Walking the Way

81 Zen Encounters with the Tao Te Ching


Verse 39
Originally these realized oneness:
the sky, being one, is clear;
the earth, being one, is stable;
the spirits, being one, are animated;
the valleys, being one, are replenished;
the ten thousand things, being one, manifest themselves;
the rulers, being one, are sovereign.
But from this we can infer:
if the sky were only clear it would shatter;
if the earth were only stable it would crack;
if the spirits were only animated they would fade;
if the valleys were only replenished they would stagnate;
if the ten thousand things only manifested themselves they would become extinct;
if the rulers were only sovereign they would be cast down.
The exalted depends on the humble,
the high depends on the low for its foundation.
So kings and queens profess to be orphaned:
insignificant, poor, and unworthy.
Is this true humility?
But when they have many carriages and just say they have none—
not wanting to glitter like jade
they
clunk like stones.

We want to feel whole. We yearn to feel we belong, that we are part of some larger entity, that there is some unifying fabric to our lives.
     At heart you are fundamentally whole. Your very yearning is a sign of this: you could not long for a rejoining if you did not have some basic sense of originally being in a harmonious union.
     Most of us have experienced moments of feeling this oneness. Perhaps it has occurred on an autumn field open to the sky with the few remaining leaves on the trees bearing witness to the cycles of the seasons. Perhaps it has occurred during a lazy moment on a warm beach whose sands were baked still for a moment as they entertained the constant calls of winds and waves. Perhaps it was at the birth of a child or the funeral of a friend or relative. Perhaps you simply got out of bed one morning and everything clearly proclaimed its place; you saw your larger self reflected in the smile of someone you love or even in the aroma of a cup of coffee urging you to wake up.
     These experiences remind us of our true home, and we want our awareness of this to go on forever. It’s wonderful to feel firmly planted, vigorous yet still, stable yet vital. If we try to hold on to these states they turn rancid, but when we lose touch with them we often feel we are missing something, isolated, or lost.
     When you feel you are lacking some quality or have lost some precious essence, your thinking seeks some concrete trait and your heart wants to embrace some solid object to confirm yourself. Your being, though, can only be experienced as ungraspable flow. If you look around, you see the universe shimmers in ebbs and flows, constantly breathing the ins and outs of being.
     When you feel you are missing something, that in itself is a complete experience. Being stymied is also part of the Way, the intimate counterpart of flowing. According to Chuang Tzu:

          The men of ancient times who had attained the Way were happy if they were blocked in, and happy if they could get through . . . Being blocked or getting through are no more
than the orderly alternation of cold and heat, of wind and rain.

     Being mindful doesn’t mean being always clear-minded; being composed doesn’t mean being always in control. Eihei Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen in thirteenth-century Japan, said that being enlightened means realizing that 80 percent of the time you’re deluded.
     You don’t have to do anything special except to stop pretending. Most of us have experienced how the false facade we strain to maintain develops stress fractures if it is at odds with our actual experience. Sometimes we pretend we’re big and strong, and hide our frailties. Sometimes we pretend to be small and weak, and hide our power. Faced with a painful event, we may be tempted to sidestep a challenge with its attendant risk of failure, try to avoid blame by denying our responsibility—“it’s not my fault!”—or adopt the role of a helpless victim of circumstances. The danger here is we may convince even ourselves of our helplessness.
     Whether it is a trait, an idea, a role, or a feeling, whenever we become attached to just one side of a matter, we become one-dimensional. Searching for a false stability we cling to illusions that our transient states are permanent traits and get stuck in our protests and pretensions. In reality we are all both weak and strong, broken and whole. To pretend otherwise is to stop ringing true.
     When you stop pretending to be other than you are, when you stop pretending the world is other than it is, your life becomes unstuck: a continual procession, the play of hide and seek, unfinished and complete, universal and particular.
_____
I met a friend outside the Zen center who I knew had been having some family troubles. I asked him how he was doing. My friend paused, reflected, and sighed.
     “From the absolute point of view,” he said, “everything is just as it must be.”
     I smiled.
     “From the relative point of view,” he continued, “things could be better.”
     I gave him a hug.

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