Law and Order

Eastern Wisdom and Modern Life (Episode 12)


Alan Watts speaks on the contrast between organic and legalistic views of the order of nature, the former being based on visual pattern intelligence and the latter on verbal conventions.



I’m going to show you an ancient Chinese method of divination. Perhaps you know that divination is really a kind of fortune telling. But this particular kind of divination is based on what some people believe to be the very oldest of all the Chinese classics: the Book of Changes. I say divination is something like fortune-telling, but it’s a little bit more highbrow than ordinary fortune-telling. One wouldn’t, I think, presume to ask so hoary a book of wisdom as the I Ching what to bet on the stock market. Rather, one asks questions about one’s spiritual, psychological state, or very great momentous decisions of life.


The very old and orthodox way of consulting the Book of Changes is to use the stalks of the yarrow plant. A number of stalks are taken and divided at random, and so calculations are made. But this is a rather long and elaborate way of doing it, and a not so ancient but equally respectable way is to use Chinese coins—you know, the kind of coins that have a hole through the middle, so that you can carry them on a string around your neck.


So if I were to ask the Book of Changes, “What is the best thing for me in my present state?”—that is the sort of question that would be appropriate under circumstances like this. So we take the coins and we shake them and drop them. And according to the way they fall—heads or tails—we get a positive or a negative reading. In this particular case we get a negative reading; the symbol which records the negative reading being the drawing of a broken line. That line is called a yin, or negative, line. We do it again. And this time the reading is again negative, and we record it. We shake them again. And this time the reading is positive, and we record that by an unbroken line, or a yang line, representing the positive principle. Again, and once more the line is negative. Again, and the line is once more negative. And then a final sixth time, and the line is positive.


And so we get this figure. And in order to know what it means we have to take a look at a very, very ancient diagram which may be familiar to you. Perhaps you’ve seen this diagram on Chinese bowls, or jewelry sometimes, or carving in jade. This is called bagua, or “the eight trigrams.” In the center of the design you see this figure which may be familiar to some of you as the trademark of the Northern Pacific Railroad. But actually, its meaning in China is the symbol of these two fundamental principles, the negative and the positive, the yang and the yin, which are held to lie at the root of all phenomena in the world.


The word yang, which is represented by this comma, or fish, that is white, means the south (or bright) side of a mountain. And then yin means the shady (or dark) side of a mountain. And thus, respectively, they’re called the male and the female principles. Now, you’ll obviously notice that with the symbolism of a light and dark side of a mountain that you can’t have a mountain with only one side. The two sides must always go together. And so, in the same way, the Chinese feel that the positive and the negative, the light and the dark, the male and the female, the auspicious and the inauspicious always go together in human life, because one cannot be distinguished without the other.


In the second chapter of his book, the old philosopher Lao Tzu—whom I have mentioned many times in these programs—says:

When all the world recognizes beauty to be beautiful, there is already ugliness.

When all the world recognizes good to be good, there is already evil.

Thus, to be and not to be arise mutually.


And you can say that “to be” is the principle yang, and “not to be” the principle yin; respectively, the positive and the negative.


And now, outside the rotating figure of the positive and negative principles, you will find these eight trigrams—trigrams meaning symbols of three lines. And here you will see the broken and the unbroken lines such as I drew when I was consulting the oracle—the broken being the yin line, and the unbroken the yang, or positive, lines. And these trigrams represent the eight fundamental principles or elements which, according to this Book of Changes, are involved in every life situation. For example, the one at the top means heaven or sky, the one below means earth. This is the father, this is the mother. Over this side, for example, this one means fire, and over here, that one means water.


And as you will see, we derived two of these trigrams. The point of the oracle being that every situation in life is a combination of two of these principles in preponderance. And the one that we have here is this one, repeated twice. And this one has the meaning of a mountain. A mountain over a mountain. Now, there are 64 possible combinations of these eight trigrams, which makes the meaning of each combination pretty difficult to remember. So we’d better go and look at the Book of Changes itself and see what it has to say about this particular one; what advice the oracle would want to give me in answer to my question about my present situation.


The mountain over the mountain happens to be—let’s see, that’s number 52. The figure of the mountain, of course, has a symbolism, and it means the idea of quietness or keeping still. And so when we have keeping still, quietness above quietness, we get a whole emblem whose meaning is profound calm. And so the oracle says:

Keeping Still

Keeping his back still so that he no longer feels his body, He goes into his courtyard and does not see his people. No blame.

Mountains standing close together. The image of keeping still. Thus, the superior man does not permit his thoughts to go beyond his situation.

The heart thinks constantly. This cannot be changed. But the movements of the heart—that is, a man’s thoughts—should restrict themselves to the immediate situation. All thinking that goes beyond this only makes the heart sore.


Now, you can see that that’s pretty generalized advice. And it’s appropriate, in a way, to the question, because the question was vague and the answer is vague. But the symbolism of this answer is simply that, sitting so as to keep one’s back still, so that one’s back is not noticed, is self-forgetfulness. And keeping one’s thoughts to the immediate situation means the practice of meditation or calmness or quietness, and that’s what I’m advised to do. It’s good advice.


