Wednesday, February 29, 2012

(random selections from shinkichi takahashi's

book of zen poems afterimages, all of them translated from japanese by lucien stryk and takashi ikemoto)


White Paper

I was walking on white paper.
However far I went, there
I remained, between the print,
Making no attempt to read, of course,
Part of the paper itself.

She was correcting proofs
with red ink.  At a puff of wind
the paper stirred, and I saw
that she badly needed
a haircut.  Miserable.

"I'll bring you fame!" I cried,
Then continued to walk
Until, before me, I saw a book,
Unopened.  A fossil.  I stepped
Over it and, without a glance, moved on.



A word swims through the air-
Fish; vomited dust speck;
Jet through the sound barrier,
Full of Thames fog.
How far is it flying?

A man wrings out a casting net
In the upper reaches of the Milky Way:
Rain pours through his brains,
Cliffs reveal themselves.

The sun, ah the sun, is dissolved
In blue, and now seer and seen
Are one: wet, smoky.

There are no rocks around,
The word plunged down the precipice-
Now blanched, dead,
Mere time carcass, it sways
Like seaweed on the beach.

Its eyes devoured by crows,
The waves splash over it.

Then as from inside a violincello
Someone said to himself:
'The sun is hidden
In a single sand grain'.

An airfield too luxuriant with word endings,
Contact of white and black clouds
Followed by thunder-
The birth of new figures.

The moment it is announced
It rises with the globe
Into the stratosphere,
Up to the shores of constellations,
The word.



It is the grass that moves, not the quails.

Weary of embraces, she thought of
Committing her body to the flame.

When I shut my eyes, I hear far and wide

The air of the Ice Age stirring.
When I open them, a rocket passes over a meteor.

A quail's egg is complete in itself,

Leaving not room enough for a dagger's point.
All the phenomena in the universe: myself.

Quails are supported by the universe

(I wonder if that means subsisting by God).
A quail has seized God by the neck

With its black bill, because there is no

God greater than a quail.
(Peter, Christ, Judas: a quail.)

A quail's egg: idle philosophy in solution.

(There is no wife better than a quail.)
I dropped a quail's egg into a cup for buckwheat noodles,

And made havoc of the Democratic Constitution.

Split chopsticks in the back, a quail husband
will deliver dishes on a bicycle, anywhere.

The light yellow legs go up the hill of Golgotha.

Those quails who stood on the rock, became the rock!
The nightfall is quiet, but inside the congealed exuviae

Numberless insects zigzag, on parade.



The universe is forever falling apart-

No need to push the button,
It collapses at a finger's touch:
Why, it barely hangs on the tail of a sparrow's eye.

The universe is so much eye secretion,

Hordes leap from the tips
Of your nostril hairs.  Lift your right hand:
It's in your palm.  There's room enough
On the sparrow's eyelash for the whole.

A paltry thing, the universe.

Here is all strength, here the greatest strength.
You and the sparrow are one
And, should he wish, he can crush you.
The universe trembles before him.



The sparrow sleeps, thinking of nothing.

Meanwhile the universe has shrunk to half.
He's attached by a navel string, swimming
In a sea of fluid, amniotic, slightly bitter.

The centre is 'severance'- no sound at all-

Until the navel string is snapped.  All of which
Was told by her as she sat astride Pegasus,
The poet on a circuit of the universe.

The sparrow came at her, like a sword,

And suddenly from her buttocks- the sun!
The sparrow carried the stained sheets
To the moon.  On drawing the clouds apart,

He discovered the cold corpse of Mars.

Not once had he disclosed the secrets of his life.


Rat on Mount Ishizuchi

Snow glitters on the divine rocks

At the foot of Mount Ishizuchi.
Casting its shadow on the mountain top,
A rat flies off.

At the back of the sun,

Where the rats pound rice into cakes,
There's a cavity like a mortar pit.

A flyer faster than an airplane,

That's the sparrow.
Mount Ishizuchi, too, flies at a devilish speed,
Ten billion miles a second,
From everlasting to everlasting.

Yet, because there's no time,

And always the same dusk,
It doesn't fly at all:
The peak of Mount Ishizuchi
Has straightened the spine
Of the Island of Futana.

Because there's no space

The airplane doesn't move an inch:
The sun, the plane boarded by the rat,
Are afloat in the sparrow's dream.


Black Smoke

I've thrown my 'me' away:

The river willows bud pale blue.

Where did I toss that 'me'?

I sought it in wind and water.

Resigned, I looked up:

A cat at the controls of a helicopter!

Landing and sidling up to me,

Where I lay flat on my back, she asked:

'Have you emerged from earth- you?'

'Who- me?'

'Well then, what's that grass sprouting

All over your behind?'

Out shot my hand and grabbed

The cat's tail, which I was still holding
When the helicopter went up again.

At last I had found my 'me',

I thought, but not for long.

Night fell silently, but high above

Two glittering eyeballs wouldn't disappear.

They were burning on me,

As if the 'me' I'd abandoned,
Overpowered by loneliness,
Was frantically craving me.

Oh, I understood that those eyeballs

Might have been the cat's-
How she must have suffered without her tail!

