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On Stealing the Light

Part 27 of the Tao Teh King for Awakening

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A good runner leaves no track. A good speech leaves no flaws for attack. A good reckoner makes use of no counters.

A well-shut door makes use of no bolts, and yet cannot be opened. A well-tied knot makes use of no rope, and yet cannot be untied.

Therefore the Sage is good at helping men; for that reason there is no rejected (useless) person. He is good at saving things; for that reason there is nothing rejected. This is called stealing the Light.

Therefore the good man is the Teacher of the bad. And the bad man is the lesson of the good.

He who neither values his teacher nor loves the lesson is one gone far astray, though he be learned. Such is the subtle secret.

(Tao Teh King 27)

None of these statements are meant to be taken literally. Lao Tzu is speaking of living life skillfully, to use the parlance of Buddha.

A good runner leaves no track.

Along with those absurd Young People The World Is Now In Your Hands graduation speeches, modern youth are bombarded with the insistence that they should “leave their mark” in the world, that they should leave the world a different place from the way they entered it. “Making a difference” is a kind of idol reared in today’s society.

To pass through the world so subtly and lightly as to leave not a trace is a high ideal, but it can be accomplished by those who live illumined by the Inner Light. The sage does not live in the world, nor does the world live in him. Neither bothers or influences the other, but each goes their own way in peace. The Bhagavad Gita describes such a one as “he who agitates not the world, and whom the world agitates not” (12:15).

Although the sage will have no effect on the world and those immersed in the world, he may have a profound effect on those like himself. There are many accounts given of great masters simply walking by someone and that person following and seeking contact with them, as in the case of Jesus and Saint Matthew (Matthew 9:9). Saint John wrote of the experience of himself and his brother James. Seeing Jesus walk by, they followed after him. “Then Jesus turned, and saw them following, and saith unto them, What seek ye? They said unto him, Rabbi, (which is to say, being interpreted, Master,) where dwellest thou? He saith unto them, Come and see. They came and saw where he dwelt, and abode with him that day” (John 1:38-39). As bees come to the flower, so ripened souls come into the orbit of great souls and are helped by coming into contact with them. But the seeking is all on the side of the “bees,” the flower simply remains what it is. In India I right away discovered that the wise would not speak a word of wisdom unless asked, but the ignorant would take every opportunity to sermonize whomever they could corner.

The sage does not make a difference in those who seek him out. Rather, the seekers make a difference in themselves (just as he did previously) by learning from him and applying it in their lives. All real change comes from within at the will of the individual. The wise know this to be unfailingly true. So “a good runner leaves no track.” He ignores the world and the world ignores him: an ideal arrangement.

A good speech leaves no flaws for attack.

Legge: “The skillful speaker says nothing that can be found fault with or blamed.” The only way this can be true is if the sage only speaks to the worthy. If the world hears his words it goes into a tailspin and tries to silence him. So Lao Tzu is speaking of the teachings of a master-soul to qualified hearers. Such a one teaches perfectly, for he not only coveys his ideas in a manner that informs and removes all doubts even before they can arise, he also teaches fully, leaving not a word unsaid. In this way the student has complete understanding of all he hears. The Chandogya Upanishad tells us about a seeker named Satyakama and his teacher Gautama. At one point the text says: “To him, he then declared it [the truth of the Self]. In it nothing whatsoever was left out, yea, nothing was left out” (Chandogya Upanishad 4:9.3). So it is. The sage leaves nothing out, nor does he waste the student’s time with irrelevant and trivial words.

A good reckoner makes use of no counters.

Legge: “The skillful reckoner uses no tallies.” Wu: “Good calculation makes no use of counting-slips.” Since the abacus was invented much later than Lao Tzu, this does not refer to it, but considering the practical genius of the Chinese people, it is certainly likely that some kind of calculation device was in use at his time, though Wu thinks it means some kind of written notation or “scratch sheets.” Whichever it might be, the idea is that the good mathematician does all calculation in his head with no external assist or expression whatever. This is symbolic of the totally inward life and perception of the sage. He needs no external source to draw from nor an external means of expression, but retains everything in his skillful intellect (buddhi). Such a one does not look outside to find truth, but looks inward. In this way he comes to know all things, while those of externalized consciousness stumble around either seeing nothing or perceiving only partially. The complete picture is to be “seen” only within. All solutions to all problems are internally discovered, as well as the understanding as to what is a problem and what is not, what should be considered and what should be ignored.

