5th November 2003
Commentary on Tao Te Ching Interpretation
and the possibility of higher order patterning
- / -
This is a commentary on the Tao Te Ching Interpreted Succinctly (original
order) and (alternative
Patterning possibilities are presented separately in detail in 9-fold
Higher Order Patterning of Tao Te Ching Insights
Navigational implications are explored in Hyperspace
Clues to the Psychology of the Pattern that Connects
Interpretation rather than translation
Cognitive navigation through alternative pattern representations
There are many translations and commentaries of the classic Chinese book by
Lao Tzu entitled the Tao Te Ching. This text has been translated more
frequently than any other work except the Bible. [See resources].
In emphasis, they may be wise, scholarly aesthetic or otherwise. Scholars have
said that the original Tao Te Ching is a poem. As a poem, it was not
intended to be read in one session, but rather to be explored at intervals --
internalized and contemplated.
The exercise (presented separately)
was based on the translation of Ursula
Le Guin (Lao Tzu -- Tao Te Ching: a book about the way and the power
of the way, 1997) who explicitly chose to give a poetic rendering into English
in the light of 8 other English translations, including:
- Paul Carus. Lao Tze's Tao-Teh-King. 1898
- Arthur Waley. The Way and its Power: a study of the Tao Te Ching and
its place in Chinese thought. 1958
- Robert G Henricks. Te-Tao Ching: Lao-Tzu, translated from the Ma-wang-tui
- Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English. Tao Te Ching. 1972
- D C Lau. Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching. 1963
Some translations are available online [see especially those available via Translations
of the Dao De Jing
], including those of James
, Lin Yutang
, and Raymond
provides an online "interpolation" a version that he has adjusted
by drawing several translations into "a consistent and accessible context"
-- one which is "which is blunt, easy and useful to read within a modern
context" [also by chapter
Merel stresses that in English it is "cast into a language that is incapable
of presenting its poetic structure and philological connections".
Interpretation rather than translation
The exercise (presented separately)
that is the subject of this commentary is not however a translation.
It does not aspire in any way to be a true reflection of the individual stanzas
in the 81 chapters of the Ursula Le Guin version. The exercise is an attempt
to reduce each such chapter (whatever its length) to a single extended phrase
-- to a form of "abstract" that seeks to convey the essence of the chapter.
It has been undertaken as an experiment -- an aesthetic challenge to facilitate
a form of comprehension. In contrast to many other translators, Ursula Le Guin
herself moves in this direction by proposing a "title" for each chapter -- a
feature absent from the original. The phrase form in this exercise might then
be understood as an amplification of the insight held by such a title.
It should however be stressed that words and phrases in the Ursula Le Guin
version have only very occasionally been used in this exercise -- when they
appeared especially apt as part of the phrase form. Such usage is in no way
intended to suggest any endorsement by Ursula Le Guin of the resulting formulation
which totally lacks the aesthetic dimensions that she emphasized. She herself
explicitly makes use of the occasional phrase from other translations when appropriate.
The problematic attitude involved in the "doing" of any such an exercise is
of course the issue that is at the core of the theme of the original.
Such an exercise could indeed be seen to be both presumptuous and a totally
inappropriate undertaking completely unworthy of the original -- even an insult
to the many who value it highly. However any such criticism may itself be taking
the exercise too seriously. It might be better to see it simply (and solely)
as a whimsical personal adaptation -- whether or not it is of any value to others.
In addition there is also the subtle challenge of the attitude for anyone who
would claim to be engaged in such interpretation for the benefit of others --
effectively laying claim to special knowing. There is also the implication that,
through such an exercise, some high ground of wisdom has been discovered and
occupied. The text is however focused in many ways on the identification of
the characteristics of this challenge and the inappropriateness of any such
agenda. Such concerns should therefore figure in the results of the exercise
-- and they do.
The exercise sacrifices the many advantages of the original's rich pattern
of poetic associations and metaphors -- as well as the didactic reinforcement
of particular understanding through various alternative formulations. Together
these may all be essential to the intimate and subtle understanding that the
original seeks to convey. The possibility of rendering some such pattern more
explicit by other means is explored below.
The succinct mode chosen is indeed a crude and blunt use of contemporary language
-- even jargon -- to point to a subtler mode of understanding -- given how inappropriate
or offensive the language may be to traditional sensibilities.
