This morning I was giving you a talk on the fundamental basic attitudes expressed in Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. And the title of the book, “Tao Te Ching,” introduces now the second word in the title. I’ve been dwelling this morning on the first word, which is “Tao,” and so comes up this second word, “Te.” And this word, again, faces us with some serious problems of translation. Ordinarily translated “virtue,” but virtue as we understand it today isn’t at all appropriate. The nearest kind of… when we speak of the “healing virtues of a plant,” that’s nearer to the meaning of this word “Te.” The Japanese pronounce it toku (徳), the Cantonese duk, and the Northern Mandarins approximately te. And in the section of the Lao Tzu where this is really introduced, the text says something like this: “The superior virtue not virtue, thus it has virtue. Inferior virtue can’t let go of virtue, thus not virtue.” And we more or less paraphrase that by translating: “Superior virtue is not conscious of itself as virtue, and therefore it is virtue. But inferior virtue is so hooked up with being virtuous (or hooked on being virtuous) that it’s not virtue.”
Now then, therefore, this word is a connection of “virtue” and “magic.” It means “the excellence of things,” in the sense that a tree excels at being a tree and nobody really knows how it does it. There is no way of imitating a tree, except the only thing is to be one. And so, in the same way, when a human being shows extraordinary skill at something, it seems that it comes natural to him. It seems that he doesn’t achieve it by any kind of artificiality. If there is some discipline in it, it’s concealed. So excelling in something naturally, and yet it’s something that is so difficult to understand that it seems that it has been done by magic, is the meaning of this word. So what “Te” is, is: the state of affairs, a way of talking about (particularly) a human being, who has learned to live in harmony with the Tao.
Now, of course, everything is fundamentally in harmony with the Tao. In the book called the Zhongyong, or “The Unwobbling Pivot,” it is said “the Tao is that from which nothing can depart, that from which things can depart is not the Tao.” Fundamentally, you see, you can’t get away from it. It’s like a situation in which we are all floating in a tremendous river, and the river carries you along, anyhow. Now, some of the people in the river are swimming against it, but they’re still being carried along. Others have learned that the art of the of the thing is to swim with it. And they are carried along, too—but they know it, you see? They know they are carried along, whereas the people who are swimming against it think they’re going in the opposite direction. But they’re not really.
So that was the sort of discussion we were having this morning, when I find—invariably, whenever I talk about these things—Americans raise moral issues. Because we are a people incredibly bamboozled by preachers. And so this always comes up. Bamboozled. By preachers. Yes! And have chronic guilty consciences, and so those questions are always raised. But this, you see, explains part of this situation that you have to flow with the river. There is no other way. But you can swim against it and pretend not to be flowing with it, but you still are.
But a person who is not making that pretense anymore—who knows that you have to go with the river and swim with it—suddenly he acquires (behind everything that he does) the power of the river. The person swimming against the river, you see, does not (by his action) express the force of the river. The person swimming with it—he goes along and he has that whole river behind him, but he’s subtly directing it. Because you can change direction in the course of the river: you can go to the left or to the right, as a ship can use a rudder and still go along with the current. Or, more skillful still, as a sailboat can tack: because when a sailboat tacks and goes in a direction contrary to the wind, it still is using the wind to blow it along. Now that is the most highly skillful art of all. That is Taoism in perfection. The art of sailing. Very intelligent!
I remember once I was looking in the open air, and one of those glorious little thistledown things came. And I picked it up, like that, and brought it down. And it looked as if it was struggling to get away just as if you caught an insect by one leg—like a daddy longlegs or something of that kind. It seemed to be struggling to get away. And first I thought, “Well, it’s not doing that. That’s just the wind blowing.” Then I thought again. “Really? Only the wind blowing?” Surely, it is the structure of this thing which, in cooperation with the existence of wind, enables it to move like an animal—but using the wind’s effort, not its own. It is a more intelligent being than an insect, in a way, because an insect uses effort. Like a person who rows a boat uses effort, but the man who puts up a sail is using magic: he lets nature do it for him with the intelligence to use a sail. You see?
