The first chapter of the Lao Tzu (that is, the Tao te ching) presents an understanding of the Tao and the method by which to comprehend it based on the concept of desire (or desirelessness) and mystery. The second chapter begins a description of the Tao based in part on perception and judgment.
Everyone recognizes the beautiful as the beautiful, yet this is only the ugly; everyone recognizes the good as the good, yet this is only the bad.
We are immediately alerted to the very function of consciousness. To assert cognition, we immediately apply judgment. We determine what is beautiful, immediately implying that all else is ugly, for we want only that one thing. We celebrate something as good, immediately determining that all else is shortcoming and bad, because we want only the good.
Is it wrong, then, to have this desire for what we consider complimentary, to make a judgment about what is before us? The first and essential point is that this process is not cognition or perception, it is judgment. As soon as we judge we assert a panoply of subjective desires and feelings that will inevitably shift and re-form as experiences and feeling change and multiply. We have already left the realm of mind to enter the realm of human sentiment, assumptions, and the rush to desired certainty. We assert compatibility and accelerate it to a pleasure principle. We ignore the responsibility for what we have also created or engendered by our consciousness — an opposite. But let us see where the Tao te ching will take this first admonition.
Thus Something and Nothing produce each other;
The difficult and the easy complement each other;
The long and the short off-set each other;
The high and the low incline towards each other;
Note and sound harmonize with each other;
Before and after follow each other.
By describing one thing, something, as beautiful, we immediately produced its opposite: ugly. In fact, by assigning somethingness to an object, we immediately assigned nothingness to its absence, to its opposite, to its nonexistence. How can this be? Have we the power to conjure nothing out of something? Yes, if we call something A, then we conjure non-A, even though we are not qualified to do so, that is, we have no facticity to our unintended creation of will.
The debate Carl Jung referred to about the existence of good and evil showed how the supposed reduction of evil to a mere absence of good, unintentionally pronounced by the theologians and logicians who insisted on the good, produced a subtle but real evil that merely awaits propitious moments to assert itself. That is, the quest for good inevitably creates of bad something of a facticity, a reality. After all, if we have decided that there is a good, why not finish the judgment and acknowledge an evil? We assume that both exist, that both are real, have facticity, have being.
So those who defined good did not recognize the power of what Jung calls shadow and void in their preoccupation with the good. But popular culture knew better: it “created” evil, or engendered it with power, to a degree concomitant with good, perhaps even stronger — well, of course, much, much stronger. And that is our plight today.
So the Tao te ching observes this cascade of duality that comes from a primordial assertion of consciousness: what is difficult is so perceived to be, making it subjective, pertinent to one person. As a consensus grows, based on the behavior of groups, societies and cultures, then power asserts itself among the few or among a class. “Difficult” is now what culture and power decide, as is “easy.” And so forth with all of the qualities enumerated in this passage: What is long? Is it really not short from a different point of view? Or, more precisely, does not the announcement that is is long create another necessary perception, that it could well be short, or that everything else is short by comparison? And on and on: high makes low, note and pause, before and after … However, while this is a subjective perception of an individual consciousness, we should not overlook that we are born into a milieu in which much of this is already decided for us.
Therefore the sage keeps to the deed that consists in taking no action and practices the teaching that uses no words.
The practice of the sage is to recognize that as soon as one thing is judged to be such-and-such in character or appearance, then its opposite becomes necessary and “real.” Such judgments are, we think, innocuous common-day necessities. But how much do we need them at the deeper level of consciousness, in the depths of that solitude which is the true nature of self? This is the way of the sage, to not pursue them. As will be seen in later chapters, the sage is as dumb as a newborn — or as simple and nonjudgmental.
We walk the slender path of paradox, but it is not contradiction to keep silence, to not judge (which is what Jesus must have meant), to exist and act only as nature does: the rock, the cloud, the wind, all acting without action, all moving without intention, all practicing without words.
The myriad creatures rise from it yet it claims no authority;
It gives them life yet claims no possession;
It benefits them yet exacts no gratitude;
It accomplishes its task yet lays claim to no merit.
The “it” is the Tao, that which remained as a backdrop to our insistence on thoughts, words, judgments. Now we see that the ten-thousand things that emerged from it are completely autonomous and distinct, yet have in common this origin. And they have in common this potential characteristic of the Tao: it does not distinguish beautiful and ugly, good and bad, long and short, difficult and easy … The Tao engenders the myriad creatures, creates them, gives them degrees of consciousness (humans have so much!), but lets them be — it claims no authority over them.
The Tao is too subtle to be anthropomorphized, to be appealed to, to be characterized, to be reduced to a series of qualities, and attributes. We must realize that we cannot do the same to our world or we are thrown into a whirlwind that is no long an understanding of the Tao. It must be so if the Tao is to be the model of the sage, neither acting acts nor teaching lessons but simply resting within the context of being.
We will never fully understand this totality, this All, this Tao, this Absolute. We acknowledge its inevitability. As long as we refrain from assigning it good or bad, long or short, beautiful or ugly. We will also dwell in its mystery, however, because, as the last lines of chapter 2 say:
It is because it lays claim to no merit
That its merit never deserts it.
And that is where we want to be: claiming no merit, understanding without desire.