Tao Living

The Sage's Visit

by Derek Lin


Happiness is realizing what is Tao and practise it. Word cannot explain Tao and it is only through realization. Put in great effort to seek for it sincerely and it will come to you. When you have realized it, you will feel great. Happiness and joy comes together and you will never regret it. TA Chew 

Home Page

Once upon a time in ancient China, there was a sage who was well known for his deep understanding of the Tao and his ability to explain it in the simplest possible way that anyone could understand.


One day, he started on a journey to visit a distant temple. Because he was so famous and respected, he generated considerable excitement in every town and village he passed along the way. News of his journey spread, so that prior to his arrival at one particular village, the villagers gathered to discuss his impending visit.


"Everyone, I just heard the latest news," one villager said. "He plans to rest for three days in our village before resuming his journey. This will be a great honor for us!"


The village elder was thoughtful: "It's not just an honor. It's also a rare opportunity. We've never had a visit from someone so wise, so we should not let the opportunity go to waste. Let's ask him to give us a talk about the Tao so we can learn from his wisdom." Everyone agreed that this was a great idea.


When the sage arrived, the villagers showered him with hospitality. Then, the village elder approached with the request for teaching. The sage readily agreed, and promised to give one talk for each day of his stay. This was beyond the villagers' expectations, so they were ecstatic.

The next morning, they gathered together at the village square, eagerly awaiting the teaching. The sage greeted them warmly, and started his talk with a question: "Do you know what I will talk about today?"


The villagers looked at one another. Other than the fact that it was about the Tao, no one had any ideas. They turned to the sage and shook their heads. Murmurs of "no" could be heard here and there.

"No?" The sage smiled. "If you don't know, then it would be useless for me to talk about it. Thank you, everyone. That's all for today."


The sage left the square, leaving the villagers stunned. "What happened?" one of them asked. "It looks like we just wasted one day's worth of valuable teachings," another answered. They were all disappointed. After much discussion, they agreed that they didn't want it to happen again.


The next morning, they gathered together again at the village square. As before, the sage greeted them warmly and started his talk with the same question: "Do you know what I will talk about today?"


This time, everyone was prepared. They all responded loudly: "Yes!"

The sage smiled as before, and said: "If you already know, then I don't need to talk about it. Thank you, everyone. That's all for today."


The sage left the square, leaving the villagers completely confused. "Did we just waste another day's worth of valuable teachings?" one of them asked. "It sure looks that way," another responded. Everyone was depressed.


"We absolutely cannot let this happen again," the village elder said. "We have only one more day left! We need to figure out how to get past his opening question."


"But how?" one villager asked. "We can't say yes and we can't say no. There is no other possible answer! How can we give him a response that is neither yes or no?"


"I have an idea," the village elder said. "Tomorrow, we'll divide ourselves into two equal groups. When the sage asks the same question, the group on the left will say yes, and the group on the right will say no. That way, he'll have no choice but to continue his talk!"


The villagers quickly organized themselves according to this plan. They rehearsed the simultaneous answer with the elder standing in as the sage. After several repetitions, they got the timing down. They nodded to one another in mutual approval. Everyone felt confident about this solution.


The next morning, they gathered together again at the village square. As before, the sage greeted them warmly and started his talk with the same question: "Do you know what I will talk about today?"


The villagers were ready. In unison, half of them said "Yes!" while the other said "No!" Then, they exchanged nods with one another. They felt they got it right this time.


The sage smiled as before, and said: "Excellent! Those of you who know, please tell those of you who don't. Thank you, everyone. That's all for today."


The villagers panicked. They had wasted their opportunity yet again, and now there were no more talks. The village elder rushed to the sage and implored: "Master! This is your last talk for us. You must teach us something about the Tao!" Other villagers also pleaded: "Please, Master, teach us!"


The sage turned to everyone and said: "What we have talked about these past few days is the Tao boiled down to its very essence, although it may not appear as such. The nature of spiritual truth is that those who do not know it will never understand it through words alone, and those who know it need no words at all. You have all learned this lesson without being aware of it. Reflect on today's talk in the same way, and soon you will master its lesson just as easily."


Realization dawned on the villagers as the sage departed. The sage had fulfilled his promise and taught them the Tao - in the simplest possible way that anyone could understand!


The sage taught three primary lessons, one for each day. It is important for us to work through all three, because Tao cultivation requires the mind to be fully engaged. The Tao is not meant for those who want all the answers handed to them; it is for people who think for themselves.


What exactly were the sage's lessons? How do they connect with one another as a complete teaching? Let us start at the top and work our way down step by step.


Day One

To those who are familiar with the Tao, the sage's lesson from day one is easy to understand. It is one of the many ways to express the very first line of the Tao Te Ching: The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao.


