Would it be fair to consider the Tao of Taoism to be more-or-less the equivalent of the Aristotelian “unmoved mover”—the “first cause” of all motion in the universe? Let’s explore ….
Most two-year-olds, as they’re first learning how to speak, become fascinated with the question “why?”—which they quickly discover can be applied not only to their initial inquiry, but also—ad infinitum—to any subsequent answers:
Q1: Why do flowers bloom?
A1: Because the sun shines on them.
Q2: Why does the sun shine?
A2: Because of the chemical reactions in its fiery core.
Q3: Why are those reactions happening? … etc.
And this pretty much characterizes what western philosophers refer to as the “infinite regress” problem in cosmology, and the so-called “unmoved mover” (or we could say “unchanged changer”) paradox. Can we find a “first cause” or “primary cause” of all motion (all “creation”) in the universe?—a cause which itself is not the effect of a previous cause, and itself remains untouched by or impervious to the changes that it initiates?
It’s an age-old question, of course, which ultimately boils down to: “Who or what is responsible, ultimately, for this mess or miracle I call ‘my self’ and ‘my world’?” And because it’s the question that everyone is asking, each of the major religions of the world offers its own answer, in the form of “creation stories.”
Aside: Now the short answer, from a nondual perspective, is “You are!” ….
but that’s getting ahead of the game 🙂 .
Turtles All The Way Down
There’s a great story—relayed by Stephen Hawking in A Brief History Of Time—which, in illustrating a humorous collision between the cosmologies of western science and other (Hindu perhaps, or Native American) religious systems, makes reference to the infinite regress issue:
A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”
A Groundless “Ground Of Being”—Is This A Problem?
A really effective way of avoiding a solution is to habitually perceive and refer to the solution as an aspect of the problem …. so for instance, in the case at hand:
The assumption being made here—by western cosmologists just as much as by the “turtles all the way down” lady—is that if we trace things back and back and back, that ultimately we will, and we must, find some kind of clearly identifiable and solid “first cause.” Our “ground of being,” in other words, must live up to its name as a solid “ground.”
What we find, however, is that for nondual spiritual traditions such as Taoism, Buddhism, and Advaita Vedanta, having “nowhere to land” is not typically conceived of as a problem! Quite the opposite, in fact: we learn and come to experience directly (once having understood the true “problem” to be our habitual solidifying of that which is not, in reality, solid) that the “ground” of groundlessness is the only true stability/security—since it represents an alignment with Reality, with how things truly are.
Causes And Effects, Things And No-Things
As further groundwork for exploring Tao as a potential candidate for “first cause,” let’s be clear about what a cause-and-effect paradigm requires: namely, identifiable “things” which then play the roles of identifiable “causes” and their identifiable “effects.” While such a paradigm—as a kind of collective projection—has validity within limited (say, Newtonian) frameworks, it does not stand up to a deeper analysis.
Excerpting from my review of David Loy’s Nonduality:
“The category conflict between Parmenidean Being and Heraclitean Becoming is resolved by a double dialectic that first dissolves all things into temporal flux and then turns that flux back upon itself, leaving an Eternal Now that is not incompatible with change when we realize that it is always now.”
The two steps of this “double dialectic”—spelled out in a bit more detail—are as follows:
Step one: “Things” are shown to be none other than their causes and conditions (i.e. to be wholly determined by their parts, contexts, and conceptual designations—without any “essence” or fixed “identity” as an identifiable “thing”). So: what’s left is a temporal flux, seemingly defined by the mechanism of cause-and-effect (aka karma).
Step two: The mechanism of cause-and-effect (the supposed driving force, in Newtonian space/time, of this continuous temporal flux) is seen to depend for its own existence upon the existence of identifiable “things” with which to function (via causes and effects). However, since any such “things” have, in the previous step, been dissolved—shown to be nonexistent, as such—the space/time cause-and-effect mechanism no longer has a ground upon which to function, so itself is dissolved.
In other words: “things” and “cause-and-effect” are mutually dependent; you can’t have one without the other.
So: since ultimately there are no “things,” ultimately there is no “cause and effect” …. so ultimately the “problem” of a first-cause is not a problem.
The Buck Stops Here
Having realized the illusory nature of a Newtonian cause-and-effect paradigm, what becomes of our search for a “first cause”—say from a more nondual, Taoist point of view? A story relayed in The Island by Ajahn Pasanno & Ajahn Amaro may offer a clue ….
By way of introduction: In Buddhist practice, attention is given not so much to looking for a “first cause” (something which the Buddha actively discouraged) as to seeking a “final dissolution”: the “place” in which the elements “cease without remainder.” Arriving at this “final dissolution” equates to a transcendence of nama/rupa i.e. subject/object duality, which, in Buddhism, is understood to be the origin of all suffering and dis-ease.
Aside: Paradoxically, this “final dissolution” turns out to be equivalent to the (Buddhist version of an ontological) “first cause”—for the “place” out of which all phenomena arise, is none other than the “place” into which they dissolve—but once again we’re getting ahead of ourselves 🙂 .
The story relayed here, by Ajahn Pasanno & Ajahn Amaro, recounts an episode recorded in the Kevaddha Sutta of the Pali Canon, and—as you’ll see—is quite resonant with our “infinite regress” theme:
“[The Buddha] tells of a monk in the mind of whom the question arises: ‘I wonder where it is that the four great elements—Earth, Water, Fire and Wind—cease without remainder?’ Being a skilled meditator, the bhikkhu in question enters a state of absorption and ‘the path to the gods becomes open to him.’
