• T Clark
    4.8k
    This is partly for @Tom Storm but mostly for myself.

    If any of you have read my other posts, you may have noticed that I like to drop quotes from the “Tao Te Ching” (from now on, TTC) into just about everything. It was written about 2,500 years ago in China by Lao Tzu. It’s always struck me as funny that that’s just about the same time Aristotle and his buddies were at work in Greece.

    There are dozens of translations of the TTC. I will use Stephen Mitchell’s here. It’s the first one I read and the one I think is the most accessible to Americans. That being said, I was in a TTC reading group with a linguist. We discussed various translations and it became clear that Mitchell rounded over a lot of corners and sanded off a lot of sharp edges. Here’s a link to a great website that has a whole bunch of translations, including Mitchell’s

    https://terebess.hu/english/tao/_index.html

    In my reading group, we mainly used Ellen Marie Chen’s translation. You get a real taste for the language with her.

    I love the Tao Te Ching. It changed my whole understanding of reality. Part of that understanding is that the description of reality in the TTC is not true or false. It’s a metaphysical description. I think most of our arguments in this forum come down to a misunderstanding of what is metaphysical and what is not. In a current thread elsewhere on the forum, we have been talking about R G Collingwood’s idea of absolute presuppositions (APs). If I have the idea of APs right, which I’m not sure of, the fundamental difference between Taoism and more familiar western philosophies is a difference in APs.

    My plan is to pick out my favorite verses and discuss them. Taoism is supposed to be related to Zen and certainly has a lot in common with Buddhism. I don’t want to get too far into that. Some western philosophers, including Arthur Schopenhauer and Bertrand Russell, read Lao Tzu and discussed some of the issues he raised. I don’t want to get too far into that either.

    In my next post, I will start with the first verse. After that, if people want to bring in their own favorites, that will be ok. I would like to work our way through it more or less in order. I will skip many verses just because I feel like it.

    Keep in mind - I'm not going to be talking about what the TTC means. I will be talking about what it means to me.
  • T Clark
    4.8k
    To get started - the Tao. Here are some definitions and quotations about the Tao from various sources, including me:

    [1] The ground of being
    [2] The Tao that cannot be spoken
    [3] Oneness is the Tao which is invisible and formless.
    [4] Nature is Tao. Tao is everlasting.
    [5] The absolute principle underlying the universe
    [6] That in virtue of which all things happen or exist
    [7] The intuitive knowing of life that cannot be grasped full-heartedly as just a concept

    Verse 1 - Text in italics. My thoughts in normal font.

    The tao that can be told
    is not the eternal Tao
    The name that can be named
    is not the eternal Name.


    This is the heart of it. The TTC is about reality before concepts. If it is put into words, it's no longer the Tao. The Tao is unspeakable. It's what was before there was anybody to think about it. It's also a joke. In this book, we're going to talk about what can't be talked about. I see the TTC as a bunch of snap shots of the Tao. Lao Tzu is trying to show it to us without letting the words get in the way. We're supposed to get our view of the Tao in our peripheral vision.

    The unnamable is the eternally real.
    Naming is the origin
    of all particular things.


    This is one of the two or three ideas that are most important to me in the TTC. This theme comes up over and over. There is the Tao which is unspeakable, undivided, all one thing, and there is the world of particular, named things where we live our lives. Some translations use the phrase "the 10,000 things" to describe the world of particular things. I love that. It always makes me laugh. How does that transition take place? That's something I've thought about, and argued about in my reading group. My answer - it's a fundamentally human process. Humans and the Tao interact to create the 10,000 things. A lot of people disagree with that.

    Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
    Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.
    Yet mystery and manifestations
    arise from the same source.
    This source is called darkness.


    Darkness within darkness.
    The gateway to all understanding.


    It is possible to experience the Tao directly and not through the filter of our words and concepts. Lost in the illusions of everyday life, we can see only the 10,000 things. Lao Tzu doesn't talk about illusions and I've been in arguments about whether it is appropriate to bring this Buddhist concept into a discussion of Taoism. There is certainly a difference between "mystery" and "darkness," here, but I just think of them as another way to say Tao.

