The Tao of Now
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, March 10, 2002
Ah-ha! I guess the incantations worked! I’ll have to give the Recipe Gentlemen a little something extra when I get back to Chindu! This is too good to be believed! “What do you wish?” they asked me. Well, I didn’t need to ask for longevity—I had already lived 140 winters—could they top that? Gold and riches? Pfff. I already have more than enough of those. How much does one really need at my age? I’ve had a good and interesting life. I really want for nothing. But I had to make a wish—I had to ask for something—they insisted. And one does not want to get on the wrong side of the Recipe Gentlemen, the Royal Magicians, if you know what I mean. So I said: “Fine. Let me see the future. Take me into the future.” And before I knew what was happening, there I was, being transported through the years; it seemed like a swirling mass of light, circling, cycling, and the last thing I remembered was shouting at them: “Let me speak their language!. I mean, what’s the use of being transported into the future if you don’t know the language, right? What use would it be for you, too, if I was to stand here before you and spout a lot of stuff from a language you didn’t know, a language hundreds and hundreds of years old, from a land you had never been to?
Well, the magicians saw to that, and they even provided me with some basic information about the place I would be visiting: a sort of celestial tour guide. It was very useful, too; it had all kinds of information on your culture, your history, things like that, so that I would be able to communicate with you more effectively. All very interesting-- and useful, too. When we’re done with our discourse here, one of you will have to let me try some of your foodstuffs that I’ve been reading about; I can’t wait to visit a… what’s it called?… oh yes: a Dunkin’ Donuts. Have you heard of them? It sounds fascinating!
But first, let me tell you why I am here. There was a method to the madness of my being transported down to the centuries, as well. It wasn’t just curiosity on my part. Oh, that was part of it, I’ll admit. But I also have something I want to teach you, as well:
Many, many years ago—I believe it would be about 2,600 years ago now, as you reckon time--a great thing happened in my life. I came face-to-face with one of the great teachers of all time, and he told me his story. He even wrote down his lessons for me, and he gave me his book to protect. Just before he left, he asked me to keep his ideas alive—to do all that I could to further them. I vowed by the spirits of my ancestors that I would. He thanked me, and said that Heaven would be beneficent toward me; then he smiled, and gave a little wave, and rode away, beyond the pass, out of sight, out of this earthly realm perhaps. Perhaps he joined the heavenly immortals then and there. I don’t know. But he was gone…
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me tell you what happened.
And let me tell you my name; I don’t believe I have introduced myself yet. How very rude of me! I am Yin Hsi, and a long, long time ago, I was the keeper of the pass at Han-ku in what you would call southwestern China, near where China meets another land called Tibet.
I was the keeper of the pass, and it was a pretty good job, which my uncle had gotten for me after the death of my father. If people wanted to go through the pass on the way to the lands of the west or the south, they had to stop at my little station and give me their names, which I would record. Then, they had to pay a fee, of which I kept a small percentage; the rest, we turned over to the Emperor, or the war lord, or the provincial governor, or whoever happened to be in charge at the time.
You see, those were very difficult years in my land. You call them the “Period of the Warring States” now; we just called them a damned mess! Fighting, fighting, competition for power between this faction and that, so much uncertainty and dislocation, the people’s needs not being cared for. They were just terrible years, and the bad times went on and on, for well over a century. I was just as happy out there at my little outpost at Han-ku. It was pretty lonely sometimes, but at least I was away from all the violence and mayhem in the cities of the east. And I had no family; I was single; I was young; I got to meet some very interesting people, too—so, as long as the marauding armies stayed away-- which they did usually (I mean—who wants to maraud in the mountains? It’s a lot easier down on the plains!)-- it wasn’t too bad a life.
But enough about me! Let me tell you about my great teacher: I remember one night, deep in the winter one year. Now, that is the loneliest time out there, as you can imagine, I mean, who in their right mind will cross the highest mountains in the depths of winter? So, I went to bed early, but I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned; even though it was bitterly cold outside, I kicked off all my blankets. Finally, I settled in to a fitful, uneasy sleep; but I had barely nodded off, when I was beset by the most vivid, violent dreams: scenes of great cities in chaos and marching armies and all manner of mayhem and carnage. It was just terrible.
But then, the dream change suddenly. Suddenly, there was peace and concord. All was tranquility. And then I saw the face of a wise old man. The sky was a beautiful pink and red and gold. Then, the sun rose, and it was lovely.
So, I got out of bed, early the next morning, before sunrise. And the sky was that same pink and red and blue and gold. As I watched the sun come up, I said to myself: “This is an auspicious day. Something is going to happen today that will change my life.” And then, I thought to myself: “Something will happen that will change the whole world.” (I felt myself blushing at I thought it; I mean, who am I to have such thoughts? I’m just a simple gatekeeper, quite literally out in the middle of nowhere!)
