Thoughts on the Place of Man and the Tao


All things arise from Tao.
They are nourished by Virue.
They are formed by matter.
They are shaped by environment.
Thus the ten thousand things all respect Tao and honour Virtue.
Respect of Tao and honour of Virtue are not demanded,
But they are in the nature of things. – Lao-Tzu | Tao Te Ching

 

“The greatest Virtue is to follow Tao and Tao alone.” – Lao-Tzu | Tao Te Ching


Under the bright green canopy of the old maples the glimmering golden sunlight bleeds onto the forest floor, the canopy above is as an emerald sky with a million glittering stars, broken only by the black veins of the great mother. The breath of the nameless moves through the dappled sun, through the plants, the flowers, and berries of the forest. Its breath moves through the insects and the birds and the countless races of the forest which take of its offerings, the flitting frenzy of the little bees, the darting swallows, and the great and noble bear.

In the distance there is the quiet babbling of the cold river, grown somewhat gentle with the turning of the seasons. He retraces the ancient steps he has known for millennia, carrying the cold blue blood of the high mountains through the low valleys, gifts from the gods of the mountain to the life of the green forest. A welcome breeze rustles the green leaves of the young birch trees as though a kiss of life had finally seeped into their bone-white bark. And the breeze brings a breath of life for the beds of ferns which sets them loose to dance a gentle dance, their green bodies writhing in the summer twilight.

Near the banks of the river a trio of deer follow the echoes of their quiet footsteps; they have come to drink from the gifts of the high mountains, taking in that life of the green forest and carrying it forward in themselves. They drink swiftly, and are ever watchful. From the darker groves of the forest one can hear the merciless laughter of the coyote, a faint echo of the howl of the great wolves which would have once resonated here, but tatters that remain of an ancient, million-threaded fabric. On occasion the breath of the forest moves from the limp limbs of the graceful fawn into the blood soaked jaws of the coyote. And his darkness is one with the light of the green forest. For as the nameless knows, just as with the timeless drama of the great hawk and the life of the fields, life and death are one and the same. Only from out of the complementarity of yin and yang does the taijitu attain wholeness.

Such is the life of the great forest.

It seems to me now, as it has for some time, that this is the fist and last true place of man, but one amidst the countless and eternal movements of the ineffable in this indomitable reality. This is the true center. Our true dwelling place is not to be found in the spectral, animated illusions of our twisted imagination. It is here on the banks of the cold river under maple canopies amidst the great life of the earth. The rest is merely transience, episodic deviations from the mean.

As the American poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote in his poem Sign-Post:

“Civilized, crying: how to be human again; this will tell you how.
Turn outward, love things, not men, turn right away from humanity,
Let that doll lie. Consider if you like how the lilies grow,
Lean on the silent rock until you feel its divinity
Make your veins cold; look at the silent stars, let your eyes
Climb the great ladder out of the pit of yourself and man.
Things are so beautiful, your love will follow your eyes;
Things are the God; you will love God and not in vain,
For what we love, we grow to it, we share its nature. At length
You will look back along the star’s rays and see that even
The poor doll humanity has a place under heaven.
Its qualities repair their mosaic around you, the chips of strength
And sickness; but now you are free, even to be human,
But born of the rock and the air, not of a woman.”

Lao-Tzu says in the Tao Te Ching that the ways of the earth follow the ways of heaven. And that the ways of heaven follow the ways of the Tao. And the Tao follows only itself. And so all things flow from the breath of the Tao. Its way is the way of all things; it is the eternal, the nameless, the primal source, the final reality. In chapter 25 of the Tao Te Ching Lao-Tzu notes, “Something mysteriously formed, / Born before heaven and earth. / In the silence and the void, / Standing alone and unchanging, / Ever present and in motion. / Perhaps it is the mother of ten thousand things. / I do not know its name. / Call it Tao.” It is that great and indomitable source from out of which all things flow. The ten thousand things are its ten thousand breaths. And it is also said in the lines of the Tao Te Ching that the ways of men follow the ways of the earth. And so man, understood as but one among the ten thousand things, follows the ways of the Tao. And in this is his primal virtue. But respect of the Tao and honor of this virtue are not demanded, it is said. Although it is the way of things, man can wander from the path, can move against the Tao.

I do not yet “know” if Lao-Tzu is right. Despite the great deal of time I have spent on the study and practice of Taoism and its close cousin, Zen Buddhism, there is always a haunting sense of ambivalence toward the truth of what is being put forward in works like the Tao Te Ching and Zhuangzi. But I have spent enough time in meditation, and sitting quietly in the forests to know that the words of the Taoist sages like Lao-Tzu and Zhuangzi, as well as the Zen masters like Dogen and Rinzai, resonate deeply enough with my own experiences to warrant my continued attention. And it seems to me that there is little question that man and the ways of his modern, techno-industrial existence have strayed far from that true center, from ways of the earth, of heaven, and of the eternal Tao and of his primal virtue. We have wandered far off the path, carried upon the frenzied steps of a dream-led dance into worlds where dead things live as animated abstractions.

And yet for all this it is said that the Tao remains open, ever-present. And in the golden green glow of the quiet forest, amidst the great life of the woods, there are perhaps quiet echoes of its eternal voice for those with the stillness to hear. In the play of the coyote and the rabbit secrets are told of the ways of the earth. In the communion between the maples and the great sky secrets are told of the ways of heaven. And in the secrets whispered of the ways of heaven and earth, the Tao speaks softly. In these tellings it speaks of the ultimate dwelling place of man. The lessons teach the place of man, not as the pinnacle of existence or as our modern solipsistic abstraction, but as one being among the ten thousand things, inextricably enmeshed in the wonder that is the Tao.

But I suspect there is still much left to contemplate.

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