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Interpreting the Tao

May 2007

Interpreting the Tao. A (long) while ago I posted this extract from the Tao:

When the Tao is lost, there is goodness.
When goodness is lost, there is morality.
When morality is lost, there is ritual.
Ritual is the husk of true faith,
the beginning of chaos.

Let me re-write it, by way of interpretation:

Chaos exists.
Out of chaos comes ritual, the beginning of faith.
Ritual provides a framework from which morality is discovered.
Morality provides a framework from which goodness is discovered.
Goodness provides a framework from which the Tao is discovered.

I think we can probably all relate to these stages. We start with The Rules, and we obey them blindly, without understanding. Then we begin to understand them, and we gradually form a moral system. The rules become (of necessity) more flexible—guides, rather than laws. They still help give shape to our moral system where it is less clearly defined, but the more fully we establish our moral system, the less rules are necessary.

And again, our moral system gives shape to a ‘goodness,' and as this goodness is more fully realised, our moral system becomes unnecessary, and in some manner detrimental. Our system begins to hamper and restrict what we have begun to know.

The problems I have in understanding and interpreting this system, as it affects myself, is: what words do I use to describe each stage? and: are these the only stages, or might there be more?

For instance, my first effort to explain my stages would be:

  1. Rules
  2. Religion
  3. Morality/Ethics/Goodness
  4. …?

(It occurs to me that many people choose a stage at which to live, and never move beyond it; I don't resent this, but it's not the path for me. ‘Growth or death.')

The problem I face is that I have no words for the stage I currently face. I suspect that I can only name something once I have begun to properly understand it.

(Note: I found this post in my drafts; I wrote it November last year.)

Fraser commented:

See the second half of this post and associated comments - similar thoughts.

Nato commented:

"I have no words for the stage I currently face" - I believe the Tao says that if you can say what the Tao is, that it is not Tao. So it sounds like your last stage is what Lao would have called the Tao?

I also note that you seem to have reversed the logic of it. In it's original form it sounds like when tao decays, it moves through stages towards chaos. You're kinda saying the opposite, that you move from chaos to tao. I wonder if this is significant? Perhaps it's reflecting society at the time of writing, rather than individuals development?

era commented:

I would hazard the guess (never having studied or properly heard of the Tao) that you got it backwards. Surely the passage is about reality, rather than something so humanish? When inversed it does seem to tell us something about the human situation as you point out, but that doesn't strike me as the central insight of the passage. Is not the Tao some true order (although describing it with words is too imperfect to capture it) that we have fallen from?

((Ignore this if it really is as irrelevant as it possibly is.))

Matt commented:

Era, I think you're probably right. I reversed it in my interpretation, because I started my journey in chaos and ritual, and because the reversed version follows the rest of my journey too. I do think that the Tao is something that just is, and it is our journey to discover it, not create it.