Unnoticed in plain sight -- Lao Zi's key insight into the nature of our experience of reality.  See my arrangement of the original text in vertical columns giving each Chinese character, its pinyin pronunciation, its ㄅㄆㄇㄈ pronunciation, and its English meaning (and a translation at the end of each chapter) here. For something showing the chapters that cover each of several main topics, see this chart.

The information on this web page was originally published as an appendix to Three Smaller Wisdom Books, pp 251-260,  Ⓒ 1993, University Press of America.

Some content of Lao Zi's Dao De Jing is explicit, and some is implicit. Readers are generally prepared for those two possibilities. However, the first chapter has a third way of communicating. It uses the position of key words on the page, and parallel sentence structures, to indicate to the reader that there is a fundamental difference between the universe as it appears to us in normal human perception and the univere as it is when not distorted by the biases inherent in that human perception. (If you don't believe this stuff, read My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor.)

Elements of DDJ 1 hidden in plain sight.

Note that in the specially prepared text above, the Chinese word for "Way," 道, has been made transparent and the corresponding English word has been printed in purple. Two lines below, the Chinese word for "beginning, "始," has also been made hollow, as has the word for "mystery," 妙.  Anyone who has read any substantial part of the Dao De Jing will be prepared for the idea that the Way (the Dao) is a mysterious something that is not a part of the empirical world but is behind it. However, the word for "beginning" seems, on the surface, to be perfectly ordinary. As Joseph Needham pointed out in Science and Civilization in China, the Chinese word shǐ 始 is a cognate for tāi 胎, which means fetus or embryo. This kind of beginning is not like the beginning of a road. Instead, it is something hidden away in the womb that is the beginning of something that grows and changes organically. The left hand part of 始 is nǚ 女, which depicts a female human being. The right hand part is tái 台, which itself has two parts. The top part represents the embryo, and the bottom part represents the exit to the birth canal. The third character in this series, miào 妙, also has "human female" as its left-hand component. The right-hand part serves as a rough indication of this character's pronunciation. Although it is translated as "mystery" above, it would be more accurate to say that it means "ineffable efficacy."

So the arrangement of the text tells us that the author of the Dao De Jing considered the Dao, the embryonic beginnings, and the "ineffable efficacies" to share in one characteristic—not being available to sense experience. On the other hand, names (concepts), breasts, and the outer aspects (徼 jiào,  lit., fringes) of things are all available to sense experience.  

Next the author informs us that humans can gain an awareness of the Dao, the embryonic beginnings, and the mysteries, but only by voiding ourselves of all "desires" (by which I believe he means to include all subjective emotions).  And, lest we assume that we had best stay in this rarified state of existence, the author also informs us that we need desires (and all the other subjective emotional attachments) in order to deal with the everyday objects of sense awareness.

The above analysis casts doubt on the yin-yang analysis offered by Wang Bi. It is true that there is an analogous analysis in this passage, but the division is not into "bright side of the hill," "dark side of the hill," and their various analogs. The opposites that are categorized into yin and yang are all available to sense awareness. (Even something like radio waves, which we cannot experience directly, can still be observed indirectly by the use of one or another kind of scientific apparatus that artificially extends the range of our senses.) So all things that fit into the categories of yin and yang would be sub-sets of the category of "outer aspects."  The Dao, embryonic beginnings, and ineffable efficacies are in another category, and the only entity mentioned in the Yì Jīng 易經 (Book of Changes) that would fit in the same category would be the Tài Jí 太極 (Grand Ultimate).  