So in just this way, the meaning of “Te” is that kind of intelligence which, without your using very much effort, gets everything to cooperate with you. You, for example, never force other people to agree with you, but you give them the notion that the idea you wanted them to have was their own. This is a feminine art, preeminently. A woman who really wants a lover does not pursue him, because then most men feel that she’s aggressive—and if she’s aggressive she obviously is a woman who has had difficulty in finding lovers, and therefore there must be some undesirably secret thing about her. But if she, as it were, makes a void, then (and this is slightly difficult to get) people get excited. They know she is a highly prized object, and so they pursue. The same way when you want to teach a baby to swim: a thing you can do is to put the baby in the water and then move backwards in the water and create a vacuum. And this pulls the baby along. It helps it to learn the feel of the water and how to swim. It’s the same principle.
So also, clever difficult-to-get-ness is one of the very best means of acquiring immense publicity. Take the case of T. E. Lawrence, who published the Seven Pillars of Wisdom in a limited edition. And this became an extraordinarily celebrated book. It cost hundreds of dollars a copy to find one on the market. And they waited and waited, and built this up and built this up and built this up. And finally they published a general edition, and it was a knockout because the first one had been sort of secret and difficult to find. If you have patience, you see, you can always do this.
So the whole art of the ruler—you see, the Tao Te Ching is a book written for several purposes. You may take it as a guide to mystical understanding of the universe. You may take it as a dissertation on the principles of nature; almost a handbook of natural law, we would say. Or you may also take it as a political book: a book of wisdom for governors. And the principle which it advocates, basically, is the virtue of governing by not ruling. Look at it in this way: supposing the president of the United States were as unknown to you by name as the local sanitary inspector; the man who looks after the drains and the sewage disposal and all that kind of thing. This is not a glamorous figure, you see. But for that very reason he probably does his job more efficiently than the president. Because the president wastes an enormous amount of time in interviewing various groups from the Elks and the Girl Scouts, and conferring honors, and all this kind of thing. The poor man’s life must be an utter torment, because he’s so well known and therefore has absolutely no time to give to the government of the country. I mean, think of his mail and all the people who have to be employed sifting that out, and assessing it! So that, if he were someone quite anonymous and that we didn’t have to think about, he would be a very very good ruler.
In just the same way, for example, you don’t have to attend (unless you’re sick) to the government of your own body. It happens automatically. This is this expression zìrán (自然), “of itself,” and it goes on day after day after day. And the better it is, the less you have to think about it. When you see well, you do not see your eyes. If there is something wrong with your eyes, you start seeing spots, and those spots are spots in your eyes. When you hear well, you never hear your ears. But when they start singing—you know?—then you are starting to hear your ears, and your ears are getting in the way of their own hearing. So on the deepest level, a person, as a whole, can get in the way of his own existence by becoming too aware of himself. And then he lacks this quality “Te.”
Now, the Taoists then propose that there be something to help people get back to Tao and to be able to be in a state of “Te” so that they wouldn’t get in their own way. And this is connected with the idea of being empty. Emptiness, being somehow vacant, was the secret of the thing. The highest kind of knowledge is not know-how, but no-how: to be able to do it no-how, without any method. To achieve this, something is practiced which is called “fasting the heart.” The heart, in Chinese, is a word which doesn’t mean “heart” in the physiological sense. You see, it’s part of the “Te” character. Xīn (心). It’s usually located about here. And it means “heart-mind.” It’s equivalently translated as “mind,” and in all the Zen texts where the word “mind” is used—no mind, mushin—it is this character. The psychic center.
Now, the best kind of heart is absence of heart. In English, the word “heartless” has a very bad connotation, as does the word “mindless.” A heartless person is an inconsiderate, unfeeling person. A mindless person is an idiot. But a person who has mushin, or no mind or no heart in Chinese, is a very high order of person. It means that his psychic center doesn’t get in its own way. It operates as if it wasn’t there. Zhuang Zhou says that the highest form of man uses his xīn like a mirror: it grasps nothing, it refuses nothing, it receives but does not keep. And the poem says when the geese fly over the water and they are reflected in the water, that the geese do not intend to cast their reflection and the water has no mind to retain their image. So the whole thing is, you see, to operate in the world as if you were absent.
