Chapter 2 Unlocked


Can we recognise beauty without ugliness
Or any form without its opposite?

Decay generates growth,
Chaos evolves order,
Part sums to whole, 
Strength binds weakness, 
Music harmonizes noise,
And after cycles with before.
These are all forms.

The enlightened assume neither thought nor form
Save harmony with the ebb and flow of forms.
They adapt but do not control forms,
Accept, but do not own them.
Release, but do not reject them.


Again I’ll talk about my choices as translator in terms of chapters and lines though the Chinese text is not split up this way. Traditional chapter and line numbering helps to compare Unlocking with other translations.

  • Lines 1 and 2 use vernacular English to make these lines a question that introduces the distinctions in the second stanza. Then Everyone under heaven becomes simply “we” and deem as having simply “recognise”.
  • “Form” in line 2 is more literally virtue, quality or good. I intend “Form” to connect to Spencer Brown‘s distinctions in Laws Of Form. Such forms are neither a solipsistic world of subjective construction nor a Platonic system of objective ideals. Rather they distinguish a form as a basin of attraction on chapter 1’s living continuum.
  • This distinction yields a logic very different from the formal axiomatic systems of mathematicians. Because traditional number systems are fantastic beasts that can neither be constructed by our engineering nor falsified by our empiricism we will relate this first couplet of chapter 2 to a very different logical method and associated number system. I’ll refer to this as the Empirical number system – the empiricals for short.
  • The next stanza gives a half-dozen illustrations of form. The final line of this second stanza is present only in the Mawangdui text. The syntactic emphasis in what follows is on the process whereby distinctions are made, each representing a thought.
  • Line 3 is more literally decay and growth generate each other and might be rendered more poetically decay generates growth generates decay. Likewise in line 4, chaos yields order yields chaos, and so on.
  • Line 5 provides an axiom for construction of the empiricals. This is to say empirical numbers consistently represent parts of a whole. Therefore these empirical numbers include neither infinities nor infinitessimals. Empirical phenomena are beyond empiricism. Both infinite and infinitessimal can be equated under the empirical system with its encoding of ambiguity.
  • The form of line 6, more literally strong and weak depend upon each other, is expanded in chapters 27 and 36.
  • Line 7 refers explicitly to the harmony of noises with one another in a distinction for music. More generally it refers to any distinction of signal from noise or pattern from background. Warhol’s soup cans for example.
  • Line 8 is not about an arbitrary calendrical cycle, but the fundamental physical thermodynamic form of time. Thermodynamics is the part of physics that gives rise to time’s directionality. Milk once stirred into tea could not return to its bottle without an immense expenditure of energy and engineering. But a cow is milked every day and the distinction between tea one day and tea the next is drawn on the biological cycle of human tea drinkers, the business cycle of tea merchants and seasons, the underlying cycle of the Earth around the sun, and beneath that the cycle of stars and microbes we previously noted.
  • We respect the thermodynamic arrow of time but science possesses no more understanding of cosmic cycles than this: we are presently in the midst of one. The Vedas suggest a never ending series of such cycles without requiring belief in same. In a cosmos as vast as ours it is certain that there are processes on scales too large and too tiny for our instrumentalities. Unlocking chapter 38 regards distinctions concerning such scales as ambiguous.
  • The enlightened in line 10, sheng4 ren2, is traditionally translated into English as The Sage. Unlocking consistently translates it as either “the enlightened” or “enlightenment”. There are two reasons for this. In English a Sage is a male figure where there is nothing in Lao Tzu to suggest enlightenment is not equally accessible to women. And more properly what this enlightenment represents is the harmony between life and mind exemplified in chapter 41 by a laughing child, not a mendicant with a porron.
  • The rest of line 10 is traditionally rendered as two lines, the enlightened achieve without action; cultivate without teaching. Some meaning is lost in the translation here for the sake of the flow of the poem into subsequent lines. As the traditional meaning is expanded at length in chapters 56 and 69 and also cited in many other chapters, I’ve left line 10 as the accessible lead-in to line 11.
  • Line 11, literally myriad forms [same as chapter 1 line 3/4] manifest without instructions from the enlightened, is here expressed through use of the concept of harmony with the ebb and flow of forms, foreshadowing life’s tide in chapter 16.
  • Lines 12 to 15 are reasonably direct poetical translations except they continue the active voice of line 11, thereby making the enlightened their subject.

This chapter serves to connect the universal mind of Chapter 1 to all the dimensions of human experience. But does it make sense to invent a new number system to explicate just one of these? Well, Leibniz sure thought so. Unlike the other forms, math seems something abstruse and inaccessible to most of us. We learn some arithmetic but we’re locked out of what mathematicians call mathematics by towering walls of formulae, a learning curve like a cliff.

Before we unlock the door to math, however, we really need to start by pinning down this talk about enlightenment. What is it? How can you get it? Why would you want to? Stay tuned.

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Instant Enlightenment « Unlocking The Tao

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All excerpts from Unlocking The Tao are copyright © 2011 Peter Merel. Please ask permission before you copy, mirror, or adapt this work.
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