The people of the world do not comprehend the way of the sage. Standing apart from others, he is often seen as an enigma, a person of puzzling or contradictory character. Always present, yet at times appearing as if the harvest moon in autumn fading away in the brightness of the coming winter sun. An equilibrium of yin and yang seemingly indifferent to events found in the mundane world.
Often alone with his thoughts, the sage appears to be studying the ways of virtue, almost translucent beyond reach. For a presence felt internally – to be found present looking to transformation while having compassion for sentient life. He speaks and acts as virtue as if the pivot, as the Tao.
It seems that everything in nature must go through a seemingly endless pivot – including us. Only constant as birth, finding our way as living intended, then death. As if our spirit has been given a chance to take stock of whatever progress we have made this time before given a chance to try again. Changing to meet the pull of the sun, moon, and stars as nature intended that define and guide our way. With impermanence and alternation, one step always leading to the next comforted by the change that we know must occur.
The “Blast Furnace” atop Fillial Son Peak on Huashan Mountain where Lao Tzu is said to have created the pill of immortality. Huashan was also an important place for immortality seekers, as many herbal Chinese medicines are grown and powerful drugs were reputed to be found there. Kou Qianzhi (365–448), the founder of the Northern Celestial Master School of Taoism received revelations there, as did Chen Tuan (920–989), who spent the last part of his life in hermitage here on the west peak. Ultimately, what Lao Tzu taught us was that the “pill of immortality resides within us”. The “blast furnace” is our internal nature acknowledging our eternal role we are to play.
As we will forever be in the process of becoming something else. The Taoist believes that the innate nature of heaven is best seen as ourselves, our humanity. We’re not going someplace that already resides as grace within us now. That our heart-mind becomes the pivot through and by our wisdom.
I think this idea of “eternal wisdom” is how Taoism and Buddhism came together as Zen as Alan Watts taught us.
That all things found in nature – all sentient beings everywhere (the ten thousand things) originally, from their beginning, possess the buddha nature. That nature exists eternally and is without change, meaning you cannot lose it, only not recognize as innate nature you have always possessed. The Buddha died just as Lao Tzu. However, both continue to this day as the flow of eternal life (as reflected in a never-ending circle) as the source of wisdom relayed through us continues. This “flow” is what sustains our spirit from one generation to another. Moving forward as a life well lived.
It is by stabilizing ourselves with nature we move beyond the mundane to become who we are meant to be in the present. Every day we go through a transformation defining who we are yet to become. It is why accepting the status quo is never an option for the sage, because nothing seen as done ever is meant to be finished. The continuum of life and nature is never-ending and changes as everything else is changing as well. There is nothing to agree or disagree with… only our acknowledgement of what role we are here or hope to play.
It is as Elton John sings in “The Circle of Life”.
In the circle of life
It’s the wheel of fortune
It’s the leap of faith
It’s the band of hope
‘Til we find our place
On the path unwinding
In the circle, the circle of life
Some of us fall by the wayside
And some of us soar to the stars.
It is said that the Tao is not hard to know, but difficult to follow. For many who would follow Confucius, they would say, “The Tao is what we can never leave. If we can leave it, it isn’t the Tao”. Disney had another hit on their hands the following year with the movie Pocahontas, and once again, they made reference to the circle of life in the movie’s theme song, “Colors Of The Wind”, as the heroine sings, “we are all connected to each other, in a circle, in a hoop that never ends.” The song was inspired by Native American poetry, music and folklore, as well as a famous letter sent to the United States Congress by Chief Seattle, a Suquamish and Duwamish chief, regarding humanity’s relationship with nature.
Part of the letter reads: “The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also received his last sigh. The wind also gives our children the spirit of life. So, if we sell our land, you must keep it apart and sacred, as a place where man can go to taste the wind that is sweetened by the meadow flowers.”
This idea runs through all native Indigenous people, that everything is connected with and to us through its inherent nature. It is the circle of life coming to us as the immortal Way taking care of the spirit without effort that brings peace to the world as virtue. Often appearing as our highest good like water not necessarily to compete, but to transform.
A famous writer in Chinese history, Wang Pi, once said “From the infinitesimal all things develop. From nothing all things are born. When we are free of desire, we can see the infinitesimal where things begin. When we are subject to desire, we can see where things end.”
As philosophy goes, I like to follow Wang Pi’s idea of Confucian ethics and Taoist metaphysics. Looking at the Taoist absolute, or ontological substratum of the universe (the tao), as the metaphysical basis of Confucian social organization, with a single ruler and a hierarchical society harmoniously cooperating according to ritual and the traditional Confucian virtues. This idea was re-enforced on numerous occasions as I traveled around Shandong Province visiting the villages of my students where they lived in the countryside while teaching at Jining University in Qufu in 2011 – 2013.
An underlying premise of Taoism is that “Those who practice the Way put an end to distinctions, get rid of both name and form, and make for themselves a home for the Way and virtue.” To what remains constant as the heart-mind and connects us with all things. As with what is known as Zen, it becomes the naturalization of our spontaneous, original self.
