The Ten Thousand Things
Always and everywhere: What is this?

I first encountered (and began to puzzle over) the phrase in the title of the 1984 edition of Maria Dermoût's The Ten Thousand Things, and read that remarkable novel in the context of an abiding fascination with Insular Southeast Asia (the novel is mostly set in the Moluccas, famous as the "Spice Islands" pillaged by the Portuguese and the Dutch, for perspective on which see Amitav Ghosh The Nutmeg's Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis [2021]).

This quotation is the epigraph for Maria Dermoût's novel:

When the ten thousand things have been seen in their unity,
we return to the beginning and remain where we have always been.

Ts'en Shen (Cen Shen), a Tang dynasty poet (715-770)

...and the enigmatic phrase appears in the Tao Te Ching, and in various Taoist and Buddhist texts. Here's Lao Tzu, Chapter 42 of Tao Te Ching:

The Tao gives birth to one.
One gives birth to two.
Two gives birth to three.
And three gives birth to the ten thousand things.

The ten thousand things carry yin and embrace yang.
They achieve harmony by combining these forces.

Still enigmatic? Here's Patrick Stewart:

...the two halves of yin-yang rotate, forever challenging each other and pushing the other out of the way. This spin cannot stop, or it wouldn't be yin and yang anymore.
It would be one.

This constant movement, the dance that never ends, the interaction, is three.
The cosmic reaction to yin and yang constantly spinning and interacting is the existence of everything.
The ancient Chinese called this concept: 10,000 things.

(from A Beginner's Guide to Taoism: Ten Thousand Things and the Creation of the Universe [Patrick Stewart at Medium])

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Some other possibly-helpful sources:

Dogen poem

That the self advances
And confirms ten thousand things
Is called delusion;
That the ten thousand things
Advance and confirm the self
Is called enlightenment.

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The Ten Thousand Things of Taoism: A meditation on the many
...the Ten Thousand Things seem to be a product of the union between Yin and Yang, between heaven and earth. And indeed, many simply understand the Ten Thousand Things to stand for all that is material and mundane, belonging to the province of all things earthly.

...On one hand, the Ten Thousand Things refer to the multitude of daily distractions that cloud our minds and clutter our lives. This is the realm of the tedious, the mundane, and everything that disconnects us from our higher spiritual potential.

But at the same time, it is necessary to understand that the Ten Thousand Things are a direct product of the Tao. In other words, denying our material bodies and our mundane responsibilities will not bring us any closer to union with the ultimate and the unnamable.

To live in harmony with the Tao, we must embrace all things. That includes the following:

  • The One, whom we might call God, or Gaia, or Brahman;
  • The Two, which we might call Yin and Yang, or good and evil;
  • The Three, or our own souls and spirits;
  • And the Ten Thousand, meaning our physical bodies, our worldly duties and our countless distractions.

What does "The Ten Thousand Things" refer to in Daoism? (Quora)

In Daoism, "The Ten Thousand Things" refers to the myriad of phenomena and beings in the universe. It is a concept used to describe the multiplicity and diversity of existence, emphasizing the interconnectedness and interdependence of all things. The phrase is often used to convey the idea that everything in the world is part of a unified whole, and that harmony is found in recognizing and embracing this interconnectedness. (Quora Assistant --which might be an AI...)

The essence of Taoism is to see and follow the way of nature by studying the common behavior of myriad things in nature of heaven and earth with humans included in between. It has nothing to do with supernatural beliefs, metaphysical axioms or religious convictions beyond the realm of nature. (Jian Sun)

It means the same thing as the English word 'myriad': a countless or extremely great number. And as a matter of interest, the English word 'myriad' derives from the ancient Greek word for 10,000. In all likelihood, people in early civilizations didn't have a lot of reason to count past 10,000, and did a lot of hand-waving when they got to numbers that large, the way someone in the modern US might say 'a gajillion' to point to some indefinitely large number. (Ted Wrigley)

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10,000 Things Return To One calligraphy

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Another encounter with Ten Thousand Things came via Peter Mulvey's wonderful song:


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From Kwan Um School of Zen:

When the monk came to Baoshou and asked, "Sir, when the ten thousand things come at you all at once, what can you do?" Baoshou responded, "Don't try to control them!"

