On The Way: The Daily Zen Journal

April 22, 2000

The Wise Ones of Old

Lao tze

The wise ones of old had subtle wisdom and depth of understanding, so profound that they could not be understood. And because they could not be understood, perforce must they be so described:

Cautious, like crossing a wintry stream,
Irresolute, like one fearing danger all around,
Grave, like one acting as guest,
Self-effacing, like ice beginning to melt,
Genuine, like a piece of undressed wood,
Open-minded, like a valley,
And mixing freely, like murky water.

Who can find repose in a muddy world?
By lying still, it becomes clear.
Who can maintain his calm for long?
By activity, it comes back to life.
He who embraces this Tao
Guards against being over-full.
Because he guards against being over-full,
He is beyond wearing out and renewal.

Because the eternal principle of life, Tao, works silently and apparently without action in the way that spring comes round every year, because Tao does not claim credit for its individual acts and is content to be silent, it becomes the image for the Taoist sage.  

The Demeanor of the Pure Person

The pure person of old slept without dreams, and waked up without worries. They ate with indifference to flavor and drew deep breaths. For true people draw breaths from their heels; the vulgar only from their throats. Out of the crooked, words are retched up like vomit. When people’s attachments are deep, their divine endowments are shallow.

The pure people of old did not know what it was to love life or to hate death. They did not rejoice in birth, nor strive to put off dissolution. Unconcerned, they came and unconcerned they went. That was all. They did not forget whence it was they had sprung; neither did they seek to inquire their return thither. Cheerfully, they accepted life, waiting patiently for their restoration (the end). This is what is called not to allow the mind to lead one astray from Tao, and not to supplement the natural by human means. Such a one may be called a pure person.

Such people are free in mind and calm in demeanor, with high foreheads. Sometimes disconsolate like autumn, and sometimes warm like spring, their joys and sorrows are in direct touch with the four seasons, in harmony with all creation, and none know the limit thereof…

The pure people of old appeared of towering stature and yet could not topple down. They behaved as though wanting in themselves, but without looking up to others. Naturally independent of mind, they were not severe. Living in unconstrained freedom, yet they did not try to show off.

They appeared to smile as if pleased, and to move only in natural response to surroundings. Their serenity flowed from the store of goodness within. In social relationships, they dept to their inner character. Broadminded, they appeared great; towering, they seemed beyond control. Continuously abiding, they seemed like doors kept shut; absent-minded, they seemed to forget speech.

Excerpted from The Wisdom of Lao-tze by Lin Yutang 1948 out of print

Lao-tze uses water as the symbol of spiritual calm which is described a “the nature of water at its best,” and as a symbol of Tao itself which alternates between perfect tranquility and periodic motion. When the body is kept hustling about without stop, it becomes fatigued. When the mind is overworked without stop, it becomes worried, and worry causes exhaustion. The nature of water is that it becomes clear when left alone, and becomes still when undisturbed… it is the symbol of heavenly virtue.

Moving clearing,
Elana, Scribe for Daily Zen

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