The Tao Te Ching makes use of some very famous analogies to drive home its point. Sages know the value of emptiness as illustrated by how it is used in a bowl, door, window, valley or canyon, as seen in Verses 11 and 41:
Verse 11 – Opening Doors while Staying Behind
Remaining empty to become full. Knowing your place is to put all the cards on the table so that the proper path becomes obvious for all to see. Becoming simply the vessel from which all that represents virtue is known, endured and followed as the way by all.
The Calling Buddhist Temple in Chongqing
Reminded as our breath ebbs and flows we become full by remaining empty as our mind and thoughts remain the catalyst for change and enlightenment. Our usefulness only determined by the emptiness that fills us. Employing nothing to gain advantage that would allow ego to stand in the way.
As you seek only virtue and leave only vestiges of yourself behind. Your role is to open doors for others as you nurture and prepare them to walk through.
Giving birth to virtue and letting it grow. Nourishing what comes forth without claiming to own them. Remaining as the hub of a wheel… constant, reliable and still, yet ever-present and nonexistent. ##
Bianzhong Bells – Zengzi Temple in Jiaxiang, Shandong. Zengzi was said to have composed and/or edited the Classic of Filial Piety under the direction of Confucius. He was also associated with transmission of the Great Learning. My daughter Katie and I visited the Zengzi Temple in 2012 with some of my students. I also taught and lived next to the Qufu Normal School in Qufu. The school was originally for the descendants of the “four families” who were responsible for continuing Confucian traditions and legacy. One of those families was Zengzi’s. The other three families were the descendants of Confucius, Yan Hui (Zhu Xi), and Mencius.
To the left is the Temple of Yan Hui. It was a few blocks down the street on Gulou Street where I lived past the drum tower.
This idea of remaining like a hub on a wheel empty while the spokes all converge on it is as if they cannot do what is intended without the hub’s direction. Seeing beyond oneself, as if non-existent, becomes emblematic of stabilizing the way forward. Realizing the principles of the universal Tao are the same as the Way of Heaven both steadies and sustains all in nature. Practicing the Tao, finding the middle way, we become one with the presence we are here to build on.
Tao Te Ching Verse 41 – Contending for the Middle
How is it that some can hear of the correct way and follow it with devotion, while others when hearing of it are content to argue whether it is real or not?
Luohan Buddhist Temple Chongqing
And still others cannot seem to keep from laughing at such folly. However, if the latter did not laugh it wouldn’t be the way.
For contentment to find its middle both extremes must be shown. The brightest path to some seems dark, the quickest path seems slow.
The smoothest path remains rough. The highest virtue low. The whitest white seems pitch black. The greatest virtue wanting while the staunchest virtue timid. The truest truth remains uncertain. The perfect square will seem to lack corners as the perfect tool remains idle and does nothing. The perfect sound is hushed and quiet, as the perfect form remains shapeless.
Luohan Buddhist Temple Chongqing
It is through these opposites that the two sides of everything become clear.
Once clear, the Tao remains hidden from view, except to those who can truly see. Remaining hidden from view himself, the sage can easily find beginnings and endings and know when to start and how to finish as he already knows having seen both sides many times before.
Taoism always seems to come back to someone referred to as Master Lao, the author of the Tao Te Ching. In my earlier entries here, I make reference to a second book attributed to Lao Tzu entitled the Nei-yeh – Inward Training. It’s contribution to Taoism has been as great or greater for those who see the Taoist path as essential to living a good life. It was written more than two thousand years ago. It can be found here on my website. The next two chapters, chapters seventeen and eighteen of twenty-six are as follows:
Nei-yeh – Inward Training
For all [to practice] this Way:
you must coil, you must contract,
you must uncoil, you must expand,
you must be firm, you must be regular [in this practice].
Hold fast to this excellent [practice]; do not let go of it.
Chase away the excessive; abandon the trivial.
And when you reach its ultimate limit
you will return to the Way and the inner power.
When there is a mind that is unimpaired within you,
it cannot be hidden.
It will be known in your countenance,
and seen in your skin color.
The Procession – Sichuan Museum
If with this good flow of vital energy you encounter others,
they will be kinder to you than your own brethren.
But if with a bad flow of vital energy you encounter others,
they will harm you with their weapons.
This is because the wordless pronouncement is more rapid than the drumming of thunder.
The perceptible form of the mind’s vital energy
is brighter than the sun and moon,
and more apparent than the concern of parents.
Rewards are not sufficient to encourage the good;
punishments are not sufficient to discourage the bad.
Yet once this flow of vital energy is achieved,
all under heaven will submit.
And once the mind is made stable,
all under heaven will listen.
All this becomes transcending the world of nature and society, what we see and hear, to combining intuitive wisdom and practical knowledge with contemplation and social action. The role of the sage has always been to affect and influence the listener. To bring them to a universal understanding often as the storyteller with suggestive images so that you can see things for yourself as well. Often writing and speaking as the storyteller bringing others to an indefinable reality, they must look to their own “blast furnace” – to within themselves to find.