The word "meditation" is not mentioned in this passage, but meditation is the way to put desires and other subjective feelings aside. If one is free of ego concerns, then it becomes possible to see things objectively. But to live among other humans it is necessary to look out for one's own survival, so subjectivity has a legitimate place in one's life. For a good life it is best to be able to put all subjective interests aside, assess a situation, and then make personal decisions of this enlightened basis.
Young double-slit experiment -- schematic diagram
One kind of experience of the natural world gives at least a partial analogy or perhaps a partial example of what Lao Zi's Dao De Jing was trying to express. The double-slit experiment directs photons (single units of light) through a partition that is pierced by two narrow slits. The unexpected result is that the photons do not end up along straight-line paths between their source (a laser in most experiments) and a detection screen. In the diagram above, there is a laser at the left side that produces one photon at a time, a barrier in the middle pierced by two slits, and a detection screen showing a collection of lines built up by the impact of a very large number of photons hitting the screen one at a time. Each photon shows up as a single spot on the screen. (If the screen were photographic emulsion, then each photon would expose a tiny spot on that film.) The appearance of the pattern on the screen (usually described as "fringes")  depends on the interference between the waveform that would fall upon the screen if a photon went through the left slit, and the waveform that would fall upon the screen if a photon went through the right slit. The problem with understanding the experiment is that only one photon at a time is emitted and hits the detection screen. Then the question is, how could a single photon go through both slits at the same time? If the single photon goes through only one slit, then what goes through the other slit and interferes with the photon at the detection screen? One explanation is that no thing goes through either slit, but that a set of probabilities that is not a thing goes through both slits and when the superimposed sets of probabilities that split at the double slits arrive at the detection screen and at that point a photon is actualized on the basis of the probabilities involved. Those probabilities could also be called potentialities, and the resulting photon could be called an actuality.

Why is there such a big argument about what happens to create the interference pattern? The central issue is that the schematic diagram above indicates all that experimenters really know about what happens. There is a laser, and there is a way that experimenters can power it up so that it will emit a photon. The photon will be detected a very short time after the laser is activated. The experimenters will detect a flash of light in a TV camera, expose a grain of silver in a piece of photographic emulsion, etc., and they can record the length of time it takes to show up. The barrier in the center has two slits that are carefully measured as to their width and separation. So the experimenters know when the laser is activated, they know that the double slits have a vital influence on what happens, and they they can watch the build-up of the interference pattern. What is missing is any empirical information about the photon and what it does between the laser and the detection screen. Humans cannot see photons. Photons only "show up" when they hit an atom, cause an electron to jump to a higher orbit, and cease to exist in the process.

When people say that something "exists," they essentially mean that if observers go to a specified place at a specified time they will be able to observe it there. There is no way to see a photon. Photons are what humans and other animals use to see other things. The closest humans can come to "seeing" a photon is to stare into a light. But the excitation of the observer's retina is only the experience of the results of the photon's arrival. To call that experience the observation of a photon would be like calling a bullet hole in a target the bullet. The photon barely exists in the laser. Experimenters know something is emitted by the laser, but they infer its characteristics by looking at a spot on the wall. Experimenters know something impacts the detection screen, but the instant the photon hits the screen it is gone and something else takes its place. But in between these two points the photon is completely out of touch with the Universe. In Daoist terms, humans can make relatively successful "names" pertinent to whatever gets going in the laser, and they can make relatively successful "names" pertinent to the trace of the dying photon on the detection screen. But in between there is only the hidden, the "inside," the "embryonic," the "dark," and the "mysterious."

There is a difference between saying that something does not exist and saying that something is a mere figment of somebody's imagination. The photon may not "exist," it may not share the same universe with us, but something is going on "in the Dao," or in the realm of potentialities, or however one may try to conceptualize whatever links the application of energy to the laser and the appearance of a flash of light on the detection screen.

Unlike the majority of physicists, the author or authors of the Dao De Jing believe that it is possible to gain a kind of awareness of what goes on in the emptiness between laser and detection screen by voiding ourselves of ego and of all subjective feelings  about things. For instance, in the world of art, painters who hoped to capture the essence of a tiger in a portrait of one of them are advised to dissolve the barrier between artist and tiger and, in effect, to become the tiger that one hopes to portray. Readers who cannot accept the idea that there could be any kind of experience that would even resemble this kind of "inner awareness" of what we regard as discrete objects apart from ourselves should read Jille Bolte Taylor's reports of her own experiences when her language (or concept forming) center was put out of operation due to an anurysm. Her book is entitled My Stroke of Wisdom.

If human experience of the phenomenal aspect of the universe can pass beyond the borders that we draw between self and other, then it may also be possible that human awareness may also spread into and throughout the aspect of the universe that is "beneath" or "behind" the phenomenal world.

Ⓒ 2011 Patrick Edwin Moran

(The image of the Pleiades is a public domain NASA photograph copied from Wikipedia Commons and transformed. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pleiades_large.jpg for the unmodified image.)