Photo by Luca Zanon on Unsplash
To open, I’d like to say a few words beforehand. First, I know some of you may dislike that I chose the old spelling of Tao Te Ching. I’m aware that it was changed, but when I started studying the spiritual traditions in high school, the old spelling was the norm I encountered and I prefer it. Second, I’ve decided to draw my source material from the masterful translation of Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English. Third, I’m aware that it’s always best to analyze something in its original form, but I don’t know ancient Chinese. However, much can still be had from a well-done translation. Lastly, I’m a bit hesitant to write this analysis series because there’s always more to learn and more insights to be had. However, I’ve yearned for almost a decade to put forth such an analysis and I wish to offer it here to the best of my abilities, based on my nearly fifteen years of experience with, and contemplation of, the spiritual traditions. This analysis will be a line-by-line commentary and cross-analysis with other spiritual traditions where appropriate, as all the great traditions ultimately point to the same ineffable “thing”.
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
This is one of the reasons I love Taoist thought. Right off the bat, we get the single most important point that must be kept in mind at all times: “Tao” is merely a word, a label, a signpost that points to the ineffable (that which cannot be put into words). Immediately, Lao Tzu sets us straight and speaks to the limitations of language.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
I think this just reinforces his previous point. Instead of simply saying it about the word “Tao” (reality/way of nature/etc…), he’s pointing to the fact that all words are mere labels. Our brains chop up reality into distinct pieces, but in reality, there is no such division. We must be careful not to mistake the labels (words) for the reality. (For more on this, check out my post here).
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
Ok, now we get the counterpoint, further reinforcing the idea. The “nameless”, that which cannot be named or put into words. Interesting. The “nameless” is essentially a synonym for Tao. A common term for it these days is “the Mystery”. But notice he’s saying it’s the beginning of heaven and earth (“heaven and earth” = all of existence). In other words, the Tao is the source or root of all that exists. As we’ll see soon, we mustn’t mistake these for two different things. The language makes it appear like we’re talking about “the source” and “that which flows from the source”, but that’s a language and perception trap. It’s like two sides to the same coin, except the line between them is ultimately an illusion.
The named is the mother of [the] ten thousand things.
Again, back to “the named”, which is the “mother” of all the things we perceive. In other words, labels, words — language itself — gives birth to the ten-thousand things, but this is merely our perception. There is no division, just one giant process (variously called by different traditions Tao/Brahman/God/etc…). But our perception — that is, the way our brains work and slice reality into distinct pieces — literally creates everything in our minds. We see trees and the word “tree” is born (to put it simply), we see water and the word “water” is born, and so on. But as I said, words are nothing more than labels. We label our perceptions and then think that’s the reality. The reality is, however, that there’s no-thing that exists. Everything is empty because it’s all process, but our senses tell us otherwise.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
This line is at the heart of the entire Tao Te Ching and many other traditions. It’s particularly interesting because it very clearly agrees with Buddhism and Hinduism, but we can find similar themes in Christianity and Islam. Personally, I don’t think “desireless” is the best possible translation, but it gets the job done. What Lao Tzu means here is that you must be still within. Only then can you truly see beyond the veil of Maya (to borrow a term from Hinduism; this was the line between the two sides of the coin that I mentioned earlier). In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, it’s equated with the stillness of a pond that can accurately reflect the moon or whatever else is reflected in it as opposed to a choppy surface that breaks up the image (just like out mind breaks reality into distinct pieces via labels and thought). Meister Eckhart, the famous Christian mystic, concurs here:
“Nothing in all creation is so like God as stillness.”
In Buddhism, there are the ideas of clinging and grasping. Existence — or, if you prefer, life — is constant change. It’s a perpetual process, but we tend to cling to things, which causes us to suffer because everything is impermanent. However, there’s no solid “thing” to grasp onto or cling onto in the first place, so we’re really just holding onto our perception of reality (whether past or future (especially past)). Further, we use these things to bolster our own identity (ego — which is ultimately “a false sense of self” that we think inherently exists). This happens with everything from cars, money, and jewelry to religion to politics, and so on. The problem is that all of these things bolster a sense of self that never existed and never will, which blinds us to the nature of reality. We can even construe Jesus’ words to mean something similar:
“Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” -KJV Bible, Matthew 19:23-24
Similarly, in the Bhagavad Gita of Hinduism, we find lines such as the following:
“When the senses contact sense objects, a person experiences cold or heat, pleasure or pain. These experiences are fleeting; they come and go… The impermanent has no reality; reality lies in the eternal. Those who have seen the boundary between these two have attained the end of all knowledge.” -Chapter 2, verses 14 and 16, translated by Eknath Easwaran.
