The opening two verses of the ancient Daoist classic Tao Te Ching have baffled many of its readers down the millennia and continue to do so till today. Perhaps what is said in passing or obiter dicta, so to speak, in this discussion on a profound topic can provide a simple answer to the perennial and enigmatical questions as to why Laozi, the great sage, who wrote this ancient classic more than 2,500 years ago, can tell the Tao that is eternal in eighty one chapters and yet the named name would not be eternal. For your easy reference I append below my simple translation of the chapter related to the discussion:
Tao Te Ching chapter one:
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao,
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
Nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth;
Named is the mother of myriad things.
Without desire observe the mysterious,
With desire contemplate the manifestations.
These two things are similar,
Only differing names for the profound.
Obscure and profound; (there will be) numerous mysterious gates.
[Translated by Allan Lian]
The popularity in learning Tao in the West has grown by leaps and bounds since the Tao Te Ching was first translated into English and/or other European languages by Christian missionaries stationed in China. Probably a converse of cause and effect, in all fairness, since these missionaries have had successfully converted some Chinese in China to Christianity.
The Secret of the Golden Flower, a couple of centuries old Daoist text on neidan (inner alchemy) ascribed to Daoist celestial immortal Lu Dongbin, and first translated by Richard Wilhelm – a German Christian missionary sent to China - and introduced to the West has also gained popularity since students whether young, middle age, or old would very much like to experience the magical far journey to Tao as indicated therein.
Amidst this growing popularity, the unscrupulous, the indolent, and the ignorant falsely claim the mastery of Tao in order to entice and cheat eager students who want to learn more about the Way and/or how to attain immortality. These particular miscreants are also claiming that they have mastered the Secret of the Golden Flower and/or the way to immortality by using various alchemical formulas passed down by dubious lineages in China. However on closer scrutiny, these claimants only spout recycled information obtainable from the Web and their secret formulas to immortality, if any, tend to be upside down.
Furthermore, scholars of ancient Chinese philosophy down the ages, including whiz kid Wang Bi, would have their work cut out to comprehend the profound Tao Te Ching, if they had not actually practised the ancient method of the Holy Sages - as indicated in the Book of Changes - more popularly known in the West as neidan or inner alchemy. And what these pedant scholars have said about Tao is quite often found to be wanting.
Since those who practise this ancient method to cultivate their human nature (Xing) and fate (Ming) and by correctly practising the backward flow meditation - the Circulation of the Light – as described in the Secret of the Golden Flower would be able to witness the eternal signposts of the Way first embedded in the Book of Changes, and very much later in the Tao Te Ching, and in various Daoist texts of neidan adepts who went on to become Daoist celestial immortals. A few of these eternal signposts have also been embedded and/or inferred to by the Buddha in the Shurangama Sutra (Lengyan Ching).
All these eternal signposts have been written in metaphors using names relevant to the times in accord with established order and meant only for the right persons to progressively guide them along the Path. And the ancients had shown their wisdom by depicting the various signposts of the Way in metaphors since no one else except the right persons for Tao would understand and progressively witness these signposts.
Therefore the scholars and/or translators of ancient Chinese philosophy who often speak of Tao may not quite know what they are on about, since these vital eternal signposts are both encoded and obscure. This would also avoid plagiarism and false claims of which there are many, down the ages up till today – even Daoist immortal Zhang Sanfeng had cause to explicitly warn about its prevalence in his commentary to the Hundred Character Stele of Lu Dongbin.
If those who fancy themselves neidan adepts having already attained great achievements in Tao or have mastered the Secret of the Golden Flower and yet are unable to witness the initial eternal signpost of the Way embedded by Laozi in Chapter One of his Tao Te Ching, beware of further illusions and delusions of grandeur.
While those who perchance witnessed this particular magical signpost would have to take heed of the Buddha’s various warnings in the Shurangama Sutra on premature claims of sage-hood to avoid illusions and delusions, how much more precautions should those who have no such ability take? If there is no Circulation of the Light, many can sit until they are Yuan (round or gone) like the ignorant down the ages and still would not be able to witness this preliminary signpost, let alone all those beyond. After all, the right persons, upon witnessing it, have only taken a baby step along the far journey to Tao since there are much more eternal signposts to be progressively witnessed; therefore what great achievements have they attained?
Some of the advanced signposts remain so well hidden that even those who have attained good aptitude in neidan - as indicated in the Secret of the Golden Flower by Lu Dongbin - may not quite know what these signs are all about, nor know their exact locations along the Path.
For example, a particularly vital signpost that has been already embedded in the Book of Changes and later in the Tao Te Ching, and for which at least three Zhen Ren (realized persons) from different eras had cause to elaborate on it (using different names) in their respective texts because of its importance for those with good aptitude to progress further. The two from Quanzhen have had indicated its exact location in the South West of Kun, while the other described some of its characteristics and named several different names for it down the ages. Try figuring that out!
What has already been discussed would probably contribute towards explaining why the ever prescient Laozi in his opening two verses in the Tao Te Ching said: “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao” and “The name that can be named is not the eternal name”. The two verses can probably serve to forewarn students of the invariable occurrences of false claims (talks) and of name changes respectively, before the great ancient sage proceeded to teach the Way in this very first chapter and in the remaining eighty chapters. Furthermore, Lu Dongbin has had mentioned that “Tao has neither name nor shape.” Therefore who can say for sure if Tao, the Way, or the Path is the eternal name?
For someone who knows a touch of Heaven, Tao and the Book of Changes, it is simple and easy to discern between those who know these profound subjects well and those who don’t. Therefore those who know seldom talk, in case secrets of Heaven and the Way inadvertently leak. This means no tells!
And when they do discuss or write something on Heaven and Tao, readers may fail to comprehend what has been said since it could be just as subtle, obscure, and profound in line with the established order set by the ancients. This also mean no tells, but at least various hints have been given!
But how would I know?