Posts Tagged ‘Tao te Ching’

The Dao that can be told is not the eternal Dao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name
The unnamable is the eternally real
Naming is the origin of all things
Free from desire, we realise the mystery
Caught in desire, we see only the manifestations
Yet mystery and manifestations arise from the same source
The source is called darkness
Darkness within darkness
The gateway to all understanding

Carina NebulaSo runs the first chapter of the Dao De Jing, the seminal text of spiritual and philosophical Daoism. Although attributed by legend to the archetypal  and possibly mythical white-bearded sage figure Lao-tse, its true authorship is still debated. What is not in doubt is its antiquity – the earliest surviving versions thus far uncovered dating to around 300-400 BC, while tradition dates it much earlier to around 500-600 BC. In archeological terms its existence provides evidence of a remarkable awakening of a deeply spiritual, philosophical and self-reflective human consciousness – an awakening that seems to have taken place across many cultures, both east and west, around the same time.

The  Dao De Jing  is also a troubling text – just eighty one short, enigmatic verses that have been translated and interpreted in different ways. The above quote is from the opening of the Stephen Mitchell version which, although frowned upon by some scholars of Daoism, remains popular – perhaps, like the Dao de Jing itself – for holding more to the heart, than to the letter of an idea.

At first glance, the Dao De Jing reads like nonsense, and many of us will discard it as being too enigmatic for its own good. It’s only as we deepen psychologically and spiritually that more of the text begins to make sense. As children of a material and rigorously rational paradigm, we prefer our lessons delivered in plain words, our descriptions of reality literal, and our proofs of phenomenon to be demonstrated with an irrefutable logic. But the Dao De Jing suggests the ultimate nature of reality simply isn’t like that. This makes describing it in literal terms impossible, so the text uses paradox to provoke, twist and even to paralyse the mind into a logical impasse from which the meaning arises of its own accord, not as words but as visceral insights.

The unnamable is the eternally real. What’s eternally real is beyond language.  We know what it is, but not its nature. It is the ground of being, it is the gap in the perceivable quanta of the manifest world, but if we try to define it or even imagine it,  we limit our understanding to what we can perceive with the inadequate apparatus of the logical, thinking mind. It’s better then to have no mind, no convictions about the eternally real than any mind at all.

This is not to say the eternally real cannot be experienced. We are, after all, part of the ultimate nature of reality ourselves, our minds holographic reductions of a greater conscious whole. It’s through the mind therefore we can tune in, if we can first of all tune out the mind’s more daily preoccupations with material things or rational thoughts – for what we think about things is paradoxically our biggest hurdle to understanding any-thing at all.

If we can use our minds this way, and by a process of mindfulness seek nothing but the stillness in every moment, we might eventually glimpse the darkness of our immaterial self, and in so doing realise we can only be experiencing this self from the perspective of a deeper blackness, a more authentic all-encompassing formlessness that seems both self and no-self.

Impossible to define in intellectual terms this no-thing-ness is experienced as a sense of oneness, familiar and comforting as a passionate lover’s embrace. And with it comes the reminder this exquisite state is our most natural state, our own ground of being. It is who and what we really are – and we have merely forgotten it for a while, temporarily lost as we all are, in the world of forms.

Self in no self. Darkness within darkness.

The gateway to all understanding.

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Once upon a time I bought a house. It had been in my good lady’s family for generations, passed through the hands of several elderly relatives, and by the time it came to us it was in need of modernisation. One of the first jobs was to install double glazing. This required us to endure the peculiar methods of a long line of double-glazing salespersons, one of whom I remember, sat me and my good lady down in our front room and subjected us to a couple of  hours of death by Powerpoint presentation – or what passed for it back then.

His windows were terribly expensive, and we were so bamboozled by his convoluted facts we had no way of deducing if those costs were justified. What was also puzzling was that if we agreed to the installation, and then ten years later, on a certain day, if we rang a certain telephone number, we would get all our money back. What? Get our windows for free? How does that work then?

Whatever the merits of this scheme, we were so cross and impatient by the end of this presentation, I’m afraid to say we bundled the man out of the house without so much as a cup of tea. His departure was hastened, I recall, by my equally frustrated son, then about eighteen months old, hungry for his bedtime story,  hurling Thomas the Tank Engine books at him as he went.

