The Way of the Taoist Sage

 Tibetan Ascetic

1. A harmony of paradoxes

A wise man knows himself to be
more precious than fame,
and so, obscure, remains.

The Taoist sage consists of paradoxes that would mortify most people, but do not seem to bother him at all:

The sage

- is detached, yet compassionate;
- enjoys life, yet does not cling to it;
- is a perfectionist, yet indifferent to success or failure;
- is a man of honour, yet avoids reaping honour;
- ignores ethics and morals, but lives a life of the highest moral order;
- does not strive, yet achieves;
- knows the answers, but prefers to remain silent;
- has the innocence of a child, but incredible inner strength.

These paradoxes are in harmony in the sage, the same way nature itself seems to be a harmonious blend of paradoxes. This makes it difficult to describe the sage in conventional terms and categories. In fact, in most societies the sage’s qualities would be seen as negative, even harmful.

2. Close harmony with nature

All things end in the Tao
as rivers flow into the sea.

The Taoist sage lives in close harmony with the natural rhythm and flow of life. His closeness to nature is organic and spiritual. It is undogmatic and vital. Even in the midst of the city, he remains intimately close to the instinctual and natural in himself, and his innate goodness guides him so that he never becomes part of an ignorant society’s furtive scramble to reach an imaginary pinnacle.

He feels at home in nature – in deep forests or on misty mountains – away from the artificial and the contrived. When moving in artificial corporate environments, the sage is true to his natural impulses, and even though he does not feel at home in a milieu of envy and greed, he remains if not untouched, then at least unstained by the destructive negative emotions around him.

3. Travelling light

The sage gives himself up
to whatever the moment brings.
He knows that he is going to die,
and he has nothing left to hold on to.

The Taoist sage, in harmony with his natural environment, lives a carefree life, and he does so effortlessly, in the full knowledge that happiness cannot be bought or won, or accomplished, for it is not a prize, a commodity, an aim or a position. In fact, even the attainment of happiness is an aim the sage does not consider. He knows thinking about eating cannot replace the joy of eating. Instead of thinking too much and talking too much, he lives contentedly in what most sophisticated people would see as a simple, naive way.

The sage lives an unostentatious and modest life by the standards of a world dedicated to material gain and vanity. He lives with little desire and almost no expectation. If wealth should happen to come his way, he would accept it graciously, but without clinging to it. If necessary or unavoidable, he would relinquish his material possessions with hardly a whimper.

He relishes every moment of life there is to enjoy, and suffers with grace when his inevitable turn to suffer has arrived.

4. Equanimity

When there is no desire,
all things are at peace.

Calmness in victory. Tranquility in defeat. Serenity when confronted by the inevitability of suffering. The sage does not rely on externals to provide him with spiritual strength, for he knows: dependence on external factors – such as status, wealth, popularity, hedonism, success, knowledge and relationships – is the reason why modern man crumples so easily in the face of defeat, failure or loss.

The sage is indifferent to success or failure. He understands that life driven by self-centered ambition will never make sense, no matter how successful you are or with how many positive externals you care to adorn it.

Life itself acquires meaning only when you satisfy your spiritual needs by living in total harmony with the Tao.

5. The peaceful warrior

There is no greater illusion than fear,
no greater wrong than to prepare to defend yourself,
no greater misfortune than having an enemy.

Whoever can see through all fear
will always be safe.

The sage is a man of peace. Yet, he carries within him the formidable qualities of a warrior.

He abhors weapons. He detests warfare. The great warrior, according to him, is the one who has avoided conflict and has never had to use violence. As a warrior, he has learnt the art of subduing his adversary without humiliation.

He has the courage of someone who has conquered himself. He does not cling to life, nor is he driven by his own passions. He is unintimidated by death. He is able to face impossible odds and the worst adversaries with grace and courage.

He is no pacifist. When left with no other option, he will fight skilfully and dispassionately, but he will not rejoice in victory, for he sees victory parades as the gory exultation of ignorant butchers. Nor does he fear defeat: it does not carry the sting of humiliation to someone who has very little ego to hurt.

6. The invisible tree

Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?

