Unlocking Goes Beta

Twenty years before Unlocking The Tao I created a free translation of Lao Tzu following the guidance of academic participants in the Australian National University’s taoism-studies list. After three years I released that work under the GNU public license as the GNL, a play on the recursive GNU acronym “GNU’s Not Unix” meaning “GNL’s Not Lao”.

And I figured I was done with that. Three years is a long time for a short book.

To get my reasons for translating Lao Tzu all over again two decades later you have to know that there are two broad schools of interpretation of this work. The literal, exemplified by Henricks, and the poetic, exemplified by Mitchell and Red Pine.

I see literalists labouring under the misapprehension that there was a single historical Chinese poem, or at least a small cabal of Chinese people working together at the same point in history compiling a single anthology. This illusion is dispelled by the sharply abbreviated content of the Guodian texts, the oldest recorded Lao Tzu, and by Prof. Victor Mair‘s work revealing clear textual relations between Laozi and the Sanskrit Gita.

But the modern poets not only credit this assumption of a single origin, they also have the idea that comparing multiple English translations will divine the original. My GNL translation fell squarely into this second trap. It ignored the fact is that both the text of Laozi and the underlying meaning of its words change from culture to culture over the millennia.

So I’ve attempted something new, a scientific approach to this problem. I take pains to be faithful to the historical texts, treating them as empirical data. But I have worked to develop a simple, systematic theory of reassembly of the coherent whole. I have had the temerity to re-order lines and chapters to make them make sense in the context of a whole. With a healthy skepticism concerning both English and Chinese dictionaries, I have also made novel but plausible word choices in the new edition.

Because this new work has been much more systematic than my previous attempt, I can claim it to be more conservative and more literal than the GNL. But because I’ve treated the text as a jigsaw puzzle in need of solution, and I have actually gone ahead to attempt that solution, I also regard it as by far the least conventional translation in English.

So now I’ve had time to complete the new translation, the GNL name no longer fits. This is Lao Tzu, complete, consistent, and very much alive. Anyone who wants to continue developing the old GNL under their own steam is of course welcome to do so under its copyleft license. For a delightful example of that check out Oliver Benjamin’s excellent Dude De Ching. Dudeism might be challenging to relate to Unlocking … but it is cool in its own right.

Unlocking The Tao is available for download right here online as a beta-book. While I put together commentaries and art I’ll post free chapters on a regular basis, each with a detailed log of refactorings. Beta-book customers can download the whole poem right now, get all future updates at no charge and deep discounts on the paper editions.

Non-paying readers are very welcome on the blog of course and I’ll try to answer all your questions in commentaries as we go. Excerpts from Unlocking The Tao are copyright © 2011 Peter Merel so please ask permission before you copy, mirror, or adapt this work.


The Tao Is Not Chinese

What new things can we say about the Tao? The original text, the Lao Tzu or Tao Te Ching, pre-dates paper. The form of the poem bears hallmarks of an oral tradition pre-dating writing.  It is the most translated text in history with more than 250 translations in English alone. It has been recombined with everything from Magick, Physics, Sex and Zen to Winnie The Pooh. I wrote a translation of it myself over 20 years ago. There is even a koan in orientalist circles: why write another translation of the Tao?

Maybe because the most important word in the book has never been translated.

Many translations don’t even try to translate Tao. Those that do usually translate it as “Way”. When readers ask what “Way” means a literal translation of its definition in the first chapter of the Lao Tzu sheds no light.

Way That Can Way Isn't Constant Way. Name That Can Name Isn't Constant Name.

To understand the other words of the poem scholars pore over Chinese dictionaries. The earliest of these, the Erya and Shuo-wen chieh-tzu, were written hundreds of years after Lao Tzu. They define only the words of then regional dialects and these only by use of visual metaphors. They prescribed word meanings to standardise the language of government regulation in an age before printing.

Try to translate Shakespeare referring only to a legal dictionary and you have an idea of the difficulty. And it would be worse still if all you had was a Russian translation of Shakespeare. It would be as if Lao Tzu wasn’t Chinese in the first place. Imagine what would happen if even the oldest Chinese edition of Lao Tzu turned out to be a translation from another language.

In 1990 Professor Victor Mair published evidence that this is indeed the case. Mair, an expert in Sanskrit, translated the edition of Lao Tzu discovered in 1973 at Mawangdui. He was amazed to find clear lexical relations between Lao Tzu and the Bhagavad Gita, a codicil to the Sanskrit Vedas.

The Gita is the purportedly divine origin of Hinduism. It occurs in the Bhishma Parva of the Mahabharata and quotes Krishna dictating its content to mankind at the dawn of human existence. Dates for the origin of the Tao are lost but Mair concludes that either the kernel of Lao Tzu is a gloss of the Gita, or the two derive from some lost common ancestor.

Now Mawangdui is not the earliest known edition of the Lao Tzu. That was a pile of bamboo strips discovered in 1993 at the Guodian tombs in Hubei. This Guodian Tao lacks half the length and most of the substance of the later editions.

Perhaps the Guodian poem was corrupted by grave robbers. Perhaps it was cherry-picked by some particularly dull-witted scribe. Or perhaps it was the whole poem before it was combined with a Chinese gloss of the Gita.

In any case this suggests Lao Tzu should not be thought of as one person, or even as a group, but as a game of Chinese Whispers. A series of authors, each operating under the impression that they are merely interpreting or commenting upon the wisdom of their predecessors, each subtly or boldly changing the message to suit themselves.

An English speaker comparing the scholarly English translations side by side soon discovers that each assumes a different historical context and disagrees with the others. There are even websites devoted to side-by-side comparisons of the English translations of the Tao, different readers prefering different translators. There is no standard.

