This chapter brings forward a couple of reflections. First we have the translation thing again. Here’s a line-by-line combination of two translations, Victor H. Mair on the left, followed by Jane English & Gia-fu Feng on the right:
Understanding others is knowledge, Knowing others is wisdom;
Understanding oneself is enlightenment; Knowing the self is enlightenment.
Conquering others is power, Mastering others requires force;
Conquering oneself is strength; Mastering the self needs strength.
Contentment is wealth, He who knows he has enough is rich.
Forceful conduct is willfulness; Perseverance is a sign of willpower.
Not losing one’s rightful place is to endure, He who stays where he is endures.
To die but not be forgotten is longevity. To die but not to perish is to be eternally present.
In my personal usage of language there is a difference between understanding and knowing, there is a difference between conquering and mastering.
“Understanding” involves mind and our engagement in language and thought. “Knowing” involves our connection with the Tao through agencies and faculties more mysterious, holistic and comprehensive.
A “Conqueror” confronts and overcomes an adversary through forceful will and/or actions to gain (the illusion of) control.
A “Master” encounters opposition yet has more options and can choose to confront, deflect, or redirect, rather than use force. A Master will seek to establish an equilibrium based on joined symbiotic harmony. A Conqueror dominates a hierarchy wherein there are winners and losers, powerful and weak, rulers and subjects.
Yet in the two above translations they are used synonymously. Victor H. Mair’s interpretation could be characterized as cerebral and active and yang, while the translation by Jane English and Gia-fu Feng drifts in subtle counterpoint toward the intuitive, observant, yin nature.
Confusions of nomenclature and definitions and language and the personal and social biases which work their way into translations of source materials – and personal interpretations – are relevant, obviously.
The forceful person will gravitate toward and seek insight in Victor H. Mair’s translation, and perhaps find, instead of wisdom, a rationale which empowers selfishness through self will. The meek or gentle person, drawn toward the translation of Jane English & Gia-fu Feng, may find, instead of wisdom, a rationale supporting fatalistic resignation and withdrawal from the world.
Where words are concerned then, there is always a potential for imbalance rather than balance to be perceived in the communiqué.
There’s a whole world of commentary available here regarding perspective and viewpoint with regard to what is in the foreground and what is in the background of any particular view. We could look at the Age of Reason and the rise of rationalism, which shapes our contemporary perspectives, and examine what is gained and what is lost in that perspective.
Recently I was reminded of that historical shift in the philosophy of human thought and perception by the commentary on Chapter 38 at Ralston Creek Review. In what is arguably characterized as “The Age of Enlightenment” in 18th-century Europe, the goal was to establish an authoritative ethics, aesthetics, and knowledge based on an “enlightened” rationality. There is a contrast there between the humanistic, holistic, spiritual perspective of George Fox, the progenitor of Quakerism, and the concurrent rise of rationalism which was shifting the focus of human consciousness from the mysteries of spirituality to the intellectual concretisations of logic.
It was not so much an elimination of one in favor of the other so much as a rebalancing of the two. Balance was not the result; a redistribution of the weight ascribed to each and a changed perspective was. The foreground and background shifted, humanity’s viewpoint moved from one knothole in the fence to another, yet the view over the top of the fence remained the same. Everything was still available to be seen there.
Perspective is always a consideration on the paths we follow. Perspective can skew our interpretations of everything, even these wisdoms of the sage of the Tao Te Ching. Yet this wisdom is clearly accessible to us if we remember that, beyond the biases of personal perspective, we share commonality in the substance of the thing. We can make the connection to the substance within because it is in the sage, it is in the sage’s words, and it is in us.
My second reflection is broader and is about my personal experience of the flow of recent chapters, the nature and content there, the tone and perspective, and a certain subtle flux of mood and energy and focus which appears there.
