I do not know its name, and I give it the designation of the Tao: the Way. The Tao, considered as unchanging, has no name. I do not know whose son it is. It might appear to have been before God. —Lao Tzu, from the Tao Te Ching
All things leave behind them the Obscurity out of which they have come, and go forward to embrace the Light into which they have emerged.
Lao Tzu, from the 81 sayings of the Tao Te Ching, c. 450 B.C.
China, The Middle Kingdom, c. 450 B.C.
In the way of Heaven, there is no partiality of Love. It is always on the side of the good. –Lao Tzu
THE MISTS of my Middle Kingdom reveal more than they obscure or hide. Not only because they so gently reflect the light of the sun; or that they diffuse it with a width and depth of lightness that makes you blink sometimes at the sight of them. It is also the beauty they give to the hills and mountains; the softness with which they clothe the blackest rocks and greenest growths; and the calmness they bring to the earth. The mountain mists quiet the land. Seeing them, and feeling them, one can return to that inner quiet so easily disturbed by the troubles of the day. In their furry wisps, boundaries are broken, and things divided seem to dwell together in the womb of their natural Oneness. It was with the help of such seeings, drawn from the Old Master’s own sayings, that I was able to persuade him to write down his teachings before he returned his body to the earth and his spirit to Heaven.
I am Yin Hsi. In my youth, I was the gatekeeper at a western border of our kingdom, protecting it against those who had no right to enter, and those who had no right to leave. It was, as you may guess, a great honor for me to be given such a position, and my father’s greatest pride. It was not an honor I had sought, nor one of which I would be so bold as to boast. It was awarded to me chiefly because of my size and strength (although also because I could read). It is not vain of me, I think, to tell you I was the tallest man in my village, because it is simply the truth. Indeed, no visitor to my village had ever been seen who was taller. And, in those days, I could bend an iron rod with one of my hands if I was asked to do so. Do you not think I may speak of my height and strength in this way without ungracious pride? They were, after all, only what nature had given me. It was always my own wish to think of such gifts humbly –perhaps even before my honored father had told me of the Old Master’s teachings about the wisdom of modesty.
There was no one in those parts who had not at least heard of his wisdom, and of his gentleness. But few, if any, knew of the despair that had led him to the border it was my duty to guard. He was a most unusual sight as he arrived there at my gate. He looked so forlorn I could not possibly have guessed it was he. He sat astride an old water buffalo, and seemed to be sleeping, letting the old animal take its own path. It was a bright afternoon, but I could not see his face, hidden as it was by his hooded head, which hung down, with his chin upon his chest. The animal upon which he sat was not, however, a stupid one. It stopped as soon as it had arrived at my gate, which remained open behind a small caravan that had entered the Kingdom but a few moments before. Alert to mischief, I looked beyond the animal, and saw no others approaching. So I walked slowly up to the sleeping figure, and gently shook its leg. He raised his head at once, and when his face appeared, I saw that I was looking up at the figure of a very old man. He said nothing, but, after a polite bow of his head, stared at me for a moment, and then straight ahead, through the portal of the gate.
“Honorable Sir,” I humbly ventured to ask, “what brings you to the Kingdom gate this day and hour, and alone?” He moved his head, slowly, far back, so that his eyes looked up; not to gaze at the sky, but to stretch himself a bit, and further waken himself from his nap. He looked down again at me, still not speaking. His old eyes seemed very sad and tired, and he himself a very weary old man. The heat of the day, though ending, was still great, and I feared he might topple from his mount if he did not have some refreshment. So I walked back to my post, picked up my waterbag, and brought it to him. He bowed his head again to me in thanks, and took the bag, and put it to his lips. Thus refreshed, he returned the bag to me, then moved to dismount the buffalo. He did so with an agility that surprised me, quite uncommon, it seemed to me, for one so advanced in years. As soon as both his feet were on the ground, he walked, slowly, to the border wall, to the left of the gate, beside my post, and sat down there on the ground, with the same ease in placing himself as he had shown in dismounting the buffalo.
