Robert Louis Stevenson once said, ‘So long as we love, we serve”.
Little is truly known about the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu (sometimes also known as Laozi or Lao Tze), who is a guiding figure in Daoism (also translated as Taoism), a still popular spiritual practice. He is said to have been a record keeper in the court of the central Chinese Zhou Dynasty in the 6th century B.C., and an older contemporary of Confucius. This could be true, but he may also have been entirely mythical—much like Homer in Western culture. It is certainly very unlikely that (as some legends say) he was conceived when his mother saw a falling star, or was born an old man with very long earlobes – or lived 990 years.
Lao Tzu as a deity, carving from the 7th or 8th century
Lao Tzu is said to have tired of life in the Zhou court as it grew increasingly morally corrupt. So he left and rode on a water buffalo to the western border of the Chinese empire. Although he was dressed as a farmer, the border official recognised him and asked him to write down his wisdom. According to this legend, what Lao Tzu wrote became the sacred text called theTao Te Ching. After writing this, Lao Tzu is said to have crossed the border and disappeared from history, perhaps to become a hermit. In reality, the Tao Te Ching is likely to be the compilation of the works of many authors over time. But stories about Lao Tzu and the Tao Te Ching have passed down through different Chinese philosophical schools for over two thousand years and have become wondrously embellished in the process.
Lao Tzu leaving the kingdom on his water buffalo
Today there are at least twenty million Daoists, and perhaps even half a billion, living around the world, especially in China and Taiwan. They practise meditation, chant scriptures, and worship a variety of gods and goddesses in temples run by priests. Daoists also make pilgrimages to five sacred mountains in eastern China in order to pray at the temples and absorb spiritual energy from these holy places, which are believed to be governed by immortals.
Daoist pilgrims visit a temple on Mount Tai, one of the five sacred mountains in Daoism
Daoism is deeply intertwined with other branches of thought like Confucianism and Buddhism. Confucius is often believed to be a student of Lao Tzu. Similarly, some believe that when Lao Tzu disappeared, he travelled to India and Nepal and either taught or became the Buddha. Confucianist practices to this day not only respect Lao Tzu as a great philosopher but also try to follow many of his teachings.
A 12th-century Song Dynasty painting entitled ‘Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism are one’ is artistic evidence of the way these three philosophies were mixed over time, and often believed to be fully compatible.
There is a story about the three great Asian spiritual leaders (Lao Tzu, Confucius, and Buddha). All were meant to have tasted vinegar. Confucius found it sour, much like he found the world full of degenerate people, and Buddha found it bitter, much like he found the world to be full of suffering. But Lao Tzu found the world sweet. This is telling, because Lao Tzu’s philosophy tends to look at the apparent discord in the world and see an underlying harmony guided by something called the ‘Dao’.
“The Vinegar Tasters”
The Tao Te Ching is somewhat like the Bible: it gives instructions (at times vague and generally open to multiple interpretations) on how to live a good life. It discusses the “Dao,” or the “way” of the world, which is also the path to virtue, happiness, and harmony. This “way” isn’t inherently confusing or difficult. Lao Tzu wrote, “the great Dao is very even, but people like to take by-ways.” In Lao Tzu’s view the problem with virtue isn’t that it is difficult or unnatural, but simply is that we resist the very simple path that might make us most content.
In order to follow the Dao, we need to go beyond simply reading and thinking about it. Instead we must learn wu wei (“flowing” or “effortless action”), a sort of purposeful acceptance of the way of the Dao and live in harmony with it. This might seem lofty and bizarre, but most of Lao Tzu’s suggestions are actually very simple.
An immortal (here walking on water) has certainly mastered wu wei, living in harmony with the Dao
First, we ought to take more time for stillness. “To the mind that is still,” Lao Tzu said, “the whole universe surrenders.” We need to let go of our schedules, worries and complex thoughts for a while and simply experience the world. We spend so much time rushing from one place to the next in life, but Lao Tzu reminds us “nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” It is particularly important that we remember that certain things—grieving, growing wiser, developing a new relationship—only happen on their own schedule, like the changing of leaves in the fall or the blossoming of the bulbs we planted months ago.
An 11th-century Chinese painting depicts a scholar practicing stillness by studying nature in a meadow.
