Verse OneHow is it possible to define -- definitions provide parameters and limits -- the vital essence of the universe? It is too broad and vast to be confined in a word or concept. It is too limitless to be understood by our limited intellectual capabilities. It is eternal, while the self is ephemeral. It is anything and everything, while the self is finite.
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one sees the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name;
this appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.
~ Gia-Fu Feng & Jane English translation ~
Alan Watts described Tao in the following manner:
The word has two general meanings. One is perhaps best rendered into English as "the way", "the way of things", or "the way of nature". The other sense of the word means "to speak", so when the opening words of Lao-tzu's book say, The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao, it makes a pun in Chinese. It says literally, "The Tao that can be Tao is not Tao," or if you read it like a telegram, "Tao can Tao no Tao". The first meaning of Tao is "the way", and the second meaning of it is "to speak", or in other words, The way that can be expressed is not the eternal way.To our western ears and eyes, it sounds like gibberish doing somersaults. But that's because we have been socialized to view the world in a specific way. If we strip away the hubris of the western mentality and sit in silence like an uncarved block, the mystery itself starts to unfold around us.
It is by tapping into this mystery -- the source or fluidity of nature -- that we can come to know we are connected to all things. Everything (be it animal, vegetable or mineral) is infused with the essence of this mystery, including each of us. It is when we come to recognize this connection without consciously recognizing it that we can flow with it.
As Stephen Kaufman states,
T-a-o is a made-up word. Taoists use it as a convenience, a form of shorthand. It is merely a human representation of language to signify that ultimate essence that we don't understand. It is the finger pointing at the moon.Man cannot know that which is unknowable. At best he can only suggest Its meaning according to his own needs. There are no titles he can give to even his own ideas of what this profound truth is except words that still cannot explain Its essence.
This post is part of a series. For an introduction, go here.