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Choosing the Tao


Look, it cannot be seen – it is beyond form.
Listen, it cannot be heard – it is beyond sound.
Grasp, it cannot be held – it is intangible.
These three are indefinable;
Therefore they are joined in one.

                        LAO TZU

 Inflexibility of modes cripples our contemporary institutions. Inertia of thought dulls our mental faculties, whilst insensitivity of moral perception weakens the will-power to realize good resolutions. It is conspicuously difficult for the brain-mind, faintly mirroring the chaotic flux of sense-impressions, to sift essential meaning from the monotonous succession of trivia. The Tao Teh Ching invites us to withdraw the mind from the cacophony of the world, to liberate the heart from the jungle fever of the passions. Above all, it counsels us to renounce our constricting conceptions of ourselves. These merely echo fleeting externalities extolled by the fickle opinions of the epimethean crowd, which is sadly captive to crude conceptions of success and failure, status and reward. All such shallow distinctions are entrenched in the feudal shibboleths and the petit-bourgeois vocabulary of a commercial culture. They are entangling weeds of pain, sprouting in the parched soil of cavernous delusion, choking the living germs of human encounter. Flexibility is elusive without some degree of detachment. Until a person attains to a mature indifference to the illusory objects of desire and the volatile pairs of opposites, he cannot be truly practical. He cannot become sufficiently plastic in mind, resilient in imagination, creative in sentiment and speech, to enjoy the divine estate to which every human being is heir. To become constructively flexible requires a preliminary purification of the passions, a thorough cleansing of the mind, a deliberate sorting out of the chaos that bewilders one's shadowy self. In seeking to do this, one may initially be restless, anxious and devoid of calm.

 One must face the perilous paradox set forth in the ancient mystical texts – the beginning foreshadows the end, the end inheres in the beginning. Without a valiant attempt to negate the world and to void one's very conception of oneself, it is not feasible to take the first critical step on the Path to Enlightenment. Many are called, but few constitute themselves as truly chosen to become sincere and credible servants of the whole of mankind. Nevertheless, many thinking beings have already reached a point of maturation from which they can see through the negative, contradictory and melodramatic valuations of the necropolis. This is a moment in history when Time itself seems to have stopped. Most people know too well that behind the futile exaggerations and false claims of external institutions and structures, there is an emptiness and hollowness, an unfathomable void. At a time of poignant and ever-increasing distance between human beings, there is a danger that aggression and desperation will enter even into the spiritual quest, thereby closing the door to spiritual awakening for myriad lives. This awful if unintended tragedy can be remedied only by courage and toughness in braving mental agony. Divine manliness consists in becoming heroic when it counts and where it hurts, in sacrificing every puny conception of selfhood. Everyone not only glimpses the fundamental truths known to poets, philosophers and sages, but hears them now on the lips of millions of messengers on earth.

 The present historical moment offers a golden opportunity to learn from the wisdom of the Tao. For many centuries men contemplated the Tao, though no one in China would have claimed to comprehend it. The first commentary was written in the middle of the second century before Christ, perhaps about four centuries and a half after the appearance of the great Master, Lao Tzu. From birth Lao Tzu was greeted as an old man because he began by showing a mellow awareness of the teaching, and was apparently known by more than one name. Among his closest disciples the most influential was Confucius, in whose memory elaborate rituals emerged over millennia which eventually became frozen into stylized play-acting, with massive pride masked by self-mockery, a tradition of hypocrisy which terminated in a total disruption of the old order. A fearless Mandarin hinted fifty years ago that what China needed then was not more gentlemen but more prisons for its corrupt politicians. The anger of the masses was directed against endless game-playing in the name of the Confucian Analects. This is a predictable part of the recurring story of mankind.

 The Tao can only be attained by the human being who approaches the Tao through the Tao. One must become the Tao. One must meditate ceaselessly upon the Tao while seeming to be engrossed in the daily round and common task. One must find the secret sanctuary of inner peace and repose within it from dawn through dusk to midnight, while retaining calm continuity of contemplation in the soul's shrine through the sleep of the night and even amidst dislocating dreams. The process of self-surrender takes time because it can only become continuous and constant when it flows from within without, from above below. The Tao is the motionless centre of all the wheels of cyclic change. It is the centre which is everywhere, in every point of space, in every moment of time. Yet no boundaries can ever be drawn to contain it. Everything participates in the illusion of birth and in the inertia of systems that hide the simultaneous disintegration and decay known among men and women as sickness, error, suffering and death. The Tao teaches that in no single thing will be found any freedom or exemption from the eternal process of ceaseless change behind the shadow-play of colours, forms and events. Everything that has a beginning in time and space must have a limit in space and an end in time.

