In ancient times, some 60 years ago, one of my good friends described our age group as ‘the generation that was shot out of a cannon.’ By this he meant that we knew we were privileged. We knew that there were high expectations for us, particularly those of us who were first-generation Americans. Fast forward 10 years, and between the Vietnam War, pot, mushrooms, meditation and a bit of self-reflection, some of us questioned the path we had set upon.
At this time I had my first encounter with Lao Tzu, whom I found to be charming, whimsical and romantic. I imagined myself wandering around the world, detached and at peace with all around me.
A significant number of decades later, rereading the text, I saw it through different eyes. The Ruler—one of the two main characters in the text—is engaged in the world but rules with a light touch—he ‘rules as though cooking a small and tender fish.’
On the other hand, the Sage is detached yet engaged. The Sage teaches the Ruler to ‘fill the stomachs of their subjects. Fill the stomachs for he knows that the ‘eyes’ are never satisfied. The Sage is ‘aiding without expecting rewards.’ So the Sage is not as detached and removed from the world as it appeared to me when I first read the text.
‘The ancient Sages did not try to impart
Learning to the people
But tried to keep them on the simple path
It is a bit obscure how the Sage achieves this, for
‘The Sage instructs without teaching’
The Sage insists that what he has to say and what he wants to impart by example are not complicated:
The words of the Sage are, ‘clear and simple.’
The words of the Sage are ‘easily put into practice.’
However, no one appears to understand what the Sage has to say, and everyone is reluctant to put his words into practice. ‘The Sage knows what is true. And what is called true.’
I have spent a good deal of time wondering what all of this really means and what it has to do with me and my life. I started thinking about some of my old friends in these terms and came to realize that though none of them are perfect human beings, after a lifetime of experience in the world, they have put much of what the Sage talks about into practice to some degree in their lives.
Perhaps once they were the Ruler in their own domain, and over a great deal of time, came closer to the Sage in terms of their profound understanding of the world. And of equal importance, came closer to the Sage in terms of understanding how to live in this imperfect world.
In short, they gradually learned more about how to keep ourselves whole, what to work at, what to rely on, what to avoid, what to embrace, what to follow, what to reject, what to rejoice in and what to hate—as Chuang Tzu would have it.
So in my life these Sages are physicians, builders, lawyers, philosophers, electricians—even some ‘ne’er-do-wells.’ All of whom have come to some profound understanding of at least some aspects of life. How did this come about? It happened thanks to a great deal of experience—good and bad—and, most importantly, reflection on these experiences in the context of our limitations as mere mortals.
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Tem Horwitz is a photographer, real estate developer, Tai Chi practitioner and teacher, and a writer. Click HERE to read more about Tem.