Waking Up Now, Not Waiting for “It” to Be All Over

The following set of morning pages were written about hearing Avicii’s “Wake Me Up”. I’m taking out some of the more personal rigamarole to get straight to the point.

It was spun crap about living in the moment. How is that position always turned into a justification for hedonism? Compile a set of moments that you want. Continue to do so. That’s the path to happiness. Such is the implied conclusion of that point of view. In comparison, I’m drawn to a Taoist-Buddhist-Stoic idea of happiness. It’s easy to show up to the moments you like, but if that’s the case, happiness is and always will be externally dependent.

The Sage, the Buddha, the Wise: these individuals don’t require conditions to be just right to be happy. They have cultivated an internal wealth that is not dependent on the schemes of the ego to get everything just right. Rather, they realize, as Lao Tzu tells us in the Tao Te Ching that everything changes, so controlling conditions through force cannot last.

So “waiting to be woken up when it’s all over” is always going to be lost (during and after) and never will realize it. It’s lost in the ego’s search for deliverance–a way out. The “all over” is the escape of better, wanted conditions. The Sage smiles upon such inherent delusion. S/he just lives with joy, no matter what comes–a blooming lotus in the muddy waters.

water lily

For comparison, read my posts on similar points including: Tao a Day: Verse 26 – Inner Virtues, Path of the Dharma: The Dhammapada – Chapter 1: “Twin Verses”, and Nothing to Do.

May this bring you the resolve to cultivate your own inner strength, your own wakefulness, and your own pure heart without relying on the world to give you the never existent stability of “just right”.


Tao a Day — Verse 63: Doing without Doing

Let’s approach this verse in two pieces. We’ll compare the Red Pine and Jonathan Star translations for each piece in that order:

Act without acting
work without working
understand without understanding
great or small[,] many or few
repay each wrong with virtue
– Trans. Red Pine

Act without acting
Give without giving
Taste without tasting

Tao alone becomes all things great and all things small
It is the One in many
It is the many in One

Let Tao become all your actions
then your wants will become your treasure
your injury will become your blessing.
– Trans. Jonathan Star

It’s always interesting to see how different translations of this classic have been approached, and the power of Red Pine’s translation is to get it down to one without artistic interpretation: a simple, bare-bones, as close to the original as possible translation without embellishment. The quote from his translation here boils this down; act without acting in all instances and with everyone, no matter how they treat you. Do this by repaying wrong with virtue. However, what are we to make of the very enigmatic opening lines? Luckily, his book also has chosen commentary from Chinese masters throughout the ages. I found these two bits of commentary quite helpful. Ho-Shang Kung, a Taoist master from around 100 B.C., says: “To act without acting means to do only what is natural. To work without working means to avoid trouble by preparing in advance. To understand without understanding means to understand the meaning of the Tao through meditation.” Sung Ch’ang-Hsing, a seventh patriarch of the Dragon Gate and Taoist master from the 1700s, says: “To act without acting, to work without working, to understand without understanding is to conform with what is natural and not to impose oneself on others. Though others treat sages wrongly, the wrong is theirs and not the sages’. Sages respond with the virtue within their hearts. Utterly empty and detached, they thus influence others to trust in doing nothing.”  These two pieces of commentary make this short section shine. It fits well with my previous discussion of Verse 8 (What I called: “In Accordance with Nature”), and it also fits with a previous post (in terms of doing what is natural and not imposing oneself on others and the world): Control and Letting Go. The doing without doing, wu wei, is acting in appropriate resonance with the nature of things–situations as they present themselves. It is not about imposing your own will on the world and making it conform to you. The Sage does not see such a separation, and the Tao Te Ching speaks in passage after passage about how that which is gained by force does not last very long: it comes to an early death. Hence, the way to live forever (or live longer and at peace) is to develop the virtue, Te, which goes along with the emanations of the 10,000 things (one aspect of Tao). Acting through force and reactive vengeance is not only ego-centered, it does not embrace Tao. It embraces “me”. That’s all. Acting in that very standard sense of pursuing your own motivations to make the world the way you want it to be, to form it in your own image as some creator-God-wannabe, is not virtuous, not wise, and not seeing the universe and its mysterious origins for what they are. We could look to the comments on Verse 26. Jonathan Star’s translation says pretty much the same thing as everything I just explicated but in a more succinct and poetic manner. As he closes, letting Tao become all of your actions is to act without the intention of promoting yourself. Instead, it is to act in accordance with Tao, the ever unfolding beauty of All, and by so doing, you act without acting. It’s not about complete inaction. It’s about acting through Tao rather than through your “self”.

