21 February 2014

Uncovering the Mystery of Dao De Jing - The Discovery of Truth

Dao De Jing is a writing that is easy to read and yet deep in mystery. Here is an attempt to uncover the mystery that you may find the great wisdom within.
There are some writings that though we understand the written words yet we don't understand their meaning. We cannot grasp what the author is trying to say. For example, the many parables told by Jesus as recorded in the Bible. The 'unfortunate' part is that the meaning of the parables is explained by Jesus later and thereby removing the mystery.  In the Chinese literature, there is the book, Dao De Jing, written by Lao Zi, that I think it exhibits the similar characteristics of a deeper mystery and meaning. Let just start with the first chapter. The Chinese words with literal English translation are as follows:
  1. 道可道,非常道,
    The Way that can be described is not the eternal/common/true way.
  2. 名可名,非常名。
    The name that can be named is not the common/true name.
  3. 无名,天地之始,
    Nameless, is the beginning of heaven and earth.
  4. 有名,万物之母。
    Names are the mother of ten thousand things.
  5. 故常无欲以观其妙,
    Hence, not constantly having desire to observe the wonders.
  6. 常有欲以观其徼,
    Usually having desire/intention to observe the effects.
  7. 此两者同出而异名,同谓之玄,
    These two methods come from the same root but with different names, both are called the mystery.
  8. 玄之又玄,众妙之门。
    Mystery upon mystery, the gate to many wonders.
I think we have no problem with understanding what is written. The key is what does it mean? Why so mysterious?

To help us understand it better, I will give a title to the chapter, "The Pursuit of Truth and the Limitation of our Language".

The book of Dao De Jing is written to explain the Way (of Heaven and Earth, and of People, that people should follow that Way for peace and well being). Recognizing that the language we use is but an abstraction of the reality, it starts the book with such a qualification first. It is telling us to not just read at the surface but to go deeper with reflection to discover the real truth. So, after giving the warning, Lao Zi boldly presented his understanding of the way with various examples and analogies later.

So, by putting it additional explanations, perhaps I can uncover the mystery hidden in it.
  • 道可道,非常道,
    The Way that can be described is not the eternal/common/true way because our language is but an abstraction of the reality.
  • 名可名,非常名。
    The name that can be named is not the common/true name because a name is but an identification of the thing and not the whole thing.
  • 无名,天地之始,
    Nameless, is the beginning of heaven and earth because the name is given by man to describe the universe. Without the man, it remains in a nameless form.
  • 有名,万物之母。
    Names are the mother of ten thousand things because that is what we use to describe all the things of the universe and nature.
  • 故常无欲以观其妙,
    Hence, not having any common desires or motive to observe the wonders. then we can objectively discover the behaviors.
  • 常有欲以观其徼,
    Usually having desire/intention to observe the effects so that we can formulate theories and hypothesis to explain the cause and effects.
  • 此两者同出而异名,同谓之玄,
    These two methods come from the same root(to observe and to understand) but with different names, both are called mystery or rather the uncovering of the mystery for man's understanding and benefits.
  • 玄之又玄,众妙之门。
    Mystery upon mystery, the gate to many wonders is by using our exploration and testing methods.
In the sequent chapters, Lao Zi wrote his discovery and observation of the Way for us to understand that we may be careful to follow and not violate the Way.

The Lessons Learned:
The next question that we may ask is how can we benefit from this understanding of Dao De Jing? What are the lessons learned? How can they be applied in our life? Applying the wisdom will lead greater productivity and fewer conflicts in business and home.
  1. Our understanding of reality is but a partial view of reality. Question our assumptions and biases.
    There are other elements of reality that we may have missed or distorted because of our biases. So we should not jump to conclusions too quickly. We need to check our assumptions and biases. We may need to make additional observations and cross-check our interpretations of the events. 
  2. Understanding begins with giving something a meaningful name that captures the essence of the thing. We must then know how to differentiate and group the named things, knowing the differences and similarities. Building such a concept map of knowledge enables us to incrementally describe the universe.
  3. Our observations and measurements may distort the reality perceived. Question our measures.
    By measuring, we are observing with an intention (phase 6) and it will affect the system under the measurement (phase 1 and 2).  KPI (Key Performance Indicators) are typically used by management to drive behavior change and performance in an organization. We need to examine the definition of the KPI, the way of measuring, the motivation and the uses for the measures (for learning or for incentive), and the behavior developed because of the measures. There needs to be a regular review of the measurement systems. We have heard of the story of smaller nuts and bolts being produced if the incentive is based on the number of units per day and bigger nuts and bolts when the incentive is changed to kg per day.
  4. There are multiple perspectives. See from at least one more perspective?
    So it may be good to consider other perspectives. For parents, maybe we can look from our children perspectives. Before we scold or discipline our children, we must first ask them why they did it. We will be surprised that often their intention is good, and we just did not agree with the way they did the thing. For a business, we need to take the perspective of the customers and be not too quick to go on the defensive from customers complaints. We may discover lots of good ideas and improvements from their complaints. Customers who complain are actually giving us a second chance. If we can fix the issues raised, we will gain their loyalty. 
  5. There is always the new wonder that we can discover by observing with greater objectivity and depth. We should not give up too easily and too early.
  6. We are encouraged to create model, hypothesis and then to test them out.
    Discovery of the laws of nature, social interactions and others are worthy activities.
  7. Applying what we learn from one domain, say nature, into another domain, say robotics are good creative exercises. Many innovations are being created by learning from nature. We have a term for that, Biomimicry. This is an extension of our learning from Chapter 1.
  8. What other lessons have learned? Please share with us.
Lim Liat (c) 21 Feb 2014

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