[This is an essay I wrote in 2008, on an old blog.]
The following is the first part of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching — it’s my favourite piece of eastern philosophy. I’ve quoted it many times, ever since I started blogging, but I’ve never really written about my take on it.
“The Tao that can be expressed
Is not the Tao of the Absolute.
The name that can be named
Is not the name of the Absolute.
The nameless originated Heaven and Earth.
The named is the Mother of All Things.
Thus, without expectation,
One will always perceive the subtlety;
And, with expectation,
One will always perceive the boundary.”
There are many translations, each offering strikingly different interpretations of the basic Chinese text. This is my favourite version. I keep returning to the last stanza about expectation. I think it is one of the best clues about the ways we can respond to life’s challenges. Another translation renders it as follows: “Ever desireless, one can see the mystery. Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.”
What does it mean to live with expectation? I think it means to be ambitious, aggressive, competitive, and goal-oriented. These impulses — the passions and desires — are important, because goals cannot be achieved without them. However, with expectation, we always come up against boundaries. Walls. Obstructions. We fail. We are stymied. We see things as black and white, right and wrong, good and evil. We enter into the game of life, and all its ups and downs become manifest. The life of expectation is the life of yang — it is “hot, fire, restless, hard, dry, excitement, non-substantial, rapidity, and corresponds to the day.” One could even go so far as so say that the West’s great successes can be attributed to it’s relentless ambition.
What does it mean to live without expectation? It is that calm, desireless state that we frequently associate with eastern philosophies. The Buddha recognized that desire is the root cause of evil, so he advocated the elimination of desire, rather than any attempt to satiate it (as most people do). Proceeding without expectation, we perceive the subtlety — the nuance. Looking at things without a goal in mind, we are free to view them from a variety of angles, appreciating the mysterious complexity: the dynamic interplay between countless shades of grey. This is the territory of yin — “soft, slow, substantial, water, cold, conserving, tranquil, gentle, and corresponds to the night.”
The great difficulty in life can be expressed as the problem of when to proceed with expectation, and when to lean back and perceive the subtlety. In a sense, this problem is about dealing with free will. Let’s jump into some examples.
Just before the Mahabharata’s great battle, Arjuna finds himself in a quandary: how can he fight his own flesh and blood? His friends and his teachers? A Kshatriya suddenly starts seeing the subtlety, so Krishna attempts to bring Arjuna back into the field of action — there is a time for doubt and contemplation, but now Arjuna needed to execute his duty. His dharma. A warrior needs to see things as black and white, or he will drive himself mad.
Hamlet’s primary dilemma can also be seen in this light.
To be, or not to be, that is the Question:
Whether ’tis Nobler in the minde to suffer
The Slings and Arrowes of outragious Fortune,
Or to take Armes against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them[.]
Should he sit back and suffer the slings and arrows of his terrible fate, or get off his ass and do something about it? Should he commit the sin of killing his treacherous uncle in order to avenge his father’s murder? Despite supernatural intervention, Hamlet takes a verbose four acts to finally work up the courage to do the deed. And as Fortinbras and Horatio survey the carnage, we’re still left wondering — should Hamlet have unleashed all this death and destruction?
Science requires proceeding with expectation. If we ask nothing of the world, we are at the mercy of mysterious and capricious forces of nature. If we examine the origins of these forces, some of the mystery clears up, an many new things become manifest. [If you’re know a little about quantum mechanics, you will quickly see why some physicists like eastern mysticism. But I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.]
The reason I’m picky about the translations of the Tao Te Ching is that most translators make a virtue out of living with subtlety, belittling the boundaries. I prefer the value-neutral version. Both yin and yang and needed to make the world go round. However, the primary thrust of Taoism is to live without expectation, always perceiving the subtleties. This is probably why I gravitate to this philosophy, whose exemplary element is water. Water humbles itself by sinking to the lowest places, and there finds calm and stillness. Yet water can break rock when it has to. Even if I recognize my passive, watery side, I often find myself expecting things. I have my hang-ups. My judgemental tendencies. My competitive streak lies dormant most of the time, but I’m pretty sure it’s not dead.
There are interesting knots one can tie oneself into while examining cryptic verses such as these. The next part of the section goes as follows:
The source of these two is identical, Yet their names are different.
Together they are called profound.
Profound and mysterious, the gateway to the Collective Subtlety.”
So is the fundamental subtlety the recognition that yin and yang spring from the same source and must needs coexist? Or is the fundamental boundary our very quest for consistency, unity, and a common source for all knowledge? Do we not expectantly seek out subtlety? The author humbly preempts even these attempts at cleverness, warning us that “The Tao that can be expressed / Is not the Tao of the Absolute”.
Profound and mysterious, this Tao is. And of course, the rest is silence.