Now you may say: well this is a thoroughly crazy way at coming at decisions—especially if I were to ask something more specific than this. If I had asked advice on some momentous decision I had to make, we would naturally say from our modern scientific point of view that flipping coins to come to the great decisions of life is the stupidest thing we could possibly do. After all, it neglects all rational cogitation about our situations. We would say: well, it takes no account of the data in the situation. It makes no intelligent assessment of the probabilities. And we, before we make any important decision, we think over all the factors involved, we balance the pros against the cons, we balance assets against deficit, and so on. We go into the situation and think it out thoroughly. And therefore, what could be more superstitious than relying upon some oracle that has entirely to do with the purely chance falling of the coins that have no relation to the problem whatsoever? That’s our contemporary point of view about all methods of fortune-telling, divination, and so on and so forth.


But now, look: someone who believed in this system—an old-fashioned Chinese—might say to us, “But listen. First of all, when you estimate the data, when you consider the facts that are involved in any particular decision, how do you know exactly what facts are involved?” After all, you’re going to sign a contract, and the facts you think about that are relevant to this contract are the state of your own business, the state of the other fellow’s business, the prospects, the market, and so on and so forth. But something that you may never have considered at all may enter into the situation and change it utterly. The man with whom you’re going to make the contract may slip on a banana skin, and so hurt his head and become inefficient in business. How would anyone ever think of such an eventuality in taking a sane and rational view of the situation?


Or he might say to us: how do you know when you got in enough data? After all, the data, the causes, the problems involved in any particular situation are virtually infinite. And, as a matter of fact, you stop getting in data, stop getting in information as to how to solve a problem, either when you’re tired of it, or when the time comes to act and you haven’t time to collect any more data. And he would say that is just as irrational as flipping coins, because you decide when to stop investigating in a very arbitrary way. So are you really very much more ahead of us?


Well, we would say: what about probabilities? After all, we rely a great deal upon statistics in order to make decisions. And he would say again about statistics: yes, statistics are all very well when you want to know what a lot of people are going to do. For example, if you flip a coin, you know that if you flip a coin a hundred times, there is going to be quite a probability that you will toss half of the time heads, half of the time tails. A thousand tosses and you will get nearer to an exact half and half. But each individual toss, the chance is 50–50 whether it will be heads or tails. In other words, you may have tossed 999 times, and you may have had 400 tails tosses, you may have had the rest heads tosses. So the probability will be on the thousandth that it will go to tails, because that’s had the lesser number of tosses—but actually, your chance on it coming up heads or tails at that particular moment is again 50–50, and the probability really tells you nothing.


And so, in the same way, with the actuarial tables of insurance companies. They will say the average lifespan of an adult man is 65 years. But on any individual case these tables do not tell us when I am going to die. And so our Chinese critic might say: well, so you see, I myself am of a somewhat skeptical temperament, and I very much doubt in fact whether this way of coming at decisions really worked. Or let us put it this way: we can never really prove whether any method of coming to decisions really works. I mean, I may make a foolish decision, and I call it foolish because as a result of it I get killed. But there’s absolutely no way of showing that my getting killed at that moment didn’t preserve me from a worse fate, from making mistakes that involved the lives of many other people. If I so-called succeed by making a right decision and I earn a million dollars, there’s no way of showing that this isn’t so bad for my character that it’s the worst thing that could possibly happen. So we never really know whether the outcome of a decision is a failure or a success—not in the long run. Because only the unknown what comes next will show whether it was good or bad, and the unknown stretches infinitely into the future.


But it seems to me that the importance of this old Chinese book of divination is twofold. First of all, there’s a bad side to it; a distinct disadvantage in Chinese culture. The Chinese came so much to rely on the book of changes, and to use its system of symbols—those trigrams I showed you—to use these for classifying all natural phenomena that, in the course of time, it became a very rigid thing and it excluded the perception of novelty.


Now, the warning and the advantage to us in that is: we can do the same thing with the scientific method. There are certain kinds of personality who become very rigid in their scientific ideas, and simply automatically exclude certain possibilities because they don’t conform with alleged scientific dogma. Take, for example, what we call ESP or extrasensory perception. I rather call it extraordinary sensory perception. But still, there is reason to believe that there is extremely strong evidence for something of this kind occurring, and yet many scientific people will ignore that evidence because they say things like: that simply can’t happen. And that is to fall into the same rut that the Chinese fell into when they relied too meticulously upon the classification of the world and of events found in the Book of Changes.


But there’s a positive side to the picture. For this Book of Changes is founded on a view of life which is very suggestive to us, which is in accord with certain points of view that now develop in our own science. A way of life, a way of looking at life, which sees not so much the causal relationship between events, as the pattern of events. Let me try and show that difference.


When we think of causality we think chiefly of the way events are determined by their past. It’s as if events were a lot of marbles, and they’re thrown together and they knock each other around. And therefore, in tracing the movement of any particular marble, we try to find out which other marbles knocked it and so trace it back and back and back. And until quite recent times the whole view of Western science was based on the idea of causality: how things are influenced by past things.


