Tao te ching: 1

From the opening lines of section (or chapter) 1, the Tao te ching of Lao-tzu plunges into the depths of reality and the paradox of being. In turn, the nature of reality governs the mind and our disposition towards living.

The first lines are famous in whatever translation: “The Tao that can be named is not the Tao …” The Lau translation strips away the exoticism and usefully sets up the parallel verse structure.

The way that can be spoken of
Is not the constant way;
The name that can be named
Is not the constant name.

Here are two primordial elements: way and name. The fundamental one is “way”, derived from the sense of the way or manner of doing things, of getting on. The intellectual and abstract element is “name.”

A similar juxtaposition is found in Western thought with the named being the logos, allowing formulations of knowledge and articulated descriptions. Behind this, more fundamental and not describable, is the unnamed, the way, which does not manifest itself until it is “getting on,” which is then some action or revelation that is nameable or describable — an action or revelation, but not the essence or way itself. At that point, the true way slips back into namelessness.

The next lines address these characteristics:

The nameless was the beginning of heaven and earth;
The named was the mother of the myriad creatures.

The “myriad creatures” or the “ten thousand things”, etc. are favorite Chinese ways of indicating indefinite numbers of things or creatures, but not infinite collectivity.

Thus the unnameable is the sources of beings, but the nature of this source is nameless, meaning not subject to description. The named is so subject, however numerous its engenderings. The named reveals itself by this action, subjects itself to description, however speculative. Myth is the attempt to plumb this “named,” to give it character, personification, anthropomorphizing it. We grapple with its motive and purpose and teleology. Cultures create or engender religions in order to describe this source of myriad creatures, to give texture to the story of creation, the drama of multiplicity, to the purpose of things, this coming-to-be. But the effort never fully succeeds, for it is merely describing what is seen, not telling us what the purpose is, the “why.”

When we remain in this realm we go round in circles, chasing description, hearing names, enchanting ourselves with drama, emotion, action, beauty, symmetry, feeling, synchronicity. We are mesmerized by a grand and inexplicable order. And yet we cannot penetrate meaning, because we cannot penetrate the logic of myriad creatures. We cannot grasp a “why” to this extravagance of beings pushed out by the mother of the myriad creatures. We only know that it is so, and that words (names) fail, or, rather, that they function when we agree upon their meanings. We don’t even realize, not for a long time, that there will be no adequate logos in this realm, this foreground, this illusory word. We are desperately trying to assign names, meanings, like trying to capture bubbles.

In the third set of lines comes the first and essential advice of Lao-tzu upon presenting the nature of things, the duality of nameless and nameable:

Hence always rid yourself of desires in order to observe its secrets;
But always allow yourself to have desires in order to observe its manifestations.

Here “it” refers to the way, the fundamental nameless, which contains secrets but as the background, with manifestations as creatures in the foreground. How do we penetrate the nature of this duality? By both having and getting rid of desires. Desire is the near equivalent of the classic psychological ego, of which we must have enough to know ourselves and the world, but then be able at a certain point to get rid of it, to discard it as no longer necessary for getting on in the path.

We need desire or ego in order to appreciate the nature of the world, of society, culture, and people. We need a clear and honest self built upon knowledge, logic, reason, discernment, critical thinking, judgment, self-awareness, discrimination, temperament, personality, strengths and shortcomings. We have to be aware of all of these, in a deep, honest, sense. That is the core of integrity. We cannot assume to penetrate the secrets of the unnamed if we have not mastered self knowledge, knowledge of the mind, heart, and spirit — plus insight into the nature of the world, of the ten thousand things. We cannot enter solitude based on self-deception, clinging to what belongs to creation and creatures, to impermanence, to what is merely entertainment and distraction.

When we have used ego or self or desires to understanding the world, then we must rid ourselves of that very same tool, that ego, self, and desire. Only lacking these can we approach the secrets of the nameless, says Lao-tzu. Emptying ourselves of desires means emptying ourselves of the accretions of the world, society, culture. It means renouncing the deluding comforts of self and entering a profound solitude, a condition that is stark and real, the condition of all selves and egos once distinguished from the myriad names, the ten thousand names we give to what is surrounding us. We distinguish, then renounce, the biases and comforts of society, the web of cultural accretions. We enter a true solitude, a true eremitism of soul. We lose our soul in order to save it, to quote the Christian saying so rarely understood.

But this solitude is profound, unnerving, scary. Such a solitude amounts to a loss of self and personality, and contradicts the insight and fullness that seems to be the object of this reflection.

