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)
Lao Tzu uses the Master to show us what being in perfect harmony with the Tao looks like. Today, he refers to the ancient Masters, who he esteems without over-esteeming. For Lao Tzu, the ancient Masters were so profound and subtle, their wisdom so unfathomable, that there was simply no way to describe it. So he gives up on that notion right from the start.
He can’t begin to describe their wisdom. But he can describe their appearance. And, of course that means another round of similes. In the past, I have tried to take these one by one. Today, I don’t want to do that. I never like repeating back what he has just said. I prefer to trust that you have read the chapter and you have those pictures in your own mind.
You might even be wondering exactly why describing their appearance is helpful. Maybe it would be more helpful if we could describe something so profound and subtle. But exactly how do we do that? Lao Tzu was at a loss for words. And I don’t think I can do any better. So, try to keep those word-pictures in mind, and consider the lesson we might learn from them.
We have been talking about doing our work and then taking a step back. The necessary step to realizing a life of ease. In our fast-paced world we have come to expect that we can drive up, place our order, and expect it to be waiting for us when we pull around. Lao Tzu is expecting us to do the waiting. That was really the importance of describing the appearance of the ancient Masters. It was describing their attitude. How careful they were. How alert. How courteous. How fluid. How shapeable. How receptive. How clear. And he talked a lot about water in those descriptions. How they interacted with water. The iced-over stream that needed crossing. The melting ice. The glass of water.
Lao Tzu has a couple of questions he is asking of us today. And how we answer these questions, makes all the difference in the world, whether or not we will enjoy this life of ease, he is saying can be ours. The ancient Masters had the answers. And you do too. Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles, and the water is clear?
Sure, that is another metaphor. But I am assuming you have, some time in your life, stepped into a pool of water, stirring up the mud. At first, the water that was previously clear, is all muddy. But, if you wait, if you wait long enough, the mud will settle back down to the bottom. And, the water will be clear again. Having the patience to wait, means that things that are stirred up will return down to rest again. What is required of you? To simply wait.
But waiting is hard. We want to get moving again. Usually sooner than we should, but later than we would have liked. The mud hasn’t settled. All those things that are stirred up, haven’t been given the opportunity to right themselves. Because left alone, that is exactly what they will do. Without any further interference from us. That is why we need the second question. Can you remain unmoving until the right action arises by itself?
Not only does your mud have to settle; but the right action has to arrive all by itself. This is what being in perfect harmony with the Tao means. It means waiting on the Tao. You can’t just put in your order at the first window and expect it waiting for you at the next. I can’t help but wonder what Lao Tzu would have thought of drive-thrus. Probably along the order of how inconvenient convenience could be. Oh, I love drive-thrus. I love the convenience. And I take advantage of that convenience all the time. But it does tend to inure us to a way of living, not in harmony with the Tao.
So much of our trouble lies in our inability to wait. To wait for things to settle themselves. To wait for the right action to arise, without needing us to do anything at all. We are talking about a life of ease, after all. And ease means, well, not having to do all those things, that we are all the time feeling like we have to do. We aren’t talking about being lazy. We are talking about conserving energy. We are talking about not expending unnecessary effort. We make our own lives a whole lot harder, even with all our modern conveniences, than is necessary. All because we don’t have the patience to wait. To remain unmoving.
The Master has it figured out. That is why she is our perfect example. She isn’t seeking fulfillment. And this, is where we screw things up. Because fulfillment is exactly what we are seeking. We are wanting a life of fulfillment; when what Lao Tzu is offering us, instead, is a life of ease. But that life of fulfillment can’t offer us what a life of ease offers us. In fact, that life of fulfillment, with its lavish promises, has us chasing after rainbows. Remember that ladder? Yeah, we need to stay off that ladder.
Fulfillment vs. Ease. That is the choice that is before us. Fulfillment is enticing. It is tangible. It is, well, full. We easily can see the value of fullness. But we aren’t so easily enticed by emptiness. Yet, Lao Tzu has spent chapters already on the value of nothing. On emptiness. On something that, though empty, is inexhaustible. The Tao itself. Go on. Keep using it. The more you use it, the more there is. Yet, it is empty. Always at ease.
When you stop seeking fulfillment, when you stop expecting it, then you can be present. Being present is such a powerful thing. A profound and subtle thing. I can’t describe it. But I can be it. I can welcome all things. I can let them come. And I can let them go. And you can too.