He begins putting his question to the first gods he meets ….
Onward and upward through successive heavens he travels, continually being met with the same reply: ‘We do not know but you should try asking …’ “
Up & up the celestial hierarchy this inquisitive monk climbs, each time meeting with the proverbial passing-of-the-buck: one god after the next unable to answer his question.
Eventually, he finds himself in the presence of none other than the Great Brahma Himself (the CEO of the Hindu pantheon) who—after hemming and hawing and in all variety of ways attempting to change the subject, admits that he also has no idea of the answer to the monk’s question. At this point Brahma suggests—in a whisper, so as not to compromise, among those close to him, his status as all-knowing—a consultation with the Blessed Lord (aka the Buddha), and advises that whatever answer Buddha offers, the monk should accept as true.
In other words, the top-God of Hinduism is (at least according to this Buddhist scripture) admitting to the greater wisdom of Shakyamuni Buddha.
So then, in the Sutta, the story continues, with Buddha reporting:
“So that monk, as swiftly as a strong man might flex or unflex his arm, vanished from the brahma world and appeared in my presence. He prostrated himself before me, and sat down to one side and said: ‘Lord, where do the four great elements—the earth element, the water element, the fire element, and the air element—cease without remainder?’
I replied: ‘… But monk, you should not ask your question in this way: ‘Where do the four great elements—the earth element, the water element, the fire element, and the air element—cease without remainder?’ Instead, this is how the question should have been put:
‘Where do earth, water, fire and air no footing find?
Where are long and short, small and great, fair and foul—
Where are ‘name and form’ wholly destroyed?’
And the answer is: [drum-roll ….]
‘Where consciousness is signless, boundless, all-luminous,
That’s where earth, water, fire and air find no footing,
There both long and short, small and large, fair and foul—
There ‘name and form’ are wholly destroyed.
With the cessation of [limited] consciousness this is all destroyed.’
Thus the Lord spoke, and the householder Kevaddha, delighted, rejoiced at his words.”
By way of elaborating on this “signless, boundless, all luminous” consciousness, in which “name and form are wholly destroyed,” Ajahn Pasanno and Ajahn Amaro go on to say that the basic idea is that:
“… when the dualistic, discriminative process is checked then the ‘thing-ness,’ the solid externality of the world and the “me-ness’ of the mind are seen as essentially insubstantial. There is no footing for apparent independent existence of mental or material objects of an independent subject.”
The destruction of “name and form” (nama/rupa) is equivalent to the destruction of “subject and object”—i.e the dissolution of subject/object dualities. In this passage, “destroyed” is the English word chosen to translate nirodha—which typically is rendered as “cessation” but can also mean “cut off” or “held in check.”
Interestingly, debates among translators about how best to render nirodha open up to a much more affirmative view of phenomenal appearances, than is often associated with the Theravada Buddhist path in particular. Here, for instance, Venerable P.A. Payutto offers insight into ways that nirodhahas been mistranslated:
“… Generally speaking, the word ‘cease’ means to do away with something which has already arisen, or the stopping of something which has already begun. However, nirodha in the teaching of Dependent Origination … means the non-arising, or non-existence, of something because the cause of its arising is done away with. For example, the phrase “when avijja is nirodha, sankhara are also nirodha,” which is usually taken to mean, “with the cessation of ignorance, volitional impulses cease,” in fact means that “when there is no ignorance, or no arising of ignorance, or when there is no longer any problem with ignorance, there are no volitional impulses, volitional impulses do not arise, or there is no problem from volitional impulses.” It does not mean that ignorance already arisen must be done away with before the volitional impulses which have already arisen will also be done away with.
Where nirodha should be rendered as cessation is when it is used in reference to the natural way of things, or the nature of compounded thing ….
… Therefore, translating nirodha as “cessation,” although not entirely wrong, is nevertheless not entirely accurate ….”
Tao As Ontological First-Cause
So, coming back to our original question, about the extent to which it’s fair to consider Tao as something akin to an Aristotelian “first cause” …
As I see it, Tao is best understood as an ontological rather than a temporal “first cause.” Tao is not so much a static primordial “entity” which “sets things into motion,” in a Newtonian fashion—as it is the ever-present yet ever-elusive quicksilver essence of a universe that is intrinsically alive, and manifests continuously as the holographic dance of the ten-thousand-things.
In the same way that the translation of nirodha allows for volitional impulses to “not be a problem,” so it is that understanding Tao as an ontological first cause—(what Wei Wu Wei refers to as being) “at right angles to” the appearances of various cause-and-effect mechanisms—allows for the continuous arising/dissolving of phenomenal appearances to be experienced as “no problem.”
Tao is the realm transcendent of (while simultaneously being the true substance of) nama/rupa—of subject/object and all subsidiary dualistic polarities—and so transcends the moving/unmoved, changing/unchanged polarities also—offering resolution to the seeming paradox of the “unmoved mover.”
To the extent that we’re looking for “first cause” or “origin of the universe” as a Newtonian space-time event—Tao is not the answer. To the extent that we’re looking for firm materialist ground, or some kind of ultimate conceptual meaning—Tao is not that. But to the extent that we’re willing to follow the infinite regress (of elemental building-blocks, linguistic signs, turtles or whatever) to its finally a-logical conclusion, and beyond ….
… a playful first-cause effortlessly emerges, again and again, infinitely closer than we could ever imagine.