Heaven and earth do not act from (the impulse of) any wish to be benevolent; they deal with all things as the dogs of grass are dealt with. The sages do not act from (any wish to be) benevolent; they deal with the people as the dogs of grass are dealt with.
May not the space between heaven and earth be compared to a bellows?
’Tis emptied, yet it loses not its power; ’tis moved again, and sends forth air the more. Much speech to swift exhaustion lead we see; your inner being guard, and keep it free.
(Tao Teh King 5:1).
This is strong medicine, especially for those of us brought up in the sentimentality of “devotional” religion. It is very hard to shed the golden dreams of spiritual childhood for the glaring and harsh realities of spiritual adulthood. For many people, as Lili Tomlin’s character, Trudy, said: “Reality gives you cancer.”
In the ninth chapter of the Gita, verse twenty-nine, the Tao through Krishna tells Arjuna: “I am the same to all beings. There is no one who is disliked or dear to me. But they who worship me with devotion are in me, and I am also in them.”
The Tao is an absolute unity, an all-embracing unity that includes all beings. Therefore there is no one (and no thing) that the Tao could view as an object separate from It. How could It, being without the conditioned ego which is the source of like and dislike, possibly love or hate anyone? Certainly we, who in our present state of colossal ignorance look at the ways of the Absolute as outside observers and construe them according to our egoic frame of reference, think of It liking or disliking that which pleases or displeases It, but that is pure fantasy. It is not in the nature of the Tao to engage in such reactions, for who will It react to? Seeing the wheels of cosmic law grinding on, raising some and throwing down others, we mistakenly think that God is taking a personal interest and favoring or disfavoring them, rewarding some and punishing others. This is as foolish as thinking that when we eat nourishing food God is pleased with us and blesses us with health, and when we eat poison he becomes angry and kills us. “The Omnipresent takes note of neither demerit nor merit” (Bhagavad Gita 5:15)
It is the machinery of the cosmos that puts down and exalts, but since the Tao is its source and architect, in one sense It does so through the universal law. But that law is not based on whim or opinion, but upon The Way Things Are and is utterly impersonal and impartial.
What other perspective but this is spiritually sensible? In the religions that make God no more than a cosmic dictator there is a lot of talk about pleasing, displeasing, angering, and placating God, but such is nonsense and blasphemy. Certainly we may interpret the phenomena in the cosmos as proceeding from thoughts and ways like ours, but we are very wrong to do so, and such misunderstanding can lead us into grave errors in both thought and deed. Our attempts to make sense of things may only confuse us more if we do not realize the basics of How Things Are.
Children do not like to be spoken to in a straightforward manner about their failings; but we are not children and have no business reverting to childish desires and attitudes when considering spiritual facts. So the Master Lao Tzu is respecting us enough to speak to us as adults who really do want to know What Is Going On.
Heaven and earth do not act from (the impulse of) any wish to be benevolent. The Tao and creation, being essentially one, do not act from an impulse to be “kind” or “nice,” but from the pure intention of our ultimate perfection: a perfection that already exists, but which we have lost contact with and fallen into the illusions of imperfection.
“Do not say: ‘God gave us this delusion.’ You dream you are the doer, you dream that action is done, you dream that action bears fruit. It is your ignorance, it is the world’s delusion that gives you these dreams. The Lord is everywhere and always perfect: what does He care for man’s sin or the righteousness of man? The Atman is the light: the light is covered by darkness: this darkness is delusion: that is why we dream. When the light of the Atman drives out our darkness that light shines forth from us, a sun in splendor, the revealed Brahman. The devoted dwell with Him, they know Him always there in the heart, where action is not. He is all their aim. Made free by His Knowledge from past uncleanness of deed or of thought, they find the place of freedom, the place of no return” (Bhagavad Gita 5:14-17).
Just as it is an illusion to attribute human attitudes to the Tao, so it is an illusion to attribute either good or evil, sin or righteousness, to our true Self, the Atman. Such attributions can be made to the dream personality we have assumed in our dreaming, but if we would awaken we must first realize that it is all unreal, only a dream. We do not need to “clean up our act;” we need to stop the act. And to do so we must be ruthlessly honest with ourselves. So Lao Tzu proceeds:
They [God and creation] deal with all things as the dogs of grass are dealt with. In ancient China, in the time of Confucius and Lao Tzu, a ritual to produce rain was performed in which grass was shaped into the form of dogs. These grass dogs were then placed in beautiful baskets or boxes and wrapped up in elegantly embroidered cloths. Before presenting the effigies in the rite, the officiants had to fast and purify themselves to be worthy to touch them. During the ritual they were clothed in beautiful brocade, carried solemnly in beautiful containers and handled with reverence–even awe. However, once the ceremony was completed the grass dogs were slung away with no regard whatsoever. The Taoist writer Kwangtze says: “After they have been set forth, however, passersby trample on their heads and backs, and the grass-cutters take and burn them in cooking. That is all they are good for.”
