Friday, July 31, 2009

Verse 15: Uncarved Block

Verse Fifteen
The Sages of old were profound
and knew the ways of subtlety and discernment.
Their wisdom is beyond our comprehension.
Because their knowledge was so far superior
I can only give a poor description.

They were careful
as someone crossing a frozen stream in winter.
Alert as if surrounded on all sides by the enemy.
Courteous as a guest.
Fluid as melting ice.
Whole as an uncarved block of wood.
Receptive as a valley.
Turbid as muddied water.

Who can be still
until their mud settles
and the water is cleared by itself?
Can you remain tranquil until right action occurs by itself?

The Master doesn't seek fulfillment.
For only those who are not full are able to be used
which brings the feeling of completeness.
~ John H. McDonald translation ~
I think it's a human trait to memorialize the past. Almost all of us can look to bygone days when things were "so much better than they are now". Aah yes, those simpler times of yesteryear when life didn't seem so chaotic and stressful...

In his own way, that's precisely what Lao Tzu is doing by heaping praise on the sages of old. As Kyle Walker writes on The Doubtful Tao,
We have a tendency to put people up on pedestals. This is very much the case in the way we think of wise people of the past... people like Lao-Tzu. When reading the Tao Te Ching and considering its author, we sometimes envision him as this half-divine master of enlightened wisdom whose understanding is beyond anything the modern mind can fathom. We can only grasp at the meaning of his nuggets of truth as they come toppling out at us, spilled from the pages of the little book he left behind.

And so I think it’s really funny that Lao-Tzu himself looked back on even earlier “wise men” in the same way we look back on him. In the 15th verse he praises these ancients for their wisdom which is beyond our ability to fathom. Wisdom so profound that it simply cannot be described.

Who were these remarkable guys? I have a good answer for you: They were guys who wiped their ancient butts just like you do.
Still, while the author of this verse waxes poetically of the days of yore, the main thrust of the message does ring true. It provides an inkling of how we might comport ourselves in the world of the here and now.

For me, one of the key concepts introduced in this verse is that of the uncarved block. This concept will reappear time and time again. Rather than provide you with my own clumsy definition of this term -- though I might attempt it at a later time -- I'll let Benjamin Hoff, author of The Tao of Pooh, explain it.
The essence of the principle of the Uncarved Block is that things in their original simplicity contain their own natural power, power that is easily spoiled and lost when that simplicity is changed. For the written character P'u, the typical Chinese dictionary will give a definition of "natural, simple, plain, honest." P'u is composed of two separate characters combined: the first, the "radical" or root-meaning one, is that for tree or wood; the second, the "phonetic" or sound-giving one, is the character for dense growth or thicket. So from "tree in a thicket" or "wood not cut" comes the meaning of "things in their natural state" -- what is generally represented in English versions of Taoist writing as the "uncarved block."

This basic Taoist principle applies not only to things in their natural beauty and function, but to people as well. Or bears. Which brings us to Pooh...
The other part of this verse that really speaks to me is the metaphor of mud and water. It provides an apt pictorial definition of the concept of wu wei. When we try to force things against their nature and through the force of our will, we're like a pool of muddy water. Our judgment is clouded and we often can't see things as they actually are.

As McDonald's translation indicates, it is only when we allow the mud to settle that we can embrace clarity. Clear minds make better decisions and are much better equipped to know when action is needed and when it is not.

This post is part of a series. For an introduction, go here.

4 comments:

  1. I consider this the most important verse in the Tao Te Ching. It pretty much says it all.

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  2. "Who can be still
    until their mud settles
    and the water is cleared by itself?
    Can you remain tranquil until right action occurs by itself?"

    no, not really. patience and tranquility still remain elusive, unfortunately. it's always easier for me to act, whether that action is for good or ill, than to just let things resolve on their own...
    nonaction is the hardest thing i will never do...

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  3. Can't argue with ya, FM!

    And Iktomi, as usual, you hit the nail on its proverbial head! Non-action is the hardest thing for most of us!

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  4. yup this is the poo way

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