Monday, December 04, 2006

A. Dao and the Thing

The paradoxical aspect of trying to describe the limitless with limiting words leaves us with interesting linguistic problems. The remainder of chapter 14 is a case in point:

“These three cannot be investigate further, so they merge together to make one. The upper part is not bright; the lower part is not dark. So subtle, it cannot be named, but returns to nothingness. This is called the shape without shape, the image without image. This is called the indistinct: confronting it, one cannot see the head; following it, one cannot see the back. Grasp the ancient Dao to manage present existence. Thus we may know the beginning of the Ancient. This is called the record of the Dao.”

(Translation by Paul Lin A Translation of the Dao De Jing and Wang Bi’s Commentary)

In this passage, there appears the word Chinese word for physical thing ‘wu.’ This word is meant to designate the Dao, which of course is not a thing. We are thus left with the dilemma of trying to describe something transcendent with limiting words. The Han Dynasty commentator Wang Bi explains this passage as:

“If we speak of its non-being, everything comes from it. If we speak of its being, its shape cannot be seen. So it is called the shape without a shape, the image without object.” (Translation by Paul Lin)

While in this chapter we see the Dao described as the ‘shape without a shape’ and the ‘image without object,’ in chapter 25, we run into the term ‘wu’ once more:

“There is a thing formed in chaos, existing before heaven and earth.”

Here again we are faced with describing the Dao as ‘something,’ yet trying not to delimit it to the realm of ‘things.’ Wu Yi says:

“Here the thing (wu) is not a material thing, but rather a description of the basic entity that produces within the universe… ‘chaos’ here is the state of being undivided.” (pages205-206)

In order to understand the completeness of the Dao as explained in this chapter, we need to reflect on what, if anything, in the world can be seen, heard or felt but cannot be divided. Coming up with such a thing is an impossible task. Everything in the world is something that can be divided; so the source of these things has to be something that cannot be divided. This is the complete unity of the Dao. Wang Bi offers this commentary:

“Chaos cannot be known, but all things take shape from it. Therefore it is said to be ‘formed from chaos.’”

(Translation by Paul Lin)

In chapter 21, we run into similar language:

“…The thing that is called Dao is eluding and vague. Vague and eluding, there is in it form. Eluding and vague, in it are things. Deep and obscure, in it is the essence. The essence is very real; in it are evidences…”

(Translation by Wing-tsit Chan)

The Dao is described as elusive and vague, something that cannot be pinpointed and examined in any scientific way. But though the Dao is unnamable, we can deduce its profoundness through the things, essence and evidences it provides. This is also a description of the relationship between the transcendent Dao and the non-transcendent things of the universe, a relationship we will explore further with the Dao and De. While the Dao cannot be described with any sort of limiting language, we still understand it through the clues it leaves in the myriad of creation with which we are familiar.


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