"Who can wait in stillness while the mud settles?"
Tao Te Ching - Chapter 15
The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained
Ancient masters of excellence had a subtle essence,
And a depth too profound to comprehend.
Because they were impossible to comprehend,
I will try to describe them by their appearance.
Cautious, like crossing a river in the winter.
Wary, as if surrounded by strangers.
Dignified, like a guest.
Yielding, like ice about to melt.
Simple, like uncarved wood.
Open, like a valley.
Obscure, like muddy waters.
Who can wait in stillness while the mud settles?
Who can rest until the moment of action?
He who holds on to the Way seeks no excess.
Since he lacks excess,
He can grow old in no need to be renewed.
In the Eastern tradition as well as many other
cultures around the world, the past has been regarded as superior
to the present. The ancestors were supposed to be wiser
and nobler, their society more advanced, and their lives richer
in every way.
Our present Western style society is practically
unique in having the reversed perspective, which probably
started with the scientific revolution in the
17th century. Through history, the most common sentiment has been that the
past was superior, the more distant the better, and the future
had little more to offer than decay.
Lao Tzu also supported this view, as can be seen in
this chapter. He believed that ancient man was closer to Tao,
the Way, and therefore lived a wiser, more harmonious life.
As people gradually deviated from Tao, their lives
became more chaotic and burdened. He wanted his readers to
return to Tao, thereby recreating the blessed world of old.
His perspective was no mystery, considering that
the most precious and impressive things around him were
preserved from past times. So were the palaces and most
glorious works of art, so was agriculture and other skills
to make life pleasant, and so were the books written with
the most profound wisdom and poetic refinement.
Anyone in the days of Lao Tzu would marvel at
the heritage from past centuries, and see few equally great
contributions by his own generation. It made sense to
regard the past as the golden era.
Imitate the Past
Still, Lao Tzu's intent is not to glorify the past, but to
teach the present. He wants his readers to learn from the
example of the ancient sages. We may not comprehend their
wisdom fully, but when copying their behavior we learn by
doing. Behaving wisely promotes wisdom.
Aristotle would have called it
mimesis, imitation. The ancient Greeks were aware of human learning largely
being done by imitation. Children imitate their parents. This
is how most of the human knowledge and experience
is passed on.
So, what is the behavior of the ancient sages that
we should copy? In this and other chapters, Lao Tzu makes
it clear: The role model is practically the reverse of
splendid royalty. Instead of luxury and elevation, the sage
should seek a humble place, simplicity, and calm.
The sage should rather wait than spring into action,
not to make shortsighted mistakes. He should be modest, not
to provoke envy. He should be thoughtful and cautious
even about things that others regard as insignificant. The
stronger his power, the softer his use of it.
This way, the sage is close to the nature of Tao,
thereby understanding its workings. It's the Way of living close
to nature, or more precisely: close to the natural.
These days, we seem to seek the very opposite. We
long for fame and glory, but forget that the more this is
bestowed on us, the less the chances are that we can prove worthy
of it. Others will not praise us in their hearts, but say:
"That could just as well be me."
A society that glorifies some of its citizens
promotes envy, competition, and calamity – unfortunately also
stupidity. If we make superficial things our quests, we only
find what we searched for, which is superficiality. To reach
the profound, we must do away with distractions of that
kind. Otherwise the mud never settles, and we never see clearly.
The ancient masters, according to Lao Tzu, knew to
renounce nonsense, until only the essence remained.
Nowadays, we are probably farther from that than ever before.
In that sense, Lao Tzu might be right about the golden era
of mankind being in the distant past.
© Stefan Stenudd.
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