The Text of the Month No 2

By Jos Slabbert

Do you understand?

The Tao is silence
words
cannot capture.
The Tao is emptiness
not even
silence
can embrace.
(The Tao is Tao, 2)

Explanation and comment

This poem is short and profound, capturing the essence of Ch’an and Taoism.

Its first three lines express the thought of the famous first two lines of the Tao Te Ching:

The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao
The Name that can be named is not the eternal Name

There is no way we can express or describe the Tao accurately and completely in words. In fact, the very words we use to describe the Tao often remove us even further from the Tao. The Tao is out of reach for our intellect.

The last four lines of this poem take the thought one step further. If words cannot express the Tao, then neither can silence. Moments of silence were sometimes used by the Buddha or other masters to express the inexpressible. These silences, however, often acquired special meaning and significance within the context they were used. The tradition of Ch’an is purported to have started with silence and a smile at the sight of a beautiful flower.

The poem claims that not even silence can capture the meaning of Tao. Remaining silent in an effort to come closer to understanding the Tao might work to a certain degree, but in the final analysis the Tao will remain as illusive as ever.

"Well," you might say, pointing a finger at me, "you do use a lot of words for someone who does not believe the Tao can be captured by words."

You would be right, of course, but the fact that the Tao can never be reached does not mean you cannot point at it.

You can point at it with words. Just be careful never to think that words are the truth. They can never be. They can only point at the Tao.

The same is true for silence. Sometimes silence is the best way to point at the Tao.

The effectiveness of words or silence in pointing the way is determined by the readiness of the listener to listen, and the willingness to move in the direction pointed at.

It is sad but true that you can waste silence and words on those who are not ready to listen and not willing to go the way. In fact, using silence or words at the wrong moment or when people are not ready can be counter-productive, and it is something that is often warned against in many Buddhist texts.

It is part of wisdom to know when to speak and when to use silence to point the way. It is also part of wisdom not to say anything, either verbally or through silence, when people are not ready to listen.

In the final analysis, real understanding of the Tao can only be reached when you go the way yourself.

True understanding of the Tao is based on experience. It cannot be transmitted by either words or silence.

The only thing one can do to guide others is to point the way.

How do you bring people into harmony with the Tao?
You can only point at the invisible.
It is like using sign language in the dark.
The mystery is that it works.
(The Tao is Tao, 95)