A study of the chapters as discreet kernels of wisdom yields much, yet there’s more to be had from a broader view of the sage’s work. We’re all riding the river of the Tao in this boat with the sage, and it is natural that we would be exposed to more than the content and related forms here. We would also be exposed to the personal experience, the moods and energy of the sage as he wrote these chapters. This work predates us nearly 2500 years, yet we still share a common human experience.
The observations of the sage are wise, they demonstrate experiential engagement, they are the result of acute processing by the intelligences of both mind and heart. Yet there are moments here when the expressions of truth in language seem wearisome to me, and even insubstantial. They are linguistic forms and symbols. The form, overextended at times, becomes the substance, and we become involved in further, endlessly explicative extensions of the form rather than carried forward into beholding and knowing the real substance of being human. It becomes a tiresome thing, this exercise of language, even though it is a useful tool.
It seems to me as if the sage is slowed down in this chapter by the same thing, resigned to speaking but not wholly engaged in the process. I sense a diffident interest and energy. I personally think it marks the sage’s own transition in perspective from the primarily observant, peaceful, reflective viewpoint of the previous chapter (chapter 32) and then the subsequent return to the practicality of using a second-hand form, language, to describe the first-hand substance from which the form proceeds. A speed bump located at the midpoint, the line of demarcation, between the existential and spiritual poles we perceive in our dualistic nature. Somewhere in here I sense the sage sighing, and thinking, “Well… back to it,” with a sort of accepting resignation as the river approaches, yet again, another run of linguistic rapids.
There is a certain appreciable rhythm which can be sensed ebbing and flowing in the recent chapters. In chapter 29 the sage takes a perspective moving toward the practical application of wisdom; in chapters 30 and 31 the practical existential applications are even more focused, and narrower, and stimulate a lot of consonantly reflective dialogue.
Then, in chapter 32, the sage shifts into a more peaceful, observant mode, a broader view, less existentially focused, drifting back toward being and beholding, moving away from doing and acting. A sort of natural adjustment, a balancing effect appears as the sage reminds us that “Once the whole is divided, the parts need names. There are already enough names. One must know when to stop. Knowing when to stop averts trouble.”
The naming of parts can be problematic. It is a good thing to know when to stop. Language is so form-based, so derivative, that a question arises about the relative value of the medium of words in relation to the attainment of true wisdom. Do words lead us to a true knowing of the human experience? Or do they lead us to an understanding of the words which describe the human experience, but do not lead to knowing the substance of it? It’s a subtle yet clear distinction, and very real and relevant to spiritual path walkers: Can language deliver me to knowing? If so, how?
It is as though the sage, on the river in this boat, flows from the rapids of the active existential perspective of chapters 30 and 31 to the still, contemplative stretches of peaceful water where, untroubled, we behold the Tao in chapter 32. We flow with the sage into this perspective and embrace the peace there, resting in knowing that “Tao in the world is like a river flowing home to the sea.” We have come here by knowing when to stop with language.
I was certainly grateful for the restfulness of Chapter 32 after the busyness of the previous two chapters, and I sensed that the sage was, too. I experienced a connection with the humanity of the sage, a shared experience. We all drift between words and knowing. In this chapter I felt that fitful transition which comes as perspective shifts back to words. The sage almost audibly sighs and then carries on, ramping back over into the place of ongoing expressions and forms. It seems the sage is not quite there yet, not precisely articulate, and so the profound and often not easily grasped truths we often encounter in most chapters are, in this one, more simply expressed reflexive truisms.
Obviously we communicate and share with language, and it is a vital part of our existence. My point, difficult to express, involves misgivings about engaging too much with language and, by extension, being caught up by and suspended in the useful constructs of intellect, the symbols which represent things yet are not the thing itself.
This observation about silence and spiritual practices, taken directly from Wikipedia, suggests a benefit in transcending linguistic understanding:
“Many religious traditions imply the importance of being quiet and still in mind and spirit for transformative and integral spiritual growth to occur. In Buddhism, the descriptions of silence and allowing the mind to become silent are implied as a feature of spiritual enlightenment. In Hinduism, including the teachings of Advaita Vedanta and the many paths of yoga, teachers insist on the importance of silence, Mauna, for inner growth.”
