My favorite Buddhist parable is the Blind Men And The Elephant. Several blind men each touch a different part of an elephant and proceed to describe and debate what they think an elephant is.
The lesson here is how untrustworthy perception actually is. With only five main senses, we are all blind in the final analysis. And so chapter 71 advices, Realizing I don’t’ know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease.
Yes, the Chinese character in 71 literally translates as disease. If it’s not a disease, then not knowing this knowing is certainly a disability… like blindness. Thought is the means by which we think we know something. Like the blind men who thought they knew, our thoughts trick us. The problem begins when we cognitively infer much too much from our narrow range of raw perception. Then, with unwavering certainty, think we know reality. As it happens, our fear of the unknown triggers a serious need to know. Then, we desperately hold onto whatever we think we know. In other words, we believe our beliefs. (See Beliefs: Are We Just Fooling Ourselves? p.591)
The Spotlight of Awareness
Awareness is the light that underpins thought. Like a spotlight, it shines here or there, but it can’t shine everywhere simultaneously. The big cosmic picture is beyond awareness’s scope. Like the blind men and the elephant, awareness only sees a small slice of the whole at a time, making thought always narrow, biased, and essentially false. As chapter 56 hints, knower not speak; speaker not know. In fact, I’d add, knower not think; thinker not know. Ironically, our awareness can only be the knower by knowing Nothing. As chapter 10 says, When understanding reaches its full extent, can you know nothing? Nothing correlates to death, silence, emptiness, and loss. Yet, this is the realm we fear the most. (See, Tools of Taoist Thought: Correlations, p.565)
Thus, unless one is an omniscient god, Realizing I don’t know is better. As it happens, increasing awareness of my blindness often gives me the humility to avoid being blindsided by my blindness. I assume life experience more than any other factor informs the deeper thought-free regions of awareness. Slowly, as the decades pass, we increasingly accept that we don’t truly know. So, what does that say about my ramblings here? Frankly, I keep thinking, writing and speaking about all this to bolster my awareness of it — to keep re-realizing I don’t know. Some would say that I’m brain washing myself. Yes, as chapter 20 notes, I am foolish of human mind also #20.
Thinking Isn’t the Problem, It’s the Cure
Clearly, the human brain’s mind innately needs a story for its thoughts to hold onto. Thus, I don’t bother trying to avoid thought… obviously, as if that were possible. I simply maintain an on-going sense that thinking is defective in order to inject some distrust in concurrent thoughts. This is using thought to offset some of thought’s drawbacks. When I forget, emotion begins to influence thinking, which allows thought to lead me down the primrose path as it feeds back and reinforces its emotional source. A lifetime of backsliding onto this dead-end motivates me to strive on diligently (p.218), and use Taoist thought to turn my emotion driven thought mountains back into as impartial molehills as possible.
Finally, here are a few Taoist maxims speaking to the virtue of nothing:
- When understanding reaches its full extent, can you know nothing? #10
- Hence, of having what is thought favorable, of the nothing think as the useful. #11
- Unending, it cannot be named, and returns again to nothing. #14
- Having is born in nothing. #40
- Sees nothing yet understands. #47
- All under heaven say my way is great resembling nothing. #67