Tao Te Ching Discussion

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Reply Tue 22 Jan, 2008 05:04 pm
The Tao-Te-Ching is a classic Chinese text, with well over 100 English translations. What I have in mind for this thread is a continuing discussion of the text.

Free Online Versions of the Text:
Taoism - Tao Te Ching Translations

A great deal (okay, probably 90%) of my commentary is derived from the information on this site:
Daoist Philosophy

A great link for anyone interested in Chinese thought.

My own knowledge of the subject is quite limited, though given the nature of the text, I think that together we can find a great deal of value in the work. So, let's begin with the first chapter:

Quote:
Blakney Translation
{01} There are ways but the Way is uncharted ...
There are ways but the Way is uncharted;
There are names but not nature in words:
Nameless indeed is the source of creation
But things have a mother and she has a name.

The secret waits for the insight
Of eyes unclouded by longing;
Those who are bound by desire
See only the outward container.

These two come paired but distinct
By there names.
Of all things profound,
Say that their pairing is deepest,
The gate to the root of the world.
Quote:
Peter Merel's Translation
The Way that can be experienced is not true;
The world that can be constructed is not real.
The Way manifests all that happens and may happen;
The world represents all that exists and may exist.

To experience without abstraction is to sense the world;
To experience with abstraction is to know the world.
These two experiences are indistinguishable;
Their construction differs but their effect is the same.

Beyond the gate of experience flows the Way,
Which is ever greater and more subtle than the world.
=========

Above are two different presentations of the first chapter. Again, hundreds can be found. But already, the text has provided us with some interesting ideas:

To begin, let me give another example of how the first stanza is rendered (a version probably more familiar to most readers, including myself):

Quote:
The way that can be spoken of
Is not the constant way;
The name that can be named
Is not the constant name.
Take any noun and repeat the word over and over, imagining the object the word refers to. Here I sit, I have a book in my hand and I repeat "Book...book..." But we could use any word, invent any noise or gesture, to represent this thing we call "book". We have these names to respresent things, like "book" to represent those bound papers, but "book" is not those bound papers, the names are not what the names represent. "Book" only has meaning in that it represents something, but "book" is not what "book" represents.

To make this more compelling, as most of us probably do not care about "book", we might consider these passages with respect to "God". How often, especially on forums such as these, do we speak of God, saying, 'God is that, God is this; God is not that, God is not this". The notion that "god" is eternal is fairly universal, so how can we say so much about something that words cannot represent? How far can we go in our discourse about God? About any other topic?

Before this thread becomes too far entrenched into my own ideas, I'll leave off for other comments. For now, let's stick to this first chapter. After some conversation, when things let up, I'll post the next one.

Feel free to take this in any direction you like, just keep things on topic; relating to the Tao-Te-Ching.
 
Aedes
 
Reply Wed 23 Jan, 2008 11:14 am
@Didymos Thomas,
Great topic.

Here's how it reads in my translation of it (Translated by Red Pine):
Quote:
The way that becomes a way
is not the Immortal way
the name that becomes a name
is not the Immortal name
the maiden of Heaven and Earth has no name
the mother of all things has a name
thus in innocence we see the beginning
in passion we see the end
two different names
for one and the same
the one we call dark
the dark beyond dark
the door to all beginnings


My translation has commentaries with each verse, some from students / scholars of the text and some from others (like the Buddha, and Confucius)

This passage is so shrouded and difficult that I've always had trouble moving on to the rest of the book afterwards. I think you're right in part that the passage refers to the difference between the name and the named.

Here's some excerpted commentary: from Red Pine, the word tao here means way or road, and by extension way of doing something. It also has an etymologic connection to the moon, of which Lao-tsu was probably aware. From the Buddha "He who says I teach the Dharma maligns me. Who teaches the Dharma teaches nothing." (from the Diamond Sutra). Perhaps this emphasizes how the way is not only beyond names but it's beyond description -- it's something one does, or it's how someone lives.

Su Ch'e says: "The ways of kindness and justice change, but not the way of the Tao. No name is its body. Name is its function. The sage embodies the Tao and uses it in the world. But while entering the myriad states of being, he remains in non-being."

Wang Pi says: "From the infinitesimal all things develop. From nothing all things are born. When we are free of desire, we can see the infinitesimal where things begin. When we are subject to desire, we can see where things end."

