Monday, 2 November 2015

What the Tao Tells Us About Enlightened People

What the Tao Tells Us About Enlightened People:
An examination of the 15th Chapter of the Tao te Ching

I am interested in what an Enlightened person is like; how we can identify one.  How if we bump into one at Walmart we could tell there is One Mind behind those twinkling eyes.  By legend, there are thirty-two marks of a Buddha, which include a lower body like an antelope, an upper body like a lion, golden-hued skin, saliva that improves the taste of all foods (but contains no MSG), eyelashes like a thickly mascera'ed supermodel's [well, the text says like a that of an ox], and a penis shaped like a tall maraschino-cherry jar.

Except for Michael Fassbender, there are none of us who could meet all these physical requirements.  And I don't care if Michael's mouth water is better than tupelo honey, I still don't want his spittle in my tea. I guess I dismiss the thirty-two marks as tommyrot, perhaps because it strikes me as slathered with the ugly brush of racism, sexism and thirty other varieties of prejudice.  But, also, happily, the legend of the marks predates the life of Siddhartha Gautama and is at odds with what else Buddhism tells us, as interpreted in this our post-postmodern age.

prefer to think that anybody out there is a potential  Buddha -- that genetic circumstances of birth are not determinant for who might grow up to be Enlightened.  We are told that each of us has a Buddha-seed; I would hope that that means that within each of us it can sprout and grow into a mighty redwood -- whether we are male or female, golden-hued or the color of cocoa beans.

And, it is nice to know that Siddhartha Gautama agrees with me. In the Diamond Sutra there is a dialogue between Buddha and Subhudi, discussing the thirty-two marks and the Tathagata:

"Subhuti, what do you think, can the Tathagata be seen by his physical marks?" 
"No, World Honored One, the Tathagata cannot be seen by his physical marks. And why? It is because the physical marks are spoken of by the Tathagata as no physical marks." 
The Buddha said to Subhuti, "All with marks is empty and false. If you can see all marks as no marks then you see the Tathagata."
It would be nice if there were a test you could give to find a Buddha.  [I.e., one less inscrutible than seeing "all marks as no marks."]  In the movie "To Have and Have Not" -- a title a lot like "All Marks and No Marks" I notice -- Humphrey Bogart's rummy sidekick, played by Walter Brennen, asks everyone if they have ever been bit by a dead bee. The reaction of people asked this silly question tells the audience what the person is like. It's certainly not a Buddha test, but it is sort of a bodhicitta test, telling us if the person Brennen questions is compassionate.

We know that the Lauren Bacall character is a wonderful person (even though she is caught stealing a wallet) because she engages in "the dead bee" conversation with Brennen, giving responses very similar to those given earlier by the protagonist, Bogie.  In the movie, passing the test merely requires patience and interest that comes from recognizing that the old deadbeat drunk is a precious person, as much so as any of us.

[Note the interesting conundrum of being "bit by a dead bee": Typically we get stung by a bee, and then it dies. But if you could be bit by a dead one, it would leave no mark since you couldn't have really been bit (or stung).]

In The Method ofZen, Eugen Herrigel writes in the introduction that, while having tea in a Tokyo restaurant with Japanese colleagues, there was a mild earthquake.  One colleague, unlike everyone else, was neither astonished nor frightened.  The person was Zen Buddhist, unperturbed by the swaying chandeliers and crashing dishes.  Here we might have a Buddha test, or something just short of it!  Shake the ground underneath that candidate Buddha!  See if she flinches!!

The Tao te Ching tells us about Enlightened folks.  [Remember the Tao te Ching?  This is an essay about the Tao.  'Bout time I mentioned it.]

The fifteenth chapter, specifically, tells us how to spot those shy Enlightened people!  The GNL Tao, a loose modern composite translation, calls this chapter "Enlightenment" and unlike other translations uses "The Enlightened" to refer to the people spoken about, rather than "Master" that is used in other volumes.

The first four of the 18 or so lines of the chapter are little different between translations.  The GNL Tao reads as follows:
The enlightened possess understanding So profound they can not be understood. Because they cannot be understood I can only describe their appearance.
There is then a list of seven qualities common to the enlightened.  The translations vary, but the next lines, each conveying a quality, flow like this:

1.     Cautious, watchful or careful - like crossing an iced-over river on foot in the winter
2.     Hesitating, Undecided or Alert {depending on the translation!!} --like someone with enemies all around.
3.     Modest, reverent or courteous {depending on the translation!!} --like someone who is a guest
4.     Dissolving, unbounded, yielding or fluid {depending on the translation!!} --like melting ice
5.     Like uncarved wood, but translations vary.  Is it "genuine" like wood; "thick" like wood; or "shapable" or "simple."
6.     Open, broad or receptive  {depending on the translation!!} -- like a valley.  Another translation says "Hollow, like caves."
7.     This line is truly confusing:  One translation says "Opaque, like muddy pools," another says its seeming opposite, "Clear as a glass of water."  Others say "Seamless as muddy water" and  "Chaotic like murky water."

A hell of a thing!  It is difficult enough to recognize a person by the degree that he/she resembles ice -- but what quality of ice am I looking for?  In what manner, exactly, can I recognize the dissolving, or unboundedness or fluidity that makes a person like melting ice?

And supposing I come upon a person who has a quality like a raw chunk of wood.  HOW would I recognize such a quality, this woody aspect of a person: genuine but not yet carved up.

Happily, centuries of scholarship have tackled trying to understand the Tao te Ching, and from this effort things are now a little less "opaque like muddy pools."

Ellen Chen's Tao te Ching:  A New Translation with Commentary  [It is no longer very "new," by the way.  But I am happy to see that it is back in print.]  seems to do the most to unravel the knots.

The first three of the seven qualities all refer to respect The Enlightened has for the world, "(s)ince the world is a spirit vessel with a sacred life not to be tampered with by humans, the Taoist's attitude is one of reverence and circumspection."

In the fourth line, there is a transition:  the ice is melting, as compared to the thin, but frozen, ice of the first line.  I suppose that the quality ["Dissolving, like ice beginning to melt" in Chen's translation.] suggests that The Enlightened "blend in," much like the man at the end of The 10 Oxherding Pictures vanishes or, in other versions, reenters the marketplace.

The fifth through seventh qualities are feminine symbols, Chen tells us: unformed, yielding and receptive.  In the last quality the symbol of water is used, in contrast to the ice of the first quality and the melting ice of the fourth.  The season is one of spring -- with new life.  Chen writes "The Taoist maintains himself in this psychic state, still anchored in the source which is chaos or non-being, yet emerging into new being by virtue of the power of self-transformation."

I have not been much aided in my quest to identify the Enlightened people "out there."  I want them all to wear some unmistakable sign -- like a red carnation in their lapel.  But the works of Buddhism, and the 15th chapter of the Tao te Ching, aren't talking about Enlightened people "out there," of course.  They are talking about active qualities we are to find within ourself.

Some of these things seem at odds.  We are to be actively rooted in reverence and circumspection.  When we are Enlightened, we will be open and yielding when our habit has been to lie under the seemingly warm blanket of our ego-protecting inner world.  And all of this must be accomplished and maintained without pushing and forcing ourself.  It's quite a trick! Like trying not to try.

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