Chapter 47 – Inner Light
One may know the world without going out of doors.
One may see the Way of Heaven without looking through the windows.
The further one goes, the less one knows.
Therefore the sage knows without going about,
Understands without seeing,
And accomplishes without any action.
Translation by Wing-Tsit Chan (1963)
This chapter of the Tao Te Ching is really rather amazing. In one sense, it could be said that Lao Tzu is again telling the reader to “Know Thyself” and to practice wu-wei. From that starting point, it is only natural to ask what this verse would sound like if it were rendered into English and performed by the Beatles with Indian scales, instruments and musicians.
Fortunately, there is an answer to that question. The “B” side of the Beatles’ 1968 single
“Lady Madonna” was a George Harrison composition called “Inner Light.” It was the first song written by George to be included on a Beatles’ single. The song itself consists of the words from this chapter arranged for Indian instruments and recorded in Mumbai with Indian musicians. You can hear a version of the song by clicking here. Listening will give a sense that we should probably all be meditating.
The obvious follow-up question is: Did Gene Roddenberry know about this? Well, that, too, has a simple answer.
“Inner Light” is also the name of probably the very best episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation*. In that episode a space probe aims a beam at Captain Picard, rendering him unconscious. He suddenly finds himself on the surface of an unknown planet with a woman who says she is his wife and that his name is Kamin. He lives on the planet for many years, raises a family, learns to play the flute and as he grows old he becomes concerned that a widespread drought on the planet is being caused by increased radiation for the planet’s sun. He tries to bring the situation to the planet’s leaders and eventually finds that the leaders are already aware of it but the technology does not exist to save that world. Many more years pass and he and his grandson attend a rocket launching. Since the planet will soon be destroyed, the planetary leaders have placed the collective memories of that world on a probe that is being sent into space in the hope that it would reach someone who could use the information to let others know the history of the culture.
On the Enterprise, the crew has been able to trace the trajectory of the probe to region of a star that went nova some 1,000 years earlier, destroying all life in its planetary system. When Picard regains consciousness with his decades of memories of the destroyed planet, only 25 minutes have passed for those on the Enterprise. A small box found in the probe is discovered to contain Kamin’s flute, which Picard is able to play beautifully.
There is another interpretation that is quite different, but is easily derived from the English translation – and most translations I have read are similar to this one. Since it says that one may know the world without going out of doors and may see the Way of Heaven without looking out the window, there remains the possibility that he or she may not. There may also be other ways to gain that knowledge. The sage does know without going about, but perhaps some of the rest of us need to see a bit of the world to truly understand.
If that is the case, then the statement that “the further one goes, the less one knows” could mean that some of us who start off thinking we understand this life and the world and the Tao may soon find that we know less than we had thought. Learning the ways of the world may not be the same as learning the Way of the Tao, but some folks need to experience the one before they can understand the other.
Although Lao Tzu probably agreed with William Blake’s realization that we can “see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower,” his words and our world are susceptible to different styles of learning.
* I have not seen all episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, so you should take this judgment with a grain of salt – or a grain of sand.