Living beyond illusion… Can we simply be an allegory of ourselves?
Ho Shang Kung says, “We cultivate the Tao in ourselves by cherishing our breath and by nourishing our spirit and thus by prolonging our life.
We cultivate the Tao in the family by being loving as a parent, filial as a child, kind as an elder, obedient as the younger, dependable as a husband, and chaste as a wife. We cultivate the Tao in the village by honoring the aged and caring for the young, by teaching the benighted and instructing the perverse. We cultivate the Tao in the state by being honest as an official and loyal as an aide. We cultivate the Tao in the world by letting things change without giving orders. Lao Tzu asks how we know that those who cultivate the Tao prosper and those who ignore the Tao perish. We know by comparing those who don’t cultivate the Tao with those who do.”
What is an allegory but a representation of an abstract or spiritual meaning through concrete or material forms; as if, through our mind’s eye it must be the real thing. Perhaps even as a metaphor used to suggest a resemblance with something else. With the adage seeing is believing is the real thing. It’s what great writing does in taking us there. For me it is as the sage with my best times remembered as the dragon as intoned by the ancients. To give figurative treatment of one subject under the guise, or semblance, of another. As if our highest endeavor can only be found as our true selves above the clouds – again. As we use ourselves as the symbolical narrative in telling the story that conveys even our own ultimate destiny. As if in living each day can we know what is real or something we imagined and even question if it can really even have mattered in the end.
If nothing more, it helps or guides us to find a place we may not have otherwise known asking if we were really present, or just acting as some semblance of ourselves. Or as in that old Lone Ranger episode we watched as kids all those years ago, often the only question remaining was “who was that masked man?” As if he too was only an allegory simply chasing after his own highest endeavor and destiny. In the end until the next episode always saying, “Hi Ho Silver… away”. But aren’t we all simply re-defining who we are meant to become.
Keeping with “My Travels with Lieh Tzu”, something I wrote many years ago seems to fit the universal nature we all eventually find and embrace. The below entry seems to fit the times.
Forever reaching for the next rung on the ladder that must be followed. Beyond earthly endeavors. Attachments strewn about like dirty clothes waiting for their place in the right laundry basket.
One’s life simply the process of cleaning the clothes previously worn that must be recycled over and over again. To be constantly reborn. Anything that is seen of paramount importance only a test to be mailed in after you have found and corrected your own mistakes.
Outcomes only determined by lessons learned with only yourself checking and knowing the right answers. Mistakes although constantly repeated. Leading only to an eternity of self‑fulfilling prophecies of our own unwillingness to follow the ultimate path we know must be taken.
Finding the courage to change. Leaving behind patterns filled with adversity we have come to know as a life support. Forever keeping us down as a one-thousand-pound weight around our shoulders. Continually given the eternal chance to change. To keep living until we get it right as we live and die simply by letting go.
Finally finding the ladder. Cautious steps of optimism leading to places previously unheard of and unseen. Knowing that eternal truth lies only in the steps that must be followed. Never looking back, thereby losing your balance the constant order of the day.
Be forever the agent of change. Knowing that the content found by others with everything as it remains is not the way things ultimately will be. Remaining forever unattached, letting go and finding yourself in clothes that are eternally clean. 12/30/94
What is the purpose of seeing things in allegorical terms, except to take or see things beyond the norm, or how we see ourselves in context with what cannot be seen or perhaps even known. Questioning what we think is given as a premise for what we believe is true. Great writing has always done this. As a literary device, an allegory is a metaphor in which a character, place or event is used to deliver a broader message about real-world issues and occurrences. Allegory has occurred widely throughout history in all forms of art, largely because it can readily illustrate or convey complex ideas and concepts in ways that are comprehensible or striking to its viewers, readers, or listeners.
An example can be seen in the poem ‘Harlem’ about the African American experience during the first half of the 20th century, Langston Hughes (February 1, 1902 – May 22, 1967) uses objects like ‘a raisin in the sun’ and a ‘festering sore’ to describe what he thinks happens when dreams are put off or deferred. The images are powerful because they give a memorable and concrete idea of the ill effects of unrealized dreams. Writers, like Langston Hughes, frequently feature symbolism in their work, using an object, person, animal or even color to stand in for an abstract idea. His poetry and fiction portrayed the lives of the working-class blacks in America, lives he portrayed as full of struggle, joy, laughter, and music. Hughes was from Joplin, Missouri where I grew up, but lived many places in his professional life, mainly in New York.
It is said that measuring the stature of great men by the yardstick of the small is difficult at best. As if raising the bar never becomes too much to expect as we become guided by our peers, our becoming worthy of what I like to refer to as dragons. Almost to the point of saying… are we asking too much of ourselves and those around us to have that mountaintop experience. For the Taoist and Lao Tzu, the answer can only lie in “are we being true to ourselves”. For the sage the question becomes in seeing beyond our feeble ego, we see a world that nature provides as it asks “are we to make the most of it.” I always liked Hughes writing because he saw beyond what was a given, to what could become real if only we could see it in ourselves, perhaps if only in our dreams.
