Laotzu's Tao and Wu Wei, by Dwight Goddard and Henri Borel, , at sacred-texts.com
I WAS standing in the Temple of Shien Shan on an islet in the Chinese Sea, distant a few hours' journey from the harbour of Ha_ Tó.
On either side rose mountain ranges, their soft outlines interwoven behind the island to the westward. To the eastward shimmered the endless Ocean. High up, rock-supported, stood the Temple, in the shadow of broad Buddha-trees.
The island is but little visited, but sometimes fisher-folk, fleeing before the threatening typhoon, anchor there when they have no further hope of reaching the harbour. Why the Temple exists in this lonely spot, no one knows; but the lapse of centuries has established its holy right to stand there. Strangers arrive but seldom, and there are only a hundred poor inhabitants, or thereabouts, who live there simply because their ancestors did so before them. I had gone thither in the hope of finding some man of a serious bent of mind with whom to study. I had explored the temples and convents of the neighborhood for more than a year, in search of earnest-minded priests capable of telling me what I was unable to learn from the superficial books on Chinese religion; but I found nothing but ignorant,
stupid creatures everywhere--kneeling to idols whose symbolical significance they did not understand, and reciting strange "Sutras" not one word of which was intelligible to them. 1 And I had been obliged to draw all my information from badly translated works that had received even worse treatment at the hands of learned Europeans than at those of the literary Chinese whom I had consulted. At last, however, I had heard an old Chinaman speak of "the Sage of Shien Shan" as of one well-versed in the secrets of Heaven and Earth; and--without cherishing any great expectations, it is true--I had crossed the water to seek him out.
This Temple resembled many others that I had seen. Grimy priests lounged on the steps in dirty-grey garments, and stared at me with senseless grins. The figures of "Kwan Yin" and "Cakyamuni" and "Sam-Pao-Fu" had been newly restored, and blazed with all imaginable crude colours that completely marred their former beauty. The floor was covered with dirt and dust, and pieces of orange-peel and sugar-cane were strewn about. A thick and heavy atmosphere oppressed my breast.
Addressing one of the priests, I said:
"I have come to visit the philosopher. Does not an old hermit dwell here, called after 'Laotzu'?"
With a wondering face he answered me:
"Laotzu lives in the top-most hut upon the cliffs. But he does not like barbarians."
I asked him quietly:
"Will you take me to him, Bikshu, for a dollar?"
There was greed in his glance, but he shook his head, saying:
"I dare not; seek him yourself."
The other priests grinned, and offered me tea, in the hope of a tip.--
I left them, and climbed the rocks, reaching the top in half an hour; and there I found a little square stone hut. I knocked at the door, and, shortly after, heard some one draw back a bolt.
There stood the sage, looking at me.
And it was a revelation.
It seemed as though I saw a great light--a light not dazzling, but calming.
He stood before me tall and straight as a palm-tree. His countenance was peaceful as is a calm evening, in the hush of the trees, and the still moonlight; his whole person breathed the majesty of nature, as simply beautiful, as purely spontaneous, as a mountain or a cloud. His presence radiated an atmosphere holy as the prayerful soul in the soft after-gleam on a twilight landscape,--I felt uneasy under his deep gaze, and saw my poor life revealed in all its pettiness. I could not speak a word, but felt in silence his enlightening influence.
He raised his hand with a gesture like the movement of a swaying flower, and held it out to me--heartily--frankly. He spoke, and his voice was soft music, like the sound of the wind in the trees:
"Welcome, stranger! What do you seek of me?--old man that I am!"
"I come to seek a master," I answered humbly, "to find the path to human goodness. I have long searched this beautiful land, but the people seem as though they were dead, and I am as poor as ever."
"You err somewhat in this matter," said the sage. "Strive not so busily to be so very good. Do not seek it overmuch, or you will never find the true wisdom. Do you not know how it was that the Yellow Emperor 2 recovered his magic pearl? I will tell you. 3
"The Yellow Emperor once travelled round the north of the Red Sea, and climbed to the summit of the Kuenlün mountains. On his return to the southward he lost his magic pearl. He besought his wits to find it, but in vain. He besought his sight to find it, but in vain. He besought his eloquence to find it, but that was also in vain. At last he besought Nothing, and Nothing recovered it. 'How extraordinary!' exclaimed the Yellow Emperor, 'that Nothing should be able to recover it!' Do you understand me, young man?"
