Tuesday, 18 October 2011

The Tao part two: Keats and Kekule, paradox, inspiration and the Way.

Alan Watts' book about the Dao is called "The Watercourse Way," hence the pictures. Anyway, if you were at all interested in part 1 of the mini-series, here's part 2.

We cannot find the Dao, or understand it, through our usual modes of conceptual enquiry or some sort of energetic quest. It is already there, you can’t look for it. Political opponents of this kind of spiritual intent sometimes dismiss it as “quietism.” Exactly  so. The DDJ is full of warnings about misplaced action. It is more concerned with letting go than seizing hold, more concerned to live with nature than to bend it to our wills.

There is much we can avoid doing that will help us live in the Dao, and one thing we need to do is to accept paradox. This holding with, living with, logically opposed ideas, is not unique to East Asian cultures. In a letter of 1817 John Keats wrote:

"what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason."

Laotzi might perhaps have said that Keats was close to the Dao there.

The logic-destroying koans of Zen Buddhism, such as the famous “sound of one hand clapping,” encourage a mental state that was first written down in the DDJ. Much meditation practice seems to rely on an acceptance of underlying, non-verbal reality, something below and beyond reason, argument, oppositions. Creative writers often say that if they stop pursuing and worrying about elements of their books and allow it to grow, the thing almost seems to write itself. Get in the Flow. Trust yourself, they will say. Trust the Dao, Lao Tzi might have said. Perhaps the Muse, inspiration itself, is one of its manifestations.

Great scientific discoveries have come at the end of lengthy analysis and rational enquiry, of course, but sometimes they too finally arrive in moments of inattention or dream. The nature and shape of the benzene molecule was hugely important in the development of modern chemistry. Its discoverer, Kekulé, said that after years of work and study, he had finally discovered the ring shape of the molecule after having a reverie or day-dream of a snake seizing its own tail.

Do the spadework and let the Dao do the rest?

Even if we are not scientists intent on important discoveries, or great poets looking at the nature of inspiration, we can still benefit from putting our minds into a receptive state which is below, or above, mental abstractions, rational arguments, logical analysis, in which paradox releases us rather than puzzles us. Meditation will be more use than action if we want to get there.

One way into this state for many people - and the DDJ is one of the most frequently-translated texts in the world – is to contemplate the Dao. Of course, reading through it, as one might read through a novel on the Tube, won’t help you live according to the Way. 

And you may find some statements odd, disappointing, even incomprehensible. Others may help you, just because they do not seem to be setting out to do so.

          Shape clay into a vessel;
          It is the space within that makes it useful.

Amongst the many translations you can find, that by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English is accompanied by lovely photographs, and is freer than the scholarly Penguin Classics edition by D.C. Lau. Comparing and using both is rewarding and instructive. But in any case

          The Way is forever nameless.


  1. Excellent; I found it on a low shelf on the behind my drum set. I shall look at it again.

    I open it randomly to reveal . . .

    "Give up sainthood, renounce wisdom,
    and it will be a hundred times better for everyone. . ."

    There you go. A lesson for everyone.

  2. Sage, we are on the same road - actually not a road because the Way that can be named - etc...

    In one of my mindfulness books a young man says words to the effect that when he was trying to be a Buddha he was a pain the arse (ie telling everyone how he was meditating, aiming at enlightenment etc) but now he is a Buddha, everything is just fine. ie it's all there in us and around us, we just need to live it. Renounce the effort to be wise, and you will be.

    I'm really please you're following this Dao stuff along.