    Keep in mind that the TTC is written in ancient Chinese. Apparently even Chinese speakers have trouble understanding it. Sometimes, often, it seems self-contradictory. Some of that is differences in culture and language, but I think some of it is intentional, maybe even unavoidable.

    Did I mention I love the Tao Te Ching.
  • Tom Storm
    714
    Thank you TC. As I said to you earlier, I read TTC first in 1985 (ish) and was unable to incorporate it into my thinking. I guess it seemed then to be a kind of lengthy and unintelligible fortune cookie aphorism.

    Looking over the Mitchell translation recently, I was struck by how some of the versus now instantly made sense. It's like something you recognise without it being familiar. This tradition is not known to me but it seems to be at least in part about balance and perspective and an invitation to stop and start again. Hope that's not too crude or obvious. Or wrong...

    As a vulgar secularist, who is fond of words like metaphysical and spiritual but not too fond of what these words tend to mean in ordinary discourse, I am very interested in how people integrate this kind of work into a life.

    I imagine people either click or don't with this.

    I was struck by the following:

    What is a good man but a bad man’s teacher?
    What is a bad man but a good man’s job?
    If you don’t understand this, you will get lost,
    however intelligent you are.
    It is the great secret.
  • Possibility
    2k
    Appreciating this - I loaned out my copy of the TTC, and I’m missing having the little book at hand.

    Every time I’ve picked it up, the phrases have resonated with my understanding, and the limitations of language and concepts dissolve...

    This reminds me right now of the discussion on another thread on materialism and metaphysics:

    “The old problem...if everything is metaphysics then nothing is metaphysics” I think fails to really understand the Tao.
  • Maw
    2.3k
    Heaven and earth are ruthless,
    and treat the myriad creatures
    as straw dogs
  • Wayfarer
    11.8k
    The unnamable is the eternally real.
    Naming is the origin
    of all particular things.


    This is one of the two or three ideas that are most important to me in the TTC. This theme comes up over and over. There is the Tao which is unspeakable, undivided, all one thing, and there is the world of particular, named things where we live our lives. Some translations use the phrase "the 10,000 things" to describe the world of particular things. I love that. It always makes me laugh. How does that transition take place?
    T Clark

    I think this verse from the early Buddhist texts is comparable:

    There is, monks, an unborn— unbecome — unmade — unfabricated. If there were not that unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, there would not be the case that escape from the born — become — made — fabricated would be discerned. But precisely because there is an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, escape from the born — become — made — fabricated is discerned.

    The ‘unmade’ is the ‘unmanifest’ which I’m sure is at least an analogy for ‘the unnamable’. The paradox is that as soon as it’s designated then it is named. Eastern philosophy generally is replete with such paradoxes.

    The ‘10,000 things’ roughly translates as ‘phenomena’ or ‘every manifest thing’.

    I don’t there is a conceptual niche for ‘the unmanifest, unmade, unnamed’ in modern thought.
  • T Clark
    4.8k
    I don’t there is a conceptual niche for ‘the unmanifest, unmade, unnamed’ in modern thought.Wayfarer

    I don't read much western philosophy, but once I was reading some Kant. His idea of "noumenon" seemed similar to me, although very clunky and mixed up with a lot of convoluted ideas. I checked on the web and actually found a paper comparing the two. It wasn't a very good paper. I don't think anyone thinks Kant was in any way influenced by anything Asian.
  • T Clark
    4.8k
    Heaven and earth are ruthless,
    and treat the myriad creatures
    as straw dogs
    Maw

    I've struggled with "heaven and earth" and where they fit into the Taoist vision. They're somewhere on the ladder between the Tao and the 10,000 things. I can't figure if they are something outside of us or are inside us.
  • T Clark
    4.8k
    I loaned out my copy of the TTC, and I’m missing having the little book at hand.Possibility

    What translation did you use?

    “The old problem...if everything is metaphysics then nothing is metaphysics” I think fails to really understand the Tao.Possibility

    In a thread a couple of years ago, I put forth the idea that the Tao is analogous to objective reality. In my understanding of how things are, I've replaced objective reality with the Tao. That's what I mean when I say that Taoism is completely consistent with a scientific viewpoint.

