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.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 47, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Today and tomorrow, our chapters from the Tao Te Ching will have Lao Tzu talking about the practice of knowing not-knowing. Along with the practice of doing not-doing, it is a fundamental tenet of philosophical Taoism; so, Lao Tzu returns to talking about it again and again. And, along with the practice of doing not-doing, it is something that most people seem to have a very difficult time wrapping their heads around. In our world, knowing is supreme. We place a premium on knowledge. It is highly valued. Those who think they know run our world. But Lao Tzu understood something about these so-called smart people. They weren’t necessarily wise. True wisdom is knowing you don’t know. The practice of knowing not-knowing boils down to “the more you know you don’t know, the more you don’t know you know.” If that sounds like gibberish to you, at first, I recommend you reread it slowly, and let it sink in. It takes a certain humility which those who think they know will simply never know. But, it is the path to wisdom.
Dare I say it? Presumed knowledge is an illusion. Your problem isn’t that you don’t know enough, your problem is the more you think you know, the less you understand. There is an almost inverse relationship between acquiring knowledge and acquiring understanding.
So it is that Lao Tzu begins today’s chapter by talking about people who want to open their door or look out their window. In Lao Tzu’s day, it would have seemed impossible to be knowledgeable about the happenings in the world, if you didn’t, first, look out your window to determine what kind of traveling clothes you should be wearing, and, then, opening your door to venture outside to gain knowledge. Today, we have the world at our fingertips. We have advanced so far from Lao Tzu’s day. Besides the advent of newspapers delivered to our doors, and radios and televisions inside our homes, we now have smart phones we can pull out and “google” anything we want to know. The only question that remains is whether we will be humble enough to admit that with all this knowledge, we still lack understanding. I see it all the time, people spouting off statistics and displaying vast knowledge; but following that with very little understanding of what it all means.
You don’t need to open your door, to open your heart to the world. You don’t need to look out your window, to see the essence of the Tao. You don’t need more knowledge. You need more understanding.
To increase our understanding we are going to rely on the Master’s example as we see how to put into practice knowing not-knowing and doing-not doing. The Master arrives without leaving, sees the light without looking, and achieves without doing a thing. This ending leaves us wanting more, I know. But that will have to wait for tomorrow’s chapter. So, I will leave you with what I said earlier about the practice of knowing not-knowing: The more you know you don’t know, the more you don’t know you know.