The Tao is said to be many things. Among such are emptiness, nothingness, spirit, the way, unity, dung and so on and so forth. If you have a clear idea of what the Tao is, then either you are a sage or more understanding need be had by you. Perhaps the Tao can be approximated from infinitely many distinctions, but that directly contradicts the idea of the Tao. For now, let’s define it simply as The Way. In our Taoist musings, we made reference to some God Tao; this is a mistaken (and satirical) view, but it needs clarifying how the Tao clearly relates to us and everything around us.
The Sage and the Tao
I had to re-read Chapter 2 of the Zhuangzi, the chapter of making all things equal, which most explicitly deals with our subject matter, so that I could remind myself of what Zhuangzi writes about the Tao. So with this fresh reminder, let’s start with the clear example of how the Tao relates to the sage.
Chapter 1, the chapter of free and easy wandering relates the tale of the unfathomably great fish Kun transforming into the bird Peng who was of the same greatness. Then, Peng flew south with the wind under him. This wind can be thought of as The Way, and Peng can be thought of as a sage. From this story, it’s clear that The Way is what allows the sage to become the sage and continue to be the sage.
So how does that explain the following passage in Chapter 2?
“Joy, anger, grief, delight, worry, regret, fickleness, inflexibility, modesty, willfulness, candor, insolence – music from empty holes, mushrooms springing up in dampness, day and night replacing each other before us, and no one knows where they sprout from. Let it be! Let it be! [It is enough that] morning and evening we have them, and they are the means by which we live. Without them we would not exist; without us they would have nothing to take hold of. This comes close to the matter. But I do not know what makes them the way they are. It would seem as though they have some True Master, and yet I find no trace of him. He can act – that is certain. Yet I cannot see his form. He has identity but no form.” (Zhuangzi. trans. Burton Watson)
The Tao and Things
At face-value, I may understand that the Tao is personified as acting as the master of all things and that the Tao may be indeed some God. But it is very likely that Zhuangzi wrote this passage for a rhetorical effect, emphasizing the relationship between things and the Tao. Before this passage, Zhuangzi made reference to the Tao blowing over hollows so that they all make one sound such that each one can be heard, so I take it that those feelings at the beginning are just some of the hollows being heard. The hollows can be thought of as all of nature, given its distinctions, and the wind as the Tao. Given that the united sound of such hollows are produced by the wind, which is to say that the united sound is the unity of the Tao, it can therefore be understood that the Tao establishes the unity in things but man focuses on the parts instead of the whole of nature.
Understanding Notions of Tao
[Insert image of Dung…]
So then what do we make of expressions such as the Tao is in dung or the Tao collects in one’s emptiness or that the sage follows The Way? All of these have a unifying aspect of referring to spirit, which is to say that the Tao is related to the nature of things. (Spirit and the mind are closely related, but the spirit is more metaphysical and it entails the mind.) To form a coherency among these expressions, I think that the most consistent notion of the Tao’s relation to the nature or spirit of things is best thought of as: The constancy of one’s nature gives the capacity for the presentness of the Tao. Think of the movement of a body of water as a non-constant spirit; once it settles, constancy is established which allows for the harmonious action between man and nature, the establishment of the unity of all things, the following of the Tao (all three of these are the same). The Way is followed only if one establishes constancy of mind. Emptiness of mind is achieved (through nondistinction and wu wei), as opposed to fullness of mind (infinite distinction), only if a constant spirit is established; in other words, if virtue is established, heaven then forms. (Note that the terms virtue and heaven take on different meanings in the translated text of Zhuangzi.) If there’s a constancy in spirit (such is the case for the dung), then one can realize the unity of things, as part of the unity itself. I take it that this is what Zhuangzi means when he says that the Tao “gathers” in the emptiness of the sage’s spirit.
I know that this might be a dense post, but it’s this density that serves the purpose of my not restricting these ideas into too narrow an understanding. In our earlier posts, we said that the Tao is very difficult to talk about and that we’ll refrain from talking about it. Those remarks will still stand, though it doesn’t necessarily mean that discussion on the Tao is off limits. As such, this post will be an exception to our self-imposed rule. If something is confusing or you have some input, then please consider commenting, as this will help everyone understand better. If you like these types of posts, consider following Tao Practiced.