The Tao and its Name

Naming things enables us to differentiate between them, but names are words, and words easily give rise to confusion. They do not replace the thing or direct experience of the thing which they name, but only represent or describe it.

Consider a thing such as a strawberry. If we wish to find the word 'strawberry', we look in a dictionary; if we wish to find a description of a strawberry, we look in an encyclopedia. But if we are hungry, we do not go to the library, but to the field where fine strawberries may be found. If we do not know where there is such a field, we might seek guidance as to where fine strawberries may be found. A book on the Tao is like such a guide. It can point us in the direction of the strawberry patch, but cannot provide the fruit itself. It can give an idea of the taste of Tao, but of itself, has no taste to compare with direct experience of the Tao.

Consider now three things: There is the universal principle which enables all things to be, and to flourish naturally; there is the name 'Tao', by which that universal principle is known; and there are words which describe the manifestations of the Tao.

Even the name 'Tao' is only a convenience, and should not be confused with the universal principle which bears that name, for such a principle embraces all things, so cannot be accurately named nor adequately described. This means that Tao cannot be understood, for it is infinite, whereas the mind of man is finite, and that which is finite cannot encompass that which is infinite.

Although we cannot understand Tao, we are not prevented from having knowledge of it, for understanding stems from one of the two forms of knowledge. It stems from that which is called cognitive knowledge, the knowledge born of words and numbers, and other similar devices. The other form of knowledge, cognitive knowledge, needs no words or other such devices, for it is the form of knowledge born of direct personal experience. So it is that cognitive knowledge is also known as experiential knowledge.

Cognitive and experiential knowledge both have their roots in reality, but reality is complex, and complexity is more of a barrier to cognitive knowledge than it is to experiential knowledge, for when we seek cognitive knowledge of a thing, that is, understanding of it, the knowledge we gain of that thing is understanding only of its manifestations, which is not knowledge of the thing itself.

We may seek to understand a thing, rather than to experience it, because, in a world beset with man made dangers, it is frequently safer to understand than to experience. Tao is not man made, and there is nothing in it to fear. So it is that we may experience Tao without fear.

When we cease to seek cognitive knowledge, that is, cease to seek understanding of a thing, we can gain experiential knowledge of that thing. This is why it is said that understanding Tao is not the same as knowing Tao; that understanding Tao is only to know that which it manifests, and that knowing Tao is to be one with the universal principal which is Tao. This is to say that knowledge of Tao is not the same as understanding Tao. To know Tao is to experience both Tao and the manifestations of that universal principle. As human beings, we are born as manifestations of Tao.

If this seems complex, the reason is because Tao is both simple and complex. It is complex when we try to understand it, and simple when we allow ourselves to experience it. Trying to understand Tao is like closing the shutters of a window before looking for a shadow. We might close the shutters to prevent anyone from discovering our treasure, but the same shutters prevent the moonlight from entering the room. All there is in the room is darkness, and in total darkness we cannot find the shadow, no matter how hard or diligently we seek.

We call one thing a shadow, and another darkness, but the shadow is darkness, and the darkness shadow, for in reality, both darkness and shadow are absence of light, yet we call one shadow and the other darkness. The shadow is darkness in the midst of light, but within total darkness, the shadow seems to disappear, for darkness is a shadow within shadows. We may think that the shadow has been destroyed when all light is removed, but it has not been wiped away; in reality it has grown, but we need light even to see that form of darkness which we call a shadow.

Such is the pursuit of the universal principle called Tao, that if we seek to understand it, we prevent the very means by which it may be found, for the only way in which we might find Tao is through the experience of Tao. We find Tao when we do not seek it, and when we seek it, it leaves us, just as the silver moonlight leaves the room when we close the shutters. We find and know Tao when we allow ourselves to find and know it, just as the moonlight returns when we allow it to return.

We do not need to seek Tao as we seek physical treasures such as jade or gold. We do not need to seek Tao as we seek such treasures as fame or titles. We do not need to seek the treasure of Tao, for although the greatest of treasures, it is also the most common. Perhaps it is because it is so common that so few men find it; they seek it only in mysterious and secret places, in chasms and caves, and in the workplace of the alchemist. The Tao is not hidden in these places, and is hidden only from those who frequent and inhabit them, secretively, and with the shutters closed.

Just as darkness may be known as the absence of light, so to may light be known as the absence of darkness. When we experience darkness and light as having the same source, we are close to the Tao, for Tao is the source of both darkness and light, just as it is also the source of all other natural things. When we experience ourselves as part of Tao, as a shadow or reflection of the universal principle, we have found it, for it is said that "Experience of Tao is Tao".

