Darkness Within Darkness

June 17, 2009 by  
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The tao that can be told

Is not the eternal Tao.

The name that can be named

Is not the eternal Name.

The unnamable is the eternally real.

Naming is the origin of all particular things.

Free from desire, you realize the mystery.

Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

Yet mystery and manifestations arise from the same source.

This source is called darkness.

Darkness within darkness.

The gateway to all understanding. 

          – Lao Tzu (571? – ? B.C.E.)

In this poetic reflection on the Tao, written over 2500 years ago, Lao Tzu addresses matters of ultimate reality, and aspects of the human condition that are essentially unchanging. Of course, the particulars of human life have changed dramatically over the course of the past 2500 years; advances in technology, a scientific framework of understanding, as well as many societal customs, comprise circumstances that differ greatly from those of Lao Tzu’s era. One major difference, pertaining to the theme of this poem, involves the degree of connection that the average person experiences between the natural world and daily life. In Lao Tzu’s age, nature was not perceived in the abstract, as a domain that existed “somewhere out there”, at a safe remove from one’s living room. There were no towering cityscapes to obscure the limitless expanses of the natural world from view. It was the sphere within which the whole of human life unfolded, from birth to death. Connection to the living earth, to its creatures, and its forces of climate and weather, was viscerally felt; these were the immediate determinants of experience that gave the world its shape.

Similarly, the Tao of which Lao Tzu speaks does not refer to an abstract concept, a comforting notion that bestows harmony upon the world. Rather, this Tao is discerned in the encounter with the physical world that surrounds and dwarfs human beings – and the cosmos beyond it, that dwarfs everything else. It is in directly confronting this natural vastness that the mind is overwhelmed by a sense of incomprehensibility, by the appearance of inexplicable questions that seem to reverberate through all existence. Such questions bring a sweet metaphysical ache to the mind that has been transfixed by them. They take the form of koans such as “How can any of this be?” This poem is Lao Tzu’s response.

“Free from desire, you realize the mystery. / Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations”, writes Lao Tzu; that is, we see with a limited view, aware only of the phenomena that our senses take in and convey to the mind. Caught in the grasp of gnawing desires we are distracted, in a state of disharmony that leaves us unable to perceive the presence of “mystery”, the essential reality that inhabits all things. This essence, “the eternal Tao” and its recognition or discovery amidst the world, are the central themes that shine across this poetic statement.

How is it that desire can place such blinders upon the mind, obscuring awareness of the awe-inspiring and mysterious Tao that Lao Tzu understands to be at the heart of all things? How do the habitual longings that dwell in our minds, alter our daily encounter with the world, negating the sensibility of wonder that Lao Tzu tells us would otherwise be present. It is the nature of desire to demand attention, to siphon and divert it from the encounter with present reality. Its binding power generates a mental state that is narrowly focused upon the objects of desire that do not appear in the current picture of the world – the stuff of greener grass and bluer skies. A mind so enthralled is intent upon altering this picture to accord with the images of its imagination and dreams, notions toward which the universe is generally indifferent.

The tendency to wish for certain conditions to be otherwise is the definition of dissatisfaction, or Dukkha as it is referred to in the Buddhist tradition. It is regarded as the central dilemma of human life, depriving us of happiness, rendering us unable to perceive the mysterious fullness and abundance that surrounds us. It is in proportion to the intensity of the forces of our own cravings, of our hankerings and yens, that Dukkha enters and dominates experience. This is the mental ballast we schlep on the path to enlightened experience. I believe it was also Lao Tzu, (or someone that played him on TV) that said – it is only our Yens that keep us from our Zens.

Lao Tzu’s poem is not a moralistic verdict on the human condition. It is an analysis of the encounter of the human mind with reality, an examination of how structures of human consciousness and embodied existence impose barriers to the encounter and comprehension of reality in its ultimate form – the eternal Tao.

The terms Lao Tzu has used to convey this theme are significant: “manifestation” and its shadowy twin “mystery”. “Manifestation” refers to the mundane world that is driven by cycles of production and consumption, by concerns for achievement and accolade. In contrast, “mystery” points to an experience of the world that is born of gratitude and reverence, based on the recognition of an enduring aspect that underlies all things. This quality has been given various names – the ground of Being, Godhead, ultimate reality, Emptiness, the eternal Tao – each tradition responding to the encounter with reality on its own terms. Or it has simply been acknowledged as the very fact or condition of existence.

The realization of the “mystery” of Lao Tzu’s poem involves an approach to life that is primarily concerned with an experience of being (rather than with the ceaseless pursuits of “doing”), and the ultimate reward of happiness that this ordering of ones affairs brings. Such attainment is not rooted in belief or tradition; it is grounded entirely in experience. As Lao Tzu has made clear in his opening stanza, “The tao that can be told / is not the eternal Tao. / The name that can be named / is not the eternal Name.” Attempts on the part of the world’s traditions to enshrine the Tao in texts or rituals, lead only to its entombment. It cannot be sealed in form or formula; it will ever evade verbal and conceptual captivity.      

Lao Tzu’s passage which speaks of the “Darkness within darkness.” is the most enigmatic of lines. It expresses a paradox of concealed illumination, implying that wisdom is available through the navigation of these regions. The unenlightened mind can only speculate as to the nature of this statement. Is he describing a mind that has emptied its own vessel, attained a state of clarity that is coextensive with the “Original Mind” of which Zen tradition speaks? 

“…you realize the mystery.” is another enigmatic statement. It does not suggest an unraveling but rather an entry, or immersion into the midst of the unknowable. Again, it is reminiscent of the Zen tradition in which attainment of a state of “Great Doubt” is considered the springboard for “Great Enlightenment”.

In this poem, Lao Tzu has drawn a clear line of demarcation between two disparate orders of human experience. “Yet” he goes on to say “mystery and manifestations / arise from the same source.” – that is “darkness”. In the Buddhist tradition this common origin is referred to as emptiness, the undifferentiated source from which all phenomena emerge. It is in this opaque region that “The gateway to all understanding.” evidently lingers. By pointing to their original unified state, Lao Tzu brings about a synthesis of these seemingly disconnected facets of the world. It is a reminder that the life of the spirit unfolds within the sphere of daily human experience. There is nowhere else for it to go, or to be.

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