Above it, not bright
Below it, not dark
Continuing endlessly, cannot be named
It returns back into nothingness
Thus it is called the form of the formless
The image of the imageless
This is called enigmatic
Tao Te Ching, chapter 14 — Derek Lin.
Artists, poets and philosophers throughout the centuries have striven, through words and brushstrokes, to describe that which words and brushstrokes simply cannot capture. The effort to do so has led humankind down a twilight path where form and substance flicker in and out of existence like the flame from a candle in a vacuum, and encouraged us to cast our expression free from its limits, allowing it to float above the world of definite lines and to explore the boundless mystery that beckons us toward it.
In the modern world, a mystery is something to be unravelled or a veil that is drawn across matters that are not for us to know. But Taoists have always been drawn to mystery. Just as a sheet draped over a statue reveals the shape of the statue beneath, so mystery, to a Taoist, is revealing of the secrets of the universe; you just need to know how to look.
Looking out my window now I can see that the wind is blowing. I cannot see the wind, but its presence is evident by the swaying of the trees. I can thus describe the wind purely by the movements of the branches and leaves. If I tell you that the tree I am looking at now is bent to the point of submission before springing back defiantly like a clenched fist being shaken at the gathering storm, you might get the idea the wind is blowing strongly. If, however, I describe the leaves as tingling excitedly as if good news were spreading between them, it is fairly clear the wind is nothing more than a gentle breeze.
It might be said that to someone with no experience of wind, if you'll pardon the expression, a poetic description of it has the potential to evoke a far more real sense of it than a purely scientific description ever could.
So it was the ink well of mystery that the Taoists dipped their pens and wrote about that which cannot be written, scratching theirs thoughts onto paper as if in blood and inspiring in us today the majesty of what lies beneath the veil.
The ethereal nature of much of Chinese classical art is revealing of this basic principle. While there are always exceptions which test any rule, in general, classical Chinese paintings assuage hard, definite lines and they allow form to melt into a void. Indeed, just as silence forms the framework around which written words are hung, so the void often serves as a substance from which features and figures emerge but never quite become separate from. Human figures, rather than standing out and dominating the landscape are often difficult to make out for they are either placed in context with their surroundings or else are made to clearly appear to be no more or less important than anything else.
Looking at the painting above, there is as much left unpainted as painted. The emptiness, unlimited as it is by strongly delineated shapes and forms, is suggestive of infinite possibility, and the image leaves the canvas and begins to expand in our minds, held back only by the restraints of our imaginations.
Lao Tzu, in the Tao Te Ching, wrote that the function of a room lies in its emptiness, as does the usefulness of a clay vessel lie in the emptiness that is enclosed by the potter's hands. Great Taoist writers, like Lao Tzu himself, and artists understood this concept and wielded it as a tool.
A single and ghostly line, undulating across an empty space is enough to suggest a mighty mountain range. The faintest hue, as barely perceptible as a fading bruise, bleeding into the sky, tells us the time of day. A solitary line, applied with a lightness of touch, reveals a bird soaring in flight. All arising from the infinite void as weakly and passingly as breath on a mirror.
The words and brushstrokes of a Taoist are not intended to capture form but to extend beyond it. They do not define meaning but transcend it. Rather than illuminate it, each stroke of the calligrapher's or artist's brush forms gateways to darkness, presenting mystery in all its majesty by means of the most subtle of suggestions.
It is not the fact of a tree or a mountain that is preserved, for in reality, even that which appears most solid is fleeting in nature: it is the essence. That is why, in Taoist art, mountains are no more tangible than cloud, and why, in its writing, a thing is never said to be one thing or another.
A classical Chinese painting may well be considered a metaphor for what the mind of a sage might look like: not empty, but emerging from emptiness; the lines between one thing and another absent, where form and substance hang in the air like an echo chiming through an infinite void of stillness and silence.
The enigmatic nature of Taoism turns some away from its teachings, but it really need not. Mystery is not to be feared nor is it to be avoided. Embraced, it can teach us many things.
Mystery of mysteries, the door to all wonders.
Tao Te Ching, chapter 1 — Derek Lin.