Even those with a rudimentary familiarity with Tao philosophy know how the Tao Te Ching starts:
The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao
These immortal words are the source of inspiration for many, but can also be a source of perplexity. The gist of its meaning seems obvious enough: The Tao is beyond mere words, because words define and limit meaning. The essence of Tao is unlimited and cannot be adequately conveyed through the imperfect means of the written or spoken words; it can only be experienced directly, through one’s intuition and feelings. This is the most fundamental truth about the Tao, expressed succinctly by Lao Tzu as a most fitting opening for the Tao Te Ching.
It can be a source of perplexity because a certain question always comes up: “If the Tao is beyond words, then why do we bother talking about it?” In other words, if the Tao we discuss is not the true Tao, then isn’t our discussion pointless and meaningless? Aren’t we just wasting our time?
I came across this notion in my very first Tao Te Ching class for a group of teenagers. The kids delighted in posing tough questions for the resident authority figure, which unfortunately was yours truly.
How did I handle it? You’ll find out momentarily. In the meantime, think about it for a moment and ask yourself how you would answer such a question if you were in my position.
Recently a friend wrote an e-mail about the exact same issue. He had a friend who adamantly refused to discuss any aspect of Tao philosophy, and condemned those who did. To this person, the very act of speaking about the Tao proved that the speaker did not know the Tao at all. This attitude disturbed my friend. He found discussions beneficial and did not feel less in touch with the Tao for having participated. His friend pointed to the first sentence of Tao Te Ching to prove her point. He struggled with this and started to wonder if the Tao he felt was not the true Tao.
My first thought upon reading this message was that in at least one aspect, my friend lived the true spirit of Tao cultivation. The ideal Tao practitioner was someone who thought everything through and never accepted teachings on blind faith. Simply by raising this issue, he proved that his mental gears were not sitting idle.
It was true that many people found this question difficult. Even those who had studied the Tao for many years could not necessarily come up with a satisfactory answer. The most common approach seemed to be either outright assertion (“Of course Tao discussions aren’t meaningless!”) or cop-out answers (“This is not a valid question” or “The question has no practical or logical relevance” or “The question is meaningless”).
Needless to say, I find the outright assertions totally lacking because they explain nothing. I cannot accept cop-out answers either, because they are merely a way to evade questions. Throughout history, in every religion and philosophy, the cop-out has become almost the standard, time-honored way to brush aside troublesome students and sweep tough questions under the rug.
Neither of the above is necessary once you grasp the truth. The instant this teaching is explained correctly, you will recognize it as a truth so simple in its elegance, it cannot be any other way. You may wonder why you couldn’t see it before.
This demonstrates an aspect of Tao that I think is pretty cool. Oftentimes I hear people opine that the Tao teachings, like many religious teachings, are just “common sense” that you can figure out on your own, such as be kind to others, harbor no ill will, etc. Well folks, that is what I would call the kindergarten grade of spirituality. Here you and I are at a level where great truths are not always intuitively obvious, but blossom into a thing of beauty and clarity once you learn how to see it. This is a level where insights and illumination are hard won, sought after, and treasured once obtained.
Let’s get right to the point. Why should we bother talking about the Tao if it is indeed beyond mere words? How can we reconcile our discussion of the Tao with its transcendental nature? The easiest and best way to solve this puzzle is to use an analogy.
Imagine the Tao as the sport and hobby of bicycle riding. Think of Tao cultivation as learning how to ride a bike. Both activities absolutely require direct experience. If you want to learn how to ride, you must hop on a bicycle and just do it. There is no other way. You can talk about how to ride a bike all you want, but until you put your hands on the handlebar and set your butt on the seat and try to move forward, you simply won’t know what it feels like. Talking about it — with mere words — will never give you the skill.
Cultivating the Tao is just like that. You simply must live it. There is no other way. We can talk about the Tao until we’re blue in the face and that still won’t grant you the true understanding. That is why we say the Tao is beyond words. Its basis is a feeling you must experience for yourself. No one else can do it for you or describe it to you completely.
So, the bottom line is that no amount of talking and explaining will replace actual practice on an actual bike. The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternally unchanging, constant Tao. Now here’s the crucial question: Does that mean we can’t or shouldn’t talk about bicycle riding?
When I put it this way, you can see how absurd it is. Prior to getting a bike, you and I may want to discuss what kind of bicycle to buy and where one may find good deals. Prior to the first practice session, we may find it prudent to go over some safety tips. Such discussions can be useful and in no way take away from the central experience of learning and riding.
Now imagine I say the following: “Bicycle riding can never be taught in words alone. The aspects of bicycle riding that you discuss can never be the actual riding experience itself. Therefore, I refuse to discuss anything associated with bicycles. Anyone who talks about the subject obviously doesn’t know how to ride a bike, since the feeling of bicycle riding is beyond spoken words. All discussions about bicycle riding are ultimately meaningless and pointless and only serve to demonstrate the ignorance of those involved.”
How ridiculous do I look saying the above? After we learn how to ride bicycles, we are likely to want to discuss it even more. You may know a nice park or a stretch by the ocean or lake that you want to recommend for scenic riding. I may be in the market for bicycle accessories and want to gather more information. Such discussions are far from meaningless; they can enhance our bicycle riding experience immensely.
The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao. It is important for us to understand exactly what this teaching says and what it does not say. What it says is that after all the descriptions and explanations you can possibly acquire, the essence of Tao still must be experienced firsthand. That is merely a statement of reality, not a condemnation of descriptions and explanations.
Let’s explore the bicycle analogy a bit further. When you try to ride a bike for the very first time, you probably fall over a few times before finally getting the hang of it. Sooner or later, that magical moment comes when you suddenly realize that you can keep going forward and maintain your balance at the same time. Then it also dawns on you that continuously going forward is in fact the key to maintaining your balance — the two aspects are a connected whole where one cannot be without the other.
Thereafter, it becomes second nature to you. You can get on a bike and just go without having to think about the mechanics involved. And, having learned what it feels like, you know you will never forget it, for as long as you live.
By now you can probably tell that by the above I’m not really talking about bicycle riding at all. I’m talking about how we can have false starts when we first begin to practice Tao in our daily lives. Like a novice falling off a bike, we don’t get it and can’t figure out what we’re doing wrong. We think we have applied the right principles — pedalled correctly — and yet we don’t see the harmonious results we expected.
If we’re not discouraged and keep trying, we’ll get the hang of Tao cultivation eventually. There may be that magic moment when you realize you’ve just experienced wu wei; or perhaps you feel a tranquility that is profoundly serene and yet not passive; or perhaps, in a quest for wisdom, you suddenly find yourself passing through knowledge to arrive at simplicity.
However you get to that point, you have connected with the Tao and it with you. Just like a bike rider can never forget how to ride, your experience with the Tao marks you indelibly from that moment on. At a spiritual level, you have undergone an irrevocable transformation and will never be the same again.
If you do not know how to ride a bicycle, substitute another physical activity you do know, perhaps ice skating, rollerblading or water skiing. You will see that everything above applies just as well. You cannot experience skiing or skating through words. You must do it.
It doesn’t have to be an athletic activity. Nor does it have to be a physical activity. Consider the feeling you get when you sing or dance, or solve a crossword puzzle. All are beyond the power of words to fully describe. No matter what the activity is — athletic, physical, mental or otherwise — the key is to feel it with your entire being and move toward oneness with it.
The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao. It is amazing how such a simple sentence can apply so universally. At the same time, it should not surprise us at all, if we remind ourselves of the most rudimentary nature of Tao — the principle that is imbued in every aspect of existence!
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