The Tao Te Ching
In Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, he elaborates upon the title. He explains that the Tao is the way and Te essentially means virtue. So together, the title of the book is “The Way to Virtue”. To explain the word Tao as simply “The Way” or the word virtue is extremely simplistic. I believe that Lao Tzu is arguing that the definition of a word or phrase is fluid, ever changing and adapting, everything and nothing all at the same time.
It is a bit ironic that Lao Tzu even wrote down his teachings because to put his thoughts into words goes against everything he believes in. As the story goes, Lao Tzu wanted to escape the city to live a life of hermit-hood when the guard at the city wall stopped him. The guard would not let Lao Tzu pass until he wrote down his teachings. I imagine that moment was difficult for Lao Tzu. To be forced to decide going against all of your fundamental beliefs in order to go pursue those beliefs must have been such a difficult decision. I would have had to make a pro con list and even then I’m not sure what I would do. To break down the core message of the Tao Te Ching , Lao Tzu is advising the reader to escape death. He believes that if you follow the way you will escape death.
The Way has so many meanings, it can mean one thing for one person and something for another and still be pure truth. In the very first chapter of the story, Lao Tzu elaborates on the need for namelessness. He says “The name that can be named is not the eternal name. The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth. The named is the mother of myriad things” (pg. 7) The word Tao means The Way and The Way is always changing but the definition remains authentic.
Lao Tzu is arguing that to be a blank slate or negative space is great because that means you have room for so much knowledge. If you already have knowledge of something, when you learn about a new subject your judgment will be impaired. It’s sort of like the way it is difficult to be objective about the people or the things that you love. You are sort of blinded by love and even if the person you love makes mistakes you cannot see them because love overrides the mistakes.
A wonderful metaphor for The Way is a river. It is always moving and changing but at every place in the vast Mississippi — from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico — it remains a river true and true. It is the same river but the temperature and deepness changes, there are bends in the river where it slows down and elevation changes that force it to travel fast. All of those gallons of water are and will always be a river. Constantly changing yet the exact same because it is at all times completely pure. To be nameless is to be completely pure, once something is named it is defined and this means there are things it can not be, creating limits. The Way is limitless.
It is everything yet nothing, the Colorado River started as a tiny stream flowing naturally with the rhythm of the Earth. As the stream gained momentum, it slowly began to carve through the rock. That little stream that was
Lao Tzu uses a wonderful metaphor to explain this theory behind the limitless. He explains in Chapter Eighteen that
Once something becomes specific, it excludes all other options
Words can have dictionary definitions, that is only natural in the twenty first century. Lao Tzu believes you should live like a hermit and not let yourself get swept up in things because once you do you are no longer pure. Philosophical terms are always open to interpretation but once something is named and becomes a term we will always think of that word and the definition in relation to it. For example, if you woke up one day and all of a sudden everyone on Earth said hello as “periwinkle” you would have to process the word periwinkle in your mind every time you heard it and translate it to the word hello. The same thing would happen when you came across a friend on the street and you thought hello but you translated it to periwinkle. The only reasonable example I can think of for this way of thinking is with people who are bilingual. No matter what, in order to learn one language they had to learn another. If you speak Chinese at home and English at school and you ask your father about homework you will have to translate the English word and it’s meaning you learned in the English language into a Chinese word that he interprets as the same meaning as the English word. This all seems extremely complicated and that is the exact opposite of what Lao Tzu would want. He would want us to be clear in all moments of life. I do not think he would like to read my paper.
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