In fact the most fruitful translation of Lao Tzu of all is seldom recognised as Lao Tzu. This is the 17th century “Monadology” of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Leibniz studied translations of Lao Tzu provided by the first Jesuit mission to China. His development of Monadology intertwines with his mathematical development of the continuum and his invention of binary numbers and the digital computer. These developments lead directly to Turing’s work and the Von Neumann architecture embedded in all modern computer technology.

In another chimeric tradition Lao Tzu in the form of Chan Buddhism was reinterpreted in Japan as Zen. Zen originates with the struggle of Bodhidharma and his successors to render the Tao faithfully into Japanese. The endeavour of attempting to answer insoluble riddles became part of Zen. The study of these Koans is regarded as a path to achieving enlightenment. And holistic Zen has since come to adapt itself to almost every element of Japanese culture.

Modern translators of the Tao are inevitably if unconsciously dominated by such cultural forces. Leibniz and Bodhidharma have influenced global culture so profoundly that no one can be regarded as immune to their influence. Despite this, and despite the relation of the Tao to the Gita, academics persist in the conceit that Lao Tzu is an exclusively Chinese puzzlebox.

Unlocking regards the received texts as sketches of a poem that has been writing itself for thousands of years. Unlocking offers a Lao Tzu shorn of orientalism and mysticism, inviting readers to relate it to their own lives rather than imagining ancient sages. This poem is neither advice to a king nor the basis for a cult, not the origin of a tradition nor its conclusion, but a way to live your life in harmony with all life.

Why Did Lao Tzu Come From The West?

Lao Tzu repeats over and again that the Tao is mysterious, that we cannot define it in terms of any other thing, that forcing it into any system of forms loses it. And that’s all very well. English is not such an impoverished language that it does not possess a word whose definition our science is unable to fix. And such a word is hardly alien to the use of Tao in the poem  called Lao Tzu.

How I found this word to fit the Tao is, as any word choice of any translator, a matter of personal experience.  It happened one cool autumn in 2005 as I was sitting far from the Internet beneath a golden rain cypress in the donkey paddock of my teahouse in the rainforest at Limpinwood in Tweed Shire, Australia.

My bees were disturbing the blossoms and the tree’s falling flowers floated down around me like snow. As I curried my donkey I realised the fading blossoms decaying underfoot were transforming to nourish the next round of spring buds. A fallen flower is not dead, but a ripple flowing through the life cycle of the tree. And of all the trees of my valley. And beyond …

A monk asked Joshu why Bodhidharma came from the West.
“The cypress in the garden,” Joshu replied.

Bodhidharma, the originator of Zen, is similar to Lao Tzu in that he almost certainly did not exist, and if he did exist, he almost certainly said nothing that has been attributed to him. This doesn’t trouble Zen Buddhists, who happily deny Bodhidharma’s very beard.

Zen delights in stories about Bodhidharma. Whether he is upbraiding the emperor, inventing Shaolin martial arts, or cutting off his eyelids to make tea, Bodhidharma shows the true Dharma eye that everyone seems to be looking for. He further features in several koans, which are the riddles Zen intends to enlighten novices.

Koans are insoluble by ordinary means, requiring a profound alteration of perspective to answer. To the novice the answers seem to form further koans. In one of the most famous of these, Huijiao approaches the Zen Master Chao Chou to ask, “why did Bodhidharma come from the the west?”

Chao Chou, replied, “the cypress tree in the garden”.

Huijiao persisted, “please answer without using an object.”

Chao Chou replied, “all right. The cypress tree in the garden”.

After Chao Chou’s death the Zen Master Fayan approached Huiijao to ask why he thought Chao Chou said “the cypress tree in the garden”.

“Chao Chou never said that,” replied Huijiao.

Unlike Zen koans, the riddles in Lao Tzu need not be regarded as inherent to the Tao. They are neither intentional nor insoluble, merely traditional. As we have seen, non-Chinese readers owe no particular respect to Chinese translators claiming ownership of that tradition. As Mair’s sanskrit Tao came from the west, we should think of Lao Tzu just as the Zenists do Bodhidharma and not let orientalism get in our way. Recognising Lao Tzu as evolving over time we are freed to answer its riddles.

Where these riddles are lexical we should not hesitate to apply new word choices to uncover meaning. Where they are structural, we should refactor their jumble to resolve the confusion. Where the riddles are ontological, we should not hesitate to take their frame in our hands and bend it to our purpose.

Of course these liberties produce anxiety in a reader seeking the authentic wisdom of the ancient masters. But if ancient wisdom takes precedence, the anxious reader must take seriously the only independent account we possess of a historical Lao Tzu.

Confucius meeting Lao Tzu

As related by Ssu-Ma Chi’en in his Shih Chi – “Records of the Historian” – this concerns a visit paid the imperial librarian Lao Tzu by Confucius.

Confucius requested  a respectful discourse on the authentic wisdom of the ancient masters. Ssu-Ma Chi’en writes Lao Tzu told Confucius that the ancient masters are rotten corpses, that simplicity, readiness, and compassion for others form the basis of wisdom, and that Confucius should get off his high horse and try those for a change.

Lao Tzu’s advice to Confucius is lifted directly from his poem’s chapter 67. Modern historians find the event unlikely but Ssu-Ma Chi’en and Chuang Tzu both report a still less likely response from Confucius. Asked about the visit by his followers, Confucius is reported to have told them,

“I can shoot birds, catch fish, and trap rabbits. What am I to do with a dragon of mist and wind?”

