Sunday, August 3, 2008

Chapter 12 of the Tao Te Ching - The Journey of Self

Long ago in a land with no borders there was a young man that found he had a special talent for racing. He entered all of the five marathons and he won every competition for many years. He became very famous and earned a lot of money. At a young age he had found happiness and peace. He found truth in the exhilaration of running and winning. He thought that nothing could be closer to heaven than his life.

Then one day he awoke and he could no longer use his legs. He went to see all of the doctors in the country, but none of them could explain why he couldn’t walk. He was unable to use them until the day he died.

In his sorrow he decided that maybe there was more to life than running. While sitting in his wheel chair, he looked out of his bedroom window. He marveled at the world around him and the five colors that permeated nature. But as he looked he realized that there were more than the five colors that he had always been told about. So he began to study them.

For many years he worked with paint to blend color after color. He came to realize that each hue and shade of a color was, in fact, its own color. He decided that there were too many possibilities to be able to discover all of them. Then he began to use the colors to create wonderful works of art. People from all across the land would come to him for his work and to learn his techniques.

Now he truly understood heaven. To be able to create so many wonderful images; what could be better? He became very famous and earned lots of money.

Then one day he awoke and he could no longer see. Once again, there existed no doctor that could find anything wrong with him. He was unable to see until the day he died.

One day while his daughter was pushing him in his wheelchair through the park he caught the smell of a nearby cedar tree and he began thinking about the five scents that the ancient teachers always spoke of. But there are more than five, he thought, there must be thousands. So he began to study them.

After many years he realized that there were more scents than anyone could possibly document. So he began to use them. He blended oils and fragrances over and over until he found the most pleasing combinations possible. He bottled them and sold them as perfumes and incenses.

Everyone in the land came to him and marveled at his skills. Once again, he had found true peace and happiness. Heaven is in the air, he thought, to be surrounded by the most peaceful aromas is the closest to heaven that man could possibly get. He became very famous and made lots of money.

Then one day he awoke and found that he had lost his sense of smell. Every doctor in the land agreed that there was nothing wrong with his nose, but he had lost the ability, none the less. He was unable to enjoy the scent of a rose until the day that he died.

One night while eating dinner he noticed the sounds of the insects on the evening breeze. This made him think about the five tones of nature. Once again he began to think that there must be more than five. What about all of the variations between the notes? Shouldn’t they count as sounds as well?

So he began to study sound and music. He soon became so overwhelmed with trying to define each sound and create a formula for each one that he decided to simply use what he knew to create new music.

His music became known throughout the land. He was invited to perform before kings and queens. He was asked to create masterpieces of music for orchestras and opera houses. Everyone came to him to hear his creations. Finally he had found the truth. Music was the foundation of creation. All existence came from a single tone. Music was the true heaven. He became very famous and earned lots of money.

Then one day he awoke and he could not hear. When he tried to speak his vocal chords would not make a sound. Once again he sought out the doctors, but none could explain his loss. He could neither hear nor speak until the day that he died.

For many years he lay in bed alone while his loved ones and nurses cared for him. He was unable to communicate his thoughts. All of his fame had died and his fortune was quickly fading as well. But his mind was as sharp as always. After many years of depression and self pity he began to think about his life and all that he had learned. He had mastered all of the pleasures of life, thinking he had found peace and truth, but in each step of his life he found that he had been wrong.

There must be more, he thought. So for many years he meditated on who he was and what his life had taught him. Then one day he awoke and realized that he had not lost everything. In fact he had not lost anything that was truly important. He still had the ability to feel. Not with is fingers, but with his heart. He felt love, he felt pain, and he felt happiness, joy and depression. The true path to heaven, he thought, is not in the things that you experience in the physical world, but the things that you feel. It is within your own spirit and soul that you will find the answers to life and the hand to guide you.

Then he heard it. The sound of curtains softly moving with the breeze. He opened his eyes and he saw the light of the morning sun reflecting off of the painted walls of his room. He inhaled deeply and he could smell the spring air and the scent of a coming rain.

He sat up and looked toward his window. The sky was filled with brilliant blues and whites and grays. Then he saw a sparrow land on the ledge just outside. He got out of bed and walked to the window. He looked down at the little bird and held out his hand.

The sparrow hopped onto his finger and looked back up and him. He smiled as the bird picked at its wings. He was filled with emotion. He was filled with peace.