Finding the perfect segue for what comes next is a challenge, in that it presupposes a leap of faith to what I call the storyteller’s dilemma. It’s not simply telling the story but becoming the story as well. To be outside the limitations living brings you to allow others to see themselves in the story as participants. You don’t simply tell the story of dragons resting on clouds in the sky. You become one with the dragons, beyond earthly endeavors where much is expected and appreciation for how far you’ve come has been acknowledged and you are humbled as you take your next step. For thousands of years the shaman perfected and prepared others for the journey. Some got it as if innately knowing the next step, others never did.
One must have Merit
To be one with dragons requires great strength and demands discipline. Leadership requires courage based simply on merit. A cause pursued for or by dragons must be pursued with merit. If not, the cause must be abandoned.
Arise from obscurity and retirement. Find your place in the Tao and find a oneness with the universe. Requests from Heaven are difficult to comprehend on both land and water.
Without strength, the most sincere and righteous cause will not prevail. Find patience and your inner chi, or breath, and you will find strength. Find strength in the Tao and you will come to know dragons in the sky.
Once merit is found discipline can follow. Finding courage brings respect from friends and neighbors.
To find balance and harmony one must be worthy of dragons. To be one with dragons one must have merit to be seen dancing on clouds in the sky.
An original composition and interpretation of the Chinese Classic the I Ching (7 THE ARMY / Earth over Water). 2/8/94 The above is found on this website at The I Ching / Voices of the Dragon.
Another common use of allegory in language is what is called the parable.
Described as a short allegorical story designed to illustrate or teach some truth, religious principle, or moral lesson. Usually a statement or comment that conveys a meaning indirectly by the use of comparison, analogy, or the like. One of the most famous in Chinese Taoist history is attributed to the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu) (369 BC to 286 BC), and the story of the butterfly dream, which serves as an articulation of Taoism’s challenge toward definitions of reality vs. illusion. The story, as translated by Lin Yutang, goes like this:
“Once upon a time, I, Zhuangzi, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Zhuangzi. Soon I awakened, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a distinction. The transition is called transformation of material things.”
This short story points to a number of interesting and much-explored philosophical issues, stemming from the relationship between the waking-state and the dream-state, and/or between illusion and reality: How do we know when we’re dreaming, and when we’re awake?
How do we know if what we’re perceiving is “real” or a mere “illusion” or “fantasy”? Is the “me” of various dream-characters the same as or different from the “me” of my waking world? How do I know, when I experience something I call “waking up,” that it is actually a waking up to “reality” as opposed to simply waking up into another level of dream? Or as Langston Hughes I think would remind us… that when awakened from the dream of our current state of affairs, we should be ready to move beyond the dream to the reality of to as he says, fixing the broken wing and being prepared to fly to what is awaiting us.
I have read and written about Chuang Tzu’s butterfly dream for more than twenty years. One of my favorite descriptions is Robert Allison’s “Chuang-tzu for Spiritual Transformation”. Employing the language of western philosophy, Robert Allison, in his book Chuang Tzu for Spiritual Transformation: An Analysis of the Inner Chapters (New York: SUNY Press, 1989), presents a number of possible interpretations of Chuang-tzu’s Butterfly Dream parable, and then offers his own, in which he interprets the story as a metaphor for spiritual awakening.
In support of this argument, Mr. Allison also presents a less well-known passage from the Chuang-tzu, known as the Great Sage Dream anecdote. In this analysis rare echoes of Advaita Vedanta’s Yoga Vasistha, and it also brings to mind also the tradition of Zen koans as well as Buddhist “valid cognition” reasonings. It also reminds one of the works of Wei Wu Wei who, like Mr. Allison, uses the conceptual tools of western philosophy to present the ideas and insights of the nondual eastern traditions. Mr. Allison begins his exploration of Chuang-tzu’s Butterfly Dream anecdote by presenting two frequently used interpretive frameworks: (1) the “confusion hypothesis” and (2) the “endless (external) transformation hypothesis.” For myself, it is the “endless transformation” each of us endeavor to travel that is most intriguing and worth following.
As I continue to go through my own version of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching that I wrote in May/June 2000 and my book, Thoughts on becoming a Sage, The Guidebook for leading a virtuous Life, I am asked to tell… just who was this Lao Tzu and why is he so important? I know I spoke of this last time, but some may have missed so it bears repeating. Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching was the culmination of thousands of years of philosophical thought of what was to become Taoism thanks in part to copies found in tombs of those who were buried with copies of it in China. There are eighty-one verses in the Tao Te Ching. Verses 54 and 55 appear below. Verses 1 through 53 were seen here on my most recent posts. The balance will be seen here over the coming months.