The sage does not believe that the action makes the man. He has not fallen for the misconception that it is the fruit that makes the tree good. He knows the fruit is good because the tree is good. The sage realizes you have to start with yourself first. It is what you are that turns a deed into something good. He will therefore not become a “man of action” in a vain effort to prove his virtues. The sage knows virtue in motion easily turns into vanity and even cruelty, in this way defeating its own purpose. He would rather be a man of no influence, carefully avoiding self-centered action, and he would obey those natural, spontaneous impulses that spring from genuine compassion.

For this reason, the sage does not make a show of charity. You will never see him smiling at flashing cameras while presenting a donation to some charitable organisation. The sage understands that any form of public recognition or acclaim could diminish any positive spiritual affects a “good deed” could have had on all parties concerned. In fact, it could corrupt and turn virtue into vanity. It could easily be used to give a respectable veneer to corruption and greed. We have all witnessed the spectacle of charity as a public relations exercise. We have all seen how organisations, notorious for their merciless exploitation of man and nature, parade their gifts to charities just in time to raise their turnovers at festive seasons. We have been subjected with nauseating regularity to the sickening public display of charity by politicians hunting for votes just before elections. The sage shuns the kind of charity which is in the service of power and profit, and which comes to fruition in the glare of limelight.

However, if necessary and unavoidable, the sage will go public, but he will do so with the apprehension of someone crossing a winter river covered by thin ice, aware of the fact that publicity weakens the spiritual benefits for all participants.

The sage embraces the anonymous donation, for he knows it inspires and moves civilization forward. The hidden act of mercy is an act of pure compassion; it is the living proof of the victory of the spirit over the ego, which is the essence of an enlightened society.

7. The outsider

Ordinary men hate solitude.
But the sage makes use of it,
embracing his aloneness, realizing
he is at one with the whole universe.

The sage is a loner. He avoids unnecessary contact with people. He does not feel at home with small talk. He abhors gossip. He avoids talking too much. Most people would probably find his company dull. Not that he would mind, for he is indifferent to his own popularity.

The sage is timeless. He lives outside the collective paradigms and ideologies controlling and manipulating society at any given time. He seems immune to even the subtlest efforts of indoctrination or manipulation.

He moves in society without being immersed in it. He stands aloof from the conceptually fashionable. He does not become part of socially acceptable prejudices. He refuses to participate in the pretentious verbal exhibition of the latest in intellectual chic.

Historic paradigm shifts do not unsettle him. He knows that everything changes and yet nothing changes. His perspective is timeless, vaster than any scientific dimension. For this reason the sage remains calm in times of upheaval. Even when humanity is losing its faith in whatever it has lately invested its faith, the Taoist sage remains unperturbed. He does not invest his faith in man-made concepts and therefore has no faith to lose.

The sage lives outside the dictatorial reach of the “group mind,” untouched by the mindless Zeitgeist of his era, and he therefore has little part in the collective guilt of the society of his day. But he will try to live on the periphery of human folly as unobtrusively as possible. Only when he is left with no other choice, will he actively oppose the predominant delusions of his day, and he will do so courageously, suffering any resulting persecution with quiet dignity.

8. The outlaw

Throw away holiness and wisdom,
and people will be a hundred times happier.
Throw away morality and justice,
and people will do the right thing.

The sage does not fret over rules or laws. He acts in seeming oblivion of ethics or morals. He does not work out first if something is acceptable to society before he acts. He lives a spontaneous life. He simply follows his natural urges, and yet these urges are so virtuous, so in total harmony with the Tao, that he lives a life of the highest moral or ethical order. But he does so unconsciously and without a trace of contrivance.

Of course, the sage will inevitably break rules or laws where they stand between him and compassion. The more unjust the society he lives in, the more will he come into conflict with those laws that violate common decencies. The sage could in this way involuntarily become “political,” but he would do so reluctantly and undemonstratively, always searching for an amiable solution. It is exactly because of his obvious distaste of political life that the sage becomes so effective when he takes up a political cause.

9. The non-striver

The pursuit of knowledge continuously
creates the thirst for more knowledge.
But whoever lives the way of the unfathomable
becomes humbler everyday.