I lit a cigarette, black smoke rose,

Then I quickly buried it.

Then came a most marvelous idea:

Even if I didn't find my 'me',
I'd still have my tail!



Somebody is breathing inside me-

Birds, the very earth.

The ocean's in my chest.  Walking,

I always throw myself down.

Newssheets, a puppy were dancing in the wind-

Trucks rushed by,

Empty trucks stout enough to carry the earth

On their puncture-proof tires.

I instant I raised my hand to wave,

I was nowhere.

The puppy was sprawled out on its belly,

Run over- again, again.

You're a badger, I'll bet, posing as a mascot

With that moonlit tie

And, sticking from your pocket, night's flower.



I don't take your words

merely as words.
Far from it.

I listen

To what makes you talk-
Whatever that is-
And me listen.


Misty Rain

A misty rain falls this morning,

A phantom dog creeps along.

As I sit drinking a cup of tea

An amorphous cat leaps on my lap.

For awhile in my imaginary tea garden

I arrange rocks and plant bamboos.

Then, with the fall of cloud-swept night,

I close the window and turn in.



Stretched in the genial sun

The mountain snake
Tickled its length along the rock.

The wind rustled the sunshine,

But the snake,
Fully uncoiled, was calm.

Fifty thousand years ago!

Later the same sun
Blazed across the pyramids,

Now it warms my chest.

But below, through
Shattered rock, the snake

Thrusts up its snout, fangs

Flicking at my thoughts
Strewn about the rocks like violets.

It's you, faces cut like triangles,

Have kept the snake alive!
The pavement's greened with leaves.



It's a fine day

And I'm talking with the sun.
'I don't think there's only one sun,'

I say.  'There are no end of you,

And of course there are the stars:
To be means to be numberless.

And yet, O magnificent,

I delight in your heat.
Dust speck, I adore you.'


A Richer Ground

The bus roars through cherry blossoms

Or a snowstorm.  Who knows?

I'm not on it, but then again

I'm not not on it.  Who knows?

Seals glide across an iceberg,

Where bound?  Who knows?

Of course I may be quite wrong,

Which in any case is unavoidable.

The question 'To be or not to be'

Just isn't fair.  I stand on richer ground.


Murmuring of the Water

One morning I woke onto a hill

Of withered grasses,
Myself, my family among them.

We swayed, all of us, under the wind,

And so did our shadows.

No more did the laughter of women

Assault my ears,
And I heard the murmuring
Of the limpid water of the Galaxy.

When, desperate, I stretched out

My thin, dry arms,
Stars broke from the sky.



I start across the bridge.

Coming toward me from the other side,
A woman, drenched and perhaps
Having failed to purchase apples, mutters-
'Sardines, sardines'.  Below, listening,
A magpie bobs mournfully up and down.

It is a long black bridge,

So long that to cross it is unthinkable.
My white breath dies, rises and dies.
Life: dust on a bridge rail.
Wars, revolutions: bubbles on a stream.

Late in the frosty night, alone,

I cross an endless bridge.


(random selections from deng ming-dao's

companion volumes 365 Tao (1992) and Everyday Tao (1996).  the former book follows each head word with a short poem and essay and the latter follows each head word with its chinese pronunciation, definition, explanation of the original pictogram, and essay.)



Tidal windstorm
Splits trees and rock,
Yet cannot last a day.
So much less, man's work.

When a storm hits, an entire ocean of wind and rain is spent upon the land.  Leaves are turned inside out, branches are torn, and even hard granite is worn away.  But such gales seldom last an entire day.  In spite of the tremendous amount of force that is released, the storm cannot last.
      If heaven's works cannot last a day, human works must be even less lasting.  Governments barely survive from year to year, the rules of society are constantly being challenged, the family erodes, personal relationships decay, and one's career topples.  Even the monuments of the world are now being destroyed by air pollution and neglect.  Nothing lasts.  It is simple fact that no event set in motion by human beings lasts forever.
      All our efforts are temporary.  They borrow from preexisting forces, ride the current of natural events, and disappear according to the dictates of the situation.  It is best to realize the transitory nature of things and work with it.  Understanding the world's ephemeral nature can be the biggest advantage of all.



Life is

A crucial part of following Tao is seeking knowledge.  All the efforts of self-cultivation are meant to make us a fit vehicle for that search.  Sometimes what we learn is not pleasant.  With learning, we glimpse life as it really is, and that is difficult to bear.  That is why spiritual progress is slow: not because no one will tell us the secrets, but because we ourselves must overcome sentiment and fear before we can grasp it.
      There is an underbelly of terror to all life.  It is suffering, it is hurt.  Deep within all of us are intense fears that have left few of us whole.  Life's terrors haunt us, attack us, leave ugly cuts.  To buffer ourselves, we dwell on beauty, we collect things, we fall in love, we desperately try to make something lasting in our lives.  We take beauty as the only worthwhile thing in this existence, but it cannot veil cursing, violence, randomness, and injustice.
      Only knowledge removes this fear.  If we were shown the whole truth, we could not stand it.  Both lovely and horrible details make us human, and when knowledge threatens to show us our follies, we may realize that we are not yet ready to leave them behind.  Then the veil closes again, and we sit meditating before it, trying to prepare ourselves for the moment when we dare part the curtain completely.



