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).

In yesterday’s verse, Lao-tzu taught us the Tao moves the other way, in a way most people don’t expect. It works through weakness, rather than strength. And, while all the things of this world come from something, that “something” comes from nothing.

That the Tao isn’t what people expect, continues as the theme of today’s verse. But, as I promised in my commentary yesterday, Lao-tzu has some more clues which can help us.

The brightest path can seem dark. The path leading forward can seem backward. The smoothest path can seem rough. The highest virtue appears low. The whitest white appears pitch-black. The greatest virtue can seem wanting. The staunchest virtue can seem timid. The truest truth can seem uncertain. The perfect square, as if it is without corners. The perfect tool seems to be without uses. The perfect sound is hushed. The perfect image is without form.

What is it Lao-tzu is teaching here, today. These twelve sayings, Su Ch’e tells us, “refer to the Tao as it appears to us.” These are what is manifest to us of the Tao. But the Tao itself, remains “hidden in namelessness.”

And Te-ch’ing teaches, “Lao-tzu quotes [these twelve sayings] to make clear the Tao has two sides.”

“Name and reality are often at odds,” says Lu Hui-ch’ing. “The reality of the Tao remains hidden in no name.”

Name and reality are often at odds because the Tao has two sides: Yin and yang. It drifts left and right (verse 34).

This is why it takes a superior person to hear of the Way and follow it with devotion, while the average person hears of the Way and is filled with doubts, and the inferior person (Stephen Mitchell translates that “fool”) laughs out loud.

Lao-tzu is unaffected by the fool who laughs. “Why, it wouldn’t be the Tao, if the fool didn’t laugh.” The wise aren’t affected by the fool’s laughter, either. As Li Hsi-chai says, the fool’s laughter can’t keep them from practicing the Tao. But, they also can’t keep the fool from laughing.

I am going to go out on a limb and say that my followers, like me, aren’t fools. But most of us, again like me, don’t qualify as truly wise, either. Instead, you have doubts. I know I have had my own share. And what Li Hsi-chai says about the average person not being able to free themselves of doubts, might be a bit disconcerting. It hits a little too close to the mark.

The truth of the matter is you can’t free yourself of doubts. Been there, done that. I tried and tried. Doesn’t work.

What did work for me was to stop trying, and start letting. Letting go of effort, I opened myself up to letting the Tao prove itself to me.

There are plenty of us who are good starters, but not good finishers. As the Chankuotse says, “Those who know how to start don’t always know how to finish.” But, because it’s the Tao, it knows how to start and how to finish, moving back and forth from yin to yang and from yang to yin. Maybe it isn’t what we expected. But then again, name and reality are often at odds.

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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