Of the Dao That Can Be Spoken

the great leader As a boy growing up amidst the American suburban idyll I knew nothing about China beyond what I gleaned from my storybook about five brave Chinese  brothers.  Together with my best friend Andy I spent countless hours in the backyard digging holes, filling them in and then digging them out again, all as part of scheme to build a network of trenches.  (Usually we fought the Nazis and remained indifferent towards America’s more recent Cold War foes.)  But every time we dug a hole to an unusual depth we would joke about emerging at the other end in China.  In other words, China was a place that literally signified the other side of the earth – utterly foreign – it was the most distant and thereby extravagantly different Other imaginable to us.

Since then I’ve had a chance to gain a deeper and more nuanced understanding of China and Chinese culture.  In my early twenties I lived for 18 months in Taiwan where I learned to speak some Mandarin; I discovered the joys of classical Chinese literature, and learned some about contemporary trends in China, particularly through the brilliant essays of Simon Leys.  Years later, after returning to the US, I began studying Chinese characters so that I could better understand the great Tang poets whose work I had come to know and love in translation. 

the great leader -2But no matter how much I’ve learned about Chinese culture, my initial conception of China, formed in boyhood with a shovel in hand, still strikes me as completely apt.  China is a long way away and it can only be reached by the most diligent of means.  Chinese culture is so vast, with a literary tradition spanning more than 3 millennia, that a thorough going knowledge of Chinese literature requires several lifetimes of digging

The metaphor of digging to the other side of the world is apt in another way to describe (even now) my experience with Chinese culture.  For those of us raised in the western tradition, there is something fundamentally unusual -- and also deeply rewarding -- about how we come to see the world once our heads pop out on the other side.  What an amazing thing it is.  Sometimes it seems just as disorienting as the world Alice encountered when she tumbled down the rabbit hole or fell into the looking glass.  Because finally emerging on the other side we find things to be both familiar and utterly strange; familiar because we find ourselves in the midst of a civilization so highly advanced, sophisticated and based as it is on shared human experiences, our first reaction is that it reminds us of nothing so much as our own.  A love poem is a love poem, after all, whether it’s written by a 9th century Mandarin or a 14th century troubadour.  And yet from the very first encounter we also sense there are fundamental differences in worldview.  Such is the challenge of reaching the antipodes -- we must try to think in terms reciprocal to what has heretofore been customary, employing new neural pathways and at times even thinking in ways contrary to our most fundamental beliefs. 

                                                                                                                             the dao

Let me give you an example of what I mean by familiar and strange or reciprocal thinking.  Take a word and concept that is fundamental to Chinese culture -- the Dao.   This is the Chinese character written above.  Thanks to the more frequent engagement between East and West over the last 100 years, Dao is a term that an educated American is already familiar with, not just from following Wall Street, but as a philosophical concept that has entered into our general lexicon.  You can find the word in the Oxford English Dictionary in fact, or even as an occasional NY Times crossword puzzle clue.  It is sometimes simplified in translation as meaning the Way or Path but more often than not I prefer to leave the word untranslated, in its natural state, as it were, in order to indicate its fundamental importance.  It’s important enough to be a loanword, best understood in its own right instead of derivatively.  

So far so good.  The Dao is a concept familiar to us.  We may even go so far as to recognize it as a term associated with the most sacred of texts.  In the beginning was the Dao is indeed precisely how the Gospel of St. John is presented to a reader in modern Mandarin.  The passage is worth sharing more completely:

约 1:1  太初有道,道与神同在,道就是神。

约 1:1   In the beginning was the Dao, and the Dao was with God together, and just so the Dao was God.

This sounds lovely to my ear – at once both familiar and strange.  Perhaps it’s a bit more on the familiar side (as if we haven’t strayed too far out of the backyard yet) since this is a text that most westerners know so well; it remains recognizable even as we substitute one fundamental term for another, with Dao being inserted in place of Logos in the original text.  If nothing else, this helps us understand just how important the Dao must be to the overall enterprise of Chinese civilization, much as the logos is fundamental to our own.

But lets keep digging a little further.  Instead of considering a religious text that we're already familiar with, let’s take the Dao De Jing -- the classical Chinese text that stands as a rough analog to the Gospels.  This is the opening verse that thunders just as mightily to the ear:

道 可 道
非 常 道
名 可 名
非 常 名

There in the first two lines you can see the same character (道) repeated three times, not always with the same meaning either.  That’s how important the concept is.  And that’s how slippery it is too.  Right there in the first line of text the Dao has changed meaning and furthermore the second line of text may be understood as literally meaning – not always Dao – or as it more often gets translated as – ever changing Dao

The Dao as spoken
Is ever changing
Names once named
Don’t stay the same

Heaven and Earth
Both nameless at birth
Once named gave birth
To ten thousand things

Ever without desire
Behold the intricate beauty
Ever desirous
Remain strictly bounded

Both ways of being
End the same way
Although differently named
Identity speaks of mystery 
Mystery begets more mystery
As it emerges through
The gateway of being

道 可 道
非 常 道
名 可 名
非 常 名

無 名 天 地 始
名 萬 物 母

常 無 欲 觀 其 妙
常 有 欲 觀 其 徼

此 兩 者 同 出 而 異 名
同 謂 之 玄 玄 之 又 玄
眾 妙 之 門

Now I hope you can appreciate what I mean by the strangeness and familiarity to be found in a direct experience of Chinese culture.  At first the Dao seems like a familiar concept – much like Logos or the Word of the New Testament.   But actually, after we consider how the concept is used in the Dao De Jing, we realize that the Dao that can be spoken means something very different from the Word that is coeval to God.   In other words, the Dao De Jing does not present itself as a revelatory text as we have come to expect such things from the Gospels.  From the very outset the Dao points us in the direction of an understanding that is inherently suspicious of speech itself.  In that sense, the Dao might be better understood as a form of inner understanding, very dissimilar to logos, perhaps in some ways antithetical to it, being implicit rather than explicit, the Truth concealed as it passes through the Gateway of Being instead of the Truth as revealed in the Word of God.

Of course, the encounter between East and West is far from a new story.  It began unfolding in the late Middle Ages, when Marco Polo trekked the Silk Route and Matteo Ricci passed through the gates of the Forbidden City, first bringing the wonders of Chinese civilization to the attention of Europe.  But ultimately this is what makes a direct encounter with Chinese culture still vital and worthwhile for those of us raised in a western framework.  If nothing else, stepping into the shoes of the Other we are privileged to take a clearer glance back at ourselves.  And if we journey far enough, we may begin to appreciate the Dao that can be spoken together with the Dao that cannot.


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Thanks and best regards, in the Tang Spirit --

Joe Lamport (formerly known as Lan Hua)
January 2014
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