I recently found myself practicing yoga asana in a very crowded studio -- so crowded that our yoga-mats were practically touching: not more than a half-inch or so between them.
To my left was a guy who had the letters L-O-V-E tattooed, respectively, on the top-side of his little, ring, middle and first fingers of his right hand. The letters were oriented so that they could be read properly as the word "love" only when you were facing him. From my vantage-point (side-by-side with him, when both of us were in downward-dog) they were upside-down and backwards -- so it took me a few seconds to actually figure out what they were spelling.
After an "oh, please" moment of eye-rolling, I recalled a time in my life when -- as an undergraduate, in classes I found particularly boring -- I would write my class notes in mirror-image format: from right to left and backwards on the page, so that they could be properly read only by holding the notebook up in front of a mirror.
And then -- more apropos of our shared yoga context -- it brought to mind how, in Kashmir Shaivism, the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet are mapped onto stages in the creation of the manifest world, and -- in particular -- the human body. It's a way-complex cosmological system, of which I know very little -- just territory that my mind happened to visit, briefly, upon seeing the L-O-V-E tattoo-letters (which soon were being washed in rivers of sweat) on the fingers of my yoga-asana neighbor.
~ * ~
Anyway, my L-O-V-E-fingered friend came to mind again, as I was recently finishing a glossary entry exploring the Chinese word ming -- which generally translates into English as "name," and is opposed to Chang, which refers to the nameless Absolute. These two words -- ming and Chang -- are pivotal within first verse of the Daode Jing, rendered below by Jonathan Star [whose Tao Te Ching: The Definitive Version, by the way, I highly recommend, for its inclusion of a comprehensive verbatim translation of the 830 Chinese characters of the text, listing the multiple possible meanings of each]:
A way that can be walked
is not The Way
A name that can be named
is not The Name
Tao is both Named and Nameless
As Nameless, it is the Origin of all things
As Named, it is the Mother of all things
A mind free of thought,
merged within itself,
beholds the essence of Tao
A mind filled with thought,
identified with its own perceptions,
beholds the mere forms of this world
Tao and this world seem different
but in truth they are one and the same
The only difference is in what we call them
How deep and mysterious this unity is
How profound, how great!
It is the truth beyond the truth,
the hidden within the hidden
It is the path to all wonder;
the gate to the ecstatic nature of everything!
As you can see, it's the dynamic between the Absolute Reality (Chang) of Tao and the names/labels (ming) constituting the phenomenal world that is the subject of this verse.
Now, what's particularly interesting about the word ming is that it carries two related but seemingly contrary meanings: (1) on the one hand, ming refers to the the "names and forms" themselves (as specific phenomena) of the manifest world; though (2) on the other hand -- when rendered with a capital "M" -- Ming represents the power inherent in the Absolute to manifest names-and-forms. In the first case, it's basically in contrast to the Absolute (Chang), while in the latter case, it is an aspect/energy of that Absolute, and so conceived as functioning in communion with it.
The emphasis given to the Absolute vs. the names-and-forms; and the extent to which "ming" is rendered as names in opposition to the Absolute, or as the power-of-manifestation inherent within the Absolute -- are choices that each translator must make. The beauty of the original text, in Chinese, is that its ambiguity along these lines allows for a simultaneous resonance with these multiple meanings.
~ * ~
One way of understanding these various meanings is in relation to different stages along a nondual spiritual path: with the perception of Chang and ming as strongly opposed being a more provisional (though no less necessary) understanding; in relation the the deeper realization of Chang and Ming as simply two sides of the same coin (like Shiva & Shakti, or God & the Holy Spirit).
So, for instance, we might consider -- in a most general way -- the journey from ignorance to awakening to consist of the following four stages:
(1) Deep in ignorance, characterized by unconscious efforting (waiting, resisting, hope/fear) -- rooted in unconscious identification with names/forms, (i.e. ming) and attendant conceptual elaborations. In this state of being, actions are determined almost entirely by unconscious, habitual patterns rooted in ignorance (not-seeing our True Nature) -- though we believe strongly that we are an autonomous individual, with the free will to choose our actions.
(2) Starting to become aware of -- or at least having glimpses of -- this efforting / conceptual elaboration. Our new capacity to "witness" these heretofore unconscious mechanisms is supported by making a strong distinction between Chang (Absolute) and ming (names-and-forms) -- and doing our best to shift our allegiance (our sense of "who we are") from ming to Chang. This represents the foundation of the various forms of ....
(3) Skillful efforting -- via techniques designed to gradually dissolve veils/obscurations to our True Nature -- which support a continual unraveling of old habitual patterns (those rooted in ignorance) -- and the simultaneous unveiling of patterns (ways of being/becoming) more in alignment with Absolute Reality. These practices come to natural conclusion in our emerging capacity for ....
(4) Resting in the state-less state of no-effort: in perfect alignment in/as the Absolute (Chang) -- which through capital-"M" Ming (as the enlightened-power of the Absolute) manifests now as flow, as spontaneously skillful action born of Universal Intelligence. The only "choice" now is to spontaneously, effortlessly manifest as the most skillful action/appearance possible, given the specific circumstances, within their multiple (and increasingly transparent) contexts.
~ * ~
By the end of the yoga class -- when all of us were resting in shavasana (corpse pose) -- I had forgotten completely about my neighbor's L-O-V-E tattoos, along with my irritation/fascination with them.
In that state of deep relaxation, a sense of the body melting, then dissolving .... so that when the bell rings, as a gentle invitation to emerge from the pose, there's often a moment (as there was on this particular day) -- from a state devoid of body-awareness -- of not-quite-remembering which body is "mine" -- which (of the many laying there in the room) to inhabit again, to come back into the waking world.
It's just a flash, of course -- quickly replaced by the certainty that this body and not that one is mine -- though offers a glimpse, perhaps, of the intuitive knowing of a shared and infinitely expansive Body of Tao ...
~ * ~
So coming around again to Chang and Ming, the Absolute and names/labels:
If -- just for fun -- we consider our human body as metaphorically representing Chang, the Absolute, then perhaps the distinction between small-"m" ming and capital-"M" Ming could be rendered as something akin to the difference between, on the one hand, choosing to tattoo the letters L-O-V-E onto ones body (affixing them "from the outside," as it were); and, on the other hand, accessing a "space" in which ones entire body -- every organ, cell and vibratory fragment -- manifests spontaneously as, and so naturally emanates, the Love that is its True Nature.
In the latter case, Chang & Ming -- the Absolute and appearances-ripe-with-the-energy-of the-Absolute -- are freed to relate in the manner of friends or sweet lovers: each enhancing, ornamenting, playfully mirroring the other ....