Anxious readers may play Confucius with my translation, debate its license, and consider whether the sum of its liberties, or any particular one of them, hinders their understanding. They may suggest this is a miscegenation of Zen Buddhism and Yoga, not Taoism at all. They may split the hairs in Bodhidharma’s beard. But the intent of my translation is to create a simple, unambiguous poem whose form is consistent with its philosophy, rather than to continue the crypto-Confucian tradition of re-rendering a scrambled, gilded and anachronistic text.

Which brings us back to that little word, Tao.

Golden Rain

My bees were disturbing the blossoms and the tree’s falling flowers floated down around me like snow. The flowers rotting underfoot were transforming to loam to nourish the next round of spring buds. Not dead, but a ripple flowing through the life cycle of the tree, and of all the trees of the valley.

At a stroke I saw a river of life flowing through these delicate forms, the surrounding rainforest and the cliffs and clouds each following their own tides. Likewise the text of Lao Tzu evolving through the minds of ancient editors and you and I reading and writing it, not merely reproducing words on a page or movements behind our eyes but the cycle of thought and form that generates all mind everywhere … with a shiver I recognized the first chapter of Lao Tzu.

Tao means life. Not your life or my life, not the distinction between green buds and black loam, but life involving every scale and timeframe from the intricate rhythm of a cell at the tip of a blade of grass to the quantum correlations of whirling clusters of galaxies tearing and burning across the sky. My donkey and I dancing in our ferny paddock, each step of thought and form connected by sunlight flowing from and returning to the limitless.

Obviously such things are hard to say without a poem to frame them. But this is the experience I aim to unlock, the evolutionary answer to all the dusty questions about the origin of Lao Tzu and his Tao. Lao Tzu was never the imperial librarian confusing Confucius. As I write this, I’m coming from the West. As you read it, the cypress in the garden.

The Uncarved Block

Chapter 1 Unlocked

Life is not the life you live,
Nor mind the thoughts you think;
Mind is the course of all thoughts,
Life, the source of all forms.

Releasing thought yields the formless.
Responding to thought bears form,
Form and thought generating each other
As waves on the surface of mind.

Beneath this surface flows life
Ever deeper and more subtle than thought.

What is unusual about this translation? It takes few liberties with the Chinese text, differing only in minor rearrangements of scansion and word choice. It represents a frame for the rest of the poem, an open door between the personal and the universal. But before we walk through that door I should say something about my choices as translator.

I’ll talk in terms of chapters and lines. The Chinese text is not split up this way and in fact contains little punctuation. It has just two chapters each followed by a word count. But traditional chapter and line numbering makes it easier to compare Unlocking with other translations.

  • Line 1, literally Tao that can Tao is not constant/eternal Tao, is harmlessly reversed: Constant/eternal Tao is not Tao that can Tao. The reversal enables me to take advantage of the natural English meaning for unqualified Capital-L Life as the translation of  Constant/eternal Tao.
  • Line 2 follows the form of line 1 in the original Chinese, so also here. The normal translation of ming2 as name or distinction is here rendered as thought, with constant/eternal thought rendered as mind. By thought I mean any representation of form. Information might be a better and more interesting translation if it were not among the least poetic words in English.
  • Lines 3 and 4 are harmlessly reversed.
  • Releasing and responding to thought in iines 5 and 6 are more literally always without intent and always with intent. This translation attempts to reduce “special sauce” words – mystical jargon – here shifting the semantic from the noun to the verb.
  • The formless (miao4) on line 5 is normally rendered as mystery or subtlety.  The original chinese repeats miao4 on the last line and this correpondence is lost, but there is no harm in this and it also helps avoid special sauce.
  • Form and thought, in line 7, are an interpretation of the literal these two. The two could be interpreted as form and formlessness, but we shall see shortly that this would harm the correspondence between chapters 1 and 2. I fear it would also impoverish interpretation of the following 3 lines.
  • Surface, in line 8, is a concept that neatly matches the Chinese description of the two distinct in mind only.
  • It is important to make explicit the word life in the final couplet where it replaces the traditional translation mystery, the formless from line 5. The river motif underpins Lao Tzu and this makes its meaning clear from the outset.

Which is just fine so far as it goes but … why are we here? What is the point? No one cares about Lao Tzu as a puzzlebox; we’re after what’s inside, the secret treasure. Even when a translator pretends to be a dry scholar, that’s what drives the work – the search for enlightenment.

The first chapter of the Tao regards life as a continuum with mind its sensate, reflective surface, life forms as refractive currents flowing within. It posits biology as the fundamental physical process, a liquid living universe through which thought and form propagate in waves.

Is there support in modern biology and physics for such a view, or is it mere mysticism? Next post I’ll blow the dust off chapter 1 by rebasing it on recent science. And I’ll contrast this science with the beautiful but baseless Pale Blue Dot of 20th century Confucian cosmologist Carl Sagan. Stay tuned.

To the Tips of its Roots

There has been no greater conceit in the history of science than Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, a paean to an image taken at his request by the Voyager 1 spacecraft beyond the orbit of Saturn.

“A mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark,
the Earth is the only world so far known to harbour life.”

Sagan was a champion for the cause of critical thought. His tenets famously require extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims. Applying that to his dot, however, there is no evidence for the existence of matter that is not actively engaged in cycles of life. Everywhere we look, on every scale and timeframe, we find signs of life. Sagan’s assertion that life inhabits isolated pockets in an otherwise dead universe is, to use his word, “baloney“.

