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Darkness Within Darkness, The Gateway to All Understanding

Posted on 14 Nov | 0 comments
Pages from the Tao Te Ching
Pages from the Tao Te Ching

This is the last two lines to the first chapter of the Tao Te Ching.  Perhaps you’ve heard of the famous first line - The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.  Here is the entire first chapter:
 

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.

This is a profound opening chapter filled with wisdom that is consistent with foundational tenets of Existential Psychology.  First of all, a quick introduction of the Tao Te Ching.  Tao Te Ching means the Book or Canon (Ching) of How or The Way (Tao) Things Happen or Work which can be summarized as virtue (Te).  The book itself addresses three topics:  1) Natural Law, or how things happen; 2) A way of life, or how to live in conscious harmony with natural law; 3) Leadership, or how to govern or educate others in accordance with natural law. 

First of all, there is the matter of epistemology.  The first famous stanza establishes that the Tao is ineffable.  This is consistent with much of what us existentialist have been arguing for.  Namely that what is most important in life and in therapy cannot be defined, but it can be known!  And the way to knowing involves not rational analysis but mindful awareness gained through meditation or deep reflection.  No less than someone with Albert Einstein’s credentials famously said, “not everything that counts can be counted and note everything that can be counted counts.”  Or in the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.  What is rightly seen is seen with the heart.”

Similarly, as a alternative to Jesus’ parable of the Pearl of Great Price, there is the Chinese parable of the Lost Pearl (From The Way of Chuang Tzu, by Thomas Merton, page 74, publisher:  New Direction, 2010).
 

The Yellow Emperor went wandering
To the north of the Red Water
To the Kwan Lun mountain.  He looked around
Over the edge of the world.  On the way home
He lost his night-colored pearl.
He sent out Science to seek his pearl, and got nothing,
He sent out Analysis to look for his pearl, and got nothing.
He sent out Logic to seek his pearl, and got nothing.
Then he asked Nothingness, and Nothingness had it!
Then Yellow Emperor said:
“Strange, indeed:  Nothingness
Who was not sent
Who did not work to find it
Had the night-colored pearl!”

 
And the chapter goes to on teach that:

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.

If we desire to know mystery, then free ourselves from desire.  For how many times have I encouraged my students to let go and release their desire or need to heal their clients.  Caught in their desire and need for healing, they only see manifestations but not true change. 

And of course if you really want wisdom and understanding, the source is not “light” as in enlightenment (or insight).  It is not found in the light, but in darkness;  not only darkness but darkness within darkness.  Virgil wrote in the Aeneid, when telling of the voyage of Aeneas and his men that “darkness was our guide and our leader was Despair.” (Dryden. Trans. of Vergil’s Æneid. Bk. II. 487.) 

What do you think?  Are us existentialists seriously morbid, or is there some wisdom to be found from this first chapter of the Tao Te Ching?

-- Mark Yang

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