Now, this is built into us physiologically, fundamentally. Let me ask you simply: what is the color of your head from the standpoint of your eyes? Your eyes don’t see your head, do they? You look all around, you see everything else. But your head you don’t see. Do you feel that your head is black? No. It hasn’t any color at all. Outside, you see, your field of vision is an oval—two eyes, and this creates sort of two centers of an ellipse. So there’s this whole field of vision. Now, experiment: what is beyond the field of vision? What color is it where you can’t see? It isn’t black. This is an important point! It’s no color at all beyond there. And in this way you can get an idea of what is meant by that character that I discussed this morning (xuan (玄)) which, although it formally has a meaning of “darkness”—this one—although it formally has the meaning of “darkness,” and the “deep,” and the “obscure,” it actually refers to this kind of “no color,” which is the color of your head so far as your eyes are concerned. So in this sense, the invisibility of one’s head—almost the not having of any head at all—is the secret of being alive. To be headless, you might say. To have no head, in just the sense I’m talking about, is our way of talking about the Chinese expression mushin, “no-mind.”
Now, as a matter of fact, if you want to see the inside of your head, all you have to do is keep your eyes open. Because everything that you’re experiencing in the external visual field is a state of your brain. All these colors and shapes are the way in which the brain nerves translate the electrical impulses in the external world; being in the world outside the envelope of skin. So they translate all what is going on outside into impulses which are, to us, shape and color. But shape and color are states of the nerves, so what you see when your eyes are open is how it feels inside your head. You think your head is a blank. But actually, it’s being a blank. You don’t see your brain as an external, undulating, corrugated structure. You see your brain as everything outside.
So, in this way, the emptiness of one’s head is the condition of seeing. The transparency of the eye lens is the condition of seeing colors. It has no color itself. Eckhart said this: because my eye has no color it is able to discern color. This is in Germany in the 13th century. This is a fundamental Taoist idea of being absent as a condition of being present: being not there. So Zhuang Zhou says: when your belt is comfortable, you don’t feel it. When your shoes are comfortable, it is as if you weren’t wearing any. Likewise, your clothes, you see? The more you are aware of these things, the less properly they are made, or the less properly they fit.
But we raise an objection to this. A very simple objection. If I don’t know I’m there, I seem to be missing everything. We want to know that we know. If we’re happy and we don’t know we’re happy, we might just as well not be happy. To be happy and to know that you’re happy is really the overflowing of the cup of life. Of course, the penalty for that is to be miserable and to know that you’re miserable. Some people are miserable without knowing it. But you know my limerick,
There was a young man who said, “Though
It seems that I know that I know,
What I would like to see
Is the “I” that knows me
When I know that I know that I know.”
And this is the great human predicament: the development of self-consciousness, the development of the possibility of reflecting upon one’s own knowledge. And this is simultaneously a blessing and a curse.
And Taoism does not escape this problem. I mean, it doesn’t avoid this problem, it deals with it. But it doesn’t deal with it obviously. So we get back to this fundamental verse about the nature of “Te.” What is highly virtuous is a virtue that is not conscious of itself as virtue. The moment it’s conscious of itself as such, you see, it fails. So in this way, we love to see a child dancing all by itself, lost in the dance and not performing for an audience. And we say, “Oh, if only I could dance like that! If only I could become like a child again. Innocent!” But then, soon, you know, when parents notice how beautifully a child dances, and they all approve of it and say to this child, “Dance for us,” the child begins to lose this power and it puts on airs. It knows it’s noticed. And we don’t like that. We say that’s affectation. That’s showing off. That’s phony. What we want you to do is to dance as if you had no audience, not even yourself—which, of course, puts the child in a double bind because it says to the child: we require you to do something that will be acceptable only if you do it as if it wasn’t required. We do that all the time to our children and to each other. “You must love me.” After all, you promised to do so when we got married, didn’t you? And so on. So this is the difficulty. But somehow, a very great artist in the maturity of his life somehow is able at least to give the impression that he does what he does without playing to the gallery, without self-consciousness. It seems perfectly natural. So how does he get there?