Death is
The opposite
Of time.

We give death metaphors.  We cloak it in meaning and make up stories about what will happen to us, but we don't really know.  When a person dies, we cannot see beyond the corpse.  We speculate on reincarnation or talk in terms of eternity.  But death is opaque to us, a mystery.  In its realm, time ceases to have meaning.  All laws of physics become irrelevant.  Death is the opposite of time.
      What dies?  Is anything actually destroyed?  Certainly not the body, which falls into its constituent parts of water and chemicals.  That is mere transformation, not destruction.  What of the mind?  Does it cease to function, or does it make a transition to another existence?  We don't know for sure, and few can come up with anything conclusive.
      What dies?  Nothing of the person dies in the sense that the constituent parts are totally blasted from existence.  What dies is merely the identity, the identification of a collection of parts that we called a person.  Each one of us is a role, like some shaman wearing layers of robes with innumerable fetishes of meaning.  Only the clothes and decoration fall.  What dies is only our human meaning.  There is still someone naked underneath.  Once we understand who that someone is, death no longer bothers us.  Nor does time.



We make life real
By the thoughts we project.

The panorama of the objective world is meaningless until we interact with it.  For example, if there is a rock that we pass day after day but we do not notice, then that rock has no significance for us.  If we decide to make that rock a votive object and pray to it for decades, then that rock becomes quite important.  To an outsider who does not subscribe to the rock's assigned meaning, it will continue to be just a rock.  It was only human interaction that created its meaning.  
      It is a mistake to assume that the meaning we give to something is as concrete and tangible as the object itself.  We should not confuse the two.  For example, our house may be precious to us, but our sense of preciousness has nothing to do with the building- it comes from the values and memories we associate with it.  If we lose our house, we must remember that it is the feeling we have for it, not just the building itself, that determines our loss.
      If all perception of reality is subjective, some schools of thought suggest that we should therefore see everything as unreal.  By contrast, followers of the Tao maintain that we must still interact with the world.  If we do not take initiative and work with this phenomena of projecting meaning and receiving its echoes, we fall into a state of dormancy, and the world will not exist for us at all.  As long as we remember that meanings we attribute to objects are subjective, we will avoid mistakes.



Dao.  (Tao, way, road, path, course, head, principle, doctrine, to speak.)  The character on the left means "to run."  It is formed by combining the sign for "movement" (the diagonal lines) with the sign for "leg." The character on the right is a picture of a face- the vertical lines at the top represent tufts of air, and the rectangle below represents the face.  
     Tao is a person running along a path.

The ancients who first taught of Tao were simple, rustic people.  They formed their view by walking in granite-bladed mountains, digging in grainy soil, and sailing down wide rivers.  As they worked and traveled, they slowly discerned a grand order to life.  They noticed the regular phases of the sun, moon, earth, and tides.  They followed the seasons.  They watched the births, lives, and deaths of people, as well as the rise and fall of kingdoms.
      In the nights, the ancients sat beside open fires and spoke to those who wanted to learn.  As illustrations of their ideas, and to aid their student's memories, they drew pictographs in the dirt.  They taught their lessons from what they had experienced: life was a movement supreme- greater than humans, greater than heaven and earth.  Nothing was fixed, for everything- from the cycles of the sun and moon to the making and destroying of empires- showed endless, cyclical transformation.  All this they summed up by drawing a picture of Tao: a person running along a path.
      Those who want to study Tao can gain much from that simple image.  It represents the organic movement of the cosmos as a great, balanced, and dynamic body in motion, just as it represents the path each of us follows through life.  Sometimes intellectual definitions of Tao can be challenging.  Returning to the image of Tao centers our contemplations.



Ying. (Hard, obstinate.)  On the left is the character for "rock."  On the right is a phonetic character.
      Those who follow Tao differentiate between hard and soft and know how to use them.

The masters continually talk about hard and soft.  Hardness refers to force, stiffness, tenseness, and the use of strength.  Softness refers to yielding, touching, barely deflecting an incoming force, and remaining relaxed.  Some make the mistake of emphasizing one over the other.  The wise person knows that both are needed.  One employs hardness or softness according to the situation, and often these two alternate with one another in less time than the blink of an eye.
      Sometimes we have to be firm.  For example, it is difficult to work with others unless one is clear about one's position.  This is hardness, as in a hard edge along the contours of a highly defined drawing.  At the same time, prudent persons know when to change if their position becomes untenable.  This is softness- giving way to an opposing force in order to emerge unscathed.
      With softness, we have sensitivity.  With hardness, we can make assertions.  It takes considerable practice and experience to understand these principles of hardness and softness, but the mastery of this simple duality can lead to great utilization.



Qian. (Before, forward, toward, to advance.)  The top part of the word shows a leg.  On the bottom is a picture of a boat.  When traveling up a large river, like the Yangzi River, boatmen sometimes had to get on the banks and pull the boat upstream by large ropes.  In so doing, they had to go in advance of the boat.
      To act in advance means moving forward when the time comes.