The idea here is extremely simple: That which conforms to and is part of the Divine Plan is “real” and meaningful to “heaven” and “earth.” That which conflicts, disrupts, or negates the Divine Plan is nothing to heaven and earth: unreal and non-existent. This is why in the Bible we read of God not “hearing” or “seeing” or even knowing some people or things. Obviously God cannot be incognizant of any thing, being omniscient. What is meant is that any person or thing that does not contribute actively to the evolution of the cosmos and the beings living within it is for all practical purposes non-existent to both heaven and earth.
“Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity” (Matthew 7:21-23).
The Gita indicates that God does not engage in either love or hatred. Yet in Romans 9:13 we find: “As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.” The thing is, “love” and “hate” are here symbolical of the forces within the evolutionary creation. Those who are moving consciously and without self-hindrance in the stream of upward evolution are fostered by the divine powers of heaven and earth. This is “love” on the part of heaven and earth. Those who are either willfully or ignorantly moving against the stream of upward evolution, sidetracking themselves into cul-de-sacs of egoic involvements of myriad sorts, are utterly disregarded by heaven and earth, literally left to their own devices, immersed in the chaos of the hash they have made of their lives.
The ancient root meaning of the Greek word miseo, usually translated “hate” means to thoroughly disregard, to account as nothing and to ignore. Miseo is indifference, not animosity. It is this disregard which is the “hate” they incur, not humanlike animosity and enmity.
In the same vein, heaven and earth assist those moving upward, and oppose or resist those who are struggling downward or to the side: who themselves oppose and resist evolution in their own life sphere. That which they have sown, both the wise and the foolish reap. It is a matter of Divine Law, of The Way Things Are, and has nothing to do with an emotional (or even an intellectual) reaction on the part of God. Fools who walk up a downward-moving escalator or down an upward-moving escalator will find themselves impeded. No one is angry with them or hating them, they are simply experiencing the natural reaction of their own foolish action.
The practical meaning of the grass dog simile is this: That which fosters evolution is “favored” by heaven and earth; that which hinders, stops or reverses evolution is trashed by heaven and earth. It has to be faced. This is the basis of the Four Aryan Truths of Buddha: 1) there is suffering; 2) suffering has a cause; 3) suffering can be ended; 4) there is a way to end suffering. There is suffering because we go against the evolutionary grain. Our suffering will be ended when we move with the evolutionary flow. Simple.
There is a Zen story of a roshi who asked a philosophical question of a student. When the student replied, the roshi nodded and said: “Yes.” The next day he asked the student the same question. When he gave the same answer as the day before, the roshi shook his head and said: “No.” “But you said ‘Yes’ yesterday,” protested the student. “It was ‘Yes’ yesterday, but ‘No’ today!” said the roshi. He meant that the previous day’s answer was all right because it was in keeping with the student’s level of understanding at that time. By the next day, however, his understanding should have changed and grown enough for him to realize that his former opinion was not fully correct. So the answer was “wrong.”
When the grass dogs have a legitimate purpose they are treated with honor and respect. In the same way, anything that helps us up the evolutionary ladder is good and fostered by the forces of heaven and earth. But when those things are outgrown and gone beyond to the degree that those things either no longer have a positive effect because they have become unnecessary or actually hold us back through further involvement, they become inconsistent with our continuing development and become garbage. Yes: that which once was noble and worthy because they moved us along the path of expanding consciousness can become ignoble and unworthy if they stop our forward movement.
Saint Paul expresses it very well: When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (I Corinthians 13:11). It is a matter of growth. It is all right for little girls to play with dolls and little boys to play with toy cars, but no sane adult plays with dollies or toy cars. It is good for an infant to crawl, but after a while he must stop crawling and walk. And when he is skilled at walking he needs to learn to run. It is good for an infant to feed from a bottle and eat liquefied food, but in time he must eat mostly solid food. A child should be under the control of his parents, but not forever; he must become independent in deed and thought. School is good, but not if we never graduate. An airplane is wonderful to travel in, but would be a trap if we could never get out. A medication may be good for us to take, but not once we recover.
Throughout life we encounter situations and things that are good for us until we move beyond them. They then are either useless or detrimental. It is good to be a child, but not for all our life. There is a time when belief in Santa Claus may be cute, but not into adolescence and adulthood. The Law is this: Grow, Grow Up and Grow Beyond. “Brethren, be not children in understanding: but in understanding be men” (I Corinthians 14:20).
Although the grass dogs are tossed out and trampled or burned according to Kwangtze, they are not regarded as completely nonexistent. They can actually have a detrimental effect on those who keep them around. After describing their fate as refuse, he continues: “If one should again take them, replace them in the box or basket, wrap them up with embroidered cloths, and then in rambling, or abiding at the spot, should go to sleep under them, if he does not get evil dreams [that is, dreams that presage misfortune], he is sure to be often troubled with nightmare” (illusions of misfortune). Either way, he will be upset and unhappy, even miserable.