Extremophiles at a thermal vent

At the bottom of the sea, completely hidden from sunlight, vast moving forests feed on superheated volcanic vents. Life thrives inside antarctic ice, in soda and salt lakes, in pools of concentrated acid and toxic arsenic. Individual microbes live after 34,000 years locked in a salt crystal. At the deepest depth of the Earth’s crust there are creatures that literally breathe rock in populations so immense they outweigh all lifeforms on the surface. There is no reason to assume these deep life-forms evolved from surface forms, and biologists suggest that all rocky bodies are infected with them.

Cytochrome Nanowires

Microbial communities collaborate to respond to their environment using chemical senses and  nanoscopic interspecies electronic networks. We don’t know what information flows through these networks but we have no reason to suppose they are rare, nor that they are disconnected from the signaling and metabolic networks of larger organisms that host them.

Lateral transfer on the tree of life

Microbes swap pieces of their DNA to communicate their behavior. This lateral gene transfer is so commonplace biologists no longer regard microbes as truly possessed of an attribute of species. Even single communities of bacteria like E. Coli display enormous genetic diversity, any 2 individuals differing by as much as 40% of their genome. And lateral gene transfer isn’t limited to microbes. Their genes jump to the genomes of multi-celled forms, including humans.

Mycelium underfoot

On Earth microbial communities are embedded in networks of fungus, single organisms many miles wide. Far from independent of other species, this mycelium actively transports essential nutrients between otherwise unrelated species of plant. Mycelia are fast moving and responsive, springing up within footprints of animals to scavenge disturbed bracken. They are long lived, with single organisms propagating multispecies forests over periods of millenia.

Swarm intelligence in foraging plant roots

Since Darwin it has been understood that plants in their turn possess an intelligence in networks of cells at the very tips of their roots. Each tip senses 15 distinct physical parameters and there are millions of root tips per plant. These are observed actively foraging for nutrients and moving with swarm intelligence in the manner of colonies of insects. Biologists compare them with animal brains.

Human tips

It seems inevitable that we conclude conventional distinctions between organisms are artefacts of a limited understanding, merely the visible surface of a dynamic and continuous web of living awareness. Yet as humans we each feel ourselves to be individual and uniquely valuable. We get proud and lonely. Even in a crowd, even in our deepest relationships, we feel apart like Sagan’s dot. How can we participate in the deeper reality?

Lao Tzu chapter one sets experience on a human scale in a cosmic context. It perceives life as a river of unfathomable extent and depth, mind a scale-symmetric surface generated by the non-local interplay of thought and form, and ourselves and the stars fractal ripples upon it. This first chapter lights a path leading away from Sagan’s concept of fragile intelligence alone in deserted darkness, accidental “star stuff“. As we shall see shortly, the continuum of life is not confined to Earth, and even the darkness between worlds is an illusion.

Key Refactorings

As we have seen, the history of Lao Tzu is a multi-millenial open source project involving translators and poets in many languages and cultures, not just the Warring States period in China. But most readers still think of Lao Tzu as a static text. That causes a lot of confusion.

Academic literalists revere the jumble while modern poets sculpt new puzzle pieces of their own. Unlocking  applies a scientific method to the process of translation, respecting the historical text as empirical data while working systematically to develop the simplest possible theories of reassembly of the whole.

This process employs the Agile software engineering method of refactoring. The Unlocking beta-book provides a line by line explanation of refactorings applied per chapter. But here’s a high level summary of the major rearrangements vs literal translations:

  • Chapter 7 has been swapped with the second stanza of chapter 5.
  • Chapter 5’s second stanza has been amalgamated with chapters 6 & 8.
  • Chapter 10’s first stanza has been moved to become the second stanza of chapter 13.
  • Chapter 10’s second stanza has been moved to become the second stanza of chapter 11.
  • The last stanza of chapter 12 has been moved to become the second of chapter 3.
  • The rest of chapter 12 has been amalgamated with chapter 9.
  • Chapter 17 has moved to appear between chapters 24 & 25.
  • The second stanza of chapter 22 has moved to become the first stanza of chapter 24.
  • The last three lines of chapter 28 have moved to the end of Chapter 27.
  • The last three lines of chapter 39 have moved to the end of Chapter 26.
  • The order of lines of the first stanza of Chapter 35 has been reversed.
  • The second last stanza of Chapter 41 has moved to Chapter 43.
  • The first stanza of Chapter 42 has moved to the last stanza of Chapter 40.
  • The last three lines of chapter 47 oppose most translations.
  • The first stanza of Chapter 52 has moved to the last stanza of Chapter 51.
  • The first three lines of chapter 54 have moved to the start of Chapter 38.
  • The first line of chapter 60 has moved to the start of chapter 59.
  • Chapter 64 is split in two per Guodian.
  • In chapter 64a, the order of the second and third paragraphs is reversed.
  • Chapter 63 has been moved to follow chapter 68.
  • The last stanza of chapter 64b has moved to the second stanza of chapter 65.
  • The first stanza of Chapter 67 has moved to the start of Chapter 70.
  • The last four lines of Chapter 67 have moved to the start of Chapter 68.
  • Chapter 74 has been moved to follow chapter 75.

The Chinese Lao Tzu was handwritten on bamboo slips tied together with string, thrown into damp dungeons by illiterate nobles to rot for generations, eventually reconstructed by priests and hand-copied onto silk scrolls that were in turn eaten by moths. Over and over for thousands of years. You can’t make sense of it without rearranging it. Nevertheless, I’m certain sinologists will regard this attempt as an academic heresy. Happily the only eye-witness account of Lao Tzu, the man rather than the book, refutes literalists better than I ever could.

