Just What Is Learning?

Each week we address one chapter of the Tao Te Ching. The Tao Te Ching can be obscure, especially if you think you're supposed to understand what it's saying! We find it easier and more instructive to simply contemplate how the chapter resonates with your personal experience. Becoming more aware at this fundamental level simplifies life. This approach conforms to the view that true knowing lies within ourselves. Thus, when a passage in the scripture resonates, you've found your inner truth. The same applies for when it evokes a question; questions are the grist for self realization.

Chapter 51
The way gives them life;
Virtue rears them;
Things give them shape;
Circumstances bring them to maturity.

Therefore the myriad creatures all revere the way and honor virtue. Yet the way
is revered and virtue honored not because this is decreed by an authority but
because it is natural for them to be treated so.

Thus the way gives them life and rears them;
Brings them up and nurses them;
Brings them to fruition and maturity;
Feeds and shelters them.

It gives them life yet claims no possession;
It benefits them yet exacts no gratitude;
It is the steward yet exercises no authority.
Such is called the mysterious virtue.

Read commentary previously posted for this chapter.


  • edited December 1969
    Just what does the word 'learning' mean? Go ahead, define it as best you can. Off the top of my Western educated head I would say learning means to gain knowledge, information or skill about something. Here is another example of how Chinese, because of its graphic writing system, seems to be able to convey more meaning than phonetic writing. Word meaning easily changes within centuries when it is directly coupled to sound, i.e., phonetic systems like English. Chinese word meaning is locked in to the graphic, and so while the pronunciation may change over time, the meaning remains fairly stable.

    So what? For me, the characters show what may be a more 'original meaning' of words, ideas, and concepts. Who knows, their writing system may even account for why Taoism arose in China and not elsewhere. :?

    Anyway, the Chinese word for learning is xuewen. This is composed of two basic characters: xue which means study; learn; imitate; mimic, and wen which means ask; inquire; ask after; inquire after; examine. Sure, our definition agrees with this, but these characters probe the foundation of learning as well. A working sense (i.e., awareness!) of this foundation seems to get lost in the educational system, and in society as a whole. So, what foundation of learning do these two characters reveal?

    Questions are crucial! Curiosity, asking, inquiry - wen - is the source of learning. Without this there is no true learning. Sure, you can cram information into short term memory, pass a test and 'graduate'. But this is mock learning - the illusion of learning. A parrot could probably do just a well if it was motivated. Because we never really inquire into what true learning is, we remain ignorant and just keep bashing away at 'education'. We whine for more money, more teachers, more tests, more more more... We are in such a hurry to 'succeed' we end up going around in circles. Vicious ones at that.

    Okey, I admit that having two Chinese characters pointing down into the real nature of learning is no guarantee that we will look and ponder more deeply what we are doing. Indeed, many, or most, Chinese folks may take the characters for granted, never seeing the deeper meaning. Mmmm... I'll have to ask Wen Zhong about this.
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