Monday, February 21, 2011

A random musing on the accessibility of the source of knowledge

A while ago, I was having a conversation with a friend who was lamenting at how unsophisticated she was. She has never been outside the continental United States, and considers leaving her county to be something of a grand adventure. She expresses envy at those of us, me included, who have been lucky enough to go on grand adventures overseas. My friend isn't ignorant though. She's a voracious reader, and has a rich plethora of knowledge in farming, cooking, and animal care, since she grew up in that type of environment. Trying to find a way to express how she is not ignorant for this lack of experience overseas, I asked her, "Have you ever heard the Beatles song, 'The Inner Light'? 'The further one travels, the less one really knows...'" I'm a lousy singer, but she got the point nicely, being a Beatles fan, she was happy to hear of a new song she hadn't heard before. So I sang it to the best of my ability, which is limited. The full lyrics are as follows:

Without going out of my door
I can know all things on earth
With out looking out of my window
I could know the ways of heaven

The farther one travels
The less one knows
The less one really knows

Without going out of your door
You can know all things of earth
With out looking out of your window
You could know the ways of heaven

The farther one travels
The less one knows
The less one really knows

Arrive without travelling
See all without looking
Do all without doing

The song itself can be heard in all its Harrison flavoured glory here. Those of you who are Beatles enthusiasts, or who know your Chinese philosophy well, will recognize that the lyrics are lifted from Chapter 47 of The Tao Te Ching. The translations vary, but the one used in the lyrics captures the basic essence of the message of Lao Tze. It's very succinct and beautiful, and my friend was cheered at this thought. But she knows nothing of Lao Tze, or Taoism. While I have had the good fortune of a college education and I have used that fortune to learn as much as I can about Asian Philosophy, and so I have a, if I do say so myself, excellent grasp on Taosim, various schools of Confucian thought, Legalism, and Buddhism. I can quote freely from Mencius, the Chuang-Tze, and The Teachings of Buddha.
But my friend would probably not have appreciated Leah going off into one of her scholarly rants. I believe one of the strengths of Taoist texts is their accessibility, but oftentimes, the packaging can be misleading, and the idea of an Ancient Chinese text can be alienating to people without a scholarly background. So I was eternally grateful to George Harrison for giving the message a much simpler packaging. Lao Tze himself would have been delighted, knowing the typical Taoist attitude. This simple difference meant that the quotes presented to my friend were much less intimidating, and she was cheered considerably.
Oftentimes, when popular culture borrows from ancient wisdom, it's seem as cheapening it. I'm sure in his day, a lot of scholars of Asian Studies probably didn't appreciate George Harrison making the Tao Te Ching (And Hare Krishna, and Eastern mysticism in general) of interest to millions of Beatles fans. There is some validity to this criticism; when coming from a Non-Western culture, Orientalism can occur. But the miraculous thing is, it can also strip away Orientalism's problematic approach. No longer is the Tao Te Ching or another text an inscrutable text which befuddles and mystifies those who don't have a professional background in Chinese culture. It becomes simple and revelatory.
In an ideal world, all philosophy would be seen as accessible to those with a perfectly average education, or better yet, a perfectly average education would consist of philosophy and critical thinking. But until my own Utopia (See what I did there? hehe) is here on earth, why be afraid of letting people learn about ancient wisdom in their own way? It need not be squirreled away in a textbook or shuffled off to the oft-dusty Philosophy Section of a library or Bookstore to be of value.


  1. Your posts are always very interesting, but I never manage to read them to the end because bright white letters against a deep green background are killing my autistic eyes. :-)

    I know that you can't adapt your blog's interface to everybody's wishes, but I just wanted to mention it in case other readers share my problem.

  2. Thank you for pointing that out to me, Clarissa. Is there any particular colour combination that would be easier for your eyes to process? I want to make my blog as accessible and reader-friendly as possible.