The Tao of Fire

This eight-legged gummy bear is a tardigrade, a tiny animal found everywhere from the antarctic to the equator, the bottom of Marianas Trench to the summit of Everest. Tardigrades survive naked exposure to the vacuum of space and pressures three times greater than the bottom of the sea, freezing in liquid nitrogen, boiling in oil, and pH and radiation extremes thousands of times greater than any other animal. They are omnivorous, reproduce with and without sex, and in the lab have remained viable for more than a century without food and water.

Tardigrades are found fossilized in Cambrian rocks more than half a billion years old. They are their own phylum of life, unrelated to all other multicellular life except nematode worms. We’re just beginning to understand tardigrade biology but we know nothing of the evolutionary forces that produced such strange little beasts.

To begin to answer that question, consider a less outlandish life form, something more on the human scale. Australian gum trees – eucalypts. Eucalypt leaves continuously exhale an aerosol of flammable oil and every few years the aerosol combusts to render entire forests to a layer of ash. The ash makes soil suited to spread eucalypt seeds and suckers. But it’s not just the eucalypts that burn. Effectively, the eucalypts exploit fire as a method of predation on other forest species.

Lao Tzu chapter 1 sees life as neither an aspect of the form of fire, nor of the pattern of eucalypt DNA, but of the repeating cycle of form and information. Of fire and DNA. The information in the genes of eucalypts co-evolved with the fires, expressing the form of fire to spread the information in the Eucalypt genes.

Well then, what form spreads the information in the genes of Tardigrades?

Bush fires burning near Sydney

Fire only became possible on Earth with blue-green algae. The oxygen wastes of those bacteria formed a reactive toxin that came to destroy most life forms that inhabited Earth prior to their evolution. Like eucalypts with fire, blue-green algae co-evolved with ambient oxygen to render other organisms into nutrients enabling propagation of their genes.

Biologists call this event the Oxygen Catastrophe. It took millions of years, but  there came a day where the atmosphere held too much oxygen for the archaea to tolerate. All over the world, methanogenic bacteria went green or went extinct. The sky turned blue and one fine day there sparked the very first atmospheric oxygen fire.

In math, any sudden transition between two different system behavior is called a catastrophe. Catastrophes occur in any entropic process and on all  scales from the fall of leaves and pulse of organs through the generation of organisms to the extinction and evolution of species. Counting the oxygen catastrophe, the ecosphere has had at least six periods of global catastrophe with the seventh currently under way.

The solar system is subject to still more violent catastrophes. And our system is one of hundreds of billions of stars in one of hundreds of billions of galaxies. Stars derive energy by fusing hydrogen atoms into heavier atoms, and when they runs out of fusible hydrogen they swell or explode. Then waves of gas, dust and rubble expand outward to impact surrounding dust clouds, eventually forming a new generation of stars.

On a human timeframe that’s a distant event. But in astronomical terms our sun is 3 stellar generations removed from the original formation of the Milky Way Galaxy. It is a young star in an old galaxy. The Milky Way is a hurricane of burning dust full of stellar catastrophes that can propagate a tardigrade to reach another world. On cosmic timescales, we should expect that our young solar system and all solar systems are now lousy with organisms that evolved somewhere else.

The Milky Way in infra-red

We see signs of this “panspermia” process. A third of observable interstellar dust matches the visual and infrared signature of freeze-dried bacteria. Clumps of bacteria have been detected at heights in the stratosphere that cannot be reached by Earthly bacteria. While the sun’s UV radiation sterilises many microbes, we know numerous species of hardened bacteria exhibit tolerance to ionising UV and even Gamma radiation.

Interstellar journeys are accessible even to non-hardened microbes during a sun’s red-giant phase when its sterilising UV and cosmic rays diminish. And solar radiation pressure is  sufficient to expel microbes into interstellar space. Entering a young solar system such extra-solar life forms inevitably accrete to comets in the Oort cloud, sheltering from radiation within the comets’ liquid centers. Jupiter, Saturn and other gas giant planets contain vast hydrocarbon cloud belts that offer hospitable cradles for the incubation of such forms of life.

Carl Sagan famously imagined “floaters“, gas-filled blimps swimming like jelly-fish through dense oceans of cloud on gas giant planets. If floaters were to reproduce via spores as tiny and sturdy as our tardigrades, these could hitchhike on grazing comets to journey from one world to another. And Sagan’s “sinkers”, tiny forms feeding on nutrients suspended in those clouds, would have to exhibit the pressure-tolerance of tardigrades. This is not to say that tardigrades are his sinkers, but  there may be many members of the Tardigrade phylum better adapted to gas giant worlds. Evolution would favour the development of tiny extremophiles suited to any and every planetary condition.

So you would expect that once the newly oxygenated surface of Earth had stabilised to the point of supporting complex life, there would be a sudden and unique diversification of creatures in the fossil record as the clade of pre-evolved extraterrestrial spores took hold. We would expect tardigrades to date from this point in time. And indeed this  is exactly what we find – it’s the Cambrian Explosion.

We have no instruments to detect extra-terrestrial microbes in transit. But it is inevitable that comets derived from encounters between astronomical bodies carry multicellular life away. The most common Earthly food of tardigrades – lichen and fungi – survive space travel. Earth-born meteorites carry viable plant seeds and animals. Accreting to comets and asteroids, these would naturally seed other rocky worlds with life. Meteorites originating on Earth may be tiny spaceships. But life may do more than travel between the stars. It may play an essential role in the creation of the stars.

Self-replicating Cosmic Clouds

On far larger scales than planets, ionised gas mixes with the molecular clouds generated by exploded stars. The fundamental processes that cause stellar nebulae to condense into clusters of new stars are driven by the physics of entropy and gravity, but their clumping behaviour and motion are influenced by the distribution and evolutionary dynamics of self-organising, self-reproducing helices of dust and plasma. And these dynamics are driven by the forms of the particles making up the interstellar dust.

