Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Value of Words

As for the Way, the Way that can be spoken of is not the constant Way;
As for names, the name that can be named is not the constant name.
The nameless is the beginning of the ten thousand things;
The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.

Therefore, those constantly without desires, by this means will perceive its subtlety.
Those constantly with desires, by this means will see only that which they yearn for and seek.

These two together emerge;
They have different names yet they're called the same;
That which is even more profound than the profound -
The gateway of all subtleties.

- Tao Te Ching #1 - Robert G. Henricks translation


Words are limited... and limiting. The Divine or God or the Way is without limitations. The name that can be named is not the constant name.

We are unable in our limited linguistic capabilities to truly express our experience... especially when it comes to the more subtle things of life such as belief or faith. We try. We try hard but it cannot be done.

The Gospel according to John begins with a wonderful piece of writing:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

A few verses down it says further:

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us...full of grace and truth.

Why? Why was the word made flesh? The simple answer is that the Word could not be spoken. It had to be experienced. It has to be lived. Language is limited. In my struggles to make sense of my Christian upbringing I have never been able to completely accept the idea of Jesus of Nazareth as the "only son of God." However, "the word made flesh" has been one that has spoken to me and opened up the possibility of reconciliation between my own doubt filled beliefs and those that are generally held by mainstream Christian religions. The idea of the word of God represented in the life, actions, and being of a living, breathing creature is not one that I find the need to struggle with.

The Bible is a rich book full of wonder. It must be experienced. For this reason so much of it is written in parable, allegory, and life experience. It was written by the hand of man in man's language. Man's limited language could not, cannot capture the essence of the divine way. Only an approximation. It has been translated and retranslated. The literalist interpretation is not the way. What is not the way soon parishes.

The Way that can be spoken is not the true way. This is an important concept for me to understand. It frees me from that search for the "one true way" or the holy scripture that contains all the answers and is the be all, end all. The "true way" cannot be captured in words. It can be pointed to and hinted at but the moment words are used to describe it they fail to contain it due to their own limitations and the limitlessness of the Way. The finger that points at the moon is not the moon.

Apparently this is an important concept to wrap our minds around. A later chapter of Tao Te Ching contains these words:

Who knows doesn't talk.
Who talks doesn't know.

Following up on the idea that words cannot be made to frame the truth of the Way it becomes clear that one who has found the way is wise enough to know that they could not possibly contain it with mere words.

Another Taoist writer, Chuang Tzu, wrote a story called…

"Duke Hwan and the Wheelwright"

"The world values books, and thinks that in so doing it is valuing Tao. But books contain words only. And yet there is something else which gives value to the books. Not the words only, nor the thought in the words, but something else within the thought, swinging it in a certain direction that words cannot apprehend. But it is the words themselves that the world values when it commits them to books: and though the world values them, these words are worthless as long as that which gives them value is not held in honor.

"That which man apprehends by observation is only outward form and color, name and noise: and he thinks that this will put him in possession of Tao. Form and color, name and sound, do not reach to reality. That is why: "He who knows does not say, he who says, does not know." (Tao Te Ching #56)

"How then is the world going to know Tao through words?

"Duke Hwan of Khi,
First in his dynasty,
Sat under his canopy
Reading his philosophy;
And Phien the wheelwright
Was out in the yard
Making a wheel.
Phien laid aside
Hammer and chisel,
Climbed the steps,
And said to Duke Hwan:
"May I ask you, Lord,
What is this you are
Reading?"

"The Duke said:
"The experts, The authorities."
And Phien asked:"Alive or dead?"
"Dead a long time.""Then," said the wheelwright,
"You are reading only
The dirt they left behind."
Then the Duke replied:
"What do you know about it?"
You are only a wheelwright.
You had better give me a good explanation
Or else you must die."
The wheelwright said:
"Let us look at the affair
From my point of view.

When I make wheels
If I go easy, they fall apart,
If I am too rough, they do not fit.
If I am neither too easy nor too violent
They come out right. The work is what
I want it to be.
You cannot put this into words:
You just have to know how it is.
I cannot even tell my own son exactly how it is done,
And my own son cannot learn it from me.
So here I am, seventy years old,
Still making wheels!
The men of old
Took all they really knew
With them to the grave.
And so, Lord, what you are reading there
Is only the dirt they left behind them."
The Way of Chuang Tzu – Thomas Merton

And here again is freedom from the idea of holy scriptures that contain the whole truth. Even this story itself is but the dirt the wise old Chinese sages left behind them. Does it contain what they really knew? No. But it does point in the general direction for us to search in ourselves.

So while I don’t claim to follow all of this I do get the impression that the words we speak are important but that they do not contain the whole truth. A Taoist friend of mine that has been helping me to find my way through these writings has made the point that he cannot tell another person the truth or describe the Way. All he is capable of doing with words is to point in the general direction of where he has found it for himself.

As I transcribed the story of Duke Hwan and the Wheelwright I thought of my own father, an Episcopal priest and deeply religious man. Like the master wheelwright he has not been able to transfer to me what he so deeply believes. Nor has my mother who was raised as a Quaker. Her depth and strength of character was apparent to me as a real and tangible thing. It is something I believe she did pass on to me to some degree but the understanding of what she felt and believed has escaped me. Certainly as a child I learned morality and the specifics of Christian beliefs but I have always felt like I was missing something. Try as I might, I just didn’t get it. On the other hand, as I think this over, perhaps this whole spiritual journey I am on is a result of the teachings my parents passed on to me and that sense of something missing. It is certainly that something I have been searching for these past few years.

I have just finished reading a book by a now retired Bishop of the Episcopal Church (that of my youth). His thoughts are very radical for that particular body. But in it, in his opening pages he says, "The God I know is not concrete or specific. This God is rather shrouded in mystery, wonder, and awe. The deeper I journey into this divine presence, the less any literalized phrases, including the phrases of the Christian creed, seem relevant. The God I know can only be pointed to; this God can never be enclosed by propositional statements." – Why Christianity Must Change or Die by John Shelby Spong.

Words and definition, naming, it is the mother of the ten thousand things. Division and interpretation. Desire and opinion. Right and wrong, good and bad, the dualities of the human mind. Name a thing and it is limited to that definition. It has been cut and set apart by description, by naming. The Tao Te Ching speaks in other places of the "uncarved block." All possibilities exist and limitations have not been placed on it.

To experience the divine in ones life is grace. Without words or description, limitation or definition... It is the word, the constant way, the nameless. The uncarved block. The beginning of all things.

No comments: