#50; Taoism; The Religion that Can’t be Named


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 “The Tao can not be named.  You see!  You just can’t name it.  Says so right there!” he said while lifting his glasses toward his forehead and squinting his eyes to read the passage. 

For prayer #50, I experienced the simple beauty of the Tao.  The group meets in the Unitarian Universalist church on Blanton Avenue the 1st, 3rd and 5th Tuesday of the month at 6:30pm.  The nearer I got to the end of this project, the more arm muscling I required to cross the finish line.  Needing some motivation, I dragged a friend of mine with me to the meeting.  Mark had studied the Tao a bit in college but I’m not sure he expected to find himself in a group like this after all these years.

We got there a few minutes early hoping to scope out the area where the meeting would be held.  At exactly 6:30 on the dot, the double doors opened and in came Blanch and Henry, neither could have been a day under 80.  Henry, pushing his walker across the grey thin carpet, wore a grape colored turtleneck with a lavender sweater overtop.  He had an impressive thick pelt of hair and it appeared his eye glasses were color coordinated with the rest of his purple ensemble. “Well hello, I’m Henry.  You’re both new.  Isn’t that wonderful?  What are your names?” he asked.  Mark and I both shook Henry and Blanc’s hands while introducing ourselves. 

“So nice to meet you both.  So, Dan and Jennifer are your names.  Got it!” he said rather proud of his sharp memory. 

“Actually, it’s Mark.” Mark said gently reminding him.  “And Jessica.” I said while offering a sympathetic smile.

”Of course, of course.  Stan and Rebecca; got it.  What a pleasure to have you both.  Thanks for being here.”

Mark and I shared a sheepish smile and made our way toward the conference room table where we’d be studying.

“Well, looks like it’s just us.”  Blanch said while shrugging her shoulders.  “We usually have a good 7 people with us, but with the holidays and all, I assume people are just out.”

We assured them both the group size wasn’t a problem.  We welcomed the intimate learning environment.  Mark pulled out his marked copy of the Tao he had held onto since college.  Henry offered to let me borrow an extra copy he brought with him, and then the 4 of us gathered around the table and opened up the sacred book of the Tao De Cheng. 

After a few minutes of brief introductions, Blanch kicked off the study by asking, “So, shall we open the books?” 

“Yes.  Yes, of course.  What the hell?”  Henry said.   Henry asked if Mark wouldn’t mind reading the first chapter since he had a different version of the Tao than the rest of us.  He began.

The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name
The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth
The named is the mother of myriad things

 “Ah…..” Blanche sighed a bit and gave us a look like she’d just discovered something very important in the text.  “You see?” She said.

I looked over at Mark out the corner of my eye.  ‘See what’?  I asked myself.

“The Tao can not be named.  It is nameless.  If you name it, it’s not the Tao anymore.” Henry leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms, quite proud of his interpretation of the verse.

“Is the Tao God?”  Mark asked curiously. 

“Yes, kind of.  But you can’t name it.  It’s bigger than that.”  Henry answered.

“Yes, much bigger” Blanch agreed.

I could feel my brain start to smoke a bit. 

“The Tao says there are 10,000 things.  And these things are manifestations, they can be named.  Oh but the Tao, no it can not.”  Blanch said.

“Deep.” I mumbled under my breath.

Henry explained to us that the Tao is what you think it is.  So if you think the Tao is something different, than it is.  It’s whatever it means for you.

Mark asked, “So does this Tao have a personality?”

“Absolutely not.  No personality” Henry seemed proof positive on this one fact.

“Shall we read another?” Blanch asked.

“Yes, yes.  Another.” Henry replied. Before opening our books up to another chapter, Mark probed a bit into their practice.

“So how long have you two been studying Taoism?”

“I’ve been a Tao practitioner for 10 years.” Henry answered.

“Just four for me.  But I come every Tuesday that we have it.  The Tao is really profound” said Blanch.

“Who wrote the Tao?”  Both Henry and Blanche looked at each other blankly.  “Who wrote it?” Blanch repeated the question in an obvious attempt to stall.  They both started to flip to the front of their books to search for an answer.

After finding the Tao’s author in the introduction, Blanch read, “Lao-tzu, but you know, he might not have actually written it.  But he’s who they say wrote it.  So…you know,   that’s not who we say, but that’s what it says, so.”

Okay, note to self, we don’t know who wrote the Tao. 

“Shall we read another chapter?” Blanche said.  A curious Mark threw out another question, “What do the words in the Title of this sacred book mean?  I mean, we know the Tao is unnamed.”  He smiled from ear to ear, and kicked me under the table.  “But what about the ‘DE CHING’ part?”

There was that blank look again.  Blanche then repeated the question.  “The De Ching?  What does the De Ching mean?  That’s the question….yes.”  They thumbed through the introduction again searching for an answer.  I couldn’t help thinking to myself, between the two of them, they have 14 years studying this 90 page book and no one knows what the title means or who wrote it….I find that fascinating.

I located the answer quicker than they did so I figured I’d lend them a hand.  “The Book of the Way and the Power” I said. 

