Without Going Outside, You May Know the Whole World

Poem Forty-Seven

Without going out his door
he knows the whole world
without looking out his window
he knows the Way of Heaven
the farther people go
the less people know
therefore the sage knows without moving
names without seeing
succeeds without trying

–  Red Pine

You don’t have to go out the door
to know what goes on in the world.
You don’t have to look out the window
to see the way of heaven.
The farther you go,
the less you know.

So the wise soul
doesn’t go, but knows;
doesn’t look, but sees;
doesn’t do, but gets it done.

– Ursula K. Le Guin

Without opening your door,
you can open your heart to the world.
Without looking out your window,
you can see the essence of the Tao.

The more you know,
the less you understand.

The Master arrives without leaving,
sees the light without looking,
achieves without doing a thing.1

– Stephen Mitchell


I remember first hearing the Red Hot Chili Peppers sing

The more I see, the less I know
The more I’d like to let it go

as a teen and, at the time, the line was rather epiphanous to me – I had never quite meditated on the idea that the more I learn, the more unanswered questions I have, the greater the desire to learn more, and thus less contentment with what I already have or know. This can, of course, be a healthy aspect of our intellect, a valuable tool to be used by the mind, but most lose their original nature in it. The mind, in its hunt for knowledge, ensnares itself in its own trap. The more I’d like to let it go. That’s what these ancient wisdom traditions were preaching thousands of years ago, to societies with a million times less information at their fingertips than is available to us today. In elementary school, the one thing I learned that most stood out was a chorus we would occasionally sing as a class in the third grade:

Knowledge is power. I know what I know.
The more you learn the farther you’ll go.
When you get an education, you’ll be taking a stand
Because knowledge is power. Grab it while you can. Yo!

It was pretty catchy, sticking with me well throughout my formative years – clearly, as I recall it to this day – and empowered my child self to believe it’s cool to be smart. I needed that to grow up. If you get the message, hang up the phone as the “American Taoist” Alan Watts says.2 Thank you for that phone call, Mrs. Stewart (my 3rd grade teacher). Auf Wiederhören! I’m going to hang up now, and reclaim that childlike state. Returning, as is so thematic in Taoism; the baby or child as a model for the Taoist. As legend has it, Laozi (aka Lao-Tzu), the mythical author of the Daodejing, was born with a full beard, laughing as he came out the womb. I’m singing a much shorter chorus now, the beginning of the very next poem in the Daodejing, number forty-eight:

Pursue knowledge, gain daily.
Pursue Tao, lose daily. Yo!3Daodejing, Poem Forty-Eight (trans. Stephen Addiss & Stanley Lombardo)

This is a strong source of resistance for me, one that I’ve been working on overcoming. I know that when I practice, I discover treasure within myself from which no other treasure compares…

Odilon Redon, La Voile jaune (The Yellow Sail, 1905)4
… yet still, the allure to accumulate knowledge is so sweet… hm I could practice and awaken, but the Sirens are lulling me to sleep: read these books… catch up on these articles… watch these videos I’ve saved for later… check my news feed, feel overwhelmed, try to cope by adding hoarding to Pocket… Zen sage and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, D.T. Suzuki, brilliantly captures this quality:

Zen proposes its solution by directly appealing to facts of personal experience and not to book-knowledge. The nature of one’s own being where apparently rages the struggle between the finite and the infinite is to be grasped by a higher faculty than the intellect… For the intellect has a peculiarly disquieting quality in it. Though it raises questions enough to disturb the serenity of the mind, it is too frequently unable to give satisfactory answers to them. It upsets the blissful peace of ignorance and yet it does not restore the former state of things by offering something else. Because it points out ignorance, it is often considered illuminating, whereas the fact is that it disturbs, not necessarily always bringing light on its path.5

To “see” the metaphysical reality of Tao, the infinite oneness from which name and form arise, is not about perceiving more, it is about changing that which perceives, the source, our awareness. To awaken from a dream, one does not need to go further in it. Become aware right where you are. Know without moving.

  1. Stephen Mitchell’s translation, however baser it may be, is usually the most ‘accessible’ one for the mainstream audience
  2. in a different context, admittedly ;)
  3. ok, I added the “Yo!”
  4. http://collection.imamuseum.org/artwork/33412/
  5. https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/01/30/d-t-suzuki-essays-in-zen-buddhism/

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