"I think this pearl was his soul," I answered, "and that knowledge, sight and speech do but cloud the soul rather than enlighten it; and that it was only in the place of perfect quietude that his soul's consciousness was restored to the Yellow Emperor. Is it so, Master?"
"Quite right; you have felt it as it is. And
do you know, too, by whom this beautiful legend is told?"
"I am young and ignorant; I do not know."
"It is by Chuang-Tse, the disciple of Laotzu, China's greatest philosopher. It was neither Confucius nor Mencius who spoke the purest wisdom in this country, but Laotzu. He was the greatest, and Chuang-Tse was his apostle. You foreigners cherish, I know, a certain well-meaning admiration for Laotzu also, but I think but few of you know that he was the purest human being who ever breathed.--Have you read the 'Tao-Teh-King'? and have you ever considered, I wonder, what he meant by 'Tao'?"
"I should be grateful if you would tell me, Master."
"I think I may well instruct you, young man. It is many years since I have had a pupil, and I see in your eyes no curiosity, but rather a pure desire of wisdom, for the freeing of your soul. Listen then. 4
"Tao is really nothing but that which you Westerns call 'God.' Tao is the One; the beginning and the end. It embraces all things, and to it all things return.
"Laotzu wrote at the commencement of his book the sign: Tao. But what he actually meant--the Highest, the One--can have no name, can never be expressed in any sound, just because it is The One. Equally inadequate is your term 'God.'--Wu--Nothing--that is Tao. You do not understand me?--Listen further! There exists,
then, an absolute Reality--without beginning, without end--which we cannot comprehend, and which therefore must be to us as Nothing. That which we are able to comprehend, which has for us a relative reality, is in truth only appearance. It is an outgrowth, a result of absolute reality, seeing that everything emanates from, and returns to, that reality. But things which arc. real to us are not real in themselves. What we call Being is in fact Not-Being, and just what we call Not-Being is Being in its true sense. So that we are living in a great obscurity. What we imagine to be real is not real, and yet emanates from the real, for the Real is the Whole. Both Being and Not-Being are accordingly Tao. But above all never forget that 'Tao' is merely a sound uttered by a human being, and that the idea is essentially inexpressible. All things appreciable to the senses and all cravings of the heart are unreal. Tao is the source of Heaven and Earth. One begat Two, two begat Three, Three begat Millions. And Millions return again into One.
"If you remember this well, young man, you have passed the first gateway on the path of Wisdom.
"You know, then, that Tao is the source of everything; of the trees, the flowers, the birds; of the sea, the desert, and the rocks; of light and darkness; of heat and cold; of day and night; of summer and winter, and of your own life. Worlds and oceans evaporate in Eternity. Man rises out of the darkness, laughs in the glimmering
light, and disappears. But in all these changes the One is manifested. Tao is in everything. Your soul in her innermost is Tao.--
"You see the world outspread before you, young man? . . ."
With a stately gesture he pointed seawards.
The hills on either side stood fast, uncompromising, clear-set in the atmosphere--like strong thoughts, petrified, hewn out by conscious energy--yielding only in the distance to the tender influence of light and air. On a very high point stood a lonely little tree, of delicate leafage, in a high light. The evening began to fall, with tender serenity; and a rosy glow, dreamy yet brilliant, lent to the mountains, standing ever more sharply defined against it, an air of peaceful joyousness. In it all was to be felt a gentle upward striving, a still poising, as in the rarefied atmosphere of conscious piety. And the sea crept up softly, with a still-swaying slide--with the quiet, irresistible approach of a type of infinity. The sail of a little vessel, gleaming softly golden, glided nearer. So tiny it looked on that immense ocean--so fearless and lovely! All was pure--no trace of foulness anywhere.
And I spoke with the rare impulse of a mighty joy.
"I feel it now, O Master! That which I seek is everywhere. I had no need to--seek it in the distance; for it is quite close to me. It is everywhere--what I seek, what I myself am, what my soul is.--It is familiar to me as my own--self,.
[paragraph continues] It is all revelation! God is everywhere! Tao is in everything!"
"That is so, boy, but confuse it not! In that which you see is Tao, but Tao is not what you see. You must not think that Tao is visible to your eyes. Tao will neither waken joy in your heart nor draw your tears. For all your experiences and emotions are relative and not real.
