Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Why we Speak

Scott Bradley

Those who speak do not know; those who know do not speak.
~ Laozi
Why do I speak? Because I do not know. Why do you read? Because you do not know. Why do you comment — agree or disagree? Because you do not know.

I have spoken to this before and do so again now because I think it lies at the heart of the spiritual endeavor as envisioned by philosophical Taoism. This statement in the Tao Te Ching is generally taken as an admonition against speaking unless one knows and against speaking if one does know. The net result is that no one worth listening to speaks. If, on the other hand, it is understood that no one knows, then everyone can speak and it is our task to weigh the value of their words.

Taken as an admonition against speaking, this aphorism assumes there are those who know. Where are they? Let them step forward and teach us the wordless teaching. But there is no one who knows. Let us all then speak.

But let us not speak as if we know. This is the meaning of this statement as I take it.

"The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao." We cannot know it to speak of it. It is best, therefore, that we do not speak of it. Let us rather speak of "the named", the actual realities of our necessarily contingent existence. Let us speak of truth that is innocent of Truth.

Let us take this idea that we can know the unknowable, uproot it from our minds, and bury it deep. Can you imagine such a way of being in the world? Can you imagine a spiritual journey which has no goal other than the journey itself? Can you follow a path of "drift and doubt" which is only and always simply that?

There is a kind of liberation here. There is freedom here. But it has a price. Yet Pascal's dictum comes to mind: "He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose."

There is comfort in belief and in believing that one can find something sure in which to believe. Why would we want to disabuse anyone of such a belief? This way of philosophical Taoism is not for everyone; it knows no Truth to which it feels all the world must subscribe. It is for those who fail of belief. It is an affirmation of their existential reality; it is a path of spirituality which is their existential reality.

I may very well have stood Laozi's original intent on its head, but what did he know? For me, this statement, so often used as a cudgel to beat those who speak, is an invitation to speak to my heart's content. Only one must be careful not to drop anchor on any supposedly fixed and solid ground. In the real world of the human there is no sure 'holding ground'; one can only drift with the current of one's existential reality and use the environmental winds to make one's way.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

1 comment:

  1. I sometimes feel this as "Those who NEED to speak do not know; those who know do not NEED to speak." That's not in the original Chinese, I'm sure, but it kind of works for me. It sorts out the yammerers from the people who actually might have something to say, should they choose to.

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