Recently, my son and I took a little road trip through New England and down to Boston. It was a wonderful journey… the best part for me was being able to spend time with my son (He’s sixteen and these occasions when he actually wants to spend time with his old man are precious). On the walk from our hotel in Cambridge, north to Harvard Square, we chanced upon the Greater Boston Buddhist Cultural Center. After paying our respects to the Buddha in the small and unassuming temple (the kind that makes you feel immediately at home), we had lunch in the vegetarian restaurant attached. As in many Chinese restaurants, the meal was followed by the bill and the proverbial (literally) fortune cookie. When I cracked my cookie open, I was greeted, not by a fortune (“Good luck will follow you today.”), but an English translation of the first line of that great Chinese classic the Tao Te Ching: “The Tao that can be described is not the everlasting Tao”. I was stunned!
The Tao Te Ching, or the Classic of the Way and its Virtue, a brief treatise of 81 chapters (or 5000 Chinese characters), is believed to have been written in China between the 2nd and 5th Century BC. Legend has it that the author, Lao Tzu (Old Man or Old Master), a minor functionary, having grown tired of city life, ventured West, into the wilderness. He left behind his wisdom, the Tao Te Ching, with the sentry at the Western gate and was never heard from again.
The theme of the Tao Te Ching is expressed in the first Chapter:
Firstly, words cannot adequately describe the nature of the eternal. The chapter continues…
The name that can be named
Is not the Everlasting name
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth
The named is the mother of ten thousand things
Therefore, ever desireless One can observe the mystery;
Ever desiring One can observe the manifestations.
These two issue from the same origin,
Though named differently.
Both are called the dark.
Dark and even darker,
The door to all mysteries.
Names are not the same as the thing named. A Zen saying goes, “do not mistake the finger pointing at the moon, for the moon itself”. Before the beginning of heaven and earth, before the birth of the yin and the yang, the dark and the light, the tai chi, there is the wu chi – primordial emptiness. Desire is connected with the material world; the lack of desire is connected with the insubstantial. Both are necessary, both emerge from emptiness; the darkness within the darkness is the gate to all mystery.
The Tao Te Ching is second only to the bible in the number of translations. It is the foundation of Taoism and Taoist philosophy. The principle message of the Tao is that the universe expresses itself in a way that can be divined by us, and that even in our imperfect understanding, we can attune ourselves to the Way and live gracefully and effortlessly. This way of living or acting is called ‘wu-wei’, non-action or doing without doing. The tree grows, the earth revolves around the sun, the seasons change – effortlessly. And so, in coming to understand the Way, we can live without struggle and in harmony with the natural world. Of course there is much, much more to Taoism and the Tao Te Ching than this, but one can only expect so much from a fortune cookie.
Miles Murphy works in the field of learning and professional development. An independent scholar, he has a wide range of interests including the humanities of East and West. He is a devotee of Buddhism and a t’ai chi ch’uan enthusiast. His poetry and other writings endeavour to poke about in the rich soil and empty sky of the human condition. Miles can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article cannot be re-published without permission.