Wednesday, August 31, 2016
Tao Te Ching – Chapter 4
[This post is part of a series on specific chapters of the Tao Te Ching. Click here for more details on this series.]
This short chapter, one of my favorites, and one of the most enigmatic, attempts to describe the indescribable Tao by using three images.
Tao is empty, yet in use is inexhaustible
The first is an image of emptiness, like a hollow bowl or an empty vessel. The emptiness of the Tao is not a barrenness, but is dynamic with potential. This image also has a connotation of a welling up, as an inexhaustible spring bubbling up from the ground.
Unfathomable, as the source of ten thousand things
The second is an image of bottomless depth, like an abyss. The phrase “ten thousand things” represents manifested creation. The Tao is often described as the origin of the manifested universe, and also the place to which the ten thousand things return. An endless cycle of creation into being and return to non-being. Think of the cycle of water, manifesting as rain, creating the ten thousand forms of water on the earth, then returning as water vapor to the heavens.
Pure stillness, enduring forever
The third is an image of profound tranquility. Not in a stagnant way, but in the sense of a deep, clear pool with a mirror surface reflecting the heavens, yet teeming with life in the hidden darkness. I described the practice of martial arts in my last post as movement within stillness, and stillness within movement. In an eternal dance of beauty and mystery.
The secret treasure of this chapter is found in the Chinese characters used for these three images. Chinese characters are broken down into parts. Each character is based on a radical, what we might think of as a root, which provides meaning. The other part of the character might enhance the meaning or might simply suggest a pronunciation.
So here is what I think is the coolest thing about this chapter. The three characters used for these images of the Tao all have water radicals, even though their meanings in English aren’t specifically water related.
See the little lines on the left side of the character? Those are the water radical. The right side of the character 中 means center or middle.
There is the water radical again on the left. The right side of this character is a bit more complicated. The three vertical lines taken by themselves 川 mean river. If you take the outer vertical lines away, the middle part 米 means rice, which, in Chinese, symbolizes sustenance and fertility.
Again, the water radical on the left. The right side 甚 means extremely.
While the Tao is very connected to nature in all its forms, the element most closely associated with the essence of Tao is water. Think for a moment of water’s qualities. What is its nature? How does it behave?
It doesn’t struggle. It flows around obstacles. It can’t be grasped. It yields to force (think of your hand pushing through water), yet nothing is stronger (think of the Grand Canyon). It follows the laws of gravity, not exerting energy, but simply flowing downhill. It joins together (think of drops of water touching and merging). It changes form – liquid, solid, vapor – yet never loses its basic structure. You might think of other qualities.
So what can we learn from this? How can we incorporate the nature of water, and thus the wisdom of Tao, into our own lives?
Here is a recent example from my own life. I crossed cyber paths not long ago with someone I never knew well, and had not had any contact with for many years, but was pleased to reconnect with. A brief email exchange followed – the hey, how have you been, synopsis of decades, friendly but superficial sort of communication one might expect.
I was taken aback, then, when I received a lengthy email attributing motives and beliefs to me that I did not recognize as my own, and to which she reacted very forcefully.
I was tempted to push back with a sort of WTF reaction, because my feelings were hurt, and anger often emerges to protect such vulnerability. But I paused. I allowed the force of her message to move through me as I flowed around it and moved on. I responded with an acknowledgment of her feelings, and I sincerely wished her well.
Thinking that would be the end of it, I was surprised by the next message. She apologized for the misunderstanding on her part and the accompanying defensiveness. She said I “practiced what I preached.” Equanimity was restored.
Wow, I thought. I don’t know what I’m preaching, but life gives us countless opportunities to practice, doesn’t it?
Be water, my friend. ~Bruce Lee