The time to act is not the moment of acting.
The time to plan is not when fate is upon you.
Those who succeed do so because they have already acted.
Those who fail do so because they act too late.

The people who are the most successful have laid the foundations for their actions well in advance of the actual moment of challenge.  Athletes have already done their training, so competition is a foregone conclusion.  Painters have done their studies, so the painting is a mere formality.  Attorneys perform painstaking research, so the trial is simply the performance of their strategy.  In each of these cases, success comes from excellent preparation.
      Those who follow Tao spend their lives building their character, testing themselves, training themselves.  The methods those of Tao use to discipline themselves are more strenuous then the average life situation.  Those who follow Tao employ these methods because they seek to accumulate a personal force.  Then, when the moment comes to act, the power of their personality is overwhelming.  In the vastness of their private discipline, they have already made themselves greater than those who do not follow Tao.
      Daily situations require actions that cannot be met by trying or searching for answers on the spot.  They simply require action.  A true follower of Tao is simply the embodiment of artful action.  Such people don't strain.  They simply are.



Xi.  (Sparing, frugal, economical, to regard, to love.)  On the left is the character for "heart" or "mind."  On the right is a phonetic.
      To be sparing is the way to traverse Tao without causing problems.

Everything we do provokes a reaction.  It may be from others; it may be within ourselves; it may be as subtle as a small ripple in Tao itself.  But there is no doubt about it: everything we do provokes a reaction.
      The practice of following Tao is, in part, a way to minimize those reactions.  In a sense, you are only acting as a "shadow" of Tao.  By harmonizing with it, you blend with its momentum and any consequences are subsumed in the overall movement of Tao.  This is called acting without acting.
      However, this is not always possible.  Then persons of Tao are very cautious.  If there is going to be a reaction, then they seek to use it- by deflecting it further, they dissipate the energy away from themselves or even harness it to yield an extra dividend.  This is called the distant echoing the near.
      The actions of those who have attained the mystery of the Tao become even more intriguing.  They have little or no consciousness of their own.  They are so tied into Tao that what they do is completely as Tao would do.  Such people have so opened their minds to Tao that they are not acting.  Tao is acting.  This is called emptiness within emptiness.
      In whatever you do, be sparing.  At the very least, you will avoid excess.



Liu. (To drift, to flow.)  The three lines on the left side indicate water.  The top part of the right side shows a waterfall; below, a river flows away from it.
      If we trust in Tao, then life flows for us.  If we follow Tao as we follow a stream, then life is easy.

The students constantly asked the ancients, "How can we be happy?"  And the masters laughed, not so much because of the question, but because the worry and seriousness of the question put the students even further from their goals.  The ancients were fond of saying nothing was needed to follow Tao.  One master even went so far as to say he was a boat, adrift on the water, floating here, floating there, without any concerns at all.  Life was his boat, and Tao the river.
      It is a challenge to accept the constant flux of life, but the greater challenge is learning to ride that flux.  Different people have different preferences as to how to do this.  Some want to go through life literally drifting, as the master's words imply.  But as is often the case, what the masters of Tao say and what they do are quite different!  The masters say they want to drift here and there, but in reality, they frequently engage the arts, strategy, positioning. It's a fine point indeed: we may be floating on Tao, but there is nothing wrong with steering.
      If Tao is a river, it is certainly good to know where the rocks are.  We also need to know the swiftness of the current.  Then when going downstream, we can utilize the river's full force.  Willy-nilly drifting will not lead us unharmed down the center of the channel.  That is why there is the study of Tao.  That study is our rudder in the tremendous current of Tao.



Wen.  (Writing, script, literature, civil (as opposed to military), cultured, cultivated.)  This is a picture of a person standing very solemnly- originally this word meant a dignified and serious person.  It was gradually borrowed to mean all things cultural.
      Those who can read all the patterns of life are the truly cultured.

Every person who has followed Tao has been a person of culture and refinement.  Not only does Tao require study and intelligence, but it also demands the subtle mind of a sensitive person.  You will not find that type of mind in the unthinking brute or the insensitive lout.
      The wen person is someone who can read not just human language, but the languages of nature as well.  There are patterns and secrets throughout the world- the rings of trees, and tracks of animals, and the traces of water down the sides of a valley are as clear as any scripture.  The person who follows Tao does not blindly go through life, but is able to read it on every level.  Those who follow Tao are those who know the many languages of life.
      A person who can read literature in this extended sense cannot help but develop great character.  After all, to follow Tao requires patience in adversity, great compassion, and understanding of the balance between action and stillness.  We all need to experience more and more, strive to know life on deeper and deeper levels, and give consideration to all that happens to us.  Such understanding must be ongoing, and those who revel in wen never tire of exploring what is around them.  They always read the patterns of life.



Ni. (You.) This is an early from of the word, derived from a contraction of the words meaning "beauty."  The modern form of this word is completely different.
      The names that others say are you are not necessarily who you are.

