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Duke Hwan and the Wheelwright

Another (old) perspective on words in books (and the Web) such as The Harvard Classics:

Source: The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton, 1965.


The world values books, and thinks that in so doing it is valuing Tao. But books contain words only. And yet there is something else which gives value to the books. Not the words only, nor the thought in the words, but something else within the thought, swinging it in a certain direction that words cannot apprehend. But it is the words themselves that the world values when it commits them to books: and though the world values them, these words are worthless as long as that which gives them value is not held in honor.
    That which man apprehends by observation is only outward form and color, name and noise: and he thinks that this will put him in possession of Tao. Form and color, name and sound, do not reach to reality. That is why: "He who knows does not say, he who says, does not know."
    How then is the world going to know Tao through words?


Duke Hwan and the Wheelwright

Duke Hwan of Khi,
First in his dynasty,
Sat under his canopy
Reading his philosophy;
And Phien the wheelwright
Was out in the yard
Making a wheel.
Phien laid aside
Hammer and chisel,
Climbed the steps,
And said to Duke Hwan:
“May I ask you, Lord,
What is this you are
Reading?”
The Duke said:
“The experts. The authorities.”
And Phien asked:
“Alive or dead?”
“Dead a long time.”
“Then,” said the wheelwright,
“You are reading only
The dirt they left behind.”
Then the Duke replied,
“What do you know about it?
You are only a wheelwright.
You had better give me a good explanation
Or else you must die.”
The wheelwright said:
“Let us look at the affair
From my point of view.
When I make wheels,
If I go easy, they fall apart,
If I am too rough, they do not fit.
If I am neither too easy nor too violent
They come out right.  The work is what
I want it to be.
You cannot put this in words:
You just have to know how it is.
I cannot even tell my own son exactly how it is done,
And my own son cannot learn it from me.
So here I am, seventy years old,
Still making wheels!
The men of old
Took all they really knew
With them to the grave.
And so, Lord, what you are reading there
Is only the dirt they left behind them.”

Source: The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton, 1965.


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