There was a Taoist sage later than Lao Tzu. His name was Liezi. We Romanize that as L-I-E-H. And he had a reputation for being able to ride on the wind. So light. Zhuang Zhou says in one place: it’s easy enough to stand still, the difficulty is to walk without touching the ground. Because in the state of being in accord with the Tao, there is a certain feeling of weightlessness, parallel to the weightlessness that people feel when they get into outer space or when they go deep into the ocean. This is, of course, connected with the sensation that you’re not carrying your body around. I described this morning the sensation that an expert driver has when he really is with it in a car: that the hill lifts him up and drops him down the other side, that he and the road are all one process. And that’s equivalent to the sense of weightlessness. And so this is connected. This is inner meaning of Liezi riding on the wind. When Suzuki was asked, “What is it like to have satori?” he said, “It’s just like ordinary everyday experience, except about two inches off the ground.” And so we say in our own songs, “Walking on air, never a care. Something is making me sing. Tra-la-la-la, tra-la-la-la, like a little bird in spring.”
What is this, then; weightlessness? It means, partly, that you’re not moving around in constant opposition to yourself. Most people move in constant opposition to themselves because they are afraid that, if they don’t oppose themselves all the time, something awful will happen. See, it’s so easy to bend your arm. No problem at all. But supposing you make a fight about it and you take these antagonistic muscles, as they’re called, and fight them against each other so that you have to bend your arm like that, you see? Well, how ridiculous! But if you somehow felt that, in bending your arm, you might make a mistake—you know, instead of bending it you might hit yourself—then these two muscles get nervous and they fight each other to be sure that everything happens alright. That’s anxiety, you see?
So when the human being developed the power to be aware of himself, to know that he knows—in other words, when the cortex was formed over the original brain—he fell from grace. That was the fall of man. Because when he felt he had the sensation of being in charge, of being in control of himself—and you can only have that sensation when you are aware of what you’re doing—he got anxious. Am I aware enough of myself? Have I taken enough factors into consideration? Have I done all that should be done? And then he started trembling. This was the fall of man, of course; this is what is meant. Lao Tzu says, “When the great Tao lost, there came duty to man and right conduct.” In other words, nobody talks about how you ought to behave unless things have gone radically wrong. There wouldn’t be any conception of faithful ministers of the state unless there are a lot of lousy politicians around. No one would talk about filial piety unless there were wayward sons and daughters. So there is constantly, in the tradition of Taoism, the idea that all moral preaching is confusion.
There’s a marvelous case of this in the Zhuang Zhou book, where there’s an alleged conversation between Confucius and Lao Tzu in which Lao Tzu asks Confucius to explain to him: what is charity and duty to one’s neighbor? And Confucius gives him a little sermon, you know, on giving up one’s self-interest and working for others. And Lao Tzu says, “What stuff! Sir, regard the universe.” He says, “The stars come out invariably every night. The sun rises and sets. The birds flock and migrate without exception. All flowers and trees grow upwards without exception. You—by or talk of charity and duty to one’s neighbor—you’re just introducing confusion into the empire. Your attempt to eliminate self is a positive manifestation of selfishness. You are like a person beating a drum in search of a fugitive.” The modern equivalent of that would be the police car about to raid a bad night club and coming with that siren full on, you see? And everybody in the club gets out. So all talk about selfishness—all talk about success in becoming virtuous, or enlightened, or integrated, or non-neurotic, or self-actualized; all the terms that are being used, all this talk—attests to the fact that it hasn’t happened, and will, in fact, get in the way of its happening.
Well, to go back to Liezi, who succeeded in riding the wind: what happened? Liezi found a very great master and went to study with him. And the master lived in a small hut, and Liezi sat outside the hut. And the master paid absolutely no attention to him. This is sort of the way with Taoist masters, because why would they want students? They have nothing to teach. So after a year sitting outside, Liezi went away. And he [was] just fed up with waiting so long. Then he sort of got regretful about this and thought he really should make a try. So we went back to the master who said, “Why this ceaseless coming and going?” So he sat there and tried to control his mind in such a way that he would not think of the differences between gain and loss. In other words: try to live in such a way that nothing is either an advantage or a disadvantage.
