“A Pencil by Any Other Name” 

“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.” 


  1. Rebbe Yavelberg,
    This is a very convoluted discussion. Regarding the “pencil” I think the Aristotelian concept makes the most sense. “A Pencil, is A Pencil is A Pencil!” It is a noun, that occupies space and we can seeand hold it. It can be modified by adjectives, verbs, adverbs, etc but it is still “A Pencil.” Let’s say we have a “dull pointed pencil.” I may not write well, but it is still a pencil. With such a simple object I think Taoism & Lao Tzu went too far.

    There could be exceptions particularly in the Art, and Religious/Spiritual World.
    A Statue of Buddha is not just an inanimate figurative portrayal of a person-
    Dah Buddah! Not just a distressed piece of limestone or marble that has had the image of Buddha freed from the marble. By it’s very essence it is meant to convey a myriad ot thoughts, spiritual thoughts, and emotions. It embodies something more that may be translated to the viewer.

    Getting back to the pencil, it is an inanimate object designed for a limited purpose and nothing more. While someone might want to be “one with the universe of Buddha” by seeing a statue, I don’t think wanting to be “one with the universe of a pencil” makes much sense.

    Be wary of generalizations, dogma, theories, and mindsets that go to far. These
    thoughts usually come from narrow minded fanatics with tunnel vision. I think as we go through life we develop a “unique self” that is an amalgam from many experienced sources.

    Apostle Geraldo Londres

    1. Thanks for your feedback. You are clearly channeling Aristotle and the Western way of looking at things. Object-ively, I can’t say you’re wrong. I will only caution you not to taunt John Wick if he is wielding a pencil, dull pointed or not.

  2. Beautiful analysis…to arrive once again back at what is, has been and eternally shall be true, our shared sacred Oneness of Being/ Consciousness, regardless of subjective individual perception of form. We are quantumly entangled, intertwined and in relationship with all that is in creation / cosmos.

    1. Thanks for the feedback. Yes, “quantumly engaged” is a great way to put it. Isn’t it odd that science and mysticism are coming together–at last!

  3. Here are a few words from the Qur’an about the pen:


    ﷺ said: “Allah recorded the destiny of all creatures 50, 000 years before creating the heavens and the earth.” [ Sahib Muslim ]. Qatadah (رح) says that pen is a great gift of Allah that He has endowed upon His servants. Some scholars say that Allah first created the pen, and that was the pen of decrees which recorded the destinies of the entire universe and all the creatures. Then He created the second pen that is used by the inhabitants of the earth. The second pen is referred to in Surah Iqra’ in verse [ 96:4], thus: عَلَّمَ بِالْقَلَمِ ‘{ He who} taught by the pen’. And Allah knows best!

    If qalam ‘pen’ in the verse under comment refers to the pen of destinies, its greatness and its superiority over everything is quite obvious and swearing by it is quite understandable. If it is taken to refer to all pens in general, including the pen of destinies, the pen of angels, and also the pen of human beings, swearing an oath by it is apt because all great tasks are accomplished by pen. In the conquests of territories, pen play a mighty role: ‘The pen is mightier than the sword’ goes the famous saying. Abu HatimAl-Busti has encapsulated this idea in two short verses:

    اذا اقسم الابطال یوما بسیفھم وَعدّوہ ممّا یکسب المجد وَ الکرم

    When the brave people swear by their sword some day,

    And count it among things that give honour and veneration to men,

    کفٰی قلم الکتاب عزّا ورفعۃ مدی الدّھر انّ اللہ اقسم بالقلم

    The writers’ pen is sufficient for their honour and superiority

    For all times to come, because Allah has sworn oath by the pen

    In any case, it is immaterial whether the pen in the verse refers to the pen of destinies or it refers to the pen of creation in general. Then it swears an oath by مَا يَسْطُرُ‌ونَ ‘what they write [ 1] ‘.

    In other words, swearing an oath by what the pens have written or what they will record in the future, Allah refutes the unbelievers’ false charge of madness that they made against the Holy Prophet ﷺ ، thus:

    1. Right. Our economy is based on consumerism–which means that, if people stop buying things, other people lose their jobs. That’s why fashions change and things are built to last a limited amount of time. That’s why the Federal Reserve lowers interest rates when there is a downturn–to encourage buying–and raises interest rates in times of inflation. To be fair, we as consumers demand more and better things all the time. I think there’s some psychological security attached to the accumulation of “stuff.” The problem is that you really can’t take it with you–Jack Benny notwithstanding. (“If I can’t take it with me, I’m not going.”)

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