With a Little Help From Tao

Originally printed in the July - August 2000 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Corseri, Gary. "With a Little Help From Tao." Quest  88.4 JULY - AUGUST 2000): pg 140-145.

By Gary Corseri

If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to do it.

—Abraham Lincoln

Gary CorseriShortly after I turned fifty, a professor-friend asked if I would be the keynote speaker at an awards ceremony for high-school writers. The idea filled me with some trepidation. Not that I have ever minded squawking my sparse insights. Rather, I understood that something else was implicit in the request: to present myself as a writer before an assembly of minnows who had probably never seen incarnate a real, live, snorting artisan of the craft to which they so eagerly aspired and for which they were already being lauded. That was a challenge to come to terms with whatever explicit or implicit credo had guided my own scratchings towards immortality since the age of eight. Before I could hope to pass on wisdom to the young, I had to be sure of where I stood.

I remembered how my otherwise articulate father had struggled during our regular father-son talks to encapsulate the best he knew. Regardless of the love I had for him and my respect for his good intentions, I'd often been bored. Behind the uncertain verbiage, his words boiled down to a few simple ideas: "I love you. . . . I made mistakes. . . . I'm sorry. . . . I did my best. . . . Now it's your turn. . . . Be careful." Actually, it was pretty good advice.

What we learn early in life goes deep and stays long. At some point in my early teens I became fascinated with light—the way it travels and what it's made of. We were guiltless carnivores in those days, and one of my best memories is holding a flashlight on steaks and chops while my father barbecued them over glowing coals. The grill was small, so he'd rush in to bring the first batch to my younger, hungry siblings, leaving me to ponder. Alone, I began to train the flashlight on some star or planet. I could angle the beam through the smoke, watch it clearly ascend as I sent it forth with a warm greeting from a little boy to friendly aliens.

It comforts me to know that that light is traveling still. The little light we shed early on stays with us, helps define us later. The student writers I was to address had already fledged; they were training flashlights on distant stars and planets, and for all I knew, some of them would journey to those far beacons. My responsibility--a daunting one--was to steady their hands on their own lights. I could offer some rocket fuel for their voyages. The fuel I offered was Tao.


The metamorphosis continuously plays. --Ralph Waldo Emerson

How could the philosophy of a Chinese mystical-mythical recluse hope to lasso the erratic gyrations of a generation suckled by Pac Man and babysat by beepers?

First there's the problem of the legendary founder-nonfounder himself. Around the same time Prince Siddhartha discovers his true identity as Buddha, a court official in China decides the world, with all its buying and selling, really is too much with us. At sixty, this consummate insider throws up his hands and says good-bye to all that. As he's riding out of the city, a gatekeeper implores him to write down his reflections. The result is the Tao Te Ching, the Book of the Way, at some sixty pages perhaps the most influential book of poetry ever written. The beginning reads like an echo of our profoundest, subliminal sense of the Divine:

The Tao which can be expressed in words

Is not the eternal Tao;

The name which can be spoken

Is not the eternal Name.

It is a book of paradox, mystery, poetry, and symbolism, attempting nothing less than the total recalibration of our overwrought senses. It lights fires at nerve endings, discombobulates cortical certitudes, then laughs in our faces:

Failure is the foundation of success,

And the means by which it is achieved.

Success is the lurking place of failure.


The reason why rivers and seas are lords

Of a hundred mountain streams

Is that they know how to keep below them. . . .

The Sage, wishing to keep above the people,

Must by his words put himself below them.

At the turn of the millennium, consider the madding world! Perspective may help. At the end of the nineteenth century, an atmosphere of optimism pervaded the industrialized world. Even Emerson and Whitman had praised the march of progress. Following more than a century of nightmarish drudgery, the Industrial Revolution finally held forth the promise of tangible, beneficial results. Expanding markets; the diffusion of Western culture and democratic ideals; the rise of a leisure and middle class; innovations that spawned new opportunities; macadamized roads; railroads; steamships; the wireless; the popular press--all conspired to give the poor a sense of shared possibilities, while simultaneously awarding the privileged with an efflorescence in the arts unseen since the Renaissance. Never at a loss for words, the French called it La Belle Epoque.

Alas! The sorcerer's apprentice who danced so nimbly with the new technology has lost the incantation to rebottle the genie. We have seen that genie deliver us to the ovens of Dachau and the holocaust of Hiroshima. The multilinear, multispatial perspectives of Cubism, building on Freud's and Jung's conception of the psyche, has transformed into the pop, repetitive cartoon art of Lichtenstein and Warhol. The spontaneous combustion of Igor Stravinsky’s "Firebird" has degenerated into the latest release by tired old rocker Mick Jagger. We have split the atom and incinerated the rain forests--all in the same century.

The pace of change consumes our energies. "A man has only to be turned around twice in this world," Thoreau wrote a century ago, "to be completely lost." For our information-overloaded children, it's barely a quarter turn. Archimedes said that if he had a lever long enough and a place to stand, he could move the world. With our modern computers, every science-savvy child may now have a lever long enough . . . but where to stand? It's difficult to plant one's feet in the soil of virtual reality.

