao that can be told
Is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
Is not the eternal Name.

Does this make sense to you?  Can you explain in words?  This blog post and the passage above is written in English.  If you understand English you may attempt to understand the passage.  Of course, the passage was translated from Chinese, which I don’t understand.  If it were written here in Chinese, I wouldn’t even attempt to try.  Thankfully, I do understand English, giving me the necessary foundation to think about the meaning behind the words.

There is a great mystery hidden in these four lines.  What is the Tao?  Alan Watts, a great spiritual philosopher, wrote in his book called The Book:

“This mysterious something has been called God, the Absolute, Nature, Substance, Energy, Space, Ether, Mind, Being, the Void, the Infinite – names and ideas which shift in popularity and respectability with the winds of intellectual fashion, of considering the universe intelligent or stupid, superhuman or subhuman, specific or vague.”

Each of these descriptions of a mysterious something are simply names.  Names are written in languages that we must learn in order to understand.  Names are identities we create based on the symbols we learn in order to name them.  Some of us learn English and some of us learn Chinese.

Language is an amazing tool to help humans communicate with one another.  It helps us to pass knowledge on from one society to another and from generation to generation.  It has helped us create civilizations, governments, corporations, skyscrapers, airplanes, and atom bombs.  But before we can understand language, we must learn the words and the letters that they are made of.  Words and language are often interpreted differently from person to person and nation to nation.  However, at their very core, each letter, each word is merely a symbol that represents a thing by becoming its name, its identity.  But a name is just a word.  The name is not the thing itself.  So, what is the thing behind the name?  If we can’t use language to fully know, then how are we to fully understand?

Photo by Sergio Capuzzimati on Unsplash

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