The next salesman was a pony tailed, oily, orange tanned sort of man who drove a bright red sport’s car. My good lady was already bristling when he stepped over the threshold and he hadn’t said anything yet. But his speal was much more succinct than the previous chap – just a quick measure up, a brief explanation of the style and construction of the windows, then a straight forward price. I was astonished and relieved by how easy the process had been this time. I was astonished too by the price because it was a fraction of the other quotes we’d had, but now I was wondering to myself, how on earth they could do it for that? There must be a catch! Darn it, what shall we do?

I left it a few days, in the hope my intuition would guide me through what was quickly becoming a bit of a minefield, where logic and reason were no guarantees of avoiding a ripoff. So then I had the idea of  telephoning the pony-tailed salesman and politely asking him if I could just confirm a few facts about his windows – thinking to discover the catch as to why they were so inexpensive. But it was as if I’d insulted his mother. He became rude at once, even aggressive – calling me stupid, that I had sat for an hour while he’d explained all of this and now I had the gall to ring him up and ask the sort of basic effing questions I should have asked him before, when I’d had the chance,…

Yes, indeed. He was very rude. But I sensed something else was going on here, something I couldn’t see, something lurking under the surface, and rather than take his tone personally, get all cross and hurt, as perhaps I should have done, I took a step back inside myself, puzzled, and I tried to see the bigger picture.

There’s the story of a king who goes by night in disguise to seek the counsel of a humble monk. While in the presence of the monk the king assumes an air of deference, while the monk, a happy-go-lucky, ragged, impoverished character, teaches the king the meaning of life, the universe and everything. Then one night the king says, okay I’ve got all of that, but what I’m really struggling with now is this concept of the Ego. What is the ego? What’s that all about? At which the monk laughs, apparently in disbelief, and says what kind of a stupid question is that?

Of course at this point the king drops all pretence, calls the monk rude names, says he’s just a destitute monk and how dare he speak to the king like that? To which the monk says, now that, your majesty, is everything you need to know about the ego.

Returning to my rather more prosaic story about the double glazing salesman, I don’t know what caused that momentary gap to open up between what should have been my natural reaction of hurling back some retaliatory insults, before slamming the phone down and fuming in hurt and humiliation for the rest of the day, and what I actually did, which was to make a calmly reasoned guess at the likely truth of the matter:

He’d made a terrible mistake in the price he’d quoted me for those windows – and as far as commission went, all he’d be getting was a good telling off from his boss for the error. His only hope of recovering his position was if I didn’t take him up on the offer, which was by then already legally binding on his firm – so he insulted me, thinking to lever up the lid on my ego and give it a good slapping, then my ego would tear up the quotation – after all a sale lost was better than a sale he couldn’t afford. I thought about it, but then I took a risk that this peculiarly egoless entity I’d discovered lurking inside of me wasn’t too far off the mark; I forgave his bad language, and accepted his offer.

Double glazing companies come and go, proving like nothing else the Buddhist adage that all forms are impermanent. The firm who offered me that money back guarantee after ten years folded after just two – so I don’t suppose their magic money-back telephone number is still working now. The one that actually fitted the windows did better,  lasting around five years, but at least the windows they fitted are still looking like new after – oh, it must be fifteen years now.

I did see the pony tailed, orange tanned salesman again – he came to make some final measurements before the windows went in. I won’t say he had that tail between his legs, but he was a little sheepish. He did however have the good grace to apologise for his rudeness on the phone. I mumbled something about it being okay, that it sounded like he’d been having a bad day, and not to worry about it. He didn’t mention the price and I didn’t rub it in.

I don’t know what he’s doing now, but I trust he’s found a way of moving on. I’m sure there are those who enjoy manipulating egos in order to get what they want, but it sounds like a tiresome business, and dangerous too because a roused ego can cause a normally placid human being to become physically violent. But it can be dangerous too in that every now and then you’re going to come across someone who’s ego’s too sluggish to be of much use in your machinations, or it’s like smoke and only vaguely there at all, because then they might see through you and the best you can hope for when that happens is that someone genuinely lacking in ego would never think to hurt you.

Of course that I can look back on all of this and still feel a smug glow of satisfaction proves my own ego isn’t quite so far beneath the surface as I’d like to make out. I’ve a long way to go then along the path of spiritual realisation – sure I know that – but in my defence I’d also argue it’s better to have begun the journey even if I’ve got nowhere at all, than not realise there’s a journey to be made in the first place.

So, beware, once you start to lose your mind, you’ll discover there’s potentially as much wisdom to be found in ordering double glazing, as there is in the whole of the Tao Te Ching, that even men with orange tans and red sports cars can become, for a time, your most important gurus.

