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The Wise Ones of Old

Part 15 of the Tao Teh King for Awakening

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The skilful masters (of the Tao) in old times, with a subtle and exquisite penetration, comprehended its mysteries, and were deep (also) so as to elude men’s knowledge. As they were thus beyond men’s knowledge, I will make an effort to describe of what sort they appeared to be.

Shrinking looked they like those who wade through a stream in winter; irresolute like those who are afraid of all around them; grave like a guest (in awe of his host); evanescent like ice that is melting away; unpretentious like wood that has not been fashioned into anything; vacant like a valley, and dull like muddy water.

Who can (make) the muddy water (clear)? Let it be still, and it will gradually become clear. Who can secure the condition of rest? Let movement go on, and the condition of rest will gradually arise.

They who preserve this method of the Tao do not wish to be full (of themselves). It is through their not being full of themselves that they can afford to seem worn and not appear new and complete.

(Tao Teh King 15)

The skillful masters (of the Tao) in old times, with a subtle and exquisite penetration, comprehended its mysteries, and were deep (also) so as to elude men’s knowledge. As they were thus beyond men’s knowledge, I will make an effort to describe of what sort they appeared to be.

The Tao is incomprehensible, even though It is in all things, and human beings can perfectly embody It. The problem is, those who do embody It are then as incomprehensible as the Tao. “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).

Yet we need to have some idea of the ways of such masters so we will know if we meet them. For meeting them opens vast opportunities for advancement in wisdom and practical development. Because of this Lao Tzu wishes to give us some idea of them. We should notice that Lao Tzu is not the originator of what we call Taoism, for he speaks here of ancient masters. The Tao Itself is Taoism. The philosophy and practice we call Taoism is the way to the eternal Tao/Taoism. This, too, should be understood.

Shrinking looked they like those who wade through a stream in winter.

Lin Yutang: “Cautious, like crossing a wintry stream.” The sages were never brash and overconfident. They had never heard the Western adage: “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” but they certainly acted according to it like angels. This sentence does not mean that the sages were fearful, for fearlessness is a main ingredient of spiritual life, but they were extremely careful in their words and acts. I found this to be true in India. The worthy teachers would not teach unless asked to, and even then they proceeded very leisurely and subtly. The fools, of course, would latch on to me and dump their unwisdom on me. They were walking mines of spiritual misinformation. Sages are like ripe oranges: you have to squeeze them to get the juice, and how much juice you get depends on how well and how persistently you squeeze.

Also the masters live carefully, thinking out things well ahead, truly ordering their lives and controlling the situations in which they place themselves. Because intelligence always prevailed, to the unwise they appeared unsure. So Lao Tzu continues:

Irresolute like those who are afraid of all around them.

Lin Yutang: “Irresolute, like one fearing danger all around.” Again, they do not fear, but they are well aware of how dangerous and unsure is this world. Masters know that a single misstep can result in long-term disaster, and think and act accordingly. Buddha vigorously warned against heedlessness, and Lao Tzu is describing the opposite of that failing. Through the years one thing that has most amazed me about people who are supposedly seeking God is their complete lack of the realization that a spiritual seeker is in constant danger from influences in the world around him, and that he needs to protect himself from them and preserve and increase the strength of his aspiration. Instead they dawdle around, put themselves in questionable situations, do not take advantage of favorable situations, do very little to inform or prepare themselves for a real spiritual life and pay no attention to what is happening to them. I have met people that had spiritually come to a halt decades before and yet did not know it. They were dead and unburied. Minimalism does not work in spiritual life.

Grave like a guest.

In most cultures there is a strong awareness of the obligations of a host, but in China they knew that the guest also had serious obligations. Courtesy was a prime factor in Chinese society, and people were deeply aware that it was worse to fail as a guest than as a host. That is why Lao Tzu speaks of a worthy guest as an example of the gravity which characterized the wise of earlier times. They possessed a deep regard for those with whom they interacted and showed it by their conduct at all times. The social conscience of a master is concerned with those he meets daily, not with some abstraction used for political manipulation of society in general. It was his obligation to be the best possible kind of person. That was his debt to society. It was deeply personal and not at all theoretical. This, too, I saw in all the holy people I met. Their sensitivity and care for everyone impressed me greatly. They had realized that a person must first be a perfect human being before they can advance to a higher level of evolution.

Evanescent like ice that is melting away.

Lin Yutang: “Self-effacing, like ice beginning to melt.” “Written in stone” was not an ideal for the ancient masters. They valued flexibility and unpretentiousness. They did not define themselves, but remained fluid and open to positive change. They never pushed their ideals on others or even spoke them unless asked. They were the kind of people Jesus had in mind when he spoke of the meek that inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5). Freed from the compulsion of form, they would never impose form in the sense of egoic definition on others. As we have seen and will see, they had very definite ideas about government, but realizing that human society was not capable of following them, they simply withdrew, content to fulfill their ideals in their own life at peace and harmony. This is why Taoist hermitages would be hidden away in very inaccessible places, for they did not want to intrude on anyone. Yet, their hospitality was renowned, and they received guests with a warmth and solicitude not found anywhere else. They were true “humanists” in all things.