The expressions of the sage are understandings. They are knowing once-removed from their source by language, knowing converted into information virally transmitted in a word-code of forms which produces understanding. These expressions are conveyed in complexly evolved symbols with cleverly fashioned combinable facets which can be deconstructed and recombined into many different highly complex constructs, all of which convey the basic communiqué, the knowing, with details and flourishes and pointillist pains and peculiar impressionist perspectives. And of course it is possible to linger long in the complexity of language and symbolic thought, to be caught or arrested or suspended in that exercise for a long time.
There are times which come on my path when I devolve from this complexity and wish to say what I know and what I’ve learned – simply. Moments when I want to express what I truly know as an unvarnished, certain, self-stated epitaph, bequeathed to everyone. It’s a difficult task when one understands the inadequacy of language to convey knowing.
I wonder if the sage was in such a moment when he formed the previous chapter? I wonder if, at the root of his expressions, in the mind and heart of the sage, there was a profound desire that the form be not so much transmitted and heard, but rather that the substance therein be understood, known, and applied by the recipient of these expressions. And I wonder if a certain weariness regarding the effectiveness of language might have crept into the sage as he began this chapter.
Did the sage desire that this virally transmitted knowledge make what has been characterized as the “eighteen inch journey from the mind to the heart,” and thereby engender the realization of the message rather than result in the mere retention and ongoing contemplation of what linguistic and philosophical nuances and meanings are present there? Certainly.
I know that particular hope is there when I share my own experience. It’s the same hope the parent has for the child, the grandparent for the grandchild – that ways and means of living which enhance and enrich and fulfill the lives of others might be given forward. These truths and aphorisms are the ones which translate across individual, varying perspectives and so are the best consigned to the ages and future generations. Yet often the point of the message is lost in contemplation of the message itself. We study the pointing finger rather than direct our attentions to what the finger is pointing at.
When truth becomes a truism for us – that is, when it becomes so obvious it is unnecessary to say it – why do we continue to speak the message of truth, why do we compel ourselves to restate the obvious in permutations of our own?
Is ego the culprit and are we blind to our own engagement with that which we urge others to transcend? Is false love the instigator of the impulse? Do we desire to elevate others to our own perspective for the enrichment of their understanding and their attainment of our own satisfactions, and so personally acquire the ratification of our own ways and means and conclusions in this life? Yes, in part this answers why we continue to engage in convolutions, in linguistic orbits around a simple body of truth.
I use language quite a bit in a number of causes. And to be honest I have to say that my motivations there are in part involved with personal aspects of all the small things mentioned above – ego, false love, personal satisfaction, ratification of special worth. Yet my motivation also comes out of a sincere desire to pass a useful torch to others. Being aware of these things, and sincerely dedicated to the removal of smallness in my thoughts and deeds, I intermittently “go mauna,” become silent, and so connect with the whole and holy Tao.
I navigate back and forth between these two states of being, between the peace of stillness and the forceful dynamics of expression, moving with the ebb and flow of rhythms coursing through the Tao. I walk in the woods, beholding the river, moving quietly in the infinite cathedral of creation with my beloved by my side, being small and insignificant and yet infinite and unique and perfect in some inchoate, poignant way.
Then I return to speak again, and always in the return I sense a border crossing between two distinct places which I expect would, at some point, merge rather than continue to be defined by this crossing over, this border sensed between the two. Is it the border between Snake and Crane, earth and sky, mind and spirit, the existential and the One? Is it the natural flow of the river of the Tao, passing through each and all places? Yes.
Do I return to speak again for the simple purpose of exercising, exposing, and so apprehending the smallness of my ego-self? It’s a good question to ask when I become too wordy, as I have been here. And when it appears, it’s a very useful flag.
So I stop. And become silent. And beholding the Tao, remember who and what I really am.