Again, as in the first sentence, we are being given a picture of a thoroughly self-contained and independent individual. The sage is at no time “a member of society,” but lives in solitude wherever he may be, even in a crowded place. Saint Silouan of Mount Athos once commented that many people go into desert places and take the whole world with them, but Saint John of Kronstadt, though surrounded day and night by many people, was always alone in his inmost self.

A well-shut door makes use of no bolts, and yet cannot be opened. Legge: “The skillful closer needs no bolts or bars, while to open what he has shut will be impossible.” Wu: “Good shutting makes no use of bolt and bar, And yet nobody can undo it.” As just mentioned, the sage is a solitary being. His “door” is well shut and cannot be opened. In relation to society this is especially true. As Emily Dickinson wrote:

The soul selects her own society,
Then shuts the door;
On her divine majority
Obtrude no more.

Unmoved, she notes the chariot’s pausing
At her low gate;
Unmoved, an emperor is kneeling
Upon her mat.

I’ve known her from an ample nation
Choose one;
Then close the valves of her attention
Like stone.

This also means that when a sage shuts the door on ignorance and evil they are excluded forever, that he totally expunges all misperception and wrong thinking from his mind. Rebirth is also a closed door to him as are all forms of weakness and failing. Living in an iron fortress he is safe, secure, and at peace. Yet he need not hide away from anything, for he knows how to exclude externals without necessarily secluding himself. That is why Lao Tzu continues:

A well-tied knot makes use of no rope, and yet cannot be untied.

Legge: “The skillful binder uses no strings or knots, while to unloose what he has bound will be impossible.” Wu: “Good tying makes no use of rope and knot, And yet nobody can untie it.” Having determined in his mind what is to be shut out from his consciousness, he accomplishes this exclusion by an act of will, a sankalpa, which is a life-changing exercise of will or determination. A sage never wishes, he wills. And what he wills in that moment comes to be. The wise make no use of externals to accomplish what they will. Thus it cannot be reversed or dissolved.

This has a very practical application. Lao Tzu further says:

Therefore the Sage is good at helping men; for that reason there is no rejected (useless) person. Because the sage is totally self-contained, neither needing nor wanting anything from others, he is of great benefit to the true, worthy seeker, for he leaves him alone in freedom. If the seeker ignores what he is taught or if he follows it, it is all the same to the sage, for he knows that everyone is moving at the right pace in exactly the right place on the path to liberation. As Krishna says: “One acts according to one’s own prakriti–even the wise man does so. Beings follow their own prakriti; what will restraint accomplish?” (Bhagavad Gita 3:33). Even if it were possible to influence another, such a thing would be a terrible transgression, an act of spiritual sociopathy. Religion attempts to do it all the time, and only ends up with discontented hypocrites.

If the seeker is moving toward freedom, he must be given freedom at every step along the way. That does not mean that the teacher does not warn against missteps, but his warning is only for the student’s information. The choice must be his alone. Trying to motivate the student is deadly, for the only right motivation comes from within, not from without. Attempting to influence the student by speaking of reward and punishment, even of “right” and “wrong,” “do” or “don’t,” is unknown to the real sage. Enslavement in any form is despicable to an honest person, and certainly to a wise one. Buddha said that a true teacher is like a finger pointing to the moon in silence. There is no attempt to persuade anyone to look at the moon, only a simple indication. The intelligent look up and see, and the ignorant just keep plodding on looking down. A good and true teacher is a teacher of men, not a trainer of animals.

The sage rejects no one, for he knows the eternal potential of each person. Nevertheless, his illumined vibration ensures that the unfit pass on and do not become groupies or fixtures in his orbit. That is why multitudes crowd around false teachers, while only a comparative handful remain near a great master. Sri Gajanana Maharaj of Nashik was one of the most remarkable yogis of the first half of the twentieth century, yet he was almost totally unknown in Nashik, and a few years before his leaving this world it was estimated that he had less than fifty students. The same was true of Paramhansa Yogananda’s guru, Swami Sriyukteswar Giri.

