Cat. 2, Philosophy 1 – BL-19 – To Conceive the “Inconceivable”

Cat. 2, Philosophy 1 – BL-19 – To Conceive the “Inconceivable”

Ch. 19 –  To Conceive the Inconceivable


Why Africa? Why not? Why anywhere? The answer is that I wanted to be nowhere. But since I had a body and a body had to be somewhere, Africa came close to being “in the middle of nowhere”. The Canadian wilderness qualifies for the honour, and would be easier to get to, but it would be too cold that time of year, and I’d been there more times than I would care to count. The Amazon came to mind, but to camp out in the middle of a tropical rainforest for any length of time would be out of the question. I thought of just pointing my car in some direction on some Canadian or American highway and drive, but I wanted to get away from people and the trappings of civilization. Countries like India likewise. I needed somewhere that would not remind me of my past. I needed somewhere that would not remind me of my future either. I needed somewhere that is timeless, somewhere primordial, a microcosm of life before Man, there to contemplate the origin and destiny of my kind. I could have selected the Congo too, or New Guinea, or Borneo, or some deserted island in some forgotten archipelago, but settled for East Africa, specifically Tanzania, which had the distinction of what I considered the Quadruple Crown – Mount Kilimanjaro, Olduvai Gorge, Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti Plains. So, it’s nice to know that I wasn’t purely running from everything, but hesitantly walking towards something.

My plan for Africa was to have no plan, unless you want to call having no plan a plan. Well alright, I did have kind of a vague plan. I would go to the town of Arusha, which I knew at that point only as a dot on a map, rent an all-wheel drive I could sleep in, stock provisions for a least a month, and just drive into the wild blue yonder. Until when? Time will tell. Well, that’s about it.

The flight was a whole day affair. I had made specific requests for window seats in all connecting flights. I don’t understand why some people seem indifferent to whether they get a window seat or an aisle seat or a middle seat. To me, window seats are a must. There has not been a single flight I have taken from and to anywhere in which I did not have a window seat, and more than just window seats, but those near the tail of the plane which, being far behind the view-obstructing wings, offer better vistas and are supposedly safer in case of a crash. To reserve window seats, all you have to do is ask at the ticket counter, or just click the seat you want in the seating chart when ordering online. Most people look at air travel strictly as a means of going from Point A to Point B. I look at it as an amusement ride featuring the God’s Eye View.

I also have always preferred having no one sit beside me, but this I can’t control. It was sheer luck that the seat next to mine was empty on the longest leg of the flight. About as perfect a setting to read my father’s letter in the envelop bearing the sentence in his own hand: “Open on your 33rd birthday.”

Finally, I gingerly opened the envelope. In it was two sheets of 8×11 paper together, folded twice.

[To Seeu Sung:

Happy 33rd birthday!

As I’m writing this letter, on this cold November day in 1949, at age 36, I am not much older than you will be when you read it. So, you might read this letter as if it were written by an elder brother than your father.

You may or may not remember our stealthy journey down the Pearl River in the boat with the black sail. And when the following event occurred, you were fast asleep. You might remember the Taoist Priest who showed you how to steer the boat? In any case, after we landed at Cherng Dzou, and disembarked, I went to thank him for everything. He said, “Let’s go for a walk and talk.” So we walked down the beach, and talked. Following is what we exchanged to the best of my recollection, which you will find self-explanatory:

He: You boy is very smart, and kind. He has a great future ahead of him.

I: Thank you, master. Yes, I am proud of him.

He: I’ll go as far as to say that he has a very special destiny.

I: What do you mean, master?

He: I mean he might be the one Chinese person in history to conceive the Inconceivable and speak the Unspeakable.

I: I’m afraid I still don’t understand.

He: Tell me. What is the first sentence of the Tao Teh Ching (pronounced Dow Day Jing)?

I: It is: “The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao.”

He: What do you think of it?

I: I’ve always found it puzzling. I mean, what is the point of knowing the existence of the Tao without knowing what it is?

He: Exactly. A latter day master even said, “If one asks what the Tao is and another answers, neither know it.”

I: Ah, I see. So the Taoists through the ages have maintained a certain hollow silence, as if they knew it?

He: Well said. Sadly, this has led to the decline of Taoism from a school of naturalistic philosophy into a house of sorcery.

I: With all due respect, master, I cannot disagree.

He: Now, tell me what you think of the current Way of Man?

I: The current Way of Man? This one is easy. It stinks.

He: Now tell me, what does the Tao Teh Ching say about the Way of Man? On page 2.

I: Let me see. It says that in the Cosmos, the Way of Man accords to the Way of the Earth, the Way of the Earth accords to the Way of the Sky, the Way of the Sky accords to the Way of the Cosmos – the Tao – and Tao simply is, according to Nature.

He: So, according to this, how would one know the Optimal Way of Man?

I: I’d say that he Optimal Way of Man should follow the Way of the Earth, which follows the Way of the Sky, which follows the Tao which cannot be spoken. Yes I can see. This does present a problem.

He: Is there a way out of this intellectual quagmire?

I: Yes, by knowing the Tao. But how, if it is unknowable?

He: Tell me again. To what does the Tao itself accord?

I: It says “Nature”. Ah, yes, I think I know what you are driving at.

He: What am I driving at?

I: Since Nature is the ultimate foundation, then if we understand Nature, we will know the Tao, and knowing the Tao, we will know the Optimal Way of Man.

He: And how do we get to understand Nature?

I: By studying it, I suppose.

He: And what is the study of Nature?

I: Science.

He: You boy shows a lot of natural curiosity, and seems very quick to grasp facts and points

I: Excuse me, Master. Are you saying that my son is destined to be the Speaker of the Unspeakable Tao?!

He: Depends.

I: Depends on what?

He: On you and him.

So, here it is, my son. Your chance to be #1 in solving the greatest mystery in Chinese philosophy. Good luck.

Your father.]


I gawked at the letter in utter disbelief.



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