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Mystery and darkness, profound and subtle – Tao and Cloud of Unknowing?

After reading the most recent post here, Richard over at Buddhism Now sent me a piece of Zen Grafffiti that he said he thought I’d like.

We are all contemporaries of beginningless time, yet we run in fear of
death.

What a great way to express so many concepts in so few words. I’m taking the “we” to extend in all directions in time and space and the “beginningless time” to be one of those bare statements, seeming to be an oxymoron but not, that pushes our levels of thinking even deeper into nondualistic ground..

I’m tempted to jump ahead to some “ground of being” readings and comparisons between Medieval mysticism and the new physics that would fit well with this quote, but I will restrain myself. Best we become a little more grounded first in the thoughts of these epoch-changing years from 600 to 300 BCE.

Since Zen, many say, fuses many concepts of Taoism with Buddhism, perhaps Richard’s gift of that Zen graffiti can be an introduction to more of the Buddhist and Taoist writings of that time

Here are two that I chose for In the Same Breathboth seminal works in their own traditions.

Tao Te Ching – Stephen Mitchell, trans.

The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

The unnameable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.

Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.

Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.

In reading this first of 81 chapters of the Tao Te Ching, of the one question that comes to my mind is, “What is this darkness and how can it be the gateway to understanding?”

It is often helpful when reading English translations of poetic writing from a different time and culture to look at other translations to see if the meaning becomes clear by seeing how severl people have expressed something.

The Tao Te Ching has been translated in to many languages and someone has taken the time to post the names of translators in 26 languages, including 112 in English, with links to their translations. Here are the final paragraphs of Chapter One from two of them.

Tao Te Ching – D.C. Lau

These two are the same
But diverge in name as they issue forth.
Being the same they are called mysteries,
Mystery upon mystery.

Tao Te Ching – Hua Ching Ni

Nothingness and Beingness and other conceptual activity of the mind all come from the same indescribable subtle Originalness.
The Way is the unfoldment of such subtle reality.
Having reached the subtlety of the universe,
one may see the ultimate subtlety,
the Gate of All Wonders.

Tao Te Ching – Bram den Hond

These two spring from the same source.
They have different names; yet they are called the same.
That which is even more profound than the profound
The gateway to all mystery.

Darkness, mystery, subtle, profound.

Four ways of describing where one must go to attempt to understand that which is not able to be understood.

And perhaps – to do what we said we weren’t going to do yet and jump ahead to writings of the Medieval mystics – these are also the same methods necessary to begin to “beat against the Cloud of Unknowing” described by an anonymous Christian European mystic of 1375 in a slim book of instructions to new monks.

But to understand how the mystical, spiritual landscape of the 14th Century was formed in Europe, we have many more paths to travel.

A closer look at Buddhism during the Axial Age when next we meet.
– Thanks to Christine Tobias for the new art on top, one of many from “In the Same Breath.”

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