“What is Tao? It is the question we dare not answer. To avoid the foolishness of giving an answer, we have grown accustomed to non answers: if you answer, it’s not an answer. Perhaps the best known line of the Tao The Ching concerns just this:
The Tao that can be told is not the Eternal Tao; the name that can be named is not the eternal name
The fashionable side of Tao all began with Gotama Buddha when he held up the flower and smiled. Mahakasyapa got it. Not the flower per se, but the answer.
How did Kasyapa get the answer? He got the answer because there was no question. They say this flower was the seed of Zen, yet had Lao Tzu written the script? No question, a definitive non-answer and wise Kasyapa making sense of anything at all. In Zen, in Tao, nothing is taken literally. Zen and Tao methodology is to defeat the literal, the rational, not exercise it. To proclaim Lao Tzu wrote anything at all, let alone a script for the buddha is to enter into names and forms. The only fact is that Gotama gave some thing to Kasyapa that he already had. Whatever he had, whatever he was given, he smiled.
So Tao is Zen? Keep asking. As the Japanese say Matsukaze- “the wind in the pine trees.” That’s a Zen answer, no answer to the literal or the rational, an answer of the heart, for the clear mind. The Taoist might find the answer in the flow of the river. Watch it and listen to it. Sing to it. Talk to it. Eventually, the answer arrives.
Why was Lao Tzu such a tease? “You’re invited to sample the Tao, inestimable, incredible, supremely healing, astonishingly natural and the governor of all things. Check it out, but don’t ask what it is. And if you ask, don’t expect any answers. And if you get answers, don’t believe them. And if you notice you are believing an answer, don’t believe it for long.”
Lao Tzu was not a business man, although many who have claimed to be his followers have taken up the cause because there is no answer, any answer might apply. Authentically, honestly, we can’t begin to answer unless we know the answer and that it cannot transmit an answer to another person just through words and reason. No wonder they say he didn’t exist. Offering a product without a description. Well, at least he named it. Tao. If that’s enough to whet your appetite then you are already a Taoist.
If you wonder about the Tao, that is the beginning of the road to satisfaction. We wonder and question because that is what mind does. Constantly asking internally or out aloud, always commenting on this or that, approving and disapproving. The monkey mind of the human is overbearing and ceaseless. We listen to it, we believe it and we persuade others of the value of what we think. Taoists don’t start revolutions. The Tao The Ching was Lao Tzu’s gift to seekers of unconditioned freedom. Simple and poetic, it nevertheless belies the precision and clarity needed to truly make the no-sense that accompanies awakening.
If Lao Tzu were caught leaving the Chinese Imperial Library for the mountain refuge today, he would probably have been forced to open his own Facebook account so he could share his wisdom. In the days of the Ancient One, before making off to the mountains he delivered a book. A famously beautiful and intricate blend of Chinese culture, politics and tradition that points at timeless wisdom and the interconnectedness of all things.
A sign of Lao Tzu’s timeless foresight is that the Tao Teh Ching speaks to all cultures.
It is a sign of the remarkable appeal of the old librarian that his scribbled words are so well known the world over and in countless languages and translations. While the Buddha gave 84,000 definitive teachings to reflect the different propensities of individual seekers, Lao Tzu gave just 81 gentle verses. We all love Tao because we can’t say what it is. We all love Tao because we get a sense of the Lao Tzu’s teasing nature. We love Tao because in any of those verses we might find the key to the Buddha’s teachings or any of the Zen koans that have teased the mind of zen monks and students for so many centuries.
Letting go of our self importance-our belief in our thoughts and ideas, there is a chance to enter the Tao. And then we smile. And then we see the flower. And then we see the seed. And then we see all of it and none of it. And then we just stop. And having stopped, we write. You are the border guard, I am the librarian. I’ve been trying to get out of the imperial capital for millennia, but I keep getting answers in my head to what is the Tao…so I’m still here. Simply satisfied with the sound of the river and trying to write a sound of water flowing.
All Lao Tzu did was invite us to a dance that we are already a part of. I’ll meet you in the celestial ballroom, then we can talk about what is Tao.