 Everyone must necessarily seek the Tao within oneself. Each must seek that which is consubstantial with the Tao that is before all things. Words like "before" and "behind", "below" and "above", can only be relevant to the seeming reflections of the Tao. The Tao is formless form, the primordial pure substance prior to all differentiation, and it is accessible to all human beings as the one and only Source of eternal energy streaming forth in limitless light from the Invisible Sun. It is hidden within what seems to be darkness but is in truth absolute light. It is ever bestowing nourishment and sustenance, shedding light and yielding the vital power of hidden growth. The causal principle of true growth is necessarily invisible to the naked eye. If one is to come to understand how the transcendent Tao is in oneself, or how one can come closer to the Tao within, one must calmly ask how one's false mind and fictitious harriers – self-created, self-maintained, self-imposed limitations – may be pierced by the light of pure awareness. One may become the Tao more and more consciously yet effortlessly, starting from small beginnings, and patiently allowing for gradual, silent growth.

 All growth is invisible. No one can see or measure the growth of a baby or a little child from moment to moment. No one can mark by visible and external tokens the point of transition from childhood to youth. No one can put a date on the boundary between youth and manhood. These divisions are arbitrary and relative. When a person remains constant in his cool awareness of the utter relativity of all of these false and over-valued distinctions, he comes to understand that there is nothing dead and nothing alive. He is no less and no more than the Tao, and so is everyone else. The divisions and distinctions in consciousness arising from sense-objects, through words and by images, are a smoke-screen that obscures, limits and distorts reality. The supreme, carefree joy of non-striving that flows from the omnipresent light can no more be conveyed by one to another than the taste of water can be described to someone who has never drunk a drop. No truly meaningful experience can be communicated to another except in terms of his own modes of living.

 The wisest disciples, teachers and sages learn from the Tao all the time. The Tao is not a book. The Tao is not a scripture. The Tao was not given by any one person for the first time to other people. It is everywhere and nowhere. It is what some call God, what others designate as the One Reality, and what still others salute merely by saying "I do not know." To the extent to which men do not understand the Tao, instead of their choosing the Tao, the Tao seems to use them. A great deal of what is often called choosing is an illusion. No one chooses except by the power of the Tao. No one chooses thoughts except by a self-conscious comprehension of what is behind the energy of the Tao. No one can be a knower of the Tao, a true Taoist, without becoming a skilled craftsman of Akasa, a silent magician of the Alkahest, a self-conscious channel for the universal divine flame which, in its boundless, colourless, intangible, soundless and inexhaustible energy, may be used only for the sake of all. Only these universal, deathless, eternal verities may become living germs in the emerging matrix of the awakening mind of the age of Aquarius, a current of consciousness that flows into the future.

 Following the ever-young example of the Ancient of Days, each and every person today may focus his mind upon the eternal relevance of the ever-flexible and never-caring Tao:

Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness.
All can know good as good only because there is evil.
                Tao Teh Ching, 2

How can one be flexible if one is fiercely attached to any external forms of good and of evil? There is the same mutual relation between existence and non-existence in respect to creation as there is between striving and spontaneity, effort and ease, in respect to accomplishment. What is easy for one person is hard for another; what is easy for the same person at any time was hard once; and what is difficult now might become easy in the future. Fumbling with the strings of a musical instrument may be rather painful in the long period of apprenticeship, yet all can find supreme enjoyment in listening at any time to a great master of music who plays his enchanted instrument with lightness and versatile adeptship. The seeker who is patient and persistent, like the good gardener who plants the seed but does not examine it daily to gauge its growth, does no more than is needed, giving Nature time to do its own alchemical work.

 How, then, can one contrive a hard-and-fast distinction between effort and ease in the many modes of human striving? Furthermore, is there any reason for preference between one person and another in human excellence? Not from the serene standpoint of the Sage. Those who enjoy good music do not feel threatened every time they listen to a great musician, but merge their selves into the motion of the music. There is that which every human being knows and yet forgets, though if one chooses one may remind oneself. A person always knows that what helped one to walk as a child may also help one to maintain oneself in a world of turmoil. Through the archetypal logic of non-action in activity, he can move away from the turba and the tumult of the crowd, and discover an inner peace through deliberate but casual control in the midst of spontaneous activity. The same mutual relation exists between long and short in respect to form, as between high and low in respect to pitch. What seem to be precipitous mountains in one country might be seen as hilly ranges in a distant land. The Alps are unquestionably beautiful, but, as Byron suggested, there are beauties in Derbyshire which are no less enjoyable than the Alps. The Sierras may be more inviting than the forbidding Himalayas. Each can make the most of what he finds where he can find it, between treble and bass on the scale of musical pitch, between before and after in the contest of priorities. There are no seniors and juniors among human souls – all alike are pilgrims on multitudinous pathways to enlightenment. All souls have participated variously in the immense pilgrimage extending through and beyond successive millennia. The Voice of the Silence teaches: "Such are the falls and rises of the Karmic Law in nature." He who was a prince is a beggar now, the Buddha taught, and he who is exalted today may tomorrow "wander earth in rags".