Here is the second passage from the verse:

Plan for the hard while it’s easy
deal with the great while it’s small
the world’s hardest task begins easy
the world’s greatest goal begins small
sages therefore never act great
they thus achieve great goals
who quickly agrees is seldom trusted
who thinks things easy finds them hard
sages therefore think everything hard
and thus find nothing hard
– Trans. Red Pine

Take on difficulties while they are still easy
Do great things while they are still small
Step by step the world’s burden is lifted
Piece by piece the world’s treasure is amassed

So the Sage stays with his daily task
and accomplishes the greatest thing
Beware of those who promise a quick and easy way
for much ease brings many difficulties

Follow your path to the end
Accept difficulty as an opportunity
This is the sure way to end up
with no difficulties at all.
-Trans. Jonathan Star

Let’s take one more piece of commentary to handle these lines. Te-Ch’ing says (again from Red Pine’s book): “When I entered the mountains to cultivate the Way, at first it was very hard. But once I learned how to use my mind, it became very easy. What the world considers hard, the sage considers easy. What the world considers easy, the sage considers hard.” Controlling the mind in Buddhism is mindfulness. This is showing up to each moment just as it is without concept. Taoism’s stories of insight are meant to produce the same result: non-conceptual understanding. We might understand the Sage here as the mindful one of Tao’s unfolding with each moment. A task, no matter how large, is always right now. For instance, the next verse is the one with the famous line “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The thing is: it begins with a single step, it continues with a single step, and it ends with a single step. The task is always the small, easy task of just one step. The Sage approaches doing by not looking at the goal which sees the task in its entirety: huge, hard, insurmountable. Rather, he sees it as this small, single step in this moment. Each moment of doing is a step. Again and again. Yet, the Sage sees it just as the step of this moment, not all the steps that lie ahead. The Sage recognizes the greatness of the task, but he is not daunted, as he approaches it in accordance with the task and with flexibility in each and every step, moment by moment: just this. Through such a mindful engagement with the present action that is in accordance with nature, the Sage will surely accomplish the greatest of things.

May this help you achieve the greatest things without acting.


Tao a Day — Verse 38: The Sage’s Relation to “Self”

To give without seeking reward
To help without thinking it is virtuous–
     therein lies great virtue
To keep account of your actions
To help with the hope of gaining merit–
     therein lies no virtue

The highest virtue is to act without a sense of self
The highest kindness is to give without condition
The highest justice is to see without preference
– Trans. Jonathan Star (excerpt – opening lines)

We live in a time of little virtue. We are told to look out for number one. Famous writers have propounded philosophies in which greed is a great virtue which helps everyone. It seems that all around us, most of the time, people are concerned most about what they will get out of a situation; we are told that this is natural and good to be self-involved like this.

From a certain perspective, spirituality is in utter opposition to such a view. The stance of what can I take, what can I get, is yet another way of maintaining the certain safety of ego. It upholds I, me, and mine, and it furthers the goal of solidifying them as of the utmost importance. According to the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa, spirituality moves against this but stands in constant danger of falling into the traps of ego-fulfillment. We all too readily fall into spiritual practice as something to hoard, something to show that I’m wiser than others, or something that makes me remarkable and worthy of being looked up to by others as a guru, realized one, or some other egoic hero. The Buddhist emphasis on the practice of compassion is both a means to reach enlightenment, and at the same time, compassion–focusing on others as more important than “me”–keeps us from falling prey to these traps. I’m not implying that Buddhism is superior to other spiritual disciplines. Hardly. I’ve known Christians and pagans who displayed compassion first and foremost, and their spiritual practices and personal virtues were all the more noteworthy and admirable because of this outward oriented engagement with the world.

The Sage also exemplifies the Te (virtue) which does not focus on self above all else. She gives without seeking reward. She does not tally up her great deeds. Instead, she, like water, acts in a way that supports all, rather than herself. This was discussed in a previous post about being in accordance with the flow of nature–the unfolding of Tao. Having virtue, Te, is completely about actualizing the Tao as the microcosm of the macrocosm. That was discussed in my post on inner virtues to some extent. In this case, let’s remember that the Tao continuously gives the 10,000 things. It is both the origin and totality of all. This totality continues to ebb and flow into being. It continually gives. Nothing statically remains as some sort of beloved object that Tao holds onto for itself. Rather, Tao loves bringing forth the ever-arising new of change. So why do we grasp at possessions and holding back that which is mine, when Tao shows us to move and flow: to give and support life without interest in self-bolstering?