“Aaahhhhhhhhhhhh!” He let out a great sigh, and hung his head again, half way to his knees. His little rounded figure reminded me of a balled porcupine, or some other small creature sheltering itself from the world. He did not appear to me to be ill, just very tired and, perhaps, vexed by some great grief. Wanting to comfort the old man, I approached the wall, crouched before him, and addressed him as gently as I could. “I would not wish to ask questions, Sir, to trouble you,” I said, “but I must know the reason you are here at the gate, if you wish to pass through it. And if you do not wish to pass through it, then I will not trouble you with other questions a man might wish to ask at hearing so great a sigh. Unless, of course, there is some small way in which a humble, ignorant gatekeeper may be of help to one so blessed with years.” He bowed his head kindly and, for the first time, spoke to me with words: “I do not wish to trouble you either, gatekeeper. Of course I shall answer the question your duties require you to ask me. And I shall also answer the question you have so courteously refrained from asking.
“As to the first question,” he continued, speaking very slowly, and very quietly, but very clearly, “I am leaving the Kingdom for the last time. I shall never return. My days are now coming to an end. It is my wish to pass the last of them in the desert, as far away from the evil of men as my old bones and this old buffalo can take me.
“And as to your kindly second question, it is difficult to give words to the cause for my sigh that will be any clearer than my sigh itself. It is easy to see, honorable gatekeeper, you are one who knows what duty is, and so you also know what it means to see no duty. Your youth may, however, have spared you acquaintance with all the evil men can do. One may weather the torrents of life by becoming like water oneself, bending to the wind, whichever way it may blow, and growing thence with strength in new directions, like a tree by the sea. But the evil deeds of men defy Heaven itself, and they will not listen to the wind. Do you know how many wicked men refuse even to see the evil they do to others? If you live long enough, you too will find that all around you are those who choose to live by their wickedness, and know no other way. Even the deepest well has its bottom, and a man can swallow only so much evil before gagging upon it. I have seen infants famished and dead from the stoneheartedness of greedy landlords; women ravished under the loins of deaf and lustful beasts; and honorable men destroyed –aye, and tormented to death– by the powerful ambitious. Evil men, deadened to the touch of a Heaven they could find if only they stilled themselves to feel it, mostly rule the world. I have seen too much of this to bear it any longer. And so I seek now to find a place where the five colors will no longer blind my eye; the five tones will no longer deafen my ear; the five flavors will no longer dull my taste. I will let go of all that, and choose, at last, to be one again with the formless, at peace with All and released forever from these strivings.”
The old man’s desperate speech frightened me at first, but in it I had also recognized some sayings of Lao Tzu, many of which, and often, my father had recited to me. One of these sayings I had remembered well (giving some wisdom to my bodily strength) was that “Everyone in the world knows that the soft overcomes the hard, and the weak the strong;” and it was with this teaching in mind I thought to find a path to soothe and soften the harshness of the old man’s despair at the evil of men and his declared renunciation of life. “With gentleness,” the Old Master, Lao Tzu, had also said, “I can be bold.” So I said to the ancient traveler (yet a stranger to me): “Gentle Sir, I have heard words, from the same teacher whom you have just quoted, that in the light of The Way, The partial becomes complete; the crooked straight; the empty full; the worn out, new.’ Is it not a good and useful thing, honorable Sir, to lighten one’s burdens by seeing that all things have their place, even grief, and that one should not permit a part to take away the whole? Is not the weight of Heaven always light? Does it not give a man strength enough to carry the whole world upon his shoulders, when he must, as lightly as a feather?”
At this the venerable one smiled, and bowed his head as if to show respect for the wisdom both of the words I had quoted and the questions I had asked. Then he answered: “I cannot deny the truth in your words, gatekeeper, for they are sayings I myself have uttered, believing them. The Tao that can be trodden, however, is not the enduring and unchanging Tao. The name that can be named –even the name of Heaven itself– is not the enduring and unchanging name. Desire the Tao with us to be, and its outer fringe is all we shall see.’ The Way is only found without desiring it.”