Of course, there ultimately is no “boundary”. The boundary that’s spoken of is the veil of Maya — our everyday sense perceptions on one side and the truth of reality (Tao) on the other. This is merely a shift in perception/conscious awareness:
“The supreme Reality stands revealed in the consciousness of those who have conquered themselves. They live in peace, alike in cold and heat, pleasure and pain, praise and blame.” — Chapter 6, verse 7
This is what Lao Tzu means by “ever desireless, one can see the mystery”. There’s a still, empty center within you (again, be careful of language) that is your true nature and is everything (in Hinduism, this is called Brahman-Atman). The mistake we make is we think this empty space is filled with something called “I”.
Ever desiring, one sees the manifestations.
Ah, here we get the opposite again. This goes hand-in-hand with everything I just said. When you grasp and cling, when you get trapped in language, when you believe you and everything else are separate, fixed entities, you can’t see “the mystery”/Tao/etc… You can only see what appear to be separate, fixed entities because that’s what you’re focusing on and what you believe reality is. This problem of perception is ultimately rooted in how our senses and brain work (I talk more about that here). Think of it like a cloud. You see a cloud that looks like a dragon, but there’s no dragon, just the passing, changing form of a cloud that your mind created meaning out of. All of reality is no different: you see a tree, give it the label “tree”, and your mind attaches a fixed meaning and identity to that “thing” you now call “tree”. But there is no fixed entity we call a “tree”. There’s no-thing that exists (again, check out my other article).
These two spring from the same source but differ in name; this appears as darkness.
Now we get even closer to the territory of paradox. Personally, it’s my experience that anything that can be said to be ultimately true — as opposed to relatively true, such as our sense perceptions — is a paradox because the nature of reality is beyond words.
So, how can the Tao (the source) and the ten-thousand things spring from the same source? I love how Lao Tzu adds, “this appears as darkness”. Remember, the very first lines told us that “Tao” is a label and “names” (of the ten-thousand things) are labels. So, as soon as we say “Tao”, we’ve conceptualized reality and it slips through our fingers. “Tao” is a signpost that attempts to point us to the ineffable. This is why Tao, Brahman, God, and other terms are mere labels that point to the same ineffable reality that’s hidden in plain sight by our senses. What Lao Tzu is really saying here with “the same source” and “appears as darkness” is that it’s our perception (the biological limitation of our senses — bolstered by language — which is the veil of Maya) that is the source (and darkness) of these things seeming to be two, but in reality there’s no separation. There are no separate, inherently existing entities, no “thing” that exists; there’s only process. We must realize that the Yin-Yang symbol is really about the transcendent unity of opposites. If we take a look at the Muslim mystic and poet Rumi, we find some interesting parallels to this and Taoism in general (emphasis mine):
“I am not from the world, not from beyond,
not from heaven and not from hell.
I am not from Adam, not from Eve,
not from paradise and not from Ridwan.
My place is placeless, my trace is traceless,
no body, no soul, I am from the soul of souls.
I have chased out duality, lived the two worlds as one.
One I seek, one I know, one I see, one I call.
He is the first, he is the last,
he is the outer, he is the inner.
Beyond He and He is I know no other.”
Darkness within darkness.
There are a number of different ways we can look at this line, and there are many different translations of the Tao Te Ching that put this differently, such as “mystery of mysteries”. But I think this translation works well enough and points us in the right direction. I’ll offer only one possible interpretation here because it seems the best to me. It’s not just darkness, but “darkness within darkness”. So there seems to be two layers. You could possibly say darkness 1 is our senses, and darkness 2 is our interpretation or experience of the senses, which includes thought and language. So first we have to get past our internal barrier of getting trapped in language, labeling “things”, etc… Basically all the ways the brain takes in sensory input, analyzes it, and categorizes it. But there’s another level that is the root of that, which is our sense perceptions themselves. If you were to become “enlightened” (I hate that word) right now, all that would shift is how you experience things. Your eyes will still see what appear to be separate, isolated entities because this is a function and limitation of our biology.
The gate to all mystery.
To conclude, the “darkness” of how we experience reality via language and thought is inside the “darkness” of our biological sense perceptions, which is “the gate to all mystery” (I’m not placing a value judgement here, it’s simply the opposite implication of the word enlightenment). In other words, the root cause of how we experience reality is based on the raw sense perceptions that tell us one thing (separate entities) when reality is the opposite (whole/interconnected process). In my analysis, I believe that “gate to all mystery” is Loa Tzu’s term for “Maya” in Hinduism. It’s the perceptual boundary point that causes us to be blind to reality as it is, as opposed to how we think it is or want it to be.
Tao Te Ching. Translated by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English. Vintage Books Edition, August 1989.
The Bhagavad Gita. Translated by Eknath Easwaran. The Blue Mountain Center of Meditation, second edition, October 2009.
The Essential Rumi. Translated by Coleman Barks. Harper One.
Meister Eckhart. https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/73092.Meister_Eckhart