Introduction - some terminology clarified

When Archimedes said : "Give me a suitable vantage point and I can move the Earth" he was talking about the principle of the lever - with a lever one can lift great weights. However, this can also be understood spiritually - it is realisably true that from a suitable vantage point the whole universe can be moved. This vantage point is one of perspective. Spiritual understanding, as distinct from intellectual understanding, is about perspective. From the appropriate perspective all things become clear. Like that of the true artist this perspective is transpersonal. It is not concerned with the objects of the senses but with the sensing itself.

The Spiritual

This concern with the sensing, with pure awareness/consciousness rather than with the objects of sensing/awareness/consciousness is, as far as this commentary is concerned, defined as the spiritual. This isn't to exclude the objects of awareness but to focus on the experiencing upon which the cognitive process is based. It is to let things be as they really are, not with how we conceive them to be. First, there is the experiencing, pure, simple and miraculous. The cognitive process filters the experiencing into two: the experiencer and what is being experienced. The experiencer consists of a personality which consists of value judgements with respect to the objects of experience. These objects are not only objects of the senses but also consist of thoughts, feelings and emotions.

The Mystical

An unfortunate side effect of using the term 'spiritual' is that it opens the door to a lot of misunderstanding. The previous paragraph defines the term well-enough but it might be helpful to also define what the spiritual is not. The spiritual is nothing to do with matters relating to heaven and to hell, to religion, and union with the divine. Heaven, hell, religion, the divine, all of these are objects dependent on the cognitive process. The word 'mystical' can be used to describe these objects. It's possible that spiritual realisation can prompt mystical experience but it is a mistake to confuse the mystical with the spiritual. The sun prompts the growth of a plant but the plant is not the sun and the sun is indifferent to the plant.

Enlightenment and the Spiritual

Realisation of the spiritual is Enlightenment. Enlightenment is the term used to describe the goal of some Indian systems of metaphysics which can be found mainly within Hinduism and Buddhism. From the Hindu/Buddhist point of view existence is seen as an endless cycle (samsara) of birth, death and rebirth. This cycle is characterised by suffering and to escape from it (either for oneself or to make efforts on behalf of others) is seen as the prime aim of the spiritual aspirant. For the purposes of this commentary, samsara is analogous to the cognitive process and Enlightenment is permanent realisation of the spiritual, ie of the pure experiencing that underpins the cognitive process. Samsara, the cognitive process, is also referred to as the conditioned. All phenomena, like the contents of a dream, have no independent existence. Their arising depends on conditions. Just as the plant is dependent on the sun and the sun is completely independent of the plant so too is samsara ultimately dependent on the Unconditioned. Similarly, the Unconditioned is completely independent of the conditioned. Some might object that this sounds like dualism but the distinction is more akin to being either out of focus (subject to conditioning) or in focus (realisation that the nature of awareness is independent of conditioning).

Enlightenment and Satori

In looking over the literature on Enlightenment two contradictory impressions are given. One is that Enlightenment can happen immediately. A classic example is that of Hui Neng, an illiterate "barbarian", who heard a verse from a Buddhist text which was being recited in the market place and gained Enlightenment as a result. According to the earliest extant Buddhist scriptures - the Pali canon - this was what often happened in the time of the Buddha. People became enlightened after the exchange of a few words with the Buddha or with some of his disciples. There were many, though, who simply did not 'get it'. A famous example is Ananda who was the Buddha's personal attendant for many years. Ananda did not become enlightened until after Buddha's death.

In later Buddhist teaching, Enlightenment could only be attained after strenuous efforts had been made over countless lifetimes in the cultivation of certain virtues as was supposed to be the case with the Buddha. This apparent contradiction - between Enlightenment being something that can happen spontaneously or whether it is the result of lifetimes of effort - is usually explained by saying that the so-called 'immediate' Enlightenment of Hui Neng, for example, was actually the end result of efforts made in previous lives. Some people prefer to talk about 'grace'. Neither explanation is particularly helpful. The solution lies in the Japanese term 'satori'. Satori is a temporary coming into focus. Previous ways of thinking, eg in the story of the Buddha's Enlightenment, implied that Enlightenment was a permanent coming into focus reached after appropriate efforts had been made. Satori though is perhaps not so uncommon. Satori happens when the attention moves from the objects of attention to the attention itself. Depending on the tendencies of the mind, the attention can either rest there or move back into eager identification with phenomena. The extent to which attention naturally rests with itself is the extent to which one can be described as enlightened. The Buddha's Enlightenment is usually described as perfect Enlightenment. In other words, the Buddha's attention rested naturally in itself. His mind had been purified so his attention was not drawn automatically into identification with the objects of the phenomenal world.