He opened his mouth and he heard his own voice say to the little bird, “I love you.”

The bird chirped pleasantly in response and flew off. He watched it as it became a tiny dot in the distance. Then he gazed at all of the wonders spread out before him. The sights, sounds and scents of the world delighted him.

He turned away from the window and walked back to his bed. He laid his head on his pillow. As he was inhaling the scents of the freshly washed linens, he fell asleep.

The next day his family carried his ashes to the top of the highest cliffs over the ocean. With the tears of his passing flowing from their eyes, they scattered the ashes and allowed the five winds to carry him home.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Chapter 11 of the Tao Te Ching - The Importance of Nothing

“Come in,” I said. “I just made tea.”

“Thank you,” he said, “That sounds nice.”

He followed me through the house and into the breakfast nook. He sat down at the little table while I got cups and saucers from the cabinets.

“What brings you this far from home?” I asked him.

“I am not really sure,” he said. “I just started walking this morning. I was thinking mostly. I didn’t realize just how long I had been out. The next thing I knew I was looking at your front door. I must have walked several miles today.”

I poured tea for both of us and then sat down to join him.

“What were you thinking about?” I asked.

“Nothing really. Or maybe everything.” He paused. His brow furrowed as if he was in very deep thought. “You know,” he continued, “I am a very happy man. I have everything that I have ever wanted. I am happy with my job, my family is happy and healthy, we never truly want for anything. But…” he paused again, “…I feel like there is something missing.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“I’m not really sure. I just feel an emptiness.”

“Spiritually, emotionally or intellectually?”

“I’m not sure, all three maybe.” He paused again, staring intently at his tea cup. “This tea is very good. What is it?”

“It is a blend that I make myself. It is Green Tea with a few herbs that help to relax the body and mind.”

He smiled, “I could sure use that.”

“You know,” I said, “emptiness isn’t always a bad thing. Many people actually strive to find it as apposed to filling it up.”

“But that is a different kind of emptiness,” he said.

“Is it?” I asked. “Have you ever looked close at a wagon wheel?”

He looked a bit confused at this change of subject. “I suppose,” he said.

“There are as many as thirty spokes on that wheel,” I said. “Each of those spokes connects the rim to the hub. But what is it about that wheel that makes it useful?”

“I don’t know, the shape?”

“No,” I smiled, “it is a wheel, so it is already round.” I pointed to the tea pot sitting on the table. “See this tea pot? I made it myself. I actually formed the clay with my hands, fired it and glazed it. I painted all of the intricate designs by hand. I am very proud of it. But, what is it about this tea pot that makes it useful?”

“It holds tea?”

“You are getting closer,” I said with a smile. I pointed to the back door of the house. “Tell me, what do you think is the most important part of that door?”

“I suppose the knob,” he said. “You couldn’t open it without it.”

“The knob is beneficial, yes. Just as the spout and handle are beneficial to the tea pot or the spokes and hub are beneficial to the wheel. But all of these things have one thing in common. They have emptiness.”

I let him think on that for a few seconds before I continued.

“The wheel has a hole in the middle for the axle to go through. That emptiness, that nothing is what makes the wheel useful. The tea pot has an empty space inside that can be used to hold water. The door has an opening that is empty.

“If these items did not have that emptiness, that nothingness then there would be no room to put anything else and they would be useless.

“That is true in everything. If your spiritual, emotional and intellectual spaces are filled then there is no room for more and they become useless. Therefore the wise man will strive for emptiness so that he is always ready to learn more.”

He stared at me for a few seconds. “Why is it that you always talk in riddles, old man?”

“I never talk in riddles,” I smiled at him. “But I have noticed that you tend to listen in them.”

We finished our tea and I walked him to the door. He would be back, as he always is.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Chapter 10 of the Tao Te Ching - The Primal Virtue

“I haven’t seen you in a very long time,” I said, “How have you been?”

“I have been better,” she replied. Every muscle in her body seemed to be tense. Her eyes darted around the room and never seemed to remain focused on anything.

“You look very distraught, is there anything I can do to help?”

She looked at me. Her eyes were pleading to give her answers, but her voice could not find the words describe what she needed. She slowly moved her head from side to side and slumped back into her chair. She looked like someone that had been fighting for a long time and finely gave up.

“I was given a major promotion at work a few weeks ago,” she said.

