The first line of the Tao Teh Ching (China, ca. 500 BCE), in most translations, is “The Tao that can be talked about is not the Tao,” or variations thereof. John Wu (Shambhala, 1989) begins the first verse:
Tao can be talked about, but not the Eternal Tao.
Names can be named, but not the Eternal Name.
The Tao the can be told of
Is not the Absolute Tao;
The Names that can be given
Are not Absolute Names.
I’ve read all manner of commentaries saying that it is impossible to translate Zhou Dynasty Chinese into English literally. Each translation is, therefore, a reflection of the translator’s conceptualization of what the ancient text is trying to say. If you breeze around the web you can find at least a dozen translations, and no two begin exactly the same way. However, most of them say that the true nature of the Tao cannot be explained with words.
In spite of the caveat, the Tao Teh Ching is a work of words — 81 verses about the Tao. How do you talk about that which cannot be talked about? One way is by simile, and the Tao Teh Ching is full of ’em. The Tao is like a empty bowl (verse 4). The Tao is like a bellows (verse 5). The Tao is like water (several verses).
Jesus used simile also, to describe the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is like yeast (or “leaven”; Matthew 13:33). The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed (Matthew 13:31). The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field (Matthew 13:44).
There’s a big difference between water and an empty bowl, or between a grain of mustard seed and hidden treasure. What do these similes communicate? Of course, the original passages from which these similes were taken provide more explanation to guide the reader to the possible meaning. Even so, over the centuries there have been diverse interpretations of the texts.
If you’re talking about something that has no precise physical attributes and is outside most peoples’ experiences or conceptual frames of reference, how do you explain it? As soon as you open your mouth, your listeners will try to relate your words to something they already know. Struggling to “get it,” they’ll conceptualize all manner of things that may bear little resemblance to what you are trying to explain.
If the communication is from another time or culture, the likelihood of misunderstanding is even higher. Often people who live in the same culture share metaphors that are easily misunderstood by someone outside that culture. There’s a good example in moonbat’s “Freeway Blogging” post. A sign says “We’re all wearing the blue dress now.” How would a time-traveler from twenty years ago interpret that? They might relate it to the song “Devil With a Blue Dress,” but I doubt that’s the reference intended by the sign maker. Similarly, maybe yeast and mustard seeds had connotations for Jesus’ listeners that have been lost.
Joseph Campbell wrote,
The symbol, energized by metaphor, conveys, not just an idea of the infinite but some realization of the infinite. We must remember, however, that the metaphors of one historically conditioned period, and the symbols they innervate, may not speak to the persons who are living long after that historical moment and whose consciousness has been formed by altogether different experiences. …
… The problem, as we have noted many times, is that these metaphors, which concern that which cannot in any other way be told, are misread prosaically as referring to tangible facts and historical occurrences. …
… When the language of metaphor is misunderstood and its surface structures become brittle, it evokes merely the time-and-place bound order of things and its spiritual signal, if transmitted at all, becomes even fainter. [Joseph Campbell, Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor, Eugene Kennedy, editor (New World Library, 2001) pp. 6-7]
When people insist the old texts must be interpreted as literal facts, the deeper meaning is entirely lost. Karen Armstrong writes,
Before the modern period, Jews, Christians and Muslims all relished highly allegorical interpretations of scripture. The word of God was infinite and could not be tied down to a single interpretation. Preoccupation with literal truth is a product of the scientific revolution, when reason achieved such spectacular results that mythology was no longer regarded as a valid path to knowledge.
We tend now to read our scriptures for accurate information, so that the Bible, for example, becomes a holy encyclopaedia, in which the faithful look up facts about God. Many assume that if the scriptures are not historically and scientifically correct, they cannot be true at all. But this was not how scripture was originally conceived. All the verses of the Qur’an, for example, are called “parables” (ayat); its images of paradise, hell and the last judgment are also ayat, pointers to transcendent realities that we can only glimpse through signs and symbols.
