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.