In the twelfth chapter of his autobiography Yogananda says this: “…Master was not popular with superficial students. The wise, always few in number, deeply revered him. I daresay Sri Yukteswar would have been the most sought-after guru in India had his words not been so candid and so censorious.…Students came, and generally went. Those who craved a path of oily sympathy and comfortable recognitions did not find it at the hermitage. Master offered shelter and shepherding for the aeons, but many disciples miserly demanded ego-balm as well. They departed, preferring life’s countless humiliations before any humility. Master’s blazing rays, the open penetrating sunshine of his wisdom, were too powerful for their spiritual sickness. They sought some lesser teacher who, shading them with flattery, permitted the fitful sleep of ignorance.”

At the time Yogananda was speaking eternal wisdom on Sundays in Hollywood to gatherings of only sixty or so people, in Long Beach a fundamentalist preacher was speaking to audiences of three to four thousand, and sometimes to six thousand.

A great master like Swami Sivananda can be a clarion call to the worthy. He was merciful, kind, and loving, but he was also so awake in God that his mere presence awakened others. His faith in their divine potential communicated itself to them and they accomplished great things inwardly in the spirit and outwardly in the world where their living example inspired others. At the same time the unworthy considered him unworthy of their attention and busied themselves with lesser teachers who would welcome and flatter them.

He is good at saving things; for that reason there is nothing rejected. Through the ages it has been seen that contact with the holy can enable divine potential to manifest in those who come into their orbit, and Lao Tzu makes an interesting statement regarding the matter:

This is called stealing the Light. That is, the sage can bring forth the Light of the Tao in a true seeker’s consciousness as skillfully as a thief can penetrate into a house and remove all the valuables there. A sage is like a very good safecracker. His senses of inner hearing and touch are so subtle that he can figure out the combination that will open the inmost consciousness of those around him and set them free–if they apply it themselves. There is no doubt that the presence of the illumined can affect and even change those who meet him, but that only lasts a short time. If they use that blessing to uplift themselves by following the master’s teachings, then it will not drain away but will be compounded by the evocation of their own spiritual treasury. Otherwise the benefit will be lost completely. It is a total waste of time to approach the wise if we do not intend to become wise ourselves.

An example comes to mind from my own experience. One time a saint recommended that I see a certain popular movie. Knowing that it was all about brutality and violence, I was determined not to see it, even though I respected the saint. And there we have the first lesson: admiring and respecting a sage means absolutely nothing if we do not listen to him. Anyway, after some time a friend came to visit me and was very eager to see that motion picture, so reluctantly I went with him to see it, and it changed my life, literally. During the picture I experienced profound and detailed past life recall which made clear where I was at that point in my development and the way in which I should proceed for further progress. The second lesson is obvious: pay attention to the words of the wise and wisdom will open to us. I must admit to several times ignoring the counsel of holy ones, but in time I would follow their words and be astounded at the results. So I learned to look, listen and do.

Therefore the good man is the Teacher of the bad. Since all are part of the Tao, all are essentially good, “bad” being only an illusory veneer. However, human beings are caught in the web of bad dreams and need to extricate themselves. But how will they do it? Through the teaching of the truly good, whether they learn from them directly, face-to-face, or whether they learn through written records of their teaching. True masters never die, their bodies only disappear from our sight. Having become infinite, they are always just as present in the world as they were when “alive.”

There is more to this, though. When a person resolves to attain higher consciousness and follows it up with practical application, especially in the form of meditation and other spiritual disciplines, he imperceptibly begins to transfer his consciousness, his real existence, into higher dimensions. Although he appears to still be “in the world” he increasingly becomes a resident of higher worlds, of higher levels of consciousness. In time he hardly lives in this material world at all, but mostly lives in those rarefied worlds which only the yogi can ascend to. Liberated masters are never really born into this world, even though a body vehicle appears for their habitation, nor do they ever die. That is why the great master, Yogananda, said at one of his birthday celebrations: “Yogananda was never born, nor will he ever die.” When Panchanon Bhattacharya, a disciple of Yogiraj Shyama Charan Lahiri (Lahiri Mahasaya), was grieving over his master’s death, the guru suddenly materialized before him and said: “Why are you sorrowing? You do not live in this world. You live with me!”