And then there are myths. We use the word myth to mean something that isn’t true. We might say, “Al Gore didn’t claim to invent the Internet; that’s just a myth.” But myths are more than just made-up stories. Consciously or unconsciously, myths shape our unspoken assumptions. They create the context within which we understand ourselves and everything else. These days we refer to political myths as “the narrative.” The narrative is a kind of folk history/mythos through which people form ideas about What America Is Supposed to Be and who we Americans are as a people. The factuality of the narrative is less important than the values, ideas and beliefs it conveys. This is why attempts to correct the many factual errors in the Right’s narratives don’t put a dent in their belief in them, since the stories themselves are not the point. The narrative shapes the collective imagination and identity of those who choose to accept it. As Bill Moyers argued here, we progressives ignore the power of narrative at our peril.
Religious myths have a similar function. The Bible can be read as a huge myth that informs the Jewish people who they are. Or, you can read it for more universal truths. For example, the Garden of Eden story in Genesis is a very rich myth with many layers of meaning. Truly, you don’t have to believe in God to appreciate it. We start with Adam and Eve in the Garden, naked and carefree. They are forbidden only one thing (the One Forbidden Thing is one of the most consistent story devices in all the world’s myths, I think), which is to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. So when they ate the fruit (characters in these stories always do the One Forbidden Thing; otherwise there wouldn’t be a story) they recognized their nakedness and felt shame.
Then God showed up and said, “You blew it, people. You did the One Forbidden Thing. From now on, humans will be conscious of themselves as separate from the rest of Creation. Women will have pain in childbirth because their babies will have grapefruit-size heads. You will have to work for a living. And your descendants will have neuroses. They will need psychiatrists and lawyers. Way to go.”
This is, of course, a loose interpretation. Joseph Campbell wrote, “When Man ate of the fruit of the Tree, he discovered himself in the field of duality instead of the field of unity. As a result he finds himself out, in exile” (op cit, p. 15). Sort of what I said.
There’s a lot in this myth that underscores a paternalistic worldview, and of course I don’t much care for those parts. But the fruit-eating bit is fascinating. What does it say about knowledge of good and evil? What does it say about human consciousness? What does it say about how humans understand themselves vis-à-vis other living things on our planet? There’s lots of juicy stuff to contemplate in that story. I dare say you can find a lot of Truth in there, if you look for it.
And the great irony is that those who insist the story itself is factual, not myth, squeeze all the Truth out of it.
It’s stunning to me that people think the Garden of Eden had a geographical location and that Adam and Eve were real people, not archetypes. I understand the Garden as a level of consciousness. Can we return to that consciousness? Do we want to? And what does knowledge of good and evil have to do with it?
I’m thinking of the Hsin Hsin Ming, a 6th century Zen text called in English “Mind of Absolute Trust” or “Verses of the Faith-Mind.”
The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.
When love and hate are both absent everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.
If you wish to see the truth then hold no opinions for or against anything.
To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind.
When the deep meaning of things is not understood the mind’s essential peace is disturbed to no avail.
Another translation at the same link substitutes “The struggle between good and evil” for “To set up what you like against what you dislike.” The latter is the more common translation. In any event, it’s a clear warning against sorting things into binary absolute piles.
Humans have a limitless capability to misunderstand things. A recent “Explainer” column at Slate about the supposed reincarnation of the Buddha mentioned the “32 marks” or 32 physical characteristics of a Buddha, which include 40 teeth and a tongue long enough to lick his own ears. This is out of one of the old sutras of the Tripitaka. Allegory, people, allegory. Not that I have even a clue what significance 40 teeth and an extra-long tongue have. But compare/contrast to the fifth verse of the Diamond Sutra —
“Subhuti, what do you think? Can the Buddha be recognized by means of his bodily form?”
“No, Most Honored One, the Buddha cannot be recognized by means of his bodily form. Why? Because when the Buddha speaks of bodily form, it is not a real form, but only an illusion.”
The Buddha then spoke to Subhuti: “All that has a form is illusive and unreal. When you see that all forms are illusive and unreal, then you will begin to perceive your true Buddha nature.”
