The ancient Masters were profound and subtle.
Their wisdom was unfathomable.
There is no way to describe it;
all we can describe is their appearance.
They were careful as someone
crossing an iced-over stream.
Alert as a warrior in enemy territory.
Courteous as a guest.
Fluid as melting ice.
Shapeable as a block of wood.
Receptive as a valley.
Clear as a glass of water.
Do you have the patience
to wait till your mud settles
and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?
The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment.
Not seeking, not expecting,
she is present, and can welcome all things.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 15, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Yesterday, Lao Tzu presented us with a riddle to describe something we can never know. He was talking about why the proverbial ladder of success doesn’t deliver on its promises of a life of ease. Why? Because it always postpones “happiness” to some future. We can never know it as long as we are pursuing it. It will always be just out of reach. But he did have some good news. And that is, what we can never know, we can be. It is all a matter of moving it from some unknowable future to the present. It is a move from the illusory to reality. For, the only reality is the present moment in which you live. He said, “Just realize where you come from.” That is the present, the eternal reality. It isn’t the way things might be. It is the way things are. It is a profound, yet subtle shift in the way we think and the way we act in our world. It is the art of being content with our simple and ordinary lives. Because it is so profound and subtle, it is also the essence of wisdom to realize this.
In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu wants to talk about the profound and subtle wisdom of the ancient masters. Once again, he doesn’t think it is something we can know. He says their wisdom is unfathomable. And, indescribable. All he can describe is their appearance.
Here, he is using metaphors to try and show us the essence of their wisdom. They were careful; like someone who is crossing an iced-over stream. They were alert; like a warrior who finds himself in enemy territory. They were courteous; like guests are courteous to their host. They were fluid; like melting ice. They were shapeable; just like a block of wood is able to be shaped into whatever you want it to be. They were receptive; like a valley is positioned perfectly to receive waters from the melting snow from the mountains. They were clear; as clear as a glass of water.
The point of all this is that Lao Tzu always invokes the Master as our example. This must be especially important to him, since he doesn’t just point at one Master. He refers to plural Masters. And, he refers to them as ancient to further illustrate why we should esteem their wisdom. In an earlier chapter, he warned us about over-esteeming great men and women. The point is well taken. But it doesn’t preclude us from esteeming them, giving them their due.
I am going to resist the urge to go back and take these metaphors one by one and try and expound on each one. It isn’t that I don’t think that is useful. It is just that I don’t want my commentary to be overly long. And, it isn’t necessary, when Lao Tzu puts it all in a much more condensed version, for me. He does so, by framing two rhetorical questions:
“Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear?”
“Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself?”
That right there is the essence of their wisdom. They had the patience to wait until their mud settled and the water was clear. And, they could remain unmoving till the right action arose by itself.
But notice how I changed the tense back to the past. That is when the ancient Masters were practicing their wisdom, after all. But Lao Tzu isn’t concerned with the past. That is why he poses his questions in the present tense. He is concerned with the present. With how we are living right here, right now. Do you have the patience to wait? Can you remain unmoving? When we are living in the present moment, the mud settles, the water is clear, the right action arises by itself; and, we are right there, in that moment. That is being in harmony with the way things are, the eternal reality. That takes patience. Patience like that exhibited by the ancient Masters. It is never something that can be hurried or rushed.
Wait for it. Wait for it. Don’t get confused here, thinking that this puts it into the future. We wait in the present. The mud settles and the water is clear. That is the present. We are unmoving in the present; and the right action arises by itself in the present. Fulfillment isn’t something for us to seek. It is something to experience, right here and right now. To further emphasize this, Lao Tzu once again, invokes the Master. She doesn’t seek fulfillment. She doesn’t seek. She doesn’t expect. She is present. And being present, she can welcome all things. And we can, too.