The form raises the question as to whether there is indeed a unique and singular
insight (a gestalt) associated with each chapter -- and to what extent
its nature can be meaningfully intimated more briefly than in the original or
through its many translations. The original may even be seen as indicating the
folly of such an attempt. As an approach, the exercise may then be understood
as inconsistent with the cautions that are a theme of the original.
In addition to the artificial constraint of a single extended phrase, each
phrase in the exercise deliberately starts with a word in gerund form. This
device has been used to place the reader in an active, dynamic "how to" mindset
appropriate to a world of change. This minimizes the use of injunctions, judgements
and descriptive statements which may be more appropriate to commentary on how
the mindset is to be held -- or "not held" -- in the spirit of the original.
In this sense the exercise may be seen as a member of a much larger class of
sets of advice ("insight sets") of which some examples include:
- religious commandments
- sets of virtues (and their corresponding vices)
- "manuals for princes"
- sets of aphorisms
- moral do's and don'ts
- friendly and consoling advice (as with Rudyard Kipling's If...)
- guidelines for the spiritual life
- pointers to good governance
Some of those with a more cognitive dimension have been explored in a separate
Alternative Conceptual Realities, 2002). With 81 insights, the Tao
Te Ching may however be one of the most comprehensive.
This exercise was preceded by a more extensive undertaking by the author (first
published in one form in 1980) to adapt a translation of the "sister" Taoist
classic, namely the I Ching (or Book of Changes) into 7 parallel
forms. The online version of that adaptation (Transformation
Metaphors derived experimentally from the Chinese Book of Changes (I Ching),
1997) enables users to navigate between its application to: sustainable dialogue,
vision, conferencing, policy, network, community or lifestyle. The latter exercise
formed part of a more general exploration into Patterns
of Conceptual Integration (1984) of which one practical outcome was
Classification in an Integrative Matrix of Human Preoccupations (1982).
The concerns were first articulated with respect to challenges of knowledge
organization in a paper on Representation,
Comprehension and Communication of Sets: the Role of Number (1978).
The exercise with respect to the Tao Te Ching was however undertaken
with a further purpose in mind, namely to explore the possibility that the 81
insights may in fact constitute a pattern that itself is a guide and container
for the subtlety to which the original refers -- rather than being understood
as a simple list of insights.
Such a pattern has often been explored with respect to the binary coding underlying
the "sister" Taoist classic, namely the I Ching (or Book of Changes)
-- notably with respect to its "inner structure" (cf Lama Anarika Govinda. Inner
Structure Of The I Ching: The Book Of Transformations, 1981). Whereas the
64 (namely 26) hexagrams of the I Ching have been explored
as an 8x8 pattern (of "houses"), the possibility of a 9x9 (namely 34)
pattern in the case of the Tao Te Ching has not been a focus of attention.
Why for example are there 81 insights -- not 78 or 85? What might be the relationship
between the 26 of the I Ching and the 34 pattern
of the Tao Te Ching? How might this relate to the explorations of Ernest
G McClain (The
Myth of Invariance, 1978)?
What kind of integrity and understanding might have 81 facets -- or require
81 facets to convey? In isolation such facets might be associated with particular
"traps" or instabilities of awareness. Flying a helicopter, for example,
calls for simultaneous control of 6 dimensions (CF Arthur Young. The Geometry
of Meaning, 1978), with wider cognitive implications, as discussed elsewhere.
Can the 81 insights be represented in a meaningful 9-fold pattern of associations
to be understood as a comprehensible whole? Would such a pattern constitute
a kind of template, framework, or array to provide a focus for a form of transcendence?
Or perhaps the insights together offer a perspective on a pattern of "engagements"
with "reality"? Understanding the pattern might be assisted by recognizing
a form of resonance between the insights -- as with any resonant pattern of
associations essential to the integrity of a poem or a piece of music. It is
then the overtones they engender that embody the subtler understanding signified
by the pattern as a whole. The overtones emerge through the interplay between
the particular insights. Perhaps the coherence of the pattern may be partly
understood by analogy with what are known to chemists as "resonance hybrids".
Matrix: As a first step in this exploration, it was assumed in this
exercise that this 9x9 pattern could be presented in tabular form (see Table
1). Reading the items in the rows of this table would then give rise
to to the conventional
ordering of items from 1 to 81. But reading the columns of this table
would then give an alternative
ordering of the same items.
