To see or not to see? (Chapters 12 and 14)



Some time ago, I discovered the Tao te Ching, an ancient book of Chinese wisdom and spirituality that has dramatically influenced my spiritual formation. This may come as shocking to some people, but rather than driving me away from a Christ-centered faith, this book has actually helped me hold onto it. If you’re feeling skeptical, feel free to check out the introduction post to the series.


Hands down, the best way to get this information is to listen to the podcast, which parallels these posts but goes into a lot more detail. It also includes personal stories, readings from the Tao te Ching, and some of my own poetry when it applies to the topic at hand.

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In today’s post, we’re going to look at two chapters that are sort of opposite sides of the same coin. Chapter 12 talks about the ways in which we can be made blind, deaf, and totally desensitized by an overabundance of stimulation. I think this chapter speaks almost prophetically to a world like ours, where we are so saturated and even barraged with content everyday that we find ourselves becoming numb to most of it.


On the other hand, chapter 14 gives us the opposite side by looking at the Tao, which is seemingly empty, undefinable, and even unreachable. In some ways, I see chapter 14 relating to God, but I’ll also go beyond that and address how in Christ, the image of the invisible God, we have the chance to see the heart of God in ways that Lao Tzu’s incomplete vantage point never allowed.


Chapter 12: The five colors blind the eye


The five colors blind the eye.

The five tones deafen the ear.

The five flavors dull the taste.

Racing and hunting madden the mind.

Precious things lead one astray.


Therefore the sage is guided by what he feels and not by what he sees.

He lets go of that and chooses this.

-Translator: Gia-fu Feng


I think you’d be hard pressed to find a chapter that speaks more directly to our culture - we just have to make sure we hear it with the right ears. At first glance, it’s pretty clear that Lao Tzu is making three different, but closely related, points. First, when we indulge our senses too much, we become blind, deaf, and numbed to the truth. Second, if we let our minds be filled with too many racing thoughts, we go crazy and fail to see the truth. And third, placing too much value on so-called “precious things” will only get us off track.


We are truly inundated and saturated with media content in today’s world. So much comes at us every second that most of it passes us right by. In seconds, we scroll past more articles on our social media feed than an entire daily newspaper would have had a few decades ago. We see hundreds of updates from friends all over the world that would have taken weeks or months to arrive by mail back in the day - and by that I mean only a few decades ago. We are truly living in a world where the five colors and five tones are blinding our eyes and deafening our ears.


It’s not that the availability of content in and of itself is a danger. It’s the culture that’s built around it, and the attitude towards which we approach it. It’s so easy to dismiss things we might really need to hear, or get caught up wasting time in things that really bring no life or lasting value to us.


It’s a well-proven fact that an overuse of technology has seriously detrimental effects to our health and psychology. Now I’m not going to go “boy cried wolf” here. People said radio was going to rot our brains and destroy us, and then they said the same about TV. And I’m sure if you go back far enough, there were plenty of people who thought that using the printing press to put serious books such as the Bible into the average person’s hands was a dangerous innovation.


But the oversaturation and obsession with technology today is objectively changing the way we interact with the world and with other people. It causes plenty of psychological and physical side effects, which a quick Google search will tell you all about (and yes, I realize the irony of telling you to go Google content as I’m making my point). Our brain chemistry is being changed, and we are slowly becoming numbed to new content and disconnected with the world that is right outside our front doors. We are literally and not just metaphorically living in a world where our eyes are being blinded and our ears are being deafened by the constant assault of colors and sounds.


Marshall Davis translates one of these lines as, “Desires deaden the heart.” We are truly seeing the best and worst of humanity at the same time, which is a great blessing, but it is also a great responsibility. If we aren’t willing to seriously evaluate our relationship to technology, we can find ourselves in a self-destructive spiral of social media addiction, constant Netflix binging, and disconnection from our families and friends. But I truly believe there is hope for a better way, so let’s turn to the rest of this chapter to find out what it is.


Chapter 12 part two - The answer (or at least part of it)


Therefore the sage is guided by what he feels and not by what he sees.

He lets go of that and chooses this.

-Translator: Gia-fu Feng


The Master observes the world

but trusts his inner vision.

He allows things to come and go.

His heart is open as the sky.

-Translator: Stephen Mitchell


I also really love Marshall Davis’ translation here. He’s one of the Christian translators who chooses to use “Christ” in place of the Master or wise person, as I discussed in the first post in the series, since Christ is the one we are supposed to emulate. He writes:


Christ beholds the outer world,

yet is guided by inner sight.

He is in the world,

but is not of the world.

-Translator: Marshall Davis


While our world is oversaturated with media in all shapes, sizes, and colors, we can choose to challenge some of the idolatries and addictive behaviors by making intentional choices about our technology use.


Technology does a lot of amazing, beautiful, and beneficial things, but it also seriously impedes our ability to be present to the current moment and the people right in front of us. And the TTC is all about being present. And Jesus was always present when needs or seekers presented themselves, even when it completely interrupted his plans.


Martin Luther defined sin as a soul “curved in on itself,” and although he failed to live an open life in so many ways, the quote is deeply profound nonetheless. Technology can make it easy for us to turn in on ourselves, even though it gives the false illusion that we are actually opening up to the world.