Moving from the conditioned to the Unconditioned

For most of us though, the Enlightenment experience (satori) is like a break in the clouds. The light shines through but the tendencies of the mind soon kick in and the moment of Enlightenment has passed. But the fact is, is that it has happened. A clear feature of this insight is its ultimate nature. There can be nothing beyond it. Satori, therefore, is qualitatively no different from Enlightenment. It is just more short lived. In summary, we have:

Spiritual Paths

-from ordinary consciousness to satori

The question that arises is: How does one move from ordinary consciousness to satori or Enlightenment? In other words how can one move from conditioned experiences to Unconditioned experiencing? According to the literature on the subject there are countless paths and practices which are supposed to lead to Enlightenment or satori (though it can also happen spontaneously). The fact is, though, that all such systems and methods can be no more than sophisticated elaborations of the cognitive process. The attention is caught up in the emotions, notions and concepts of the particular system and so is just as much identified with phenomena as ordinary consciousness. The danger of such systems is that in the belief that one is working towards liberation - Enlightenment - one is actually entrenching oneself in ordinary consciousness. Such systems might produce rarefied states of consciousness - the mystical - but the spiritual is not about different states of consciousness; it is about consciousness, pure and simple. Subtle, mystical states of consciousness produce their own sticky attachments and are no closer to the spiritual than ordinary consciousness. When ordinary consciousness takes it upon itself to look for liberation then it can do no more than grope in the dark. Whilst groping in the dark satori might happen or the seeker might find themself going round in circles in some corner somewhere. For ordinary consciousness, the spiritual path can be no more than groping in the dark. Satori might happen or it might not.

- more frequent satori

When satori happens, the light is switched on. Everything falls into place and no more spiritual seeking is necessary. It is at this point that the spiritual path, in any meaningful sense, begins. Satori happens. Eventually ordinary consciousness kicks in and the experiencing is forgotten. The attention can be allowed to reflect back on itself (satori) but the tendencies of the mind have their own agenda. The satori experiencing in itself reduces the momentum of the mental tendencies.

This is the purpose of the Tao Te Ching: to direct the reader's attention back on itself. It is like a mirror reminding you of your true nature. The purpose of this commentary is to demonstrate this.

The Translation

LaoTzu coverClick here to go to Amazon UK's site for this book

Apparently the Tao Te Ching has been one of the most frequently translated texts into English. The translation I'm basing this commentary on is by D C Lau and is published in the Penguin Classics series. The edition I have is from 1963, reprinted in 1972. It was the one that happened to be nearest to hand. It seems quite scholarly. The advantage of this is that the author is not particularly concerned with putting across a particular world view in his translation or using the text to convey particular sentiments. Indeed, in the introduction the translator makes a point of casting doubt on any mystical interpretation of the work, regarding the main purpose of the work to be the quite mundane one of "personal survival and political order". Apparently, the Tao Te Ching was mandatory study for civil servants in China so perhaps it can serve a function in this regard. Mr Lau also finds many of the verses not to be in any kind of logical order and regards the work as a compilation of sorts which perhaps casts doubt on the existence of its legendary author, Lao Tzu.

My thesis is that the point of the work is to guide the attention back to itself; to help reinforce satori in those to whom it has already happened. Every chapter can be viewed in this light.

It must be borne in mind that Lao Tzu is writing of extremely subtle things. Traditionally, he is contemporaneous with the Buddha. (D C Lau thinks that the text must have settled into a final form by the third century BC.) The Buddhists developed over hundreds of years an elaborate system of symbols and terms for considering such things. Lao Tzu did not have this language. He used the language of everyday life and of politics to convey what he had to say. He therefore had to say what he had to say in a coded form. When the purpose of the text is appreciated then one has the key to this code in the lock waiting to be turned. The purpose of this commentary is to turn the key.

(Another text which I refer to at times is the translation by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English published by Wildwood House in 1980.)

A further note on my use of the term Satori…

It's been brought to my attention that my definition of satori as a temporary realisation of the absolute perspective is not technically correct. This is probably the case though I doubt that I'm the first to use the term in this way. For example, see : "Satori roughly translates into individual Enlightenment, or a flash of sudden awareness." Philosophy has been described as "the rectification of terms" - by Confucius, I believe. It is extremely important to realise, however, that the Tao Te Ching is not a philosophical work and neither is this commentary. In fact, any conceptual content is irrelevant and is only an unhelpful by-product of the use of words. However, given that I'm using words I've tried to be clear about how I'm using them. Perhaps there is a more technically correct term for what I mean by satori The shades of meaning attached to such terms usually vary from school to school and although I hope that I'm not violating the spirit of the word too much it is not a primary concern with me. Like my use of the words mystical and spiritual, it is not the words themselves that are important but the use to which these words are being put.