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Thursday, February 10, 2011

千里之行 始於足下

It bothers me not to know the origin of the Chinese saying "A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step".  Like an idiot,  I quoted it in "About Me" of this blog saying it could be attributed to Confucius.

It is actually from 道德经: 

The meaning of this passage is clear enough, but overall 道德经 is such an esoteric book that it is labelled a Taoist classic. My guess is that it was meant to be a serious book and we just don't understand much of it because of the sloppy writing. First, there's no punctuation in classical Chinese, to make matters worse, the entire book was hurriedly written in a single night with very odd wording. (In those days, Chinese characters were chiseled on strips of freshly cut green bamboo.) 

Even I do not understand, and cannot appreciate, much of the book, the first sentence:
is absolutely stupendous!  It is followed by the explanation of the origin of everything, but before 老子 does that, he states in the very first sentence that First Cause is not comprehensible, and can't be given a name. 老子knows to avoid recursive arguments like "if God created this wonderful world, then who created the more wonderful God?" or, "If the world rests on four huge tortoises, what are the tortoises standing on?"  The Big Bang theory is only slightly better, before Time-space continuum, there was no time while the very word "before" implies time. 老子is right, 道可道,非常道, this will remain forever beyond our comprehension, a world without the t axis is unspeakable.
To me, this is the strongest opening of any book I know.

(Even 道可道,非常道, is not entirely trivial to read, 1st 道 means way or Tao, 2nd 道 means speak, 常 means perpetual and it does not go with 非 as in modern Chinese 非常. Together it says the Tao that can be spoken, is not the perpetual Tao.)


  1. As I mentioned in one of my essays, the Laozi/Confucius/Mencius trilogy of China is the counterpart of the Socrates/Plato/Aristotle triology of Greece. They form the foundation of philosophy of the Eastern and Western worlds respectively.

    Let me post and then continue.

  2. Nevertheless, there is a big difference between philosophy and science. For example, the Big Bang theory is based on telescope observation of the galaxies flying apart from each other, and measurement of the remnant echo of a gigantic explosion in space.

    However, if a philosopher says that Big Brother in the sky created the universe, is there any observable evidence for any part of that creation process? Does anybody have any idea on how it was done? Was there a plan, perhaps as music in space? Were there subcontractors like angels? Did he start from raw materials?

  3. Why are we looking for answers? Is pure reasoning really infallible? Is there something beyond our reasoning? If there was, we can't understand it anyway by definition! So at least there's a limit to human mind.

    In Maggie's mind, she may think dog food is some time created by her barking, and it seems repeatable too.