Does this table highlight a periodicity to the pattern through which particular
insights are exemplified? Would such a pattern offer the possibility of "tuning
out" the inadequacies in the phrase formulation -- in relation to each other
and in order to enhance the "tuning" of the pattern as a whole? In practice
this would mean adjusting the emphasis of the wording choices made in each case.
This might clarify insights of some chapters held by some translators to be
somewhat "redundant" -- and simply repetitive of insights presented in other
Magic squares, cubes and hypercubes: In the search for higher order
approaches to patterning the 81 insights in this exercise, the traditional association
of the Lo-Shu order
of numbers with Taoist explorations of such insights was explored separately
Higher Order Patterning of Tao Te Ching Insights) in terms of the much-investigated
mathematics of magic squares, magic cubes and hypercubes [more].
As indicated, this rich source of patterns offers many possibilities. The challenge
is to discover pathways through them that facilitate the ordering of insights
to provide access to higher orders of meaning that may be associated with the
Tao Te Ching.
Of particular interest is the properties of magic squares associated with the
Lo Shu order. Thus although there is just one such 3x3 magic square --
with rotations and reflections, there are eight variations of what is essentially
the same square. This might be understood to reframe the significance of the
traditional compass directions that figure in Taoist texts which, rather than
being interpreted symbolically, then suggest a more precise cognitive significance
in navigating the 81 insights. Each of the 8 "directions" may then
be a unique alternative cognitive configuration pathway.
The Lo-Shu order
was traditionally compared to the markings on the back of a turtle. But here
this pattern suggests a precise conceptual (rather than quaintly symbolic) justification
for the understanding in a arrange of traditional cosmologies that the universe
is supported on the "back of a turtle". The turtle was traditionally
supposed to have emerged from a river -- Lo Shu also signifying River Map. In
this context the river might be understood as the river of change -- in the
sense implied by Heraclitus who expressed the notion of eternal change in terms
of the continuous flow of the river which always renews itself.
Cognitive navigation through alternative pattern representations
The higher order patterns discussed above for the Tao Te Ching insights
constitute a major challenge to comprehension -- especially when the favoured
representation is mathematical, even if this includes geometric visualizations.
These may indeed be represented through online dynamic and interactive displays
(applets) as provided, and summarized, by Alex Bogomolny (The
Tesseract, March 2000).
One challenge in taking the exercise further is the confusion arising from
the traditional significance attached to the "magical" proerties of
such arrays. Clifford Pickover (The Zen of Magic Squares, Circles, and Stars:
An Exhibition of Surprising Structures Across Dimensions, 2002), for example,
has explained why Chinese emperors, Babylonian astrologer-priests, prehistoric
cave people in France, and ancient Mayans of the Yucatan were convinced that
magic squares -- as arrays filled with numbers or letters in certain arrangements
-- held the secret of the universe. In all periods, people have invoked such
patterns to ward off evil and bring good fortune.
Given that the emphasis here with respect to the Tao Te Ching is on
the possibility of higher order patterning of insights that might be associated
with such complex mappings, the central challenge -- building on such aids --
is how to facilitate comprehension of whatever may then be understood as "coherence".
The emphasis here, in contrast with many studies of the Tao Te Ching
and/or "magic" number configurations, is indeed on the cognitive implications.
It may well be the case that such coherence, and the reinforcement of the insights,
can be assisted by such complex mappings, but arguably, this may be better achieved
for many by using them as templates for other modes of representation that may
elicit such understanding.
One potentially interesting approach is through sound, music, song or poetry:
- sound: the use of sound to render complex patterns comprehensible
is notably the focus of the International Community
for Auditory Display (Sonification
Report: Status of the Field and Research Agenda).
- music: for musicians, the process of modelling a higher level object
(a hypercube) into a lower level language (3D description) entails a series
of issues similar to those of representing a musical sound on a score. The
terms hypercube and tesseract have been enthusiastically associated with some
music productions and their promotion, but it is unclear to what extent this
is more than metaphorical and allusive -- or whether it has been the basis
of (avant garde) musical research. Aspects of this approach recall musical
explorations of "variations" (Bach's Goldberg Variations,
etc). Many of the speculative points made in this paper with respect to knowledge
organization are given significance and legitimacy with respect to the role
of music by the valuable study by David Rosenboom (Propositional music:
on emergent properties in morphogenesis and the evolution of music, 1997).
Given the comparisons made between the I Ching binary code and the
genetic code (CF Martin Schönberger, Katya Walter, Derek Walters), and recent
efforts to express the DNA structures in musical form through "protein
it would appear possible to explore the I Ching and Tao Te Ching
structures through music.