I waited for her to say more, but once again, words seemed to be failing her. “Most people would consider that a good thing,” I said, “Is it not working out like you had hoped?”

She sat up quickly. She looked at me with renewed energy. “I don’t understand it,” she began. “I am good at what I do. I am very good. That is why they gave me the position in the first place. There is no one else that can come close to my skills. But nobody seems to care. Everyone just looks at me like ‘the new boss.’ Most of the people that work for me in my department seem to actually hate me. They don’t want me around. No matter what I try to do to help them, they just push me further away.”

“What do you try to do to help them?” I asked.

“Well, I show them how they can work more efficiently, I try to educate them and pass on my skills and knowledge.”

“Did they ever ask you to?” I asked.

“What do you mean? Why would the need to ask me? I am their leader, it is my job to lead them and show them the right way to get things done.”

“Is it?” I asked. “Is that the job of a leader?”

“Well, what else would it be?”

“A true leader is there to guide,” I said, “Not to instruct. He lets his people come to him and learn from him. In that way, he becomes known for his wisdom, instead of his knowledge. Anyone can become knowledgeable. It is wisdom that people truly respect.”

“But without knowledge there can be no wisdom,” she said.

“Really? I have a friend with a little girl no more than five years old. They have a rule that at eight o’clock in the evening she has to quit playing with her toys and get ready for bed. One night at around eight fifteen he realized that she was still playing with her toys and he reminded her of the rule. She looked at him and said, ‘but Daddy, I am not playing with them. I am using them as toys.’

My friend laughed when I finished that story. “The thing is,” I continued, “that child does not have vast amounts of knowledge. But she showed wisdom beyond the years of even her father.”

“So, you are saying that I shouldn’t teach what I know to others? Should I keep it all to myself?”

“No no no,” I said, “I never said that at all. The knowledge that is not shared is useless. The trick is knowing when to share it.”

We sat in silence for a quite a while. Finely I said, “My advice to you is this; Do the job that you were hired to do. keep what you have until it is time to let go, do your work to satisfy your own sense of honor, and learn to be a leader instead of an instructor.”

“But how to I learn that?” she asked.

“By observing those that you would lead.”

We talked about other things for a while and when it was time to go she seemed to be much more relaxed than she had been before. I haven’t heard from her since that day. But I know her, she learns better than she instructs. I suspect she is doing much better in her new job now.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Chapter 9 of the Tao Te Ching - The Simple Life

She was crying. I had never met her before, but I could feel the pain in her tears none the less. The paper that was in her hands was wrinkled from the hold that she had on it.

“Excuse me,” I said, “is there anything I can do to help?”

“Not unless you have a few hundred thousand extra dollars lying around somewhere.”

“Not any more,” I said.

She smiled at me then. The goodness of her soul echoed in her eyes. “I am really sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t have smarted off like that.”

“It is quite all right,” I said. “I take it that you are having some financial issues. I can’t help with money, but I can offer my time. Sometimes it helps to simply spill your emotions out to a stranger.”

“I don’t know,” she said. She was looking at my tattered and worn clothes. I could see that she was a little nervous about me.

“I’ll tell you what,” I said. Let me tell you about myself first. Then if you want you can talk to me.”

“Ok,” she said. “I could use the distraction.”

“About ten years ago,” I began, “I was a successful businessman. My company made a healthy profit every year. I owned a large house on the beach, a little sports car and even a yacht that I would take out on the ocean a couple of times a year.

“I pretty much had everything that I could ever want. The problem was that it seemed like I was always broke. I never had enough money to pay my bills. I came close to losing my house because I couldn’t stand the thought of giving up my yacht.

“My wife divorced me because I didn’t have enough time to spend with her. That caused me even more financial problems. Not to mention sending me into a severe state of depression.

“I really didn’t know what to do. I was ready to commit suicide and just give it all up. But I suddenly realized that suicide was not the answer, but just maybe giving it all up was.

“So I sold it all. The business, the house, the car the boat…you name it. I ended up with several million in cash by the time it was all said and done.”

She looked at me with her smile again. “So you never have to worry about anything now? You lost it all, but you have all that money to use whenever you want it?”

“No,” I said. “I mean, yes I never have to worry about anything, but no, I do not have all of that money.”

“What happened to it?”

“I gave it away.”

“You what!?!” I could tell that she didn’t really believe me.

“My accountant was not happy about it,” I said, “I told him to give every last cent of it to a local homeless shelter.”