"However, I will speak no more of that at present. You stand as yet but at the first gate, and see but the first glint of dawn. It is already much that you should realize Tao as present in everything. It will render your life more natural and confident--for, believe me, you lie as safe in the arms of Tao as a child in the arms of its mother. And it will make you serious and thoughtful too, for you will feel yourself to be in all places as holy a thing as is a good priest in his temple. No longer will you be frightened by the changes in things, by life and death; for you know that death, as well as life, emanates from Tao. And it is so natural that Tao, which pervaded your life, should also after death continually surround you.
"Look at the landscape before you! The trees, the mountains, the sea, they are your brothers, like the air and the light. Observe how the sea is approaching us! So spontaneously, so naturally, so purely 'because so it must be.'--Do you see your dear sister the little tree on yonder point, bending towards you? and the simple movement of her little leaves?--Then I will
speak to you of Wu-Wei, 5 of 'non-resistance,' of 'self-movement' on the breath of your impulse as it was born out of Tao. Men would be true men if they would but let their lives flow of themselves, as the sea heaves, as a flower blooms, in the simple beauty of Tao. In every man there is an impulse towards that movement which, proceeding from Tao, would urge him back to Tao again. But men grow blind through their own senses and lusts. They strive for pleasure, desire, hate, fame and riches. Their movements are fierce and stormy, their progress a series of wild uprisings and violent falls. They hold fast to all that is unreal. They desire too many things to allow of their desiring the One. They desire, too, to be wise and good, and that is worst of all. They desire to know too much.
"The one remedy is: the return to the source whence they came. In us is Tao. Tao is rest. Only by renunciation of desire--even the desire for goodness or wisdom--can we attain rest. Oh! all this craving to know what Tao is! And this painful struggle for words in which to express it and to inquire after it!--The truly wise follow the Teaching which is wordless--which remains unexpressed. 6 And who shall ever express it? Those who know it (what Tao is) tell it not; those who tell it know it not.[xr. 7} Even I shall not tell you what Tao is. Yourself must discover it in that you free yourself from all your passions and cravings, and live in utter spontaneity, void of unnatural striving. Gently must Tao be
approached, with a motion reposeful as the movement of that broad ocean. That moves, not because it chooses to move, not because it knows that it is wise or good to move; it moves involuntarily, unconscious of movement. Thus will you also return to Tao, and when you are returned you will know it not, for you yourself will be Tao."
He ceased speaking, and looked at me gently. His eyes shone with a quiet light, still and even as the tint of the heavens.
"Father," I said, "what you say is beautiful as the sea, and it seems simple as nature; but surely it is not so easy--this strifeless, inactive absorption of man into Tao?"
"Do not confuse words one with another," he replied. "By strifelessness--Wu-Wei--Laotzu did not mean common inaction,--not mere idling, with closed eyes. He meant: relaxation from earthly activity, from desire--from the craving for unreal things. But he did exact activity in real things. He implied a powerful movement of the soul, which must be freed from its gloomy body like a bird from its cage. He meant a yielding to the inner motive-force which we derive from Tao and which leads us to Tao, again. And, believe me: this movement is as natural as that of the cloud above us. . . ."
High in the blue ether over our heads were golden clouds, sailing slowly towards the sea. They gleamed with a wonderful purity, as of a high and holy love.--Softly, softly they were, floating, away.
"In a little while they will be gone, vanished in the infinity of the heavens," said the hermit, "and you will see nothing but the eternal blue. Thus will your soul be absorbed into Tao."
"My life is full of sins," I answered; "I am heavily burdened with darkening desires. And so are my benighted fellow-men. How can our life ever--thus ethereally, in its purest essence--float towards Tao? It is so heavy with evil, it must surely sink back into the mire."