    Objective reality and the Tao are both metaphysical entities. They aren't true or false. They are useful or not useful in a particular situation.
  • T Clark
    4.8k
    I was struck by the following:

    What is a good man but a bad man’s teacher?
    What is a bad man but a good man’s job?
    If you don’t understand this, you will get lost,
    however intelligent you are.
    It is the great secret.
    Tom Storm

    One of the confusing aspects of the TTC is that it mixes cosmology, physical reality, morals, and politics all into one bowl. The idea that all of these grow out of the same source is alien to the way we think of it.

    So, what does it mean to you?
  • Wayfarer
    11.8k
    I don't read much western philosophy, but once I was reading some Kant. His idea of "noumenon" seemed similar to me, although very clunky and mixed up with a lot of convoluted ideas. I checked on the web and actually found a paper comparing the two. It wasn't a very good paper. I don't think anyone thinks Kant was in any way influenced by anything Asian.T Clark

    As a matter of interest, the first exposure I had to Kant, was through a book by an Oxford-educated Indian professor of comparative religion, namely, T R V Murti, The Central Philosophy of Buddhism (1955). He compares Mahāyāna Buddhism with Kant, quite plausibly, in my view.

    In any case, don ‘t loose site of the point: ‘the unnameable’ - what does that mean?
  • T Clark
    4.8k
    In any case, don ‘t loose site of the point: ‘the unnameable’ - what does that mean?Wayfarer

    I took my best swing at it up in my second post.

    The TTC is about reality before concepts. If it is put into words, it's no longer the Tao. The Tao is unspeakable. It's what was before there was anybody to think about it. It's also a joke. In this book, we're going to talk about what can't be talked about.T Clark

    Bedtime.
  • Tom Storm
    714
    So, what does it mean to you?T Clark

    I get from this that it is an immutable truism that the paragon teaches the scoundrel just through their presence or example. Anger and aggrieved advice or recriminations are without utility. What I also get from this is if I want to be of use and work towards a better 'way of being' remember that good and bad share the same space and need each other. Endless unhappy thoughts and interpersonal conflicts will be avoided if this is understood and acted out. And I will also avoid the path to being the very thing I think I hate.
  • Isaac
    4.2k
    I don’t there is a conceptual niche for ‘the unmanifest, unmade, unnamed’ in modern thought.Wayfarer

    Not all all.

    https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsif.2017.0792
  • javi2541997
    595
    When the Principle reigns the horses of war are raised in the fields
    When the Principle is forgotten, the horses of war are raised even in the slums of the cities


    Thoughts: this is one of my favourite quotes from Tao. I guess it is related to peace and order in the cities or villages. If you control the Principle and everything around you is under a composure state the “horses” will not be prepared to fight anyone but just being free in the green fields having a good life.
  • TheMadFool
    9.1k
    The tao that can be told
    is not the eternal Tao
    The name that can be named
    is not the eternal Name.
    T Clark

    I believe the above is the crux of what Taoism is all about. Lao Tzu attempts to point at "something" that can't be pointed at. It reminds me of the time when I used my index finger to single out a person walking on the side of the road - I wanted to comment about the person for some reason - and my daughter severely admonished me saying, "don't point at people!" I struggled for a few moments, searching for the right words, and eventually...as fate would have it...I gave up. Lao Tzu was a rude fellow, pointing at the Tao like that.
  • TheMadFool
    9.1k
    There was this other time when I saw a small crowd gathered in a street corner. In the the center was a man talking in as loud a voice as he could manage and he had his arm stretched out, his index finger also extended. He was saying, "there, can you see it?" I got as close to this man as possible, lined my eyes along his outstretched hands but, unfortunately or fortunately, there were just too many things the man could've been pointing at for me to see what he wanted us to see.
  • Possibility
    2k
    The tao that can be told
    is not the eternal Tao
    The name that can be named
    is not the eternal Name.
    T Clark

    The unnamable is the eternally real.
    Naming is the origin
    of all particular things.
    T Clark

    This sets up the paradox or disclaimer that underlies the entire book: all he can do here with these phrases is paint the shadows. They won’t directly tell us what the Tao is - even naming ‘the Tao’ is an approximation that implies we can imagine a point beyond, looking back. To entertain this illusion is to limit what it is we could possibly understand (by excluding ourselves), which then renders any depiction inaccurate as such. We could find some beautiful words, as Lao Tzu has, but that’s not the Tao.

    Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
    Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.
    Yet mystery and manifestations
    arise from the same source.
    This source is called darkness.

    Darkness within darkness.
    The gateway to all understanding.
    T Clark

    There are various ways to interpret this, but I find it’s clearest when I simply experience what it says, without trying to describe what it means to me for your benefit. But that doesn’t help the discussion, does it?

    This reminds me of the nature of affect (desire). I like how he says ‘realise’, not ‘solve’ the mystery. Theoretically, free from affect, reality may seem potentially knowable, but in fact without affect we have no way to determine the uncertainty and inaccuracy of our knowledge.

    We are irretrievably bound by affect, by valence and arousal. It is the medium of our consciousness, what we use to render the world. This is all we see: the manifestations (concepts) or predictions in terms of how their uncertainty and inaccuracy affects us. This suffering from prediction error (‘darkness within darkness’) is the most effective and efficient method we have to understand the world.
  • Pantagruel
    1.5k
    He who knows does not speak. He who speaks does not know.
  • TheMadFool
    9.1k
    The tao that can be told
    is not the eternal Tao
    The name that can be named
    is not the eternal Name.
    T Clark

    Me again, sorry but I can't seem to have enough of the Tao.

    I have a very severe mental handicap - I can't think logicallu even if it were the case that my life depended on it and the other side of that coin seems to be able to apprehend/comprehend stuff that I can't put into words.

    Let me try and be logical about the above stanza from this Eastern gem of philosophical poetry, the Tao Te Ching.

    First off, everything that can be told i.e. that which can be expressed in language isn't/can't be the Tao [ref: The Tao that can be told is NOT the eternal Tao].

    Secondly, that which can be named, again we see a linguistic slant here, is also NOT the Tao [ref: The name that can be named is not the eternal Name]

    What does that leave us with? My hunch is Lao Tze is trying his very best to, and may have pressed into service his poetic license, express the inexpressible. He's taking on the role of the proverbial person who beats around the bush, secretly hoping I bet that all the noise will, at the very least, lead us to the location of Tao's bush.

    Under the simplest of interpretations, Lao Tze want us to move beyond language but the million dollar question is whether that's a progression towards something new and wonderful or a regression towards something old and mundane? In short, is the Tao a step forward into an exciting future or a step backward into a been-there, done-that past?
  • TheMadFool
    9.1k
    He who knows does not speak. He who speaks does not know.Pantagruel

    Does he who thus spoke therefore know or not know?
  • Pantagruel
    1.5k
    Hence the Tao which can be spoken is not the eternal Tao...

    Personally I practise this by consciously trying to speak much less than is my natural tendency.
  • T Clark
    4.8k
    I get from this that it is an immutable truism that the paragon teaches the scoundrel just through their presence or example. Anger and aggrieved advice or recriminations are without utility. What I also get from this is if I want to be of use and work towards a better 'way of being' remember that good and bad share the same space and need each other. Endless unhappy thoughts and interpersonal conflicts will be avoided if this is understood and acted out. And I will also avoid the path to being the very thing I think I hate.Tom Storm

    This is really good. I don't think I'd thought it through as well as this.

    Another thought, which may not be in the text - Lao Tzu doesn't talk about judging people much, but he does talk about seeing things as they are without putting words on it. Patiently waiting to see what the Tao has to show us. This is an excerpt from Verse 38:

    The Master does nothing,
    yet he leaves nothing undone....

    The moral man does something,
    and when no one responds
    he rolls up his sleeves and uses force.


    I'm not sure if you see that connection.
  • T Clark
    4.8k

    I took a quick look. "Markov blanket" looks like an interesting concept, but I don't see how it is relevant. Let's not go down that path here. I'll take a look at the article.
  • T Clark
    4.8k
    Thoughts: this is one of my favourite quotes from Tao. I guess it is related to peace and order in the cities or villages. If you control the Principle and everything around you is under a composure state the “horses” will not be prepared to fight anyone but just being free in the green fields having a good life.javi2541997

    I like that verse from Verse 46 too. Ellen Marie Chen has a more earthy translation:

    When the world practices Tao,
    Fast horses are used for their dung.
  • T Clark
    4.8k
    The tao that can be told
    is not the eternal Tao
    The name that can be named
    is not the eternal Name.
    — T Clark

