The Tao of Philosophy 7: Symbols and Meaning

00:00

Tonight, at any rate, we’ve got to go through some theoretical materials, so we’re on a head trip. I don’t know where the trip will end up; it depends on you. But in order to lay the foundation for this, we’ve got to examine ideas that are basic to our common sense. Ideas are very powerful. It’s not only emotions that are powerful in human life. Psychoanalysis has, of course, examined the emotional basis of human opinions and beliefs, but one should also examine the intellectual basis of psychological principles, or theories, or therapies. Because everybody who speaks a language at all, has underneath the surface of the language—or the figuring that he uses—certain basic assumptions which are usually unexamined. And these unexamined systems of belief are extremely powerful in their influence over our lives.

01:30

We’ll begin with one very common idea that’s built into our common sense, which is that the world—the physical world—consists of two aspects, respectively: form and matter. This was foisted on us by Aristotle and also by the Bible, because it is said that God created man out of the dust of the Earth and, as it were, made a figurine in his own image, and then breathed the breath of life into its nostrils, so that this form of clay became a living being. And so underneath that lies the notion that everything material is made of some sort of basic stuff, like clay is the basis of pots. And for centuries scientists [and] philosophers wanted to know: what is that stuff? What are we made of? Now, look here: a carpenter makes tables out of wood, and a potter makes pots out of clay. But I ask you: is a tree made of wood? Obviously not. A tree is wood. It’s not made of it. Is a mountain made of rock? Obviously not, it is rock. See, our language contains innumerable ghosts.

03:13

Supposing I say “the lightning flashes.” Surely, the flashing is the same as the lightning. There is not one thing called lightning and another called flashing. The lightning is the flashing. It is raining. What is this it that is raining? The raining. I can make a noun out of a verb anytime by turning it into a gerund. So we populate the world with ghosts which arise out of the structure of our language, and thus—therefore—of the structure of our thinking, because we think in language, or in figuring; in numbers. And so it’s of intensely fascinating investigation to find out what are the hidden assumptions that underly language and figuring? In other words, language and mathematics.

04:16

And here is this basic assumption, you see, that is almost with us all. It comes again and again into our everyday speech that form, pattern, organization, organisms are made of something, as if there were some inert, primordial, and—of course—stupid stuff which had to be put into shape by an energy and an intelligence other than this stuff. Like the intelligence of the potter shapes the clay. So therefore we have a basic picture of the world in which everything is being pushed around. There’s a boss. There’s somebody in charge who is different from what that somebody is in charge of, and puts everything into shape because our common sense does not allow that things shape themselves. Very odd.

05:27

In Chinese, the word for nature is zìrán (自然), which is ‘that which is so of itself’—the spontaneous. The Chinese have no difficulty in thinking about nature as self-shaping. A Chinese child would not ask its mother “how was I made?” It would ask its mother “how did I grow?” Which would be quite different, you see? So to be made is to be commanded, and therefore every good being obeys. Whether you obey God, or whether you obey the laws of nature—you obey. And an analog, therefore, of the world that has been put into our common sense is one of military command. Note that. Because the image of God—I would go further and say the idolatrous image of God, which has been handed down to us—is one of the beneficent tyrant. The boss, big papa.

06:44

So, then, when our physicists started to find out what stuff was, they went into it, and into it, and examined it with ever more minute instruments. They first started cutting up things with knives, and cutting them smaller and smaller and smaller until the particle they wanted to dissect was exactly the same width as the edge of the knife. And so they got an atom, and that word in Greek—átomos (ατομος)—means ‘the non-cuttable.’ Á: “non,” tomos: ‘cuttable.’ That’s the basic atom: what you can’t cut anymore, because you got down to the end. Well, they weren’t satisfied with that. So they got an átomos—in other words, a particle of something or other that was just the same width as the blade of the knife edge—and they looked at it under a microscope. And they saw that it was—[it] seemed to be composed of more, small particles. So they found out means of working those out, and then they found out extraordinary means of investigating the properties of matter. Then they reached a point where they couldn’t decide whether it was particles or whether it was waves. So they called them wavicles. They thought they had come to certain ultimate wavicles, called electrons. But then, unfortunately, everything fell apart and they found protons, mesons, and many other extraordinary things. Because, of course, what they didn’t realize, was that as you make more and more powerful microscopic instruments, the universe has to get smaller and smaller in order to escape the investigation. Just as when the telescopes become more and more powerful, the galaxies have to recede in order to get away from the telescopes. Because what is happening in all these investigations is: through us, and through our eyes and senses, the universe is looking at itself. And when you try to turn around to see your own head, what happens? You see? It runs away. You never get at it. You can’t bite your own teeth. You can’t touch the tip of this finger with the tip of this finger. This is the principle.

