“Tao called Tao is not Tao. Names can name no lasting name. Nameless: the origin of heaven and earth. Naming: the origin of the ten thousand things. Empty of desire, perceive mystery. Filled with desire, perceive manifestations.”
The first section of the Tao Te Ching (Lao-Tzu) begins with an interesting and confounding line: “Tao called Tao is not Tao.” Tao (Way) called by a name is not the actual Tao. What does such a claim imply?
Names allow us to refer to entities in the world, to make distinctions and separate one thing from another. When we name something, we abstract what is named from the whole and treat it as a self-contained, individual entity. In doing so, we treat it as independent of the interconnections and interrelationships it shares with everything else.
When we use names and concepts, we treat existence as comprised of individual, independent entities. Everything, however, is connected and interrelated in an important, fundamental sense. We misrepresent what is when we see only distinct objects, because we fail to recognize (1) the deep connections tying everything together and (2) the fact that change is constant.
“Nameless: the origin of heaven and earth. Naming: the origin of the ten thousand things.”
The presocratic philosopher, Heraclitus, identified something similar when he famously said, “It is not possible to step twice into the same river.” The river’s waters are always flowing, moving, changing. This constant change means the river is different from moment to moment in an important sense. When we think of a specific river (for example, the Nile), we think of it as an unchanging, constant, independent existence. Our conceptualization makes us insensitive to the ever changing, ever flowing reality of the river.
When we rationalize and conceptualize our world, we seem to fix things, to assert their permanence and independence. All things are always changing, however, and nothing exists forever. Any entity is only a temporary manifestation, and its existence is dependent on the interrelationships and interconnections it shares with everything else.
To name the Tao, to call it “Tao,” is to conceptualize. It treats the Tao as an abstraction, as something defined independently of everything else, as something persistent over time. But that is a fundamental error and confusion on our part. When we look at the world, we see separate entities, separate things in the world, and this causes us to miss the deep connections and interdependence that permeates all existence.
“Naming: the origin of the ten thousand things.”
No thing in the world exists in a vacuum. Everything is interconnected and interrelated. Nothing exists on its own nor could it. Every entity, every manifestation we pick out, depends on complex relationships and connections for its existence.
While it is practical to make distinctions, to separate entities and understand them as objects, we must remember that it is only one way of understanding the world. Moreover, we must remember that to do so ignores the underlying reality of interdependence and interconnection.