Tao a Day – Verse 16: Emptiness

A couple weeks ago, I began a practice of reading one verse from the Tao Te Ching everyday. I will continue until I finish the whole book. I’ve read it before and consider it a masterpiece of both metaphysics and spirituality. There are few works as simple, inspiring, and profound. I will try to post a reading on a verse or a passage from a verse from time to time to share the beauty of this work. The following is Verse 16.

Become totally empty
Quiet the restlessness of the mind
Only then will you witness everything
unfolding from emptiness
See all things flourish and dance
in endless variations
And once again merge back into perfect emptiness-
Their true repose
Their true nature
Emerging, flourishing, dissolving back again
This is the eternal process of return

To know this process brings enlightenment
To miss this process brings disaster

Be still
Stillness reveals the secret of eternity
Eternity embraces the all-possible
The all-possible leads to a vision of oneness
A vision of oneness brings about universal love
Universal love supports the great truth of Nature
The great truth of Nature is Tao

Whoever knows this truth lives forever
The body may perish, deeds may be forgotten
But he who has Tao has all eternity
– Trans. Jonathan Star


Recently, I read some of Alan Watts’ book on Taoism (Tao: The Watercourse Way). In his chapter on wu wei, the well-known “doing without doing”, he contrasts Zen Buddhism and Taoism in that both aim at getting a deeper understanding of reality and then acting in accordance with it. He claims that the difference is that Taoism tries to get the student there through an intuitive understanding pulled out through poetic descriptions and paradoxical stories, whereas Zen approaches it through long and thorough meditation. I think this is accurate to an extent, but I think that Watts is a bit disparaging in his treatment of Zen in his discussion. Both approaches try to get us to see the way things are. The Buddhists guide us toward prajna (knowledge) in realization of Dharma (reality, the truth, the way things are, the law), and with the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu tries to get us to grasp the insight of Tao (the Way, the totality of all, the way things are and their source). The approach may differ, but the goal is roughly the same! I think this verse speaks to the parallels between these paths. Meditation is a way of realizing the emptiness and stillness that Lao Tzu emphasizes here–it is a way of getting an intuitive understanding beyond concepts. Both aim at getting past the duality of conceptual thought. The Taoist aim of transcending conceptual thought is stated very clearly in the following passage from Verse 1 as well as the already quoted Verse 16:

A mind free of thought,
     merged within itself,
     beholds the essence of Tao
A mind filled with thought,
     identified with its own perceptions,
     beholds the mere forms of this world.

The emptiness in 16 and “essence of Tao” in 1 are the metaphysical aspect of reality, of Tao, and I find the expression of it here and elsewhere in the Tao Te Ching quite inspirational. Tao is both the origin of the 10,000 things and those 10,000 things as well. In other words, Tao goes beyond the “mere forms of this world”, as their dynamic source of never-ending unfolding and change. Here’s an example in Verse 1:

Tao is both Named and Nameless
     As Nameless, it is the origin of all things
     As Named, it is the mother of all things

Here, we see that our concepts–our thoughts of forms and the words with which we name them–are not the source of the forms which we experience. The things we name are not that which creates those things, yet Tao is both the things named and that which cannot be named–that is, their source. This focus on origin or source and its distinction from the forms of the world leads us to philosophy’s most fundamental question (according to Heidegger’s take): “Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?” Lao Tzu answers without further explanation of why: “There is Tao.” Tao is both this mysterious, ungraspable origin that fluctuates all beings, pulsing with new forms–the ebb and flow of change–as well as those changing forms.

From a very different philosophical background, Wittgenstein delineates the world of forms in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus as all that can be said. That which cannot be said must be passed over in silence: it must be shown; moreover, this inexpressible dimension is the mystical (i.e. the metaphysical). [Please note that these quotes have numbers. It’s just a numbering system in that book. I keep it here for you to look them up on your own] ” 6.522 There is definitely something inexpressible. The inexpressible shows itself. It is the mystical” (Es gibt allerdings Unaussprechliches dies zeigt sich, es ist das Mystische.). Previous to this, Wittgenstein points out that the mystical (i.e. metaphysical) nature of the World is not in the how of it–the facts of it–rather in its existing at all: “6.44 The mystical is not how the world is, rather that it is. ” (Nicht wie die Welt ist, ist das Mystische, sondern dass sie ist.) The world–the set of forms that can be perceived and named, i.e. that which can be spoken–is not the mystical, the metaphysical. The metaphysical must be shown as it is beyond that which can be said; this is done through words, but the words themselves do not represent this aspect of reality–they merely indicate it, pointing towards it. Here, in the first verse of the Tao, the indicated mystical aspect of existence is the Nameless, TaoLao Tzu’s masterpiece tries to show us this metaphysical origin beyond the forms we perceive and can express, and much like the paradoxes of Zen koans, he stretches language’s expression to point the way to that intuitive understanding, showing it as a Sage–inviting us to empty our mind and experience the ever-unfolding emptiness of the eternal process of return.


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. dimvisionary
    Feb 06, 2015 @ 12:11:31

    Fantastic Post! Thank you for the connections between Lao Tzu and Wittgenstein.

    Liked by 1 person


    • zeuslyone
      Feb 06, 2015 @ 16:35:48

      Thank you very much, dimvisionary! I heartily admit to a strong nerd-love for Wittgenstein’s works, and I had a minor cerebral explosion of joy when I saw the resonance between Wittgenstein’s distinctions of saying/showing regarding the mystical and Lao Tzu’s description of Tao. I’m glad that you enjoyed this connection as well. Your own posts are written with stylistic panache and insight. Prepare to see me reading through your posts!



      • dimvisionary
        Feb 07, 2015 @ 06:03:33

        Only scratching the surface of Wittgenstein recently and I value any doorway to understanding his work. My intense love of the Tao Te Qing gives me that door, perhaps. Thanks again, and I live for those ‘cerebral explosions of joy’! Be well.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Trackback: Just Be | On the Way

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