May 24, 2010

This week’s  reading from the Tao Te Ching strikes me as a kind of zen riddle  in the way it shakes up notions we tend to associate with “positive” ways of being.  See what it does to your mind:
When the great Tao is forgotten,
goodness and piety appear.
When the body’s intelligence declines,
cleverness and knowledge step forth.
When there is no peace in the family,
filial piety begins.
When the country falls into chaos,
patriotism is born.
This reading inspired a conversation/contemplation about what happens when we lose touch with the pure ground of Self, and in that process get caught in the up/down, in/out, good/bad, right/wrong dance of dualistic thinking. This story, paraphrased from Baba Muktananda’s Where Are You Going? offers a lovely teaching on this theme:

In the state of Rajastan, in ancient India, lived a cobbler named Ravidas. Many people used to go to him and in his company, experienced great peace. One day the prime minister went, and returning to the palace, told the king, “There is a great saint living in the city. He will be able to give you some peace.”

The king was very unhappy. He had a great deal of wealth, power, and all the other things that make a person agitated. He had nothing that gave him peace. But when the prime minister suggested he go to Ravidas, he said, “He is a cobbler. How can a king ask for instructions from a cobbler?” But the prime minister persisted and the king finally agreed to go. Disguising himself he walked into Ravidas’s shop and said, “I am very unhappy and I lack peace. Please give me something that will bring peace to my heart.”

Ravidas  kept a stone pot full of water into which he dipped pieces of leather before he worked on them. He poured some of this water into a glass  and gave it to the king, saying,. “Drink this.”

The king was revolted by this water  which was dark red and smelled like leather. Pretending to drink, he poured it down his shirt, bowed to the saint, and left. Returning to the palace, he saw his shirt was badly stained so called the royal washerman to clean it. Surprised to see the royal shirt in such condition, the washerman made some inquiries and learned what had happened. Giving the shirt to his daughter, he explained what the king had done, and told her to wash it very well. The daughter, who  was very intelligent and  pure, knew Ravidas’s power. So she took the shirt and sucked out all the stains. Then she washed it and gave it back to her father to return to the king.

From that day on, the girl had very deep meditations. After a few years, she had attained such a state that people began to feel the same joy in her presence they felt in the company of Ravidas. Many went to receive her blessings, among the,  the prime minister. After he had seen her, he went to the king and said, “O Your Majesty, you are still so unhappy and agitated. Why don’t you go to that ecstatic girl and see if she can give you some peace?” The king was reluctant – after all, she was the daughter of a washerman – but in desperation, went to her room. Standing before her he said, “I am very unhappy. Please give me your blessing so that I can attain peace.”

The girl looked at him with great wonderment. “O Your Majesty,” she said. “Everything I have, I received from what you threw away. Everything I have, I obtained by sucking Ravidas’s water out of the shirt you gave my father to wash!”

Contemplating duality, I was moved to give Mary Oliver the final word.  I took a book of her poems down from the shelf and let it open randomly.  Having been out in the garden that morning cutting vase-fulls of peonies, that this was the poem that came… it was one of those perfect wonder moments. A lovely  reminder of the oneness beneath duality, always there, holding us in its luminous, if not always visible, embrace…

-Mary Oliver

This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready
to break my heart
as the sun rises,

as the sun strokes them with his old, buttery fingers
and they open –
pools of lace,
white and pink—
and all day the black ants climb over them.

boring their deep and mysterious holes
into curls,
craving the sweet sap,
taking it away

to their dark, underground cities—
and all day
under the shifty wind,
as in a dance to the great wedding,

the flowers bend their bright bodies,
and tip their fragrance to the air,
and rise, their stems holding

all that dampness and recklessness
gladly and lightly,
and there it is again –
beauty the brave, the exemplary.

blazing open.
Do you love this world?
Do you cherish your humble and silky life?
Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?

Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden
and softly,
and exclaiming of their dearness,
fill your arms with the white and pink flowers,

with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling,
their eagerness
to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are
nothing, forever?

2 thoughts on “May 24, 2010

  1. Several days after class, Ali emailed the following. The blog was not yet live so I saved it to include here as a comment. From here on my dear ones, comments are all for you!

    * * * * *

    I’m reading Mitch Albom’s “Have a Little Faith”. He retells the Buddhist parable below. I’m sure you’ve heard it before — it struck me as a simple example of duality for your new students.

    This is about a farmer who wakes up to find that his horse has run off.

    The neighbors come by and say, “Too bad. Such awful luck.”

    The farmer says, “Maybe.”

    The next day, the horse returns with a few other horses. The neighbors congratulate the farmer on his reversal of fortune.

    “Maybe,” the farmer says.

    When his son tries to ride one of the new horses, he breaks his leg, and the neighbors offer condolences.

    “Maybe,” the farmer says.

    And the next day, when army officials come to draft the son- and don’t take him because of his broken leg-everyone is happy.

    ‘Maybe,” the farmer says.

  2. Although it was almost a month ago, this section of the Tao Te Ching has continued to percolate, so perhaps I will finally share what it seemed to speak to me. Each pairing in the verse suggested that when the natural, spontaneous, harmonious expression of that thing (the Tao, wisdom, family relations, society) falls away, we begin to substitute forms in an attempt to mirror the lost memory of that natural truth of being, which yoga calls the Self. Rules are adopted to make up for the lack of spontaneous inner knowing. When the Tao is forgotten, we set up norms of goodness and rules for pious behavior. When natural wisdom declines, we codify knowledge into systems and display our cleverness in debating them. When the family cannot be in spontaneous loving harmony, we at least set up rules of respect and filial piety–and penalties for breaking them–to prevent family chaos. And when the country is in chaos, rules of the good loyal citizen must substitute for altruism. Perhaps this is all too literal a reading. But to me, it leads to the question, are the forms useful? The Tao Te Ching seems to say that the way back to the spontaneous, natural Truth of all the Tao, the Self in action (or no action) is to let go of the forms and just be. I could stop here, and just say–that’s it! But I still wonder. Is the good or pious man or woman erring in choosing this means of ‘becoming’ along the way? Does a family that chooses to treat each other respectfully perhaps learn the kindness hidden under respect? Can we stumble upon wisdom (like the Tao Te Ching!) in our pursuit of knowledge? I think one thing that makes me wonder this, is a new feeling for the beauty of certain regular religious forms such as chanting the Psalms each day, or morning and evening prayer rituals. The Tao is so compassionate, so loving, that even in our rule-bound, hide-bound, stumbling way, the Truth can sometimes mercifully break in and take hold of us.

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