The Taoist sage is not interested in knowledge as a form of power. He does not want to win arguments. He knows winning arguments does not change human beings for the better. Neither does he want to win arguments by being silent. He does not want to argue. No hidden agenda can be traced in him. He loves to be silent, truly silent.

The sage knows that knowledge inevitably leads to contention – that it should be treated with the kind of reverence and fear reserved for weapons of destruction. So he will avoid becoming competitive in his knowledge, and he will be careful to shield his knowledge from the jealous gaze of others.

The Taoist sage does not have the Western intellectual’s desperate belief in the liberating power of knowledge. Knowledge, he instinctively knows, is just another form of bondage, just another commodity with which to parade one’s superiority. It is just another means to control and to manipulate. As such, it is a form of power that has nothing to do with the bliss that comes when living in harmony with the Tao. Therefore the sage would rather sit in the shade of a beautiful tree, sipping wine in blissful union with his surroundings, than waste time in the hectic pursuit of knowledge that ultimately leads to greater bondage.

The Taoist sage is not interested in acquiring wisdom, for he knows the wisdom of the sage is often perverted to tools of manipulation and destruction by the powerful and the wicked. He would point out how books containing wisdom, in particular books claiming divine inspiration, have been misused by the powerful to instigate and to justify evil.

The Taoist sage does not consciously try to acquire virtue. He knows that virtue in motion inexorably evaporates and leads to vanity and desire for fame. In their desire for fame, men crush each other and compassion turns into cruelty.

To the Taoist sage, knowledge, wisdom and virtue too easily become the tools of the manipulators, and therefore the very source of evil.

The Taoist sage instinctively knows that he could only become knowledgeable, wise and virtuous by not making these three qualities his ultimate goal.

10. The silent one

Teaching without words,
performing without actions:
that is the sage’s way

The Taoist sage understands that it is mostly futile to argue about imponderables. He realizes that our concepts of God are imperfect images created by our own minds. He would not argue about whether the Tao exists or not. He knows that you cannot understand the incomprehensible and prove the unprovable. He accepts that man is partially blind, in particular to spiritual dimensions, and that arguing rarely increases man’s ability to see more clearly.

The sage lacks the zeal of bright-eyed young missionaries. He appears withdrawn, even suspicious, and he is wary of sharing his insights with anyone. He rarely communicates his more profound views verbally, for he realizes that understanding, insight and perspective mostly grow from direct personal experience, and rarely emerge from hearsay, secondary sources or catechistic instruction.

Insight, he knows, is untransferable. It is not something you can give to somebody, like a gift. Every person must come to his own understanding at his own time, in his own way and according to his own experience.

The sage knows language is limited. It is useful, sometimes even essential, for the communication of concepts that might bring the individual closer to insight. But then the recipient must be at a stage of his development where he will react positively to the concepts communicated. He realizes that the communication of concepts to people who are not ready for them is a waste of breath and could even be counterproductive.

Acute sensitivity to the needs and emotions of other people is therefore a crucial part of the sage’s communicative skills. The sage is a good listener and he has the sensitivity to know when verbal communication will be effective. He will seldom convey his views to larger audiences or strangers.

Being aware of the dangers and limitations of language, the sage will only speak when it is unavoidable or crucial, and he will do so with caution, eloquence and skill. But his natural state is one of silence.

The sage is acutely sensible of the fact that truth tends to be corrupted rather than enhanced by verbal communication. He has not fallen for the Christian-Muslim-Jewish superstition of the unblemished power of the Word to transmit virtue and transform people. The Word, the sage knows, is vague and open to corruption. Its effects are often unpredictable and uncontrollable. It is capable of infecting its environment with the malignant even as it tries to transmit the wholesome. So the sage prefers to be silent.

He does not carry with him the immodest air of indispensability and urgency found among some religious groups who seem to fear that the spirit might become extinct if they should stop spreading it by Word, almost as if they underestimate God.

The Taoist sage trusts the Tao so much that he sees the Word as supplementary, often superfluous, and the individual as dispensable.

Like a child, he believes nothing can go wrong, for the Tao is the mother of all good things.

