Published on [Permalink]
Reading time: 3 minutes
Posted in:

The open future of the Tao

In Hunger Mountain, David Hinton describes the Taoist cosmology as it developed in ancient China as a “spiritual ecology” in which the Cosmos is divided into two elements: Presence/Being and Absence/Nonbeing.

Presence is simply the empirical universe, which the ancients described as the ten thousand living and nonliving things in constant transformation; and Absence is the generative void from which this ever-changing realm of Presence perpetually emerges, although it should not be conceived in a spatial sense, as if there were a pool of emptiness somewhere in the universe. Within this framework, Tao (Way) can be understood as the generative process through which the ten thousand things appear out of Absence and disappear back into it, and Lao Tzu often employs female terminology to describe the elemental contours of Tao, where Absence looms large as the enduring source of it all: “mother of all beneath heaven,” “nurturing mother,” “dark female-enigma.”

There is creativity at the heart of the Cosmos.

In “The Habits of Highly Cynical People,” Rebecca Solnit discusses cynicism as a defense mechanism:

Cynicism is first of all a style of presenting oneself, and it takes pride more than anything in not being fooled and not being foolish. But in the forms in which I encounter it, cynicism is frequently both these things. That the attitude that prides itself on world-weary experience is often so naïve says much about the triumph of style over substance, attitude over analysis.

I take Solnit to mean that this cynicism is naive not because it lacks experience or information (in fact, it is often a reaction to too much information (hence it is the house style of Twitter)) but because it is simplistic and untested. Naive cynicism is the apologia of those who have given up. In the words of Solnit again, it “flattens out the past and the future” and shuts down nuanced conversations, preferring instead to use words as weapons and turn every conversation into a war.

Such cynicism has forgotten the creativity at the heart of the Cosmos.

Such cynicism has fallen into a mechanistic, billiard-ball conception of the Cosmos in which, to quote the proverb, “life is just one damned thing after another.” (If you’re tempted to say that physics has ruled out novelty or free will, please read this.)

Despite the insistence of naive cynicism, we know there are novel, unexpected events. If the ancient Taoists were right, this is exactly what we should expect. And if we live in an animate Cosmos, then we are not the only actors at work in the world. (Humans may have attained the status of a geological force, but the climate crisis may be Earth mobilizing an immune response against the lifeways of some of her hubristic children.) The Tao may bring us any number of unforeseen possibilities. The Cosmos is far from dead.

✍️ Reply by email

✴️ Also on