When we are still and patient we also need to be open. We need to be reminded to empty ourselves of frivolous thoughts so that we will observe what is really important. “The usefulness of a pot comes from its emptiness.” Lao Tzu said. “Empty yourself of everything, let your mind become still.” If we are too busy, too preoccupied with anxiety or ambition, we will miss a thousand moments of the human experience that are our natural inheritance. We need to be awake to the way light reflects off of ripples on a pond, the way other people look when they are laughing, the feeling of the wind playing with our hair. These experiences reconnect us to parts of ourselves.
An open, decorated metal pot from the time of Lao Tzu
This is another key point of Lao Tzu’s writing: we need to be in touch with our real selves. We spend a great deal of time worrying about who we ought to become, but we should instead take time to be who we already are at heart. We might rediscover a generous impulse, or a playful side we had forgotten, or simply an old affection for long walks. Our ego is often in the way of our true self, which must be found by being receptive to the outside world rather than focusing on some critical, too-ambitious internal image. “When I let go of what I am,” Lao Tzu wrote, “I become what I might be.”
The Five Great Mountains of China are important in traditional Chinese religion because each mountain represents the natural order of the Earth. These mountains are situated in each of the primordial directions (north, south, east, west, and center), according to Chinese geomancy. Additionally, emperors throughout centuries have used these sites as places of worship and sacrifice. This article takes a closer look at each of these sacred mountains.
5. Tài Shān
The Tai Shan mountain, which translates to Tranquil Mountain, holds the east position. This is the direction in which the sun rises, representing birth and renewal. It is located in the Shandong province, just north of the city of Tai’an. The tallest peak on this mountain is the Jade Emperor, which stands at between 5,029 and 5,069 feet in elevation.
The Tai Shan mountain has been a religious site before 1000 BC, during the Zhou Dynasty. At the foot of this mountain stands the Dai Temple, or the Temple of the God of Mount Tai. It was built between 221 and 206 BC at the direction of the rulers of the Qin Dynasty. This mountain is also home to the Shrine of the Blue Dawn goddess.
4. Huà Shān
The Hua Shan mountain, which translates to Splendid Mountain, holds the west position. This is the direction in which the sun sets, representing death and the underworld. It is located in the Shaanxi province, close to the city of Huayin. The tallest peak on this mountain is South Peak, which stands at 7,070 feet above sea level.
A Daoist temple has been located at this mountain since at least the 2nd century BC. Hua Shan has not received as many pilgrims as the other sacred mountains due to the difficulty of reaching its summits. Many people believe that this mountain is home to the God of the Underworld. The Hua Shan mountain is also the site of a Taoist temple (now a tea house) and the Cloister of the Jade Spring.
3. Héng Shān (Hunan)
Heng Shan, which translates to Balancing Mountain, holds the south position. This mountain range is located in the Hunan province, where it stretches for 93 miles. It consists of 72 peaks, the tallest of which is Zhurong Peak, which stands at 4,300 feet in elevation.
Heng Shan is home to the Grand Temple of Mount Heng, the largest ancient building in the area. This temple is important to followers of 3 religions: Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. The Heng Shan mountain range is also the site of the Zhu Rong Gong temple and the Zhusheng Si temple.
2. Héng Shān (Shanxi)
The Heng Shan mountain, which in traditional Chinese translates to Permanent Mountain, holds the north position. It is located in the Shanxi province, where its tallest peak stands at 6,617 feet above sea level.
Of all the sacred mountains, the Shanxi Heng Shan is the least visited due to its size and northern location. Throughout history, this area has often been under the control of other countries, which prevented many pilgrims and emperors from visiting. It is home to the Hanging Temple and the Shrine of the Northern Peak.
1. Sōng Shān
The Song Shan mountain, which translates to Lofty Mountain, holds the central position. It is located in the Henan province on the south side of the Yellow River. It consists of 36 peaks, the tallest of which stands at 4,961 feet in elevation.
This mountain is home to several important Buddhist and Taoist sites. The Shaolin Temple, considered the birthplace of Zen Buddhism, is located here. Additionally, Song Shan is the site of the following religious sites: Songyue Pagoda, Fawang Temple, and Zhongyue Temple.
Our notion of reality is built on everyday experiences. But wave-particle duality is so strange that we are forced to re-examine our common conceptions.
Wave-particle duality refers to the fundamental property of matter where, at one moment it appears like a wave, and yet at another moment it acts like a particle.
We are all familiar with particles, whether they are marbles, grains of sand, salt in a salt-shaker, atoms, electrons, and so on.
The properties of particles can be demonstrated with a marble. The marble is a spherical lump of glass located at some point in space. If we flick the marble with our finger, we impart energy to it – this is kinetic energy, and the moving marble takes this energy with it. A handful of marbles thrown in the air come crashing down, each marble imparting energy where it strikes the floor.