There appears to be some debate on what Lao-tzu means by "two". Wang Pi says "'Two' refers to 'maiden' and 'mother'." Ts'ao Tao-Ch'ung says "'Two' refers to 'innocence' and 'passion', or in other words, stillness and movement. Stillness corresponds to nonexistence. Movement corresponds to existence. Provisionally different, they are ultimately the same. Both meet in darkness."

Finally, Te-Ch'ing says, "Lao-tsu's philosophy is all here. The remaining five thousand words only expand on this first verse."

Much of our approach to this hinges upon a difficult question: what is he talking about? What is the way? Is there some kind of correlate in other thought that we can use to understand it?

Red Pine says in the introduction: "Trying to force the Taoteching into the categories of modern discourse not only distorts the Taoteching, it also treats the traditions that later Taoists have associated with the text as irrelevant and misguided. Meanwhile, the Taoteching continues to inspire millions of Chinese as a spiritual text, and I have tried to present it in that dark light. The words of philosophers fail here. If words are of any use at all, they are the words of the poet. For poetry has the ability to point us toward the truth and then stand asid, while prose stands in the doorway relating all the wonders on the other side but rarely lets us pass."
 
Didymos Thomas
 
Reply Wed 23 Jan, 2008 08:13 pm
@Aedes,
Thanks for the response!

I enjoyed the commentary. "Tao" is a difficult word to translate because it refuses definition. Our "way" works well because it is similarly difficult to define. The best we can do in seeking a definition is to give near synonyms. The problem with our "way" is that it is too broad. Everything that I have read agrees with your commentary; a "way" that is like a "road" or "path" is generally the clearest way to read the word. However, when we think of "tao" as a "road", of course, must get rid of our western water and not think of it as any other physical feature.
For example, if you ask me "What is the road to the store?" I could correctly answer "That asphalt covered trail with yellow lines." But "tao", it does not seem, is so concrete. If I had responed "Over the hills and through the woods" I may have described an equally accurate road to the store. We could think of many different ways to use and understand "road", or "way", but the words are the same. Chad Hansen has this to say:

Quote:
Chad Hansen:
Chinese language lacks pluralization, i.e., not simply has no plurals, but has no grammatical role for plurals. (Otherwise it would merely be that all nouns are like "deer" and "fish" in English, with identical singular and plural forms.) Nouns refer in a collective way. They pick out parts of the "universe of discourse." So dao is more like 'ways' or 'way-stuff' or "the way-part of those things we can talk about" than it is like 'a way.' Dao has a semantic part-whole structure, like an expanse. What we think of as one way would be one part or component of dao. Ancient Chinese referred to the multiple parts of dao by simple modification, e.g., my-dao, Sage-King's-dao, natural-dao, past-time's-dao and so forth. This feature explains spatial metaphors like "humans are in dao like fish are in water."


Aedes wrote:
This passage is so shrouded and difficult that I've always had trouble moving on to the rest of the book afterwards. I think you're right in part that the passage refers to the difference between the name and the named.


I think most people have the same problem; I know I do. Again, your commentary explains this by saying that the whole the text is explained in those first lines.

Apparently, some scholars think the text is supposed to be answers to a list of questions. Given the cryptic and often repetative nature of the book, and the traditional story of the border guard and Lao Tzu, that the Tao Te Ching makes sense as a books of responses. Whether this is true or not, I dont know as I doubt we could have much of an idea about such things, but this is an interesting way to read the text. If the Tao Te Ching is a list of answers, the first question may very well have been "What is Tao?"

To the general point of the difference between the name and the named, I agree this message is certainly there. This simple truth is one far too ignored in western philosophy - some even think that thought, or at least complex thought, relies on language. But I think there is more. The following is from my personal copy (trns. John CH Wu):

"Tao can be talked about, but not the Eternal Tao.
Names can be named, but not the Eternal Name.

As the origin of heaven-and-earth, it is nameless:
As "the Mother" of all things, it is nameable."

We call it '"the Mother" of all thing', relating it to something we are familiar with, "the Mother", even though the Tao is not a mother. Maybe I'm way out there, but perhaps, there is a difference between the name and the named, but also that no name can be entirely accurate in what it names? Either the understand of the name changes (ex, the notion of "mother" and the role of a "mother" in society) or what it names changes ('the only constant is change' addage).
 
ogden
 
Reply Wed 23 Jan, 2008 09:06 pm
@Didymos Thomas,
Perhaps time is the way (tao), and time is linear, without begining or end? The shape of it has no concept and therefore no word, but that doesnt mean it doesnt exsist, theres just no way to describe it:p.