My sense is that the monk was struggling with the many troublesome thoughts, emotions, and feelings that arise in mind. Perhaps you also have similar concerns. And perhaps, like this monk, you also want relief. Who among us doesn't want relief from the ten thousand things? Baoshou gave the monk the best possible guidance: "Don't try to control them!"

Of course, we do try to control the ten thousand things. We do everything possible to arrange the world so that it won't trouble us. And—as maybe you've noticed—the world really doesn't cooperate with our attempts at control. Actually, the world doesn't care much about our likes and dislikes. It isn't interested in what we want or don't want.

It occurred to me some years ago, when I was trying to control a difficult situation, that maybe there was another way. Perhaps, rather than demanding cooperation, I could respond to what the world asked of me. I could bring myself into alignment with the ten thousand. That's possible for any of us.

And, in fact, that's our practice tradition—to sit in community, breathe in, and ask a question—"How is it, just now?—and perceive what appears. How do the ten thousand things manifest in this moment? And then, on the exhalation, don't know—returning to the One, returning to primary point.

(Zen Master Hye Mun)

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And on what may at first seem a distant track (and because I hunted up the several books with 'Ten Thousand Things' in their title), this gem of a rabbit hole that leads to a conjunction of interests:

East Asian history; technologies; paradigms for understanding the surrounding world; ruminations on reading and the getting and wrangling of books; the problems of intercultural translation; the Axial Age(s)...

The Crafting of the 10,000 Things: Knowledge and Technology in Seventeenth-Century China (Dagmar Schäfer, 2011 {check out the reviews}) which Amazon tells me I bought 22xii22, and put on the shelf for the next time... and that was today.

Song Ying Shing (1587-1666?), late Ming dynasty civil servant and polymath. wrote Tiangong kaiwu (The Works of Heaven and the Inception of Things) and Lun qi (On qi)... which sounds inaccessible enough to discourage further effort, right? But no, it's fascinating to see into the workings of the mind of a contemporary of Kepler and Descartes, but Chinese... a time of Elizabethan and Stuart technologies in Britain ...sudden urge to consult History of Technology section in the barn, but put off by the slush...)

Despite its daunting title, Song's Tiangong kaiwu is a broad-ranging examination of technologies he carefully observed: silk and cotton production, the making of paper and salt, processing of iron ore and production of other metals, the mining of coal, the casting of bells, ceramics, dyes, farming... the parallels to Agricola's De Re Metallica (1556) are striking.

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Also on 22xii22 I ordered John Spurling's novel The Ten Thousand Things, but just began reading it today. It's set in the last years of the Yuan dynasty, and is narrated by the actually-historical painter Wang Meng. Here are a couple of bits that suggest its flavor:
A man of my age has seen everything, done everything that he is ever likely to see or do. If he does not understand life as he nears the end of it, he never will. I have spent my life looking intensely at the so-called 'ten thousand things' that make up the world —man among them. I have constantly drawn them, thought and talked about them, drunk or sober, and they are not, in principle, difficult to understand. (5)

It was not that he thought of fate as a conscious being. It was merely the name for the secret balance in nature, for the way circumstances alter for good or bad according to forces and conditions beyond our knowledge or control. (11)

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Robert Saltzman's The Ten Thousand Things (2019) is a remarkable serendipitous discovery, a "cutting through" sort of book. Here's the essence:

When you lose interest in spiritual pipe dreams, your craving for a pain-free life will weaken. Then your attention will remain where it belongs—not in some fanciful trouble-free future, but in this moment, which is the only moment one ever has, the only moment one must deal with, and the only moment one actually can deal with. Seeing that simplifies matters considerably, I find.
My Kindle Notebook collects passages I found especially trenchant and well-put.

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The dance of the Tao and the ten thousand things Daniel Schmachtenberger

The knowledge which is knowable is not the eternal knowledge,
The Tao that is namable is not the eternal Tao.
Naming gives rise to the ten thousand things.
The ten thousand things can obscure you from the Tao.

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John Cage's Ten Thousand Things
liner notes

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