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 you 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 about the essence of wisdom. In yesterday’s riddle, Lao Tzu introduced the art of subtlety. What is beyond all that we can conceive with our senses. To understand the way things are, we cannot rely on our senses, which can only tell us of being. To understand the eternally real, we must enter the realm of nothing, which is profound and subtle. And, that means understanding non-being and being work together. When we are only thinking of being we are being misled by our senses. I told you yesterday about the teas I have been drinking. They portray that subtlety that lies beyond what we can experience with our senses. In order to appreciate the teas, I can’t trust my senses to give me the complete picture. The color of the tea, the smell, the taste, they are all too subtle. But when my senses are rendered useless, I begin to appreciate a nuance that is beyond what my senses can reveal to me.
Today, Lao Tzu has another example of the profound and subtle. He refers to the ancient Masters, whose wisdom was unfathomable. He says there is no way to describe their wisdom. He can only describe their appearance. But notice, if you will, the way the profound and subtle nuance of their wisdom comes across in spite of the limitations of your senses.
In describing their appearance, Lao Tzu uses a series of metaphors, similes really. He paints pictures for us; and, because pictures are supposed to be worth a thousand words, maybe we will find he is saying a lot. What I want you to do is picture these paintings in your mind. Let your mind and your heart work together to understand what Lao Tzu is saying.
The first picture is of someone crossing an iced-over stream. Do you see this person? They want to get to the other side. They need to get to the other side. But an iced-over stream is treacherous. As this person crosses over, you can see the concern and caution etched on their face. And, the care with which they take each step. The ancient Masters were careful.
The second picture is of a warrior in enemy territory. Constantly on guard. Alert to any movement, even out of the corner of their eyes. Listening intently to any sound of broken twigs. Profoundly aware of every breath, and every step, they are taking. Each breath and step are magnified in their own ears. Stealth is important. This is enemy territory. They can’t be captured. Even the sound of their own beating heart threatens to betray them.
The third picture is of a guest. In this picture, in my own mind, I see a gracious host, being welcoming. Much like my gracious host that serves me tea each week. But Lao Tzu doesn’t want me focusing on the host. He wants my attention drawn to the guest. Yes, the host is attending their needs. But how is the guest behaving? They are showing appreciation. Demonstrating courtesy to the host who has invited them. Always conscious that they are an invited guest. They can be uninvited.
The fourth picture is of melting ice. Perhaps this alludes back to that iced-over stream from the first picture. But, talk about subtlety. A picture of melting ice? What does it show us? The fluid nature of the way things are. Left alone, that ice will melt down into a puddle of water. Is it ice we want? We need to change its environment. Perhaps what we really want is a glass of water.
The fifth picture is of a block of wood. Now we are really getting subtle. Here is a block of wood. What are you going to do with that? The answer is you can shape it into anything you want. The uncarved block of wood is a favorite metaphor of Lao Tzu’s. It speaks of beginnings and limitless potential.
The sixth picture is of a valley. Are you still picturing these in your mind? In my own mind, I see a beautiful valley surrounded by towering, snow-covered mountains. As the snow melts, streams of water run down to fill the valley and make it lush with green growth. The ancient Masters were receptive like that.
The seventh and last picture is of a glass of water. I knew that ice was melting for some reason. Nothing is as refreshing as a nice, tall, glass of clear water. Perhaps with a lemon wedge, and a few shavings from that melting ice over there.
I know those were some profound and subtle paintings. But what do they really mean? Lao Tzu wants to know whether we have the patience to wait until our mud settles, and the water is clear. Can we remain unmoving until the right action arises by itself? That is the essence of wisdom which the ancient Masters had. If we want a life of ease, which by the way, is the point of the journey, then we need to understand a little of the essence of their wisdom. They didn’t seek fulfillment. They weren’t seeking. They weren’t expecting. They were just present. That is what all those pictures represent. Being in the present moment. And, they were ready for anything.