Monday, 17 October 2011

The Way part 1: The Dao De Jing

Gentle reader, bear with me whilst I deliver a mini-series of three posts about the Dao, mindfulness and suchlike stuff. I hope it may be of use to you, even if at first it looks a bit - well, you know, remote from where you are today - wondering where the cat's got to, regretting what you said at that awful meeting yesterday, and firing off an email about an unpaid bill....all small beer compared to daily life in the ancient China of the turbulent Spring and Autumn/Warring States period.

If you lived in a time of seemingly endless, vicious and chaotic local wars, you might well value a set of insights that emphasised stillness, led you away from polarization and dissent, and gave you a sense of an underlying, enduring reality beyond the reach of feuding and bloodshed.

That’s not just our world I'm describing above, that’s China about 2,500 years ago, and a series of some 80 brief statements forming a very short “book” that may or may not have been written by a man called Lao Tsu (Laotzi) who millions of ordinary Chinese people came to revere as a god, one of the three Taoist immortals. But his identity as a deity is part of what the experts call a folk religion. More helpful to us today in the West is his value as a true mystic, a mystic’s mystic, one might trivially say. His book is usually called the Tao Te Ching, or Dao De Jing.

There may not even have been a man called Laotzi. Or there may have been, but perhaps he didn’t write one book called the Dao De Jing (DDJ), which may have been a collecting together of Taoist sayings that were around at the time.Bit like "was there a Homer, or were there Homers?" Doesn't really matter, for our purposes.

Parts of the Dao seem almost incomprehensible; it is difficult to interpret something so old, and the sets of meanings people bring to it change so much down the centuries. To some degree, we find in it what we set out to look for, not what is fixed there.  But that’s true of any text; no book is fixed, outside time and beyond change, and each of us changes a text when we read it.

We will find common ground in the DDJ that we can agree is valuable to us today, we will find some bits that really don’t help a lot, and some bits that don’t have a lot of meaning for us unless we are a ruler or his advisor in China millennia ago.

Perhaps Laotzi might have laughed gleefully at our head-scratching over difficulties of translation and varying interpretations. “Of course,” he might say, “that’s the point. Have you not read the book, or rather: have you not let it read you?”

Some parts of the DDJ don’t seem particularly mystical; they seem eminently sensible, if almost impossibly hard to achieve, in the world of daily politico-social realities, in particular, war and violence:

Lean years follow in the wake of a great war.
Just do what needs to be done.
Never take advantage of power.

But then there’s:

Force is followed by loss of strength.
This is not the way of Dao.
That which goes against the Dao
Comes to an early end.

So what is this Dao? It is the Way – and already we are in trouble, because the DDJ is attempting to teach through words and concepts. But it is teaching us about that which, it tells us, underlies all words and concepts, contains all opposing qualities. So:

The way that can be told is not the eternal way.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth…

The Dao is at the beginning of everything, and it won’t be captured in our language, identified as a word, tied down with our descriptive or rational concepts. Because:

Look, it cannot be seen – it is beyond form.
Listen, it cannot be heard – it is beyond sound.
Grasp, it cannot be held – it is intangible.
From above it is not bright;
From below it is not dark.

Lao Tzi is trying to encourage in us a state of mind that is beyond conceptual, linear thought. This Way of his: our senses cannot contain or define it, and it can’t be reached through our usual habits of defining something through polarising opposites. We often say “if something isn’t A then its B.” The Dao seems to be both A and B at once. It came before the forms and shapes – the “ten thousand things” or “myriad creatures" frequently referred to in the DDJ. It is also beyond time:

Stay with the ancient way,
Move with the present.

End of part 1. If you haven't come across the DDJ before, you may be puzzled or irritated by now. In which case, good - more soon! And if you have, do feel free to put me right where I'm wrong.


  1. I've read this and thought about it, GM. I like it. The brain is but a bit of offal that can be put on a saucer; how can it begin to conceive of anything all that big? That's why I like phrases that begin with 'lost in' as in lost in thought, lost in wonder... I love that 'The way that can be told is not the eternal way. Yes, let's hear it for ineffability (and I don't just mean playing hard to get).

  2. Pleased you like it, Charles. I seem to remember an atheist writing somewhere that his job was to eff the ineffable (through rational thought, I guess.) Well, he can't, because if he could, it wouldn't be ineffable. Duh! (As I believe a Simpson says) - category error.

    I'm taking this tired old bit of offal off for a kip now. Hope the other two parts of the mini-series make some sense, if you have time to read them.

  3. As a student (a long time ago in the town of the bard) I was uncomfortably skewered on the tip of life.

    My mum bought me this book, hoping it would bring some peace to my rather awkward and troubled mind. I enjoyed reading it. It seemed that in times of trouble I could read a verse or two, and despite not really understanding it, I could read into it meaning that related to my situation.

  4. Well, O wise one, your final couple of lines seem to me to capture exactly how the DDJ actually works. If we do it right we find in it the meanings we need, but we have to give it a chance, let it work. Let it read us. And just a couple of verses at a time is also I think very wise. Would that you and I could have talked about the Dao back then!

  5. I am infatuated by the idea of being read by something. This is exactly what happens. Good paintings do this for me, too -- especially Stanley Spencer's religious pictures. And wild nature. Such a revelatory idea!

  6. Indeed, it was revelatory to me Charles, so contrary to how we usually see a text. If we open ourselves to such things we can move somewhere else beyond ourselves and our usual ideas of utility, somewhere richly rewarding, a different state of being.