In earthly clouds airborne bacteria have co-evolved to promote catastrophic precipitation of rain and snow. Earthly forests would wither without the information in the genes of airborne bacteria propagating in the form of rain drops. Likewise genes that influence the shapes of the freeze-dried microbial components of cosmic dust-helices will evolve to promote the form of star systems favorable to their own reproduction. On an interstellar scale, the evolutionary forces embodied by these bacteria could do more than precipitate rainfall – they can cause the creation of water itself.

New generations of stars

Just as with eucalypts, evolution favours clades of interstellar life forms whose aggregate promotes conditions amenable to their own reproduction. So we should expect that when we look into the night sky we will see the same forms – bubbles, membranes and vortices – fractals of the forms that occur in an Earthly pond. The forms of stars are generated by the same process and a superset of the same creatures we find in any Earthly pond.

It is our anthropic conceit, exemplified by Sagan’s blue dot, that causes this simple fact to come as a surprise. We are not tiny creatures confined to a pixel. Our evolving universe is not a sterile, piecemeal, or haphazard continuum. The life that expresses us runs through every pixel of these pictures, a cosmic ecosystem with scale symmetry binding it from the astronomic to the nanoscopic.

Extremophile bacteria in a drop of acid

A pre-scientific author could hardly have concerned himself with the co-evolution of stars and microbes. But as a non-local poem that has  co-evolved with humanity over thousands of years, Lao Tzu’s words apply very well in this context. The evolving poem concerns life, not as a taxonomy of dusty butterflies pinned to a board, but as a universal ecosystem that expresses itself as butterflies, tardigrades, stars, and you.

The stage so set, we’ll move on. Chapter 2 has traditionally been translated as a laundry list of virtues. Unlocking it, we find instead the central concern of the poem. Co-evolving with this boundless, growing, subtle and catastrophic fire-froth of life, what part is played by a lonely human being?

The Uncarved Block

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.

Instant Enlightenment

The unlocked second chapter introduces us to “the enlightened”. Throughout this work I will use “enlightened” or “enlightenment” instead of “the sage” or “the superior man”, more usual translations of sheng4 ren2. The usual translations suggest an elderly male authority where what I intend is a form of awareness accessible to anyone.

But the word enlightenment has its own problems. It is used by many different philosophies and religions. There are also historical events such as the French and English Enlightenments of the 18th century. So we need to distinguish the sense of this word in what follows.

Speaking as an elderly male myself presents another danger. Enlightenment is not a state for me to claim as an authority or for you to aspire to attain. The Chinese Zen Master Zhaozhou provided a koan that addresses this.

Monk: Master, is enlightenment difficult to attain?

Zhaozhou: All words lead to choice or to understanding. I’m not in the world of understanding. Isn’t that what you’re trying to attain?

Monk: If you’re not in the world of understanding is there nothing to attain?

Zhaozhou: I don’t know.

Monk: If you say you don’t know then how can you say you’re not in the world of understanding?

Zhaozhou: I answered because you asked. Now go away.

The key to this Alice-like dialog is in the phrase “I don’t know”. “I don’t know” here does not mean Zhaozhou has failed to answer. It means that enlightenment is not something to attain, but to choose, and choosing it involves doing something other than knowing.

In what follows we will see this monk’s confusion echoed again and again. The world of understanding is what the Hindus call the Veil of Maya and the Discordians the Black Iron Prison. It is best known in the west by an allegory given in book 7 of Plato’s The Republic.

Plato’s Cave

One day Dr Jill Bolte Taylor awoke with a stroke. She described her experience in perhaps the most extraordinary TED talk of them all. If you don’t have 18 minutes to spare there’s a briefer mashup of this on youtube:

How can a stroke – or in other cases a drug, a tragedy, a religious ritual, an insoluble dilemma – open someone to such an experience of universal mind? Assuming this connection is not a delusion, is it accessible to a healthy mind? To your own mind?

There is passion and anguish in Dr Taylor’s description of her experience, both in the matter of her recollection and in her struggle to render it accessible using the metaphors available to her as a neuroanatomist. She uses a cadaver’s brain as the ground of her metaphor and describes intelligence outside in. Despite her transforming experience, this seems to draw us back into Plato’s Cave.

This allegory likens intelligence to a prisoner watching shadows thrown by a fire onto the wall of a cave. The prisoner is never permitted to turn to see the source of light or the true forms that cast the shadows. Plato suggests real things cannot be directly experienced, only reasoned about by their shadows, that they exist in an ideal world that we as prisoners can never visit.

Plato’s disciple Aristotle softened this to suggest that his universal forms only exist within physical substances. But Aristotle continued to regard these things as accessible only by sensory shadows. Two thousand years later Descartes suggested a physical embodiment for the cave – that the real world connects with our immaterial world through the pineal gland in the brain.

In the 20th century Karl Popper combined Plato and Descartes’ conceptions into a system of 3 worlds. The physical world represented by physics, the mental world represented by experience, and the Platonic world represented by mathematics. Roger Penrose draws Popper’s three worlds quite literally:

The Platonic world here is clearly imaginary. Chaos theory places sharp limits on what can be predicted. Computability theory places sharp limits on what can be calculated. And Goedel‘s theorems prove that any attempt to provide a consistent axiomatic system to underpin mathematics will fail. So mathematics should only be regarded as a language, not a world. That leaves us with just two.

