Monday, December 18, 2006


Illumination gives a new angle toward understanding, but what, if any, would be the way to go about cultivating this. Book learning, with all its emphasis on the external, would be anathema to the endeavor:

“Abandon learning and there will be no sorrow. How much difference is there between ‘yes sir’ and ‘of course not’? How much difference is there between ‘good’ and ‘evil’? What people dread, do not fail to dread. But, alas, how confused, and the end is not yet. The multitude are merry, as though feasting on a day of sacrifice. Or like ascending a tower in the springtime.

I alone am inert, showing no sign (of desires), like an infant that has not yet smiled. Wearied, indeed, I seem to be without a home. The multitude all possesses more than enough. I alone seem to have lost all.

Mine is indeed the mind of the ignorant man, indiscriminate and dull! Common folk are indeed brilliant; I alone seem to be in the dark. Common folk see differences and are clear-cut; I alone make no distinctions.

I seem drifting as the se; like the wind blowing about, seemingly without destination. The multitude all have a purpose: I alone seem to be stubborn and rustic. I alone differe from others, and value drawing sustenance from the mother (Dao)”

(Chapter 20, translation by Wing-tsit Chan)

This chapter gives an insight into what it takes to intuit the Dao. The first line is ‘abandon learning and there will be no sorrow.’ Once again we see a denial of one of the cardinal principles of Confucianism; learning. The accumulation of knowledge for the Confucians is central in the cultivation of the type of moral character that leads to right government. Lao Zi, on the other hand, dismisses the notion, saying that learning leads to sorrow. We spend our time in the pursuit of external knowledge, breaking down the differences among the things that surround us. While this has lead to a scientific understanding of the world, it has separated us from the source of creation. Lao Zi says that others have purpose and see differences and that he alone values drawing sustenance from the Dao. Lao Zi also points out that the differences among things are small. Differences can be attributed to comparison of opposites, thereby bestowing artificial value upon the thing. The beginning of chapter two attributes the value judgment as the source of alienation:

“When the people of the world all know beauty as beauty, there arises the recognition of ugliness. When they all know the good as good, there arises the recognition of evil. Therefore:

Being and non-being produce each other; difficult and easy complete each other; long and short contrast each other; high and low compliment each other; sound and voice harmonize each other; front and behind accompany each other…”

(Chapter 2, translation by Wing-tsit Chan with slight modification)

The crux of Lao Zi’s philosophy brings about the harmony of opposites; through learning we come to know differences, but through the Dao we come to know their harmony. Wing-tsit Chan states that “the traditional Chinese ideal that opposites are to be synthesized and harmonized can be said to have originated with Lao Zi.” (page 101)

But learning does not lead to the insight that opposites are essentially two sides of the same coin, as the goal of pursuing external knowledge is to value the differences. In chapter 40, Lao Zi gives another look at what he thinks about learning:

“To learn is to increase day by day, to intuit the Dao is to decrease day by day. Decrease upon decrease until you get to the point of taking no action. When no action is undertaken, there is nothing that is left undone. All under heaven can be brought to order through non-action. Those who enjoy taking action are not fit to rule all under heaven.”

Here Lao Zi equates learning with a daily increase, but the Dao with a daily decrease. Perhaps what he means is that we are taught to accumulate facts and knowledge since birth. This will lead to an increase of knowledge, but farther and farther away from the source of creation which is the Dao. Once again I would like to bring up the myth of the fall from grace in the Book of Genesis. The myth provides the Judeo-Christian tradition with a symbol that the beginning of knowledge and wisdom came from eating the forbidden fruit. Knowledge and wisdom are thus the second best thing to having the kind of enlightened bliss reserved for the gods. In his short story entitled Teddy, JD Salinger says through the main character that the way to understanding would be through spitting out the apple of knowledge that has been our burden. Lao Zi is showing us the same idea in saying the Dao is a daily decrease, not increase.


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