The Slate piece doesn’t get anything else right, either, but I thought the bit about the 32 marks was a particular hoot.
The iconic characters of Buddhist art sometimes are portrayed with numerous arms. The significance of the arms should become clear when you understand these characters as something like Jungian archetypes. The god, goddess, or bodhisattva is not to be worshiped, but realized as one’s own self. As the Hindu say, Thou Art That. When many people realize themselves as the Goddess of Compassion, then of course the goddess has many arms (and eyes, and feet, and multiple everything else). Just don’t expect to see someone who looks like that appear in your back yard in a puff of smoke. If you do, seek professional help.
One of the really aggravating things about the fundies is that they’ve persuaded non-religious people that religion is just a matter of believing nutty things written in scripture. In my experience it’s harder to explain why this isn’t true to atheists than to religious people, fundies excepted. I think even most Christians appreciate that at least some parts of the Bible are allegorical. I have come to realize that the crusading atheists assume all religious people are some kind of fundamentalist, and the only distinction is that some of us are more wishy-washy about it. The truth is that different people understand religion in an entirely different way.
The point of most of the world’s sacred texts is not to “believe in” whatever they say, but to understand what they’re trying to tell us. In most of the world’s sacred texts, “what they’re trying to tell us” is about ourselves. Even in the great epics like the Mahabharata, which has a long and convoluted story with many characters, the real subject of the story is the person hearing it. The story presents a way for the hearer to understand and experience himself in relation to everything else in the cosmos, throughout space and time. People who thumb through the epic looking for “facts” about Krishna and other deities in the story are missing the point.
Awhile back John Shelby Spong wrote a book called Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture. “My purpose in this volume is first to rescue the Bible from the exclusive hands of those who demand that it be literal truth and second to open that sacred story to levels of insight and beauty that, in my experience, literalism has never produced,” he wrote. Amen.
Joseph Campbell said,
The best thing one can do with the Bible is to read it spiritually rather than historically. Read the Bible in your own way, and take the message because it says something special to each reader, based on his or her own experience. The gift of God comes in your own terms. God, pure and in Himself, is too much. Carl Jung said, “Religion is a system to defend us against the experience of God.” It may be a species of impudence to think that the way you understand God is the way God is. [op cit, p. 60]
Although I agree generally with Campbell’s advice, lots of people will misunderstand what “spiritual reading” is. There always will be people who get stuck in the literal interpretations. Sometimes it helps to get a guide. A major function of a Zen teacher is to get students unstuck by challenging their understanding and urging them to go deeper. My first teacher, Daido, used to say that his role was to pull rugs out from under people.
Years ago I was active on some Buddhist Internet forums, and there I encountered no end of people determined to study Zen without a teacher. They figured they could just read the books, study the koans and figure it out for themselves. Inevitably they came up with dreadfully anal, left-brained, not-even-close ideas about what various teachings meant. And, of course, once they had made up their minds that their understanding was the “true” one, no one could talk them out of it. This phenomenon is so common it’s come to be called Zen Lite.
There’s a wonderful Zen story from 8th century China, give or take, about a tenzo, or monastery cook. (Tenzo is a Japanese word. This is a Chinese story but I mostly know Japanese names for things.) The tenzo usually was not chosen for his ability to cook but for his spiritual maturity, and it was a great honor to be the one chosen to nourish the rest of the monks. Anyway, one day while the tenzo was cooking the Bodhisattva Manjusri rose up out of a rice pot and began to expound upon the Dharma, or the teachings of the Buddha. Manjusri is the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, and one might assume anything he said about the Dharma would be profoundly wise.
So the tenzo, as a spiritually mature monk, did the correct thing. He picked up a large spoon, smacked the Bodhisattva back down into the cooking pot, and slammed a lid on the pot so he couldn’t come back.
Why did the tenzo do this? He might have assumed he was seeing a hallucination. But I think the real reason was that the tenzo feared he would become attached to the Bodhisattva’s words and be unable to see through them to the deeper meaning. The Tao that can be talked about is not the Tao.
Did this story really take place? Does it matter?