When you were born, you were naked.  Your parents gave you a name, because you did not come with one.
      Then process of socialization began: name at birth, records, address, school, accomplishments, career.  It was a necessary evil, one that we perpetuate.  We can see it in the rightly dreaded ritual of small talk:  "What's your name?  What do you do for a living?  Are you married?  Children?  How old are you?  Where are you from?"
      Following Tao is the opposite of all these questions.
      Those who follow Tao undo all of this.  They want to uncover again the original nature they had when they were born.  Then they want to go back and see the nature they had before they were born.
      In public, we may be pursuing our responsibilities.  In our private time, we put all that aside and try to return to the source.  In that returning, we no longer have names, we no longer have anything credited to us.  We are who we are, and no more.  But who we are at that point: that is truth.



Mute black night,
Sudden fire.

Disaster strikes at its own time.  It is so overwhelming that we can do nothing other than accept it.  It alters the course of our days, our work, our very thinking.  Although it is tempting to resent disaster, there is not much use in doing so.  We cannot say that a disaster had malice toward us, though it might have been deadly, and it's hard to say that it has "wrecked" our plans: in one stroke it changes the very basis of the day.
      Disaster is natural.  It is not the curse of the gods, it is not punishment.  Disaster results from the interplay of forces:  the earthquake from pressures in the earth, the hurricane from wind and rain, even the accidental fire from a spark.  We rush to ask "Why?" in the wake of a great disaster, but we should not let superstition interfere with dispassionate acceptance.  There is no god visiting down destruction.
      Disasters may well change us deeply, but they will pass.  We must keep to our deeper convictions and remember our goals.  Whether we remain ash or become phoenix is up to us.



Hilly village lanes,
Whitewashed sunlit walls.
Cerulean sea.
The laughter of children.

No matter where in the world that you go, no matter how many languages are spoken, and no matter how many times cultures and governments clash, the laughter of children is universally uplifting.  The mirth of adults can be variously jealous, insecure, sadistic, cruel, or absurd, but the sound of playing children evokes the ideal of a simple and pure act.  There are no concepts, no ideologies- only the innocent pleasure of life.
      We as adults dwell upon our grizzled complexities, our existential anxieties, and our preoccupations with responsibilities.  We hear the merriment of children and may sigh over our lost childhoods.  Although we can no longer fit into our old clothes and become young again, we can take comfort in the optimism of children.  Their rejoicing can gladden us all.
      We are too often in a rush for our children to grow up.  It is far better for them to fully live each year of their lives.  Let them learn what is appropriate to their time, let them play.  And when their childhood is spent at adolescence, help them in a gentle transition.  Then their laughter will continue to resonate with cheer and hope for us all.



A solitary crane
In winter snow
Needs no jewels.

A single crane standing unconcerned in the falling snow is the very image of independence.  It needs no one, it is secure in its environment, and it is capable of going through life alone.  It's independence stems from self-sufficiency.
      It needs no clothing, no building, no wealth, no status.  It is content, even glorious in its naked identity.  So too with ourselves.  There is no need for dazzling clothes, an impressive career, an awesome temple, nor a bejeweled master.  What we want is something far beyond such externals.
      What facets of your personality are encumbrances?  What personal aspects prevent you from being independent?  These are the areas that define your self-cultivation, for you must strive to stand alone.  This doesn't mean that you won't ever join with others, but you will do so as an individual who will cooperate just as much as is necessary.  In this way, you will never be lost in a group, and you will never fear being alone.



Fire cools.
Water seeks its own level.

No matter how extreme a situation is, it will change.  It cannot continue forever.  Thus, a great forest fire is always destined to burn itself out; a turbulent sea will become calmer.  Natural events balance themselves out by seeking their opposites, and this process of balance is at the heart of all healing.
      This process takes time.  If an event is not great, the balancing required is slight.  If it is momentous, then it may take days, years, even lifetimes for things to return to an even keel.  Actually, without these slight imbalances, there could be no movement in life.  It is being off balance that keeps life changing.  Total centering, total balance would only be stasis.  All life is continual destruction and healing, over and over again.
      That is why, even in the midst of an extreme situation, the wise are patient.  Whether the situation is illness, calamity, or their own anger, they know that healing will follow upheaval.



Lavender roses.
Incarnate fragrance,
Priestly hue of dawn,
Spirit unfolding.

Even on the road to hell, flowers can make you smile.  They are fragile, ephemeral, uncompromising.  No one can alter their nature. True, you can easily destroy them, but you will not gain anything; you cannot force them to submit to your will.
      Flowers arouse in us an instinct to protect them, to appreciate them, and to shelter them.  This world is too ugly, too violent.  There should be something delicate to care about.  To do so is to be lifted above the brute and to go toward the refined.  When we offer flowers on our altar, we are offering a high gift.  Money is too vulgar, food too pedestrian.  Only flowers are unsullied.  By offering them, we offer purity.
      The tenderness of flowers arouses mercy, compassion, and understanding.  If that beauty is delicate, so much the better.  Life itself is fleeting.  We should take the time to appreciate beauty in the midst of temporality.



The world is dazzling.
I alone am dull.
Others strive for achievement,
I follow a lonely path.

Followers of Tao are nonconformists.  The conventional label our behavior erratic, antisocial, irresponsible, inexplicable, outrageous, and sometimes scandalous.  We hear other voices, respond to inner urgings.  We have no interest in the social norm; we only care about following Tao.  It does not matter if no one can understand us, for we are nurtured by something most people do not sense.  Awakening to this inner urge, and distinguishing spiritual impulses from the merely instinctual, is one of the crucial goals of self-cultivation.
      We all have many voices, personalities, ambitions, and tendencies within ourselves.  The ability to distinguish between them, and the ability to silence all the voices save for Tao's, is imperative if one is to reach this state of being.  Once one is in touch with the true Tao, there are no doubts, and the murmuring of others cannot have any effect.  One is as comforted as a child at its mother's breast.
      The more one walks in Tao, the more one is interested in self-perfection.  All that matters is constant cultivation to be with Tao.  This is a lonely path.  There are others who follow Tao, but it is not always possible to meet them.  That is why it takes someone both sensitive enough to hear the call and strong enough to walk the solitary path.



The more you dwell in the spirit,
The farther you are from common ways.
If you want to speak of Tao's wonders,
Few will listen.

If you spend a long period of time in study and self-cultivation, you will enter Tao.  By doing so, you also enter a world of extraordinary perceptions.  You experience unimaginable things, receive thoughts and learning as if from nowhere, perceive things that could be classified as prescient.  Yet if you try to communicate what you experience, there is no one to understand you, no one who will believe you.  The more you walk this road, the farther you are from the ordinary ways of society.  You may see the truth, but you will find that people would rather listen to politicians, performers, and charlatans.
      If you are known as a follower of the Tao, people may seek you out, but they are seldom the ones who will truly understand Tao.  They are people who would exploit Tao as a crutch.  To speak to them of the wonders you have seen is often to engage in a futile bout of mis-communication.  That is why it is said that those who know do not speak.
      Why not simply stay quiet?  Enjoy Tao as you will.  Let others think you are dumb.  Inside yourself, you will know the joy of Tao's mysteries.  If you meet someone who can profit by your experience, you should share.  But if you are merely a wanderer in a crowd of strangers, it is wisdom to be silent.



Those who follow Tao do so
From their own predilection.
There are no promises,
Yet the rewards are immeasurable.

Of all the spiritual traditions, following Tao is among the least popular.  Its adherents are poor and veiled with humility.  In comparison, many traditions offer heaven, forgiveness, comfort, ecstasy, belonging, power, and wealth.  Tao offers only three things: sound health, a way through the bewilderment of life, and liberation from the fear of death.
      That is why there are so few followers of Tao.  There is no glamour, there is no congregation, there is no ranking.  You are either in the state of Tao, or you are temporarily out of it.  When you die, you die.
      You have to be tough to follow Tao.  If you can avoid being discouraged by poverty, isolation, and obscurity, you will find an unshakable devotion that will last your entire life, and rewards will come in slow and subtle ways.  You may not be suddenly rich and influential, but you will discover, to your great delight, that there is a secret source of sustenance.  Once you taste that, all your doubts will fade, and both poverty and loneliness will be eaiser to bear.



Don't call me a follower of the Tao.

Following Tao is an intensely personal endeavor in which you spend each minute of your life with the universal pulse.  You follow the fluid and infinitely shifting Tao and experience its myriad wonders.  You will want nothing more than to be empty before it- a perfect mirror, open to every nuance.
      If you put labels on who you are, there is separation from Tao.  As soon as you accept the designations of race, gender, name, or fellowship, you define yourself in contrast to Tao.
      That is why those who follow Tao never identify themselves with the name Tao.  They do not care for labels, for status, or for rank.  We all have an equal chance to be with Tao.
      Reject labels.
      Reject identities.
      Reject conformity.
      Reject convention.
      Reject definitions.
      Reject names.



Every god can be defied.
No choice, no devotion.

There have been many rebels who have chosen to defy their gods.  Without this option, there can be no true devotion to a holy concept.  For devotion is only valuable when a conscious decision is made to follow that course, even in acknowledgment of the difficulties ahead.  Choosing to be a devout person is good.  Choosing to defy the gods is also good, for it reaffirms the basic ability of human beings to make choices.  We cannot support religions which say that there are no choices.
      Metaphysical totalitarianism of any kind stifles the freedom we have as human beings.  It is not acceptable to have a religion where the alternative to faith is punishment- that's how you train dogs, not develop people.  Spirituality is only great when it allows that utmost freedom to follow it.  If we suffer from difficulties, that is not holy retribution, and we should not allow it to create debilitating questions.
      If you endure a crisis in your life, it may well challenge your faith.  Perhaps you will even respond bitterly to your gods and cry out: How could anything holy permit this atrocity to happen to me? But gods are not our parents or protectors.  They are there only to inspire us to be better people.  They symbolize the inherent choice of this existence.  It is secondary whether we choose belief or defiance.  What is precious is that we are always able to choose.



If I break down the walls, I will be surrounded
      by the garden.
If I break the levee, water will inundate me.
Meditation is not to be separated from life.