Tao supports all. Those seeking to cultivate Te should as well. I heard an interesting Dharma talk last night in which the priest ended in saying that compassion is being able to hear whatever another person has to say without limiting those words to what we want to or are able to hear from “my” perspective. Letting go of oneself enough to be completely present to what appears (in this example, the words of another) is Te–it is being in harmony with nature and being able to act within that harmony, wu wei. Thus, the Sage responds to what arises: recognizing that “The highest justice is to see without preference.” The Sage opens his eyes, sees the world as it is–Tao, and acts skillfully from this proper seeing. Such a proper seeing shows that the “self” is an ever-unfolding process of emergence, one that mirrors Tao: the appearance and disappearance of the 10,000 things of Tao–the mysterious flux of universal becoming in all its myriad forms.

Having “Te” requires seeing and actualizing “Tao”

Here is the rest of the verse for further reading. Have a look at the closing lines if nothing else:

When Tao is lost one must learn the rules of virtue
When virtue is lost, the rules of kindness
When kindness is lost, the rules of justice
When justice is lost, the rules of conduct
And when the high-blown rules of conduct are not followed
people are seized by the arm and it is forced on them
The rules of conduct
are just an outer show of devotion and loyalty–
quite confusing to the heart
And when men rely on these rules for guidance–
Oh, what ignorance abounds!

The great master follows his own nature
and not the trappings of life
It is said,
“He stays with the fruit and not the fluff”
“He stays with the firm and not the flimsy”
“He stays with the true and not the false”
-Trans. Jonathan Star

Tao a Day – Verse 26: Inner Virtues

Heavy is the root of light
still is the master of restless
thus a lord might travel all day
but never far from his supplies
even in a guarded camp
his manner is calm and aloof
why would the lord of ten thousand chariots
treat himself lighter than his kingdom
too light he loses his base
too restless he loses command
– Trans. Red Pine

I present this translation first to show how mysterious the Tao Te Ching can be. Translators often turn it in their own way to express their understanding of it to readers. Let’s ponder this translation which attempts to get as close to the original text as possible before moving on to another translator’s expression of the meaning.

I feel that the first four lines are key to the meaning of the verse. The first two lines tell us that light comes from heavy and that stillness supersedes restlessness. The Tao Te Ching emphasizes time and again this distinction about how certain qualities are primary and represent the more primordial nature of potential — of Tao. A good example is that hardness comes from softness. Here, it seems that the secondary qualities of lightness or restlessness lead away from the virtue of the primary qualities, and it’s implied that a follower of the Way will cultivate the primary qualities of heaviness and stillness. What’s so important about these two qualities? They’re not readily moved. In other words, they are not reactive to the external changes of the world. They work along with the ways of the world without reacting in either the senses of being swept along with them or fighting back against them. Lines three and four complete this personal teaching of Te (virtue) in saying “thus” (not that this implies a conclusion from the first two lines) the lord travels at length without leaving his supplies. The supplies are these qualities which keep the lord stocked for any situation that life brings, no matter how far he may go or what he may do. These virtues are internal strengths of proper relationship with Tao, and no matter what happens, the walker of the Way can bring these along and act in accordance with the Tao.

The rest of the passage emphasizes that the ruler has the proper relationship of treating himself well (treating himself no less than he does his kingdom). This means that he cultivates these inner supplies of stillness and heaviness: not being swayed by reactivity–rather, acting in accordance with his kingdom from this fundamental inner stillness of the potential for perfectly attuned action in all situations, the action in accordance with nature–wu wei. Rather than being reactive and trying to rule her kingdom through force, she sees the Tao and rules in a way that flows with its unfolding. Such virtue is not about imposing his ends or acting in order to impose his story upon the world; rather, her stillness mirrors the manifestation of the world–this is precisely the path of one who walks the Way. The one who walks the Way cultivates the proper relation with the external world of the “kingdom” by developing the virtues of the internal qualities of stillness and heaviness. Being a Sage entails a perfection of understanding of the Tao in one’s own personal character. The Te, your virtue, is a personally perfected mirrored manifestation of the Tao, the origin and nature of everything. Te mirrors Tao. The microcosm displays the secret of the macrocosm.

Now, for comparison, Jonathan Star strengthens this analysis through his own poetic translation:

The inner is foundation of the outer
The still is master of the restless

The Sage travels all day
    yet never leaves his inner treasure
Though the views are captivating and beg attention
    he remains calm and uninvolved
Tell me, does the lord of a great empire
     go out begging for rice?

One who seeks his treasure in the outer world
    is cut off from his own roots
Without roots, he becomes restless
Being restless, his mind is weak
And with a mind such as this
     he loses all command below Heaven
-Trans. Jonathan Star

May you cultivate your own stillness in studying the Way.