“You too then,” I put as a question, “have the good fortune to know the teachings of the Old Master?” “As well as I know myself,” he replied. “But after a long enough time, the body may overcome the mind, and the striving and evils of the world may overcome the pacific knowledge of Heaven itself. As I have told you, honorable gatekeeper, I have become too weary of the evils of men, and their ignorance of Heaven, to bear them any longer, and wish now to have that unending Peace that, sooner or later, comes to us all.”
Now, it is also one of Lao Tzu’s teachings that “It is the way of the Tao to act without thinking, and to conduct affairs without feeling the trouble of them.” So, on hearing this, I leaped to my feet without further thought, and walked back to my post. For hearing this healthy old man –one who professed knowledge of the wisest and kindest teachings– speak of ending his life for no good reason other than the evil he saw in others, seemed to me impiously immodest. It was not in The Way: to “recompense injury with kindness” –either kindness to himself, or kindness to others who might feel his loss, even if they had wronged him. And so, now standing at my post, I declared (again quoting the Old Master): “‘For regulating the human in our selves, and rendering the proper service to the heavenly, there is nothing like moderation!’ A decision, honorable Sir, to leave life because of some chattering of the mind’s discontents, is anything but moderate. It is not The Way; it is neither gentle, nor humble, nor wise, honorable Sir. It places a man’s cares above those he would leave behind.
“These, however,” I continued, now looking straight ahead, “are some teachings of the Master which my honorable father has taught me. But he has also taught me to do my duty in obedience to the commands of the Emperor. You have not shown me a passport. Whether you wish to travel the path of The Way or not, I cannot let you pass through this gate. When you have rested enough, you must please to begin your journey home. Perhaps along the way you can seek out the Old Master himself, who may remind you better than a humble gatekeeper can of the true Way of Heaven!”
The old traveler followed me closely with his eyes when I rose, and then as I stood stiffly at my post, making my speech. My eyes, however, had soon turned from him, as I looked straight ahead, a gatekeeper on his watch. I could not, however, help but hear his reply to my resolution, for this time it was not a smile, but a hearty laugh. His laughter rose higher and higher, so high, in fact, that I was moved to look again towards him. I saw that his eyes filled with tears as he laughed. His laughter ended, he raised himself to his feet, and walked back to his buffalo. He reached into his pack, and pulled out some papers. Then he came to me at the gate, and handed me his passport and his other papers in silence, with a courteous bow.
I told myself that I would inspect his papers very closely, and find some reason to tell the old man they were not as they should be, and that he must return to his home to have them done right. I found more in his papers than I had thought I would find to give me reason not to let him pass: they said he was none other than the Master himself, Lao Tzu! After reading his papers, I gazed at him again, intently, and saw that his face was now very grave. Learning who he was had an unexpected effect upon me. It surprised me, to be sure, but it angered me even more. I took hold of myself then, however, remembering the sublime and gentle teachings of the very man who sternly stood before me. We stared directly into each other’s eyes. The paradox became too much for me, and I too began to laugh. Lao Tzu now joined me in renewed laughter, which again continued until four eyes filled with tears.
When our laughter at length subsided, I felt renewed determination not to let him pass out of the gate and, hence, this life, any sooner than Heaven itself commanded. So I said to him: “Most honorable Sir, you shall yet not pass through this gate until you bring to me proof of who you are by a writing that shows more of your wisdom than I have learned from my father, or from others. In telling you this, I do not place myself above you, but, as straight and tall as I stand, I bow before your teachings. For one day, with Heaven’s blessing, I too shall have sons and daughters, and they shall have sons and daughters, and so shall they. And after Heaven has, in its time, rejoined you to its Oneness, there will be no way of knowing whether my children, and my children’s children, and their children, will find the gate to The Way to which your teachings may lead them. Your duty to others is not ended yet; and he who, like yourself, honorable Master, has the attributes of The Way, respects and accepts the conditions of his duty, whether or not favorable to himself.”
