Ancient Wisdom From The Tao Te Ching: True Knowing Is Not-Knowing

The following poem is from the ancient book known as the Tao Te Ching (pronounced “Dow Day Ching”), written by the mysterious figure Lao Tzu, over 2500 years ago. It is one of two foundational Daoist texts — the Zhuangzi being the other — and is widely regarded as one of the greatest, most wisdom-rich works ever written.

It’s easy to assume the Tao is an easy read — because of its short length — but even today, the true meaning, the underlying message of each poem, is heavily debated. Because it is a book of poetry, the verses can be difficult to understand and comprehend; some pages are axiomatic, some leave you deeply puzzled. Stick with the tough ones long enough though, and you’ll start to make connections and aha moments will arise. Some verses you may not fully understand for many years, perhaps never, and this is testament to a book which, even though written in the 6th Century BC, still survives today; and it survives for no other reason than it’s level of mystery, profundity and most importantly, seemingly perpetual relevance. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing with you some of my favourite poems.

Like most of the beautiful poems in this little book, this one can be interpreted in many ways, which, is a very important point; each person who reads the Tao De Ching will get something different from each poem. Furthermore, as you go through different stages in your life, the poems will take on new meanings; that is, the message you get from each one will have changed, or rather, evolved. This is good sign; it is a sign that you have grown.

It is often said that that ‘more you know, the less you know.’ Which, although it seems counterintuitive, or rather a paradox of sorts, is actually true. ‘The more you know the less you know’ is simply a short version of the basic truth that the more you learn — as you become older, wiser, more experienced and more knowledgeable — the more you come to realise how little you actually know about the world, and, how little you can actually know. The amount of things to know, learn and ponder in the world are inexhaustible and infinite in number. A crucial part of becoming wise; one of the foremost signs of personal growth of the intellectual sense, is when it starts to dawn on you how much you do not know.

Many of the great scientists of past and present, the philosophers of the ancient world, the philosophers of the modern world, the geniuses and thought leaders whom today we see as spiritual, intellectual and philosophical icons — Einstein, Feynman, Franklin, Nietzsche, Aquinas, Seneca, Socrates — were outspoken, even in awe, of their ignorance; they were aware of how much they didn’t know.

Feynman called Science “a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance.” Alfred Whitehead said “Not ignorance, but ignorance of ignorance, is the death of knowledge.” It’s not so much that they took pride in not knowing, but they took comfort in knowing that they did not know, and, they used it as reason to keep learning and learning — a trait common amongst all the greats.

Like all the profound truths and princples of the world and of life, this truth is easy to see it once it hits you. This poem touches on this idea so much better than any book, summary, digression or explaining from me, can. The world — life — the universe — just is. You are born, you live and you die. Out of the 13.7 billion years the universe has been in existence, and the X amount of years it will continue to, you are but an intangible blip in it’s history; an invisible speck in a unimaginably vast universe made up of space and time. Don’t let this dishearten you though; instead, let it help you see how little your striving, worrying, anxieties, neurosis and personal problems actually matter, especially, when you see how harmful most of them are to your wellbeing and state of mind. Life just is, and it is going to be whether you like it or not. Nothing you do, wish for, or don’t do, can change What Is.

There is an theory in Science called the Multiverse Theory, which in short, says that our universe is one a possibly infinite number of universes. One of the inferences of this theory is that life exists because in an infinite number of universes, there also has to be an infinite number of possibilities. And included in these possibilities is the happenstance, the creation, of life. So basically life was inevitable; life was always going to happen — and it did. When you bring this idea to the poem below, a poem written over 2500 years ago — well before Science, Technology and The Information Revolution — and you make the connection between the two, you cannot help but be amazed, spell-bounded even — I was.

The interpretation I have made here is one of many; one of many things that I could have written about what I have personally taken from it; and one of many that every single person who reads it can make of it. As simple and obvious as much of it may seem, take what you read in the Tao Te Ching extremely seriously — because it is powerful, true, deep and profound — especially this poem.

Page 48:

Pursue knowledge, lose daily.
Pursue Tao, gain daily.
Lose and again lose,
Arrive at non-doing.
Non-doing and nothing not done.

Take the entire world as nothing,
Make the least effort,
And the world escapes you.


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