“Names can name no lasting names”
After explaining that The Way cannot be expressed in words, Lao Tzu goes on to explain the illusory nature of words and language. A word is a verbal or symbolic signature that we use to refer to a specific thing. We see a large pillar-shaped life-form with branches and leaves, and call it a ‘Tree.’ Once we learn to tell it apart from other trees, we might be more specific, and call it ‘a Maple Tree’ or an ‘Ash Tree.’ From then on, if we want to be really pedantic, we might start using its Latinized name, in conjunction with the various ‘scientific terms’ that designate its specific attributes, until we find ourselves drowning in names and nomenclature! How far removed this all is from that beautiful, peaceful life-form rooted in the Earth, and dancing with the wind! Have any of these names brought us any closer to comprehending and understanding the essence of a tree? Or has it just bound it up in a conceptual prison, so that we can never again look at our friend, the tree, with clear, innocent eyes?
Of course, names are useful, as they help to distinguish one thing from another, and grant us a feeling of intimacy and kinship with the thus named object. This year, I charged myself with the task of learning the names of all my local trees, and I do truly feel closer to them as a result.
But, the important point that Lao Tzu is making, is that we must not mistake names for reality. Names are just labels – they are not the thing thus labelled. Just because we know the name of a particular thing, being, or object, we must not think that means we now fully understand the nature of that object. A name is just the external aspect of a thing, like clothes or flesh on the human body.
Taoists are not concerned with externals. They only care for externals in so much as they can reveal the internal.
But names can never tell you about the inner reality of a thing. They are distracting and inhibiting, and should not be trusted as a valid demarcation of truth, for the truth is no words.
Clinging to these words confuses and misdirects us. One of the reasons the teachings of Taoism and other Eastern Religions/philosophies so often strikes Westerners as bizarre and contradictory is because our language is very binary, and mono-dimensional. In our language, if one word testifies to the truth of a given thing, then it must, by implication, negate all that is does not specify. Tao is the very opposite of this, because it negates nothing, embodying all things. This is why Taoist psychologists urge us to cultivate The Mind of Tao, not The Human Mind.
The Human Mind is hindered by distinctions, divisions, theories, and categories. Endlessly dividing things into smaller and smaller pieces, it moves very far away from reality.
The Mind of Tao keeps things intact; whole. It does not need words, thoughts, or concepts to understand things. It is not separate from the things it seeks to understand, so it understands them effortlessly. Thus it is said “All knowledge is self-knowledge.”
So, names can names no lasting names. A tree is called one thing in this country, and another thing in a different country. In a different time, it will be called this, and in another time period, it will be called that. The names change, never lasting – but the tree remains – the permanent part of reality, around which illusions orbit.
It should also be understood just why Lao Tzu feels this way about language. Though Lao Tzu is our very ancient ancestor – (his name literally means ‘The Old Master’) – whom we consider to be the very embodiment of The Way, he was very much a renaissance man, who recognized that his own time period was very far from The Way indeed. Living during the historical Chinese era of The Warring States period, the country with torn apart by rivalries between emperors and feudatories. Confucianism had just appeared, endorsing rigid morality, social structure, hierarchy and bureaucracy. Philosophers squabbled over meaningless terminology, and wasted time on erudite arguments. Peace was nowhere to be found.
These were times in which Lao Tzu was living in. His understanding of Tao was not inspired by this tumultuous present, but by a past he was hoping to recreate. In this pre-historic golden age, men had no need for words, because people could communicate soundlessly to one another via telepathy. People were so in harmony with Heaven and Earth, that there would be no need to communicate anything about their external environment, as it was already a part of their internal environment. No distinction existed between inner and outer, as all things were One.
So, for Lao Tzu, the very fact that the Tao had to be put into words to guide people back to it, already demonstrated how far people had strayed from living in accordance with it. Sorrowfully, he laments this state of affairs. But, moved by compassion, and wanting people to partake of the harmony and bliss they had lost, he penned this sutra, hoping that people might use his wisdom-filled words to return to a state where words have no meaning, and nothing needs to be expressed or understood, for all things already are expressed understood.