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.”

Te-Ch’ing’s commentary is particularly helpful in “understanding” today’s verse. Understanding that understanding is both the door to all mysteries, and the door to all misfortune. To understand you don’t understand is to enter the door to all mysteries. To cling to your own understanding, thinking you already understand, is to encounter increasing obstacles to actual understanding. It is to enter the door to all misfortune.

Our understanding of our understanding can either result in transcendence or affliction. When we think we know, when we don’t know, we suffer affliction. And that affliction doesn’t just afflict the afflicted. When scrolling through any social media platform, the affliction of presumption is rampant, and apparently quite contagious. I doubt I am alone in spending a lot of time just shaking my head at my computer screen. It is maddening, really. And while Lao-tzu lived long before the likes of Facebook and Tumblr, Lao-tzu knew affliction where he saw it, and called it out for what it is. That is why, throughout his Taoteching, he taught the practice of not-knowing (knowing you don’t know) to transcend the affliction.

I want to be more like those sages of whom Lao-tzu was always referring. I want to transcend the madness. To be above and beyond it. A quote sometimes attributed to Mark Twain, though I don’t think he actually ever said it, comes to my mind here. “Never argue with stupid people, they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.” That has happened far too often to me. I need to rise above this.

And the only way to do this is to know that I don’t know. It is a simple truth. The truth often is. If we aren’t so pig-headed we fail to grasp it. That is what the sages understood. Their practice was treating affliction as affliction. And by treating affliction as affliction they weren’t afflicted. They transcended it. And we can, too.

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