And the bad man is the lesson of the good. Wise are those who observe others and learn from both their wise and unwise ways. The good learn from the bad how not to live, just as they learn how to live from the example of the good.

He who neither values his teacher nor loves the lesson is one gone far astray, though he be learned. There is a great deal of wisdom in what we consider children’s rhymes and fairy stories. Many of them contain profound wisdom, especially the stories that often have practical esoteric teaching. Although the teacher rejects none and freely shares his knowledge, that does not prevent unqualified people and even outright fools from approaching him. I always think of such people as Simple Simons, for the little comic poem portrays them quite well.

Simple Simon met a pieman,
Going to the fair.
Said Simple Simon to the pieman,
“Let me taste your ware.”

Said the pieman unto Simon,
“Show me first your penny.”
Said Simple Simon to the pieman,
“Indeed I have not any.”

Simply being interested in higher consciousness means very little if the seeker does not have the requisite inner development and will power to understand the principles of spiritual life and to persevere in the practice of spiritual disciplines. People of this type always say things such as: “I am sincerely interested,” “I realize it is time for me to get serious,” and “I am willing to do whatever is needed.” These noble statements are mere sham intended to impress the prospective teacher and get him to overlook their obvious lack of qualification for even the rudiments of spiritual life. The fact is, they do not have the “penny” necessary to “purchase” (comprehend and value) authentic wisdom, much less apply it. So in time they get bored or disillusioned, blame the teacher and the teaching for the lack that is really in themselves, and wander on to the next diversion. But if the teacher is as unworthy as are they, they stay around for life, secure and safe from making any real change in their life or awareness.

What do they lack? The rest of the poem tells it all:

Simple Simon went a-fishing,
For to catch a whale;
But all the water he had got
Was in his mother’s pail.

Without increasing his understanding by study and listening and certainly without purifying his mind and heart by discipline, the Simple Simon thinks to catch the whale of boundless divine consciousness in the tiny pail of his mind which he has not enlarged since childhood. Often such types chortle over “childlike saints” and the need to “become as little children” to excuse their mental and spiritual infantilism. And they love the silly little ditty about “It’s a gift to be simple.” It is their habit to say at every opportunity: “It’s really all so simple.” I knew a person like this, and after the umpteenth time of hearing how simple it all was, I said: “Yes. It is so ‘simple’ it doesn’t even work!” And of course that is the intention.

Simple Simon went to look,
If plums grew on a thistle;
He pricked his fingers very much,
Which made poor Simon whistle.

A favorite Simple Simon ploy is to ask stupid questions or make stupid statements ad infinitum as an intellectual smokescreen to veil their utter emptiness of mind and soul. One of their favorite activities is looking for the right thing in the wrong place so they will be guaranteed not to find it. They especially love foolish and shallow teachers to whom they “resonate” readily. Sometimes they rhapsodize about such teachers to let a real teacher know that if he does not do what they like or want he may “lose” them (a blessing he would welcome gladly).

Simple Simons “whistle” a lot about how disappointed and even “hurt” they are, but they never see that it is the result of their own foolish deeds.

He went for water in a sieve,
But soon it all fell through;
And now poor Simple Simon
Bids you all adieu.

Since they have a mind and heart like a sieve, shot full of holes by worldly ways and wrong thinking, whatever “water” the teacher gives them falls to the ground almost immediately. Simple Simons are continually having to be told the same things over and over. Constantly they come up with problems that are no problems, troubles that are no troubles, and baseless arguments and excuses in relation to what they have been taught. The teacher may waste his time explaining and “helping” them to “understand,” and as they leave they turn and smile broadly and say: “I’m so glad we had this talk. I really needed to hear these things.” And one or two days later they are right back at Square One. They also at some time will demand of the teacher: “Why can’t you accept me as I am?”

