Defining Li

Chinese Character for LiI like the idea that there is a natural order or beauty within the apparent chaos of life and the world. We simply have to learn to see it. The Chinese word for this organic order is “li”, and it can be seen easily in the patterns of snowflakes, frost, waves, and sand dunes. Li, however, is more than just interesting patterns. Li is a universal phenomenon that exists all around us. It appears on the grand scale of spiral galaxies, on the miniscule scale of atoms, and across vastly different scales (e.g. the parallel structures of atoms and solar systems). It even appears in abstract realms such as relationships, cultures, cycles, and systems. Life itself may be the most amazing example. The patterns of li are everywhere.

Philosopher and author Alan Watts (1915-1973) described li this way:

Though the Tao is wu-tse (nonlaw), it has an order or pattern which can be recognized clearly but not defined by the book because it has too many dimensions and too many variables. This kind of order is the principle of li. . . . Li may therefore be understood as organic order, as distinct from mechanical or legal order, both of which go by the book. Li is the asymmetrical, nonrepetitive, and unregimented order which we find in the patterns of moving water, the forms of trees and clouds, of frost crystals on the window, or the scattering of pebbles on beach sand. . . . As soon as this beauty is pointed out it is immediately recognized, though we cannot say just why it appeals to us. When aestheticians and art critics try to explain it by showing works of art with Euclidean diagrams superimposed on them–supposedly to demonstrate elegance of proportion or rhythm–they simply make fools of themselves. Bubbles do not interest one merely because they congregate in hexagons or have measurable surface tensions. Geometrization always reduces natural form to something less than itself, to an oversimplification and rigidity which screens out the dancing curvaceousness of nature.
-Alan Watts, Tao: The Watercourse Way, 1975, pp. 45-46

Because it is a naturally occurring phenomenon, li does not require our intervention or control. Nature dances, and li is the beauty of that dance. As natural beings, humans have an innate ability to experience li, but we must first learn to be present and open to reality. I’m not talking about the over-processed reality in our heads, but rather the raw reality as it comes to us through our senses. So often, our rational minds get in the way, and so we must learn to turn down the volume on our thoughts. Only then will li become fully apparent.

Animals don’t need help with this, because they are not burdened with our reasoning abilities. As a result, they exist wholly within the patterns of li. Their relationships, interactions, and patterns of behavior are li. Human behavior gets hung up on mental constructs like expectations and control, and we lose contact with natural order. Through our thoughts and efforts, we actually destroy li. Imagine trying to intervene as a snowflake is forming, trying to make it turn out a certain way, and you will get an idea of the danger and futility of trying too hard. Li doesn’t need us to make it happen. In fact, it often can’t tolerate our efforts. It just needs us to participate in life and allow it to happen.

If li still seems difficult to grasp, consider a few more examples, and maybe it will become more clear. Li is the smoke of a candle spiraling and folding in on itself. Li is dust in a sunbeam. Li is clear water rippling in the wind on a sunny day. Li is sparkles of sunlight dancing across the surface of a body of water. Li is the northern lights, sunrises and sunsets, and the starry sky. Li is waterfalls, rapids, leaves on trees, and mountain ranges. Li is storms. Li is all weather. Li is the patterns within and across lifespans. Li is the chemistry between two people. Li is the cycle of life and death. Li is ecosystems. Li is solar systems. Li is also “the zone” experienced by athletes. Li is anytime we feel truly connected and caught up in the flow of life.

I will not speculate about how or why li occurs, because I do not know with any certainty the answers to those questions. My goal is simply to point out that li does occur, that it does so with great abundance, and that it is always available to us… as long as we don’t get in the way.