Not What We Expected, Name and Reality Are Often at Odds

“When superior people hear of the Way
they follow it with devotion
when average people hear of the Way
they wonder if it exists
when inferior people hear of the Way
they laugh out loud
if they didn’t laugh
it wouldn’t be the Way
hence these sayings arose
the brightest path seems dark
the path leading forward seems backward
the smoothest path seems rough
the highest virtue low
the whitest white pitch-black
the greatest virtue wanting
the staunchest virtue timid
the truest truth uncertain
the perfect square without corners
the perfect tool without uses
the perfect sound hushed
the perfect image without form
for the Tao is hidden and nameless
but because it’s the Tao
it knows how to start and how to finish”

(Taoteching, verse 41, translation by Red Pine)

CONFUCIUS says, “To hear of the Tao in the morning is to die content by nightfall” (Lunyu: 4.8).

LI HSI-CHAI says, “When great people hear of the Tao, even if others laugh at them, they can’t keep them from practicing it. When average people hear of the Tao, even if they don’t disbelieve it, they can’t free themselves of doubts. When inferior people hear of the Tao, even the ancient sages can’t keep them from laughing. Everyone in the world thinks existence is real. Who wouldn’t shake their head and laugh if they were told that existence wasn’t real and that non-existence was?”

TE-CH’ING says, “The Tao is not what people expect. Hence, the ancients created these twelve sayings, which Lao-tzu quotes to make clear that the Tao has two sides.”

SU CH’E says, “These twelve sayings refer to the Tao as it appears to us. Wherever we look, we see its examples. The Tao as a whole, however, is hidden in namelessness.”

LI JUNG says, “The true Tao is neither fast nor slow, clear nor obscure. It has no appearance, no sound, no form, and no name. But although it has no name, it can take any name.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “Name and reality are often at odds. The reality of the Tao remains hidden in no name.”

LU HSI-SHENG says, “Tools are limited to the realm of form. The Tao is beyond the realm of form.”

YEN TSUN says, “The quail runs and flies all day but never far from an overgrown field. The swan flies a thousand miles but never far from a pond. The phoenix, meanwhile, soars into the empyrean vault and thinks it too confining. Where dragons dwell, small fish swim past. Where great birds and beasts live, dogs and chickens don’t go.”

THE CHANKUOTSE says, “Those who know how to start don’t always know how to finish” (31).

Every time I get back around to this verse I always begin by saying how I wish I was a superior person. To hear of the Way and merely follow it with devotion. Alas, I find myself only average. When I first heard of the Tao, I wondered if it really exists. I was full of doubts. That, I think is the way most of us are. Hence, average. Oh, I have had my inferior moments, too. When I laughed out loud as I was reading. I guess that was to be expected, since it is the Tao. But what really strikes me about today’s verse is that there is nothing that can be done about it.

We talked about this in my commentary on yesterday’s verse. I am just along for the ride. Even when I wasn’t following the Tao with devotion, when my head was full of doubts, even when I laughed out loud; all of those times, I was still just along for the ride. People full of doubts and even laughing about it can’t keep people from following it with devotion. And people who are superior can’t make those who laugh stop their laughing. And all of us average people, full of doubts and wonder, can’t free ourselves of those doubts.

You read that right. You can’t free yourself. The brightest path will seem dark. The path leading forward will seem backward. The smoothest path will seem rough. The highest virtue will seem low. The whitest white will appear pitch-black. The greatest virtue will seem wanting. The staunchest virtue will appear timid. The truest truth will appear uncertain. The perfect square will appear without corners. The perfect tool without uses. The perfect sound hushed. The perfect image without form.

The Tao is hidden and nameless. And you can’t free yourself from doubts. Those who laugh will laugh. And those who follow it with devotion will continue to follow it with devotion.

Don’t worry about those doubts. Let me say that once again. Don’t worry about those doubts. You can’t free yourself from those doubts. So stop worrying.

That is liberating. It really is. If you will let it be. At least it was for me. What happens is those doubts go away on their own. Things reach their limit, then they have to go the other way. That is just the Way things are. And the Way things are is the Way things are whether we believe it or not. Our doubts don’t matter. Our laughter doesn’t matter. Even our devotion doesn’t matter.

The Tao is hidden and nameless; but, because it is the Tao, it knows how to start and how to finish. That is good news, my friends. Because quite honestly, we don’t always know how to start or to finish. Don’t worry, though. The Tao has this.

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

CHANKUOTZE: A collection of narratives, some historical, some fictional, based on the events of the Warring States Period (403-222 B.C.). Compiled by Liu Hsiang (ca 79-6 B.C.). and reedited by later scholars.

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