Fog makes the world a painting obscure.
Even close trees are half unseen.
But a lonesome crow won’t stop calling:
He objects to being in this dream.
Over and over, the sages tell us that this world is but a dream.
When one awakes on foggy mornings, with the mists obscuring hills and valleys and the trees and village buildings appearing as diaphanous apparitions, we might even agree with them. Didn’t we see this same uncertain mirage in the hills of Vermont? The hollow of the Yangtze River valley? The streets of Paris? Don’t the memories blend with the dream and turn reality into phantasmagoria?
The world is a dream from which there is no escaping.
In this still dream, there is a crow calling. He doesn’t stop. When everything else is frozen in the sepulchral dawn, the bird continues to scream. Maybe he realizes the same dream. He protests loudly.
The ancients hold the outer reality to be unreal. But there is the inner reality too. Some of us do not readily accept the conditions of this existence. We have eyes to see, but we also have voice to refute the existential delusion.
Unless you are pious,
You cannot gain a foothold in Tao.
Unless you go beyond rules,
You haven’t gained the middle.
Unless you can be creative,
You aren’t traversing Tao.
Unless the road always stretches out before you,
You are not walking the true Tao.
When people start on a spiritual path, they are anxious to learn all the rules. This is understandable, even necessary. Often we need stern measures to set ourselves right.
But dogmatism is not spirituality. Sometimes, it is necessary to break rules. The task is to know how to go against doctrine in a way that actually fulfills the spirit of that doctrine. It is only at this point that one matures as a follower of Tao.
The next stage is complete creativity. You have so internalized doctrine that you need not think of it, yet everything you do will be spontaneously correct. There are many stages after that, stages not documented but there for you to explore on your own.
Those who follow Tao recognize that all people go through stages of development. Many people leave their spiritual communities when they outgrow them. The path of Tao has been conceived so that one never outgrows it. One can outgrow a particular stage, but when that happens, there is another one to be entered. In this way, following Tao is always vital.
What is the difference between a monk and a husband?
What is the difference between a priest and layperson?
I accept that this world is terrible and full of suffering.
And I also enjoy happiness when it comes to me.
As long as I am with Tao, distinctions are superfluous.
A spiritual initiate should not feel smug. They have no greater chance of enlightenment than ordinary people. An ordinary person shouldn’t look down on the holy aspirant; everyday life is so full of distractions that finding spirituality is not easy. Frankly, neither being a religious initiate nor being a layperson is the deciding factor in whether a person finds Tao or not. Identities only get in the way.
I do not need to pretend that I am anyone other than myself. I do not need to feel insecure about my perceptions. The self-cultivation that I undertake is to perfect who I am, not to become someone other than who I am.
I pursue the spiritual because it gives me tremendous satisfaction. I do not pursue it because of threats of hell, ignorance, or suffering.
Life has its sad and happy moments. I accept them all. Life has its times of dispassion and utter serenity. Those are the moments that I seek. They give me my path through the myriad phenomena of this existence. I do not compare myself to ascetics and priests. Let them have their lives. I enjoy mine.
A moving door hinge never corrodes.
Flowing water never grows stagnant.
Even in the autumn of your life, you cannot give up growth. If you do, you only invite decline.
All the different aspects of a person — body, mind, and spirit — have one curious quality : If they cease to be exercised, they stop growing. Once they stop growing, they begin to atrophy. That is why, no matter how much you have accomplished and no matter how old you are, you must keep exercising all parts of yourself.
We only grow when we are challenged. Muscles do not strengthen without resistance. Mental faculties do not sharpen without critical thinking. The spirit does not soar without something to excite it. It may seem like a great effort to constantly try new things, but unless you do, you fall out of your heights very quickly. The constancy of physical exercise, varied from time to time into new routines, and the constancy of mental and spiritual challenges are essential to stave off the infirmities of aging.
We cannot reverse aging completely, but we can slow it down. As long as we are vital, we will not suffer as much. Although aging is natural, sometimes following Tao means more than following the route of least resistance. Why slide into old age, illness, and senility? The way of challenging oneself is also a valid but difficult path. Sometimes Tao chooses the difficult over the easy.
Don’t be afraid to explore;
Without exploration there are no discoveries.
Don’t be afraid of partial solutions;
Without the tentative there is no accomplishment.
Indecision and procrastination are corrosive habits. Those who wait for every little thing to be perfect before they embark on a project or who dislike the compromise of a partial solution are among the least happy. Ideal circumstances are seldom given to anyone for an undertaking. Instead there is uncertainty in every situation. The wise are those who can wrest great advantage from circumstances opaque to everyone else.
Wanting everything in life to be perfect before you take action is like wanting to reach a destination without travel. For those who follow Tao, travel is every bit as important as the destination. One step after another : That is still central to the wisdom of Tao.
Every day passes whether you participate or not. If you are not careful, years will go by and you will only have regrets. If you cannot solve a problem all at once, at least make a stab at it. Reduce your problems into smaller, more manageable packages, and you can make measurable progress toward achievement. If you wait for everything to be perfect according to your preconceived plans, then you may well wait forever. If you go out and work with the current of life, you may find that success comes from building upon small things.
Cat sits in the sun.
Dog sits in the grass.
Turtle sits on the rock.
Frog sits on the lily pad.
Why aren’t people so smart?
Those who follow Tao are fond of pointing out the wisdom of animals. When they see a cat sitting motionless in the sun or a turtle who stretches her head upward in a still pose, they say that these animals are meditating. They know how to be still and conserve their internal energy. They do not dissipate themselves in useless activity but instead withdraw into themselves to recharge.
It is only people who label meditation as some sort of odd religious activity. This is not the actual case. Something like meditation happens when we sleep, or when we are absorbed in reading a book, or when we “daydream” and become so lost in a thought or an image that we do not notice what is going on around us.
There is no reason to think of meditation as something out of the ordinary. Quite the opposite. Meditation is the purest and most natural expression we can have. When you next look at a cat or a dog sitting still, and admire the naturalness of their actions, think then of your own life. Don’t meditate because it is a part of your schedule or is demanded by your particular philosophy. Meditate because this is natural.
Seven geese pierce straight line over frigid bay,
Intervals between them constantly equal,
Pointed wings slash as if joined to an axle:
Today is the ideal moment between yesterday and tomorrow.
Every morning means a fresh start on things. If yesterday was trying and exhausting, today is a given opportunity to do something different. If yesterday was full of triumph and satisfaction, today is a free chance to go further. All too often, we wake up, think of our schedules, and assume that we must act according to the same dull script. We need not. If we find what is unique to each day, we will have freshness and the greatest fulfillment possible.
Although we have talked about our relationship to Tao in terms of positioning and timing, the clear discerning of intervals is just as important. Geese keep a perfect distance between them to establish a dynamic equilibrium; so too must we fit in with the intervals of a day’s events. If we, like the geese, act in unison with these moments, with each other, and with the season, then we will be in total concert with Tao.
Today is poised between yesterday and tomorrow. What you may have started yesterday can be continued or interrupted today. What you want for tomorrow may be planted or destroyed today. Every morning is a new day. That observation is so simple as to seem trite. If we could observe the simple, there would be no need to study Tao.