The Tao: Chapter 56 – Mysteries of Power

Who knows
doesn’t talk.

By Hasegawaa Tohaku, currently at the Metropolitan Museum in NYC

Who talks
doesn’t know.
Closing the openings,
shutting doors,

blunting edge,
losing bond,
dimming light,
be one with the dust of the way.
So you come to the deep sameness.

Then you can’t be controlled by love
or by rejection.
You can’t be controlled by profit or by loss.
You can’t be controlled by praise or by humiliation.
Then you have honor under heaven.

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This always reminds me of Heraclitus: “you cannot step twice in the same river.” The river is actually the same river, but it’s different, too.

It was trying to understand these things that made me conclude that language is a poor tool and a lot of these confusions come as a result of how we label things. It’s useful to have a word such as “tree” that we can use to describe the things that surround us – but it’s equally obvious that each “tree” is unique and therefore different. We can just add qualifiers: ‘that is a tall tree’ and ‘that is a tall pine tree’ ad infinitum. At some point, our description of any thing becomes so specific that we are just referencing the thing itself, or the source code in preference to the design documents.

The first lines (“Who knows does not talk”) occured to me independently regarding classified material. Back in the day, when I first started working with computer security and federal government systems, I’d bump into “sekrit skwirrel” types who’d try to make themselves seem more knowledgeable by being obscure. The ultimate form was “I know but if I told you, I’d have to kill you.” I used to respond “if you knew, you wouldn’t even say that much, so I assume you don’t.” Or, later, “tell me anyway then try to kill me; I need a laugh today.”

Unrelated: if you are a programmer, here’s a giftable book for you [wc] Geoffrey James’ The Tao of Programming is a book of computer philosophy written in the style of Lao Tze. It’s funny and profound and it’s just the thing for a grumpy old coder.


  1. cvoinescu says

    Sunday Afternoon @ #1:
    I’ve always thought that the last one did not go with the others, and it just ruined the effect.

  2. dangerousbeans says

    it’s a tangent, but language around trees is often useless. I have some Australian Cedar in the shed, it’s more closely related to mahogany than actual ceder.
    I think the best we can say about language is it’s better than nothing.

  3. StevoR says

    Language is the best way we have for (mis)uderstanding each other?

    Hey, how how else are we going to do it when even body language is a kind of language and we cannot change colours with our skins like some other animals do which, kinda also type of language / communication ? Maybe?

    Anyone wonder if chameleons, octopi, mandrills and others ever make typos with their skin hues or bright or not enough backsides?

  4. jambe says

    Language isn’t always a shitter, but it is often inadequate. Damnable reality is varied enough to constantly frustrate finite vocabularies. Thesaurus-diving or approximating or gesturing are nothing like as communicative or useful (let alone satisfying) as an apposite word. Ultimately I don’t think any tool is ever wholly adequate or satisfying. Insert dukkha-deepities here.

    Regarding dangerousbeans’ comment: see also tuliptree being regionally known as poplar. But it ain’t! Ain’t, dammit!

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