1. Knowledge of 'The Tao', and Experience of the Tao.

There is a way in which we may conduct our lives without regrets, and in such a manner as assists in developing and realizing our individual potential, without harming others, or inhibiting the realization of their potential, and which is beneficial to a healthy society.

Such a way of life may of course be conducted without a name, and without description, but in order that others may know of it, and so as to distinguish it from other ways in which life may be conducted, we give it a name, and use words to describe it.

When discussing or describing this way in which life may be conducted, rather than refer to it in full, for convenience, we refer to it as 'the way', meaning simply that the discussion is concerned with this particular way, not that it is the only way of conducting one's life. In order that we might distinguish it more easily from other ways, we refer to it also by its original name, which is 'Tao'.

By intellectual intent, that is, through thought and words, and by considering ourselves as non-participating observers of this way of life, we may gain knowledge of its manifestations; but it is only through participation that we can actually experience such a way of life for ourselves.

Knowledge of anything is not the same as the thing of which we have that knowledge. When we have knowledge of a thing but do not have experience of it, in trying to describe that thing, all we can describe is our knowledge, not the thing itself. Equally, even when we have experience of a thing, all we can convey is knowledge of that experience, not the experience itself.

Knowledge and experience are both real, but they are different realities, and their relationship is frequently made complex by what distinguishes them, one from the other. When they are used according to that which is appropriate to the situation, we may develop that way of life which enables us to pass through the barrier of such complexities. We may have knowledge of "Tao", but Tao itself can only be experienced.

2. Letting Go of Opposites.

It is the nature of the ordinary person, the person who is not yet at one with the Tao, to compare the manifestations of the natural qualities possessed by things. Such a person tries to learn of such qualities by distinguishing between their manifestations, and so learns only of their comparative manifestations.

So it is that the ordinary person might consider one thing beautiful when compared with another which he considers to be ugly; one thing skillfully made compared with another which he considers badly made. He knows of what he has as a result of knowing what he does not have, and of that which he considers easy through that which he considers difficult. He considers one thing long by comparing it with another thing which he considers short; one thing high and another low. He knows of noise through silence and of silence through noise, and learns of that which leads through that which follows.

When such comparisons are made by a sage, that is a person who is in harmony with the Tao, that person is aware of making a judgment, and that judgments are relative to the person who makes them, and to the situation in which they are made, as much as they are relative to that which is judged.

Through the experience and knowledge through which he has gained his wisdom, the sage is aware that all things change, and that a judgment which is right in one situation might easily be wrong in another situation. He is therefore aware that he who seems to lead does not always lead, and that he who seems to follow does not always follow.

Because of this awareness, the sage frequently seems neither to lead nor follow, and often seems to do nothing, for that which he does is done without guile; it is done naturally, being neither easy nor difficult, not big or small. Because he accomplishes his task and then lets go of it without seeking credit, he cannot be discredited. Thus, his teaching lasts for ever, and he is held in high esteem.

3. Without Seeking Acclaim.

The talented person who is also wise, retains humility, and so does not create rivalry. The person who possesses material things, and who does not boast of his possessions, does much to prevent stealing. Those who are jealous of talents, skills or possessions of others, easily become possessed themselves by envy.

The sage is satisfied with a sufficiency; he is not jealous, and so is free of envy. He does not seek fame and titles, but maintains his energy and keeps himself supple. He minimizes his desires, and does not train himself in guile. He thus remains pure at heart. By acting in an uncontrived manner, the harmony of the inner world of his thoughts and the external world of his environment is maintained. He remains at peace with himself.

For these reasons, an administration which is concerned with the welfare of those whom it serves, does not encourage the seeking of status and titles; it does not create jealousy and rivalry amongst the people, but ensures that they are able to have a sufficiency, without causing them to become discontent, therefore the members of such an administration do not seek honors for themselves, nor act with guile towards the people.

4. The Unfathomable Tao.

The mind should not be filled with desires. The individual who is at one with the Tao is aware of the distinction between that which is needed as a sufficiency, and that which is a desire, or merely wanted rather than needed.

It is the manner of the Tao that even though continuously used, it is naturally replenished, never being emptied, and never being as full as a goblet which is filled to the brim and therefore spills its fine spring water upon the ground. The Tao therefore does not waste that with which it is charged, yet always remains a source of nourishment for those who are not already so full that they cannot partake of it.

Even the finest blade will lose its sharpness if tempered beyond its mettle. Even the most finely tempered sword is of no avail against water, and will shatter if struck against a rock. A tangled cord is of little use after it has been untangled by cutting it.

Just as a fine sword should be used only by an experienced swordsman, intellect should be tempered with experience. By this means, tangled cord may be untangled, and seemingly insoluble problems resolved; colors and hues may be harmonized to create fine paintings, and people enabled to exist in unity with each other because they no longer feel that they exist only in the shadow of the brilliance of others.

