Playing with Tao.
This story is one of a number to challenge assumptions about ourselves and reality. Each is inspired by a real-world scientific or spiritual genius (Einstein, LaoTzu, Ramana Maharshi…), and is presented as a visit to a game world in which that thinker’s message is re-imagined in unconventional form.
Welcome to Lao2’s World: one undivided, complex flow. Springing each moment from nothing, this flow is called life. Life is what happens — no more and no less. What happens is the dynamic manifestation, the unfolding into here and now of a single, dimensionless, eternal, unchanging principle, called Tao.
This world is inspired by the mysterious, fifth-or-sixth century BC, Chinese philosopher called Lao Tzu. History credits him with creating Taoism’s cornerstone, the Tao Te Ching, among the most translated and influential books in literature. Its eighty-one short chapters (only a couple pages each) punch well above their weight in wisdom.
You jump in and find yourself in a wetsuit, on a surfboard, gliding across the face of a thirty-five-foot wave, and doing things you know you can’t. Up ahead, you see the bare, brown legs and back of a woman making you look like the non-surfer you are. She and the wave seem as one. Her movements are a work of art.
When you meet on the shore, her face reminds you of the paintings of that Lao Tzu guy, but with a suntan and feminine features. She also looks about five hundred years old. You hold out your hand to shake hers, “Where did you learn to surf like that? You’re amazing!”
She offers you a knuckle bump instead. “Been doing it for about a thousand years now. Started on the Chinese coast but moved to Portugal by way of Macau, to get the big stuff. It’s all about waves and patterns, dude.”
“Have you ever heard of a Chinese sage named Lao Tzu? You remind me of him.”
“Yeah, I know about him. Are you saying I look like a two-and-a-half thousand-year-old dude? I’ve just had my eyebrows done!”
“Oh, no, no, no! That’s not what I meant. I…”
“Relax kid, I’m only messing with you. Yeah, I sort of represent Lao Tzu in this world. You can call me Lao2.”
“So, what is this place?”
Lao2 reaches her hand toward you, palm up, and turns around, as if presenting a ring of performers on a circular stage.
You ask again, “Yeah, lovely. What is it? Tell me about it.”
“The world is in front of you in all its reality, yet you want a voiceover! Kids these days. This is It. Whatever I describe for you will not be It.”
“But I can’t understand something unless I can express it.”
“Kid, you’ve got things inside out. If I’ve got to talk to help you understand that, then I will. Pull up some sand.” She sits next to her board, reaches her hand out, passing you a beer before plucking one from the air for herself.
Life includes, but cannot be reduced to, the words and concepts anyone describes or pictures it with. The description is part of life, but it isn’t life. The concept is within life, but it isn’t life. Life subsumes and overflows any attempt to capture, categorize, measure or render it. That’s why “life” is not life, why “Tao” is not Tao. You experience nothing other than life, Tao’s dynamic. You know Tao, but you don’t know, you can’t say what it is. Life is this, right here, right now.
“So, what is Tao?”
“Arrrgh. I see lesson number one didn’t land. As I said less than twenty seconds ago, I can’t tell you what Tao is, but I’ll have a go by describing ‘Tao.’” Her fingers make quotation marks in the air, and you blush like the kid who got caught sleeping in class. “Tao is the single, unchanging principle that unfolds into life, this.” She turns around, presenting the world to you again.
“But there’s change all the time, isn’t there? How can Tao be unchanging?”
“Ah,” Lao2 says, holding up a finger.
That’s the unfolding. The here and now is eternal, just as surely as our experience of it is fleeting. The immutable and eternal is inseparable from and identical with the ever-changing and impermanent. Immutable Tao and flowing life are two sides of the same coin. Wild, huh?
Picture Tao’s unfolding as an infinitely dimensioned extrusion from the void, a sheet that waves and ripples in countless cross-cutting peaks and troughs. These waves create patterns, ever forming and dissolving. Although no pattern exactly repeats, some closely resemble others, and this similarity makes them seem to endure, leading us to believe they (and we!) are entities, things.
“We don’t exist?”
“Of course we do!” She flicks a pebble at you, hitting your forehead. “See? That’s your proof!”
“Ouch! But you said it’s all just patterns.”