But the point of view that underlies the Book of Changes—and the Chinese never really applied to their science; they applied it rather to their art, and perhaps their philosophy of law—but the point of view here is different. It is instead of understanding events by relation to past causes, it understands events by relation to their present pattern. And, in other words, it comprehends them by taking a total view instead of what we might call a linear view.


If, for example, we can find a suitable analogy for the Western way of looking at things, we might say it is understanding events in accordance with the order of words. For example, I can say “This dog has no bark,” and then “this tree has no bark.” Now, the meaning of “bark” in these two sentences is determined by what went before them. I make sounds before I say the sound “bark.” Before I say “bark” I say “this dog has no.” Now, if I want to know what “bark” means, I have to go back to what happened in the past.


But if you take the order, not of words, but what I would rather call the order of design, we get a rather different situation. Supposing I draw two small circles, and these correspond to the two words “bark.” They’re both the same. But now, supposing a design arises around those two circles, and then at once we see that in their context those two original circles have quite different meaning. But you see their relationship to their meaning all at once. I mean, imagine: supposing these designs had not been drawn by a brush, line after line after line, but had appeared altogether at once as you see the image appear when you’re developing a photographic plate. Then you would see that the meaning of each part of the design is relative to the rest of it as you see it now at this moment.


And so, in the same way, the fundamental philosophy of the Book of Changes and of the Chinese idea of the relationship between events is to understand every event in its present context. Not understanding it so much as we do by what went before it, but rather understanding it in terms of what goes with it.Thus the idea of the Book of Changes is to reveal through its symbols the total pattern of the moment when the question is asked, on the supposition that the pattern of this moment governs even the tossing of the coins.


Now then, the interesting comparison that arises out of this is that because we in the West have tended to understand events in accordance with the order of words, in accordance with the order of causality, we have evolved a conception of nature as based on law. In other words, when we ask for the explanation of any natural phenomenon, we look for that explanation in words, in a formulation, that will describe a law. On the other hand, the Chinese have not evolved the idea of a law of nature, but something quite different but equally valid and equally useful. There is indeed a word in Chinese for “law,” in very much our sense of law. It’s a rather interesting word, because as it was originally written, it was a picture like this. That’s a picture of an iron cauldron, and beside it a figure holding a knife. This is the Chinese word for “law,” tse, which most corresponds to our idea of law. And the reason for this symbol is that, in ancient times, some of the old emperors commanded the laws to be written on the iron sacrificial cauldrons. And when the people came to offer sacrifice and put their offerings into the cauldrons, they could read the laws written upon the cauldrons. But at the time, when those ancient emperors ordered the laws to be written in this way, there were certain sages and scholars who said: no, you shouldn’t write the laws down. Because if you write the laws down, the people will develop a litigious spirit—that is to say, they will start quibbling. And therefore, the property of the order of nature is sometimes called in Chinese not this; the expression wu-tse. Wu meaning “not.” Wu-tze is used, meaning “apparently lawless.”


But it doesn’t really mean lawless. For example, if we go for a moment to Chinese ideas of civil law, a good judge does not base his decisions on this kind of law—written down law—because he knows that no written law can apply to all the complex multiplicity of circumstances that may arise. And so he bases his decisions on what the Chinese call, not law, but justice: 義. This word is pronounced i. And justice in this sense corresponds rather to our idea of equity. It is the sensibility for order and reasonableness that is embodied in an individual. He hasn’t got it clearly written down, but he is the sort of person who is able to judge in any particular circumstance whether a certain decision is fair or not fair. And they much rather trust a man who has i in him than a man who has a thorough knowledge of the rules.


And so we come, thus, to a conception of the order of nature that is one of the most important words in the Chinese language, and that is a word which originally meant “the markings in jade,” “the grain in wood,” or “the fiber in muscle,” and it’s pronounced . This is a character, then, meaning really “the basic, fundamental pattern of things.” But such an image is used as the markings in jade or the grain in wood because this is an extremely subtle, complex pattern; a huge area of events all happening together at once, which has to be taken in at a glance in the same way as we take design in at a glance, understood at a glance, and therefore is not capable of formulation in the order of words.And so —meaning, perhaps, “organic pattern”—is the fundamental Chinese idea of the order of nature.


In other words, when we think of beauty, we know very clearly what is beautiful and what isn’t. But it’s absolutely impossible to write down a set of laws and rules as to how one will create beautiful objects. In mathematics, for example, mathematicians often feel that certain equations, certain expressions, are peculiarly beautiful. And mathematicians, because they are meticulous people, try to think out exactly: why is this beautiful? Could we make up a rule for beauty? And yet they come to the conclusion that if we could make up a rule and apply it in mathematics, and always by the use of this rule get a beautiful result, eventually those results would cease to impress us as being beautiful. They would become sterile and dry.


And so, in the same way, the order of nature, the order of justice, the order of beauty are things which we can know in ourselves, but we cannot write down in black and white. And therefore, the superior man is one who has the sensibility for these things in himself.

Law and Order

Alan Watts

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