To conduct oneself without guile is to conduct oneself in a natural manner, and to do this is to be in contact with nature. By maintaining awareness of the way of nature, the wise person becomes aware of the Tao, and so becomes aware that this is how its seemingly unfathomable mysteries may be experienced.

5. Tranquil But Unceasing.

Those things which are in opposition with each other are not benevolent towards each other, and may even treat each other with contempt or malevolence.

Although the creatures which are born of nature may be in opposition with each other, nature itself is in opposition to nothing for there is nothing for it to oppose. It acts without conscious intention, and it is therefore neither deliberately benevolent, contemptuous nor malevolent.

In this respect the way of the Tao is the same as the way of nature. Therefore, even when acting in a benevolent manner, the sage does not act from any conscious desire to be benevolent.

Through his manner of breathing like a babe, he remains free of conscious desire, and so retains his tranquility. By this means he is empty of desire, and his energy is not drained from him.

2. The Manifestation of Tao through Complimentary Opposites

All physical things possess certain natural qualities, such as size, shape and color. Since the universal principle encompasses all things, so it encompasses their natural qualities.

Being possessed by all things, natural qualities are general to all things, but in order to relate to a quality, we think of it as it exists relative to a particular thing, and to ourselves. We therefore think of and describe a quality according to how it is manifested through one particular thing compared with another. Thus, we judge one thing to be big, compared with another thing, which we think of as small; one person young, and another old; one sound noisy, and another quiet. Equally, we judge and compare by thinking of the aesthetic quality in terms of its manifestations, 'beautiful' or 'ugly'; morality in terms of good or bad; possession in terms of having or not having; ability in terms of ease or difficulty; length in terms of long or short; height in terms of high or low; sound in terms of noisy or quiet; light in terms of brightness or darkness.

Although many of the manifestations which we compare are judged by us to be opposites, one to the other, they are not in opposition, but are complimentary, for even extremes are nothing other than aspects or specific examples of the quality which encompasses them. Both big and small are manifestations or examples of size, young and old are examples of age, noise and quietness are aspects of sound, and brightness and darkness are extremes of light.

It is the nature of the ordinary man to compare and judge the manifestations of the naturally occurring qualities inherent in things and in situations. It is not wrong to do this, but we should not delude ourselves into believing that we thereby describe the quality rather than a manifestation of the quality.

Whilst all judgments are comparative, a judgment is frequently, if not always, relative to the individual who makes that judgment, and also to the time at which it is made. To the young child, the father may be old, but when the son reaches that age, it is unlikely that he will consider himself old. To the child, the garden fence is high, but when the child grows bigger, the same fence is low. The adult in his physical prime knows that to run ten miles, which is easy at that time, will become more difficult as he becomes older, but that that the patience required to walk will become easier.

The sage knows that qualitative judgments, such as old and young, big and small, easy and difficult, or leading and following, relate as much to the person who makes that judgment, as they relate to the thing or action described. Consider a sage and an ordinary man sitting on a hill in the late evening, looking down on the road below. When darkness has fallen, they both see the light of two lanterns approaching, one yellow, the other red, bobbing gently as their bearers pass by. From the positions of the two lights, the ordinary man knows that the bearer of the yellow lantern leads the bearer of the red. As he watches, he sees the red lantern draw level with the yellow, and as they pass beneath him, the red lantern preceding the yellow.

The ordinary man wonders why the two lantern bearers do not walk side by side. The sage, who has seen what his companion has seen, thinks it right that the two travelers should do as they have done, to walk side by side through the night, neither leading and neither following the other.

The sage is aware that he who seems to lead does not always lead, and that he who seems to follow does not always follow. Because of this, the sage frequently seems neither to lead nor follow, and often seems to do nothing, for that which he does is natural, being neither easy nor difficult, not big or small.

Those changes which occur naturally in life, the sage accepts as natural, accepting them as an opportunity for learning, whilst realizing that knowledge is not his possession. Because he knows that the credit for learning is due to the willingness of the student, he teaches without teaching, but by allowing his students to observe the virtue of observing natural qualities, rather than only comparing and judging their manifestations. He does this without seeking credit, and continues without contriving to be given credit. Because of this, his teaching lasts for ever, and he is held in high esteem.

The gifted person retains humility and thus prevents jealousy. The person who does not boast of his possessions prevents stealing. Only those who have greed are perplexed by envy. The wise person is therefore satisfied with a sufficiency, and is free of envy. He does not seek fame and titles, but keeps himself strong and supple. He minimizes his desires, and does not train himself in guile. He thus remains pure at heart. By acting in an uncontrived manner he maintains his inner harmony.

Return to Top