Tao Te Ching
THE TAOISM OF LAO TZU
Tao Te Ching
This chapter starts with a reminder of what was stated in the very first chapter of the Tao Te Ching: no name does justice to Tao, the Way. Lao Tzu has chosen the term Tao for the great mystery he discusses, but he hurries to add that a name is just a name, and not the thing named – not even an adequate description of it.
This might seem to be a warning of little significance, but we have a tendency to name things and thereby start to pretend that we understand and control them.
A lot of our natural science is done like that. We observe a phenomenon, like the apple falling from the tree, and we name it gravity, pretending that thereby, it has become part of our knowledge of the world. Well, we have found mathematical circumstances under which gravity operates, but we still don't know what it is. The name doesn't explain it anymore than its manifestations do. We are still to find out what it really is.
That's true for many more of our scientific explorations than we would be comfortable to admit. Names are just names, descriptions are just descriptions. A true understanding of what's going on demands fundamental knowledge of how our universe operates, and why. That's still far off.
This is what Lao Tzu reminds us, with words that seem to contain a sigh. There are indeed already many names. It was true in his time and even more so in ours. We have so many names, but do we really understand much more about the world we live in?
We would spontaneously say yes, but then again we confuse true knowledge with putting names to phenomena we have observed and catalogued. Even though we have found plenty of mathematical relations between natural phenomena, it still doesn't prove we understand them.
We observe a lot, but we understand less.
That's why scientific theory is no more certain than to last until a better theory comes along. Along the way, we just have to do with what we've got, and hope that it will suffice for our applications of it.
We do quite well. We send rockets to the moon and beyond it. We build big steel vessels that fly a hundred times faster than the birds. We cure deadly diseases, but we also invent new ways of killing more effectively than they ever did. Our science allows us feats that our predecessors would call magic. But it doesn't mean we understand the universe and our place in it any more profoundly.
Lao Tzu calls for a humble search of what is the real essence, not just superficial manifestations of it. That call is just as relevant today as it was more than two thousand years ago.
That's what Lao Tzu calls Tao, readily admitting that it's beyond his understanding, although he has a lot to say about how it operates.
Tao is Aristotle's Prime Mover, Einstein's united field theory, and the incentive of the creator god in the religions. We could also call it the condition igniting the Big Bang. So many names.
Lao Tzu is practical. Instead of struggling to understand what might lie far beyond our capacity, let's be perceptive to the patterns and follow the directions pointed out by how nature behaves. Even though the essence of Tao remains a mystery, we can follow its path. If we do, the world will treat us gently and all its creatures will prosper.
My Taoism BooksClick the image to see the book at Amazon (paid link).