Recently I read the Tao te Ching for the first time. This little book, two and a half thousand years old, so tenderly rendered into English by Stephen Mitchell, contains a raw and ancient wisdom that has been carried into the modern era in more recent eastern traditions such as Zen Buddhism.
Like the true poetry it is, there are things said and unsaid, metaphors and imagery woven into an artwork that speaks not only to us but through us. The author, Lao Tzu, an ancient master of The Tao, or “The Way” teaches us how to live in a way that religion often does, but which does not define laws for us to follow. Instead it shows us where to look to discover the laws of nature.
The book is tiny. The message is simple. As much as we would rather demand that the mystery of living is a puzzle that only exertion and grand learning, perhaps even selective divine inspiration can reveal to us, this book leaves us with ourselves. The words leave space. The guidance is a mere nudge and a nod, a gesture towards a path that winds through the trees without high ceremony or the odour of empire (unlike Confucianism which almost ruined eastern philosophy for me when I was younger).
Far from shying away from the every day, a reading discourages high retreat from family life or work or pleasure as much as it encourages compassion and peace and precisely the kind of inner harmony that people like me can normally never bear to hear about without cliche-induced nausea.
Yet somehow its message has penetrated me. I like it.
It doesn’t tell, but it helps us tell ourselves. It uses language to exceed language.
At once a tactic, a style and the core message, the Tao te Ching exhibits a common characteristic of eastern wisdom traditions: things in the Tao te Ching often seem to conflict with each other in a way that unsettles the puffy rational ego into a game where it, if it can be personified, believes it can win by rejecting the message and text as shallow nonsense. Simultaneously, a part of us – perhaps what some people like to call a soul, whispers into our ear that it didn’t win, it lost, that it was really the ego being shallow and reminding us that we can too easily be drawn into imaginary conflict like a bird pecking a mirror, unable to see the beauty of reflection.
How can I say more?
When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.
Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.
Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.