09:27

Shankara explains it beautifully in his commentary on the Kena Upanishad, where he says that that which is the knower—the ground of all knowledge—is never itself an object of knowledge, just as fire doesn’t burn itself. So there’s always that profound mystery that you are never going to be in absolute control of what goes on—because if you were, it would be like making love to a plastic woman. And who wants that? There always is the mystery. Nuh-uh; the thing we don’t know. As van der Leeuw put it, the mystery of life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.

10:25

If there were not that, you see, there would be no life. The reason why certain people turn to philosophy—why I became a philosopher—was that, since I was a little boy, I always felt that existence as such was weird. I mean, here we are—isn’t that odd? Of course it’s odd. What do you mean by odd? Well, it’s what’s different from even. I mean, what’s odd stands out. What’s even lies flat. But you can’t see the outstanding without the flat background. You know, here’s this thing, standing out. It’s odd. Each one of you is odd. Strange, unique, particular, different. How do we know what we mean by that, except against the background of something even that is not differentiated? Like space. And so you get this philosophical itch. You begin to scratch your head and think about why is that so?

11:58

Well, after a while you realize that’s a meaningless question. And then you ask how is it so? Well that leads you into science and other investigations. So you want to know what is it? I mean this happening, this thing called existence. What is it‽ You ask that question long enough and it suddenly hits you that if you could answer it, you wouldn’t know what terms to put the answer in.

12:41

I mean, when we investigate the properties of nature, and we do get some answers, all the answers are in terms of particular structures, forms, patterns. And these can be measured, and their behavior can be predicted. But when I want to ask the question what are the forms made of; I mean, what is it really?—we can’t think of any way in which we could answer the question. Because we would have to have a class of all classes. When you ask the question what?—it’s like saying “is you is or is you ain’t?” “Is you animal? Is you vegetable? Is you mineral? Are you a Republican or a Democrat? Are you male or female? Are you a Christian, or a Jew, or a Hindu, or what have you?” We classify, always, to give an answer to the question what is it? And when you classify, you distinguish an inside group from an outside group.

13:57

Alright, so what we want to know is, what is the group of all groups? Well, we can’t imagine what the outside would be. So we can’t answer the question what is it? So the physicist finally abandoned the quest for stuff. And they gave us a description of the universe entirely in terms of form. The pattern, not the stuff. When people ask, what’s the—yeah, but you can’t do that! What’s the pattern made of‽ Surely—mustn’t there be an answer to that?

14:39

See, what happens is, when you turn up the microscope, all stuff turns into form. It becomes articulate—you know, the carpet looks like some sort of stuff. But when you look at it under a microscope you will see the crystalline structure of the nylon, or whatever it’s made of. See? They want to know what are those crystals made of? Alright, turn up the volume! And you will find molecules. Turn up the volume! You find wavicles. But the wavicles must be of something! But, of course, they’re not. We find substance, or stuff, totally vanishes, and we’re left with form. Sanskrit doesn’t really have a word for matter. It has nāmarūpa (नामरूप), which means ‘named’, ‘form.’ It’s the form that matters. Or, let’s put it in another way: everything is a matter of form. [Laughs] Now let’s go into this; it’s fascinating.