"Do not believe it, do not believe it!" he exclaimed, smiling in gracious kindliness. "No man can annihilate Tao, and there shines in each one of us the inextinguishable light of the soul. Do not believe that the evilness of humanity is so great and so mighty. The eternal Tao dwells in all; in murderers and harlots as well as in philosophers and poets. All bear within them an indestructible treasure, and not one is better than another. You cannot love the one in preference to the other; you cannot bless the one and damn the other. They are as alike in essence as two grains of sand on this rock. And not one will be banished out of Tao eternally, for all bear Tao within them. Their sins are illusive, having the vagueness of vapours. Their deeds are a false seeming; and their words pass away like ephemeral dreams. They cannot be 'bad,' they cannot be 'good' either. Irresistibly they are drawn to Tao, as yonder water-drop to the great sea. It may last longer with some than
with others, that is all. And a few centuries--what matter they in the face of Eternity?--Poor friend! Has your sin made you so fearful? Have you held your sin to be mightier than Tao? Have you held the sin of men to be mightier than Tao?--You have striven to be good overmuch, and so have seen your own misdoing in a falsely clear light. You have desired overmuch goodness in your fellow-men also, and therefore has their sin unduly troubled you. But all this is a seeming. Tao is neither good nor bad. For Tao is real. Tao alone is; and the life of all unreal things is a life of false contrasts and relations, which have no independent existence, and do greatly mislead. So, above all, do not desire to be good, neither call yourself bad. Wu-Wei--unstriving, self-impelled--that must you be. Not bad--not good; not little--and not great; not low--and not high. And only then will you in reality be, even whilst, in the ordinary sense you are not. When once you are free from all seeming, from all craving and lusting, then will you move of your own impulse, without so much as knowing that you move; and this, the only true life-principle--this free, untrammelled motion towards Tao--will be light and unconscious as the dissolution of the little cloud above you."
I experienced a sudden sense of freedom. The feeling was not joy--not happiness. It was rather a gentle sense of expansion--a widening of my mental horizon.
"Father," I said, "I thank you! This revelation of Tao lends me already an impulse which, though I cannot explain it, yet seems to bear me gently forward.
"How wonderful is Tao! With all my wisdom--with all my knowledge, I have never felt this before!"
"Crave not thus for wisdom!" said the philosopher. "Do not desire to know too much--so only shall you grow to know intuitively; for the knowledge acquired by unnatural striving only leads away from Tao. Strive not to know all there is to know concerning the men and things around you, nor--and this more especially--concerning their relations and antagonisms. Above all, seek not happiness too greedily, and be not fearful of unhappiness. For neither of these is real. Joy is not real, nor pain either. Tao would not be Tao, were you able to picture it to yourself as pain, as joy, as happiness or unhappiness; for Tao is One Whole, and in it no discords may exist. Hear how simply it is expressed by Chuang-Tse: 'The greatest joy is no joy.' And pain too will have vanished for you! You must never believe pain to be a real thing, an essential element of existence. Your pain will one day vanish as the mists vanish from the mountains. For one day you will realize how natural, how spontaneous are all facts of existence; and all the great problems which have held for you mystery and darkness will become Wu-Wei, quite simple, non-resistent,
no longer a source of marvel to you. For everything grows out of Tao, everything is a natural part of the great system developed from a single principle.--Then nothing will have power to trouble you nor to rejoice you more. You will laugh no more, neither will you weep.--I see you look up doubtfully, as though you found me too hard, too cold. Nevertheless, when you are somewhat further advanced you will realize that this it means, to be in perfect sympathy with Tao. Then, looking upon 'pain,' you will know' that one day it must disappear, because it is unreal; and looking upon 'joy,' you will understand that it is but a primitive and shadowy joy, dependent upon time and circumstance, and deriving its apparent existence from contrast with pain. Looking upon a goodly man, you will find it wholly natural that he should be as he is, and will experience a foreshadowing of how much goodlier he will be in that day when he shall no longer represent the 'kind' and 'good.' And upon a murderer you will look with all calmness, with neither special love nor special hate; for he is your fellow in Tao, and all his sin is powerless to annihilate Tao within him. Then, for the first time, when you are Wu-Wei at last--not, in the common human sense, existing--then all will be well with you, and you will glide through your life as quietly and naturally as the great sea before us. Naught will ruffle your peace. Your sleep mill be dreamless, and consciousness of self will bring no care. 8 You will see Tao in all
things, be one with all existence, and look round on the whole of nature as on something with which you are intimate as with yourself. And passing with calm acceptance through the changes of day and night, summer and winter, life and death, you will one day enter into Tao, where there is no more change, and whence you issued once as pure as you now return."
"Father, what you say is clear--and compels belief. But life is still so dear to me, and I am afraid of death; I am afraid too lest my friends should die, or my wife, or my child! Death seems to me so black and gloomy--and life is bright--bright--with the sun, and the green and flowery earth!"
