The Tao Te Ching – The Named & The Nameless: How That Relates to My Art & Writing

For many years, I have thought about the paradox involved with letters of the alphabet and the words that they create. In short, letters, in themselves mean nothing at all. Winnie the Pooh breaks it down for us:

“To the uneducated, an A is just three sticks.”
― A.A. Milne, The World of Winnie-the-Pooh

It is no secret that the Winnie-the-Pooh books are loaded with allusions to Zen philosophy.

Speaking very simplistically, the letter “A” means nothing, and even though the letters “A – P – P – L – E” might conjure thoughts of a fruit that is red, crisp, and juicy, the letters themselves say nothing. It is only because we have some previous understanding of an apple that, if we can read,   those letters might speak to us.

In talking about the letter “A”, Pooh is raising thoughts about the Named and the Nameless, as they are expressed in the anciet Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, as follows:

“The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.”

The letters “A – P – P – L – E” are not a  real apple. The letters merely allude to an apple. 

The letters “A – P – P – L – E” are the named.  They are the outward, more superficial representation of what the letters allude to.

The name that can be named is not the eternal named.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and Earth.

By merely spelling the word “apple,” one does not capture what he feels inside himself about apples. It is only when words become skilled writing that words about an apple can begin to capture our feelings about that apple.

Svg Free Download Onlinewebfonts - Outline Apple Clipart Black And White |  Clipart black and white, Apple outline, Apple clip art

In a similar way, a simple outline of an apple does not express what one might feel about an apple.

The feeling about the apple–or the essence of the apple–is something inside oneself. The feelings are the eternal.

The name that can be named is not the eternal named.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and Earth.

Poetry, as a group of words, comes closer than any writing that I know to the expression of the raw, nameless emotion within a poet. Excellent poetry has an almost mystical, indescribable quality. I am reminded of what Ralph Waldo Emerson said of poetry:

You might as well think to go in pursuit of the rainbow, and embrace it on the next hill, as to embrace the whole of poetry even in thought. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

It is because of poetry’s depth of meaning that good poems are not easily analyzed. That is because the common, generic words that we tend to use to describe are inadequate tools that we throw toward a representation of what we are feeling.

The Tao’s Nameless essence springs from the wells of one’s being.

Great paintings are like great poetry. They also have the capacity to capture an essence that is greater than mere words. 

When we think about an old, wise tree that we see standing on a hill, framed by the sunlight behind it, or when we see that special red tulip that has pierced the cold, white snow,  or when we see that one captivatingly misty night in which a hazy moon hangs in the gray-black darkness, we don’t think in terms of the letters that spell those things. We don’t think in terms of the named. We think in terms of our feelings about those things. The goal of the poet or the artist is to express those feelings that are almost inexpressible. Often, in seeing what a painter has painted, a non-painter might also begin to understand that eternal something about which the art was created.

“Je Vois les Autres” – Picasso
Translation- I see for other people.

What am I saying about Names and Naming?

I think that the bottom line in all of this is that understanding is a deep, complex thing. It lies with a feeling, and it is an emotional thing. In that way, understanding is beyond the black and white of crude letters of the alphabet.

As writers, we must do more than write a few crude words, and as painters, we must do more than replicate images. The artist’s and/or the writer’s challenge is to capture life’s essences.

WHY am I talking about Names and Naming?

Today, I am officially positioning myself with the artist, as opposed to a mere crafty type. My goal is to capture the ideal, or at least to aim for the ideal.

“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”
– Norman Vincent Peale –

True art is an arrow shot into the fog. Sometimes the arrow misses its mark entirely and sometimes it does not. Regardless of where the arrow lands, however, the artist needs to keep aiming for the truth–the Nameless–that which is beyond shallow words and beyond crude marks. And ultimately, I see my challenge as that of aiming for that greater truth.

Below is Chapter 1 of the Tao Te Ching. In chapter 1, you see the lines about the named and the nameless.


The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and Earth.
The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, o
ne can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one sees the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name; this appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.

Source: The Complete Tao Te Ching
Translated by Gia-Fu Feng (馮家福 Feng Jia-fu, 1919–1985) and Jane English (1942–)
Vintage Books, 1989  Online Here