“Oh my God,” she said. “What did you do? How did you live?”

I looked at her and winked, “I moved into the homeless shelter.”

She laughed. It was much better than the tears I saw earlier. “Cute story, but I have a hard time believing it. If it is true, why did you do it?”

“Well,” I said, “I was sitting on the beach looking at the ocean when a verse from my college days popped into my head. It was from my philosophy class and was part of an ancient Chinese text. It said:

Better to stop short than fill to the brim.
Oversharpen the blade, and the edge will soon blunt.
Amass a store of gold and jade, and no one can protect it.
Claim wealth and titles, and disaster will follow.
Retire when the work is done.
This is the way of heaven.”

“So, what exactly does that mean?” she asked.

“It means different things to different people. But to me it meant that living a simple life without the need for material things was the way to my happiness and that too much of a good thing is possible.”

“But how do you live? Do you have a job?”

“I don’t really need a regular job. I live with friends. I do all of their house work for them in exchange for a small bedroom. When I need cash for food and the like I do a bit of day labor.”

“Well,” she said thoughtfully, “I am afraid that doesn’t help me. I could never live like that.”

“You don’t need to,” I said. “All you need to do is find out what things in your life are truly important and focus on them. Everything else is expendable.”

Her brows furrowed. Her eyes held the contemplation of what I was saying to her. I decided that it was time for me to leave. I had helped her all I could, the rest was up to her.

“I have to go,” I told her. “I am sorry I didn’t have a few hundred thousand lying around.”

“That’s ok,” she laughed. “It was nice meeting you.”

“You too,” I said as I shook her hand.

I turned to look back at her as I walked away. She looked over the wrinkled paper she had in her hand one more time. Then she held it up and slowly started ripping it into several small pieces. She was smiling.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Chapter 8 of the Tao Te Ching - The Highest Good

I visited a former co-worker in the city. As I sat waiting for him I watched the people as they moved frantically from one location to another. They would leave their high rise apartment buildings in a rush to get to work or school. There was so much tension that when they would get in each other’s way they ended up rude to each other. The longer I sat in the café witnessing all these things the more I could feel the tension building inside myself. I longed to get back to my home where all is quiet and peaceful.

When my friend arrived I could see that he was as uptight as all the others.

“You look haggard, my friend,” I said to him.

“You have no idea,” he said. “Life is turning into a living hell.”

“That can happen when you live there,” I told him.

“Live where?”

“In Hell.”

He laughed. “I am not used to jokes these days, I am afraid.”

“I didn’t realize I was telling one.”

He took a breath and looked into my eyes. “You are always so calm, so peaceful,” he said. “How do you do it?”

“I try to see the good in all things.”

“You won’t see much good around this place,” he said.

I wanted to agree with him as I watched a couple of people yelling at each other across the street. “Oh, it is here,” I said, “you just have to know where to look.”

He looked around as if trying to find it in the darkened corners of the room.

“The highest good,” I told him, “is like water. Water gives life to all things, but does not suffer itself in doing so. It flows into all of the places that men ignore or reject. In this way, it is very much like the Tao.”

“But where do you find that?” he asked. “How can I find good when all around me is hatred, violence and evil?”

“I will give you a list. Follow these things and you will always find good, no matter where you are.”

I asked him for a pen and I wrote the following on napkin.

• In dwelling, be close to the land.
• In meditation, go deep in the heart.
• In dealing with others, be gentle and kind.
• In speech, be true.
• In ruling, be just.
• In daily life, be competent.
• In action, be aware of the time and the season.

I handed it to him and let him read it.

“But this seems so simple,” he said.

“It is,” I answered. “All things that are of the Tao are simple.”

He looked at the list again and smiled. “Sometimes,” he said, “we just need little reminders to keep us going.”

“One more thing,” I told him.


“Living in a place like this it becomes more important that you avoid fighting at all cost.”

“Oh, I don’t fight,” he said. “I abhor violence.”

“Not all fighting is physical,” I said.

I waited for that to register in his thoughts. “As you go about your day,” I said, “and things start going against you, do not look for things or people to blame. Placing blame keeps you from facing the responsibility of getting your own life in order.”

“But what if everything goes my way and I have a wonderful day today?”

“Well, for that,” I said with a wink, “you can blame me.”