Chapter 14: The Tao, the other side of the coin


Chapter 14 is mysterious, it is enigmatic, it is dense, and it really needs to be read again and again to even start to grasp it. I strongly recommend you check out one of the resources from the translations and sources link on my page and read it a few dozen times for yourself.


The reason I’m pairing these two chapters in one episode is that I kind of see chapter 14 as the “backside” of chapter 12. It’s the other side of the coin. The lights and sounds of this world blind us and overwhelm us and prevent us from seeing the Tao or even our true selves. And in chapter 14, the Tao is basically the complete opposite of all the constant deafening, blinding, soul-killing stimulation that chapter 12 warns against.


Look, it cannot be seen - it is beyond form.

Listen, it cannot be heard - it is beyond sound.

Grasp, it cannot be held - it is intangible.

These three are indefinable;

Therefore they are joined in one.


From above it is not bright;

From below it is not dark:

An unbroken thread beyond description.

It returns to nothingness.

The form of the formless,

The image of the imageless,

It is called indefinable and beyond imagination.


Stand before it and there is no beginning.

Follow it and there is no end.

Stay with the ancient Tao,

Move with the present.


Knowing the ancient beginning is the essence of Tao.

-Translator: Gia-fu Feng


It’s pretty hard to write notes for a chapter that is so mysterious. I can’t offer much by way of interpretation, so all I want to do is highlight what I see as the key divisions to give a basic outline of the chapter than can be a roadmap for reading it.


First, the Tao is indefinable. It can’t be seen, heard, or grasped. It is beyond form or sound or even our imaginations. I really love this translation of the first stanza, which says:


It is an undifferentiated field of potential.

It is neither light nor dark, high nor low, up nor down.

Rather, its process prefigures the very division of opposites,

And thus it is impossible to define.

It emerges only to vanish again and again.

-Translator: Oliver Benjamin


In some ways, we might consider this analogous to God-in-Godself. We don’t really have any way of describing God apart from human language and analogies to ourselves and/or creation. But what is God apart from these things? Or what was God before these things? We cannot and will not ever know. Fortunately, the only God we need to know is God-in-relation to us, and in a sense that is the only God there is. But it’s helpful to be reminded of the immense mystery of the divine - that we could never have it all figured out.


The second stanza shows how incredibly paradoxical the Tao is. In two different translations, it is called “the form of the formless” or “the form that includes all forms” - which not only seemingly contradict within themselves, but also seem contradictory when compared to one another. It is beyond our imagination. I like this more contemporary translation, which phrases it really nicely:


We might consider it a formula for the unformed,

An illustration of the undefined,

An outline of ambiguity.

-Translator: Oliver Benjamin


So much of Christianity is paradoxical at its core. God who is three-in-one, and yet somehow also took on human flesh and is still human, with the Son seated at the right hand of the Father - and we have no idea what exactly that metaphor means since the Father doesn’t have a physical/human body.


And if that wasn’t enough, we’re basically told that the Tao is unreachable for us:


Don’t try to examine it directly,

You won’t make heads nor tails of it.

-translator: Oliver Benjamin


I’m reminded of Moses asking to see God on the mountaintop, but God basically told him, “You can’t handle the truth.” God said that Moses couldn’t stand to see his face, but he would let Moses see “his back” or perhaps, as the Hebrew indicates, “where he had been a moment before.” The best glimpse of God that the holy-man super-prophet Moses can get is where God isn’t. Which is ironic, since this is a God whose name literally means “I am what I am.”


The thing we have access to that neither Lao Tzu nor the Israelites did is the “image of the invisible God.” In the book of Colossians, Paul writes that Jesus “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”


It is in Jesus, in God made human, that we have the ability to look at God in a way that Moses never really could. Jesus shows us what God looks like. Without Jesus, God-in-Godself is rather mysterious and enigmatic, just like the Tao. It’s true, in the Old Testament we have plenty of examples of God speaking to his people, telling them his will and commands, and even sharing his heart for them - but he is still the “invisible God” until we see his image in Jesus.


In closing, I want to finish out the chapter. In spite of all the uncertainty, undefinability, and even unreachability of the enigma that is the Tao, Lao Tzu believes there is one solid way to get in touch with the flow it, and it’s a phrase that is like a life mantra for me as you can tell from how often I bring it up. The answer is: be present. This comes out especially clear in these translations:


Rather, practice abiding the path of Tao in the here-and-now.

In doing this, you will share in its momentum,

An unimpeded unfolding

Which started back at the beginning of all things.

-Translator: Oliver Benjamin


Hold to the Way of today to manage the actualities of today,

thereby understanding the primeval beginning.

This is called “the thread of the Way.”

-Translator: Victor Mair


Live in the ancient Tao,

Master the existing present.

-Translators: Addiss and Stanley


As I always say, I believe we are created to be present. I have come to recognize that true presence is the best thing I have to offer the world. This means really seeing and being available to the people right in front of me. It means accepting the crappy situations in all their ugliness and choosing to reside in them and work for the good rather than trying to escape or just sit still and foster resentment by wishing things were different. And it means choosing not to allow our eyes and ears to be blinded and deafened by the constant barrage of colors and sounds that chapter 12 warned us about.


By “abiding in the here-and-now,” we learn to “share in the momentum” of God’s work. And that is a beautiful image. God’s story of redemption has its own momentum, and we don’t have to conjure things up or get the ball rolling it. We just get to dive into that river and do our best to go with the flow of it.


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©2019 by Corey Farr.