"That is because you fail as yet to feel the perfect naturalness of death, which is equal in reality to that of life. You think too much of the insignificant body, and the deep grave in which it must lie; but that is the feeling of a prisoner about to be freed, who is troubled at the thought of leaving the dark cell where he has lived so long. You see death in contrast to life; and both are unreal--both are a changing and a seeming. Your soul does not glide out of a familiar sea into an unfamiliar ocean. That which is real in you, your soul, can never pass away, and this fear is no part of her. You must conquer this fear for ever; or, better still, it will happen when you are older, and have lived spontaneously, naturally, following the motions of Tao, that you will of your own accord cease
to feel it. . . . Neither will you then mourn for those who have gone home before you; with whom you will one, day be reunited--not knowing, yourself, that you are reunited to them, because these contrasts will no longer be apparent to you. . . .
". . . It came to pass once upon a time that Chuang-Tse's wife died, and the widower was found by Hui-Tse sitting calmly upon the ground, passing the time, as was his wont, in beating upon a gong. When Hui-Tse rallied him upon the seeming indifference of his conduct, Chuang-Tse replied:
"'Thy way of regarding things is unnatural. At first, it is true, I was troubled--I could not be otherwise. But after some pondering I reflected that originally she was not of this life, being not only not born, but without form altogether; and that into this formlessness no life-germ had as yet penetrated. That nevertheless, as in a sun-warmed furrow, life-energy then began to stir; out of life-energy grew form, and form became birth. To-day another change has completed itself, and she has died. This resembles the rise and fall of the four seasons: spring, autumn, winter, summer. She sleeps calmly in the Great House. Were I now to weep and wail, it were to act as though the soul of all this had not entered into me,--therefore I do it no more.'" 9
This he told in a simple, unaffected manner that showed how natural it appeared to him. But it was not yet clear to me, and I said:
"I find this wisdom terrible; it almost makes me afraid. Life would seem to me so cold and empty, were I as wise as this."
"Life is cold and empty," he answered, quietly, but with no trace of contempt in his tone;--"and men are as deceptive as life itself. There is not one who knows himself, not one who knows his fellows; and yet they are all alike. There is, in fact, no such thing as life; it is unreal."
I could say no more, and stared before me into the twilight. The mountains were sleeping peacefully in the tender, bloom-like shimmer of vague night-mists--lying lowly, like children, beneath the broad heavens. Below us was an indistinct twinkling of little red lights. From the distance rose a sad monotonous song, the wail of a flute accompanying it. In the depths of the darkness lay the sea in its majesty, and the sound of infinitude swelled far and wide.
Then there arose in me a great sadness, and my eyes filled, as with passionate insistence I asked him: "And what of friendship, then?--and what of love?"--
He looked at me. I could not see him plainly in the darkness, but there shone from his eyes a curious soft light, and he answered gently:
"These are the best things in life, by very far. They are one with the first stirring of Tao within you. But one day you will know of them as little as the stream knows of its banks when it is lost in the endless ocean. Think not that I would teach you to banish love from your heart;
for that would be to go against Tao. Love what you love, and be not misled by the thought that love is a hindrance which holds you in bondage. To banish love from your heart would be a mad and earthly action, and would put you further away from Tao than you have ever been. I say only, that love will one day vanish of itself without your knowing, and that Tao is not Love. But forget not, that--so far as I desire it, and so far as it is good for you--I am speaking to you of the very highest things. Were I only speaking of this life and of men, I should say: Love is the highest of all. But for him who is absorbed again into Tao, love is a thing past and forgotten.
"Now, it has grown late, and I would not impart too much to you at first. You will surely desire to sleep within the Temple, and I will prepare your couch. Come with me--and descend the mountain with all caution.
He lit a little light, and held out his hand to lead me. Slowly we. proceeded, step by step. He was as careful of me as though I had been his child; he lighted my path at every steep descent, and led me gently forward, taking heed of all my movements.
When we arrived at the foot, he showed me the little guest-chamber set apart for mandarins, 10 and fetched pillow and covering for me.
"I thank you, Father, from my heart!" I said.
When shall I ever be able to show my gratitude?"
He looked at me quietly, and the glance was great, like the sea. Calm he was, and gentle as night. He smiled at me, and it was like the light laughing upon the earth. And silently he left me.