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)
Realizing Where You Come From
If you are anything like me, riddles always leave you with more questions than answers. That may have made yesterday’s riddle particularly confounding. Let’s not lose sight of our goal. The goal is still freedom. Freedom from all desire. Freedom to be content (at ease) in our own lives. And, yesterday, Lao Tzu made it quite clear, actually, this freedom can be elusive. If we are trying to know, it we won’t ever succeed; because, we can’t know it. It is so subtle. Beyond anything we can conceive. Yet, we can be at ease in our own lives. That was his promise in yesterday’s chapter.
So, today, we set out with just one purpose, realizing where we come from. To help us, Lao Tzu recalls not just one Master, but all of the ancient Masters. Like our riddle from yesterday, they were profound and subtle. Their wisdom was unfathomable. There is no way to describe their wisdom. All we can do is describe their appearance. Believe it or not, this is going to help us.
They were: Careful. Alert. Courteous. Fluid. Shapeable. Receptive. Clear.
How careful? Well, have you ever tried to cross an iced-over stream? Just picture that in your mind. It is treacherous. One wrong move, and you are likely done for.
How alert? Anyone who has been a soldier in enemy territory can attest to how alert they had to be. Your senses are heightened. You dare not make a sound. Yet, your breathing, the steps you are taking, your own heartbeat, seems ampliified a thousand fold.
At the same time they appear careful and alert, they also appear as courteous as a guest. This is a profound and subtle lesson, for sure. Think about it. They are being so careful, so alert; yet, they are able to remain calm and at ease; they behave like a guest in your home, so courteous.
Notice how fluid they are. Probably hearkening back to that iced-over stream, Lao Tzu compares their fluidity to melting ice. They go with the flow.
And, they are able to be shaped into whatever the moment requires them to be. That block of wood is an ancient way of referring to beginnings. What will that block of wood be shaped into? It could be fashioned into a thousand different things. They come from that block of wood.
As a valley receives the runoff of the melting snow from the mountains, so these ancient Masters appear ready to receive whatever the moment might bring them.
And their purpose was always clear. As clear as a glass of water.
So, how does the appearance of the ancient Masters help us to realize where we come from? I am glad you asked. Here are the lessons to be learned:
Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving until the right action arises all by itself?
We can’t be in a hurry. That is one thing we should learn from the ancient Masters. They didn’t rush. They were patient enough to wait for it.
Wait for what? For your defining moment. When you realize where you come from.
Don’t seek fulfillment. A wise and virtuous person never does. They never seek it, they don’t even expect it. This is a tough one. But, I am just trying to be honest with you, here. You can’t be expecting it. That isn’t how it works. Don’t seek. Don’t expect. Just be present. When you are present, you can welcome all things. Whatever the moment brings, the right action will arise by itself, and you will be ready.