Lao Tzu must, of course, have known that he could not make his way through the gate if I did not choose to let him do so. But it was not, it seemed to me, fear of my strength that caused him then to bow his head at once in seeming surrender to my determination. My appeal to his kindly sense of duty had, I thought, made a point with him that mattered. (Perhaps, I thought, with some regret, my boldness in reminding him of his duty had even shamed him with a loss of face.) I was, therefore surprised by his next words, which did not betoken surrender at all, but serenity.
“Thus it is,” Lao Tzu declared to me, “that when the Tao is lost, its attributes appear; when its attributes are lost, benevolence appears. Thus it is that dignity finds its firmest root in its previous meanness, and what is lofty finds its stability in the lowness from which it arises. I have, I am sorry to say, honorable gatekeeper, allowed the leaden living death of others to weigh me down so far that I myself –I, who learned to feel the tranquility into which one may step at any moment– found the thoughts that burdened me so heavy I could not lift them off myself. But you, most honorable gatekeeper, have now shone Heaven’s lightness upon me once again. You have reminded me that the weights I felt upon me were in truth as vaporous as bad dreams. I have looked so intently at the images of evil conjured by the deaf, and the blind, and the heartless, that I began to see them as in a mirror, and found myself at one with them. But now I see before me a gatekeeper, ready to do his duty, and moved to do it by both Heaven and earth. Can I now do any less?”
Having made this speech, he slowly stepped away with a graceful motion that I thought, with some embarrassment, was the beginning of a very humble bow. I was soon relieved to see he was instead reaching down for my waterbag, from which he took a long, deep draught. Then he bowed to me politely, and took his farewell. He remounted his buffalo with the same agility with which he had dismounted it, and turned the beast around with unusual ease. The evening mist had begun to appear, and I watched him and his buffalo ride steadily away until they disappeared into its complete embrace, on their way home. It was not many months after that I was humbly grateful to be among the first to be honored to see a copy of the sayings the Old Master had composed for all humanity to read ever after, to help them find The Way. He never returned to pass through my gate to the desert, but lived to teach again, and more, for some years after
Lao Tzu and the Light of The Way
The historical “Lao Tzu” is almost entirely lost in the mists and myths of Eastern antiquity. His date of birth is unknown, and scholars place it somewhere between 600 and 300 B.C. “Lao Tzu” would not even be his real name, but an honorific given to the sage which means “Old Master.” To him is attributed the writing of the Tao-te Ching –“tao” meaning “the way of life;” “te” meaning the fit use of life by men (so that “Tao-te” may be rendered, simply, “The Way”); and “ching” meaning text, or classic. In the view of some scholars, the Tao-te Ching is really a compilation of paradoxical poems –81 sayings– written by several different “Taoists” using the pen name of Lao Tzu. Legend has it that the original Lao Tzu was keeper of the archives for the imperial court. Like most other of the greatest sages and spiritual leaders of antiquity (including Buddha, Jesus, and Socrates), he preferred the spoken to the written word, believing that writing down his teachings would solidify his insights into formalistic dogmas petrifying their spirit. He wanted his teachings to remain an inspiration to a natural way of life; one led with goodness, serenity, and respect for others, not compliance with a rigid code of behavior. He believed that a person’s life should be guided, above all, by conscience and the inner promptings of spirit, or what we might today call “instinct” or “intuition.”
Lao Tzu believed that “simplicity” was the key to truth and freedom. He encouraged his followers to observe, and seek to understand, the laws of nature; to develop their intuition as a source of personal power through spiritual strength; and to use that power to lead life with love, and without force. The story of The Way told in the dialogue is based on a legend about the origins of the Tao-te Ching. According to this legend, when Lao Tzu was eighty years old, he had become so saddened by the evil of men, and their unwillingness to follow the path to natural goodness, that he set off into the desert to leave civilization behind. At the border with Tibet (Hank Pass), a guard (Yin Hsi) asked him to record his teachings before he left. He then composed the Tao-te Ching, “The Way and Its Power,” in 5000 characters. Its teachings were summed up by one ancient scholar as follows:
To regard the fundamental as the essence, to regard things as coarse, to regard accumulation as deficiency, and to dwell quietly alone with the spiritual and the intelligent.