“Not ‘just’ patterns. Patterns.” She goes on:
As you’ve gathered, all is an unfolding process, a flow of pattern within pattern. Vibration upon vibration. What that indefinable pattern, in its fullness, looks, tastes, and sounds like is life — because that’s what it is!
Some nested patterns are trees. Others are poems, some explosions, and yet others are people. Some of these patterns are Lao2. Others are listening to or reading about Lao2.
“You say ‘patterns’ are Lao2. Why plural? Aren’t you just a pattern.”
“Not ‘just!’” She pelts you with another pebble.
But yes, plural. The patterns are all bits of a single overall pattern that always changes, so they change, too. Lao2 in one moment is a different pattern than Lao2 in the next, but the two patterns are similar enough to appear identical to lazy observers.
As we sit here on the beach and watch the waves come in, each looks like an individual, separable, thing — a wave. But if we could draw back and up to see a wider section of ocean, we’d realize the whole surface is undulating with cross-cutting waves driven by local and remote winds from different directions. No wave is a separate thing; we can only single it out conceptually, through our perceptual and cognitive processes (which themselves are parts of the pattern).
“That’s really complex. Why can’t things just be simpler?”
“Oh, so you want simplicity instead of complexity. But without the second, the first couldn’t exist.”
Lao2 tosses you another beer and expands on this thought.
The world is the overall pattern of superposed vibrations between poles, in countless dimensions: on/off, good/evil, pleasurable/painful, light/dark, creation/destruction, “x”/”not x.” One pole is a wave peak, the other, a wave trough. Neither a peak nor a trough can exist without the other. They arise and pass — together or not at all.
We want the peaks without the troughs, but without troughs, there are no peaks. If we are to live, to take part in anything at all, then we are equally sensitive and exposed to high and low. Not knowing this, we feel desire — an ache for peaks. We experience aversion — an ache to avoid troughs. These aches happen. They, like all else, are patterns.
“When I come to these worlds and talk with sages like you, I feel pretty stupid. How do you understand this stuff?”
Lao2 tussles your hair.
No need to be tough on yourself, kiddo. Yeah, there is understanding, and there is ignorance — understanding’s opposite. Both are patterns in the unfathomable ripples in the unfolding of Tao. As it is with understanding, so too for kindness, so too for justice. As it is with ignorance, so for cruelty, also for unfairness. All are patterns. All is pattern.
At this moment, you are a pattern in the whole. Humans are patterns, and so are “their” actions and characteristics. No pattern causes or owns another pattern. Understanding isn’t yours. Cruelty isn’t yours. Action isn’t yours. Patterns are as they are because the whole is as it is.
In attributing any quality (including understanding or ignorance) to yourself, you show ignorance. Sure, a quality or action can be associated with you, can be a ripple within the pattern that is you in a moment, but it doesn’t belong to you. It, and you, are pieces of the overall pattern. The whole, with its patterns — now and now and now — is all there is.
Enlightenment isn’t yours. The pattern of understanding is happening locally, or it’s not. When and where it is, it belongs only to the whole.
“I guess that takes the pressure off. What is it like when your pattern includes understanding?”
Lao2 stands and picks up her board.
Understanding is recognizing wholeness, union. The feeling that comes with recognizing wholeness is called love.
Love bathes the troughs as well as the peaks. You don’t enjoy the troughs, but you love them. “Your” love is a pattern, and that pattern, like all patterns, belongs to the whole.
As Lao2 paddles out to catch the next wave, you step out. On the observation platform of Lao2’s World, looking onto your own, you wonder, “If Tao is the principle, the ‘how’ of this world, might it be the ‘ruling’ principle of all?”
In your logbook you note and ask:
Can everything be one flow, one unfolding? Might all follow from one principle — Tao? If so, then my ignorance is a pattern in that flow, as is my awareness of that ignorance and any action arising from it. Where does this sense of separation I feel come from? Why do I feel like an enduring, independent thing?
Although confused, you’re ready, so you say, “Let’s play.”
To further explore Taoism, I recommend:
· Ursula Le Guin’s rendering of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching;
· John Heider’s The Tao of Leadership;
· Alan Watts’s Tao: The Watercourse Way.