The same is true of those who do not move on beyond what at one time may have been essential to their spiritual progress but which now is irrelevant to their present stage. Even the differing concepts of God must be outgrown, as Swami Vivekananda has expounded in some of his discourses. Spiritual practices can also be gone beyond. Attitudes that at one time elevated us can, once their benefits have been fully derived, become hindrances. Just as food that has been fully digested in time becomes expelled from the body, having passed from nourishment to toxicity, so that which has lifted us at one time can pull us down at another. A boat moves us easily over water, but once land has been reached we do not push it over the terrain, laboring to no purpose.
The ways of the divine heaven and earth must be operative in our lives, as well. This is the key to freedom.
In the ocean there are many strata with various species of fish “native” to them. According to the water pressure and level of light, so these strata are marked out in clear zones, and the fish always swim in their appropriate levels. It is the same with our own life; things which are appropriate to some levels are inappropriate in others.
Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul!
As the swift seasons roll!
Leave thy low-vaulted past!
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!
So said Oliver Wendell Holmes regarding reincarnation. But in actuality we live many small lives in our longer life. The more evolved we are, the more “lives” we live. We have to continually build “more stately mansions” and leave the less stately mansions behind until we at length are free, leaving our outgrown shells by life’s unresting sea.
In the highly symbolic motion picture, Labyrinth, an old woman tries to distract the girl from the search for her baby brother and entrap her by taking her into a room which contains all the things she loved in her childhood. “Ooooh, here’s your little teddy! You love your little teddy, don’t you?” She chortles as she tries to get the girl to hold on to past “treasures” and forget the infant she is seeking. We, too, seek the lost “inner child” of our own spirit in the labyrinth of this world; and to pause for nostalgic reinvolvement with the things we have outgrown and laid aside is to endanger our quest.
The sages do not act from (any wish to be) benevolent; they deal with the people as the dogs of grass are dealt with. As above, so below: this is the ancient Hermetic Principle that can be applied to all aspects of life. The perspective of the Tao must be our perspective if we would ascend to divine union. Just as there is no hate or love in the Tao, so there is no sentimentality or nostalgia. And there must be none in us, for such is deadly indulgence of ego. In relation to the Tao, others, and ourselves, the Straw Dog Principle must be adhered to. Then we will have a real and enduring relationship with the Tao.
“Among the virtuous, four kinds seek me: the distressed, the seekers of knowledge, the seekers of wealth and the wise. Of them, the wise man, ever united, devoted to the One, is pre-eminent. Exceedingly dear am I to the man of wisdom, and he is dear to me. All these indeed are exalted, but I see the man of wisdom as my very Self. He, with mind steadfast, abides in me, the Supreme Goal. At the end of many births the wise man takes refuge in me. He knows: All is Vasudeva. How very rare is that great soul” (Bhagavad Gita 7:16-19).
May not the space between heaven and earth be compared to a bellows? ’Tis emptied, yet it loses not its power; ’tis moved again, and sends forth air the more. Much speech to swift exhaustion leads, we see; your inner being guard, and keep it free. We have already considered the meaning of Emptiness. Thus all relative existence is Emptiness, which is actually the only Existent. All “things” draw their momentary existence from It. Emptiness is true Fulness (Purna) and the Source of All. It is also known as the Chidakasha, Conscious Space.
Space then, including “the space between heaven and earth,” is that from which all things arise and into which they subside. It possesses an infinite capacity for an infinite variety of manifestations. None of which are “things” in themselves, but all of which are The Thing essentially. Therefore what we mistakenly think is empty space is creative fulness. Lao Tzu asks if we cannot think of it as a bellows. No matter how much streams forth from it, it draws it all back in and projects it, maintaining a perpetual cycle of projection and absorption. In the human being this is especially manifested in the lungs and the breath as the basis of life. Space (akasha) can never be exhausted, for it perpetually renews itself.
This is not true of ordinary human speech, however, which is a projection that does not renew or receive back into itself. The spoken word and the energy, physical and mental, that produced it, are lost to us forever when we speak. Speech, then, is seen to be a depletion. In the most ancient philosophical writings of India, sages are habitually referred to as “munis,” those who do not speak, “the silent ones.”
In the Bhagavad Gita we find an interesting concept of action that is inaction. “The path of action is difficult to understand” (Bhagavad Gita 4:17), Krishna tells us, then continues: “He who perceives inaction in action and action in inaction–such a man is wise among men, steadfast in yoga and doing all action” (Bhagavad Gita 4:18). The wise know how to act, and yet not be acting.
In the same way the yogi knows how to speak without expending his internal energies. Lao Tzu is exhorting us to this when he concludes: “Your inner being guard, and keep it free.” That is, through keeping our awareness centered in our true Self we shall be free from the exhaustion or depletion of our subtle life forces that are usually lost through speaking. For this reason Sanderson Beck renders this phrase: “Much talk brings exhaustion. It is better to keep to the center.” And Lin Yutang: “By many words is wit exhausted. Rather, therefore, hold to the core.”
Next in the Tao Teh King for Awakening: The Spirit of the Valley