However, understanding doesn't always translate to real-life applications or meaningful changes in behavior. For instance, there are always a few people in the study of the Tao who cannot stop talking about how limited words are. They are eager to show that they really get it, but by being excessively verbose, they end up demonstrating the very opposite - often without realizing it.


There is also a hidden layer to the sage's point that may be easy to miss. He was referencing not only to the first chapter of Tao Te Ching, but also to the last. Specifically, the following two lines appear in chapter 81:

Those who are good do not debate
Those who debate are not good


The sage said, "If you don't know, then it would be useless for me to talk about it." While this was certainly a statement about the limitation of words, it could also be a subtle reminder about the futility of debates. This becomes obvious when we keep chapter 81 in mind.


When we get into a debate with someone else, we sometimes imagine that our motive is to educate. The other side is obviously not as well-informed as we are, so it's up to us to make them see the light. We think our intent is noble and our words will bring them out of ignorance.


In actuality, this is usually not the case. Chances are the other side has the mirror image of the same thoughts about us. They, too, want to use their words to help us know the truth - as they see it.


The likely conclusion is that neither side succeeds. Both sides end up even more self-righteous than before. Even though so much time and energy have gone into counterpoints and rebuttals, the best anyone can hope for is that the two sides agree to disagree. The sage described this as "useless" - a definite understatement!


Day Two

The complement of the first day's lesson is that words are also unnecessary once true understanding dawns. Imagine trying to explain the concept of "red" to someone who has always been blind. No amount of explanation will ever convey the experience of seeing the color. But if, one day, advances in medical science enable this person to see, then redness won't need any explanations at all. The experience and understanding will be automatic and complete.


It is exactly like that with the Tao. If you have friends who are aware of your interest in the Tao but are not themselves ready for it, then you know that no amount of words will be sufficient to convey why it is so essential to you, or why it is the most natural thing in the world. Like the blind person, they are not simply not equipped to experience the colors of the Tao.


This may change, because the human soul is not static. It is ever seeking ways to grow in its own fashion, at its own pace. So, it is entirely possible that a light bulb will come on for your friends one day. This may be the result of a catalyzing event, or the influence of your personal example through actions and deeds. Like the sightless person suddenly able to see, their understanding will be instantaneous, coming into being without having to say anything.


Day Three

After looking at the above, we may be tempted to conclude that words must be totally useless. There seems to be no need for them whether it's before or after the learning of wisdom. This is in fact not the sage's message. The lesson from the third day points to the true usefulness of words, and completes the picture.


Many people have remarked on what they feel is the supreme irony of the Tao Te Ching: Lao Tzu starts out by saying in the first chapter that words cannot fully describe the Tao, but then goes on to talk about it for the remaining 80 chapters. Surely this is a bit of a paradox?


It is, for someone who understands the first two lessons (covering chapters 1 and 81) but not the third (covering everything in between). It is not a paradox for the sage, who can see the totality of the human quest for the Tao, and not just a partial view of it.


A student of the Tao who has not yet mastered the lesson from the third day may take an extreme position and assert that words are ultimately meaningless. To some, this assertion sounds like it might be a profound wisom from great teachers, but others who think it through may sense a more fundamental truth: words are merely a tool for communication. This tool can be used to produce meaningless or meaningful results depending on the user. The tool is absolutely indifferent to the usage. Therefore, it makes no sense to describe the tool itself as meaningful or meaningless.


This is what makes the third lesson important. It is all about the appropriate role that words can play in human affairs. Words point to spiritual truths, but are not the truths themselves. In the words of the Sixth Patriarch Hui Neng, words are like the finger pointing at the moon. What we want to do is not to stare at the finger, but direct our gaze along its direction to witness the heavenly glory of the moon.


Now everything is coming together. Words themselves can never describe the Tao, but we can still use words to help one another understand the Tao better. That's what the Tao Te Ching is: something to help us approach the Tao; something that points to the Tao, but is not the Tao itself. The words in the Tao Te Ching are not themselves divine - they are merely Lao Tzu's finger pointing to the divine.


Finally, the third lesson is about the ultimate meaning of our earthbound existence. When the sage instructs "those who know" to tell "those who don't," he is saying, in the simplest language possible, that it is our highest calling to be of service to one another. What can be a more noble purpose than for us to lend one another a helping hand as we journey together?


As we work to refine ourselves and attain more wisdom, others will increasingly turn to us for help, just like the village elder approaching the sage with a request for teaching. You will be asked to share your insights, just like the sage being invited to give talks. When that time comes, remember the sage's lessons from all three days. Keep in mind the constraints of limited words, but don't let that stop you from helping people... by pointing your finger at the limitless Tao!