Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Yet Mystery and Reality Emerge from the Same Source: A Fortune Cookie Caper

Some evening about a year and a half ago (I don't remember how long exactly), I eagerly opened a bag filled with hot, greasy, freshly delivered Chinese food.  Like any normal American, I made for the fortune cookie first.  I'm not sure how it started, but in my family we believe you have to eat the whole cookie before reading the fortune in order for the thing to be valid.  So I ate my cookie, turned over the slip of paper with the lottery numbers and Chinese ideogram, and confronted my fate.

"Yet mystery and reality emerge from the same source."

I read it a few times, head cocked to the side like a puzzled canine.  Obviously, this wasn't a fortune.  That's not what stumped me--most fortune cookies don't actually talk about the future.  But this seemed like an actual piece of wisdom.  I thought about the quote while I ate. 

I started wondering who had written it.  Some tragic fortune cookie scribe, toiling in a dark cell somewhere fashioning destinies for America's hungry families?  I imagined some intense philosophy graduate student working at a small desk in a fortune cookie factory, punching at his typewriter next to a bunch of happy-go-lucky halfwits (the ones who put smiley faces on your fortune).  I also imagined someone picking randomly from a bank of words happening to assemble a sentence both uncanny and profound.

Yet mystery and reality emerge from the same source.

I kept the fortune with me for the next few days, meditating on it.  I memorized the words so I could think about them after disposing of the actual paper.  Eventually, I stopped thinking about its origin, but the sentence has stayed with me ever since.  My first thought reading it was, "This fortune cookie is about God."  It seems to me that mystery is everything in the world and in ourselves that we don't understand: Those questions of whence, whither, and wherefore; the ones that human beings usually leave it up to God to answer.  Reality, it seems to me, encompasses all that we can see and perceive and understand.  I don't know where the line between mystery and reality lies, but it's there, even if it's blurry.  And this little bit of paper was telling me that mystery and reality emerge from the same source.  What source? 

The mystery of the fortune's origin was unraveled today, more than a year later on a different continent.  And I am surprised at how many coincidences seem to be involved.  My interpretation of the quote wasn't exactly apt, as it turns out.  I was browsing something on the internet that reminded me of the quote, and for the first time it dawned on me to search for it on Google in case it was copied out of some famous text.  Lo and behold, there it lay in the very first chapter of the Tao Te Ching.  So this is not a case of monkeys producing Shakespeare.  Someone copied the fortune out of the Tao.

I felt slightly embarrassed, considering the Tao Te Ching is one of the few books I brought with me to Indonesia, and I read it for the second time within a week of arriving.  I should have seen the quote in my book.  But of course!  That little volume is among the world's most notoriously difficult pieces of philosophy to translate.  The original is terse and repetitive, presuming a sophisticated understanding of the many connotations of individual Chinese ideograms on the part of the reader.  Translators all put their own spin on it.  The translation containing the line as I saw it on the fortune cookie reads:

Freed from desire, you can see the hidden mystery.
By having desire, you can only see what is visibly real.
Yet mystery and reality
emerge from the same source.
This source is called darkness.
Darkness born from darkness.
The beginning of all understanding.
(McDonald, 1996)

But the translation in my version of the Tao Te Ching, which tries to mimic the terse and repetitive style of the original, reads:

Empty of desire, perceive mystery.
Filled with desire, perceive manifestations.
These have the same source, but different names.
Call them both deep--
Deep and again deep:
The gateway to all mystery.
(Addiss 1993)

So it's obvious how I missed it.  Just for a good idea of the wild variation in how that single passage is translated, have a look at this third take on it:

The unwanting soul
sees what's hidden,
and the ever-wanting soul
sees only what it wants.
Two things, one origin,
but different in name,
whose identity is mystery.
Mystery of all mysteries!
The door to the hidden.
(Le Guin 1998)

I absolve myself of any guilt with regard to my failure to recognize what has been under my nose for well over a year.  Blame it on Chinese. 

A few coincidences I find remarkable:

  1. That I got the fortune cookie at all.
  2. That I brought the Tao Te Ching with me to Indonesia.
  3. That I recently read the Tao.
  4. That earlier this very day, I was speaking about Taoism with Bu Ani, one of my teaching counterparts, and mentioned that I had brought the Tao Te Ching with me to Indonesia, going as far as to comment on the terse style, its profundity, and the necessity to meditate for a long time on each passage.

Call this mystery solved!


  1. I received the same fortune and found my self puzzled by its meaning. Ive never been so preoccupied with a fortune. Not enough to Google it anyways. Maybe this one IS indeed making its way to persons who it is intended for. Or maybe I'm superstitious.

  2. I got this fortune too. I still don't get what it means, though.

  3. I googled this same quote and found your blog because just today I received this fortune and found it intriguing and wondering if there was a "purpose" for receiving it as it doesn't read as a "normal" fortune. As I am having a difficult time with a situation right now this fortune seems to be my dilemma...is something meant to be or not? I wish I had the answer.