The ancient masters were subtle, mysterious, profound, responsive.
The depth of their knowledge is unfathomable.
Because it is unfathomable,
All we can do is describe their appearance.
Watchful, like men crossing a winter stream.
Alert, like men aware of danger.
Courteous, like visiting guests.
Yielding, like ice about to melt.
Simple, like uncarved blocks of wood.
Hollow, like caves.
Opaque, like muddy pools.
Who can wait quietly while the mud settles?
Who can remain still until the moment of action?
Observers of the Tao do not seek fulfillment.
Not seeking fulfillment, they are not swayed by desire for change.
Now observers, observe actually would be the best. The one who has, who carry out, who guard against the Tao, do not seek to be full. If you’re not full then you cannot be worn out and you have no desire for change. Then you can be renewed. So fulfillment is not really the right word, not to seek to be full, to succeed actually is better. “Who can wait till the mud settles?” Let dust settle before you act. Yeah! It’s too bad, it’s very poetic in Chinese. Here we said “Alert, like men aware of danger. Courteous, like visiting guests. Yielding, like ice about to melt. Simple, like uncarved blocks of wood. Hollow, like caves. Opaque, like muddy pools.” All this charm is lost in English. But still, it’s better than nothing. And then “Who can remain still until the moment of action?”
Again there is some kind of divine accident meaning here also. You really be very open and still until the moment that you’re moved to act. Again, back to the emptiness, total openness. To totally listen to your own center with no preconceived idea. Now I think that emptiness is the essence of Taoism. There are many chapters that start with “Be empty”. The empty vessel is used but never filled. Chapter 11 is very potent about emptiness:
Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes that make it useful.
Therefore benefit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.
Now this is again the basis for non-action. It is the holes that make it useful. So leave something undone, you know, do not try to do everything, and don’t interfere. It is only when you do not interfere that a divine essence will take over. So no interference and be empty.
You’ve mentioned Alan Watts several times and I know that you’ve been with him when he was teaching. What was he like to be with?
Gia-fu: You see Alan Watts was very creative. When he drinks he’s very clever. If he was in a class, you know, at night time, he was always drunk. But his lectures were never boring. He was a tremendous entertainer. He said “I’m an entertainer. I’m no Buddhist philosopher.”
Alan Watts actually died from alcohol, didn’t he?
Gia-fu: Oh yeah. At that time he drunk whisky by the bottle.
But how could that tie in with the Tao?
Gia-fu: That’s from the Tao! The fact that he drunk is totally in tune with the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. His utter disregard for convention. One of the sages, a famous poet called Liu Ling, had a servant who followed him carrying a jug of wine and a spade. In this way he always had some wine to drink and his servant would be ready to bury him if he dropped dead during a drinking bout! It’s in the Tao. So Alan Watts drinking is quite Taoistic.
Have you experienced that people come into Tai Chi as physical exercise and through the practice of it have come to understand and be interested in the philosophy?
Gia-fu: Yes. Oh yes. There is definitely a great demand today. The young people want to learn kung fu or want to fight, they want to achieve a certain technique and power. This is always the preoccupation of the young people today. “How can I have power?” like such and such guru or whatever. So people use physical exercise as an expression for their own aggression and then finally after they empty their aggression they come to the philosophy of the Tao, and they really find peace. There is a place for something that is violent, that is physical, that uses greatly of strength, and so on, but this is only a step towards the ultimate integration of body and mind.
If you only follow the forms you lose the essence and essence can only be experienced by yourself and through yourself. But now of course the gurus are here to demonstrate that they have reached a certain stage, like a master. A Tai Chi master so to speak. But actually there is not an outside master, but you can see some essence of the practice of Taoism in some people who are fully on their path. There is a saying in China that of every three men that are walking, there is always one who is my teacher. I would say every man is my teacher.
And in this way nature is also your teacher.
Gia-fu: Nature especially. You become so empty that you find all experiences are a learning opportunity. I live by the Rocky mountains where there is a trail to one of the peaks and I spend hours there every day, in the afternoon usually. I walk maybe as much as seven hours and I’ll disappear into nature and just experience my own Tao. You know I can’t do it with many people around. I have to be alone and I have to be into nature. You walk down the street it’s a different affair all together. You see everybody can experience that. There’s nothing like being with nature. So the great experience is interwoven with nature. It really proves that we are a part of the nature. Taoism has always believed that we are a part of the cosmic organ or the organism and that the human being is a microscopic version of nature.
We see that a waterfall is pretty, but we see a garbage dump is not pretty. Why? Because the waterfall is in me. There is a waterfall in every human being. That’s why we see that nature is beautiful.
It sometimes feels as though we have a garbage dump within us too.
Gia-fu: But that’s in me too! Yes. Oh yes. Now another thing is that Taoists would never deny anything human, including our bad parts. So I was sometimes called a rogue. Why? Because I indulge my instincts perhaps. I don’t deny my instincts.
So it is important to become comfortable with yourself, comfortable with others and comfortable with nature. Taoists are very much interested in the coming and going of the seasons, in the process of nature, and that really reminds me of a NBC show I did just yesterday. It was a one hour talk show and we played it this morning after they all finished and, although I have been in the United States for thirty years, all I see is my father in my own expression. My way of talking, my gesture is totally Chinese. I have not Americanized at all, even though I can pronounce words better than I could thirty years ago. All the essence is so Chinese and so I almost gave myself a revelation, but I cannot change, meaning the nature takes over.
Now we can’t speed up a plant – the seasons just come. Nature cannot be hurried. It takes it’s course and it is the same with human beings. The same with our growth even.
So we can certainly learn something from the East to reach the simple, the comfortable, the natural, the real living so to speak. We don’t want to be zombies! We want to live our lives to suit our human needs, our organic needs at that. To listen to our own organs, listen to our own flow, listen to our own chi.
Now this is very true if your an artist, or a writer or, a painter. Just like Picasso says. “I can’t help painting. I don’t want to be a big huge name, but I can’t help doing it.” Once he listens to his own organs he has to paint. So his painting is organic, it’s from his true nature. Love, in the Chinese language is a true expression of the organs, meaning you are totally naked, your organ is perfectly functioning, and this expression we say is love. So this is a totally organic concept of the universe. Beneath all that we know there is a Tao that’s working silently, working without words, that really runs the whole universe or manifests in ourselves.
I think one of the contributions of Taoism is to put the spiritual level into our pragmatic everyday life, which is chi. You can get in touch with your center by physically feeling the flow.