Common Logical Errors

A logic model can avoid many unnecessary speculations in our understanding of Tao philosophy. We can have a more coherent and consistent interpretation. Many logical inconsistencies are results of the traditional ways of approaching the Tao Te Ching without logic. With the logic model, we may avoid a few probable errors in the traditional interpretations of the Tao Te Ching.[1]

The Root of Tao Philosophy

The traditional Tao philosophy treats Wu as the root of Tao philosophy. This is the prevailing view held by most prominent scholars, but it is not logical in term of our model. Such view is to take an object “Wu” to be the absolute reality. This has led to many difficulties in the interpretations and is logically in error.

In fact, we cannot even take a real manifestation Heng Wu to be Tao, since the Heng Wu is already in the phenomenal world. The principle of Tao appears in Heng Wu, but the same principle also appears in Heng Yu. Therefore, we cannot choose Wu or Heng Wu, over Yu or Heng Yu, as the root of Tao philosophy. Similarly, Heaven cannot be Tao, since heaven is a part of “heaven and earth.” Heaven and earth are manifestations of Tao.

In terms of Being and beings, we may treat Tao as Being and the actualities as beings, but we should not treat any being as Being. Moreover, we should not treat Wu and Yu as beings, because they both lack wholeness to be real. The common designation of Yu as being and Wu as non-being is improper in the basic understanding of the Tao Te Ching.

We often mistakenly treat objects or actualities as the absolute reality. Here we may look at the paradox of Gongsun Long公孫龍 (320-250 bce): “White Horse is not Horse.” If we represent a reality “Horse” with its two manifestations: “White Horse” and “Non-white Horse,” then “White Horse (as an object or a manifestation) cannot be the Horse.” According to our model, his statement is no longer a paradox.

Softness and Tenderness

It is clear that Lao-tzu prefers softness and tenderness, but we often misplace such softness and tenderness at the object level and claim that Lao-tzu prefers soft and tender “objects.”

As shown in our model, all objects are well-defined, limited, strong, fixed, and inflexible. That is, all objects are not soft and tender. What Lao-tzu prefers are the actualities, which have eliminated the strong and fragmented nature of the objects. Only actualities will last.

Lao-tzu uses infant, or water, to show the quality of “soft and weak” in reality. An infant has non-dualistic nature and non-discriminating attitude towards the objects. These are the qualities of the actuality states.

Lao-tzu also uses feminine, or maternity, to represent resourcefulness and creativity of wholeness and Oneness. By doing so, he certainly does not prefer female to male at the object level.

For Lao-tzu, the opposite objects always co-arise. They have to be in complementary states at all times. He will not prefer one object over the other. We always think in terms of objects, but he specifically warns against holding on to any object, for that will deviate from the principle of Tao.

Cyclic Transformation is Illusion

The concept of cyclic transformation is a common way of interpreting the co-arising nature of two opposites, where one object is replaced by its opposite and vice versa. We are often perplexed by such seemingly cyclic transformation from one object, or from one manifestation to the other, in which something new is born all the time. Such cyclic view is taken for granted, because we habitually think of one object at a time.

However, cyclic transition between the opposite objects is an illusion. The two opposites must con-exist at all times. Yu cannot come from Wu because Yu and Wu must co-exist at all times. There are no separate events as becoming and being in a phenomenon. We should avoid treating any complementary objects as alternating realities. “Chicken and egg” is another well-known example.

Lao-tzu advises against separating an individual object out of the harmonious opposite pair; such separation leads to decay of Oneness. He says, “Fish should not leave the deep creek.”[2] Anything that remains as an object will become useless: “the rigid leads to an end.”[3]

Illusion of time is also a major issue in philosophy. In our model, time should be treated as a whole and not be taken as instantaneous moments, such as past, present, and future. Such segmented moments are objects and the reality can be achieved only when these moments are harmonized, intermixed, and complemented.

Wisdom and Knowledge

We can also resolve the controversies about Lao-tzu’s view on wisdom or knowledge. Objects of knowledge are objects. Lao-tzu only warns us against relying on knowledge without proper correlations. Wisdom is a coherent set of knowledge. In Lao-tzu’s view, when wisdom is divided, the knowledge must be held as an integral whole.[4] Of course, he would advocate against taking fragmented knowledge as wisdom.

Lao-tzu is clearly not anti-knowledge. He urges us to seek both knowledge and wisdom. Lao-tzu says that, in learning, our knowledge improves when objects become more and more precise (The Way of Yu). In seeking Tao, our wisdom improves, and we rely lesser and lesser on the individual objects (The Way of Wu).[5] We should add that knowledge and wisdom are also complementary. But both represent the principle of proper learning and both should be pursued.

When Lao-tzu urges us to “abandon knowledge,” we should interpret it as to go beyond fragmented knowledge, to have holistic knowledge. He urges us not to rely on knowledge as objects.

In the popular text of the Tao Te Ching, we find that wisdom and knowledge have different Chinese characters: Wisdom 知 and knowledge智.[6] It is interesting to note that zhi 智 (knowledge) is written as 知 (wisdom) that lasts over a day日. Knowledge changes all the time and can become useful only when they are integrated and correlated as a whole, in which case, knowledge is wisdom. Therefore knowledge and wisdom can always exist together as a complementarity.

The Wu-Forms

Another important use of Wu appears as Wu-forms. Ames and Hall coin the term Wu-forms to describe the various actions or states associated with Wu and label such Wu as “unprincipled” or “objectless” (Ames & Hall, 2003). To be consistent with our model, Wu-forms should be associated with Heng Wu, without neglecting Yu. We should interpret this (Heng) Wu as “impartiality,” “nondiscrimination,” “unconditioned,” etc. in the sense of complementarity with Yu.

In most occurrences, “Wu” in the Tao Te Ching does not mean “without” or “no.”[7] Whatever is associated with Wu should, instead, reflect the characteristics of Heng Wu state. For example, “Wu-wei” is the impartial action; Wu-wisdom無知is the “Non-discriminating Wisdom”; “Wu-desire” is the “Unconditioned desire”; and “Wu-heart” is the “Impartial Heart,” etc. Wu-wisdom is the ultimate impartial wisdom that does not discriminate explicitly.

However, such impartiality, nondiscrimination, etc., are not absolute (as in Wu); instead, they should be aware of the “individuals” (as in Yu). All these states or actions do not completely ignore the individual objects. They are in the complementarity state of Wu and Yu.

[1]     These “errors” are based on our logical system. It does not preclude the possibility that these views are valid in some other logical system.

[2]     Chapter 36: 魚不可脫於淵

[3]    Chapter 76: Strength is inferior; tenderness is favored. (強大居下,柔弱居上。)

[4]     Chapter 23: In division, maintain it as a whole; (曲則全)

[5]     Chapter 48: One, while learning, adds daily; One, while pursuing Tao, sheds daily. (為學者日益,聞道者日損。)

[6]     We should note that, in the popular version of the Tao Te Ching, wisdom and knowledge are consistently used in the way described here. However, in contrary to our interpretation, most interpreters take 知 as knowledge and 智 as wisdom.

[7]     Some exceptions include The Nameless 無名, the Wu-ji 無極, and Selflessness 無私.

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