“What is a pencil?”
It seems like such a simple, even silly, question. There are lots of easy, comparable answers, such as: “an instrument for writing or drawing, consisting of a thin stick of graphite or a similar substance enclosed in a long thin piece of wood or fixed in a metal or plastic case.” Having said that, John Wick, an assassin in a series of a movies, was able to kill several people with a pencil. Does that mean that pencil was still a “pencil”?
This question is not so easy. In western, Aristotelian logic, a pencil is a pencil, regardless of how it is used. In eastern Taoism, objects are defined by their use. If used as a writing instrument then, yes, a pencil is a pencil. When a John Wick-type picks it up, however, the instrument is essentially no longer a “pencil,” but a “weapon.” The difference is subtle, but significant. How we define objects illustrates our world view and informs how we relate to those objects in many ways.
For example, in western Aristotelian logic, a pencil is always a pencil—no matter how it is used AND no matter its location or what is around it. “Not so,” says the Taoist. If one is in a cave where it is terribly cold, if one sees this item as a writing instrument, it is useless. However, if one defines the item in terms of how it is used, it can be seen as a piece of wood that can be used in a fire or, yes, even as a “wick” for a fire. It is indicative that there is a Zen story of a monk who throws a wooden statue of a Buddha into a fire to ward off the cold. “How can you do that to such a sacred object!” protests his companion. The answer is compelling: “Since when do you worship firewood?”
The distinction has further implications. In the West, the pencil is the pencil and the writing surface is the writing surface. In the East, without either the pencil or the writing surface, no writing can take place. In other words, instead of focusing on the objects, the East focuses on the activity resulting from the interaction of those objects—the verbs instead of the nouns. Only by the interaction of objects can activity take place—which means those objects are actually always in relation to other objects and not separate.
If this analysis is clear then, spiritually speaking, the mystical experience of being “one with the universe” is not so mysterious. Whereas the logic of Aristotle separates objects from each other, the mysticism of Lao Tzu unifies everything with everything else. Similarly, while Eastern thought is often seen as mysterious and even “inscrutable,” it turns out to not be all that mysterious and is really quite pragmatic: more things can get done if we work with each other than against each other.
It is unfortunate on many levels that, in the West, the mindset has been based on Genesis 1:28: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” Imagine how different our ecological concerns, at the very least, might be addressed if, instead of “subdue it,” the phrase was “take care of it.” “Subduing” has led us to the point of destroying the very planet on which we depend to live—and we do that because of an attitude that assumes “we” are separate from “that” earth. If we could see ourselves as part of the earth—that our survival depends on the earth—we would be far less likely to be so…not only “destructive,” but even “suicidal.” The same could be true of war, poverty, health…and pretty much everything that is not “else.”
If we have trouble, say, with our kidneys, how many of our fingers are upset that our kidneys are drawing attention? No, our fingers recognize that our kidneys are essential to their survival as fingers, and vice versa. If we can broaden our perspective—to see that a pencil is not only a pencil but a reflection of everything else in the universe—then we can behave in a manner that benefits…well, all of “us.”