To Understand or Not to Understand?

“To understand yet not understand
is transcendence
not to understand yet understand
is affliction
the reason sages aren’t afflicted
is because they treat affliction as affliction
hence they aren’t afflicted”

(Taoteching, verse 71, translation by Red Pine)

CONFUCIUS says, “Shall I teach you about understanding? To treat understanding as understanding and to treat not-understanding as not-understanding, this is understanding” (Lunyu: 2.17)

TE-CH’ING says, “The ancients said that the word understanding was the door to all mysteries as well as the door to all misfortune. If you realize that you don’t understand, you eliminate false understanding. This is the door to all mysteries. If you cling to understanding while trying to discover what you don’t understand, you increase the obstacles to understanding. This is the door to all misfortune.”

WU CH’ENG says, “Those who understand yet seem not to understand are the wisest of people. They protect their understanding with stupidity. Those who don’t understand yet think they understand are, in fact, the stupidest of people. They think blind eyes see and deaf ears hear. This is what is meant by ‘affliction.’”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “If people understand, but out of humility they say they don’t, then reality is superior to name. Hence, we call it transcendence. If people don’t understand but say they do, then name surpasses reality. Hence, we call this affliction. Those who are able to understand that affliction is affliction are never afflicted.”

SU CH’E says, “The Tao is not something that can be reached through reasoning. Hence, it cannot be understood. Those who do not yet understand do not understand that there is no entrance. And if they do understand, and then they think about their understanding, they become afflicted by understanding.”

CHIAO HUNG says, “Anything that is understood is a delusion. Anything that is a delusion is an affliction. Understanding is not the affliction. It is the understanding of understanding that becomes the affliction. To understand what is the affliction is to cure the illness without medicine.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Understanding depends on things. Hence, it involves fabrication. Not understanding returns to the origin. Hence, it approaches the truth. Those who can understand that not understanding approaches the truth and that understanding involves fabrication are transcendent. If they don’t understand that understanding involves fabrication and vainly increase their understanding, they use the affliction as the medicine. Only by understanding that understanding is affliction can one be free of affliction. This is why sages are not afflicted.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “To understand the Tao yet to say that we don’t is the transcendence of virtue. Not to understand the Tao and to say that we do is the affliction of virtue. Lesser people don’t understand the meaning of the Tao and vainly act according to their forced understanding and thereby harm their spirit and shorten their years. Sages don’t suffer the affliction of forced understanding because they are pained by the affliction of others.”

In yesterday’s verse, Lao-tzu said it is easy to understand, but no one understands. In today’s verse, Lao-tzu teaches the importance of understanding that no one understands.

Is this a play on words? “To understand yet not understand…not to understand yet understand….” I think I understand what Lao-tzu is meaning, here, though I might be getting myself into trouble thinking I understand.

Is our understanding going to be the source of our transcendence, or will it be the source of affliction? And, since sages aren’t afflicted, does that mean, we, too, can transcend affliction with our understanding?

Let’s see…

First of all, I think Lao-tzu is talking about two different kinds of understanding, here. The first kind, the one that results in transcendence, is an intuitive, a spontaneous, understanding. The other kind, the one that results in affliction, is based on external observation. The first kind is rooted in humility. It knows that it doesn’t know, that the Tao can’t be known. The other kind presumes it knows what can’t be known. This is what results in affliction. We are in need of being healed of all knowing.

The reason sages aren’t afflicted is because they understand the affliction of thinking we know for what it is, an affliction. They avoid getting sick in the first place, and so, have no need for medicine.

I think this verse could just as easily have been translated, “To understand that you don’t understand is transcendence. Not to understand, but to think you do is affliction. Sages avoid affliction by recognizing the affliction as an affliction. The reason there aren’t more sages in the world is because most people can’t be content with not-knowing.

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