Great Idea #1
The Tao is the base on which the entire Tao te Ching rests, and it is one slippery and multivalent word! The very first line of the first verse claims: “The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao.” So right off the bat, we are talking about something that cannot be talked about! It’s a little like when Meister Eckhart exclaimed, “God, save me from my idea of God.” We are asked, rather, to begin to observe nature and ourselves, identifying that fundamental flow of energy that is creative, supportive, nurturing and forever full.
There is a kind of soft humility to the nature of the Tao—it prefers low places, has no desires, an image without an image, no beginning place and no ending, is associated with the formless, the origin, darkness and is said to exist prior to God, prior to time, prior even to space, all of which are human concepts.
The Tao is the where all matter takes its shape, and is where all matter returns upon “death”. One helpful line is that “you can’t know it but you can be it.”
It flows. Through all of matter, through all actions, thoughts, through all of the universe, the Tao moves and is the energy behind movement, the source, the great base and activating principle of everything.
Yeah, that takes a bit to get your head around! Later, we’ll be talking about how to “be” the Tao and the gifts that “being” brings. But to “be”, you have to lean heavily on the intuitive side of your brain. In effect, it’s a kind of singularity that continues to exist in the midst of diversity.
Buddhism would later add to this conversation, helping folks understand terms like relative and ultimate reality through the language of the Tao. All matter, at its base, arises from a single source and returns to it. So, intuitively, you can see the objects, give them names, enter into relationship with diversity, yet beneath and within it all hums a vast unity.
The Tao is actually more accessible to the poet and artist than the typical essayist or scientist because of its slippery, chameleon nature. And even in the arts, you are only getting a snapshot of an ever-changing but always existing presence.
The symbol of Yin and Yang, a black fish with a white eye holding a black eyed white fish’s tail (and whose own tail is, in turn, held) is seen as a frozen picture in time. Spin the shape, and you will see gray, no fish, no eyes, just a disk of no-color, no-shape. That also hints at the Tao.
The beautiful flowing movements of Qigong or Tai Chi Chuan evoke the Tao, one gesture always morphing into another, yet all carried on a single sustained note of energy.
The Chinese artistic use of the space that surrounds and holds objects on the canvas also point to the concept of the Tao.
But, in the end, this is only the finger pointing to the moon. A moon, in this case, that can
only be lived.
Paint the portrait
of your mother before she was born,
working in air-pigments on a water canvas,
delicate brush of pure light,
swirling by touch in the darkness:
you can never see,
except through every breath,
of this thing you call
Questions to Take You Deeper
1. Define the term “intuitive” for yourself. How does using an intuitive mind affect your body? The way you use language? Your relationship with others?
2. Do you agree that intuitive concepts like the Tao are more accessible to poets than scientists? Explain.
3. The Tao is framed conceptually in terms of low, soft, yielding, etc. In what ways does this list of describing words fly in the face of our Western culture?
4. Look up some classical Chinese art on the internet or at your library. In what ways does the art capture the intuitive sense of the Tao?
5. Watch an athlete in motion—are you able to point out where they are soft and where they are strong? In what ways does the soft or yielding part of their action make them more effective? Can you see this in plants? In seascapes? In a city? Explain.
1 (mystery and manifestation arise from the same darkness)
3 (exists prior to God)
5 (doesn’t take sides, birth to both good and evil, empty but infinitely capable, more it is used, the more it produces, more you talk of it the less you understand)
6 (great mother, always present within you and without)
7 (infinite, eternal, never born/never dies, no desire for itself)
8 (content with the low places)
14 (can’t be seen with eyes, can’t be heard with ears, reach but you can’t grasp it, seamless—wholly without attributes. Form that includes all forms, an image without an image, no beginning or end, you can’t know it but you can be it, life eased when you realize where you come from)
21 (dark, unfathomable, before time and space, beyond is and is not, approachable only within you)
25 (formless, perfect, empty, unchanging, infinite, eternally present, flows through all things, returns to the origin of all things. Man follows earth, earth follows the universe, universe follows the Tao, Tao only follows itself.)
32 (can’t be perceived, smaller than an electron but contains galaxies, all things end in the Tao)
34 (flows everywhere, nourishes everything but doesn’t hold on to them; is the nature of work but without kudos; merged with all; hidden in their hearts; humble; all things vanish but it endures; only thing that is great is something unaware of its greatness)
38 (Tao is lost, then goodness arises. Goodness lost, then morality comes about; Morality lost, then ritual takes over. Ritual is the husk of true faith.)
40 (return, yielding, being born of non-being)
41 (nowhere but nourishes and completes everything)
42 (Tao give birth to One. One gives birth to two, Two to all things)