 In the eyes of the Sage, all temporal distinctions are absurd not only because they are foreshortened in time but also because they pretend to an ultimacy which cannot be upheld except by coercion. No one who has not conquered the will to coerce could freely practise the art of Wu-Wei even in everyday encounters. The Tao is the ontological basis of the archetypal teaching of non-violence, non-retaliation and true benevolence. Nature is not partial, partisan or sentimentally benevolent. This is known to the Sage, who fuses wisdom in action with compassion.

Heaven and earth are ruthless;
They see the ten thousand things as dummies.
The wise are ruthless;
They see the people as dummies.
                Tao Teh Ching, 5

From a superficial standpoint, it looks as if God is the chief conspirator, but there is no arbitrary theism in the vision of Tao. The inscrutable mathematics of cosmic balance needs nothing like what Hegel called the cunning of history to upset the best-laid plans of mice and men. From a broader perspective, it seems as if what appears bad in the beginning turns out in time for the better, even for the best. The Good Law ever moves inexorably towards righteousness. The Sage is not benevolent to personal claims. He treats all with a light inexorability. From an external locus in the realm of changing appearances, nothing that is true could ever be said or could even be found. It is only by the inner light that a person becomes a disciple of the Tao, and in the progress of time may even become a friend of the Tao with the help of those who are the Masters of the Tao.

 In China reverence for the primordial Divine Instructors of mankind eventually degenerated into empty rituals of ancestor worship. As with ancient Chinese civilization, so also with classical Indian culture there was a progressive diffusion and inward loss of meaning. In ancient India there was a solemn kindling of the sacrificial fire, and every sacred word and ritual act were offered at the altar of the Prajapatis, the Kumaras, the Rishis, the Agnishwatha Pitris or Solar Fathers. In time such practices were reduced to ritual propitiation of the dead for fear of consequences. The weaker souls who participated in that ritualization in China and India are no different from those who incarnated in European and American bodies. Immigrants came in succeeding waves from different parts of the world to the American continent not only for the sake of their own future, but also, under Karma, as pathfinders of the future of mankind. That which caused violence and deception in the past must return, but cyclical justice will also bring back gentleness and truth and beauty in the nobler ancestors. No human being is without ancestors of whom one could be proud. Over a thousand years every man and woman has had a million ancestors. Nothing that was accomplished by a million people over a thousand years is irrelevant to any person. Everyone has a lineage that ultimately traces one back to the Divine Instructors of the human family. Everyone has kinship to those who are the Friends of all beings and who forever abide as Silent Watchers in the night, guarding orphan humanity.

 There is not a person who could not at any time enter his inmost sanctuary and so come closer to the Krishna-Christos within. "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am present." Those potent words of promise, uttered as a benediction by the Avatars, were not meant only for a chosen few or for any particular tribe. It is possible at any time for any human being to invoke and invite the sacred presences of any of the divine Teachers. They are not in any one place or epoch – they are always here, there and everywhere. One cannot say of enlightened beings that physical proximity in space and time determines the nearness or closeness or their sphere of divine radiance. By the strength of mind and the spiritual will released through true sacrifice, one may consecrate the altar within the secret heart and kindle the sacrificial fire, thereby becoming worthy of the living benediction of those who are ancestral in a spiritual sense, who are ageless and parentless, Anupadaka. Enlightened Sages are eternally in unison with the supernal light of Shekinah, the perennial wisdom of Svabhavat, the ceaseless ideation of Svayambhu or Self-Existent, the absoluteness of the Tao.

