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)
Yesterday, Lao Tzu used a riddle to point at what he called the essence of wisdom. Which is what it takes to be at ease in your own life. Today, he describes the appearance of the ancient Masters; to talk about their unfathomable wisdom. Today’s chapter, like the ancient Masters that Lao Tzu describes for us, is profound and subtle. Let’s see if we can get any further insight into how we can be at ease in our own lives.
In describing their appearance, Lao Tzu uses a series of metaphors, similes really. He paints pictures for us, and pictures are supposed to be worth a thousand words, so lets look at the pictures he has painted.
The first picture is of someone crossing an iced-over stream. I want you to picture this in your mind. Do you see this person? This person wants to get to other side. Needs 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 they might see out of the corner of their eyes. Listening intently to any sound of broken twigs. Profoundly aware of every breath, and every step, they take. How magnified they seem to be. Stealth is important. Why are my foot steps so loud? The beating of my heart?
The third picture is of a guest. In this picture, in my mind, I see a gracious host, being welcoming. But Lao Tzu doesn’t want me focusing on the host. He wants to draw my attention to the guest. Oh, the host is attending to their needs. But how is the guest behaving? Wanting to show appreciation. Demonstrating courtesy to the host for opening their home to them. Always conscious that I am an invited guest. And, I can be uninvited.
The fourth picture is of melting ice, perhaps alluding back to that iced-over stream. A picture of ice melting? Well, that is subtle. But it also shows us the fluid nature of the way things are. Left alone, it will finally cease to be ice, and be a puddle of water. Do we want ice? We can stop the melting. Or, we can let it continue.
The fifth picture is of a block of wood. Now we are really getting subtle. Here is a picture of a block of wood. What are you going to do with that? Well, you could 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. In the picture in my mind, it is 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.
And the seventh, and last picture is of a glass of water. A glass of water? Sure, a glass of water. Nothing is as refreshing, as a nice, tall, glass of clear water with maybe a lemon wedge, and a few shavings from that melting ice over there.
Those are some profound and subtle paintings. But what do they mean? Lao Tzu wants to know if 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? The ancient Masters never did rush anything. And their wisdom was, to Lao Tzu, unfathomable. That is saying a lot.
If we want to be like the Masters, and I know that I do, we need to understand a little of the essence of their wisdom. The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment. Let’s put this into context. We are talking about a life of ease; that Lao Tzu tells us we won’t ever find, if we seek it on the ladder of success (refer back to the last two chapters). Don’t seek fulfillment. Don’t seek. Don’t expect. Just be present. That is the key. Just be present, and welcome all things.