I like to see my friends smile. It makes my day go so much better.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Chapter 7 of the Tao Te Ching - The Eternal Heaven and Earth

“Did you read the news today?” he asked as he sat across from me at the café.

“No thanks,” I said, “I’m trying to quit.”

“Quit what?”

“Reading the news,” I answered. “My time is better spent looking at the flowers in the garden across the street.”

“But, how do you know what is going on in the world?”

“Why would I want to?”

“You have to keep up so that you know what to expect.”

“Ah,” I said, “I don’t need that. I already know what to expect. In fact, I bet that I can tell you what was in the news this morning and I haven’t read the news in over five years.”

“This should be interesting,” he said. “Go for it.”

“Let’s see,” I began, “Someone was killed, someone was raped, war is escalating in the Middle East and the price of gasoline is going up again.”

“You are right,” he said with surprise. “How did you know that?”

“Because that is what was on the news the last day that I watched it.”

“I suppose so,” he said, “but things are much worse than they were five years ago.”

“Of that,” I said, “I have no doubt. But I don’t worry too much. If there is any news that is important to me, it will find me.”

“How does that happen?”

“It found me today didn’t it? You have come here to tell me what it is.”

“True enough.”

“So, what is your news?”

“Oh, you already said it. War is escalating in the Middle East.”

“Why is that important to you?” I asked.

“I am really starting to think that the end of the world is coming soon.”

“People have been saying that for thousands of years,” I said. “But it will never happen. It can’t happen.”

“But of course it can. It would not take much to wipe out the entire human race.”

“True,” I said. “But that would not be the end of the world.”

“It would be for me,” he said.

“Neither Heaven nor Earth can ever be destroyed. They were never born. Therefore they can never die.”

“But if the human race is destroyed, what would be left.”

“Everything. People have been fighting for years to save the Earth, when what they really want is to save the Humans. No matter what we do to this planet, it will always remain alive. It will adapt and grow stronger than ever. Sometimes I think that the best thing that could happen to this planet would be for the humans to destroy itself. But, we weren’t talking about the end of the world we were talking about the news.”

“I thought we were talking about both.”

“That is one of the problems with people today,” I said. “They think too much.”

“So, what do you think we should do?”

“Nothing. The wise man will let the world run past him and he will sit and watch it from behind. In this way, he can see what is going on more clearly because he is looking from the outside. When he is needed he does his tasks without needing recognition. By working in this way, he gains true fulfillment.”

We sat for several more minutes drinking coffee and chatting idly. He looked at his watch several times, but he never realized that he was doing it. He lives in a very hectic world and he must rush to keep up with it.

After he left I thought about my past and the time when I lived in the same world that he lives in. Then I noticed someone at the gas station across the street. They were changing the price on the marquee. It was going up another ten cents.

I grabbed my backpack and casually walked home, enjoying the afternoon sun.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Chapter 6 of the Tao Te Ching - The Root of Heaven and Earth

I was sitting on a bench in the park, looking down into a wooded valley. A young woman walked up to me and smiled. “I see you here a lot,” she said. “Almost every day you are out here staring into that valley. What are you looking at?”

“My Mother,” I answered.

She gazed into the direction that I was looking, trying to find something. “I don’t see anyone. Has she died and is buried down there?” she asked.

“No,” I said, “You are thinking about the wrong Mother. I am talking not about my birth mother, but about my eternal mother.”

“Nature?” she asked.

I nodded. “The spirit of the valley is eternal. She is the primal mother of all things.”

“When I look into that valley, all I see are trees,” she said.

“Then you are looking in the wrong place.”

“Where is the right place?”

“There is a gateway,” I said, “at the root of Heaven and Earth. That gateway is hers. It is like a veil that can barely be seen.”

“So, where do I find the root of Heaven and Earth?”

“Sometimes,” I said, “when we are searching for things, we look in the wrong place. There are times when we are looking outside when we need to be looking inside. When searching for God we look up, but we should be looking in.”

“You are a strange man,” she said.

“Believe it or not,” I said, “You are not the first person to tell me that.”

Her smile was pleasant. When looking into her eyes I felt the same way that I do when looking into the valley.

“Seek Heaven,” I told her. “When you understand what it really is, then you will know where to find the root. When you find it embrace the true spirit of the valley. That spirit will never fail you.”

I stood up and shook her hand.

“It was nice meeting you,” I said. Then I turned and walked home. I have seen her many times since. She too, now sits on a park bench and gazes into the valley.

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