Darkness and Mysterious Depth in the Tao

The idea of indiscernability is one of the central themes in the Tao Te Ching.  It is veiled in a Taoist mysticism, expressed in terms like darkness, depth, and mystery.   However, across the cultural gap, these terms can sometimes be mistaken for implying evil, or a brooding anxiety that can sometimes accompany uncertainty.  This is not the intention.  Instead, as I’ll try to show, this idea of darkness attempts to express the deep link between form and formlessness and the inexhaustible, eternal energy of Tao as it manifests itself in the fallible, changing, living and dying physical realm.

For instance, in our translation, we used the term “mysterious depth” to try to express this core idea in the Tao Te Ching. In another translation, by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, they describe the relationship between mystery and manifestation:

“These two spring from the same source but differ in name;
this appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.”

This captures an essential concept in the Tao te ching: the idea of indiscernability. Whereas the idea of darkness in strains of Western thought can sometimes be coupled with evil, in the Tao the idea of darkness is meant to express the indiscernability of the mysteries of life. To peer into the murk of humanity and to search for patterns and truths might not be impossible, but it requires a great patience and tempered expectations. The cycles of life are long and chaotic. Experiences of it can be short, skewed, and incomplete. To try to understand these cycles through their manifestations, and so see Tao beneath and within all, well this is a long, different, and forever changing path…

In this way indiscernability, and so darkness and mystery, are meant to implore curiosity. Life is wonderous, try to see it for what it is for yourself and so you can begin to experience Tao.

An example of this might help to clarify. Links are often drawn between the world of physics and eastern metaphysics.  While the parallels might not always hold up, the idea of dimensionality provides an interesting illustration of the idea of indiscernability in the Tao. Here to explain is Carl Sagan.

This is an excellent example of the idea of indiscernability. Our own limited experience in three dimensions is almost entirely oblivious to the possibility of a fourth, just as the inhabitants of Flatland were unable to experience three dimensions.  While the fourth dimension, so conjectured, is obviously possible, it may as well not exist in that we cannot sense it, or experience it, in any meaningful way.  But just because we can’t experience it, it does not follow that the fourth dimension cannot be known.  Only that we must be modest in our attempts to know a fourth dimension that exists beyond the parameters of human experience.

The tesseract, as discussed by Sagan, is another great example of how we might know of something without being able to experience it totally. Instead, we can only attempt a three-dimensional facsimile. Or in this case, a three-dimensional rendering of four dimensions displayed in two dimensions. Confusing?

The consequence of our limited perception, not just of our attempts to know the reality beyond the one we experience daily, but in our understanding of the world we live in too, forces us to accept the idea of indiscernability.  We must be humbled by the mysteries of universe (and beyond?), though we need not always be afraid. Chuang Tzu offers an anecdote that captures this sentiment well.  Here it is, to if you’re interested, described by our good friend the rambling taoist.

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