So here comes Lao-tzu, riding his pony—Lao-tzu the spiritual whistle-blower.

Most Westerners who have heard of Tao think it has something to do with the I-Ching, that other classic of Chinese literature, which has been used for centuries to foretell the future. We know it has something to do with the yin and yang, and most know that means the male and female principle--and most are wrong.

Male and female, good and evil, hot and cold, weak and strong. . . . We carry the Manichaean heresy in our hearts. The point is not an etiolated dualism but a dynamic process ever building a unified world. The symbol of Tao is a circle divided by a serpentine line. Two embryonic forms lie in the womb of this circle--one black, one white. In the black form there is a tiny white eye; in the white form, there is a tiny black eye. It is not that we live in a simplistic, dualistic world of opposites, but that opposites abide within all things. The willow bends before the storm--and survives. The weak yields to the strong--and becomes stronger. The heart that is hardened cracks. The heart that is pliable conquers the world. No one has expressed the moral spirit of Taoism better than the beggar of Assisi:

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek

To be consoled as to console,

To be understood as to understand,

To be loved as to love,

For it is in giving that we receive;

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;

It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.

Two and a half thousand years before our age, a Chinese court official set out to talk about process and change. There is no other philosophy quite like his. The three principal Western religions are insistently anthropocentric: the birth of the universe and the creation of Adam take place in the first six days. Buddhism, even in its quietism, perceives the wheel of karma, the cosmos of colliding galaxies, as a kind of shadow play in which we must escape from the maya of illusions--the samsara of shadows--to attain the perfection of release in samadhi, or enlightenment.

The deuce with all that, Lao-tzu might say. Just follow nature: The Way of Heaven is like the drawing of a bow; It brings down what is high And raises what is low. It is the Way of Heaven To take from those who have too much And give to those who have too little. But the way of man is not so. All things in Nature work silently. They come into being and possess nothing. They fulfill their functions and make no claim. When merit has been achieved, Do not take it to yourself; For if you do not take it to yourself, It will never be taken from you. A violent wind does not outlast the morning; A squall of rain does not outlast the day.

So, what should we tell the students?


What the Thunder said. --T. S. Eliot

A philosophy of paradox is one the young can sink their teeth into.

It's difficult for young people--and most of the rest of us--to think about being successful by age eighty-nine.

We want to sign the book contract now. We want the agent on the phone from Hollywood now. And the Pulitzer, and the Nobel, and the Oscar.

But what do we mean by "success"? Whether one's art is writing, painting, or dolce far niente, there are tons of how-to guides for getting one's just and unjust rewards now.

I remember a show I saw about a fifteen-year old determined to achieve fame and fortune as a rock musician. He was going to "give it everything" for a year or two, and if he hadn't made it by then, he was going to become a lawyer.

Hmm . . . .

"Our time will be recalled," Andrew Sullivan writes in ASAP, a recent supplement to Forbes, "for the way in which technology changed . . . our lives, for the way in which our choices have been expanded while our capacity to know how to choose has diminished."

One way to "know how to choose," to train the young to steady their purpose and ambition despite the whips and scorns of time, is to hone the intellect against the whetstone of Tao. Lao-tzu's doctrine is contrapuntal to our get-rich-quick, get-it-all-now ethos. His is the philosophy of the tortoise, with the ballast the young need for an even-keeled journey through the shoals and the rapids.

"If I could live to be eighty-nine," Hokusai said as a young man, "I just might learn how to be an artist." The great print artist of Japan had his wish. Also as a young man, populist poet Carl Sandburg hoped he might live as long as Hokusai--so that he, too, might relish the same grace of time to master his art. He, too, was granted that fulfillment.

Again and again Lao-tzu exhorts us to put the brakes on intelligence, especially "profound intelligence" or "sagacity." It is an exhortation for humility: "He that humbles himself shall be preserved entire." The humble Sage listens, the "profoundly intelligent" one orders and commands. The true Sage, Lao-tzu tells us, "conveys instruction without words."

The lesson for the artist is especially poignant. How often has the creative writing instructor advised his students to "let the words flow." But our self-editing ego impedes the flow. That's our "sagacity" at work, our need to know--or think we know--it all from the beginning. "The art of poetry is discovering that we know what we did not know we knew," Robert Frost wrote. Whitman was plugged into the same Taoist juice when he wrote: "Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes."

Tao is the corrective for the artistic self-absorption that began with the Romantic Age and has grown exponentially in our era of the superstar. "He is free from self-display, therefore he shines forth; from self-assertion, therefore he is distinguished; from self-glorification, therefore he has merit." With the Tao of creativity one transcends the self--the lower case, not the upper. One merges with the work, the true Self, the universal. Have we any such artist in the Western canon? We do--and he stands at the helm of it, though we seldom glimpse him there.

Consider the Bard of Avon, the peerless self-effacer. Consider his theme of overvaunting ambition in Macbeth, King Lear, and Julius Caesar. He tells us to "hold the mirror up to nature" in Hamlet; spurns "taffeta phrases, silken terms precise" in Love's Labor's Lost; finds us all "merely players" in As You Like It; laments in Measure for Measure that "proud man, / Drest in a little brief authority . . . Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven / As make the angels weep." He has the gift of gab, perfect pitch for the sound of words, exactly calibrated scales for the lightness and weight of the heart. His empathy is godlike: "the poor beetle, that we tread upon, / In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great / As when a giant dies."