Now the measurement relationship between mental and physical worlds is influenced by quantum effects that extend throughout spacetime. The subject and object of sensation are inextricably, non-locally linked. This connection is not a matter of energy but quantum correlation. Chaos theory ensures that, although non-local correlations occur on imperceptible scales, they ramify on all scales. So Schroedinger’s Cat demonstrates there can be no physical world distinct from a mental world.

Furthermore, if the brain did contain a collage representing the present moment, we would face the homunculus fallacy – homunculus being greek for “little man”. Dennett calls this the Cartesian Theatre. Jill Taylor’s enormous collage must be interpreted to have any effect, implying an inner observer whose experience must form another collage to be interpreted by a still smaller observer, and so ad infinitum.

So we have no mental world distinct from the physical world. We are left where we started – with one world. Escher illustrates this reality beautifully in his lithograph refutation of Plato, “Three Worlds”:

Escher’s trees stand for Plato’s universal forms. They cast their shadows on the surface of a pond rather than the wall of a cave. On this surface float leaves, Aristotle’s physical instances of the forms. Beneath the surface, populating its mental world with images of the leaves, a catfish. For a frozen moment the three worlds are just as as Plato and Popper suggest.

But the leaves on the surface of the pond penetrate it to be eaten by microbes and worms. The fish consumes these and the trees grow from its faeces to evolve new generations of leaves, each subtly more suited to the nutrition of microbes, worms, fish and the trees themselves.  The physical surface of the lake is not a parade of inaccessible forms but a permeable membrane for living process. The fish is no prisoner facing away from the light, but a fractal whose scales echo the form of the receding leaves. And the light is not Plato’s mystic fire but the thermodynamic sun expending its finite enthalpy to power all the behaviours in the picture. Escher has exploded Plato’s cave by filling it with life.

Chuang Tzu’s Fish

Lao Tzu’s successor Chuang Tzu relates a conversation he had with his friend Hui Tzu by the edge of such a pond:

Chuang Tzu: “Look at the fish darting about. How happy they are!”

Hui Tzu: “You’re not a fish. How do you know they’re happy?”

Chuang Tzu: “You’re not me. How do you know what I know?”

Hui Tzu: “If I, not being you, cannot know what you know, then you, not being a fish, cannot know what they know”.

Chuang Tzu: “You asked me how I knew the fish were happy. So you knew that I knew.”

How does Chuang Tzu know? I wrote this dialog as it plays in my mind. Having read it, in your mind Chuang Tzu knows the fish are happy. It is very likely that this conversation with Hui Tzu never happened, that neither he nor Chuang Tzu had any historical existence. Yet this question exists in your mind now: “how do you know?”

This is not a play on words. It is the kind of riddle that Zen calls a koan. If Chuang Tzu had been Zhaozhou a thousand years later he might have finished his story with “Mu”, the word meaning “your question is a crack in your reality”. But Zhaozhou’s Mu hadn’t been invented yet and Chuang Tzu’s answer is the more telling.

It is easy to treat such a koan as a diversion, something to puzzle about intellectually. But treat this question the same way you would an inquiry about how you see. You would point at your eyes and open them wide. In the same way can you locate and open the organ that knows?

Say like Jill Taylor you point your finger at your brain. But then that’s not really your finger, is it? Just its shadow in your mind. And not really your brain, either. Just what you know about it, another shadow. Try again. This time, try from the inside out. Somehow you know. Knowing is something you do. How?

There is another koan that embodies this challenge. It is a very simple one, the very first a zen apprentice attempts upon entering a monastery. It was created in the 18th century by Hakuin Ekaku, “the demon dwelling in the cave“.

You know the sound of two hands clapping. Tell me: what is the sound of one hand?

As I said any koan can be regarded as a meaningless trifle; like a puzzle you pick up at a bazaar and discard unsolved. But the point of this koan is its resonance within your mind. Taken internally it can become something like the famous Red Pill in the movie “The Matrix”. It can’t do anything for you unless you swallow it. And then this small and disarming question assumes power to change who you are.

To make that a little easier to get at I should explain that there really is a sound. You last heard it when you were an infant, before you had learned to clap, before you made any distinction between sounds and sights and feelings. Reality was all jumbled together until, one day, waving your infant hands about aimlessly, you happened to clap. And suddenly there was before the clap and after, the music of clapping and the silence between claps, yourself clapping and others not clapping … the walls of Plato’s Cave, the bars of the Black Iron Prison snapping into place.

But the sound of the one hand is still here. If you listen very hard for it you can hear it. Ignore every other sound. There is no other sound like it. It is not the tinnitus in your ears or the silence or your breathing. It is the sound of the feeling in one hand. And when you hear it you have found a crack in your reality, a way out of your cave.

This ecstatic moment of sudden enlightenment is so startling it has been given a Japanese name – satori, meaning awakening. But be careful – because the moment you recognise satori, the moment you reflect on it, understand it or know it, you have papered it over and lost it.

Morpheus’s Matrix is Plato’s Cave  and the Bhagavad Gita’s Veil of Maya. Philip K. Dick, upon whose dystopian fantasy The Matrix was based, first called it the Black Iron Prison. He describes it this way in The Zap Gun:

The maze was simple enough in itself, but it represented for its trapped inhabitant an impenetrable barrier. Because the maze was inevitably one jump ahead of its victim. The inhabitant could not win, no matter how fast or how cleverly or how inexhaustibly he scampered, twisted, retreated, tried again, sought the one right combination. He could never escape. He could never find freedom. Because the maze constantly shifted.

Enlightenment is the way out. But you don’t need to join Morpheus or the Discordians. You don’t need to swallow anyone’s red pill. You don’t need a religious conversion or nervous breakdown, as Dick did. You don’t need to have a stroke like Jill Taylor. Or, like Buckminster Fuller, finally decide to throw yourself into a lake.

