Saturday, April 13, 2013

Laozi, the Dao, and the Daodejing summary

        In addressing the Daodejing's essential claim that the Dao is ultimately ineffable, or beyond description, it first will help to understand what might be meant by 'name.’ This concept of ‘name’ is relied upon in the Daodejing. Basically, to name is to imply a definition. A name is an approximation, or a shortcut to a definition. For example, instead of saying,
“I bought a new object, consisting of a 1 inch thick, 4 foot in diameter circular piece of wood on top, which is attached perpendicularly to four cylindrical pieces of wood of equal length which suspend the circular piece of wood four and a half feet above the ground. This object is useful in the home because items can be placed on it for extended periods of time, my family uses it to eat food off of so we do not have to bend down to the floor, my children place their homework papers upon it and take advantage of the solid flat surface which helps write. This new object came unassembled and it took fifty-three minutes to completely set it up...”
one could take a shortcut and say,
“I bought a new table.”
To the person who is using the shortcut of 'table,' both the former paragraph and the latter sentence have the same meaning. This particular approximation 'table' refers to the particular table the person bought, as it existed at the moment they spoke of it. Only this person has had the exact experience of the 'table' which has been described. Out in the world, the name 'table' could refer to an extremely vast variety of meanings. The word 'table' has properties as a verb (“table the argument”). 'Table' might be a combined definition within the scope of Person A's understanding of all the tables they have ever seen in their life, with a little more meaningful weight placed in the kitchen table Person A eats meals upon every day and an operating table in the room where a loved one died last year. Person B might work in a furniture warehouse, so when thinking of 'table' might associate that it with all the table inventory the store carries. So each name, though it might carry loosely similar meaning to a group of people, implies a different meaning due to the cumulative whole of an individual agent's experience with the name. Furthermore, while still a part of this world, it is not possible for a person to comprehend all of the possible meanings of the name 'table.'
There is a similar difficulty with proper names. At first glance, a proper name refers to one particular thing. Though a person may be referred to as “Sally,” she is still a person who is in constant change. Sally's kindergarten teacher would initially have an idea of her much differently than the idea Sally's college professor initially would have. Many experiences would occur between kindergarten and college, shaping Sally's personality and outward psychological expression. So the name of “Sally,” which refers to a particular person, will be understood differently to different people, depending upon a great multitude of factors. It is not possible to comprehend the entirety of Sally’s being – her likes, her accomplishments, her birth and death, her every moment of emotional expression, every subtle nuance of her existence – by simply hearing her name. Even the inadequate ideas of Sally which her teachers could have of her would be born of experience. This experience of Sally is the key to the creation of the idea to which her representative name refers.
So it could be said that names are short references, or shortcuts, to a portion of a description of a whole thing which is changing at every moment. The Daodejing has much to say about names. A few lines in chapter thirty-two shed some light on the subject.
The Way is forever nameless.
Unhewn wood is insignificant, yet no one in the world can master it...
...When unhewn wood is carved up, then there are names...
...Streams and torrents flow into river and oceans,
Just as the world flows into the Way.
The first line touches on the namelessness of the Dao (“the Dao” is synonymous with “the Way”). This line can be understood, with the next few lines, in such a way that the Dao is not whole when it is described or named. Unhewn wood, or pu, is translated by Ivanhoe and Van Norden as 'simplicity,' and in Chinese symbolism unhewn wood can stand for “anything in its unadulterated natural state.”
Ivanhoe, P.J. & Van Norden, B.W. “The Daodejing,” Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy Using the metaphor here, if the Dao is unhewn wood, then when it is “carved up, then there are names.” Simply put, when the Dao is described, there are names. These names are approximations of the ultimate reality.
The first three lines of chapter one of the Daodejing includes these statements:
A name that can be named is not a constant name.
Nameless, it [the Dao] is the beginning of Heaven and earth;
Named, it is the mother of the myriad creatures.
The Dao is described as constant or ongoing in many parts of the Daodejing.
   To name a few: “ (the Dao) will never run dry,” (Ch. 35), “How expansive is the great Way! Flowing to the left and to the right,” (Ch. 34), “It goes everywhere but is never at a loss,” (Ch. 25),  “Vast and deep! (Ch. 4). So from the first line in chapter one it is possible to conclude that when the Dao is named, a mistake in description is inherently being made, because the Dao is constant, and a name is not. A name is a time-bound definition. A name is an individualized piece. A name has limitation, and something that is limited is not constant. In giving a name, there is an implied limitation, because if everything was everything, then there would be no need or way to tell it apart. The sentence “The door is closed” implies that the door is not open, because the door cannot be both open and closed, as these are opposites. “Closed” is a name that means ‘passage is not possible through it,’ which is the opposite definition of the word “open.” So, a name is dependent upon there existing differences, and this passage of the Daodejing seems to be remarking on the necessity of limitation to naming.
This passage from chapter one, when combined with the passage from chapter thirty-two, places the Dao in the realm of ineffability, utterly beyond description. Chapter thirty-two says, “The Way is forever nameless.” So then the Dao is not namable. But all intellectual description comes down to names. Names are words with a particular meaning. So names are descriptions, and according to the Daodejing, the Dao is nameless. How it possible to adequately describe something, such as the Dao, without naming it?
Critics of the Daodejing might begin with this premise, showing that the Dao cannot be adequately described. Since a description is a thought, they could then say that the Dao cannot be thought about. And if something cannot be thought about, then they could say it cannot be known. Under this argument, it would not make sense for Laozi to know anything at all about the Dao, rendering the Daodejing’s poetic philosophy mortally wounded.
Laozi might respond by asking, “Why must thinking be a requirement of knowing? Knowing is more than thinking – it comes from an experience. One could have an experience without making a judgment about it. To live in such a way would be simply letting life be what it is.” Laozi could then refer to chapter fifty-six of the Daodejing.
Those who know do not talk about it; Those who talk about it do not know.
Laozi could assert here that to talk at all implies there is much naming occurring. It is not possible to talk without making some sort of description. This is an attempt to define the Dao, which defeats the purpose of it. One must embody the Dao, not chase after it or attempt to emulate it.
 Ch. 16 describes the Dao as something embodied: “To be Heavenly is to embody the Way. To embody the Way is to be long lived...” To embody is to become in one's body. Perhaps one can be with the Dao. Also, Ch. 1 states: “A Way that can be followed is not a constant Way.” If the true Dao cannot be followed, it makes sense to be or flow with it. Any experience can only be approximated by names, and the Dao exists in such the same way, but on a grander scale. He could conclude his rebuttal with this example:
A mother could spend hours explaining what the incredible love she has for her child feels like. She could give a very informative outline of parental love. But until a person experiences this type of love, it cannot be fully known. Ask any parent how their view of parental love changed after they had a child. The Dao is the same way. One could philosophize about it's greatness for eighty-one chapters, creating a great outline of what the Dao is like and ways to flow with it. But simply studying eighty-one chapters will not create the life of a Daoist sage. The application, the living, is what matters. Describing life as a sage is not the same as living life as a sage. It is not possible to impart something as complex as experience unto a person. Real experience is beyond description. Naming is a shortcut.
In chapter 53: “The great Way is smooth and easy; Yet people love to take shortcuts!”

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