Nature never made a more equable man, but what do we know of him? He was involved in a minor lawsuit; he left his second favorite bed to his somewhat older wife; he had a son named Hamnet. The figure of the man is as ghostly as the one character we surmise he played. Many cannot even imagine that he wrote his plays. But what if he had put as much energy into public relations as our modern celebrity artists? Wouldn't we have tired of him by now?

Lao-tzu's is not a message to extinguish the ego, but to nurture it truly. I had to return to my childhood to understand.

There was a synagogue in my neighborhood, and as a child and boy on my way to school, I'd pass it unthinkingly. Only when in my young manhood I made a nostalgic visit home, did I notice the words above the lintel. They are the prophet Micah's words, perhaps the most elegant and concise answer ever given to one's own rhetorical question: "What is required of a man but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God." The ultimate humility is humility before the act of Creation and the creative act.

Lao-tzu's lesson is appropriateness--a rare word today, a word like shame and honor. Some have misunderstood the lesson. The natural path, the appropriate path, is often the most practical: "In the management of affairs, people constantly break down just when they are nearing a successful issue. If they took as much care at the end as at the beginning, they would not fail in their enterprises."

It is no surprise, perhaps, that the sixty-fourth hexagram of the I-Ching, the very last, echoes Lao-tzu's sound advice. The I-Ching ends with a looped thought, entitled "Almost There." Just as the little fox thinks he has safely crossed the stream, he gets his tail wet. In human terms, just as we believe we've reached the fruition of our hopes, we are most likely to lower our guard, to suffer some reversal. We have only to consider today's headlines to see which potentate failed to heed Lao-tzu's counsel. We have only to look in the mirror.

But some always choose to misunderstand: "He who is enlightened by Tao seems wrapped in darkness," Lao-tzu tells us. "He who is advanced in Tao seems to be going back. He who walks smoothly in Tao seems to be on a rugged path."

What better gift for the young than this bracing tonic of paradoxes? One cannot preach to them; they abhor the preacher. So what to say, what to offer?

When pointing to the moon, the haiku poet says, take off your ring. No embellishments will do for the young seekers. Like Thoreau, they must have life raw, on their own terms, they must "live deliberately."

"Chaos is the name of an order we have not yet understood," Henry Miller wrote. The child is comfortable with chaos. The child plays King of the Mountain on the ruins of lost civilizations. Our challenge is to integrate the spirit of the child with the wisdom of the adult. As we get older, let our minds grow sharper even as our hearts grow simpler.

Yong Joon Yoon, a Korean friend and writer, told me a story: It seems there was a beast named Chaos. This animal did lots of good things for the people. But it did not have eyes, ears, mouth, or a nose. So the people drilled holes into its hide to make ears; they slit the skin to make eyes, a mouth, and a nose. And after a few days, the animal died.

Before the mind grows rigid with doctrines it is fluid with possibilities, instructed by riddles, opened with conundrums. The creative spirit plays riffs on those conundrums, growing wiser and deeper. We all have the capacity to discover the true patterns of the world, whether we see them in fractal geometry, or in the faces of kindred beings.

"I have three precious things," Lao-tzu wrote. "The first is gentleness; the second is frugality; the third is humility. . . . Be gentle so that you may be bold. . . . Practice frugality so that you may be generous. Cultivate humility so that you may be a true leader."

This, then, is the essence of Tao: the continuous flux; the certainty of things transforming into other things, even their opposites; life's constant surprise and how to accommodate ourselves to it so that we can ride the highest wave with aplomb even when it delivers us to the chasm. The wave will rise again, the yin in the heart of yang will sound the dominant key, the yang in the heart of yin will startle us again.

On April 9th, 1998, as a tornado totaled our house above us, my wife and I embraced in our basement for what we thought would be our last time. We had tracked the storm cell on the TV screen's Doppler. Incredulous, we'd watched for half an hour as it arced its slow, inexorable path towards us. Five minutes before it hit, the wind picked up, and it kept growing in intensity until the last two minutes, when a strange silence fell out of the hovering air. Then light was flashbulbing everywhere in the sky, and I heard the signature freight train noise, but it was like a shuffling, predatory roar as the thing shifted its weight, wiping out one house, then leaping over another. We had just made it down to the basement when it hit, and in the midst of it, at the pinnacle of the confusion, roar, and acrid fear, there was the most delicate, tinkling sound of wind chimes or champagne glasses clinking in toasts. Only later did we learn it was all the windows in the house shattering at once.

I have never heard a more beautiful sound.

Gary Corseri has published two collections of poetry: Random Descent (Anhinga) and Too Soon, As Always(Georgia Poetry Society Press). He wrote the libretto for Reverend Everyman, an opera staged by Florida State and Portland State universities and broadcast over Atlanta PBS. His articles, poems, and fiction have appeared in Quest, New York Times, Village Voice, Sky, Georgia Review, Redbook, and elsewhere

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