Once upon a time there was a Chinese farmer whose horse ran away. And all the neighbors came around to commiserate that evening. “So sorry to hear your horse has run away. That’s too bad.” And he said, “Maybe.” The next day, the horse came back bringing seven wild horses with it, and everybody came around in the evening and said, “Oh, isn’t that lucky! What a great turn of events. You’ve now got eight horses.” And he said, “Maybe.” The next day, his son tried to break one of these horses and ride it, and was thrown and broke his leg. And they all said, “Oh dear, that’s too bad!” And he said, “Maybe.” The following day the conscription officers came around to recruit people into the army, and they rejected his son because he had a broken leg. And all the people came around and said, “Isn’t that great!” And he said, “Maybe.” You see, that is the attitude of not thinking of things in terms of gain or loss, advantage or disadvantage—because you don’t really know. The fact that you might get a letter from a solicitor, I mean from a law office tomorrow, saying that some distant relative of yours had left you a million dollars might be something you would feel very, very happy about. But the disasters that it could lead to are unbelievable. Internal Revenue, to mention only one possibility! So you never really know whether something is fortune or misfortune. We only know the momentary changes as it alters our sense of hope about things. A Taoist is wise enough—eventually, you see—to understand that there isn’t any fixed good or bad. And so his point of view is what is called “non-choosing.”
Well, anyway, Liezi attempted to keep his mind in a state of non-choosing. And this was a very difficult thing to do, to overcome one’s habits of feeling and thinking in this respect. And after he had practiced this for a year, the master looked at him—you know, sort of recognized he was there. After another years’ practice he invited him to come and sit inside his hut. And then, however, something changed, and Liezi didn’t try any more to control his mind. What he did was, he put it in this way: “I let my ears hear whatever they wanted to hear. I let my eyes see whatever they wanted to see. I let my feet move wherever they wanted to go. And I let my mind think of whatever it wanted to think.” And then he said, “It was a very strange sensation because all my bodily existence seemed to melt, and become transparent, and to have no weight. And I didn’t know whether I was walking on the wind or the wind was walking on me.”
Now, that’s the fasting of the heart. In the ordinary way, you see, you say, “Well, that made quite an impression on me,” as if you were a slate or a blackboard upon which life makes an impression, as the chalk does on the slate or the blackboard. And so we say, “Well, here are these events. And I’m the observer of all these events. And I remember them and they make an impression on me.” But in the psychology of Taoism there is no difference between you, as observer, and whatever it is that you observe. The only thing that is you is the observation of life from a certain point of view. I said a little while ago you think your heads are empty and blank. But the actual inside of your head is felt in terms of everything you see on the outside. We make an opposition, you see, between the thinker and the thought, the experiencer and the experience, the knower and the known. Because we think about knowledge in terms of certain metaphors: the metaphor of the stylus on the writing sheet, the reflection on the mirror. All those sort of images come into our idea of knowledge. But in the Taoist theory of knowledge it’s quite different. There isn’t a knower facing the known. It would be more like saying that, if there is any knower at all, it contains the known. Your mind—if you have one—is not in your head, your head is in your mind. Because your mind (understood from the standpoint of vision) is space.
The Chinese use this word, kōng (空), which means “sky,” “space,” and sometimes “emptiness.” And there is a saying that form—or, you know, shape and color—was of this is one word in Chinese that means, really, both shape and color. And these are said to be identical. Space or emptiness is precisely shape-color, and shape-color is precisely emptiness. This is actually a Buddhist saying from the Hṛdaya Sūtra. So that all that we call space contains the myriads of shapes and colors, and bodies and weights, and so on. It doesn’t it reflect them as a mirror, but it is the absence which guarantees their presence. And it’s their presence which guarantees its absence. So there’s this mutual relationship—again, the mutual arising expression—between voidness and form, between existence and nonexistence, being and non-being. These are never felt as alternatives or things that are in some kind of a contest.
So then, when it is said that there is not any thinker behind thoughts, not any experiencer who has experiences, this is a way of saying that experiencing, knowing, is not an encounter between strangers. Western thought concentrates very much on knowledge as an encounter, and it is thus that we talk about “facing facts,” “facing reality,” as if somehow or other the knower and the known came from two completely different worlds and met each other like that. Whereas actually, the phenomenon of knowledge is almost the precise opposite of that: instead of being a collision between two wandering bodies in space, knowledge is much more like the expansion of a flower from the stem in the bud, where the opposite points of the flower are the knower and the known. They are the terms of something which, as it were, lies between them.
