Thursday, July 30, 2009

Verse 14: The Essence of Wisdom

Verse Fourteen
Look, and it can't be seen.
Listen, and it can't be heard.
Reach, and it can't be grasped.

Above, it isn't bright.
Below, it isn't dark.
Seamless, unnamable,
it returns to the realm of nothing.
Form that includes all forms,
image without an image,
subtle, beyond all conception.

Approach it and there is no beginning;
follow it and there is no end.
You can't know it, but you can be it,
at ease in your own life.
Just realize where you come from:
this is the essence of wisdom.
~ Stephen Mitchell Translation ~
If you ask the average person in western society what constitutes wisdom, you're very apt to get a much different response than if you posed the same question to someone from the east. In our society, wisdom is too often considered the same thing as book knowledge. Consequently, we often look to political leaders, ministers, lawyers, doctors, college professors and teachers as the sages among us.

But, as the Tao Te Ching suggests, true wisdom is borne NOT by filling our heads with worldly things; it comes from emptying ourselves of our intellectual and emotional baggage and then allowing the truth of the universe to fill the void.

Now this is not to suggest that an individual from the above professions cannot be a person of wisdom; it is only to say that their sagacity is not derived from their level of graduate education nor their line of work.

Human brain power simply is not capable of approaching Tao head on. No amount of book learning, scientific analysis nor years of methodical study will allow us to penetrate the mystery of life.

As John Gathercole of The Layman's Tao points out, Verse 14 is
the first metaphysical passage other than Verse 1...It's clearly meant to be describing the Way, but what kind of attributes is it assigning to it? I think the descriptions here are remarkably consistent, and may all have been written by the same author at the same time. The Way is invisible, soundless, and formless; it can't be analyzed. This fits exactly with the claim of Verse 1 that the Way that be described is not the true Way.
So, if intellectual prowess can't move us any closer to genuine wisdom, what can? Diane Dreher states that
For centuries, Taoists have modeled their personal lives after the cycles of nature. In fact, the Chinese word tzu jan means not only the natural sciences but living in harmony with nature.

Tao people accept each season of life and the opportunities it offers. They don't try to fight the cycles by resisting or looking back. But our culture's strong emphasis on youth often obscures our perception of adulthood, making many people lose their balance.
In many ways, these are hard concepts for westerners to grasp since our overriding ethos focuses on domination and control. We are taught from the earliest age that we can control our destiny if we have the smarts, skill and determination. It seems to go against everything we think we know to seek communion with the world around us as opposed to mindfully subjugating it to our will.

The wise among us eventually come to the realization that we are part of this overall mystery and our best chance of finding peace of mind comes from allowing ourselves to be drawn into this process that we will never understand.

This post is part of a series. For an introduction, go here.

1 comment:

  1. Wise words! Yes, it is true, we must first empty the vessel before we can realize the wisdom which it holds.


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