To properly understand this you will at least need the introduction to zen (blog links below) and the basic model of the zen path. I think.
Note: D.T.Suzuki applies a Zen Buddhist perspective to the Tao Te Ching which has proven to be a very useful way of interpreting the text (for me, at least).
Tao Te Ching: The World’s Oldest Zen Poem
Bodhidharma taught a taoistic version of zen. Alan Watts, a student of D.T.Suzuki, called The Tao Te Ching “the worlds oldest poem”. As fortune would have it, celebrated zen scholar, D.T. Suzuki’s translation of the Tao Te Ching is in the public domain. This means I am free to analyze it as I will. So I decided to do a commentary on the Tao Te Ching. This chapter represents some of my preliminary analysis of this ancient zen poem and the next chapter is some additional analysis into chapters related to war that I did, to show that the Tao Te Ching accepted all aspects of life, from sage to warrior.
Zen translation by DTS (D.T. Suzuki);
1. Reason’s Realization.
1. The Reason that can be reasoned is not the eternal Reason. The name that can be named is not the eternal Name. The Unnamable is of heaven and earth the beginning. The Namable becomes of the ten thousand things the mother.
Therefore it is said:
2. "He who desireless is found
The spiritual of the world will sound.
But he who by desire is bound
Sees the mere shell of things around."
3. These two things are the same in source but different in name. Their sameness is called a mystery. Indeed, it is the mystery of mysteries. Of all spirituality it is the door.
1. D.T. Suzuki translates “Tao” as Reason (Reason being another way of saying “Zen”). The idea here is that if you can think about reason then you are using the mind to think about the mind and thus you aren't living directly from your mind. In other words, using your reasoning faculty to think about reasoning means you aren't living directly from your reasoning part of your (mind).
Said another way, ‘The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Tao.’ or the reasoning ability that you can think about isn’t your true direct experiencing faculty of Reason that is the direct perception of the mind without any sort of introspection.
If the mind can be used to describe the mind then you are not in unitive consciousness (the zen state). So if you can name something then you are living out of your thinking ability and are not in the zen state of direct experience. Thus, ‘The name that can be named is not the eternal Name’
Finally, since naming something puts a person in a mental state of categorizing the world around you so you can describe it, i.e. not naming something means everything just is as it is while naming it you separate an object from everything else by giving it a category or label for the object to fit in. Thus a tree that was just an object connected to earth and air can now be separated into 3 different things, i.e. tree, earth and air.
So by naming things and putting them in categories you have created knowledge or language. In other words, ‘The Namable becomes of the ten thousand things the mother.’
Note: The 10,000 things is the buddhist way of saying the infinite number of objects and categories that exist once you start naming stuff.
2. Within the poem like chapter there is a rhyming verse set which explains the basic yogic and zen idea of dhayana or learning to maintain your awareness free of attachment to things around you.
Literally its; The person who can maintain a desireless state of non-attachment will reach the height of spirituality (as defined by ancient zen and taoist masters). On the flip side, if you are attached to the world around you you will see the world in a superficial way i.e. you will see only it’s “shell” or outer appearance.
The idea here is expressed by this story;
There was a farmer whose horse ran away. All his neighbors came by to say how sorry they were at his misfortune. All he said was, "We shall see". Next, his horse returns fallen by a group of wild horses. His neighbors congratulate on his good fortune and the farmer once again says, "We shall see". Then his son falls off the same horse and breaks his leg. The neighbors once again exclaim at his misfortune and once again he says, "We shall see". In a few days the army comes by collecting young men for a war. The farmer's son was ignored as his leg was broken. His neighbors congratulate him and all he says is, "We shall see".
Notice that in this story every event of the day or week did not make the farmer giddy with happiness or depressed at having a bad day because he wasn’t attached to the world through desire, i.e. he existed in a state of non-attachment.
3. Here is the most amazing statement, i.e. that both of the statements (1 & 2) are two different techniques for the same goal.
In the first statement Lao Tzu described the simple zen way of seeing things as I outlined in my voluminous introduction to zen, i.e. simply by shutting of conception you can see beyond conception and without self-reflexive thought (unitve consciousness). In the second statement he explains that to see beyond the distractions which can take you away from unitive consciousness as described in the simple first technique it to learn and practice non-attachment (as is at the foundation of zen buddhism and yoga itself).
So, together, these two techniques open the door to the zen state of being, i.e. ‘of all spirituality it is the door’.
Standard translation by James Legge;
1. The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Tao. The name that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging name. (Conceived of as) having no name, it is the Originator of heaven and earth; (conceived of as) having a name, it is the Mother of all things.
2. Always without desire we must be found,
If its deep mystery we would sound;
But if desire always within us be,
Its outer fringe is all that we shall see.
3. Under these two aspects, it is really the same; but as development takes place, it receives the different names. Together we call them the Mystery. Where the Mystery is the deepest is the gate of all that is subtle and wonderful.
Related background blog posts: