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Qualities of the Taoist

Part 41 of the Tao Teh King for Awakening

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When the highest type of men hear the Tao (truth), they try hard to live in accordance with it.
When the mediocre type hear the Tao, they seem to be aware and yet unaware of it.
When the lowest type hear the Tao, they break into loud laughter–if it were not laughed at, it would not be Tao.
Therefore there is the established saying: “Who understands Tao seems dull of comprehension; who is advanced in Tao seems to slip backwards; who moves on the even Tao (Path) seems to go up and down.”
Superior character appears like a hollow (valley);
Sheer white appears like tarnished;
Great character appears like infirm;
Pure worth appears like contaminated.
Great space has no corners;
Great talent takes long to mature;
Great music is faintly heard;
Great form has no contour;
And Tao is hidden without a name.
It is this Tao that is adept at lending (its power) and bringing fulfillment.

(Tao Teh King 41)

When the highest type of men hear the Tao (truth), they try hard to live in accordance with it.

Chan: “When the highest type of men hear Tao, they diligently practice it.” We must remember that the Tao is Being Itself, and not a set of philosophical postulates or rules of behavior. The only way to embody or manifest the Tao is to become attuned to Cosmic Reality and Order through profound self-investigation or Atmavichara. The process is meditation which brings us into alignment with the universal Tao.

When the mediocre type hear the Tao, they seem to be aware and yet unaware of it.

Considering that most people are sleepwalkers through life, it can only be expected that they will be both aware and unaware of the Tao simultaneously. There are seven other renderings of this sentence, and each one has a nuance of its own, so I include them all.

Blackney: “The mediocre person learns of it and takes it up and sets it down.” The middling type of person examines the truth of the Tao superficially out of middling curiosity–never with the serious intent of benefitting from It. Then, having examined it enough to satisfy him, he drops the subject–which satisfies him even more.

Byrn: “When an average person hears of the Tao, he believes half of it, and doubts the other half.” Whatever appeals to his desires or makes sense to him intellectually, that he announces he can accept, but the other he rejects. Both his acceptance and his rejection are utterly desultory in character; there is no conviction or earnestness in them.

Chan: “When the average type of men hear Tao, they half believe in it.” If they do accept the Tao, they are only lukewarm about it, not hot or cold. They believe, but only half-heartedly. Consequently there is no result in their thought or life.

Feng and English: “The average student hears of the Tao and gives it thought now and again.” This is one of the most common reactions to any kind of higher truth. Once in a while the philosophical dilettante toys with the idea of the Tao and may even decide that “one day” he will look into it more seriously. But he never does.

Legge: “Scholars of the middle class, when they have heard about it, seem now to keep it and now to lose it.” Now and again they conform to the truth of the Tao, and now and again they do not. It is thoroughly whimsical and rootless.

Mabry: “When ordinary people hear about the Tao they can take it or leave it.” And they usually leave It at the initial hearing or they fiddle with It for a bit and then drop it and move on aimlessly.

Wu: “When a mediocre scholar hears the Tao, he wavers between belief and unbelief.” There are those that simply cannot make up their mind about the Way of the Tao; they do and they don’t, they will and they won’t.

The conclusion of these eight interpretations is the same: Nothing comes from mediocrity.

When the lowest type hear the Tao, they break into loud laughter–if it were not laughed at, it would not be Tao.

Chan: “When the lowest type of men hear Tao, they laugh heartily at it. If they did not laugh at it, it would not be Tao.”

One day in my early teens a lady said to me: “Show me your friends and I will tell you who you are.” At first it shocked me, seeming snobbish, but reflection convinced me she was right. Many (many) years later a former bank-robber friend of mine told me: “You can judge a man by his enemies as well as by his friends.” I had never thought of it that way, but saw immediately that he was right, especially since I had been acting on that principle for years without formulating it. In the same way we can distinguish truth from untruth just by watching the response of people to it. The liars and frauds will denounce truth and embrace lies. The malicious will reject that which is beneficial and eagerly embrace that which is harmful. Living in a mirror, they see everything backwards. The good and the true, however, recognize goodness and truth when they encounter it, and act accordingly. So if fools did not laugh at the Tao it would not be wisdom and would not be real.

These foregoing statements regarding response to the Tao have a twofold value: they both tell us how to recognize the Tao and how to recognize the superior, mediocre and worthless individuals by their response to It. This is why the great twentieth-century Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand spoke so often of “response” as a key to a person’s character.

Therefore there is the established saying: “Who understands Tao seems dull of comprehension; who is advanced in Tao seems to slip backwards; who moves on the even Tao (Path) seems to go up and down.”

Not everyone laughs at the Tao; quite a few detest and defame It. So knowers of the Tao seem stupid or crazy, to be destined for some kind of awful crackup or other fate, and to be unstable, unsure and unreliable.

Byrn: “Thus it is said: The brightness of the Tao seems like darkness, the advancement of the Tao seems like retreat, the level path seems rough.” Regarding this the Bhagavad Gita says: “The man of restraint is awake in what is night for all beings. That in which all beings are awake is night for the sage who truly sees” (Bhagavad Gita 2:69).

Feng and English: “Hence it is said: The bright path seems dim; going forward seems like retreat; The easy way seems hard.” This is the sad condition of those who wander in ignorance: everything is seen by them completely backwards. Their minds are truly like a photographic negative: that which is dark appears light and that which is light appears dark. Consequently the blessed and easy path to higher consciousness seems doomed and difficult, beyond their abilities to even begin, much less complete. The dark and miserable path to ever darker consciousness seems light, beautiful, assured and easy. It is all a matter of dominant mental polarity, positive or negative. Saint Paul wrote: “For we are a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish: To the one we are the savour of death unto death; and to the other the savour of life unto life” (II Corinthians 2:15-16). This is a terrible state of mind, yet it is the norm in this negative world we call “society.”

Superior character appears like a hollow (valley). This is not really hard to understand. Since Reality contains nothing of the the illusion and delusion in which people commonly live, everything about it seems nothing–even non-existent–to those people who live in the condition of anti-life. Positive virtue seems to be negative emptiness, wisdom seems to be folly, happiness seems to be misery and life itself seems like death to them, whereas they pursue and embrace death and call it life. That is why Mabry renders this: “The greatest good seems to us empty.” And Wu: “High Virtue looks like an abyss.”

Sheer white appears like tarnished.

There are some people who cannot be content if they are not discontent and disapproving. They see faults in everything. One of the most negative people I ever knew did this physically. She would go into a store and pick up anything and instantly see the tiniest flaw. Because of this, people often asked her to go shopping with them so they would buy something without any defect. On one level such keen perception is good, but in her case it was a manifestation of a predisposition to find fault with everything. As Saint Paul said: “Unto the pure all things are pure: but unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure; for even their mind and conscience is defiled.” (Titus 1:15).

I knew a little boy that got his face all smudgy while playing, and he saw it in a mirror when he came in the house. Later after he had washed his face, he looked in the mirror and said: “Oh, we must have a new mirror.” Many people merely see their own “face” in everything around them. To the unclean all things are unclean; and negative people often hate virtue and denounce it as evil. Blackney: “The purest innocence seems like shame.”

Chan: “Great purity appears like disgrace.”

Mabry: “True purity seems stained.” Wu: “Great whiteness looks spotted.”

Great character appears like infirm. Pure worth appears like contaminated. Blackney: “Established goodness seems knavery.”

Wu: “Abundant Virtue looks deficient.” It is common for thugs to consider virtuous people to be weak and foolish. This was a prime trait of the Nazis. Forgiveness was especially abhorrent to them, since the whole movement was based on resentment and hatred. So people who are truly virtuous are always denounced by such people as crazy, fanatical, mean-spirited, negative, etc., etc., etc.

How should we react to this kind of thing? In the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna we find this:

“The conversation was about worldly men, who look down on those who aspire to spiritual things. The Master was talking about the great number of such people in the world, and about how to deal with them.

“MASTER (to Narendra): How do you feel about it? Worldly people say all kinds of things about the spiritually minded. But look here! When an elephant moves along the street, any number of curs and other small animals may bark and cry after it; but the elephant doesn’t even look back at them. If people speak ill of you, what will you think of them?

“NARENDRA: “I shall think that dogs are barking at me.

“MASTER (Smiling): Oh, no! You mustn’t go that far, my child! (Laughter). God dwells in all beings. But you may be intimate only with good people; you must keep away from the evil-minded. God is even in the tiger; but you cannot embrace the tiger on that account. (Laughter). You may say, Why run away from a tiger, which is also a manifestation of God? The answer to that is: ‘Those who tell you to run away are also manifestations of God–and why shouldn’t you listen to them?’”

Great space has no corners.

Byrn: “The true square seems to have no corners.” Feng and English: “The perfect square has no corners.” Corners consist of two lines joined at right angles to one another. But the Great Space that is the Tao is a unity, therefore there can be no corners. Furthermore the two lines of a corner are “moving” in different directions, and in the Tao there are no contradictory movements. Rather, everything moves in a circle which is both unity and wholeness. In this material world a perfect circle never occurs naturally, which is why the Egyptians used a winged circle to represent the unfettered spirit. However, things do move in an ellipse such as the orbits of planets. Because of this the Shiva Linga is elliptical in shape to represent the Golden Egg (Hiranyagarbha) of the cosmos, in which, as said, everything moves elliptically. This idea of all this is that the Tao transcends the multiform configurations of relative existence, especially that of matter.

Great talent takes long to mature.

Evolution is the only mode of development possible in this world or any other, and evolution and growth of any kind require time before the process is completed. Unfortunately in modern times we want everything to be instant. Shoddy buildings go up quickly, but solid, well-built structures take much more time. It is the same with learning. Whenever I go to an alternative therapist (including a chiropractor), if I see certificates on the wall showing completion of a weekend seminar in “electric acupuncture” or similar nonsense, I know I am in the den of a shameless quack.

The unfoldment of our innate potential takes time, just as Byrn translates this phrase: “The best vessels take the most time to finish.” No, it need not be lifetimes, but it is likely that it will require decades. This is especially true in the evolution of consciousness.

Great music is faintly heard.

Either this means that the “music” of the Tao is so subtle that it is experienced only in those levels where sound is virtually silence, or that ordinary people hear it but faintly, have no idea what it is and therefore lose [or never have] interest.

Blackney “Great music is soft sound,” indicating its subtlety. Byrn: “The greatest sounds cannot be heard” by the ear, but perceived in levels in which the sound has become a bhava, a movement or state of consciousness. Feng and English: “The highest notes are hard to hear” because of the limitation of the “ears” of the perceivers unless they are finely honed and tuned by diligent and prolonged development. Mabry: “Celestial music is seldom paid much heed” except by those that are themselves celestial in the sense of being more spiritual than material. Wu: “Great sound is silent,” yet is the source of all lesser sound. (See the section entitled “The ‘genealogy’ of sound” in Appendix One of Soham Yoga.)

Great form has no contour.

Blackney: “The great Form has no shape.” The Tao has no form, as is shown in the following incident from Autobiography of a Yogi.

“Sitting on my bed one morning, I fell into a deep reverie.

“‘What is behind the darkness of closed eyes?’ This probing thought came powerfully into my mind. An immense flash of light at once manifested to my inward gaze. Divine shapes of saints, sitting in meditation posture in mountain caves, formed like miniature cinema pictures on the large screen of radiance within my forehead.

“‘Who are you?’ I spoke aloud.

“‘We are the Himalayan yogis.’ The celestial response is difficult to describe; my heart was thrilled.

“‘Ah, I long to go to the Himalayas and become like you!’ The vision vanished, but the silvery beams expanded in ever-widening circles to infinity.

“‘What is this wondrous glow?’

“‘I am Ishwara. I am Light.’ The voice was as murmuring clouds.

“‘I want to be one with Thee!’

“Out of the slow dwindling of my divine ecstasy, I salvaged a permanent legacy of inspiration to seek God. ‘He is eternal, ever-new Joy!’ This memory persisted long after the day of rapture.”

The Tao is Light Itself in the highest sense.

And Tao is hidden [and] without a name.

The Tao is everywhere and everything, yet It is hidden to nearly everyone. The “hiding” is not on the part of the Tao, but is the active delusion of the individual who hides from seeing the Tao. When anyone turns toward the Tao and seeks its perception (for the Tao is not “found,” since It is ever-present), refining his inner instruments of perceptions (jnanendriyas) through meditation and ascesis, the Tao is no longer hidden. “He who sees the Supreme Lord existing in all beings equally, not dying when they die–he sees truly. Truly seeing the same Lord existing everywhere, he injures not the Self by the lower self. Then he goes to the Supreme Goal. When he perceives the various states of being as resting in the One, and their expansion from that One alone–he then attains Brahman” (Bhagavad Gita 13:27-28, 30).

The Tao can be referred to by many names, but none encompass the Tao because It is never an object, but is the Eternal Subject.

It is this Tao that is adept at lending (its power) and bringing fulfillment. Chan: “It is Tao alone that skillfully provides for all and brings them to perfection.” Mabry: “It is the Tao alone that nourishes and completes things.” The Tao is all in all, the sole power of evolving perfection. It does all things within all beings, yet Itself is unacting and unattached.

In the Bhagavad Gita the Tao speaks through Krishna the enlightened teacher, saying: “I know the departed beings and the living, and those who are yet to be, but none whatsoever knows me.… Know that states of being proceed from me. But I am not in them–they are in me” (Bhagavad Gita 7:26, 12).

“I am that which is the seed of all beings. There is nothing that could exist without existing through me–neither animate nor inanimate. There is no end to my divine manifestations. But this has been declared by me to exemplify the extent of my manifestations.… But what is this extensive knowledge to you? I ever support this whole world by just one portion of myself” (Bhagavad Gita 10:39-40, 42).

Next in the Tao Teh King for Awakening: The Violent Man

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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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