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)
We have been talking, the last two days, about the proverbial ladder of success. There is something I didn’t explicitly say about it, that needs saying. While I was focusing on the fact that we have been indoctrinated or programmed into believing in that ladder, I think there is a more important reason that Lao Tzu is concerned with it. What the ladder represents is a postponement of contentment, for some illusory future time. He would say, we can’t know the life of ease promised by that ladder, because we can’t know what the future holds. That is why he said, two chapters ago, standing with your two feet on the ground is the only way to always keep your balance. And, in yesterday’s chapter, you can’t know it, but you can be it. Don’t postpone being at ease in your own life. Live in the present! Be content, right now!
In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu continues to talk about the essence of wisdom he was talking about in yesterday’s chapter. Remember, this wisdom comes in realizing where you come from. “Come” being a present-tense word.
He begins by talking about the unfathomable wisdom the ancient Masters had. They were profound and subtle. Their wisdom, he says, is beyond description. All he can describe is their appearance.
Thus, he launches into a description of their appearance by using another series of word-pictures, metaphors. The imagery shows us where they were coming from; and that, in turn, helps us to realize where we need to come from, in order to be at ease in our own lives.
This is all about living in the present moment. Careful as someone crossing an iced-over stream. Alert as a warrior in enemy territory. Courteous as a guest. Being in the present moment means being attentive.
But being attentive is only the beginning. Fluid as melting ice. Shapeable as a block of wood. Receptive as a valley. Clear as a glass of water. They were fully in the moment. Ready for whatever the moment would bring.
The question I have asked before is, “How can I be this fully in the present moment?”
And Lao Tzu asks us two questions which show us the way. “Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles? Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself? The patience to wait; to remain unmoving.
Too often, I think, we get in too big a hurry, and try to hasten or rush the moment. We tell ourselves that waiting and remaining unmoving means the present moment will pass by. But that is a distortion of the eternal reality. The present moment is not the fleeting thing we may believe it to be. Eternity exists in the present moment. Waiting and remaining unmoving doesn’t take you out of the present moment and into the future. There is no such thing as future. Please realize that, if you realize nothing else of what Lao Tzu is teaching. There is no such thing as future. There is only now. This present moment. It is where you come from.
So, to realize where you come from is to be like the Master, who doesn’t seek fulfillment. Not seeking, not expecting, she is present, and can welcome all things. This was the essence of the wisdom of the ancient Masters, and it is the essence of wisdom for us, today.