Then, I saw him approaching from the distance, riding on a water buffalo! He looked like a small man, an old man, one who had seen many winters. Even from a distance, I could tell, just by the way he rode, sort of bent over, and the way he rode so slowly, like he had given up hurrying along time ago. As he came closer, and I saw his face, it somehow looked familiar to me, and then I remembered— it was the face I had seen in my dream! Of course! And I said to myself (one talks to oneself a lot out there in the mountains; who else is there to talk to?): “This man is a great teacher. I must imbibe his lessons.” (which was unusual for me, because I had never given much thought to learning before that; usually, I just did my job, kept to myself, and that was that.)
The old man was obviously very learned, and he had a warm and pleasant demeanor. But there was also a certain sadness, or a tiredness, a weariness, in his face. He had seen too much; he had been through too much; I could tell that he just wanted to be away from everything; that he wanted to rest.
I asked his name, and he told me: Li Erh-- “Large Plum Tree” in your language, I believe. Such an interesting name, I thought—a venerable old name for a venerable old man. “From where do you come?” I asked. “Loyang,” he told me—the Imperial capital. Then, he volunteered that he had been, years ago, a keeper of the Imperial Archives, a worker at the national library. “Oh, so you are a man of learning,” I said. He sort of shrugged. Then, I asked, “Grandfather, how old are you now?” He just smiled and replied, “This is my 160th winter. Here in this world, at least. I won’t see many more—and I would like to spend the final ones away from all that nonsense I’ve lived among for too long. It is time for me to rest. To rest and think. To sleep. In the lands of the west, far away from the capital, and the cities, and the mess that people have made there.”
He was mild, gentle man, but with some bitterness, I could tell. And I knew in a flash—I just knew—that this was no “normal” traveler, but that this was the legendary Lao Tsu himself!
“Master Lao Tsu, I am honored to be in your presence” I said to him. (His name itself meant “Wise Teacher”). “What brings you all the way out here to Han-ku? Why are you out here, wandering in the mountains?”
Then he sat, and I poured tea, and he told me his story:
He had been born, as I said, well over a hundred years before, a most amazing birth: His mother had conceived, he said, while admiring a shooting star—more than sixty years before his birth. He was over sixty when he emerged from her womb; his hair was already white; his soul was already old; he could already speak fully—and he was big for his age. His mother had given birth while leaning against a plum tree—and so, the child named himself “Li Erh”-- “big plum tree”. But everyone in China knew him as Lao Tsu.
For a number of years, he had pursued a normal career, he said. He had risen in the government service, had become a leading librarian in the capital. But then, he said, he had felt called to give it all up-- to give it up and become a teacher. The scene at court depressed him: the careerists vying for influence; the rigid social structure which allowed no space for creativity; the warring factions striving so hard to outdo one another.
He decided to try to teach a better way. He gathered a handful of disciples. He went around from place to place; he taught; he told stories; he shared his lessons with all who would listen. Then, nothing happened. The handful of followers remained a mere handful. Society didn’t change. The harsh structures and strictures didn’t loosen. Lao Tsu’s reputation grew; more people had heard of him (even out in the mountains where I was, his name was mentioned from time to time). But usually, they just shook their heads, and called him “impractical”, a “dreamer”, a man with his head in the sky. Society needed rules and regulations, everyone said. More rules, more regulations, more control to deal with the uncertain times. It didn’t need the idealistic nonsense of the dreamer Lao Tsu.
So now, Lao Tsu told me, he was leaving it all behind. He was taking a rest—a sabbatical, you might call it—for maybe 20 or 30 years, maybe more—off in the lands of the west where few ever ventured. He would be going right now, in fact, he said, and he rose to leave…
Then a voice from inside of me (I don’t know from where) cried forth: “You can’t go yet! You must commit your teachings to writing! You must give me the book of your teachings!” (“Why was I saying this?” I thought to myself. I have no interest in books, in philosophy, in writings.) Then, I found myself hurrying into my office, and coming back with several bamboo tablets and a quill or two and ink, and I put them in front of the old man, and I implored him: “Please, Old Master, give us the book of your way and power!” In the language I spoke, that would have been said “Tao Te Ching”—“The Book of the Way and the Power”—and that is what you call Lao Tsu’s work even today.
He just looked at me and smiled (as though he knew that this was going to happen; perhaps he had dreamed of me and this encounter, as well). Then he sighed gently, and took up the quill, and began to write. And write. And write…
He wrote for almost three days, stopping hardly at all, until finally, his work was done: 5000 carefully drawn characters in all, which he grouped together into 81 separate chapters or poems.