Here and now. The moment is all that exists. The past is gone and the future is not here yet. So how (the way) we live the moment is paramount.
 
Aedes
 
Reply Wed 23 Jan, 2008 09:22 pm
@Didymos Thomas,
Didymos Thomas wrote:
To the general point of the difference between the name and the named, I agree this message is certainly there. This simple truth is one far too ignored in western philosophy - some even think that thought, or at least complex thought, relies on language.

Oh, absolutely. This has been a very late addition to Western philosophy, as in 19th and 20th century thinkers like Frege and Russell and Wittgenstein -- even going so far as to disassemble all metaphysics as nothing but groundless linguistic constructs. Even the simplest statement, like 1+1=2 is entirely contingent upon the concepts symbolized by 1, +, =, and 2.

Quote:
But I think there is more. The following is from my personal copy (trns. John CH Wu):

"Tao can be talked about, but not the Eternal Tao.
Names can be named, but not the Eternal Name.

As the origin of heaven-and-earth, it is nameless:
As "the Mother" of all things, it is nameable."

I get the feeling that the key to understanding this work is to look at all the contradictions. So many of these passages are contradictions (or contrapositions of things like light/dark). And the key may be to look at the subtleties that separate each half of the contradiction.

Quote:
We call it '"the Mother" of all thing', relating it to something we are familiar with, "the Mother", even though the Tao is not a mother. Maybe I'm way out there, but perhaps, there is a difference between the name and the named, but also that no name can be entirely accurate in what it names? Either the understand of the name changes (ex, the notion of "mother" and the role of a "mother" in society) or what it names changes ('the only constant is change' addage).

I'm still formulating this thought, but I don't think the emphasis is on the name vs the named. I think the emphasis approaches immanence vs transcendence, or momentary vs eternal -- something like that. And the name refers more to the transitory.

In fact, the operative word in those first four lines is becomes.

The way that becomes a way
Is not the Immortal way
The name that becomes a name
Is not the Immortal name

What does it mean to become? Is becoming like taking a slice out of the eternal and making a particular? Is the Immortal Way or the Immortal Name like the ideal in Plato's terms?

We can conclude that the immortal never becomes. There is some eternal, transcendent, stable element to it that would be abrogated by becoming.
 
Didymos Thomas
 
Reply Wed 23 Jan, 2008 10:02 pm
@Didymos Thomas,
The variations between editions also give us a great deal to consider. Here is the rest of the text from my copy:

Quote:
So, as ever hidden, we should look at its inner essence:
As always manifest, we should look at its outer aspects.

These two flow from the same source, though differently named;
And both are called mysteries.

The Mystery of mysteries is the Door of all essence.


Comparing Blakney's
" The secret waits for the insight
Of eyes unclouded by longing;
Those who are bound by desire
See only the outward container."

This is going further than either Merel or Wu. Merel uses "to sense" and "to know", and Wu seems to be going in the same direction. Blakney's version also seems to represent this distinction, but Blakney, here, introduces desire as a/the stumbling block to what Merel calls "to know".
Your version, Aedes, is particularly interesting. "In innocence..." and "In passion..."

Regardless of how the language is being presented, they all support a similar distinction. Merle highlights the difference in sensation and true knowledge of something, Wu makes the same suggestion with what is "hidden" and "manifest". Blankey goes further and gives us a reason why we see what is "manifest" and why we do not "know" the world; desire. Pine, instead of "desire", uses "innocence" and "passion". The use of "innocence" reminds me of what Jesus said (I'm going to get the quote wrong, but the point remains) 'Be like a child before God'. And, of course, children represent innocence. "Passion", on the other hand, is heated, not level headed. I think I may prefer Pine's version.
 
Aedes
 
Reply Mon 17 Mar, 2008 05:41 pm
@Didymos Thomas,
I wanted to keep this thread going, because I think it's a great exercise.

But rather than going sequentially, I wanted to introduce my favorite passage from the Tao, chapter 11, which is probably one of the most profound and poetic metaphysical observations from any tradition anywhere ever.

It transforms the form and function dichotomy to ideas of negative and positive space. In fact it seems to be ever-present in Asian art, especially Zen gardens, where such exquisite attention is paid to the space between things, and to the idea of 'flow'.