Solitude is not merely the emptying of accretions of the world, society, and culture, but the fullness that occupies the emptying, the fulfillment that satisfies the desirelessness. Lost are ambitions, dreams, comforts, but gained is a transition to what is the root of every one of the myriad creations: solitude, a profound aloneness with one another. This is the fruitful canvas on which the rest of our lives can be worked out as an insightful way or path. Yet it is not as if the path is there to be discovered like a pearl or a hidden treasure in a field. It is a path engendered by our very consciousness. That pearl is within us, that treasure within the field of desolation.

Named and nameless form a seamlessness, and our inevitable vacillation between desire and desirelessness provides no necessary assurances. We can only enter a suspension of desires, deepening into what Eckhart and Heidegger call a “releasement,” an openness to the way or path. Between the named and the nameless there is a distinction, and yet, as the Lao-tzu says:

They are the same;
Diverging in name as they issue forth.
Being the same they are called mysteries —
Gateway of the manifold secrets.

Basho and Tennyson

D.T. Suzuki’s little 1957 essay “East and West” is one of the more succinct statements contrasting ways of thought and observing. To illustrate his point, Suzuki uses a poem of Basho and an equivalent poem by Tennyson. We learn something about poetry, culture, and mind in his little lesson.

Both poems speak of a flower. Here is Basho’s haiku:

When I look carefully
I see the nazuna blooming
By the hedge!

As Suzuki explains, the poet writes of a single moment, probably walking slowly along a garden lane and coming upon the beautiful flower peeking through the hedge. The sight elicits a moment of sheer joy, admiration, fascination. The poet reflects the Easterners’ closeness to nature, notes Suzuki, not simply the awe-inspiring setting of mountains, mighty seas, or splendid sunsets but the humblest manifestations such as a blade of grass, dewdrops, or a flower in a remote and unexpected place.

In contrast, there is Tennyson, whose short equivalent poem is well known:

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies;–
Hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower — but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.

Both poets have been impressed by a flower, but as Suzuki notes, Basho does not pluck it. He looks at it, nearly wordless, filled with a deep and full emotion. Tennyson plucks the flower out of the wall. He literally tears it out, the whole root, thus killing it. He must satisfy his analytical curiosity, even at the price of the flower. The scientific method par excellence. Tennyson then goes on talking about the flower, or, rather, talking about himself — and he goes on, and on.

Tennyson intellectualizes life experiences. Neither he nor the flower are God, nor man, but he isn’t clear how to go about his intellection, what he really expects to learn from this now-dying flower. He never lets on that the flower has any aesthetic quality that stirred him. The flower is a scientific conundrum, though one expects that something about it drew his initial interest.

At this point Suzuki can compare and contrast “two basic characteristic approaches to reality. Basho is of the East and Tennyson of the West.” One may object that the Easterner, especially today, is not immune to the intellectualizing and analytical frame of mind, or that among Westerners there are mystical and reflective souls. But these are often in spire of rather than because of their culture. The ascendancy of Western technology and materialism works feverishly to undermine, even destroy, Eastern culture and premises. Like Tennyson, the West yanks the flower of the East from its roots, from its lifeline, and so it dies.

Suzuki is considering a set of values, a persona of culture, a continuity of being. Not surprisingly, he can refer to Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu as the core of that culture, just as he can refer to Basho and any number of Eastern poets to make the same point. To see the dying culture lying rootless before us is to fail to have seen the living, breathing flower that surprises us as we saunter down the bylanes of history, as we sit reflectively in the garden of time now torn down and scattered. We have so little time to try to understand.

Suzuki closes his short essay with an explicit list of contrasts, beginning with what Denis de Rougement pointed out as characteristic of the West: the person and the machine. Eastern philosophy has no need of the machine because the machine, any machine, usurps human functionality and quickly escalates into something that the person (that other Western invention) cannot control. The person is burdened by responsibility, celebrated as free and individual, but there is no compartment of life where the person really is free — free that is, from machines, which in fact are made explicitly to assure that persons are not free. As Suzuki puts it:

The machine, behaviorism, the conditioned reflex, Communism, artificial insemination, automation generally, vivisection, the H-bomb — they are, each and all, most intimately related, and form close-welded solid links of a logical chain.

And that chain is intellection in the Western sense of science, politics, culture, and structure. When the West encounters chaos, paradox, and the nameless forces in the universe from stars to flowers, it creates concepts and theories to explain them, even calling the theories and concepts inexplicable and tentative. What is needed is to stop the concepts and intellection and technology that is destroying the world and wiping out cultures and to simply see what is right before us.