15:57

We say does it matter? What does that mean? Does it matter? Is it important? In other words, does it measure up to anything? Alright, let’s go back to the Indo-European roots of the language. Matter comes from a Sanskrit root, mātṛ (मातृ), which means ‘to measure.’ To lay out the foundation, say, for a building. So from this root mātṛ we get, going on into Sanskrit, we get māyā (माया). And māyā is generally translated ‘illusion,’ although it also means ‘magic,’ ‘creative power.’ The word illusion—switch over—we get that from Latin. And that comes from the Latin ludere, ‘to play.’ Let’s pretend that we matter. And so, also from the root mātṛ, you see, you get meter—that is also ‘to measure.’ You get mḗtēr (μήτηρ) in Greek, mater in Latin, which means ‘mama,’ ‘mother.’ The mother of Buddha was called māyā. Mary— again—was the mother of Jesus. Mā, mā, mā, mā, mā. But , you see, is a matter of form; pattern.

17:48

The Chinese called the basic principle of nature (理), and the character for means ‘the markings in jade.’ ‘The fiber in muscle.’ ‘The grain in wood.’ So, Joseph Needham translates it ‘organic pattern.’ That’s what’s going on, and there isn’t any stuff involved. What stuff is, is a pattern seen out of focus, where it becomes fuzzy. Like kapok, see? We say kapok is the stuffing of a cushion, and that’s stuff. It’s, you know, some kind of goop. But when we examine the kapok closely we find structure. And that’s what you will find, and there never will be anything else. Crazy. Because it completely flouts our common sense.

18:54

We say “but surely”—and philosophers beat tables that are in front of them—and, you know, they say “it is there!” Because BANG, you know? There must be something that is stuff, that is substantial. But the only reason why you can’t pass your hand through a table is [because] the table is moving too fast. [Chuckles] It’s like trying to put your finger through an electric fan, only it’s going much faster than an electric fan. Anything solid is going so fast that there’s no way to get this through it. That’s all. So we say, “What is it that is going so fast?” Well, that question is based on a grammatical illusion. The grammatical illusion is that all verbs have to have subjects. Can you imagine anything more weird than the idea that a verb, or an action, or an event, must be set into motion by a noun? That is to say, a non-event, or thing. Now what’s the difference between a thing and an event? I can’t, for the life of me, tell.

20:21

We say this is a fist. That’s a noun. What happens to it when I open my hand? This thing has unaccountably disappeared. So I should have called it a fisting. And this is a handing. It may also be a pointing. So we could devise a language, such as that of the Nootka Indians, where there are no nouns, there are only verbs. Chinese is very close to that. I think the superimposition of noun and verb on the Chinese language is a western invention. I can’t think of any Chinese word for a noun. But all those languages of Indo-European origin have nouns and verbs in them, they have agents and operations. And that’s one of the basic snags. When we divide the world into operations and agents, doers and doings, then we ask such silly questions as, “Who knows? Who does it? What does it?” When the what that is supposed to do it is the same as the doing! And you could very easily see that the whole process of the universe may be understood as process. Nobody’s doing it. Because when you go back to doing it, you go back to the military analogy; the chain of command. The boss who goes bang, and the object obeys. It’s a very crude idea, and very unsophisticated.

22:20

So, if you can bear it, we have suddenly eliminated a spook. And the spook was called stuff. So we’re now more at ease with ourselves in a world of form. Nāmarūpa; named forms. We can, of course, get rid of the names. We can go further and try the experiment of not calling the forms by any names. Just observing the forms; although, when we’ve gotten rid of the names we can’t even call them forms—because that’s a name. And there’s the bizazz going on, which Buddhists call tathātā (तथाता). And that means ‘suchness,’ or ‘thusness.’ Actually, tathātā is da-da-da. Because when a baby first talks it says da. Da! Da! Da! Da! And fathers flatter themselves that it’s saying da-da, ‘daddy.’ It isn’t. It’s saying da! And so the Upanishads say tat tvam asi (तत् त्वम् असि): ‘you’re it.’ The basic da. Because da doesn’t mean anything. Da is like everything else, see? The world is a musical phenomenon. Good music never refers to anything except the music itself. You don’t ask Mr. Bach or Mr. Ravi Shankar what do you mean by this music? What is it intended to express? Bad music always expresses something other than itself, like the 1812 Overture, or the Sunken Cathedral. Good music never talks about anything other than the music. If you ask Bach what is your meaning?—he’ll say, listen. That’s the meaning. Giraffes are giraffing, trees are treeing, stars are starring, clouds are clouding, rain is raining. And if you don’t understand, look at it again. And people are peopling. Wow!



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