 The Tao antecedes all ancestors by reaching out to that which was before everything and yet which has no beginning, which ever exists and embraces every moment and the myriad beings who are sustained by its inexhaustible strength. It reaches beyond name and utterance, colour and form. It is the Soundless Sound, the divine intonation, the Svabhavat which cannot be aroused except by those who enter the light and become one with its unending compassion. Its potency is limitless. It can heal the sick and raise the dead. It is that light which never shone on land or sea, yet lighteth every man that cometh into the world. If any sincere seeker wishes to invoke that primordial light which is parentless, Anupadaka, he must create an oasis of calm within the mind, a haven of peace within the heart, a diffused quiescence in the whole of his being. He cannot do this all at once, but must, as Krishna teaches, adopt the strategy of recurrent exercise (abhyasa) in a spirit of disinterestedness (viraga). In the course of time he will build his bridge, his mental pathway to the light of Atman in the lamp of Buddhi. For any human being there is nothing more beneficent than, by concentrating upon that which corresponds to the throat, opening up the devotional channel within his wandering mind between his heart-light and the star overhead.

 All Avatars are apparent manifestations of Mahapurusha, while every Enlightened Being is an eternal branch of the ever-living Banyan, the Tree of Immortals. By invoking in consciousness with a proper reverence taught by the Tao, every true devotee may enter the radiant sphere of the spiritually wise and transmit to others the sweetness and light of the Tao. Every child experimenting with a palette of colours discovers rapidly that there are not only the seven prismatic hues but also many shades, tones and blends, that unforeseen combinations are possible by an adroit mixing of colours. It also learns through fumbling beginnings at mixing pigments for the sake of painting a landscape that mistakes and false starts must be endured. There is not a child that starts to paint who does not take many distracting bypaths, and sometimes fiercely assumes the posture of Shiva, destroying its own work. Sometimes it adopts the posture of Vishnu, thinking, "I am pleased." At other times it assumes the posture of Brahmâ and attempts something new and original. All human beings as creative agents participate in the myriad scatterings and subtle hues of the prismatic seven.

 Every human being in some life chooses the Tao, the pristine light which is colourless and beyond the differentiation of hues. Each of the great religions – originally a pure ray pointing to the One Light – in time produces tints that anathematize other people, thus resulting in walls of separation. This repeatedly arises because, as people no longer have access to the colourless light, they fall off the line of direction along the ray of their immortal individuality pointing towards the One that transcends all and yet is immanent in all. Sectarians thus speciously identify the pristine light with the namarupa of its reflected ray. They proclaim that all is contained in this particular book or that special scroll. But All is in every sacred book, is in the book of Nature. It is inscribed in every atom, and is in the pinpoint of light within every human eye. Men and women limit the inexhaustible richness of the All through fear, which kills the will and stays all progress. This is sad, and it arises because they become unbalanced. Either they have aggressively sought a selfish end or – when this went wrong – they retreated into some inversion and christened it by profane names such as cynicism, liberalism, this or that ism, protecting an insupportable illusion.

 The harmony of the Tao is ever alive because it allows for endless change while at the same time ceaselessly balancing out. This is graphically represented in the familiar symbol of yin and yang within the invisible circle of Tao. When a person watches a slowly revolving wheel, studying the spokes, he will begin to understand the great wheel on which all beings revolve and in which all are involved. Those who cling to the circumference feel most the motion of the wheel. Those who cling to the spokes, the colours and the tints, find they do not have any sense of the subtler rhythm. The cyclic spin of the smaller wheel moves faster, so rapidly that it seems to be motionless. It has a centre which is an invisible, mathematical point. This may seem to be a mental abstraction and logical construction, but it is known on a subtler plane of homogeneous matter in a serene mental state of purified consciousness. Such centres could be consciously activated, thereby becoming gyroscopic in their power to awaken potential energies lying everywhere.

 Every person may consciously choose to return to the central source, the pure light-energy of the motionless Tao without a name. This does not mean one should cease breathing. That would be a hasty reading of the Tao because one cannot live without breathing in and breathing out, and in this rhythmic activity one participates in the Tao, the Mother of Ten Thousand Things. When people are running or rushing they do not breathe rhythmically, but needlessly distort the rhythm. It is always possible to balance the chaotic breathing and the disorderly motions of daily life by providing spaces within the passage of time for a self-conscious return to the inner stillness, the serenity of meditation whereby one may renew oneself. Nature provides priceless opportunities for daily regeneration, and the Tao is experienced each night by every human being in deep, dreamless sleep. The Tao could also be known during waking life by the vigilant and contented person who practises deliberate mental withdrawal, self-surrender and non-violent action. The true seeker may heed the talismanic counsel of the Sage:

In meditation, go deep in the heart.
In dealing with others, be gentle and kind.
In work, be diligent.
In action, watch the timing.

Hermes, November 1978
by Raghavan Iyer

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