Imagine a regular graphite pencil.
Now, here’s your task—describe the pencil completely.
You can start simply at first: its colour, size, whether it has an eraser, whether it is sharpened or unsharpened, where you bought it from, etc. Then you may go into more detail and talk about the type of wood used in the shaft, what grade of graphite is being used (2B, B, HB, F…), where the graphite was mined, or how the pencil was manufactured.
OK, that’s a good start, but let’s keep going. Maybe you’d like to outline its various uses; writing, drawing, scratching your head, something to chew on, poking holes in things, rewinding a cassette tape (I’m dating myself). OK, good. These are all very good ways in describing a pencil, but guess what? it is only a partial description.
OK, let’s go further then. Perhaps you could outline the pencil’s historical origins? Who designed the first pencil? Where was it designed? What considerations there were for its shape? What are the different shapes?: hexagonal, round, triangular, flexible. There are so many things to list, in fact how could we forget to mention all the different types of pencils: Golf, eyeliner, carpenter, colour, grease, carbon, charcoal, watercolour.
Let’s not be deterred by this though.
So, let’s imagine through some miracle you have fashioned a complete description of the pencil. Now I hate to be the bearer of bad news but to be fair to everyone, your description now needs to be translated into all the other languages of the world. This is because a complete description is only ‘complete’ if it is more than just your sense of it. And so, translating also means accommodating all the subtle differences in meaning each language can have to a culture.
The ultimate thing is that which is beyond description. It is the thing that ‘is’. It is the ‘such-ness’ of it all, equally found in the magnificent and the mundane. Right here, right now.
Which brings us to the Tao. To a Taoist, the ultimate is the ‘Tao’, the thing that cannot be described. In fact, the first chapter of the fundamental text in Taoism (Tao Te Ching) reads like this:
To a taoist, “Everything is Tao, and Tao is unity of all things”. The Tao is the source and driving force behind the whole universe and its nature. It is inherent in everything, from the biggest to the smallest, and everything in between. This is not a mystical or religious notion, for the mysteries of the atomic world and the mysteries of the universe, as far as they are descriptions, are pointing to an ‘ultimate’. Which again seems mystical, but the Tao is not. It is rather something intrinsic, immediate and common; something beyond ideas and beyond description, like a pencil.