Wednesday, June 12, 2024

How to Understand the Tao Te Ching Without Actually Reading It

The Tao Te Ching, a book of ancient Chinese wisdom, is roughly 2,500 years old, but nobody has figured out what it means yet. The last person who spoke the ancient Chinese dialect in which the Tao was written died in a single-cart accident during the Three Sovereigns Around the Moon dynasty (345-287 BCE).

The fact that nobody knows what Lao Tzu, the eighty-some-year-old author of the Tao, was talking about hasn’t stopped people from pretending that they understand the Tao; nor has it stopped people from pretending that their pretend understanding of the Tao helps them to understand other things they don’t really understand either, things like physics, rugby, the stock market, and the block chain.

The first step to understanding the Tao without actually reading it is learning how to pronounce it correctly and to correct anyone who doesn’t: dow-deh-jing. Next is memorizing what Tao Te Ching means. Tao means “way”; Te means “virtue”; and Ching means “text.”

Because Chinese is often spoken, as well as read, right to left, feel free to use those words in any order that you like when pontificating about the Tao. You can call it “The text of the virtuous way,” or “The virtuous text of the way,” or “The text of the way of virtue.” Remember, this is Chinese. Do we have to draw you a picture?

The Tao comprises 81 short “chapters” or “verses.” The over/under for first-time readers is the twenty-first chapter. If you get further than that, you’ve done better than most. We’re probably not going to get that far. What we are going to do is explain the meanings of a dozen or so verses of the Tao, beginning with the first. That should enable you to hijack the conversation whenever the Tao is mentioned.

The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.

The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin of all particular things.

Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

Yet mystery and manifestations arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.

Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.

Now we can see why the last person who spoke this dialect drove his ox cart into a tree. What is the old boy going on about? Is he musing about the difference between proper and common nouns? Does he mean to say that everything that has a name is not real? Or that everything real doesn’t have a name, so we don’t know what to call it, much less what it is, therefore we spell it with a capital letter? Of course! But the take-away is this: you can understand only that which you do not desire; you should not want that which you already understand. The key to happiness is learning to fight darkness with darkness.

To be continued. Last one out turn on the lights.