The Tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal name.
The Tao is both named and nameless.
As nameless it is the origin of all things;
as named it is the Mother of 10,000 things
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery;
ever desiring, one sees only the manifestations.
And the mystery itself is the doorway
to all understanding.
Tao Te Ching
composed by Lao Tzu (6th century BCE)
The ultimate philosophical views of Buddhism and Taoism regarding the nature of reality, as expressed here, are remarkably similar, perhaps even identical. It's not too surprising then to learn that Lao Tzu, in China, and Shakyamuni Buddha, in India, lived and at a similar time on earth.
Here, Lao Tzu offers an elegant portrait of what in Buddhism might be called the Two Truths: The truth of Ultimate Reality (or Interdependence, or Emptiness), and the truth of Conventional Reality. These truths co-exist, and yet at the same time, are seemingly contradictory. In fact, neither could be so, without the other.
Ultimate Reality is the name given to the ultimate nature of all that is (and isn't), the fact that although things appear to exist independent of other so-called things, and that we ourselves appear to "exist" independent of other beings, this is true, but in a relative and limited sense. (This is also referred to as dualistic reality.) It is how things appear to us to be; not how they are in an ultimate sense. We name objects, we name things, and the name seems to represent that thing, or person or other being. But however useful the name is, it is also in a way, a prison. The real, or unchanging nature of any object - or even of the self - cannot be found! This is in part because it does not actually exist independent of any other thing, not to mention the fact that at every moment, all phenomena is in constant flux, composed of innumerable smaller particles and space; the table you think you're sitting at now, all abuzz with the movement and energy of billiions of ever changing sub-atomic particles, is profoundly different than the same "table" was a minute ago. And that difference is not just academic.
Try and try as we might, finding anything, separate from any other thing, or self-contained, or having some - any! - permanent characteristic, simply cannot be done. We can point towards this ultimate nature, but not at the thing itself. This is as true for external objects, as it also is for thoughts, feelings, sensations, and all of the elements which we aggregate under the name of "I" or "me." (This idea is also not unlike those religions which identify "God," as ineffable, infinite and eternal, beyond cause, naming or conceptualization, also non-dual.)
Lao Tzu also mirrors the teachings of Buddhism in pointing out that when we are attached to our desires, we are victims of this "naming" falsehood, and therefore, misperceive the nature of the objects of our desire, too, believing them to exist as independent objects, when in fact, this is utterly false, and leads us only to further attachment and aversion, and further spins on the wheel of Samsara.
Rather, by learning, slowly, over time, to at least loosen our grip on our desires (or use the power of our desires to recognize our delusions), we begin to be able to identify reality as it actually "is," as opposed to how we inaccurately project it to be. The Buddha showed that due to the many different dispositions of beings, there are as many different ways, or practices that one can engage in to begin to peel away at this shroud that impairs our ability to perceive things, and ourselves, as they are, and as we are. The absence of these delusions, is known as enlightenment.
In the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, the two main practices to achieve this state of enlightenment, are the practice of wisdom - the apprehension of the empty nature of phenomena - and compassion, the wish to relieve the suffering of all sentient beings, including ourselves. As we practice each, we move towards the other as well.
And thus the "mystery" - the curiosity stoked by wishing to reconcile this unavoidable, apparent puzzle, is itself the doorway to its unveiling, or perhaps, from a Buddhist perspective, the path to enlightenment.
In this hastily written commentary, I've certainly made errors and many omissions. Kindly then accept only that which makes sense to you, and which you can verify by your own learning and investigation, and leave the rest.
The translation above is that used in Dr. Wayne Dyer's remarkable work, "Change Your Thoughts, Change your Life: Living the Wisdom of the Tao."
Shown in the photograph is the Wissahickon Creek and valley, view from the Walnut Lane Bridge, in Philadelphia.