“Yes.  Yes!” Henry exclaimed.  “That’s it!  That’s what it means!  Beautiful, right?  The Book of the Way and Power.  Yes, that’s what it means.”

“Shall we read another chapter?”  Blanche was clearly ready for Mark’s 20 questions to come to an end. 

“Let’s do” Henry continued.  “Here’s one of my favorites, and it’s the next one in Chapter 2.  I’ll read my version.”

When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.

“Isn’t that great?”  He said while smiling.  Mark and I both nodded.

“I have a question.” I said while looking down curiously at the stanza.  It suggests here that we shouldn’t label “good” because then there’s “bad”.  But some things are bad, right?  Is this suggesting that there’s no such thing as bad then?”

Both Blanche and Henry nodded that I was correct in my assumption.  “Nothing in the world is bad.”  Henry said.

”Nothing?” I asked again, clearly skeptical. 

“Nothing.” He confirmed that I had understood correctly. We spent the next few moments silently sitting around the table staring at one another.  I was in disbelief. I wanted to throw out the words ‘Child Molestation’ and see how they would try and maneuver their way out of that one not being “bad” but I thought it a bit abrasive. 

Luckily, before I had the chance to make everyone squirm in their seats, Mark picked up on my energy and communicated what I was thinking a bit more tactfully, “So….let’s say Malaria.  Malaria isn’t bad?”

Blanch chimed in.  “Disease is bad.  Malaria is definitely bad.”   

“NO!” Henry said emphatically.  “No, I will not call Malaria bad.” 

“How about the Holocaust?”  It was almost as if Mark had that question prepared prior to the start of this conversation by the way it flew out of his mouth.

“Yes.  The Holocaust was certainly bad” Blanch said. 

“No, No Blanche.  The Holocaust was not bad.  Things happened that I would hope wouldn’t, but no, it wasn’t a bad thing.” He said.

We all sat there looking at Henry as if he had three heads.  A previously timid Blanch started to find her voice.  “Sorry, Henry.  The Holocaust and Malaria are bad.  They’re terrible actually and to say otherwise just makes no sense.  Absolutely no sense.  They’re bad, horribly, terribly bad.”

Henry spent the next 5 minutes trying to convince us that something awful was not to be labeled that way.  We finally agreed to disagree and moved on to chapter 29.

Do you want to improve the world?
I don't think it can be done.

The world is sacred.
It can't be improved.
If you tamper with it, you'll ruin it.
If you treat it like an object, you'll lose it.

“Interesting.”  I said.  “The Tao says here that the world can’t be improved.  But it can be lost, and wrecked.  So you can tamper with the world, you can lose the world, you can ruin the world, but don’t you dare ever try to improve it?  Hmmm….” 

I could see from my peripheral Marks’ chair vibrate as he fought of the urge to burst into laughter.  I looked down at my lap in a desperate attempt to compose myself. 

“You know, Jennifer, that’s what’s so interesting about the Tao.  Many times I don’t agree with it.  Many times I don’t understand it.  But it’s been around for a long time so it must be true.  Hell it must!”  He said passionately.

Not to mention you can’t name it, you know nothing about who wrote it and you have no idea what the title of the book means.  Pretty profound stuff.  I said to myself sarcastically.

It was about that time that I looked up at the clock that hung high on the wall and realized it was almost time to go.

I like batting around philosophical ideas so even though my experience was a bit silly, I will definitely make my way to another Tao group again.      

Some things I found interesting about the Tao....

Unfortunately, the interesting things I discovered about the Tao can not be named.




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  • Tim

    Tim December 25, 2010

    The newcomers that can’t be named. I like that. I love the Tao and read it from time to time when the mood hits. It helped immensely with my recovery from alcoholism. 

    I would love more than anything to have an audio tape of Yogi Berra reading the Tao.

    Great blog! Been following for awhile.


  • Dave VT

    Dave VT December 25, 2010

    “Deep.” I mumbled under my breath.

  • Judy

    Judy December 25, 2010

    Jessica - I loved this.  Especially your ending!

  • Scott

    Scott December 27, 2010

    ...sounds like an Amway presentation…

  • Jessica

    Jessica December 28, 2010

    Hi Tim,

    Nice to “meet” you. The book itself seemed intriguing.  I poked fun at the whole “it can’t be named” thing, but funny enough, I actually understand why “it” can’t be named.  In my post “Trucker Ministries” I even talk about “it” by saying that I experienced something powerful that words failed to portray.  I think that’s what can’t be named because naming it doesn’t do it any justice:) This experience was too funny though. I still giggle when I think about it. Whew.

    Scott-speaking of Amway—prayer #51, really WAS AN AMWAY PRESENTATION.

  • Zee

    Zee December 30, 2010

    the interesting things I discovered about the Tao can not be named. - hilarious :D

    yeah… when the person doesn’t know who wrote the book and what the name means, it can cast certain doubts regarding the credibility…

    p.s. as you can see, i finally found time to go back in time and read the posts here smile tee hee :D

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