The Tao of the Pencil

Written by on July 12, 2013 in Commentary with 0 Comments

What is the Tao?

The Taoist’s say that, “Everything is Tao, and Tao is unity of all things”. To them the Tao is the source and driving force behind the whole universe and its nature. In fact before the universe came into being, the Tao was already present as the ultimate potential for there to be ‘something’. However, beyond mystical or religious notions of reality, the Tao is regarded as something intrinsic, immediate and common.

Taoism is the acknowledgement of the natural world and how we should live in accordance with it. However, the Taoist hold that the Tao is ineffable, or cannot be adequately described with words. If you try to describe it, you have not described it, for the description is only partial and not the same as the ‘thing’ itself.

To demonstrate the Tao, imagine a regular graphite pencil. Now, describe the pencil completely. Of course it is easy to talk about generally—you can speak about its colour, its size, manufacturer, whether it has an eraser, is it sharpened, where you bought it from. All these characteristics are easily apparent. But of course this is only a partial description.

You may then go onto to talk about the type of wood used in making the shaft, or where the graphite was mined, or how the pencil was manufactured. But even this too would be only a partial description.

Maybe to improve your description you would like to outline its various uses; writing, drawing, scratching your head, poking holes in things, something to chew on. But again, this would only be a partial description.

Perhaps it would be beneficial to know of the pencil’s origins? Who designed the first pencil? What considerations were there for its shape? Who where the parents of of the designer? Where did they live? You can see that there would be many multitudes of ways to know the pencil, yet all of which would only be a partial description.

To push your description beyond the normal, you may want to consider its atomic features. Being made of atoms, as everything is, it has mass. And because it has mass it also has a gravitational influence on your hand, the room your in, the town or city, country, even the entire planet. In fact, the pencil’s mass effects the rotation of the Sun, the other stars and the galaxy, which I know sounds ridiculous, however on an infinitely tiny, immeasurable scale the pencil does effect the whole universe as does the universe affect it. This is the unity of all things.

By now you can see that to describe a pencil completely is impossible because it involves all the immeasurable ideas, events and effects that lead to its existence, for anything short of that and you only have an approximate description.

Now, let’s imagine through some miracle you have fashioned a complete description of the pencil. Your description would be with respect to your own language, so now you are faced with translating it into all the other languages of the world, of course accommodating all the subtle differences in meaning each language can have to a culture. Even if you were to complete this, to be inclusive to all beings, you should then describe what a pencil is to a dog, or a cat? How about a bird, fish, or insect?

Again, let’s imagine you had a complete description of the pencil, in as many ways as it could possibly be described and known, you would undoubtedly feel quite satisfied and proud of your achievement. However if you used an instrument to examine the pencil’s sub-atomic structure you would be very upset to find that your description would yet again be approximate. This is because atoms do not have definite properties or absolute constituent parts. The Atom can only be described in terms of probabilities, the basic fact of quantum mechanics.

Just for kicks, lets say you achieved a complete and fully determined quantum description of a pencil, could you use this description to draw a picture with? jot down a list of groceries? No, all you would have is a very lengthy description, not the real thing. This is Tao, the thing that cannot be described.


The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name
The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth
The named is the mother of myriad things
Thus, constantly without desire, one observes its essence
Constantly with desire, one observes its manifestations
These two emerge together but differ in name
The unity is said to be the mystery
Mystery of mysteries, the door to all wonders

reference: ( : Tao Te Ching: Annotated & Explained, published by SkyLight Paths in 2006.)


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