The following passage from the Chuangtse is one of my favorites:
A boat may be hidden in a creek, or concealed in a bog, which is generally considered safe. But at midnight a strong man may come and carry it away on his back. Those dull of understanding do not perceive that however you conceal small things in larger ones, there will always be a chance of losing them. But if you entrust that which belongs to the universe to the whole universe, from it there will be no escape. For this is the great law of things.
The Chuangtse is a key Taoist text, and a literal reading of this passage provides a level of understanding that coincides with the larger Taoist thread against materialism and the cleverness that a materialistic society values.
There is however, a deeper level of understanding present, one concerning the nature of knowledge and understanding itself. First, a problem is proposed:
Those dull of understanding do not perceive that however you conceal small things in larger ones, there will always be a chance of losing them.
Beyond just material objects, this also applies to knowledge and in particular knowledge that affects how we should act. Almost all belief systems proscribe a set of behavioral rules or suggestions for their adherents to follow. These suggestions provide the practical application of a belief system’s ethical and moral values.
As a species we’re addicted to telling stories and so ancient sages figured out pretty quickly that stories are powerful methods for teaching and spreading knowledge. In belief systems the world over, we have innumerable instances of stories meant to teach us how we’re supposed to behave. In the words of the above passage, we have knowledge (small things) encoded (concealed) within stories (large things).
So what’s the problem?
Cultures change. Language changes. Stories become translated and reinterpreted. Sometimes the author just wasn’t clear enough to begin with. When we depend on stories to protect our knowledge, we risk losing the original knowledge within the details of the stories themselves. When the stories are brought in and out of context with other stories in a belief system, we risk further degradation of the original signal.
Like a man with a strong back, belief systems can hijack behavioral suggestions by bogging us down with the details of the stories that contain them.
Most belief systems are founded on the principle that their behavioral suggestions flow from their particular conception of the nature of the universe. Christian behavioral suggestions for example, flow from God because Christians conceive of the universe as the creation of God.
Such a conception however, can lead to an education problem. Even without the benefit of stories, the more knowledge a belief system has, the more it is necessary for a system of education to spread that knowledge. Encoding that knowledge in stories may make the teaching easier, but there’s still a lot to learn.
It’s really a problem of derivation. If the end goal is knowing how to behave properly for the right reasons, the question becomes: How many of the stories do I need to know in order to act right? For most belief systems, that means learning a whole lot of stories.
So what about Taoism? Taoism proposes a solution to the story trap:
But if you entrust that which belongs to the universe to the whole universe, from it there will be no escape.
Don’t trust stories for their knowledge; you’re practically guaranteed to not understand them completely as the author intended. Instead, put your trust in observing and experiencing the universe directly. The ancient sages came up with some great ideas on what behavior leads to a positive society, and they didn’t get it from stories, they got it from observing how societies operate, asking questions, and performing experiments. In the end, it’s all very scientific.
Of course as human beings, even the sages like to tell stories, and as they’re generally trying to help others, they encoded their knowledge into those stories. The difference is, whereas most belief systems ultimately say: “This is the truth, believe it,” Taoists instead say: “This is what we observed to be true, but don’t take our word for it, observe the universe for yourself.”
In fact many Taoist stories actually make fun of people who insist on studying the writings of sages, rather than gaining first-hand experience themselves. Even more exult the inability of teachers to pass on their wisdom to their students, and how frustratingly we want to teach others what we’ve learned.
Taoism concludes that observation and direct experience are preferable to education. They provide their own list of observations on how people should act in order to create a positive society, but they also follow that list with the empowering offer for us to experience the world and derive the list for ourselves.
I discovered Taoism through the writings of Lin Yutang. If you’re interested in Taoism I highly recommend his The Wisdom of Laotse.
An earlier draft of this article was originally published January 23, 2008 under a former pseudonym of mine. I rescued it with WXR to HTML, and I present it here revised and expanded.