Dao Du Jour II, Day 77: The Bows that Bind (or, Taste the Rainbow)

Chapter 77: The Bow

“The Way of heaven
is like a bow bent to shoot:
it’s top end brought down,
it’s lower end raised up.
It brings the high down,
lifts the low,
takes from those who have,
gives to those who have not.

~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)

A dozen years ago, a video went viral in which a man camping in Yosemite witnessed a “double rainbow.” It went viral less due to wonder at the phenomenon, and more due to his stupefied reaction: “what does this mean?” The hive mind’s reaction to his reaction is instructive.

Imagine you are walking about on some prehistoric savannah and glimpse a broad band of colors with a perfect bend looping out of the ground, arcing through the sky, and back into the earth. Some of these colors you’ve never even seen before. Nor have you ever really seen a “perfect” anything. If you really thought about it, you’d likely infer that your priors about the world were somehow askew. There must be some greater intelligence, some hidden order, beneath your feet and beyond yonder mountains. Such a sight would change the way you saw, and what you saw, and give you an appreciation for what you didn’t, and maybe couldn’t, see. If philosophy begins in wonder, as Aristotle claims, then the first metaphysical musings in the human mind were maybe set in motion by something like rainbows.

Today, of course, we learn at a young age that rainbows are just an optical illusion, a function of atmospheric chemistry. The intention of such education is to teach us how nature “really” is: empirically, physically, independently of our subjective human way of seeing. While this way of seeing is useful, it is, ironically, both too empirical and not empirical enough. There is a scientific story you can tell about a rainbow, and it’s partially true, but suffers some plot holes.

What that story is really saying is that the rainbow is just an extreme example of what holds for all perception; since everything you see, all color and shape, is mediated by light, all vision is illusion. But if you make this move, notice what you’ve done: you have just invalidated the basis of all inferences. Any “empirical” data—and remember that data just means “given”—is just a trick light plays on the brain. A rearguard action here is to repair to the citadel of chemistry and physics—“well, it’s just molecules and atoms and then subatomic particles.” But when you actually consult the physicist, he will shrug and blabber about quantum foam and superstrings and anti-matter and other dimensions. He will resemble, that is, the court magician who traffics in dark arts and strange powers. Physics is the new metaphysics.

You have to work hard and conjure many concepts to be a pure empiricist. In fact, you have to actually stop looking at things. But to say that experience is just an illusion is not to say that it isn’t real; it simply doesn’t do justice to illusions. An illusion is a play of light and shadow. A delusion is a confusion about an illusion. What the scientific story is saying is that everything you see and think to be real is a delusion. But this is the greatest delusion of all, because it denies its own basis: what is hidden in plain sight. The great delusion is that there is something behind or beneath the world of appearance, some objective state of affairs that science will some day uncover.

There is a famous passage from the Daoist classic the Zhuangzi that depicts this perceptual shift:

Zhuangzi and Huizi were strolling (you 遊) on the dam of the Hao River. Zhuangzi said, “How these minnows jump out of the water and play about (you 游) at their ease (cong rong 從容)! This is fish being happy (le 樂)! ”

Huizi said: “You, sir, are not a fish, how (an 安) do you know (zhi 知) what the happiness of fish is?”

Zhuangzi replied: “You, sir, are not me, how (an 安) do you know (zhi 知) that I do not know (bu zhi 不知) what the happiness of fish is?”

Huizi said: “I am not you, sir, so I inherently don’t know you; but you, sir, are inherently no fish, and that you don’t know (bu zhi 不知) what the happiness of fish is, is [now] fully [established].”

Zhuangzi replied: “Let’s return to the roots [of this conversation]. By asking “how (an 安) do you know (zhi 知) the happiness of fish,” you already knew (zhi 知) that I know (zhi 知) it, and yet you asked me; I know (zhi 知) it by standing overlooking the Hao River.”

The Daoist sees that there is truth, not in advertising, but in aesthetics. There is no there there—no objective state of affairs on the other side of appearance; or rather, there is a there here. “Here” is a perspective on a perspective on a perspective. You can’t say, “The sky isn’t really blue,” because there is no sky without seers to distinguish it from the earth. There is, as Wilfred Sellars properly put it, no “view from nowhere.” Every graph is a holograph. Every object is a jewel the reflects the whole of Indra’s net. Every thing embraces everything.

There is a reason that the first covenant between God and humanity in the Bible is marked by a rainbow. It is not about guilting us into fulfilling our end of a bargain by complying with a list of moral duties. It is about helping us remember where we came from, literally re-member ourselves. The word religion means to bind. The rainbow consecrates the gift of creation. The more we allow ourselves to be pulled into the present—brings us down when we are high, lifts us up when we are low—the more the world will present to us a present. We bow down only so that when we look up again we will see more clearly. The rainbow is the original art of nature that gives us all the morality we need to guide our pursuit of truth.

Our scientific story is right about one thing, though: the rainbow is just an extreme example of what is the case for all perception. In Genesis, the rainbow is a sign that points back to the wonder of creation; that there is anything in the first place should never cease to astonish. Make beauty the rule, not the exception, of your perception, and the universe is yours.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

What Do You Think?