Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 14

If you can understand it, it’s not God. ~St. Augustine

This quotation, to me, best represents the analysis-defying beauty of Chapter 14. The Sanskrit expression “neti, neti,” meaning “not this, not this,” says even more simply that truth can’t be organized, labeled, described, or sensed. Indeed, the Chinese negating character  不 , meaning no or not, appears nine times in this chapter.

The unfathomable mystery of Tao is revealed in this chapter not only by the language used, but also by the fluid lack of structure. There is no separation of distinct thoughts. Lines of characters can be grouped in different combinations to give different meanings, as evidenced in various translations.

It is, as one commentator noted, the language of the mystics. Despite eluding understanding, or rather because of it, we are invited by the rhythm and swirling symmetry of the Chinese poetry to let go of solid ground and enter the mists of the infinite.

You can look at your own translation, if you have one, or look online for several to compare, but here are some key lines (out of order in places):

Look! It cannot be seen; it is invisible
Listen! It cannot be heard; it is soundless
Grasp! It cannot be held; it is intangible

Above it is not bright
Below it is not dark
In front you cannot see its face
Behind you cannot see its back

Returning to non-being, it is the form of the formless
Indefinable and beyond imagination

Knowing the ancient origin
Is the essence of Tao

Lovely. But what does this mean to us in our daily lives? In one sense, nothing. The nature of mystery is that it doesn’t take form in some concrete, practical way. No, it calls us to transcend the practical. To enter, as the 14th century anonymous mystic called it, the cloud of unknowing. From there, our lives become less about in”form”ation, and more about in”spir(it)”ation. And that, my friends, means everything.

For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. ~2 Corinthians 4:18


  1. I love this sentence sentence, [The unfathomable mystery of Tao is revealed in this chapter not only by the language used,but also by the fluid lack of structure.] This reminds me of watching a leaf dance and swirl down a rippling creek. The beauty is not knowing what direction this dance will take us. It is us being caught off guard and being surprised by the twists and turns in our lives. This is the second favorite part of your post, {Despite eluding understanding, or rather because of it, we are invited by the rhythm and swirling symmetry of the Chinese poetry to let go of solid ground and enter the mists of the infinite.} Which brings us back to the very beginning of your "No Way Cafe," There is nobody who can teach the way of no way. It cannot be learned either. Teaching and learning require someone. When there is no longer anybody, then the way of no way is evident and there is neither need for learning nor desire for teaching. ~Todd Jackson A perfect circle!

    1. Oh, Betty, I love your comment! What a wonderful image of the leaf dancing and swirling down the creek, something I watch often when I'm at the cabin. And how perfect to tie it back to Todd's quote. Thank you!

  2. This truly had me reflecting and pondering, Galen. God, though knowable through Christ, is the mystery - He cannot be contained, understood, or known in the way you and I would know each other. The divine mystery . . .

    1. Martha, have you ever explored apophatic or negative theology? It acknowledges the mystery of God. You might find it interesting. The 14th century book The Cloud of Unknowing, written by an anonymous monk, is a lovely representation of this perspective. Thanks for commenting.

  3. The St Augustine quote is the key to why most people give up on discovering faith. They want something that they can grasp, forgetting that faith involves that which we cannot see.

    1. So true, CW. Our brains are wired to figure things out, to label, to explain. Entering into the mystery of the Sacred requires bypassing our brains in a way, stepping into the unknown without trying to categorize it or understand it. It freaks our brains out! Ha!

  4. What a marvelous way to start off this post with this quote from St. Augustine. It reminds us that truth belongs to no one and everyone. This is not an easy subjects to put into words. You have done it exquisitely. And, what more is there to say?

    1. Thanks, Sandra. True, words are by their nature limited because they are categorizing and separating. So to describe what is beyond words, using words, is a doomed effort. As Adyashanti says, our goal can only be to fail well!

      So true what you said about truth not "belonging" to anyone. Surprisingly (to some), some of the most exquisite truth is revealed by Christian mystics, like the anonymous 14th century monk who wrote The Cloud of Unknowing. Couched in Christian terms, it nevertheless describes the "form is emptiness, emptiness is form" paradox of Buddhism, as well as the Tao and the then thousand things of the Tao Te Ching. And perhaps the mystery of other wisdom traditions as well.

      All wisdom teachings, at their heart, seem to circle the same mystery. Which makes sense. At least to me. In a totally mysterious way! Ha!


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