- song: where, as in this case, each insight is articulated in text
form, this suggests their incorporation into a complex song (as reportedly
explored by Russell Campbell within the framework of the New Religious Mode
songs of the Institute of Cultural Affairs in the late 1960s). Such song might
be structured in ways that contrast with more traditional chanted adaptations
- poetry: as noted earlier, scholars have indicated that the original
text of the Tao Te Ching is a poem. The question is whether the numerical
relationships hold clues to interesting poetic associations. Pointers in this
direction are offered by poet-mathematician Cameron Jones, who suggests that:
"The hypercube is a geometry that can take you anywhere. Multidimensional,
trajectories with connections. Hypercubes contain hypercycles and can self-replicate
to transmit information" [more]
Such links could provide bridging templates between the organizational concerns
of poetry-making and policy-making (see Poetry
making and Policy making: arranging a Marriage between Beauty and the Beast,
- drama: an interesting
case can be made for the mapping of a drama in terms of a a board game
like chess as with Shakespeare's Tempest. Such an approach could be
used to express the interrelationship between the insights of the Tao Te
A different approach is through the use of games:
Such tools could help to render more accessible, comprehensible and memorable
the properties and coherence of the cognitive space within which the Tao
Te Ching provides 81 mnemonic markers. The tools may also help in providing
guidance as to the nature of the navigational pathways between such insight
loci -- notably how alternative loci may "appear" as options from
any locus within that space. Of particular interest is the manner in which the
mathematical properties of complex objects (especially those that acquire their
enhanced coherence through their "magic" properties) may have cognitive
properties in relation to navigation -- as intimated by patterns of poetic associations.
Related issues are discussed elsewhere (Navigating
Alternative Conceptual Realities: clues to the dynamics of enacting new paradigms
through movement, 2002)
The fundamental question is how such higher orderings in mathematical terms
are to be understood as associated with increasing and subtler qualities
of cognitive association. The magic squares and cubes exemplify configurations
of different numeric relationships. But is it possible to distinguish between
their roles as:
- potentially interesting coding systems to order sets of conceptual
objects (as an extension of work on knowledge organization)
- allusive metaphoric orderings that have inspired many in different
cultures with their "magical" potential down the centuries (The
numerical symmetries in "magic squares", symbolized a form of hidden knowledge
to priests and mystics in many ancient cultures)
- valuable mappings of insights that can provide the templates for exploratory
performance art (poetry, music, song)
- ways of describing (and possibly designing) the configurations and flows
of information in more powerfully integrative forms of individuation or
- frameworks that can be cognitively embodied in some way to enhance
capacity to perceive and navigate alternative and subtler cognitive spaces
(as explored in some cultures by variants of mandalas and sand painting)
The relevance of the last of these has been explored separately (Psychology
of Sustainability: Embodying cyclic environmental processes, 2002; Enhancing
the Quality of Knowing: through Integration of East-West metaphors,
Gardening through Music: patterns of coherence for future African management
as an alternative to Project Logic, 2000).
As an example, for Marie-Louise Von Franz (Number and Time: Reflections
leading toward a unification of depth psychology and physics. 1974), a a
fourfold approach appears "to constitute the fundamental minimum means for subdividing
and thus classifying the circle or wholeness" (47, p. 121). "Two pairs of opposites,
a quaternion, are required to set up a bodily unity" (47, p. 1 27). Below four
the perception of wholeness is partly unconscious. As soon as the unconscious
content enters the sphere of consciousness it has already split into four basic
modes of awareness. "It is perceived as something that exists (sensation); it
is recognized as this and distinguished from that (thinking); it is evaluated
as pleasant or unpleasant (feeling); and, finally, intuition tells us where
it came from and where it is going" (47, p. 121). As a minimum condition, if
they are not incorporated into an "integrated" approach, they must necessarily
be projected onto competing approaches in the environment, with all the intellectual
and institutional consequences for any harmonious integration. Such a fourfold
approach is a necessary requirement for comprehending any "meta-answer". [more]
Von Franz makes the point that the ancient Chinese applied squares in their
music and dance -- given that in that culture the squares are symbolic of the
underlying rhythm of the universe.