In a very important sense, there is no such thing as “Taoism,” because it is not a dogma. It is a pointing to a way of life that can only be followed by close attention to our own inner promptings. At the same time, the sayings of the Tao-te Ching are remarkable in the way they reflect with simplicity the core teachings of the other great world spiritual traditions, including Buddhism, Judeo-Christianity, Islam, and even classical moral philosophy as reflected, for example, in the writings of Aristotle and Plato. The dialogue furnishes several illustrations of this fact. The gatekeeper’s speech about “moderation” could have been taken straight out of Aristotle’s Ethics; “to recompense injury with kindness,” a fragment of one of the sayings of the Tao-te Ching also quoted by the gatekeeper, is recognizable as one of Jesus’s teachings; and the gatekeeper’s first consoling advice to the weary traveler (“the partial becomes complete; the crooked straight; the empty, full…”) echoes the Old Testament Book of Isaiah’s prophecy (“the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain”). This feature of the “Taoist” sayings points to the similarity of all great spiritual teachings; to their common recognition that “the kingdom of Heaven is within;” and that the law of “nature” in its highest sense is a law of love, derived from the common source of our human being.
Far more important, however, than the mystical and metaphysical similarities of all great spiritual teachings at their height, is their common insistence that we –each one of us– can discover and recognize the light shed by their truth by looking within ourselves — if we can just find the inner calm and quiet needed to do so. We can observe for ourselves the truth of these universal teachings from our own day-to-day experiences. In times of crisis, if we allow ourselves to be tossed about by our anxieties, confused by our doubts, oppressed by our disappointments, or our fears, or our griefs, we are not likely to make decisions that will restore our happiness. And we are all subject to such storms of the spirit from time to time. As the dialogue of The Way shows, even the greatest spiritual teachers may feel these storms themselves, and be misled by them. But if we can find a way —especially in times of crisis– to find our “center,” we are much more likely to discover the path –a Way— that follows our deepest inner promptings, and make decisions we are unlikely to regret, and with which we will be happy long after the crisis has passed. Lao Tzu recovers this calm in The Way by witnessing (and being moved by) the gatekeeper’s simple goodness, his devotion to duty, and his expressed belief in Lao Tzu’s own teachings. The gatekeeper’s example reminds Lao Tzu to look more deeply into himself, beyond the tempests of his depression and despair, and rediscover, in calm, his own natural duty to love others.
I have consistently found, in my own life, the practical ethical truth inherent in the essence of all the great spiritual teachings. Their ethical essence is perhaps most explicitly articulated in the Tao-te Ching, and it is this: If we want to do the right thing –right for ourselves and for others– we need only find the serenity to look deep enough within, and listen to the promptings of our own heart, to find the way. But if we act in the midst of our internal chaos, or with a cold logic that ignores our own heart’s wisdom, then we can be sure that the path we choose will not be right either for ourselves or for those we affect by it. One of the clearest examples of this in my own life, is the sequence of events of my marriage, divorce, and remarriage (told in greater detail in the last chapter of this book).
After fourteen years of marriage, I had became anxious, depressed, and discontented with myself. Instead of finding a way to examine the sources of my unhappiness intelligently, I projected it on my work, my marriage, and my family. So I decided on a divorce (which I began, and which my wife, Joy, completed). Seven years later, having matured enough to find some inner calm, I realized I had made a terrible mistake, and recognized that my marriage bond to Joy was a genuine one. So we remarried, a possibility that could be realized first, because of the reality of the spiritual bond between us and, second, the fact that we now both recognized it. For me, the decision to remarry was a decision to heal a torn spirit. In fact, every important decision I have made in my life that has (at least so far) proved to have been made well, has been made out of a similar inner necessity –an intuitive recognition of what my spirit required for its health and wholeness. This is the teaching of The Way, which, like all of the great spiritual teachings, encourages us to live our lives with the greatest possible respect for the light shed by our own spirit. They also tell us that to see that light, and hear its promptings, we must find a way to open ourselves to it from a place of inner quiet.