The task of following Tao is to cease all distinctions between the self and the outside world.  It is only a matter of convenience that we label things inside and outside, subjective and objective.  Indeed, it is only at the elementary stages that we should talk of a Tao to follow.  For true enlightenment is the realization not that there is a Tao to follow but that we ourselves are Tao.
      That understanding comes after a simple breaking down of a wall, a shattering of the mistaken notion that there is something inherent in this life that divides us from Tao.  Once the wall is broken, we are inundated by Tao.  We are Tao.
      Do we continue to meditate once we come to this understanding?  We still do, but it is no longer a solitary and isolated activity.  It is a part of life, as natural as breathing.  When you can bring yourself to the understanding that there is no difference between you and Tao and that there is no difference between meditation and "ordinary" activities, then you are well on your way to being one with Tao.



Inside me, it was quiet all day:
      I waited until midnight for a sound.
Outside me, it was noisy all day.
      I waited all night for silence.
Tao's power is sound.
Tao's potential is silence.

It is said that even if one hears Tao before the day is over, then that day has been worthwhile.  Even if one hears about Tao before one's life is over, then one's life has been worthwhile.
      But sometimes it takes a long time to hear about Tao.  There are some days when Tao does not manifest itself right away.  It seems that the more you want to love, the more hatred tempts you.  The more you want to be pure, the more negativity pursues you.  The more you want serenity, the more chaos assaults you.  The ordinary have common problems.  Those who pursue Tao struggle against titanic forces.  What can you do but accept it and persevere?  If you fret about it, then you have not only spent the day away from Tao, but you have ruined that day with emotional turmoil too.
      Sometimes Tao doesn't appear until the very end of the day.  Maybe it's just that you are more relaxed and have put aside all your cares.  Maybe Tao is capricious.  It is hard to say.  When Tao does come, it is as if you are just now hearing a true sound.  When it does come, such a feeling of serenity overcomes you that it quiets all the noise of the day.



Suddenly, things snap into focus.
I've been pursuing unity all my life,
But could only glimpse the monstrous vision 
      in fragments;
It has haunted me for years.

Each time I sighted it, I struggled to make it concrete.
At first, it seemed I had only a sculptor's yard of
      unfinished figures-
Then it slowly began to make sense,
gathered from glimpses and inferences.

More and more, this mysterious life comes together.
It may take years more to reveal the whole.
That's alright.
I'm prepared to go the distance.

One's life's destiny is not easily revealed.  It's too big.  You may certainly set your sights early, but you will still have to make changes and adjustments as your true purpose is clarified.  When it does begin to come together, there is a tremendous feeling of assurance.
      Then with each step upon the path of Tao, your certainty rings from peak to peak.



Tao is the road up your spine.
Tao is the road up your life.
Tao is the road of the cosmos.

People are often confused about Tao because there are references to it on so many different levels.  After all, it permeates all existence.  Indeed it might be said that Tao is existence itself.  It might seem odd that we can talk about Tao on a level so mundane as physical exercise and on a level as exalted as holiness itself.  Those who follow Tao do not think of divinity as something "up there."  They think of it as everywhere.
      Tao can be tangible when it wants and intangible when it wants too.  One tangible aspect of Tao is the road in the very center of our spines.  That is the path of Tao in us.  It is the spirit road connecting the various power centers of our bodies.
      On a philosophical level, Tao is the road through life.  It is the change from one stage to another, the dealing with circumstances, the expression of your inner character against the background of nature and society.  On a metaphysical level, it is the evolution and movement of the cosmos itself.
      Now take these three levels- the movement of energy up the spine, the philosophical understanding of one's own path in life, and the very progression of the universe- and meld them all into one combined concept.  Then you will have a glimpse of the genius of Tao.



Water cleanses.
Gathers in the earth.
Tender.  Invasive.  Subtle.
Emerges a shining river.
When small, it is weak.
When great, it tumbles mountains,
Rendering great cliffs

Classic wisdom says that there is nothing weaker than water, yet when united, it can become a titanic force.  Like a tidal wave.  Or a river that cuts through gorges.  This is called the yielding overcoming the hard.
      Let's look at it another way.  Water does not overcome because it yields.  It overcomes because it is relentless.  It perseveres and does not give up.  It is constant.  Rock can block water.  Rock can even hold water in a lake for thousands of years.  Why can't the yielding overcome the hard then?  Because it cannot move.  It cannot work its magic of being relentless.
      Just as water must be able to express its true nature in a relentless way, so too must we simultaneously and relentlessly express our true natures if we are to be successful in life.  Otherwise, we will find ourselves hemmed in by the hard walls of reality, and we will never be able to break through.
      But how do we acquire such perseverance?  We start small.  As drops.



Dust cannot gather
If there is no mirror there.

Some people have compared a pure soul to the unsullied brightness of a perfect mirror.
      Others have retorted that if there is no mirror there in the first place, then there cannot be anything to be sullied.  The soul is empty.
      We should not think of our souls as discrete and separate from the rest of creation.  We are indeed one with everything, so there is no need to think of our souls as isolated entities.  Thus, it is the concept of the soul as separate being that is empty.
      It is impossible to live in this world and not be sullied by it.  The red dust will settle on you no matter how often you clean.  It is good to strive for purity, but if you conceive of purity as a fight against the filth and the dust of this world, you doom yourself to obsession and futility.  The only way to achieve actual purity is to realize your essential oneness with all things.  If you are one with everything, then even filth is pure.  For this to happen, you must transcend all distinctions in yourself, resolve all contradictions.  With this erasure, the mirror-bright soul and the dust are all dissolved in a single purity.