Good night all

Enjoy yourselves, but stay safe.



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Southport was cold and grey and wet this morning, and yet more shops had been boarded up. The massive Woolworths store they cleared out a year ago is still empty, still carrying its cheery red Woolworths logo, but there was little to be cheerful about and in one of the half empty malls there was a character with oiled hair handing out cash in exchange for gold,.. and he had plenty of customers offering their unwanted trinkets for him to squint at.

I’m lucky. I still have a job and can gaze upon this awful spectacle with the air of a detached observer. I wear only two pieces of gold: my wedding ring on my left hand and my father’s wedding ring on my right, and it’s easy for me to say that the oily haired man could go $@#£ himself, if he thought he’d ever be getting his hands on those. But how about when the rent’s due and there’s no money coming in and there’s a bully boy collector at the door?

There but for the grace of God, and all that.

I tried to buy a coffee and was offered more choice than I could cope with: Latte, Mocha, Americano, blah di blah di blah. For some reason this business of “choice” really irritates me now and I long for simpler days when I could just have one bloody thing that actually worked. I hear my politicians speaking of “choice” as if it were the holy grail, and yet I detect a curious hollowness in their words as if they don’t really believe it either and are simply reciting a mantra presented to them by a legion of obscenely highly remunerated political consultants.  Anyway,… I listened to the girl reeling them all off,…. all these varieties of highly desireable choice, coffee-wise,  and to be honest, I hadn’t a clue what any of them were. Feeling a little tired and confused I asked if  I could just have an ordinary filter coffee.  She sighed at my ignorance before replying with practiced patience that they were all filter coffee’s sir.  I apologise dear reader – urbane I am not. I like my coffee plain and strong. It does not come with a label.

I received an infinitely friendlier reception at the Atkinson gallery, where a group of handicapped kids (can I still say that?) were having a delightful sing-song, and the girl manning (can I still say that?) the reception desk  welcomed me up the stairs with a smile that instantly erased the memory of the pretentious coffee incident. Yes, this was “sanctuary”. I was safe, and looking for old friends: Dorette’s sister, the gloriously erotic Lillith of course, and a bewitching seascape by an artist called JHG Millar, whom no one seems to know anything about.

Then I ran into a major synchronicity.

I need to rewind here and explain  I’d just booked 2010’s summer holiday, on the  Northumberland coast. I have a memory of my last night there in August 2003, coming off the beach at Bamburgh after flying kites with my boys. The east coast beaches have a special charm.  The sea was lively and there was a mist overhanging everything. I paused for a second, just to look back  and take it all in. There was something bewitching about it. Then, six years later, I walk into the Atkinson, the day after booking my return trip, and I’m staring at a picture of the same scene, painted from the same spot!

Take no notice of the skeptics, nor the smug statisticians: Synchronicities are important. They are like a glitch in “the matrix” – if you’re into movies – if not then never mind. They indicate a change – that something is changing, that something in the mind is manoeuvering. But you will never understand a synchronicity in literal terms – try too hard to look for the meaning in them and they just smile at you, inscrutable as Alice’s Cheshire cat. The best you can do is feel the current tugging at you, and surrender to it.

After the Atkinson it was Broadhursts bookshop and a browse through the second-hand titles. I trust every major town in the UK still possesses a die hard establishment like Broadhursts. If books, real books, are your bag, then you know the sort of place I mean – they cleared out of the smaller county towns decades ago, to make way for the publisher’s clearance outlets – who really aren’t the same thing at all.  Anyway,… I found myself smiling when I noticed works by Richard Dawkins side by side with those of Derek Ankora here. It was a marvellous irony. But it was Carl Jung who drew my eye, and for a few pounds I came away with a second hand copy of  “Psychological Reflections”, an anthology edited by Jolande Jacobi. It’s a  while since I studied Jung and maybe the memory of that earlier synchronicity forced my hand.

Reading it later on in bed, I found myself a little too tired to do it justice, but one quote struck me between the eyes so hard, I had to write it down: All the true things must change and only that which changes remains true. It could easily have been a line from the Tao te Ching!

Those of us who tread the spiritual path away from the mainstream would do well to remember it. There is no clear definition for what it is we seek. It does not have a name. To define it is to kill it, to make it old and grey and useless. Therefore we hold no clear convictions, no unassailable beliefs, and we are not afraid to change, not afraid to say: I was wrong, not afraid to say: I don’t know.

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