Unpretentious like wood that has not been fashioned into anything.

Lin Yutang: “Genuine, like a piece of undressed wood.” In English we have the expression: “Plain as an old shoe,” and its variation: “Comfortable as an old shoe.” Both were applicable to the Taoist masters. They were plain and straightforward, yet with a courtesy that was thoroughly comfortable. They were what they were: they spent a lifetime uncovering what they really were and establishing themselves in it. They never “made anything” of themselves, and lived free of the compulsion to be anything in the eyes of others. Artificiality was childish in their opinion. As a result they had perfect mastery of everything, within and without. Not wanting to strut or display themselves on earth, they literally walked in the sky and controlled nature from deep within where they were one with all. They did not live in the Tao, the Tao lived in them. This was a blessedness unthought of by the busy and notable of the world. Yet, when those harried denizens of an ever-fermenting society sought them out, they gently did their best to reveal the way of wisdom to them. The Taoist hermits were a great force in Chinese culture, though they never sought to be so.

Vacant like a valley.

Lin Yutang: “Open-minded, like a valley.” The sages were always ready to see, to learn, to change. This is almost impossible for most everyone, adults especially, because they have defined themselves and loaded themselves with mental furniture in accordance with their definition. Consequently they are both blind and resistant to anything different, anything that does not fit into or accord with their definition. Their response to anything different tends to fall into three categories: complete unawareness, rejection or hostility.

No matter what passes through a valley, it remains a valley. Even if fires destroy all vegetation, still it is no less a valley. If a river flows through it or if it dries up, the valley remains. Seeming to be empty, virtually nothing since it is empty space, the valley is yet more permanent than anything that comes into it. This is a marvelous ideal for all. It is unfortunate that these magnificent ideals are little noticed, because people become totally occupied with the exotica of Taoism and not its eternal foundations of wisdom.

Dull like muddy water.

The old Taoists greatly admired water, as did Saint Francis, for its power to be ever yielding and accommodating without at any time violating or altering its nature in any way. Eventually water wore away obstacles in it path by just flowing and being itself. No effort was need at all. So water was a symbol of placid stability for them, of rightness and effortless order and integrity.

“Dull like muddy water” indicates that the wise are willing to seem valueless, for who wants muddy water? They do not mind being disregarded by others. Again we have their love for being unremarkable outwardly. However, Lin Yutang renders this: “Mixing freely, like murky water” meaning that water is not rejective, but receives into itself, mingles within itself, whatever it encounters. This is even more profound. Here, too, we see the lack of definition. Water does not say: “I am not earth or opaque material, so I want nothing to do with it. I refuse to let it touch or infuse me.” No, it is totally accepting, yet water will return eventually to its pure nature. Lao Tzu continues with awesomely profound words so simple, yet so large in scope that it is a marvel.

Who can (make) the muddy water (clear)? Let it be still, and it will gradually become clear. Just be still and the silt of mind and heart will settle out and all will be clear and pure. But the water does not agitate itself to do so, otherwise the muddiness will remain. Stillness clarifies the mind: not an empty mind, but a still mind. They are not the same. Meditation is the way of stillness.

Who can secure the condition of rest? Let movement go on, and the condition of rest will gradually arise.

This is clarified by two verses from the Gita: “Not by abstaining from actions does a man attain the state beyond action, and not by mental renunciation alone does he approach to perfection. Truly, no one for even a moment exists without doing action. Each person is compelled to perform action, even against his will, by the gunas born of prakriti” (Bhagavad Gita 3:4-5).

External actions must go on–there is no choice–while complete inactivity, “the condition of rest,” is established within. This is all a matter of extremely subtle and competent practice, and when I say “competent” I mean that both the methodology and the practicer must be competent.

They who preserve this method of the Tao do not wish to be full (of themselves). It is through their not being full of themselves that they can afford to seem worn and not appear new and complete.

Of course, by “themselves” is meant ego and imposition of finite individuality on everything, making that the standard by which the universe is evaluated in all its parts. Those who follow the Tao do not hold any formalized self-concept, nor do they strive after one. Genuine Taoists do not think of themselves, nor do they think of the Tao. They merge with It. They embody it.

Lao Tzu understood human folly, especially the utterly baseless idolizing and idealizing of “new” and “contemporary” and “modern.” So they resigned themselves to being sneered at as old and irrelevant, outdated and outworn. It did not upset them because they had a wonderful secret: They knew they were eternal and therefore ever new, relevant, and total. In other words: the Tao.

Next in the Tao Teh King for Awakening: Knowing the Eternal Law

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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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