1. The way that can be spoken of is not the constant way;
This has been compared with the saying:
- He who speaks does not know; he who knows does not speak
but it's got nothing to do with not saying anything. The intention is established straight away in this initial line. We are not interested in that which can be spoken about. We are not interested in turning our attention in that direction, in the direction of things that can be spoken of. We are not interested because this is the direction of the temporary (not constant), the conditioned. In other translations the word 'eternal' is used instead of constant. 'Eternal' is perhaps more poetic but the concern here is not with good poetry. Constant means 'never changing' and so might be construed as static. This can impart negative associations especially to the western mind preoccupied with 'progress' and change. However, it can also impart a positive attribute, namely that of reliability, always present. The constant can be turned to in any place and at any time. It is ever dependable. So we turn away from the things that can be spoken of to:
The name that can be named is not the constant name.
Here we are turning ourselves from the basic cognitive process, from the basic operation of consciousness in relation to the phenomenal world. This is the process of naming and so identifying one part of the experiencing in contradistinction to another part. What this phrase is doing is turning our attention, against its usual flow, back to that point at which the cognitive process kicks in.
These two phrases seem to imply that there is a "constant way" and a "constant name". As far as I know, the Chinese tend not to go in for nouns and are more concerned with processes. It would certainly be more meaningful to talk about a constant naming. This would give us:
The name that can be named is not the constant naming.
We are not interested in that which a name can be put to but in the naming itself. From a practical, experiential perspective this point cannot be named. It cannot be talked about - it is not an object of consciousness but the quintessential experiencing itself. In coming to this point we have actually gone beyond the naming to what is referred to as the nameless.
2. The nameless was the beginning of heaven and earth;
To understand this as indicative of some kind of mystical cosmogony is to miss the point completely. The first line tells us that our way is not in the direction of the things that can be spoken of. The second line indicates that the direction is towards the naming itself. And now we're told that this was the beginning of heaven and earth. I wonder if the Chinese text clearly indicates past tense because it would make more sense to say:
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth,
earth referring to what is seen, ie sensory objects
and heaven referring to the unseen, ie emotions, thoughts and
feelings. The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth
because everything starts from the nameless, everything starts from right
here and now. It starts anew every moment. This might seem rather
mysterious. It is mysterious and yet scientific thought clearly
incorporates it. Let's consider the scientific picture. First consider
your experience at this moment, looking at this text against a particular
background. At this particular moment this, along with any particular
feelings, is all there is. At this moment this is the only
certainty. Everything else which you might say exists is based on memory,
inductive conjecture, conceptualisation and assumption. Strip away all of
this and what's left? Only the experiencing at this moment.
This is the universe.
Where does it come from? In asking the question we've moved into the cognitive process and imposed time on the experiencing. We then usually look for an answer based on the past, eg in terms of the Big Bang. Let's avoid this misdirection.
It might appear that I'm identifying the universe with the present sensory experience. Talking in terms of sensory experience is also entering into the cognitive experience which expresses itself in terms of assumptions and notions. This is also not the direction we want to go in but the scientific description can help turn our attention round. The question to ask therefore is:
What is the basis of our present sensory experience?
We first of all usually assume that we are quasi-independent entities wandering around an external stage set which we refer to as the world. By inductive conjecture we assume that we have sense organs and say that our experience of this world depends on various impingings on our sense organs. These impingings on our sense organs get transformed into electrical energy. This electrical energy finds its way into certain parts of the brain at which point these electrical signals are transformed into our entire sensory experience. The shift from electricity, an objective phenomenon to subjective sensory experience is a complete non-sequitur but we accept it because it's the 'scientific' explanation. The fact is, it is the experiencing that comes first and all notions of the world and sense organs come on top of it. Still, the scientific picture indicates the creativity that goes on at the centre of our being, reinforcing certain oriental notions that the universe is mind-created. At the centre of our being, all experience of the sky, sea, the sun and stars, other beings is being created. This experience of the physical world along with our 'internal' world of thoughts, feelings, memories and notions are referred to as the myriad creatures in the next line.
The named was the mother of the myriad creatures.
Again, I'd suggest that the present tense is more exact:
The named is the mother of the myriad creatures.
The named is the result of the cognitive process. The previous line pointed to the nameless which is Here, the pure experiencing. This is the basis of all things physical and non-physical (earth and heaven). When the cognitive process kicks in, when the naming gets underway, we end up with the myriad creatures. The myriad creatures refers to the universe out 'there' though this also includes our so-called 'internal' world of thoughts, feelings etc.