Then, he rose from his seat and dusted off his cloak. He thanked me for my hospitality; implored me to take good care of his book; then he paid his fee, and with no delay, but in no hurry at all, he climbed back on his water buffalo and made his way through the pass, with just a small smile and wave as he went.
Well, what did I do then? I read the book of course! It wasn’t really very long, and as I said, it was the middle of winter, so there wasn’t much to distract me. I had it done in no time, even though I’m not much of a reader usually—ledger book and government decrees, that’s about it for me normally. So, this book of Lao Tsu was rather tough going for me. Here’s how it starts (this is in your language; I’ll spare you the ancient Chinese text, which is even more difficult). It starts like this:
Pretty tough stuff, huh? At first, I thought the old man had just lost it; that it was all just rigmarole, and that all that they said about old Lao Tsu was true. “What can be told isn’t the Tao. What can be named isn’tthe Name.” But then, I got to thinking about it, simple man that I am. You know, there are things that we can’t name, that our language cannot describe. The deepest things in life, we only hint at with words. The words give us an approximation of these deeper truths; they paint a picture of their surface qualities; but they don’t penetrate to the inner essence. That remains a mystery. We sense the manifestations of reality (sight and sound and taste and fragrance)—but the deeper mystery—the “Darkness within Darkness”-- remains. And that Darkness is the gateway to our deeper understanding.
Then, he wrote:
The harder we try to control the mystery—to describe it—to discover it—to see it and hear it and hold it in our arms—the more illusive it is. The harder we try, the more frustrated me become, until we are focused solely on our frustration, rather than on the mystery any more. So then, we need to just let go:
Be open, Let go. Don’t be too rigid. Learn to bend. That is the essence of the Way, of the Tao. One has to be open to the Tao to experience it, not tight and closed off. The Confucians who ruled China in Lao Tsu’s time (and for many years afterward) thought that only by regulating everything precisely—by having rules and regulations for every little aspect of life—could you bring things under control. Lao Tsu thought that was all nonsense! You should have heard Master Lao Tsu talk about Master Kung Fu-Tsu (Confucius, as you would call him)! They met on several occasion, and needless to say—they didn’t hit it off! I can’t repeat what Lao Tsu called him! But it was very colorful language!
The worst sin of the Confucians (and authoritarians like them—you have your share in your world, I’m sure) is that they want put the whole society in a corset and tighten it up as much as they can. They might be able to guarantee social conformity and control that way sometimes (though not always). But they kill the spirit and kill off all creativity:
Lao Tsu suggested a much simpler way to approach life. There was no need for rigid governments and lots of rules and regulations. They just get in the way, most of the time. Keep it simple, he said:
One had to be open to the energies of creativity, the Great Teacher wrote. To know the Tao, one had to let the tao flow within—like water flowing in a stream:
Tsu said that we need to exhibit an attitude of wu wei in our lives: wu wei—“not doing”. Not striving, seeking, controlling, fighting, planning, executing, busy, busy, do, do, doing all the time. “Stop! And be!” Lao Tsu taught. Be—and that will be enough. In every man, woman, and child—in every creature—there is embedded the essence of the eternal Tao. Every creature, at birth, is a pu i’—an “uncarved block”—perfect as it is. It is only the later additions of society which corrupt us and spoil us and cause us to hate and fight and rage. If we let our natural man or woman arise, the Tao Te Ching teaches, then that will be more than enough:
Too much action corrupts us. Too much fiddling with life cuts us off from life. “Governing a country is like frying a small fish,” Lao Tsu wrote, “you spoil it with too much poking.”
Too often, in striving to fight evil head on, we become like the evil we oppose. It is better to move with the flow of life, to accept the evil and good that is always part of life, and to live according to one’s natural goodness. By living this way, by living according to the Tao, we transform our lives and transform the face of society and the world:
Oh, my new friends, I have spoken too long! My time with you is short, and I fear I have worn out my welcome! Thank you for your hospitality. May these lessons I have shared with you be my toll payment for being able to visit you in this fascinating time in which you now live. If you remember anything that Lao Tsu taught remember this:
That Being—that Way—is within each of you. Live with it. Be at peace with it. Remember:
Perhaps you have other names for it. But it is the same spirit, beating in your heart, moving in your hands, coursing through your blood, creating all life. Call it what you will. But listen to it, live it, become one with it. For that is where you, perhaps, can find hope in this period of warring states in which you are now living.
I must go now, back to ancient China, back to Han Ku. I have a long trip ahead of me. But first, can you tell me where I can find one of those Dunkin’ Donuts?