In contrast, waves are spread out. Examples of waves are the big rollers on the open ocean, ripples in a pond, sound waves and light waves.
If at one moment the wave is localised, some time later it will have spread out over a large region, like the ripples when we drop a pebble in a pond. The wave carries with it energy related to its motion. Unlike the particle the energy is distributed over space because the wave is spread out.
Why waves are so different from particles
Colliding particles will bounce off each other but colliding waves pass through one another and emerge unchanged. But overlapping waves can interfere – where a trough overlaps a crest the wave can disappear altogether.
This can be seen when parts of a wave pass through closely spaced holes in a screen. The waves spread out in all directions and interfere, leading to regions in space where the wave disappears and regions where it becomes stronger.
In contrast, a marble thrown at the screen either bounces off or goes straight through one of the holes. On the other side of the screen, the marble will be found travelling in one of two directions, depending on which hole it went through.
Wave goodbye to waves
The phenomenon of diffraction is a well-known property of light waves. But at the beginning of the 20th century, a problem was found with the theories of light waves emitted from hot objects, such as hot coals in a fire or light from the sun.
The answer was to assume the energy of light waves was not continuous but came in fixed amounts, as if it was composed of a large number of particles, like our handful of marbles. So the notion came about that light waves act like particles – these particles are called photons.
To explain the structure and behaviour of atoms it was thought necessary to assume that particles have wave-like properties. If this is true, a particle should diffract through a pair of closely spaced holes, just like a wave.
Electron and atom diffraction
Experiments proved atomic particles act just like waves. When we fire electrons at one side of a screen with two closely spaced holes and measure the distribution of electrons on the other side, we don’t see two peaks, one for each hole, but a complete diffraction pattern, just as if we had been using waves.
This is another example of the Young’s slit experiment we showed above, but this time using electron waves. These notions form the basis of quantum theory, perhaps the most successful theory scientists have ever developed.
The bizarre thing about the diffraction experiment is the electron wave doesn’t deposit energy over the entire surface of the detector, as you might expect with a wave crashing on the shore.
The energy of the electron is deposited at a point, just as if it was a particle. So while the electron propagates through space like a wave, it interacts at a point like a particle. This is known as wave-particle duality.
It moves in mysterious waves
If the electron or photon propagates as a wave but deposits its energy at a point, what happens to the rest of the wave?
It disappears, from all over space, never to be seen again! Somehow, those parts of the wave distant from the point of interaction know that the energy has been lost and disappear, instantaneously.
If this happened with ocean waves, one of the surfers on the wave would receive all the energy and at that moment the ocean wave would disappear, all along the length of the beach. One surfer would be shooting along the surface of the water and the rest would be sitting becalmed on the surface.
This is what happens with photons, electrons and even atom waves. Naturally enough, this conundrum upset a lot of scientists, Einstein included. It is usually swept under the carpet and glibly referred to as “the collapse of the wavefunction” on measurement.
As the wave propagates, where is the particle? Well, we don’t know for sure. It is located somewhere in the region of space with a dimension similar to the distribution of wavelengths that define its wave. This is known as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.
For common everyday particles, such as marbles, salt and sand, their wavelengths are so small that their location can be accurately measured. For atoms and electrons, this becomes less clear.
In the diffraction experiment the electron wavelength is large so the location of the electron is very uncertain. The electron actually travels through both slits at once, just like a wave. In terms of particles it becomes impossible for us to really imagine this because it conflicts with everyday experience.
Einstein worried about where the particle is actually located and decided information was missing in the quantum theory. In a celebrated paper on hidden variables, Einstein and his colleagues Nathan Rosen and Boris Podolsky derived two alternatives: either quantum theory was wrong or the problem resided in our notion of reality itself.
But this is not the end of the story. The experiments that disproved our notions of reality involved two particles linked together as a single wave. Measurements on one particle affect the physical properties of the other particle, even though they can be far apart. This is known as “spooky action at a distance” and is a consequence of quantum entanglement.
So what’s wrong with reality?
At this point the whole problem gets very difficult to get your mind around. But don’t get too worried about this. As Richard Feynman, Nobel Laureate and truly brilliant man said: “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.”
Most people working in this field just get used to the concept and get on with their lives, or become philosophers.
And as for reality?
I think Professor Feynman has the last word on that one, too: “ … the paradox is only a conflict between reality and your feeling of what reality ought to be.”
See more Explainer articles on The Conversation.