A good traveler has no fixed plans
and is not intent upon arriving.
A good artist lets his intuition
lead him wherever it wants.
A good scientist has freed himself of concepts
and keeps his mind open to what is.
Thus the Master is available to all people
and doesn’t reject anyone.
He is ready to use all situations
and doesn’t waste anything.
This is called embodying the light.
What is a good man but a bad man’s teacher?
What is a bad man but a good man’s job?
If you don’t understand this, you will get lost,
however intelligent you are.
It is the great secret.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 27, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Today’s chapter is one I would characterize as one of the more important chapters in the Tao Te Ching. Why do I think that? It is because it deals with what gives our lives purpose. I know there are plenty of you out there who are wondering, what the meaning of life is, and what gives your own life purpose. And, I am sure, there are plenty that have decided, life is basically meaningless (so, just eat, drink, and be merry; you are going to die tomorrow, anyway). Lao Tzu is no nihilist. So, let’s see what he has to say about life’s meaning, or purpose.
After talking, yesterday, about the complementary relationship of heavy and light; and, let’s be honest, his focus was on the heavy side; today, he balances it all out with talking about the importance of embodying the light. He even talked about the Master traveling, yesterday; so, today’s chapter begins with what it means to be a good traveler.
But he doesn’t just talk about good travelers. He talks about good artists and good scientists, too. All to explain how to embody the light. What is it with these three seemingly random occupations?
Well, it turns out, they aren’t so random, after all. I believe, instead, they represent the sum total of the human experience. What we are as human beings; and, by looking at what we are, we just might discover what gives our lives meaning, or purpose.
The first one is a traveler. We have heard it often enough before. We are all fellow travelers. Travelers is one thing we humans are. Always on the move. And, these travels are purposeful travels. We always have places to go and people to see. We can be good at traveling, or bad. What makes for a good traveler? For Lao Tzu’s purposes, a good traveler has no fixed plans; and, they aren’t intent upon arriving. That would mean, if we have fixed plans, and are intent on arriving at our destination, we are being a bad traveler. But, we’ll get more into what it really means to be good or bad at traveling, and what can be done about that, in a bit. Right now, I am more concerned with what it means to embody the light. But, before I can do that, we need to look at what it means to be a good artist and a good scientist.
A good artist lets their intuition lead them, wherever it wants. I remember the first time I read through this chapter. I pictured an artist, standing before a palette, with brush in hand, painting away. That isn’t such a bad representation of the metaphor. But, I knew, I wasn’t anything like that. Alas, my artistic abilities are nil. Thankfully, I didn’t let myself get bogged down in the metaphor, realizing what Lao Tzu was actually saying. I have often described the Tao Te Ching as a manual on the art of living. Living is an art. And that means we, humans, are all artists. Some of us are good at it. We have mastered the art of living. And, others of us, aren’t so good. We aren’t led by our intuition, wherever it may lead us. We’ll get back to this good versus bad artist metaphor in a bit, when we are talking about embodying the light; For now, we have one more metaphor to describe.
It is the good scientist. Lao Tzu lived in a pre-scientific age; so, it shouldn’t be too surprising, he isn’t referring to being proficient in one of the fields of science. He is talking about what it means to be a human being. And, one thing we humans all do, is observe the world around us. We are all observers. Good scientists, or observers, have freed themselves of concepts, and keep their minds open to what is. Observers draw conclusions from what they observe. Admit it, we all do. But, if we have preconceived notions, ideas, or concepts on how we think the world should operate, our minds won’t be open to what really is. We want to be good scientists. But, we can be bad.
Okay, now, what do any of these have to do with embodying the light? Why is it so important to be a good traveler, a good artist, and a good scientist? It is because, by being good, we can embody the light. By having no fixed plans and not being intent upon arriving, by letting our intuition lead us wherever it wants, by freeing ourselves of concepts and keeping our minds open to what is, we make ourselves available to all people. So, we won’t reject anyone. We make ourselves ready to use all situations; and don’t waste anything. That is what he means by embodying the light.
And, now, you can see how being bad at traveling, or the art of living, or being an observer of the world, keeps us from embodying the light. The heavy, Lao Tzu referred to yesterday, was all about staying connected to our common Source. But, lightness, today, is about being connected with each other. Being available to all. Never having to reject anyone. Ready for anything, and everything. Never wasting a moment of eternity.
So, we want to be good. That much is obvious. But, what if we are bad? This is where both good and bad, not really surprisingly, complement each other. Funny how yin and yang always work this way. Now, we see how embodying the light gives life meaning and purpose.
I probably don’t have to point out that Lao Tzu’s good and bad, here, aren’t referring to good and evil. Lao Tzu isn’t making some moral judgment about people. Having fixed plans when you are traveling, and being intent on arriving, doesn’t make you evil; it just means you aren’t available. If you aren’t letting your intuition lead you, if your mind is closed to what is, you will encounter situations, time and time again, where people will have to be rejected, situations will be wasted. That doesn’t make you evil. But, it isn’t good. It is bad. You, my friends, are in need of a teacher. An apprentice needs a master. And, a master is in need of an apprentice.
You wanted to know what Lao Tzu thinks gives life meaning and purpose, didn’t you? Well, that is it. Why are there both good and bad, travelers, artists, and scientists out there? You understand what I am saying, here. We can be good or bad at excelling as human beings. But what Lao Tzu considers excelling, is a whole lot different from what some think it is. If you are bad, seek out a Master, someone who is good at it. If you are good, be on the lookout for someone to mentor. Be available!
It isn’t a matter of intelligence. If you are good, your life has a purpose. And, if you are bad, your life has a purpose. But, if you don’t understand this, you will be lost. It will be like your life is meaningless, and has no purpose. Few seem to understand this, which is why he calls it the great secret.