Of particular interest with respect to cognitive embodiment is the work of
Jon and Maureen Jenkins (The
Personal Disciplines of a Facilitator, 2002) in recognizing the 9 disciplines
(or attitudinal postures) important to successful meeting facilitation. They
are: detachment, engagement, focus, awareness, action, presence, interior dialogue,
intentionality and a sense of wonder. In the 1960s, the Ecumenical Institute,
forerunner of the Institute of Cultural Affairs, built a model it named the
New Religious Mode that seems to provide a framework for an ongoing dialogue
about the nature of human consciousness. This has been transposed to make it,
hopefully, more accessible to today's facilitator.
An expression often used in Masonic circles is "to be on the square", meaning
to be a reliable sort of person, and this has entered common usage. Given the
square patterned layout of masonic halls over which rituals are conducted, it
is possible that there is a special understanding of magic squares in freemasonry.
The "square and compasses", tools of the masonic trade, are symbolically arranged
to form a quadrilateral. It is possible that movement "over the square"
can be understood by masons in psycho-spiritual terms.
The patterns of Table
1 and Table
2 may assist in understanding the nature of the self-referential loops,
inversions and redundancies that help to reinforce the understanding conveyed
by the original. These issues may be further clarified by the various forms
of "imperfection" of "magic" squares, cubes and hypercubes
-- and the cognitive analogues they suggest.
In the light of the organization of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements
(with which it could be somewhat isomorphic, as discussed elsewhere),
the patterns of Table
1 and Table
2 might be understood as 9 interwoven journeys of nine learning stages each.
A journey may be understood as a sequence of reframings in which (ideally) earlier
frames of understanding are seen to be aspects of (and essential to) understanding
of a larger pattern. The classical Zen sequence of ox-herding images exemplifies
such a journey [more |
Such journeys might be understood as 9 ways of answering the question "who
am I". All of them are partial and problematic. Each offers something to
cling to -- a clinging which can inhibit further insight. All of the journeys
are cyclic -- returning to the point of origin so classically indicated by the
poet T S Eliot: "We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all
our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for
the first time" (Little
The potential implication of such cyclic movement are well illustrated metaphorically
by the physics of particle accelerators such as the cyclo-synchrotron. In this
case however, there are 9 interwoven cycles through which attention is "accelerated"
to higher energy levels.
The use of hypercube structures in the exploration of high-performance network
design is due to the advantages they offer to meet certain performance criteria
under the constraints of a limited number of input/output channels per processor
and a limited number of inter-processor communication links. The hypercube delivers
high performance in networks and has been implemented in several commercial
parallel computers. The question is whether the common network performance criteria
(routing speed, bandwidth, and richness of structure, i.e., ability to embed
certain common communication patterns) are suggestive by analogy for an individual
faced with insight processing challenges.
As suggested above, the 81 insights might be usefully understood as contrasting
frames through which "reality" may be "engaged".
Transition between them would then be a question of reframing. The process
might then be one of "donning" and "doffing" frames -- accepting
that some may be preferred and even habitual, and others extremely challenging.
Such frames might be understood as various kinds of interface between "doing"
and "not-doing" -- possibly different kinds of "lying" and
"truth-telling". "Not-doing" might then be a form of avoiding
engagement within a narrower framing -- thus giving it a hold, through giving
it excessive importance. This is well illustrated by the classic Asian tale
of the seven blind men each encountering different parts of an elephant (trunk,
leg, tail, etc) -- and making conflicting assertions about it in the light of
their limited experience.
One rich and comprehensive approach to such framing that may be consonant with
the above pattern inquiry is that of the Social Process Triangles developed
within the Institute of Cultural Affairs, notably by Jon and Maureen Jenkins
It is widely held that the insights of the I Ching or the Tao Te
Ching could be best explored singly and over an extended period of time.
Whether any larger pattern emerges is then another matter. The focus here however
is on the possible nature of such a pattern -- if articulated through any of
a variety of forms.
But whilst it may be possible to represent patterns that are suggestive of
subtler insights, it is quite another matter again to understand them and to
embody them in behaviour -- whether as an individual or as a group. As with
making sense of a text in a poorly understood alphabet, it is worth reflecting
on analogies to the challenges of learning to read and understand -- especially
when the text refers to matters which may only be dimly recognized!
The communication implications for the higher dimensionality of cognitive space
have been explored by mathematician Ron Atkin (Multidimensional Man: can
man live in 3-dimensional space? 1981; reviewed in a separate
document). This work provides vital insights into the nature of incommunicability,
even when there is no language barrier.
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