Whenever lost, we seek a guide to show the way. If we are groping for the moral path, we pray for a sage to appear. But what are the qualities of a sage? How should he impart knowledge? And how must he conduct himself? One of the greatest teachers mankind has known is Lao Tse. The great Chinese philosopher and spiritual master answered such questions in his immortal work Tao Teh Ching. Sharing his deep insights about opposite virtues that always exist together in the world, he said:
When all the world recognises beauty as beauty, this in itself is ugliness.
When all the world recognises good as good, this in itself is evil.
Indeed, the hidden and the manifest give birth to each other.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short exhibit each other.
High and low set measure to each other.
Voice and sound harmonize each other.
Back and front follow each other.
The true sage seeks to protect and preserve this harmony. Above all, he is careful not to destabilise it himself. He pours heart and soul into his work for others, yet stays aloof and detached—-
Therefore, the Sage mages his affairs without ado,
And spreads his teaching without talking.
He denies nothing to the teeming things.
He rears them, but lays no claim to them.
He does his work, but sets no store by it.
He accomplishes his task, but does not dwell upon it.
And yet it is just because he does not dwell on it
That nobody can ever take it away from him.
This seems paradoxical, but Lao Tse was talking about the wisdom of a sage. Realising the eterl truths that play out in the world, the sage remains selfless. Says the great master:
Heaven lasts long, and Earth abides.
What is the secret of their durability?
Is it not because they do not live for themselves
That they can live so long?
Therefore, the Sage wants to remain behind,
But finds himself at the head of others;
Reckons himself out,
But finds himself safe and secure.
Is it not because he is selfless
That his Self is realised?
There is always a balance in the tural scheme of things. It is vain to think that the world is for the taking. The true sage knows the value of right action while keeping to the golden mean:
The world is a sacred vessel, which must not be tampered with or grabbed after.
To tamper with it is to spoil it, and to grasp it is to lose it.
In fact, for all things there is a time for going ahead, and a time for following behind;
A time for slow-breathing and a time for fast-breathing;
A time to grow in strength and a time to decay;
A time to be up and a time to be down.
Therefore, the Sage avoids all extremes, excesses and extravagances.
Everyone is born to suffer. Life is not a bed of roses, but a sage has more than his share of thorns. He is opposed, vilified, often betrayed. Called upon to make supreme sacrifices, he does it with a kind smile and loving heart:
The Sage has no interests of his own,
But takes the interests of the people as his own.
He is kind to the kind;
He is also kind to the unkind:
For Virtue is kind.
He is faithful to the faithful;
He is also faithful to the unfaithful:
For Virtue is faithful.
In the midst of the world, the Sage is shy and self-effacing.
For the sake of the world he keeps his heart in its nebulous state.
All the people strain their ears and eyes:
The Sage only smiles like an amused infant.
It is said the path to evil is paved with good intentions. Wickedness is done by many who profess to do good. A good ruler rules unobtrusively, and the people feel safe and happy. A true sage refuses to see everything in black and white. He does his good work without appearing to do so:
Bad fortune is what good fortune leans on,
Good fortune is what bad fortune hides in.
Who knows the ultimate end of this process?
Is there no norm of right?
Yet what is normal soon becomes abnormal,
And what is auspicious soon turns ominous.
Long indeed have the people been in a quandary.
Therefore, the Sage squares without cutting,
carves without disfiguring,
straightens without straining,
enlightens without dazzling.
The sage is like the sea, which is the king of all streams by lying lower than them. Great possibilities lie hidden in small things which he nurtures carefully. Grand outcomes grow from humble beginnings which he encourages patiently:
A tree as big as a man’s embrace springs from a tiny sprout.
A tower nine stories high begins with a heap of earth.
A journey of a thousand leagues starts from where your feet stand.
He who fusses over anything spoils it.
He who grasps anything loses it.
The Sage fusses over nothing and therefore spoils nothing.
He grips at nothing and therefore loses nothing.
In handling affairs, people often spoil them just at the point of success.
With heedfulness in the beginning and patience at the end, nothing will be spoiled.
When the potential is realised, the sage’s work is done. As the fruit of achievement filly appears from the tiny seed, he turns his back to it and goes his lonely way. Because the sage also knows that everything must return to its tural state:
Therefore, the Sage desires to be desireless,
Sets no value on rare goods,
Learns to unlearn his learning,
And induces the masses to return from where they have overpassed.
He only helps all creatures to find their own ture,
But does not venture to lead them by the nose.
In his great wisdom, the sage takes care to ‘unlearn’ his learning. He knows that if he keeps himself empty, he will always be filled. Embracing the One, he becomes a pattern to all under heaven. Hence he shines, hence he endures. This is the way of the Tao as shown by Lao Tse.
(With excerpts from John CH Wu’s translation of Tao Teh Ching)
— the harbinger