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Response to an Open Letter to Taoists

A friend of mine sent me a link to an open letter to Taoists written by the Reverend Daryl E. Witmer. I read it, and was intrigued. Hoping to engage Rev. Witmer in dialogue, I’ve sent him a response, and for transparency’s sake I’ve included all of it here, minus a postscript declaration that I am, indeed, publishing it as an open response.

Forgive the length, but there was much to say…

Rev. Witmer,

First of all, please allow me to thank you for your open letter to Taoists. It is this kind of comparative thinking that I find lacking in most of the spiritual discourse of today. I often wonder how it is that someone can properly understand their own religion if they do not put it in the context of other religions, and I find it beneficial to study the views and ideas of other modes of thinking, at the very least so that we can articulate how it is that it demonstrates incorrectness.

Next, I would like to introduce myself. My name is William Byatt. I do not identify with any religion, but my spiritual upbringing has brought me near to many. My father is a Universalist Unitarian minister. My mother is Roman Catholic and I was raised attending the Catholic Church. In recent years, I have been encountering the Eastern religions, primarily Taoism and Zen Buddhism, and it is the ideas of the Tao which have been most instrumental in my current spirituality.

As it stands, I would like to discuss certain elements of your letter with you. In your first paragraph, you address the paradox of expressing the inexpressible. My personal interpretation of this issue centers around the paradox aspect of the point (I’m a student of philosophy and mathematics, specifically logic, and have made protracted studies on the nature of paradox), but that is for another time. What I think is more immediately relevant here is the relationship between words and the Way. When Lao-Tzu writes that “The Tao which can be spoken is not the eternal Tao,” it is no accident that these are the first words of the Tao Te Ching. This sentence stands as caveat to the rest of the Tao Te Ching, a warning that everything that follows is only an approximation of “truth” (Though the whole notion of truth crumbles inside the Way. That, too, is for another letter). Mathematically, I have interpreted this to mean that language can be thought of as an asymptotic function with the Tao itself as the asymptote. That is, by talking and writing about it, we can only approximate the Way. In order to fully understand the Way, we must transcend language and enter into a realm of knowledge that can be mundanely understood as that which is drawn from experience, or more spiritually understood as something approaching “divine revelation.” When Taoist writers step back into language, they are only trying to point the aspiring Taoist in the right general direction. They are trying to shape the student’s mind in such a way as to prepare it to understand the Tao of its own accord, but the student himself must make the experiential leap into actual understanding.

The line that you have quoted, “Those who know don’t say, and those who say don’t know,” is a generalized statement about wisdom that expresses the Taoist outlook on life as a whole. It is NOT, specifically, a statement about understanding of the Tao specifically (though it is, indeed, about that as well). As such, I think it is fair to say that it is often the case that the wise do not talk incessantly about how wise they are. They act. They lead by example, they do. That is not to say that they do not talk at all. It stands, as most aphorisms do, as a generality. It is a statement expressing the value of action over words. It expresses the reality that people who don’t know what they’re talking about often talk a lot, and people who do know what they’re talking about don’t talk much at all. A generality is not identifiable with a universality, however. Aphorisms are generally meant to be taken as guidelines, not as hard-and-fast rules.

Remember also that most Taoists do not think of Taoism as a religion in the sense that followers of the Abrahamic tradition think of religion. For many the separation between religion and philosophy is tenuous at best, and it is widely accepted that Lao-Tzu did not write the Tao Te Ching as a book of holy scripture, but rather a book of general wisdom, perhaps as a grandfather would give their grandson when the grandson becomes a man and must enter the Real World. The holiness that has been ascribed to the Tao Te Ching in the intervening two and a half millennia is a product of the book’s antiquity and the tendency of the Chinese to venerate the old and traditional.

When you go on to delineate the separation between a monotheistic, personal God as something separate from the monistic, all-being God that is Barry Pierce’s interpretation of the Tao, you enter into very old and oft-discussed (even among Christians) theological grounds. I would like to point out, however, that an interpretation of the Tao as God is simply Mr Pierce’s interpretation. The Tao Te Ching nor the Chuang-Tzu say anything about the Tao in that regard, and it is a product of a mind which likely would already understand God in a monistic sense without the Tao entering the picture, ala Baruch Spinoza.

As an aside on this point, I’d like to mention that I do know a few people who consider themselves “Christian-Taoist” who identify the Tao as, in some sense, the agent of motion inside the universe, and God as the exterior motivator of that agent. I do not profess to understand in entirety what it is these people mean, but the point is that I do know people who believe in the existence of the Tao AND a separate, exterior-to-our-universe personal God.

When you next say that “no ruler anywhere in the world has ever considered [non-action] to constitute a workable plan or a viable option,” I have two responses.

First, I think it should be realized that, in the cryptic and romantic fashion of ancient Chinese, Lao-Tzu was speaking in terms of ideal. Whether or not the ideal is attainable or unattainable is up for discussion, but the point remains that Lao-Tzu understood non-action to be an ideal towards which we should aim. Obviously, the conditions have to be right for non-action to be effective.

