Dao ke’ Dao, fei chang dao; Ming ke’ ming, fei chang ming.
Wu ming tian, di zhi shi, you ming wan wu’zhi mu
Gu chang wu, yu yi guan qi miao;
chang you, yu yi guan qi %
Ci liang zhe’, tong chu er yi ming;
tong wei zhi xuan
Xuan zhi you xuan, zhong miao zhi men
% represents a character which was not found in the dictionary although its closest connotation was available.
Meaning per character:
Way mouth(ed) way, not permanent way, name mouth(ed) name, not permanent name
Without name heaven/god, earth it begin, possess name myriad object mother
Cause/reason permanent not/without, desire continue view this wonderful/subtle
Permanent possess, desire continue view this border
This two thing, similar issue yet differing name
Similar name/call it obscure/abstruse
Obscure/abstruse it possess obscure/abstruse, crowd/many subtle it gate
Summary of the verse derived from above:
The way that is spoken is not the permanent way
The name that is spoken is not the permanent name
The Earth and Heavens came from the nameless
All the objects we see came from the named mother
Without desire or need to reason one can always see the subtleties
With desire we will always see the tangibles within our scope
These two things issue out from the same source but are named differently
The sameness of the source is the obscurity
The obscurity in the obscure is the gate to many subtleties
The Tao/way that is/(can be) spoken/(popular) is not the permanent Tao/way
(As much as) The name that is spoken/(used to identify) is not the permanent name
The infinite that the Heavens and earth represent, issued out of the nameless
The myriad objects that we can sense issue out of the named (or that which we can give a name)
Ever filled with desire we only see and observe what can be sensed
Once we lose desire even subtle intangibles are clear to out eye
Both these (the named and the nameless) spring from the same source (or the Tao) although they are addressed differently
The source of confusion/wonder/mystery is the sameness of these two different entities
This mystery/(wonderful source) which holds the mystery of the Tao, is the gate to all subtleties/wonder/realisation
However fine and magnificent, the Tao Te Ching (hereafter addressed as the TTC) isn’t the Tao itself. Taking it further, the Tao (as we think we know it) isn’t the Tao itself. Once it can be captured in words and names and processes, it ceases to be the Tao, like a breeze does, once it is bottled. This verse, which hasn’t been accidentally placed at the outset of the TTC, seems to me the single most important verse, which also serves as a disclaimer (earliest known?) to Lao Tzu’s work. This verse cleverly discourages all designs of making a religion out of this text, although nothing can prevent a determined mind from doing so! This is most important in our understanding of the Tao and the way of life. Mankind has been notorious for making religions out of words, both names as well as scriptures/teachings. Words and symbols have always had a more tangible relevance to the puny mind. Words soon take a life of their own and any collection of such words becomes sacred. A systematic application and enforcement of this sacred text (coupled with some miracles and fables, for definite adoption) make a religion for scores of people. It is of the utmost importance that we wipe out the hope or ambition of making the TTC a religion in a populist or commercial sense, and Lao Tzu has been fairly farsighted in anticipating that and hence, issuing a statement at the forefront of his text. The Tao, being a way of life, is merely a way. It can’t hence be the way. There cannot be anything absolute or authoritarian about a way. Every path leads to a destination, but the path itself can never become the destination. So be it with the Tao.
As we try explaining things with names we have created, we come to a point when our vocabulary and language itself falters and gives way to the nameless state where an answer to a question like “So what was there before that?” or “So, where did that come from?”, usually starts out like “Well, it was something like...”. There we are. In the state of the nameless. That state is the root of all creation including the heavens (or cosmos to the adamantly scientific) and the earth and all the things we can recognise. Everything arose from this nameless state, which is the Tao, although not the complete Tao.
On our way to that nameless state we had stretched our imagination and vocabulary alike, to state/name everything we know & understand. These named strata are a manifestation of the Tao as much as the nameless state is.
When we have no desires, we do not resist being the Tao & hence are able to be part of the nameless state too and experience it. What is meant by no desire is not being a hermit or an ascetic and fasting and growing beards. What it does mean is that, there is no desire to exert oneself to establish the self as an independent entity. The desire to be known as the name given to us or as the body we hold during our lifetime, or to be remembered beyond our lifetime are efforts to establish the self. When the desire is absent, activities are merely performed to carry out the natural objective. We shall come to this later. Please bear this in mind while coming across the word desire hereafter. No other meaning is intended unless explicitly stated or until brought to notice. Our desires create wants and want-nots, which numb us from experiencing the Tao in its entirety although we are party to some of its manifestations & find contentment in the names we give them along with our explanation and justification.
The irony lies in treating these two (the named and nameless) as different from each other. One might say “But they are different. One is the named and the other is the nameless”. We shant go into that as yet. They are merely called differently as much as water and limejuice are called differently but to the thirsty they are the same.
Once we see the unity of these, everything is the same. There ceases to be the named and the nameless. Both appear from the same Tao and vanish into it, but we associate goodness and badness with them and differentiate between them. This ignorance, this irony is the darkness, the mystery that envelopes the Tao and makes it difficult to understand. But the Tao is also the source of this darkness and is also enveloped by it. In understanding this paradox lies the key to unraveling all the subtleties of life and the Tao.