The solitary should be conscious of paradox at all times, in contrast to the many (ideologues, apologists, advocates, activists, the indifference, the powerful) who are not.

Paradox is already present in everything one does or says. We advocate a certain moral or ethical counsel to which we do not quite live up. We recommend practices based on the authority of sages but regularly fall short of pursuing them. The solitary begs a preference in use of time and the arrangement of space, of silence, disengagement — and then goes out into the world, to live, work, buy, encounter people — undermining the great goal of solitude, that secret desire.

The solitary intersects with people and those unconscious or deliberate human accretions springing from society and culture. We are born and grow in a household, we think in symbols and languages. We maintain subconscious assumptions and drives. We learn, imitate, interact, and have feelings about others. What distinguishes the desire for solitude?

The uncharitable observer of the pursuit of solitude dismisses the solitary as hypocritical, or worse, neurotic. The indifferent will call the solitary contradictory. The solitary’s desire for solitude feels like a fire, or a house on fire, as the Buddha put it. But then the flames sputter, burning low, not enough heat or inspiration in most aspiring solitaries to embrace solitude altogether.

Swami Abishiktananda feared embracing solitude altogether because he feared he would lose his psychological identity, which was his only self-identity, his very self. To lose this self was to lose even the structure of our solitary personality. Solitude, like mysticism, suggests a loss of self-identity akin to madness, to a plunge into the depths from which the self cannot emerge.

Solitude should be understood for the opposite of what the world understands as loneliness and alienation. The solitary is the psychological product of the same factors as anyone else: upbringing, environment, experience, heredity, personality, one or more of the multiple intelligences. But the solitary has need of a special insight to throw a sense of rightness and normalcy onto a path that differs radically from what most people define as correct.

Solitude must be normal and correct not because it justifies a predisposition but because it is a special and revelatory path. Solitude is more true than the engaged social path, more reflective of the potential for self-discovery. And the first discovery is the fundamental aloneness of the soul, of the self. The vicissitudes of solitude are the core experiences of this innate sense of self. Society’s refusal of solitude breaks in over and over to deny the individual the possibility of self-discovery. It treats solitude as antagonist to its collectivizing tendency, its innate tendency to prevent individual thought and reflection, instead keeping the self focused on contrived objects that merges the consciousness of individuals into a social and collective mass, pliable, indefinite, a substance from which all must consume. Soon the self and a path for the self are forgotten.

Solitude in this light seems a contradiction to society. But because everyone has a core of solitude within merely by the fact of consciousness, then the continuity of this consciousness from solitude to awareness to action is a threat to collective power. Power must brand solitude as unnatural, irrational, unreasonable, a denial of human duty and potential. So solitude (and the solitary) are branded as contradiction and hypocrisy. When an individual desires even a modicum of solitude, society blares out noise and distraction, scatters objects to consume and material things to demand attention. So few people ever reach solitude.

Those who desire solitude live in paradox, not contradiction. By distinguishing ourselves from the “them,” as Heidegger suggests, we can begin to distinguish within ourselves what is properly ours and what is properly speaking simply an inheritance, a nostalgia, a zone of comfort. This must be contrasted to what is properly ours.

A paradox maintains that two apparently contradictory things are nevertheless existent and therefore true — in their own spheres. The contradiction arises when the spheres touch or intersect or collide. Such is our consciousness of self versus society and culture, indeed, reality.

We fail to fully understand ourselves epistemologically since we are not all-knowing beings. Our closest proximity is in solitude and silence, where all that is not-self is hushed if not excluded altogether. At this point we sense solitude’s truth as a path, as an opening to knowledge and self-identity. And, when we return into the world, we understand the paradox.

The tension filling the atmosphere around us is full and vibrates, the place where we stand is always moving, shifting imperceptibly. But the solitary knows that as he or she goes on living, we are not living a contradiction. We know that there is no absolute chasm between solitude and the world. Nor between solitude and self, for in fact we do not know self without solitude. Solitude reveals more than anything society and culture can tell us about ourselves or even themselves.

Contradiction is the mathematics of logic and science, but it sets things in opposition when everything shares the sameness that makes contradiction a mere abstraction. We are, for example, dust, like the earth, and yet we are not — contradiction? No, paradox. We are dust and yet we are not. We are of this world of sorrow and tears — and of smiles and tendernesses. And yet we are not. Issa the Japanese poet, when his little daughter died, wrote simply:

This world
is a tear-drop world …
And yet, and yet.