Now a teacher may not reject anyone in the sense of not seeing that person’s divine Self, but that does not mean he wastes his time with Simple Simons. Quite some time ago the BBC made a funny series called Hallelujah! about a Salvation Army officer (played by Thora Hurd). In one episode a sleazy family showed up and began demanding all sorts of “help” and attention. At one point they even claimed the doctor had prescribed gin for “Dad” as a medicine, and expected the Salvation Army to supply it to him. One weekend they went away for a vacation (it is amazing how professionally “poor” people suddenly find the money to do what they want) and when they came back “mum” showed up for some more handouts. But she was told that the officers had decided they should panhandle elsewhere. Like all such frauds, the woman whined: “I thought you were Christians!” To which she got the reply: “Christians, yes. But damn fools, NO.” So authentic teachers often get rid of fake seekers by stating the simple truth to them. I particularly enjoyed watching Swami Sivananda do this. He was kind and even used humor, but he got the point across. Some really got the idea and straightened up and others left in a huff. But truth prevailed, always.

Anyhow, laying aside ego-based “compassion,” it is always wonderful to hear the words: “And now poor [put-upon and mistreated] Simple Simon bids you all adieu,” that are music to the ears of the teacher. Indeed, there is joy in heaven over a sinner that reforms himself (Luke 15:7), but there is a great sigh of relief over an incorrigible sinner that departs, having “gone far astray” in his heart long before. Again, truth prevails.

Such is the subtle secret.

Wu: “This is an essential tenet of the Tao.” We must learn to discern the true and the false in the people around us and respond accordingly, for good sense in relation to ourselves and others is definitely an aspect of the Tao.

Next in the Tao Teh King for Awakening: Keeping to the Female

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Introduction to The Tao Teh King for Awakening

Chapters of The Tao Teh King for Awakening

Preface to The Tao Teh King for Awakening

  1. On the Absolute Tao
  2. The Rise of Relative Opposites
  3. Action Without Deeds
  4. The Character of Tao
  5. Nature
  6. The Spirit of the Valley
  7. Living for Others
  8. Water
  9. The Danger of Overweening Success
  10. Embracing the One
  11. The Utility of Not-Being
  12. The Senses
  13. Praise and Blame
  14. Prehistoric Origins
  15. The Wise Ones of Old
  16. Knowing the Eternal Law
  17. Rulers
  18. The Decline of Tao
  19. Realize the Simple Self
  20. The World and I
  21. Manifestations of Tao
  22. Futility of Contention
  23. Identification with Tao
  24. The Dregs and Tumors of Virtue
  25. The Four Eternal Models
  26. Heaviness and Lightness
  27. On Stealing the Light
  28. Keeping to the Female
  29. Warning Against Interference
  30. Warning Against the Use of Force
  31. Weapons of Evil
  32. Tao is Like the Sea
  33. Knowing Oneself
  34. The Great Tao Flows Everywhere
  35. The Peace of Tao
  36. The Rhythm of Life
  37. World Peace
  38. Degeneration
  39. Unity Through Complements
  40. The Principle of Reversion
  41. Qualities of the Taoist
  42. The Violent Man
  43. The Softest Substance
  44. Be Content
  45. Calm Quietude
  46. Racing Horses
  47. Pursuit of Knowledge
  48. Conquering the World by Inaction
  49. The People’s Hearts
  50. The Preserving of Life
  51. The Mystic Virtue
  52. Stealing the Absolute
  53. Brigandage
  54. The Individual and the State
  55. The Character of the Child
  56. Beyond Honor and Disgrace
  57. The Art of Government
  58. Unobtrusive Government
  59. Be Sparing
  60. Governing a Big Country
  61. Big and Small Countries
  62. The Good Man’s Treasure
  63. Difficult and Easy
  64. Beginning and End
  65. The Grand Harmony
  66. The Lords of the Ravines
  67. The Three Treasures
  68. The Virtue of Not-Contending
  69. Camouflage
  70. They Know Me Not
  71. Sick-Mindedness
  72. On Punishment (1)
  73. On Punishment (2)
  74. On Punishment (3)
  75. On Punishment (4)
  76. Hard and Soft
  77. Bending the Bow
  78. Nothing Weaker than Water
  79. Peace Settlements
  80. The Small Utopia
  81. The Way of Heaven

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