Philosophical portraiture: ‘What the eyes cannot see’

In Aleksandra’s recently completed philosophical portrait (visible below), the man exhibits soft concentration while the woman exudes a soft composure attained through experience and contemplative practice. Both appear to be thinking together about the non-discursive.


The allusion in the title is to an early Daoist text called Inward Training. In Verse 4, the authors write,

As for the Way:

It is what the mouth cannot speak of,

The eyes cannot see,

And the ears cannot hear.

‘Yet here I am in my wretchedness’

The end of Chapter 6 of Chuang Tsu’s Inner Chapters is startling. It has been raining for 10 days, and one friend, Tsu Ysu, believes his friend Tsu Sang to be in a bad way. When he arrives at Tsu Sang’s house, he hears a lamentation. ‘O Mother! O Father! Is it heaven, or is it man?’

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On the ‘profound de’: An excerpt from David E. Cooper’s Convergence with Nature: A Daoist Perspective

The following, 10 lines down below the hash marks, is an excerpt from David E. Cooper’s Convergence with Nature: A Daoist Perspective (Green Books, 2012), pp. 76-7. In the Daoist tradition, the sage was someone who lived according to the Way (dao). But how was he to do so? The sage cultivated “profound de.De can be translated, variously, as “virtue” or “inherent capacity” or as finding one’s “appropriate place and function in the world” (72). What then of “profound de?” This is embodied fully “when virtue displays its implicit understanding of dao” (74), an understanding that is practical, exhibited in action and attitude, in tone and style, not in theoretical discourse, hence in words piled on words. We have in mind a boatman upon the water, not a scholar entombed in tomes. Accordingly, for a sage to live with de is for him to shape himself and to be shaped by a consonant harmony with the Way.

In his comportment towards other people and creatures, the sage is gentle, respectful, tolerant and compassionate. For he is, after all, without a sense of himself as anything special; he does not see himself as an autonomous being set over and against other creatures which matter only as means to the satisfaction of his wants and ambitions.

In his bodily comportment, the sage is relaxed and tranquil, balanced and poised, yet possessed of vitality and energy, of a still power. He joins his body, effortlessly and easily, to the prevailing rhythms of the natural world–the seasons, the patterns of weather, night and day, growth and decay. As such, he accommodates himself to the general pattern of heaven-and-earth, of a physical universe whose harmony and steadiness are preconditions for experience of a world.

What today might be called the ‘lifestyle’ of the sage is modest and simple, though not necessarily austere. Drinking wine or beer, enjoying conversation, listening to music played on a zither or flute–these may be among the pleasures of sages. Not among them are the pleasures that people try to obtain from self-centred and artificial desires–desires shaped by the social pressures, conventions and technological imperatives of a world divorced from natural ways of living. These are the assertive desires and pleasures of men and women who have ‘lost the Way’.

What of the tone or style of the sage’s conduct of everyday business, of how he goes about the world? In his actions, gestures, demeanour and speech, the sage shows himself to be responsive but steady, focused but spontaneous, firm but flexible, reserved but accessible. He follows no rigid plans, and does not espouse goals that are to be achieved come what may. Hence, he does not force people or things to fit in with plans or goals. His is not, however, the spontaneity of impulse and immediate passion: his actions are not actes gratuitis, for this is a spontaneity that distorts reality. Instead, his is a spontaneity of a reflective person who accommodates actions and words to the way things are, not to how they seem when distorted by prejudice or passion. It is a spontaneity consonant with the dao. The action of dao, too, is free from distortions and from outside pressures. Dao‘s action, too, is never forceful, for nothing stands in its way that it needs to overcome. Its ‘giving’ of a world of experience is a seamless and continuous flow, and the sage’s route through the world is one of unresisting and uncomplaining immersion in this flow.