    I believe the above is the crux of what Taoism is all about. Lao Tzu attempts to point at "something" that can't be pointed at.
    TheMadFool

    Yes, I agree.
  • T Clark
    4.8k
    This sets up the paradox or disclaimer that underlies the entire book: all he can do here with these phrases is paint the shadows. They won’t directly tell us what the Tao is - even naming ‘the Tao’ is an approximation that implies we can imagine a point beyond, looking back. To entertain this illusion is to limit what it is we could possibly understand (by excluding ourselves), which then renders any depiction inaccurate as such. We could find some beautiful words, as Lao Tzu has, but that’s not the Tao.Possibility

    This is just the way I feel. When I talk about what Lao Tzu is trying to do, I say he is trying to take snapshots of the Tao. If we look at all the snapshots, we can get an overall understanding. Or I say he is cutting cross-sections through the Tao - maybe a cat scan. I like your metaphor of painting the shadows better.

    There are various ways to interpret this, but I find it’s clearest when I simply experience what it says, without trying to describe what it means to me for your benefit.Possibility

    Yes, but this is true of all the verses. If we follow this, there's nothing to talk about. Hey.... wait a minute.

    We are irretrievably bound by affect, by valence and arousal. It is the medium of our consciousness, what we use to render the world. This is all we see: the manifestations (concepts) or predictions in terms of how their uncertainty and inaccuracy affects us. This suffering from prediction error (‘darkness within darkness’) is the most effective and efficient method we have to understand the world.Possibility

    This is really well put. Now I'm thinking about whether "affect" means the same as what Lao Tzu is calling "desire." It reminds me of this edited excerpt from Stephen Mitchell's translation of Verse 13:

    Hope is as hollow as fear...
    What does it mean that hope is as hollow as fear?
    Hope and fear are both phantoms
    that arise from thinking of the self.
    When we don't see the self as self,
    what do we have to fear?


    If you look, you'll see that no one else interprets this verse that way. Mitchell often takes liberties with the literal translation. Some people really don't like that.
  • synthesis
    702
    Keep in mind that the TTC is written in ancient Chinese. Apparently even Chinese speakers have trouble understanding it.T Clark

    There is nothing to understand.

    -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Open your mouth and you have already lost it.

    Huang Po d. 850AD
  • Isaac
    4.2k


    Oh, no need to derail your thread (I'm fond of the Tao Te Ching myself so have been enjoying the exegesis). It was more just a testy jab at Wayfarer's usual assumption that anyone not on board with his brand of spiritualism must believe life to be no more complex than a child's automaton. There's beautiful mystery in complexity itself, with or without technical rigour.

    Whilst I'm here though, I do have a Tao Te Ching related question, and it sounds like you might be the one to answer it. It always struck me how much of the writing is dedicated to statecraft. Right from around 50ish, we get a lot of, essentially, advice about how to govern. Is that too simplistic a reading, is it meant to be allegorical, or is he literally speaking to goveners and generals?
  • Valentinus
    1.2k
    I sing this to my stonemason knees when they complain:
    Of old he who was well versed in the way
    Was minutely subtle, mysteriously comprehending,
    And too profound to be known.
    It is because he could not be known
    That he can only be given a makeshift description:
    Tentative, as if fording a river in winter;
    Hesitant, as if in fear of his neighbors;
    Formal, like a guest;
    Falling apart like thawing ice;
    Thick like the uncarved block;
    Vacant like a valley;
    Murky like muddy water.
    Who can be muddy and yet, settling, slowly become limpid?
    Who can be at rest and yet, stirring, slowly come to life?
    He who holds fast to this way
    Desires not to be full.
    It is because he is not full
    That he can be worn and yet newly made.
    — Translated by D.C Lau. Book 1, verse 15
  • T Clark
    4.8k
    Secondly, that which can be named, again we see a linguistic slant here, is also NOT the Tao [ref: The name that can be named is not the eternal Name]TheMadFool

    I think the idea of naming is really important.

    The unnamable is the eternally real.
    Naming is the origin
    of all particular things.


    Naming is something people do. This has always meant to me that it is people who create "all particular things." In other discussions, a lot of people have disagreed with that. For me, it is central.
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