Quote:

Thirty spokes converge on a hub
but it's the emptiness
that makes a wheel work

Pots are fashioned from clay
but it's the hollow
that makes a pot work

windows and doors are carved for a house
but it's the spaces
that make a house work

existence makes something useful
but nonexistence makes it work
 
Aristoddler
 
Reply Tue 18 Mar, 2008 04:14 pm
@Didymos Thomas,
There was an entire art exhibit in the early `80's based on negative space design, derived and inspired from the book of Tao.
I can't find anything online about it though, which sucks because it was an amazing exhibit.
If anyone knows a link to it, let me know.
 
Aedes
 
Reply Wed 19 Mar, 2008 06:52 pm
@Aristoddler,
Aristoddler wrote:
There was an entire art exhibit in the early `80's based on negative space design, derived and inspired from the book of Tao.
I can't find anything online about it though, which sucks because it was an amazing exhibit.
If anyone knows a link to it, let me know.

I became very inspired by Zen aesthetics after a trip to Kyoto, Japan a couple years ago. My hobby is photography, and I began to experiment with some basic Zen ideas like asymmetry and negative space.

This is a shot I took in Waimea Canyon in Hawaii that I did with that in mind.

Think of the foreground as existence and the background as nonexistence.

http://www.pbase.com/drpablo74/image/60941441.jpg

This is another shot that I took in Senegal (West Africa) -- again think of the ground as existence and the sky as nonexistence.

http://www.pbase.com/drpablo74/image/60698072.jpg
 
Aristoddler
 
Reply Thu 20 Mar, 2008 05:02 pm
@Didymos Thomas,
The first pic just became my new background on my computer.

I see a lot of strength in the first pic for some reason, and the negative space feels very inviting somehow.
 
qualia
 
Reply Thu 3 Jun, 2010 07:15 pm
@Aristoddler,
Seems a shame that nothing has been added here for a couple of years, so I thought I'd just play a little game for a few minutes. I'm going to continue this thread by returning to aphorism five which I think helps sum a lot of what the Tao fragments are about.

I will approach this particular aphorism by dividing the extract into three main headings: nature and society, cosmology, and language. I am using LinYutan's particular translation to serve my purpose which can be found here: Tao Teh Ching 05 - Church of the East


Nature and Society
Nature is unkind:
It treats the creation like sacrificial straw-dogs.
The Sage is unkind:
He treats the people like sacrificial straw-dogs
.

The first four lines make up one of the more surprising maxims of the Daodejing, or Tao Teh Ching etc, especially when shadowed by the distinctions and valuations prevalent in Occidental thought.

The European mind has more often equated nature with beauty, love, art, perfection, aesthetics and of being the product of some intelligent, wise, all powerful and benevolent deity. Yet, here, we read that nature has little benevolence for its creations and which from our human perspective treats its creations like the Chinese straw-dogs once used in ancient festivals and magic rites.

Dogs were sacrificial animals to dieties of nature in old time China, and later their blood was used in the act of swearing on and the honouring of agreements and contracts.

With the passing of time, straw dogs replaced living sacrificial dogs, stuffed puppet figures adorned with colour and splendour and placed in the most visible, important parts of the Plaza and the very next day discarded, trampled upon and forgotten.

Is this not a apt analogy on how we could consider nature 'treating' its creations? Dressing them up in all their splendour, pomp and power and yet, soon enough, knocking them down with ill health, old age, weakness and death.

Although teleological in form, I feel this first stanza ought not to be read as nature having any kind of purpose, because the idea is that nature is uncreated and acts simply by Tao-ing, giving all things their being and sustaining them towards death. In consequence, Taoism has no need to postulate a first-cause creator.

To understand the next two lines we must be aware that unlike the Europeans and Americans, Chinese philosophers have not been predominately busied with substance. Let me explain.

Instead of asking themselves, 'what is this?' or 'what is that?' they have asked, 'what is the relation between this and that?' and the answers drawn are offered in terms of action and reaction, both mutual and conflicting.

So, nature and society are not made up of isolated entities, but rather complex, holistic webs of relationships between the various parts of a unified whole, or referential totality. Thus, the individual who desires to follow a footpath of Tao - the Sage - ought not to cultivate the Confucian virtue of benevolence as a measure to structure society, because this conduct inevitably drives one towards partiality and caring only for one's own. Indeed, once benevolence is recognised evil has also been learned.

