What is the difference between understanding and knowing? Chapter 70 alludes to it perhaps when it states, ‘My words are very easy to understand and very easy to put into practice, yet no one in the world can understand them or put them into practice‘. Our cleverness at understanding doesn’t match a comparable ability to know. Understanding is theoretical. Knowing is visceral. For example:
What do people and dogs have in common? They know what they know, and act accordingly. Dogs smell good food and eat; we smell good food and eat. Dogs see something they want and chase after it; we see something we want and chase after it. Dogs see something fearful and avoid it; we see something fearful and avoid it. This is visceral knowing, a teaching that uses no words as chapter 2 says.
The difference between dogs and us is human understanding. However, understanding absent deeper knowing easily leads to unfortunate consequences. Words and thoughts permit understanding that, as chapter 71 cautions, enables us to think that we know. You could even say that understanding is a form of ‘pseudo knowing’.
To put it another way: We can only truly understand what we already know. If such knowing is absent, the understanding is insufficient — a ‘pseudo understanding’. If that sounds radical, please apply this observation to your own examples and ponder. Here now are a few personal examples of differences I’ve noticed between understanding and knowing:
In the 1980’s, I studied the stock market until I understood it, theoretically at least. I didn’t actually buy and sell stocks. Now, 30 years later, came an opportunity to put my understanding to work. I understood the importance of ‘buy low sell high’, patience, diversification, being bold when others were fearful and vice versa. Chapter 8 says, In action it is timeliness that matters — it was time to act. That brought the inevitable bruises and scares as I descended down into the belly of knowing. Not surprisingly, it has taken being involved actively in the stock market over many months, going on years, to begin really knowing what I previously only understood.
While living in Japan I studied agricultural books. My ex-wife and I were planning to settle down on 100 acres or so, either back here in the USA or in Australia. Divorce spared us that experience. I say spared because I’ve spent the last 30+ years gardening a few thousand square feet, not 4,000,000 (i.e., 40,000 sq.ft. = 1 acre).
By now, I’ve forgotten much of that agricultural knowledge I understood. Yet I know much better what I’m doing. The understanding was word based; the knowing is experience based. Actually, I reckon it would be impossible to write down what I know.
Duke Huan and the wheelwright
This wonderful little story, “Duke Huan and the wheelwright” by Chuang Tzu, speaks to the essential difference between understanding (i.e., knowledge) and knowing. (Excerpted from The Writing of Chuang Tzu)
Duke Huan was in his hall reading a book. The wheelwright P’ien, who was in the yard below chiseling a wheel, laid down his mallet and chisel, stepped up into the hall, and said to Duke Huan, “This book Your Grace is reading-may I venture to ask whose words are in it?”
“The words of the sages,” said the duke.
“Are the sages still alive?”
“Dead long ago,” said the duke.
“In that case, what you are reading there is nothing but the chaff and dregs of the men of old!”
“Since when does a wheelwright have permission to comment on the books I read?” said Duke Huan. “If you have some explanation, well and good. If not it’s your life!”
Wheelwright P’ien said, “I look at it from the point of view of my own work. When I chisel a wheel, if the blows of the mallet are too gentle, the chisel slides and won’t take hold. But if they’re too hard, it bites in and won’t budge. Not too gentle, not too hard-you can get it in your hand and feel it in your mind. You can’t put it into words, and yet there’s a knack to it somehow. I can’t teach it to my son, and he can’t learn it from me. So I’ve gone along for seventy years and at my age I’m still chiseling wheels. When the men of old died, they took with them the things that couldn’t be handed down. So what you are reading there must be nothing but the chaff and dregs of the men of old.”