The Tao

The way that can be spoken of
Is not the constant way;
The name that can be named
Is not the constant name.

—First lines of the Tao Te Ching

Today’s topic was chosen by Tim M, who attends Rice University.

My only knowledge of the Tao, or the “Way,” comes from a short project relating to it in ninth grade in history class and a discussion session of the book in my senior year of high school. It would be an impossible task, at least for me, to do justice to a subject as the Tao in a single blog post. Instead, I’ll just give a commentary on the first lines of the text, as quoted above. [Using this translation]

The way that can be spoken of is not the constant way

What does this mean? “The way that can be spoken of” is easy to understand, but the latter is somewhat troubling. What does Lao Tzu, the author of the Tao Te Ching, mean by the “constant way?” Constant means unchanging, no matter what, no matter how humans interpret it. Something like, for example, the laws of physics or, even perhaps, what may have existed before universe as we know it.

Let us consider a “way”: Newtonian physics, a concept under which humans looked at the universe for a long time. In this system, the universe runs like a giant machine, all action akin to the moving of gears, the gears of physics. Nonetheless, everything is mechanical and can be calculated. This “way” of the universe can clearly be spoken of.

In the twentieth century, two theories, relativity and quantum mechanics, showed that Newtonian physics was not as accurate as it had once seemed. Relativity showed that time is not a well-defined property of the universe—time can stretch and contract, and synchronicity is impossible to define. Quantum mechanics showed that there are some things you can’t know for sure where any given particle is. These “truer” processes are much more difficult to “speak of.”

Will physics understand all of the universe? (How much information would this take? The entire universe?) These remain open questions. But the overall idea is, if you have a theory about how the universe operates, you are most likely wrong, according to the Tao Te Ching.

The name that can be named is not the constant name

This statement is similar in construction and also in content. A “constant name” almost seems to mean that something must have a name to start with, but this can also be interpreted more abstractly, in that the constant name is what we perceive something to be.

Take as an example the “chair” on which I am sitting. (Actually, for this post I am sitting on my bed, but I normally do blog at my desk. I am just really tired right now.) What makes it a chair? Someone speaking French or Chinese might have a different word for it. But we would all interpret it the same way: it is something that we sit on.

Does the fact that we interpret it the same mean we have just named it? Seems to be that it does. According then to the Tao Te Ching, this is not the constant name. “Something to sit on” is thus not a constant interpretation; indeed, to fix the ceiling light we might use the chair as “something to stand on,” or, in the case of a heated debate, “something with which to throw at the opposing side.”

Is there anything constant then? Consider the beginning of the universe. If you take the current scientific approach, you will be thinking about the Big Bang or some explosion of that sort. Surely you can’t label this as the middle or end; it must be the beginning, right? Perhaps…

This brings up an intrinsic irony: if the point of the Tao is that one is unable to name or speak about it, then why did the passage do exactly that: give the Tao a meaning and speak about it? Is there even a reason to search for the constant way? These are just some things to ponder over. For those of you scavenger hunting this post, you don’t actually need to answer any of these questions. (But if you do, I might give you a cookie!)

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