A Comparison of a Scroll titled
The Tao of the Uncertainty of Divination
and Modern Concepts of Quantum Physics.

by Oswald P. Jones M.D.A.

(Originally published in Summer 2006 issue of JOAC.)

Abstract: This field report gives an overview of an old document on the nature of divination by the author Heisen Sho Ting, who likely had an association (not currently clear) with the Oracle Temple. Parallels of this sutra with notions from modern Quantum Physics are examined.

Sirs, I am submitting to you an analysis of a recently revealed scroll from southern China which I believe falls well within your studies of archeo-computing. On scholarly business during my travels to Hunan Province an acquaintance of mine told me of this scroll that had been safely kept by generations of master abacus makers. Traveling to the small hamlet I met with the family that was currently in possession of this valuable and, perhaps historical scroll. In time I was allowed to examine the scroll, and the kind gentleman who owned it helped me in its translation and understanding of the philosophical beauty of this short treatise.

The scroll, whose title can be translated The Tao of the Uncertainty of Divination1 was attributed to an ancient wise man by the name of Hiesen Sho Ting2. I am loath to publish the text of this magnificent poem until I can produce a translation worthy of its original poetical richness. I am hopeful that the scholars associated with your institution can be of some assistance in this matter. Hiesen's poem was addressed to his students to teach them about discovering the Tao when casting their divinations. While the text does not specifically mention the Q Ching, it does hint at certain aspects of that divinatory art. Regardless, the poem can be most beautifully applied to most any divinatory art, as it tries to teach certain philosophical points to the now long departed students. The poem teaches two aspects of divination: 1) that the truth, or accuracy of a divination is indeterminate until someone witnesses, and is consciously aware that the divination came to pass; and 2) that there is an opposite correlation between a particular divinations predicting the time of an event, and exactly what that event is most likely to be. I shall briefly discuss these two points of the poem, and then give my observations regarding modern physics theory.

Hiesen Sho Ting speaks, in the poem, to certain students who were renowned for the accuracy of some castings and predictions they had done for their "Masters"3. In the poem he warns them not to be full of pride in their humble duty for the oracular temple, for they were "accompanied by good fortune" in their divinations' success. He shows them, through a parable regarding a farmer casting yarrow seeds to soils of uncertain quality, that one can never be certain of the outcome of a seed's success until it has taken root, grown, and produces seed of its own. The farmer can not know if the seed is of good quality until he has seen it grow in its due time. He likens the divination to the seed, and warns that until one sees the quality of the outcome of the predicted event that it is meaningless to say whether a divination had come to pass, nor how accurate or true it had been.

Hiesen's poem further admonishes his prideful students to look at how they had predicted the Masters' fortunes, and whether they spoke in vague tones, or were true insights, with detail, accuracy, and wisdom. He warns them that vague predictions in time resolve into the facts of the present, and such divinations are of meager value to the Masters. Exacting predictions take far more care and wisdom to produce; but they are more likely to not follow the evolution of events4, and, when looked upon, will show they were not made fully in the Tao. The poem ends this section beseeching his students to be aware that, despite the best divinatory castings, even using their fullest wisdom in fervently devout effort, that the Truth will only be reviled to the observant in its proper time.

The second part of Hiesen Sho Ting's poem teaches further warnings about accuracy in divining. It speaks of the peril of predicting the exact events to happen and exactly when; for knowing both exactly is not of the Tao, (at least for unenlightened men, he hints). A sage can predict that for certain a bird will return from its migration, but he can not say exactly when. A moth will rest on a certain branch, but one can not know the day nor the hour. Conversely, the Sun and Moon shall rise in their time, but one can not know if the clouds shall prevent our witnessing their wonder. One can predict when a cherry blossom will fall to earth, but where it will land shall not be known until witnessed.

Upon reading this marvelous scroll I was immediately struck on how this poem paralleled certain ideas of the modern theory of Quantum Mechanics, in particular the thought experiment called "Schrödinger's Cat", and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. The first part of the poem says you can not know the outcome until you have looked to see if it has happened (whether the cat in the box had been poisoned or not). While one may think that it was simplistic or trite for Hiesen Sho Ting to write a parable to his students about something which can be quite obvious (the proverbial "don't count your chickens before the hatch"), that he wrote it to his students who were servants of their "Masters", admonishing them to be careful, and to be moderately more detailing in their divinations shows how important this concept is to the art of divination, and Living in general. The second part of the poem strikes a parallel with Heisenberg's principle, clearly showing that only so much information can be gleaned from a divination, and that the students should not be foolish enough to try to predict more than the nature of the Tao allows.

I found it striking that two such philosophical ideas that pertain to the divinatory arts should be included on the one scroll from such an ancient time. "Schrödinger's Cat", and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle are quite often considered together in current studies, and the parallel between this scroll's contents and modern physics teachings is quite remarkable. I found reason to believe that more about this parallel can be recovered and studied. Sadly, the family had little to add to what was written on the scroll, as such history had been lost over the generations.

After talking with the owner of the scroll (who asked that neither he nor his family be named) he enlightened me as to where to look for more writings by Hiesen Sho Ting. I am currently finishing up my affairs5 and hope to arrange funding for a trip to the excavations at the Palace of the Golden Emperor. It was the Chinese abacus maker's reference to the Palace of the Golden Emperor, and the subsequent Internet search that made me aware of your collective work. I am now endeavoring to study what you have published to possibly help me with my doctoral thesis, as well as my coming endeavor when I return to China. I shall submit my findings with you as I uncover more of this fascinating parallel between the ancient Chinese sages and modern western physics, and I look forward to future correspondence.

I hope that you find this current paper of interest and will accept it for your Journal of Oriental Archeo-Computing for publication. If your organization has the means, I would appreciate it if you would consider a grant to help finance my studies of the works and archeology of Hiesen Sho Ting in the coming year. I can supply you with the relevant credentials and references, of course, and I hope that you can aid me to further the scholarship of Oriental acheo-computing.


  1. A more correct translation of this title may be The Tao of Uncertainty in Divination. I am somewhat unclear regarding translating this ancient dialect as to which way it should read.
  2. Little is known at this time of Hiesen Sho Ting. To date I have not found any information as to when he lived, nor where he taught. It seems that he lived before Lao Tse Kaud, but this is not certain. However, it is plain that he was held in great esteem, given the richness of the drawings on the scroll, and that the scroll has been safely kept for generations. On my next visit to China I intend to further research this sage and, perhaps, bring to light more about him, his teachings, and his association with the master diviners of his day.
  3. The exact wording is difficult to put into modern English. I chose "Masters", as it seems to be truer to the social order of that day. However the Chinese word used implies that the "Masters" were there to manage or coordinate the activities of the priesthood in their divinatory works. It is doubtful that the Masters were ministers to the emperor of the day, nor a local governor. As a guess I believe that these masters that Heisen Sho Ting and his students are working for may be functionaries similar to the managers or directors described in your web pages.
  4. That is, they tend to be wrong in the end. In my text I give the approximate feel for the original wording.
  5. At this time I have finished gathering the data needed for my doctoral thesis on casting the I Ching by the 10,000 yarrow stick method.