The Tao that can be told of is not the eternal Tao; the name that can be named is not the eternal name. The Nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth; the Named is the mother of all things. – Lao Tzu[i]
One day, while shepherding sheep somewhere in the Sinai desert, Moses saw a bush on fire. A shrub engulfed in flames in the middle of nowhere was odd enough, but even odder, the flames weren’t consuming the shrub. Walking closer to get a better look, a voice from the fire called to him. “Moses! Moses!” “I’m here,” he replied. “Don’t come any closer and take off your sandals. You’re standing on holy ground.” Uncovering his feet, Moses asked whom he was talking to. “I’m the God of your ancestors.” But Moses wasn’t satisfied; every God possessed a name. “What am I supposed to call you?” Instead of a name, the voice offered a title. “I Am the One that Exists.”
According to the story, when Moses later wrote down an account of his meeting, he recorded God’s title as YHWH, lacking any vowels, making it unpronounceable. Moses had encountered I Am, the Nameless One.
We’re not told how Lao Tzu first became aware of the Nameless One; we’re only told what he learned. The Nameless One, for Lao Tzu, referred to Tao, the unlimited and mysterious source of all things. Since the unlimited appears to us as emptiness, Tao forever recedes beyond our comprehension. No word or name can encompass Tao; any attempts at description are merely human expressions. Tao can only be experienced intuitively, in a place where words do not apply.
Tao literally means The Way, and the title of Lao Tzu’s book (Tao-te) is The Way of Virtue. As The Way, the origin all of things is an active principle, encompassing the movement of yin and yang that energizes the universe. This energy provides a flow to creation, like current in a stream, which reflects the qualities of Tao. What can be known of Tao is intuited through its actions in nature. Virtue lies in aligning our lives with those qualities: simplicity, openness, balance, humility, and benevolence. Creatures live best by emulating the source of life and following The Way.
Moses had a remarkably similar view. The Nameless I Am, as the only true existent, is the source of all else that exists. In that sense, both the universe and our lives are gifts that we never possess. I Am is Life, the eternally active force sustaining creation, which human concepts can never contain, just as we do not understand the meaning of life.
As Life, I Am is also The Way, and creation reveals the qualities that characterize Life’s presence in the world: humility, openness, honesty, graciousness, compassion. For Moses, those are laws for living. For Jesus, a follower of Moses, they are summarized within the law of love. At its most elemental, life is a manifestation of love, and The Way is one of love. People live best who obey the dictates of love.
As created things, we have names. For something to exist in our world, it must be named, and, for both Lao Tzu and Moses, naming described the process of creation. In Genesis, I Am calls out the names of light and darkness, day and night, sky, seas, earth, and people, making them exist. To be named is to be noticed; to be noticed is to be.
However, to be noticed is also to no longer be One. All created things exist discretely, set apart from their Source and each other. We live autonomous lives in a universe of objects that operate according to laws embedded within themselves, separate, entwined entities within a universe of names.
The Nameless One, lacking a name, goes unnoticed and works invisibly within our world. Moses and Lao Tzu agree on this, as well. To lack a name is to be undetected. In our world, the world of the named, it is to be unreal.
We experience this in our lives all the time. To be made nameless is to not exist. It’s why the incarcerated are given numbers. The nameless minorities, homeless, mentally ill, and addicted can be ignored because they lack names, and we don’t give them names so they can be ignored. As a result, in our world, people fight to be recognized and called upon.
The Nameless I Am does not seek recognition. None is necessary for the One that truly exists. Tao has no need of proof. But everyone can seek recognition from the One without a name, just as Tao can be discerned by those who have eyes to see.
[i] Tao-te Ching, The Way of Lao Tzu, c. 1, translation by Wing-Tsit Chan, The Library of Liberal Arts, 1963, p. 97.