Friday, April 22, 2005

Encounter With Mystery (essay I wrote yesterday for my Comparative Religions class)

There is a thing confusedly formed,
Born before heaven and earth.
Silent and void
It stands alone and does not change,
Goes round and does not weary.
It is capable of being the mother of the world.
I know not its name
So I style it “the way.”
I give it the makeshift name of “the great.”
—Lao-tzu (Fisher and Bailey 166-7)

Lao-tzu is traditionally believed to have founded Taoism in the sixth century BCE. He served as the royal library’s curator during the Chou dynasty and according to legend he dictated Taoism’s central text, the Tao-te Ching, to a border guard as he was renouncing society to live in the mountains. The Tao-te Ching’s terse philosophical teachings, including the verse quoted above, consistently project “a mystical reality that cannot be grasped by the mind” (Fisher 191).

We call this “mystical reality” Taoism, for tao traditionally means “the way”; but even Lao-tzu refers to “the way” as an imperfect designation for “the mysterious Unnamable” (Fisher 192). One critic notes that “[Lao-tzu’s] mysticism actually had no name until scholars labeled it Taoism” (Fisher and Bailey 164). Ironically, then, the name of the faith itself is derived from this fundamentally unnamable “thing confusedly formed”—this tao. While tao has been made finite and given designation to become the basis of Taoism, “at the heart of Taoist teachings is…the ‘unnamable,’ the ‘eternally real’” (Fisher 191).

The Tao-te Ching verse excerpted above is an elegant, if vague, description of the inexplicable genesis and dualistic existence of an Absolute; unable to name it, Lao-tzu “style[s] it ‘the way’”—tao. In illustrating tao’s mystical nature, the verse subtly but purposefully demonstrates why tao cannot be truly named: “Silent and void,” its essential meaning eludes linguists as deftly as it does worshipers.


A paradox seems to emerge: how can an apparently strong religion have basis in something so indistinct, something that lacks not only substance and explanation but even a true name? Upon closer consideration, however, it becomes apparent that for all the primary texts and secondary analyses of Taoism, the faith is in fact most accurately—and strikingly— encapsulated by the obscure nature of tao. I am tempted to turn to one critic’s assertion that “religious Taoism itself is often an amalgam” (Fisher 190), but such an explanation, however neat, begins to disintegrate when one considers that “in the Tao, all things are one, no matter how separate they may appear on the surface” (Fisher and Bailey 164). The key, however, lies not in the singularity of tao but in its mutability. “The name that can be named / is not the constant name” (Fisher and Bailey 165), writes the erudite Lao-tzu, “[for] the nameless…[and] the named…these two are the same / but diverge in name as they issue forth. / Being the same they are called mysteries, / mystery upon mystery” (Fisher and Bailey 165).

More explicitly, Taoism has two opposite but not necessarily opposing bases that together illuminate worshipers (much like the contrasting but complementary elements of yin and yang): that which “does not change” and that which “goes round and does not weary,” the namable and the unnamable, the personal mother and the ultimate being comparable perhaps to the forceful father deities of other religions. “The named [element] was the mother of the myriad creatures” (Fisher and Bailey 165); the passage itself also describes the tao as “capable of being the mother of the world.” Just so, human worshipers focus on the finite aspect of Taoism, even naming its essential, ostensibly unnamable belief. This element is the steadfast, namable “mother” that comforts and aids her children, the worshipers. In contrast, “The nameless [element] was the beginning of heaven and earth” (Fisher and Bailey 165). Worshipers cannot grasp the infinite nature of an Absolute “born before heaven and earth,” an element as omnipotent and inexplicable as a father is to his young child. Yet for all its overarching significance and centrality to Taoist belief, the elusive nameless force is not central to tangible Taoist worship or discernible explanation. Rather, Taoists address this element indirectly by “giv[ing] it a makeshift name”—and even the Tao-te Ching seeks to illuminate the tao through anything but direct explanation.

Although the dual nature of tao allows Taoists to primarily worship a comfortably realized concept, the unnamable, mystical tao nevertheless remains the ultimate focus of the religion. This grand, abstract, and vital element of Taoism inspires in its worshipers the same awe as monotheists associate with their God; in fact, “the Absolute Tao” (Fisher 191) is perhaps more awe- and fear-inspiring, for it lacks the partial anthropomorphism of the Judeo-Christian God.

Taoists look to the namable aspect of the Absolute to make worship more concrete, but the unnamable aspect inspires the awe and mysticism at the core of Taoist belief. The tao is ineffable yet essential, nameless yet identified, at once encompassing all Taoist beliefs and none. “The change is constant,” writes Al Chung-liang Huang; “the constant is change.” (Fisher and Bailey 180).


The mysticism of Taoism is both fearsome and alluring to me. Its ideology is great and its teachings powerful, yet I cannot comprehend it; and humans naturally fear that which they do not understand. In contrast, however, its exotic position in relation to my own religion and—to dig up an old phrase—its sense of “Mysterium Tremendum” are captivating qualities to me as one who has learned much of the surface terms and knowledge associated with Taoism but little of the actual pith. And who am I to evaluate such mystery when I have never experienced it myself?

My own experience with religion revolves around my Catholic upbringing; in contrast to Taoism’s delicate treatment of and evasiveness in naming its ultimate being, Catholicism goes so far as to equate God’s name with God himself. In the Bible, a house of worship is “a house unto the name of the Lord my God” (King James Bible 688) and devout David, praying, speaks to “our God,” saying, “we thank thee, and praise thy glorious name” (Bible 698). This Christian God, identified and even worshiped by his name, diverges greatly from the Taoist Absolute, of which even Lao-tzu “know[s] not its name.” Yet, be the name omnipresent or nonexistent, it ultimately holds the same mystical significance in both faiths: if the name is the key to understanding or coming closer to the Absolute, then this closeness to the ultimate being is for Taoists much more elusive than it is for Christians.

In other religions, too, the name—or more especially, the namelessness—of God is of vital importance. Earlier we learned that the “333 million deities in India…[symbolize] that the divine has countless faces” (Fisher 79). The Islamic god Allah famously has 99 names oft-repeated by worshipers. In the sacred Hebrew language of Judaism, God’s true name “is considered too sacred to be pronounced…it is rendered only in consonants as YHWH” (Fisher 239). And one of the essential Ten Commandments of both Christianity and Judaism states that “the Lord will not leave unpunished the man who misuses his name” (Fisher 240). Religions quite different from Taoism, then, also address the holiness, danger, and uncertainty associated with the sacred name (or names) of the Absolute. The mysticism of namelessness in Taoism, which at first seems so alien, is in fact an ageless and potent element of religious worship.


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