Given that we can not speak of the actual Tao, what follows is my incorrect essay on the relation between the Tao Te Ching and Martial Arts:
What is the most compelling opening lines of a book you’ve ever read? Mine change pretty frequently, like pretty much every time I read a new book. My current favorite lines are: “The Way that can be walked is not the eternal Way. The name that can be named is not the eternal name.” At first, they just seem dumb. Contradictory, maybe. Confusing, definitely.
I mean, here’s a book called “The Book of the Way and Virtue” and the very first lines in the book basically say “you can’t walk the way and you can’t talk about it either.” So if you can’t do it and you can’t speak of it, how the heck is a book going to help?
Let’s step onto the training mats, where we can be more hands on and hopefully stop our heads from spinning. Let’s suppose you’ve grappled with the idea of truth before and you’ve come to realize it’s not easy to pin down what truth is, let it’s downright impossible to tap truth out.
So if you’ve grappled with truth, you’ve probably put on the gloves and sparred with virtue as well. Sneaker of a partner, virtue. It’s hard to know what the heck the rules are when you’re playing with virtue. Full contact? Touch sparring? Are the legs targets? Oh wait, we can do sweeps now? Virtue, what the heck are the rules? Yeah. It’s pretty much impossible to sort out the sparring rules with virtue – the punches start flying before you even salute in.
Let’s step back off the mats before we get our heads knocked off. How can a book that’s supposed to be about virtue that says you can’t talk about virtue going to help us spar with virtue? It does so by bring practical. If we can’t talk about virtue, then we should probably talk about practicality. What works? Doing as little as possible. What’s the most efficient way to solve a problem? The way with the fewest unintended consequences.
But what about ultimate truth? What about perfect virtue? Those pursuits are unattainable and just guarantee headaches. Instead, notice how the world works and work with it, instead of opposing it by pursuing the impossible.
Let’s step back on the mats and grapple with truth again. Well, not truth exactly, but essentially anyone else, because they’re as close to truth as we can get. Since you know truth is nearly impossible to pin and will absolutely never tap, just pick somebody else. Anybody else. Let go of your expectations, there is no absolute perfect technique accessible to you or any other human. Be practical and do what works instead of seeking the ideal, because the ideal is unachievable. See what is really there instead of theorizing about what should be there because what should be there isn’t actually there and isn’t actually on the mats with you. Don’t overthink what you’re doing, about some amazing version of you that always gets it right, because you never will get it just right even though you will get better and you will sometimes do things that work.
As long as we’re being practical, let’s stop trying to spar virtue too, who is pretty much the lousiest partner ever. Virtue cheats, changes the rules, and then ignores the rules they just set – so how do you spar virtue? You spar them by not sparring them. Instead, you spar everyone else. Anyone else. Forget about the perfect sparring rules. They’ve always been arbitrary and always will be arbitrary. Layer upon layer of history and at every moment someone was just making it up. Why add to the arbitrary? Just see what your partner is doing and respond. Don’t name the game. Don’t anticipate the game. Just play.
The Tao Te Ching tells us to be empty and empty is just another way of saying “full of possibilities”. Sure, that’s hard to be full of possibilities and let go of perfection, but martial arts is hard. The punch that can be thrown is not the perfect punch. The throw that can be thrown is not the eternal throw. There is no perfect or eternal, so the best we can do is be practical. The Tao works, because it is made up and we acknowledge it as such.