A partial preview can be seen on the Lao Tzu and Taoism tab here on my website. Ultimately, it is what the sage has learned and then in turn taught others along the way that guides us.
The commentaries below are meant to be read as a discussion between Lao Tzu and those interested who have thought deeply about the text itself. The quotes below and references to their authors are from Red Pine’s, Lao Tzu’s Taoteching.
Thoughts on becoming a Sage
Verse 54 – While cultivating his garden the world comes forth to meet the Sage
What is this thing called virtue and this personal quest we each must come to know? Where does virtue begin and how does it grow and manifest to guide us once we see ourselves in the Tao? Once found, how do we let our virtue transcend our everyday desires so that we may see beyond ourselves to discover our rightful place in the universe?
To the sage the world reaches no further than his garden. He remains guided by planting things right so they cannot be uprooted and knowing what is nurtured cannot be ripped away. He cultivates his garden as if tending his virtue. He then cultivates others by reaching out to bequeath what is noble, pure and found only in the Tao.
Cultivating ourselves our virtue becomes real, cultivated in our family it multiplies, in the place we live virtue only increases and we prosper. In the world virtue thus expanding everywhere.
In both perceived beginnings and endings, the sage looks no further than within himself. Staying completely still, within his true self the world comes forth to emulate him.
Wu Ch’eng says, “Those who plant it right, plant without planting. Thus, it is never uprooted. Those who hold it right, hold without holding. Thus, it is never ripped away.”
Wang An-Shih says, “What we plant right is virtue. What we hold right is oneness. When virtue flourishes, distant generations give praise.”
Sung Ch’ang-Hsing says, “In ancient times, ancestral worship consisted in choosing an auspicious day before the full moon, in fasting, in selecting sacrificial animals, in purifying ritual vessels, in preparing a feast on the appointed day, in venerating ancestors as if they were present, and in thanking them for their virtuous example. Those who cultivate the Way likewise enable future generations to enjoy the fruits of the cultivation.”
Yen Tsun says, “Let your body be the yardstick of other bodies. Let your family be the level of other families. Let your village be the square of other villages. Let your state be the plumb line of other states. As for the world, the ruler is its heart, and the world is his body.”
Verse 55 – Gaining a firm grip on lasting Abundance
What does it mean to have lasting abundance when we leave our virtue behind? How can we be full of breath, yet not know how to make our breath endure? If our essence remains within us, why does our virility stand in the way?
When you become simply an extension of the Tao, you go as if mindless through your endeavors. Without a mind, you have no thoughts or desires. You proceed fearless unaware of what may harm you or that you could possibly harm another.
Once you become aware that you are a part of something bigger than yourself and have a firm grip on the direction you must take, only then can you begin to focus your mind and cultivate the Tao. When your mind does not stray and a certain serenity surrounds you, then your breath can become balanced.
The sage focuses on his breath because when it becomes balanced his essence is stable, his spirit serene and his true nature is restored.
Controlling his breath, he endures and finds his true nature. Understanding his true nature, he is able to impart wisdom to others. He becomes unconcerned and extending his life as his spirit is uncluttered and has already rediscovered its place in what has been what may occur now and where he will spend eternity. The sage has no fear of death because he knows his essence, or spirit, remains eternal.
Wang P’ang says, “The nature of virtue is lasting abundance. But its abundance fades with the onset of thoughts and desires.”
Te-Ch’ing says, “Those who cultivate the Tao should first focus their minds. When the mind doesn’t stray, it becomes calm. When the mind becomes calm, breath becomes balanced. When breath becomes balanced, essence becomes stable, spirit becomes serene, and our true nature becomes restored. Once we know how to breathe, we know how to endure. And once we know how to endure, we know our true nature. If we don’t know our true nature but only know how to nourish our body and lengthen our lives, we end up harming our body and destroying our lives. A restless mind disturbs the breath. When the breath is disturbed, the essence weakens. And when the essence weakens, the body withers.”
Hsun-Tzu says, “Everything must breathe to live. When we know how to breathe, we know how to nurture life and how to endure”.
Sung Ch’ang says, “The basis of life rests on this breath. If someone can nourish the pure and balanced breath within himself for fifteen minutes, he will discover the principal of Heaven and Earth’s immortality. If he can do this for half an hour, he will gain the gate of eternity. But if he tries to extend his life or force his breath, he will create the womb of his destruction.”
Mou-Tzu says, “Those who attain the Way don’t become active and don’t become strong. They don’t become strong and they don’t become old. They don’t become old and don’t become ill. They don’t become ill and don’t decay. Thus, Lao Tzu calls the body a disaster” (32).