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In what sense is the Tao real?

Some might claim that the Tao can be known only by mystical experience. Just what is mystical experience? Almost everyone knows what is meant by aesthetic experience, but what about mystical experience? These may be closely related, but I would hardly say they are identical! To me, the mystical sense is as different from the aesthetic sense as either is from the sense of humor.

But what is this mystical sense, and what is a mystical experience? Is it a free-floating experience, or is it an experience of something? And if it is an experience of something, is it an experience of something real or something existing only in the imagination?

So much controversy has ranged over this strange issue! Many psychologists of mysticism have gone to all sorts of lengths to prove that mystical experience is not an experience of anything real. They characterize mystics as people who are emotionally disturbed (often schizophrenic or hysterical) who populate their fantasy world with those things they were unable to find in the real world.

On the other hand, apologists for mysticism (who are usually philosophers rather than true mystics) have gone to equal lengths to try to convince us that what mystics perceive is something very real indeed. Well, who is right? Do the mystics perceive something real or not?

Well now, suppose two people, one a musician and the other extremely unmusical, are listening to a theme. The unmusical one admits frankly “I hear the notes, but I don’t hear the melody”. The musician assures the other that in addition to the individual notes, he hears something much more important—the melody!

Now, just what is this “melody” that the musician hears? The notes themselves—the sound waves, that is—are heard alike by musician and nonmusician and are universally acknowledged to be real in the purely physical sense. But what about the melody itself? Is it something real or does it exist only in the mind or imagination? The question is a rather strange one!

I think it would be most misleading to say that it exists only in the imagination; the musician who says he hears a melody is not just imagining things. No, the melody heard is something very real indeed, though whether it should be said to exist in the mind is a much more subtle question which I cannot answer. At any rate, I don’t think many will disagree when I say that melodies are real. And I think it is more in this sense of real that the Tao can be said to be real.

The true Taoists (or so called mystics of other religions, or even nontheistic mystics) directly perceive that which they call the Tao (or which others call God, Nature, the Absolute, Cosmic Consciousness) just as the musician directly perceives the melody. The musician does not need to have “faith” that there is a melody, nor does he have to accept the existence of the melody on some scriptural authority; he obviously has a direct experience of the melody itself. And once the melody is heard, it is impossible ever again to doubt it.

Just how is the Tao perceived directly? Well, how is a melody perceived directly? Through the sense of hearing? Not quite! The physical hearing process obviously plays a necessary role, but this is not the whole story. The nonmusician can have just as good auditory equipment as the musician, yet the musician experiences the melody whereas the other one does not. So what we call “hearing a melody” involves use of the word hearing in a more extended and subtle sense than “hearing the sounds”.

The point is that the melody is far more than a group of sounds; it is their sounds together with some sort of pattern or superstructure some-how imposed.

Some might say that the Tao is nothing more than the physical universe. But this would seem to miss the crucial point in much the same way as it would to say that a melody is nothing more than a group of sounds. Rather it might be said that the universe bears the same sort of relation to the Tao as the group of notes of a melody bears to the melody itself.

Raymond M.Smullyan, The Tao is Silent


Cheguei ao texto quase por acaso, mas ele aborda um tema sobre o qual tenho refletido muito, especialmente desde que terminei meu web-livro Meditando com Descartes: o ouvido, a sensibilidade, para a experiência metafísica.

Seria justamente nesse ponto inefável que a metafísica se distancia da filosofia e se aproxima da poesia. Mas prefiro deixar o tema para um texto futuro.

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