Sunday, December 17, 2006


When the sage is one with the Dao, he is one with the realm of the limitless. The process of understanding or ‘knowing’ of this realm requires a different course than the scientific approach to knowledge that we have become accustomed to in this day and age. The word science itself has a very interesting etymological background, coming from the Latin present participle sciere ‘to know.’ While western thought certainly has had its mystical thinkers as well, the whole of our intellectual history could be defined more or less by the pursuit of something certain. Even with the proofs of the existence of god, many thinkers have tried to make the transcendent adhere to principles that could be proven beyond all doubt, providing us with a ‘scientific’ grounding for our believes as well. The great scientific-philosophical mind of Aristotle gave us the categories from which to break down being into more measurable and easier to handle beings. Like an army commander dividing his enemy, Aristotle divided being, making it easier for later generations of scientific-minded thinkers to conquer.

What we have with the Dao of Lao Zi, perhaps, is being undivided, the mystical source of all creation. Thus we also have to have a different way of thinking, a new approach that is less ‘scientific,’ one that sees the source instead of the manifestations. In the Dao De Jing we thus see Lao Zi draw a distinction between ‘zhi’ or wisdom and ‘ming’ or illumination. Wisdom is thus an understanding of the external appearances. This perspective, however, is not complete and prevents the ‘knower’ from achieving identification with the highest ‘de,’ which is the created things connection with the Dao:

“To know others is wise, to know yourself is illumination.

To conquer others requires force, to conquer yourself takes strength.

Contentment brings true wealth, to persevere requires will.

He who does not lose his place (with the Dao) endures.

Through this although one dies, it is without extinction, which is true longevity.”

(Chapter 33, own translation based on Wing-tsit Chan’s rendering)

Wu Yi comments on this chapter:

“The contrast between the two lines ‘knowing others and knowing yourself’ is one in which Lao Zi obviously downplays knowing others and values knowing yourself. Knowing others is using your own knowledge to understand others, which is a value affirmed by Confucians. In the Shang Shu, it is written that ‘knowing others is wisdom (zhe). Zhe means wisdom and is the word Japanese scholars later used to translate the western notion of ‘philosophy,’ that is in use in the Chinese language today. The western notion of philosophy, however, is the love of wisdom and in this ancient book it meant more the knowledge of the external thing. So whether it is knowing others or knowing the thing, both are a pursuit of something external.”

(Wu Yi page 265)

Ming or illumination thus becomes an important idea in Lao Zi’s thought. The contrast between ming and zhi is one of the external and the internal. Ming is the understanding of the internal while zhi is the understanding of the external. This internal understanding is that of the higher ‘de’ and comes about not through the hustle and bustle involved with the pursuit of external, objective knowledge, but through a quite reflection of inner principles.

“”Attain complete vacuity, maintain steadfast quietude.

All things come into being, and I see thereby their return.

All things flourish, but each one returns to its root.

This return to its root means tranquility. It is called returning to destiny.

To return to destiny is called the eternal (Dao). To know the eternal is called enlightenment.

Not to know the eternal is to act blindly to result in disaster.

He who knows the eternal is all-embracing. Being all-embracing, he is impartial.

Being impartial, he is kingly (universal).

Being kingly, he is one with heaven.

Being one with heaven, he is in accord with Dao.

Being in accord with Dao, he is eternal, and free from danger for a lifetime.”

(Chapter 16, translation by Wing-tsit Chan with minor alterations)

In this passage, we see the close connection between ‘ming’ and the Dao. Wing-tsit Chan translates ‘to return to destiny is called the eternal; (Dao). To know the eternal is called enlightenment (ming). The word ‘chang’ in the passgage indicates the eternal, constant Dao, which could be said to be the key to the inner principle of quietness. This quietness is shown through an observation of the return to the source instead of a grasping of the outward principles of the manifestation. As all things inevitably rtrun to the source, Lao Zi states:

‘…all things come into being, and I see thereby their return. All things flourish, but each one returns to its root.’

