The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.
The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin of all particular things.
Free from desire, you can see the hidden mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only what is visibly real.
Yet mystery and visible reality arise from the same source.
And the mystery itself is the gateway to all understanding.
The first verse of the Tao Te Ching opens on an almost cautionary note, warning us that the ultimate truth is beyond conceptualisation and abstraction. How then can we seek to express the inexpressible with words and concepts without losing its very essence? How do we approach this eternal Tao and understand the mystery from which all life arises?
The tendency of the mind is to create concepts and to regard these concepts as being the ultimate truth, when at best they can merely serve as pointers to this truth. A famous Zen story highlights this plight. In the parable, truth is analogous to the moon in the night sky. A wise man catches sight of the moon and attempts to point it out to his followers. However, most of his followers fail to realise that it is necessary to look beyond the tip of his finger to see what it is pointing to. Instead they mistakenly believe that the finger itself is the moon. From this fundamental misperception entire religions have been created, where words and doctrines (the pointing finger) have become more important than that to which they were pointing.
Most of us keep our attention fixed solely upon the visible manifestations of life; the world of the ‘ten thousand things’ as many translations of the Tao Te Ching describe it. We’re so fixated upon objects (and this includes the objects in our minds, such as our thoughts, beliefs and ideas), that we are totally unaware of that which lies beneath, beyond and within them. Or, to use a metaphor, it’s as if we’re so focussed on the words in a book that we’re completely unaware of the paper upon which they are written and without which the book wouldn’t exist. Only when taking both into account – the words and the paper; the forms and the formless – can true understanding be gained.
The Tao is the intangible, formless essence from which all forms arise and subside, like waves upon the ocean. It is the noumenon at the root of all phenomena. Without it, nothing could exist and yet with our senses we perceive only the outward visible manifestations, the 'particular things' of life. We name them and create abstractions about them in our mind.
From language, concepts are born and it is through this screen of concepts that we filter our reality. Our tendency is then to mistake our interpretation of reality as being reality itself. Instead of experiencing reality purely and directly as it is, we inhabit a virtual-reality determined by our ever-shifting thoughts and interpretations.
This is a second-hand experience of life at best. To lose ourselves in mental activity and abstract interpretation, forever engaged in naming, analysing and categorising the outer forms is to lose touch with the deeper essence of the Tao. When this happens, understanding remains incomplete because, in a sense, we’re living a one-dimensional existence, aware of and relating only to the surface level of life. A life without depth is one that is perpetually unfulfilling and endlessly frustrating.
Our fixation with objects is rooted in desire. Desire obscures our perception and keeps us locked in the ceaseless mode of acquisition and attainment. We become lost in a mindset of 'never quite enough', always craving more and more things, unaware that what we truly yearn for is an experience of the Tao – the everything and nothing ('no-thing') that underlies all existence.
When we cease to fixate on and grasp at material objects, we are able to touch upon the mystery that lies at the heart of life. We move beyond a strictly one-dimensional experience of life and the innate richness, depth and beauty of life begins to reveal itself. This is what Lao Tzu calls the “gateway to all understanding”…