Second, I must remind you of Mr Thomas Jefferson, who very famously wrote that “The government which governs best is that which governs least.” Mr Jefferson did do service as the President of the United States of America, which makes your claim that no ruler ever considered non-action correct empirically wrong.

At this point I do ask you again to remember that Lao-Tzu probably did not intend his work to be holy scripture or dogmatic, but rather generalized wisdom. In this sense, whether there is objective truth to Lao-Tzu’s understanding of goodness in non-action, it does represent his opinion on the matter, which clearly aligns with that of Mr Jefferson.

Your last two paragraphs, however, present the most interest to me. You enter into forever-discussed philosophical realms when you say that “no butterfly is ever known to have questioned whether or not he was a butterfly, much less recorded such a predicament, it is probably safe to assume that you are Chou and not the butterfly,” you have effectively entered into the domain of a very important question about the nature of consciousness. It is my fervent belief that just because no recording exists of an act does not mean it has not happened. I have to question the logic regarding your safe assumption, and I must ask exactly how safe that assumption is. The fact is that I have personally experienced things, especially things that occur solely within my own consciousness, that have not been recorded and that, as far as I’m aware, no mortal but myself knows. These things have still happened.

But that point is broader than that which is a direct criticism of Chuang-Tzu. To understand what Chuang-Tzu has written, an understand of the Chinese in which it was written is necessary. The ancient Chinese language does not give its words hard-and-fast definitions, and the ancient Chinese form of constructing sentences does not work in the blueprint-specificities with which we are familiar. Ancient Chinese was a more archaic, organic, flowing sort of communication device. It conveyed broad ideas and romantic brush-strokes. Further, Taoists dabble in one of the more interesting philosophical hallmarks of Hinduism and Buddhism: the ego illusion. This, actually, is the deep root of Chuang-Tzu’s metaphor here.

A discussion of the nature of the ego illusion is something that is REALLY for another letter, seeing as how this one is already on its third page. But suffice it to say that the Taoists believe in a unity of things. To the Taoist, separation between entities is not a necessity. When Chuang-Tzu questions whether he was Chou or a butterfly, he is entering into discussion on relative space. Alan Watts, in a lecture on Taoism, once said that, in a vacuum, without a point of positive reference, it is impossible to tell which of two objects move. That is to say, if you construct a hypothetical space with no zero-point of origination, and place within it two separate objects occupying different portions of that space, and one of them moves, it is objectively impossible to tell which one is moving. This is a very real and important point that is quite important, even outside of philosophy. Physicists often employ this truth when dealing with moving bodies—it can sometimes be easier to assume that the more complex body is stationary and a simpler body is moving. When one performs the calculations, we would get the same result with either one moving, but one calculation is simply easier to perform.

You lastly treat on the idea of Taoism as a yin to, perhaps, Christ’s yang. I must admit that I am very glad that you brought this up, because Taoism as a philosophico-religious yin has been an idea with which I have been toying for some time. However, I believe you have placed a yang-centric interpretation onto the yin-yang dichotomy that is not what is intended and abuses the concept. The whole point of yin-yang is that the two are in harmony and cannot exist without each other. The whole point is that BOTH are beautiful, and wholesome, and correct. There can be no feminine without the masculine, there can be no positive without the negative, there can be no light without darkness. The Tao, then, is not a “yin of misguided thinking” against Christ’s “yang of truth,” more accurately it is a “yin of mystery and darkness” against Christ’s “yang of understanding and light.” While the image of the light is a popular symbol of Christ’s majesty and truth, pure light is blinding, and when blinded we are overwhelmed by darkness. Fear of darkness and mystery is not, I believe, what Christ wants from us. Indeed, I believe it is our duty to take Christ as our light into the darkness. Delving into mystery and the unknown enriches us, teaches us, emboldens us. Christ can be held up as the light of comfort in that darkness, as we are indeed taught to do in the face of death. Death is the great mystery, the great darkness, the great unknown, but with the light of Christ in our hearts it is not to be feared. We may venture forth and be safe in the knowledge of our own eternality. The darkness, then, is something that is beautiful and necessary in our development as people, and should not be seen as something from which we need deliverance. With yin and yang the whole point is to embrace the two equally for balance and harmony. To allow the yang to overrun the yin is as much folly as it is to allow the yin to overrun the yang.


– William Byatt

Categories: eastern, philosophy
  1. July 9, 2010 at 4:29 pm

    You’re an eloquent one. I like your style of thinking, Mr. Byatt. Get down to Barbados sometime and I’ll buy you a beer.

    Uncle Tambour

  2. Kevin Leonard
    September 12, 2012 at 6:10 pm

    Really lovely. I appreciate every thought, every sentiment. I came here from a search on the Open Letter, but I think I’ll stick around a while. Thank you.

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