‘Ming’ or illumination allows us to see the profound process of return. Chen Gu-ying explains:

“Ming: the movement and change undergone by the myriad of created things all depends on the principle of return. The understanding of the principle is what is known as ‘illumination’ (ming).”

(Chen Gu-ying page 91)

In chapter 16, Lao Zi also mentions the affects of not knowing the eternal, which is to act blindly that leads to disaster. Thus the sage needs to substitute the ordinary wisdom of seeking the external with the quiet illumination of inner reflection. The leader who does not identify with the eternal Dao leads the people on the path to disaster, but the one who holds fast to the quietness of the Dao allows things to transform of themselves. Wang Bi offers this commentary:

“Eternity is a thing without bias or illustriousness, without decay or obscurity, and without warmth or cold. Therefore, to know eternity means enlightenment. Only this return can embrace and contain all things. If one loses this and moves on, then the perverse will enter and cause division. Then all things will disintegrate. Therefore, not knowing eternity is to do evil things blindly.”

(translation by Paul Lin page 29)

In chapter 52, we come across the notion of ming again:

“…seeing the small is called illumination (ming), keeping to the weak can be considered a strength…”

Wu Yi states here that:

“Generally speaking when we enter the door of consciousness, we begin to pursue what is external. Toward things we pursue understanding, toward matters we pursue strength. Lao Zi, on the other hand, advocates the opposite in ‘seeing the small and keeping to the weak…’Wang Bi interprets this as ‘to see the great things is not illuminating, to be able to see the subtle is. To preserve what is strong is not true strength, to preserve the weak is.’ That is to say to see the great things and think one is illuminated is not true illumination and to stay with the strong and feel one gains strength is not true strength. Here the small is not the smallness of things, but the subtleness of their natures. The eye that sees this subtleness is not the physical eye but the eye of the (inner) mind. To be able to see the small and know the large, to see the subtle, that is the wisdom eye.”

(Wu Yi page 406)

Illumination is thus a special characteristic needed by the leader in order to rule properly. This illumination is not a process of external examination of the affairs and things of the world. Perhaps Lao Zi was reacting to another important Confucian notion, namely the investigation of things. In chapter one of the Confucian classic The Great Learning, we read that …’things being investigated, knowledge becomes complete…’Here we have something diametrically opposed to what Lao Zi was trying to advocate, an external pursuit of knowledge. There is a famous story in Chinese philosophy about the renowned Neo-Confucian thinker Wang Yang-ming. Wang took to heart the lessons of the classics and when he read the passage concerning ‘investigating things,’ he observed a bamboo branch outside his window with so much zealousness that he made himself sick in the process. Perhaps the message Lao Zi was trying to send us many centuries before Wang was that such a pursuit will only lead to disaster, for either the individual or the state. The grasp of the manifestation is never as good as the identification with the source. Man has within him the power to become the sage due to his internal De that is his connection with the eternal Dao. This ability to reflect puts human beings in a pantheon with the other greats of the universe, the Dao, heaven and earth. This reflection requires a quiet reflection. Wing-tsit Chan says that “Generally speaking, in Daoist philosophy, Dao is revealed most fully through tranquility rather than activity.” (page 21) This is a general statement and does not throw much light on the details of why this tranquility is so important. But if we are left to conjecture, perhaps one of the underlying reasons was the hubbub caused by the thinkers during the Spring and Autumn Warring States period in trying to influence the various leaders of the states that made up China during this time. When conflicting forces are vying for the upper hand, chaos is sure to ensue. The quietness of the sage then for Lao Zi is not one that brings about chaos, but is able to see the inevitable return to the source and identify with that. We have seen that the sage is one who intuits the Dao and so may achieve all things through the non forcefulness of non-action. Here the sage transcends the desire for personal gain and conventional wisdom to become self illuminating. In chapter 72, Lao Zi continues:

“…therefore the sage knows himself but does not show himself. He loves himself but does not exalt himself…”

(translation by Wing-tsit Chan)

Knowledge is thus consistent with the internal De and glory is not the goal.


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