Unlike The Matrix, this is not a conspiracy or trick that has been played on you by some faceless evil. It is something you have been doing yourself all along. The question “How do you know?”, the sound of the one hand, the moment of choice, these are not suggestions that you give up knowledge or become mindless. These are keys that open a door you cannot know is there. And, unlike The Matrix, where it leads is not down into a rabbit hole, but up out of one.

“A congenial, attractive looking square …”

So enlightenment is like a hidden fourth wall. Bearing this metaphor in mind let’s do something dreadful with it now. Let’s return to the flatland of understanding and do what I said we shouldn’t do. Let’s try to understand what we’re doing when we’re enlightened.

Start by breaking the assumption that intelligence is a function of brains. There can be no separate reality from which information streams, no cave into which it streams, no homunculus watching the collage inside the senses or hiding inside a gland. So … outside in, what is going on?

At its driest, science regards intelligence as a process of (i) classification of stimulus followed by (ii) mapping to response. This is what Gottfried Leibniz regarded as the process of Representation, Jacques Loeb identified as Tropism and B.F. Skinner retitlled Behaviourism.

Leibniz, Loeb and Skinner thought of the fundamental mechanism of intelligence as associative memory.  Valentino Braitenberg broke this down synthetically with his Vehicles, thought experiments that compellingly demonstrate how even fluid and complex behaviours like learning and desire can arise from nothing but simple hardware mappings from sensors to actuators.

No intermediary worlds, Platonic, Mental or otherwise. The state of the mental world is nothing but the state of the whole universe as an intelligent behaviour elicits external and physiological feedback that is experienced as further stimuli. The patterns of these stimuli are classified associatively. The attribution in memory of resulting cycles of behaviour to a person or to a mental world, rather than to the universe as a whole, is merely a compelling illusion, not necessary to the function of intelligence at all. That illusion is Zhaozhou’s world of understanding.

Here Escher helps us once again with his singular picture of the function of intelligence as a process of representation, The Print Gallery.

A man in a gallery observes a picture of the gallery within which he stands. The blank spot with Escher’s signature in the center of this image maps to the entire universe outside the picture – including Escher drawing it and yourself viewing it. Escher is pointing directly to the blind-spot of the minds’ eye. This is the organ of knowing we touched on with the koans of Hakuin, Zhaozhu and Chuang Tzu. If you take The Print Gallery internally as a direction to the egress of Plato’s Cave, it can be regarded as a koan in its own right..

“The vision is incomplete …”

Unfortunately, every time someone opens a way through the Veil of Maya, another someone comes along – most commonly the same person a moment later – and helpfully covers it over again. The world of understanding can hardly tolerate a vacuum. This is Philip Dick’s constantly shifting maze, the lament of Morpheus that no one can be told what the Matrix is.

Escher’s ingenious visual koan remained open for fifty years before Hendrik Lenstra, a wonderful Dutch mathematician with great cleverness and all good intentions came and “completed” it.

Lenstra suggests that Escher either could not or would not finish The Print Gallery, that the blank space and signature in the centre are not properly part of the work, but a gap in the work, a place where Escher failed to realise his own vision. He does not see the blank spot as part of the mapping, the ZF empty set or uncarved block, but rather as an infinite regress of the Cartesian Theatre, the Veil of Maya in all its endless complexity.

The idea that Escher, an artist capable of such hyperbolic obsession as this and this could not or would not continue a recursive construction to the absolute resolution limit of his art is simply not credible. Lenstra himself uncovered Escher’s painstaking studies of all parts of The Print Gallery leading up to its execution. It was completed in 1956 while Escher kept working for the next two decades. He didn’t die suddenly with insufficient time to complete this central motif of his art. So it is not nachlass. It was executed exactly as it was conceived.

Ignoring the deeper meaning of The Print Gallery while borrowing its conformal projective method Lentra has nevertheless produced one of the most compelling visualisations of the Black Iron Prison ever created:

Turning away from this complete vision of hell we see enlightenment as a choice you make anew in every moment. The blue pill of Maya is always there. If you regard enlightenment as a state of being that you have attained rather than a choice for you to make, you have swallowed it. And then you will wake up asleep and believe whatever you want to believe. This is why the Zen Buddhists say, “if you meet Buddha in the road, kill him.”

Heinlein’s worms

Enlightenment explodes the distinction between self and other. Robert Heinlein put it this way:

Do you know the old story about the earthworm burrowing along through the soil who encounters another earthworm and at once says, ‘Oh, you’re beautiful! You’re lovelyl Will you marry me?’ and is answered: ‘Don’t be silly! I’m your other end.’ Whenever you encounter any other living thing, man, woman, or stray cat . . . you are simply encountering your ‘other end’.

Imagine yourself as a space-time event, this long pink worm, continuous through the years. It stretches past us here and the cross-section we see appears as a single discrete body. But that is illusion. There is physical continuity to this pink worm, enduring through the years. As a matter of fact there is physical continuity in this concept to all life for these pink worms branch off from other pink worms. In this fashion life is like a vine whose branches intertwine and send out shoots. Only by taking a cross-section of the vine would we fall into the error of believing that the shootlets were discrete individuals.

. . . and the universe is just a little thing we whipped up among us the other night for our entertainment and then agreed to forget the gag.

Did you notice? That’s one of those complete visions again, the blue pill. You’re going to have to get used to passing it up. Here: your body contains the entire living liquid universe. What you see and feel and understand is waves upon the continuous surface of its mind.

Yes, that’s another blue pill. To choose enlightenment, let it go.

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.

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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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