One of my favorite Buddhist parables 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 moral here is that we can only perceive a sliver of the whole. With only 5 or 6 senses at best, we are all blind in the final analysis. Chapter 71 sums it up bluntly, 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 awareness tricks us. The problem creeps in when we extrapolate slivers of the ‘big picture’ and then with unwavering certainty think we know the whole story. As it happens, our fear of the unknown triggers this desperate need to know. Then, we cling on for dear life to anything that we think we know. In other words, we believe our beliefs. (See Beliefs: Are We Just Fooling Ourselves?)
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 picture is beyond awareness’s reach. 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; it is what we fear the most. (See, Tools of Taoist Thought: Correlations.)
Thus, unless one is omniscient, 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 deep thought-free regions of awareness. Slowly, as the decades pass, we increasingly know 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. Obviously… I am foolish of human mind also #20.
Thinking Isn’t the Problem, It’s the Cure
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 defeat some of thought’s downside. When I forget, and emotion begins driving my thought, thought leads me down the “primrose path” for a while as it feeds back and reinforces its emotional source spring. A lifetime of backsliding onto this path motivates me to ‘strive on diligently’, using Taoist thought to turn my emotional ‘thought mountains back into molehills’.
Finally, here are a few Taoist maxims speaking to the virtue of nothing:
- Hence, of having what is thought favorable, of the nothing think as the useful. #11
- When understanding reaches its full extent, can you know nothing? #10
- Unending, it cannot be named, and returns again to nothing. #14
- Having is born in nothing. #40
- Sees nothing yet understands. #47