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Unraveling the mysterious and misunderstood concept of P'u

Kerumutan river inside a tropical rainforest at Kerumutan,  Sumatra, Indonesia
Kerumutan river inside a tropical rainforest at Kerumutan, Sumatra, Indonesia
Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

Many people who study or casually read about Taoism will at some point come across several principles and concepts which are considered important to the Taoist system.

Some of the more popular principles are: Wu-wei, Tao and Te, Lao Tzu's three treasures, and P'u, to name just a few. As mentioned in prior articles, more often than not these concepts are presented to the world by people who lack a full understanding of the Taoist philosophy and the many meanings of the Chinese characters, especially ancient Taoist characters. This is one of the reasons that direct literal translations of ancient Chinese texts will not reveal the true or even partial meaning and message. As a result, many of the well known principles of Taoism are misunderstood, even by practitioners, perhaps especially by practitioners.

This article will explore the concept of P'u (朴, simplified Chinese and 樸, traditional Chinese). P'u lends itself as a great example of why a complete understanding of Taoism is important when, not only translating texts, but even more important when discussing and teaching the varied disciplines of Taoism.

P'u is often translated as the “uncarved block”, and has appeared in many variations in its own right. Many people have discussed the concept of the uncarved block in great length and breadth, especially in Academia, where there is no shortage for exhaustive discussions of misunderstood information. Most people will tell you that the uncarved block means to leave things in their natural state, or for people to return to their natural state. People will poetically describe how children are born as uncarved blocks and that P'u is the eastern concept of Tabula Rasa (blank slate) or vice versa.

They are correct that P'u is one of the highest principles of Taoism and that it is referring to a state that everything had, should have and can return to. The problem arises with the translation of P'u as the “uncarved block”. The intention of the translators is to convey a state of naturalness-simplicity, honesty-plainness etc..., a state of being that exists before any form of unnaturalness is applied or learned. The principle applies to all existence and not just the domain of humans.

And therein lies the problem. If the intention is to convey a state of naturalness, then clearly an uncarved block cannot be the appropriate visual aid, as even an uncarved block came from somewhere and by its very nature is not in its natural state!

If we examine the characters for P'u more closely we will see that they represent not an uncarved block, rather an untouched forest or more precisely...many uncut trees in the forest. Imagine a forest that exists without any alteration and without any influence other than nature. Clearly, the uncarved block is already a piece of wood cut from a tree that is no longer in its natural state, and thereby unqualified to represent P'u.

With this understanding people can now properly analyze scenarios, life questions and existence itself through the visual aid of the untouched trees in the forest. Try to imagine a state of being before learning the many cultural aspects that we consider the meaning of life and living, before we were altered, shaped and molded into everything but our natural state. What would humans and humanity look like if things were left in their natural state, what would governments look like if politicians left things alone, what would the world be like if we did less, spoke less and simply were P'u, etc...?

P'u is the principle of achieving that state of naturalness that exists before one is defiled or altered from their original nature, it is a state that can be achieved and restored.

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