Quin. (Diligence, labor.)  On the bottom is the character for "strength" (showing a muscle in its sheath).  The remainder of the word is phonetic.
      One cannot go far in life without diligence.

It is useless to argue: this life is one of suffering.  Nothing can be done except through our efforts.  Disasters hit all of us without meaning or explanation.  Wars are constant around the globe.  Family members abuse and exploit one another.  Hard work is often rewarded with betrayal.  The government is a haven for those who would oppress others.  Despite the great wealth of information, ignorance is ever present.  Money is used for selfish gains and not to help others.  Spiritual leaders are often shown to be hypocrites.  Homelessness is rampant.  Most people do not have enough to eat.  Those who have enough eat more than their share.  We spend our lives looking for love, only to find bitterness.  We pin our hopes to distant dreams that never materialize.  We listen to teachers who tell us to work hard, only to find that the world has changed by the time we leave school.  We hurt ourselves with self-doubt, low self-esteem, and slavery to desires.
      Prophets disappoint us, priests befuddle us, teachers deceive us, bosses exploit us, parents reject us, spouses desert us, children are taken from us, and at the end, it is just us, staring at the grave.
      This life is one of suffering.  Those who don't know how to suffer are the worst off.  Those who follow Tao know that there are times when things will be very difficult.  That is the time to be diligent.  There are times when the only correct thing we can do is to bear our troubles until a better day.



Ming. (Insight, bright, dawn, evident, open, intelligent, virtuous, enlightened.)  On the left is a picture of the sun.  On the right is a picture of the moon.  The sun and the moon are the two brightest things; to combine them represents brightness upon brightness.
      Those who unite sun and moon within themselves attain the ultimate clarity.

People imagine that spirituality is secret and hard to understand.  Quite the opposite is true.  Spirituality is something that everyone has.  The only problem is that we have been taught not to listen to the natural voice within ourselves.
      People imagine that spirituality is esoteric and hoarded by masters.  Quite the opposite is true.  Masters would be happy if crowds flooded the temples to hear of Tao.  But the temples are abandoned and the masters are dying because the world is more interested in money and pleasure.
      People imagine that spirituality should be easy.  Quite the opposite is true.  Knowledge of Tao does not relieve the human dilemma: it clarifies it.  Yet there is a world of difference between those who suffer with insight and those who suffer in ignorance.  It is far better to have insight.
      People imagine that spirituality requires great sophistication.  Quite the opposite is true.  All that is needed is to identify the polar nature of your own character and then to understand how to utilize those opposites.  Once you do that, you will understand the meaning of absolute.
      Therefore, to hear the natural voice within, first quiet the voices of profit and selfishness.  To learn of Tao, enter into learning before all learning is gone.  



Jian. (To reduce, to lessen, to diminish, to subtract.)  On the left is the sign for "water."  On the right is a weapon cutting something smaller.
      To cut is to lessen.  To fling water into drops is to lessen.  To reduce is the skill of masters.

Beginning cooks often load many flavors into their cooking.  It takes a master chef to put one or two things on a plate and let the quality and flavors of the food speak for themselves.
      Beginning flower arrangers often crowd many flowers into dramatic bouquets.  It takes a master arranger to dominate a room with a single flower.
      Beginning boxers punch and kick, striking many times, but landing few blows.  It takes a master boxer to dodge and then topple the opponent with a few moves.
      Beginning poets often write long pieces filled with dramatic allusions and metaphors.  It takes a master poet to hold an entire world in just a few lines.
      Beginning musicians often go for dazzling scales and stunning orchestrations.  It takes a master musician to express everything in a simple melody.
      Beginning architects often assemble too much ornamentation.  It takes a master architect to display only proportion and material.
      In the beginning of our efforts, we often do too much.  Anxious to be noticed, we decorate whatever we do with great excess.  After all, if we don't yet have the sensibility to do exactly what we want, why not dazzle the world with flourishes?
      But those who follow Tao are spare in what they do.  They seek quality.  They know that just the right actions, arranged in just the right way, at the right time is all they need.  That takes time to learn.  But there is nothing better than to see a master who has reduced his or her art to its finest essence.



Ren.  (Person.)  The picture shows a human figure in profile.  Often the words for "heaven", "earth", and "person" form a phrase summing up the totality of the universe.
      A person is part of nature and nature is part of a person.

Tao is everything.  There is nothing that is not Tao.
      A person is part of Tao.  And a person is completely made up of Tao.  Therefore, we can follow Tao anywhere we go, but we can also follow Tao through introspection.  We are Tao.  And if we want to know more about Tao, we need to learn more about ourselves.
      The ancients drew pictures of human beings, just the same as they drew pictures of everything else.  We were seen as part of all nature.  And all of nature was seen as a part of us.  It was natural for us to seek Tao, for it was natural that we wanted to learn.
      The only true error that human beings make is this:  we imagine ourselves to be separate from Tao.  It is due to this single mistake and this single mistake alone that we are ignorant.