In western thought consciousness is regarded as an epiphenomenon of matter. Its relationship to matter has fuelled philosophical speculation for centuries but whatever theories have arisen consciousness is generally seen as dependent on matter. On one level this might appear obvious. For example, alcohol and other drugs clearly affect consciousness. The state of consciousness can be affected by the state of the body, eg after a good meal, etc.
From the oriental perspective matter is dependent on consciousness. This might seem baffling and bizarre to the western mind. It doesn't actually matter what arguments there are to support this point of view as the best argument is to realise it directly. It is empirically obvious. (However, the prejudice that consciousness is dependent on matter is particularly obfuscating and difficult to overcome. A book that I found helpful in this respect is Amit Goswami's The Self-Aware Universe.) The problem lies with the western perspective; it is so locked up in its notions and theories that the basic experiencing is overlooked. These notions, notions of body, matter etc are intrinsic to the cognitive process. In the common state of affairs - samsara - consciousness is identified with these notions, it is lost in these notions, and it is this 'lost consciousness' which is affected by matter.
It is Lao Tzu's mission to direct us back to pure consciousness, pure experiencing, pure awareness, satori. In these first four phrases he tells us firstly that the way to satori does not lie in the normal direction of our attention. Then he tells us that there is nothing in the cognitive process that is of any interest to us in this respect.
In the third phrase he indicates clearly where he is pointing to, ie to the beginning of the cognitive process and in the fourth phrase he describes the cognitive process.
In these first four phrases the muscle of attention is given its first flex, starting from there (the phenomenal world) we're directed back to Here (pure consciousness) and from Here back 'out' to there, indicating clearly the primacy of consciousness and the dependency of the phenomenal world. The muscle of attention is again flexed by the next two lines.
3. Hence always rid yourself of desires in order to observe its secrets;
This phrase is concerned with flexing the muscle of attention from there and directing it back to Here, retrieving it from its lost identification with phenomena (desires) and directing it back to itself, the pure experiencing (its secrets). Desires constitute the momentum that leads us from Here to there. For true Enlightenment to happen desires must disappear. But do desires ever go away? Is it actually possible to eliminate desires? It might not be possible to get rid of desires but it is certainly possible to move away from them at least for a short time. And what's more, it's possible to move away from them at this very moment. This movement is not dependent on anything. You either let go or you don't. If you've let go before then you can do it again now.
Practising this is at the heart of the Buddhist 'just sitting' meditation. In this meditation one is encouraged to adopt a "sky-like attitude" to all phenomena (including desires). All phenomena should be regarded in the same way as the clouds are to the sky. The sky which contains all weather is unaffected by its most turbulent manifestations, unaffected and unmoved.
The relationship between the meditator and their desires is a lot more subtle than the analogy of sky and clouds allows. This is apparent in the next phrase which follows the completion of this flex of the attention from Here to there.
But always allow yourself to have desires in order to observe its manifestations.
This pulls the carpet from underneath those who believe the spiritual path is about the removal of desires. To attempt to get rid of desires is not the way. Desires have to be accepted. Without desires there would be no phenomenal universe (its manifestations). This phenomenal universe is like a mirror in which we can narcissistically lose ourselves or which we can use to reflect us back to where we truly are. To believe that we can get rid of desires is part of the narcissistic process whereby consciousness gets 'lost' in the universe of phenomena. The alternative is not to indulge the desires but to move away from them, to stop fuelling them by returning as often as possible to the Here and Now. Here incorporates there. There is the manifestation of Here. Here is where the ultimate secret is at last clear. From Here, there, the manifestation of Here, can be observed.
4. These two are the same
The Here and the there are non-different. Being free from desires is non-different from allowing desires. This, of course, is from the perspective of Here. Flexing the muscle of attention once again...
But diverge in name as they issue forth.
They issue forth from Here, from consciousness. Here is the nameless. There is the named. There is the cognitive process which names things and puts them in contrast to one another. This phrase completes another flex of the muscle of attention.
5. Being the same they are called mysteries,
A mystery is what cannot be known, cannot be spoken of. If the nameless and the named were not the same then they would no longer be mysteries because they could be explained in familiar dualistic terms - heaven and hell, the absolute and the relative, God and human. The Here is pure experiencing and as such cannot be spoken of (it is ante-cognitive). As such it is mysterious. Flexing the muscle of attention back on itself, to Here, what was there is seen as non-different from Here. There is therefore also mysterious.
In this phrase, mysteries, is simply referring to Here.
Flexing the muscle of attention back again, from Here to there we have
Mystery upon mystery -
The mystery of samsara upon the mystery of Nirvana. This flexing of the muscle of attention, this withdrawing of the attention from there and directing it back upon itself to Here whenever it is consciously or unconsciously drawn back to there is
The gateway of the manifold secrets.
It is this gateway which is clearly established in this first chapter.