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)
In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu explores the complementary relationship between being good, and being bad. It is something, no doubt, a lot of us have never considered before.
Because I value today’s chapter as one of the more important ones (they are all important, but some just stand out more to me), my commentary will likely be longer than it has been on recent chapters. You can chalk that up to my own inability to say in few words, what I believe Lao Tzu is saying to us, today. I just don’t have Lao Tzu’s gift.
The reason I think today’s chapter is particularly important is because it boldly proclaims the answer to the question of why your life has meaning and purpose, wherever you happen to be along your journey. Now, Lao Tzu doesn’t come right out and say that. I had to read between the lines to understand what he was saying.
Remember, yesterday, when Lao Tzu was talking about the importance of not losing touch with our root, with who we are? He said the heavy is the root of the light. The unmoved is the source of all movement. After talking about the importance of the heavy (and yin and yang being what they are), today, Lao Tzu teaches us about what he calls embodying the light. Since the heavy is our connection to our Source, who we are, the light represents our connection to every other being, each other. That will all become clear in a moment. But, first, Lao Tzu wants us to focus on who and what we are.
He uses three different, and seemingly random, occupations to describe the sum total of what is the essence of being a human. Keep in mind, he has listed us, humans, as one of the four great powers. And, he wrote this Tao Te Ching, for us, humans, to read and learn from.
All human beings are fellow travelers, artists, and scientists. And, just to be clear, here, by travelers, artists, and scientists, he isn’t referring to whether or not we venture far and wide from our homes, or paint or sculpture or any other artistic skill, which the great “artists” have mastered, or whether we are members in one of the fields of science. We are all travelers, because we are always “on the move”, with places to go, and people to see. In all our travels, whether near or far, we will encounter other people, other beings, and situations and circumstances which are going to challenge us in our journey. And that word “challenge” is not intended to mean something negative. We are all artists, because living is an art. I have long thought of the Tao Te Ching as a manual on the art of living. We are all scientists, because we are all observers of the world around us, the people around us. There is so much to learn. And learn, by observing, we all do.
It stands to reason, that being, each one of us, fellow travelers, artists, and scientists, we may be good at these essences of what it means to be human, and we may be bad. It is a common misunderstanding about philosophical Taoism, that we shouldn’t see things as good or bad, beautiful or ugly. But, that isn’t what Lao Tzu was teaching, way back in chapter two, when he said, “When people see some things as beautiful, other things become ugly. When people see some things as good, other things become bad.”
He wasn’t telling us not to value beautiful and good things. He was merely teaching the Way of our Universe. Because we see some things as beautiful and good, other things necessarily become ugly and bad. This is something we all need to be aware of, and learn how to deal with. But attempting to go through our lives without valuing anything, would not be very human. It isn’t valuing things which gets us into trouble, anyway. It is overvaluing them, that does. Yin and yang always seek to bring about balance.
In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu is most definitely distinguishing some ways of being human, as good. And, he is completely aware what that means. Other ways become bad. We are going to get into the complementary relationship between good and bad in a little bit. Right now, I also want to make sure everyone understands Lao Tzu isn’t passing some kind of moral judgment on those who are bad at the essence of being human. He isn’t talking about good and evil, here. This will also become clear as we go along.
Sorry, that was a long introduction.
Understanding we are all travelers, what does it mean to be good at it? A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving. A bad one, then, would have fixed plans and be intent upon arriving. Don’t worry, we will be explaining why having no fixed plans and not being intent upon arriving makes you a good traveler. But, let’s get these other essences of what it means to be human listed, first.
Understanding we are all artists, what does it mean to be good at it? Good artists let their intuition lead them wherever it wants. Bad ones, then, would not be led by their own intuition. We will also explain why letting your intuition guide you wherever it wants is good. Just one more essence of what it means to be human.
Understanding we are all scientists, what does it mean to be good at it? Good scientists have freed themselves of concepts and keep their minds open to what is. Bad scientists, then, would not be observing their world with an open mind. They would be enslaved to their own preconceived ideas and concepts.
Now, let’s understand why these practices of good travelers, artists and scientists, are good. To help our understanding, Lao Tzu, once again, provides us with the example of the Master.
If we are wise and virtuous (that is another way of saying a good traveler, good artist, and good scientist), we will be available to all people and won’t reject anyone. We will be ready to use all situations and won’t waste anything. This is what he calls embodying the light. If, in our travels, we are bound by our fixed plans and intent upon arriving, if we aren’t being led by our intuition, if we haven’t freed ourselves of concepts and keep our minds closed, time and time again, opportunities for being available to people are going to pass us by. Situations which could have been unimaginably wonderful will be wasted.
Now, that is easy to understand. We have all been there and done that. Countless are the times I was too busy to help, too set in my ways, to take advantage of a situation. That isn’t intended to be a license to beat yourselves up over this. We have all been bad. It’s okay. But, now we know better. So, what do we do?
This is where Lao Tzu really explains the complementary relationship between the good and the bad. Understanding that because we see some things as good, other things become bad, we better understand how to use this situation. Are you “good” at these things? Good job! Now, understand what that means. It is your job to be a teacher, a mentor, the master, to an apprentice. An apprentice is one who isn’t good, right now. No, they are bad. They still have lots of learning to do. That is why they are in the role of apprentice. If you are good, be available, when someone who is bad comes along. And, if you are bad, be ready to accept the help of someone who is good at it.
This is what Lao Tzu calls the great secret. Understanding the complementary relationship between the good and the bad. We need each other! It doesn’t matter how intelligent you think you are, if you don’t understand this, you will get lost.
And, believe me, that is no fun to be, when you are traveling.
Tomorrow, Lao Tzu will use both yin and yang to explain our relationship to the world around us.