Let me repeat. We tend—in all our metaphors and common speech—to think of life as an encounter between the knowing human being (the knowing mind) and the world. They think of it not as an encounter, but as an expression—not an impression—an expression of a process that has polarized itself coming out from the center and expressed itself in terms of opposites. But of course this is the basis of the whole yang-yin principle—you know, this jolly old thing—where you’ve got two interlocked (what are they) fishes? Commas? It’s a fascinating emblem. They call it a monad, yes. But there it is.
This is a helix, essentially; this grip. And this is the formation of spiral nebulae. And it’s the position of sexual intercourse. I, here—this is my “I”—and you, here, with your “I.” I’m trying to get to the middle of you, you’re trying to get to the middle of me. And neither one of us exists without the other. This is yang, the white, and yin, the dark. The word “yang” originally means, or is associated with, the south side of a mountain which is sunny, “yin” the north side which is dark. “Yang” is the north bank of a river which gets the sun, “yin” is the south bank of a river which is in the shade. Now, you see, you don’t get a mountain with only one side. The mountain—if it’s a mountain at all—goes up and down. It’s like the wave: you don’t get a wave which has a crest with no trough, or a trough with no crest. You can’t have half a wave.
So, yang and yin are quite different from each other. But just because they are different, they’re identical. This is the important idea of the identical difference. The saying goes in both Taoism and Buddhism: “Difference is identity, identity is difference.” The Chinese word for “is” is not quite the same as our word. This word, which is usually used, has rather the meaning of “that.” So they would say, “Difference that identity, identity that difference.” And so this doesn’t mean quite “is exactly the same as,” it means rather “is in relation to,” or “goes with,” “necessarily involves.” “Difference necessarily involves identity, identity necessarily involves difference.” So yang and yin: there is no yang without yin, no yin without yang.
When I was first studying these things I was terribly bothered by how on earth I was going to see this multiple differentiated world as a unity. What what was going to happen? What would it be like to see that all things are one? The sages keep saying all things are one, and they all look to me so different. Because here was all this chee-chee chee-chee chee-chee chee-chee going on around one, and it was doing it in different ways. All these people came on in different ways. And they had all their houses, and all their cars, and all their this and that. And the whole world looked full of the most bony, prickly differences. And I thought, “Well, what’s supposed to happen?” Is there supposed to be a, kind of, as if your eyesight got blurred and all these things suddenly went bleaah and flowed together? What is this experience of nirvāṇa, of liberation, et cetera, supposed to be? Because so many of these—especially Hindu—sages write about it as if it was just this kind of dissolution of everything. They said it all becomes like a slug with salt on it.
Well, it took me a long time. And suddenly, one day, I realized that the difference that I saw between things was the same thing as their unity. Because differences, borders, lines, surfaces, boundaries don’t really divide things from each other at all. They join them together. Because all boundaries are held in common. It’s like—let’s think of a territory which has all been divided up into property. Your property, my property, et cetera, et cetera. And there are the fences. But we hold that if I live next to you, your fence is my fence. We hold the boundary in common. We may make up silly arrangements as to who is responsible for the maintenance of this fence, but nevertheless we hold our boundaries in common. And we wouldn’t know what my plot of land was, or where it was, unless we knew the definition of your plot of land, and your plot of land that is adjoining. So boundaries are held in common. And I could see then that my sense of being “me” was exactly the same thing as my sensation of being one with the whole cosmos. I didn’t need to get some other weird, sort of different, odd kind of experience to feel in total connection with everything. Once you get the clue, you see, that the sense of unity is inseparable from the sense of difference. You wouldn’t know yourself, or what you meant by “self,” unless at the same time you have the feeling of something other.
Now, the secret is that “other” eventually turns out to be you. I mean, that’s the element of surprise in life: when suddenly you find the thing most alien. We say now: what is most alien to us? Go out at night and look at the stars, and realize that they are millions and millions and billions of miles away. Vast conflagrations out in space. And you can lie back and look at that. Whew! Say, “Well! Surely I hardly matter. I’m just a tiny, tiny little peekaboo on this weird spot of dust called Earth. And all that going on out there. Billions of years before I was born. Billions of years after I will die.” And nothing seems stranger to you than that, more different from you. But there comes a point (if you watch long enough) when you’ll say, “Why, that’s me!” It’s the “other” that is the condition of your being yourself, as the back is the condition of being the front. And when you know that, you know you never die.
So let’s have an intermission.