“The great masters of ancient times
focused on the indiscernible
and penetrated the dark
you would never know them
and because you wouldn’t know them
I describe them with reluctance
they were careful as if crossing a river in winter
cautious as if worried about neighbors
reserved like a guest
ephemeral like melting ice
simple like uncarved wood
open like a valley
and murky like a puddle
but those who can be like a puddle
become clear when they’re still
and those who can be at rest
become alive when they’re roused
those who treasure this Way
don’t try to be seen
not trying to be seen
they can hide and stay hidden”
(Taoteching, verse 15, translation by Red Pine)
TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “Although the ancient masters lived in the world, no one thought they were special.”
SU CH’E says, “Darkness is what penetrates everything but what cannot itself be perceived. To be careful means to act only after taking precautions. To be cautious means to refrain from acting because of doubt or suspicion. Melting ice reminds us how the myriad things arise from delusion and never stay still. Uncarved wood reminds us to put an end to human fabrication and return to our original nature. A valley reminds us how encompassing emptiness is. And a puddle reminds us that we are no different from anything else.”
HUANG YUAN-CHI says, “Lao-tzu expresses reluctance at describing those who succeed in cultivating the Tao because he knows the inner truth cannot be perceived, only the outward form. The essence of the Tao onsists in nothing other than taking care. If people took care to let each thought be detached and each action well considered, where else would they find the Tao? Hence, those who mastered the Tao in the past were so careful they waited until a river froze before crossing. They were so cautious, they waited until the wind died down before venturing forth at night. They were orderly and respectful, as if they were guests arriving from a distant land. They were relaxed and detached, as if material forms didn’t matter. They were as uncomplicated as uncarved wood and as hard to fathom as murky water. They stilled themselves to concentrate their spirit, and they roused themselves to strengthen their breath. In short, they guarded the center.”
WANG PI says, “All of these similes are meant to describe without actually denoting. By means of intuitive understanding the dark becomes bright. By means of tranquility, the murky becomes clear. By means of movement, the still becomes alive. This is the natural Way.”
WANG CHEN says, “All those who treasure the Way fit in without making a show and stay forever hidden. Hence, they don’t leave any tracks.”
And RED PINE adds, “It would seem that Lao-tzu is also describing himself here.”
We were talking, yesterday, about things not to do in order to uphold the Way of the Tao. Today, instead of focusing on the “don’t do” list, let’s review the “things to do” list.
Lao-tzu points out the great masters of ancient times for their example in following the Tao. They “focused on the indiscernible” and “penetrated the dark.” Yes, this dark, elusive Tao can be mastered.
Though he is reluctant to describe them, by describing them, maybe we can learn how to imitate them.
These are our things to do:
Be careful: Like you are crossing a river in winter. Here “careful” refers to how you relate to your natural environment.
Be cautious: Like you are worried about neighbors. Being “cautious” is different from being careful (see above). Here it relates to how you relate to the people around you.
Be reserved: Like a guest. Hey, this world you inhabit, don’t treat it like you own the place. Be like a guest.
Be ephemeral: Like melting ice. Well, melting ice is certainly a great metaphor for being ephemeral. Life is fleeting. Your own life is fleeting. Live in the moment. Adapt. Change. Go with the flow.
Be simple: Like uncarved wood. It certainly doesn’t get any simpler than that. That block of wood. What will you become? This is where you start. This is where you keep returning.
Be open: Like a valley. Lao-tzu, in an earlier verse, used a valley as a metaphor for the emptiness of the Tao. That is how open, how empty, we need to be. Be receptive.
Be murky: Murky? That seems odd. Why would I want to be murk?. Like a puddle. Well, if we carry the metaphor further, it makes a whole lot more sense. Embrace who you are in this moment. Be who you are. Is there a lot disturbing your life (your puddle) right now. Don’t worry about it. Just be murky. Don’t worry, if you are “ephemeral” and “open,” then you know things are going to change, anyway. And the next one shows how to make that happen.
Be still: Sure, you are murky right now. But be still, be at rest. That puddle will soon become clear. When you allow yourself to be still, to be at rest, you will be ready for the change that is coming. And, when roused, you will become alive.
Finally, treasure this Way: Don’t try to be seen, be content to stay hidden. Who knows, maybe hundreds of years from now, someone will come along and try to describe you.