For Taoists, then, or more importantly, for the Sage, a morality that assumes that personal and social improvement can be brought about by enforcing that morality onto others is not obvious.

Imposing morality to improve the world may lead to dire consequences, for if one regards someone or an aspect of someone as good or benevolent, other people or other aspects of self may be considered evil and wicked and unworthy.

Hence, just as nature does not take sides but gives to both good and evil, ugly and beautiful, the Sage, too, ought not to take sides. In principle, the Taoist welcomes all people like nature itself: impartially, without distinction and with total equity.

Cosmology
The space between the earth and sky
Is like a bellows,
Empty but unspent.
The more it is worked, the more it brings forth.


Tao is nothing in its self. As there exists nothing that determines or that can explain Tao, Tao is. The best human thought can arrive at is to understand Tao as the evolving source of all phenomena. Being.

Interestingly, this maxim also indicates how we, as individuals, might achieve the ideal state of Tao existence. Empty ourselves, and of the conditions which tint our interaction with the world. A form of achieving total transparency, an absolute absorbtion in the world conducted through our 'working', or better put, I think, our coping. The more we are absorbed in what we are doing, truely in the moment of our love and care, the more we become like the bellows, empty but unspent.

Language
Much talk means much exhaustion;
Better to guard what it is inside.


Talk for talking's sake ends up being exhausting, talk which amounts to the verbal utterances of our very systems of thought will never come to describe or understand reality (Tao) completely. Hence, it is better to remain silent, to keep what is inside. This is the principle of the silent education :eek:

I don't agree with the consequences of my interpretation, but it's been fun playing around with this.
 
Reconstructo
 
Reply Fri 4 Jun, 2010 06:22 pm
@qualia,
qualia;172753 wrote:
. In consequence, Taoism has no need to postulate a first-cause creator.

I like this. And I feel that an immersion in the beauty of that which is makes one forget even to ask for a first-cause.

---------- Post added 06-04-2010 at 07:24 PM ----------

qualia;172753 wrote:

So, nature and society are not made up of isolated entities, but rather complex, holistic webs of relationships between the various parts of a unified whole, or referential totality. Thus, the individual who desires to follow a footpath of Tao - the Sage - ought not to cultivate the Confucian virtue of benevolence as a measure to structure society, because this conduct inevitably drives one towards partiality and caring only for one's own. Indeed, once benevolence is recognised evil has also been learned.


This is deep. I think in our higher states of being, the world is "infinite and holy." It's perfect, and doesn't need fixing. I started a thread about Tao, Blake, Wittgenstein connections. I would love your input. No one has seriously engaged it, yet. And yet it's a beautiful subject.

---------- Post added 06-04-2010 at 07:27 PM ----------

qualia;172753 wrote:

Talk for talking's sake ends up being exhausting, talk which amounts to the verbal utterances of our very systems of thought will never come to describe or understand reality (Tao) completely. Hence, it is better to remain silent, to keep what is inside. This is the principle of the silent education :eek:

Good point. I would balance it by saying that "if a fool persists in his folly he will become wise." The TLP is logic unmasking itself? Or science unmasking itself as contingent description and not explanation? The happy man sees a different world altogether than the unhappy man sees. Wisdom makes a man's face shine. Perhaps that's what really convinces us in the real world. A glow, an ease. And this is why the silent way can work there. But on this forum, we must chatter, and hopefully enjoy it.Smile
 
borisIII
 
Reply Thu 20 Oct, 2011 06:35 pm
@Aedes,
I think its simple. You can't describe the Tao in a accurate way, but with an open mind, like the book teaches you to do with simple riddles, you can grasp the Tao.
 
borisIII
 
Reply Thu 20 Oct, 2011 06:38 pm
I also think its useless to read translations of the Tao riddles. You have to figure the riddles out to understand them. Just like old man's sayings about life, like every one puts their pants on one leg at a time. You can tell people what it means but it won't register unless their life situations teach it to them.
 
borisIII
 
Reply Thu 20 Oct, 2011 06:46 pm
@Didymos Thomas,
Another point I like in those writings is if you desire to strongly it will make you frustrated that you don't have it. Which is another way people become more narrow minded. I try to not need things, but would kinda of like to have things so it doesn't get me so frustrated that I don't have it. This helps me have a more open mind and more of a multidimensional thinker.
 
borisIII
 
Reply Thu 20 Oct, 2011 06:51 pm
@Aedes,
Maybe it just means Tao is all around us.
 
 

 
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