He does not underestimate the Tao.
He knows the Tao does not really need him.
So he prefers to be silent.

11. The innocent one

He who is in harmony with the Tao
is like a new-born child.

The Taoist sage operates instinctively, intuitively and spontaneously. Like a child, he is unaware of his innocence and his virtues. His compassion is as natural to him as breathing, and he is as unaware of it as he is of his own breathing.

He instinctively moves in close harmony with nature, like a baby snuggling up to its mother’s warm breasts.

His ignorance of his own virtues is his most endearing quality in a world satiated with pomposity.

12. The inferior one

Other people are bright;
I alone am dark.
Other people are sharp;
I alone am dull.
Other people have a purpose;
I alone don’t know.
I drift like a wave on the ocean,
I blow as aimless as the wind.

The Taoist sage is often not taken serious by “men of the world”. Somebody who cares so little about material wealth could only be judged as inferior and foolish by a world intoxicated by material possession. Someone so untouched by hierarchical structures could only be a failure in the “age of the manager,” which measures success by one’s ability to manipulate and to rule. Someone who is honest and open like a child can only be an imbecile to a world obsessed with devious manipulation and power.

Not for the Taoist sage the compulsive preoccupation with several problems simultaneously. He does not fret about his future strategies while frantically trying to deal with his immediate problems. He does not use his cellular phone while simultaneously eating and negotiating with someone across the table. Unlike your ambitious managerial type, he does one thing at a time, and enjoys doing it. He eats when he eats, sleeps when he sleeps, and enjoys company for the sake of company. He lives now and now only, for he knows the past is past and the future mere fiction.

He will only take upon him as much as he can handle without losing his compassion. He knows that being too busy inevitably leads to spiritual starvation and distress, and the loss of meaning to life.

The sage does not move with the counterfeit self-assurance of your crawler up the hierarchical ladder. He is totally honest about his own doubts and shortcomings, as well as his disagreements with authority or management, to a point of what to the world is naivety. He does not think in hierarchical categories and he refuses to choose friends according to their relative usefulness to him in his social, business or corporate environment. He is kind even to people who are mobbed by management and their lackeys.

Hesitantly, he moves among society as if on thin ice, withdrawn like a guest in a strange house. He is wary of any group, for he realizes that a group is often worse than the sum total of its members’ inflated egos and prejudices. He distrusts committees and councils, for they often legitimize prejudice. He refuses to have anything to do with cliques and societies, who often boost their own egos at the cost of others. He avoids meetings and gatherings, where gossip and meanness are often given respectability. He is disinclined to become part even of groups with the loftiest ideals, for grand schemes often serve as facades to ego trips towards fame and prestige.

In a Vanity Fair of brash, inflated egos, he prefers to be invisible. In a pretentious world of self-aggrandizement where status rules supreme, the sage longs to remain unnoticed. In a society clamouring for public honour and fame, he remains out of sight.

13. The failure

If you want to take control of the world and run it,
I can see that you will not succeed.
The world is a spiritual being,
which can’t be improved.
To try to manipulate and control it
is to create disorder.
To try to stabilize it
is to destroy it.

The Taoist sage would be derided as inactive and indecisive by “the man of action”. The sage is innately suspicious of public action, for he realizes it is often a compulsive vanity trip leading to harm.

The sage believes in the virtues of non-manipulative action and non-interference, of containing his influence, of reducing his ego, of remaining silent. He acts when compassion dictates, and his actions are often unpremeditated and spontaneous. He prefers to work out of reach of the public eye. Whatever he does, he does well, but he would finish what he has to do, and then retire, without clinging to his achievements, careful to avoid any honour, influence or advantage it might bring him. He clings neither to responsibilities nor to positions. He is never possessive.

The sage knows the only influence that moves the spirit forward is the presence of character based on compassion and integrity. Character cannot be developed by the crude exhibitionism of modern role models; nor can enlightenment be inspired by your upper-middle class ideal: the smooth respectable perpetration of egotism glossed over by education, good manners, proper language, affluence, good taste and just the right touch of religiosity. Least of all can civilization be improved by the corrupting and self-inflationary “management” of human beings and their lives.

The Tao sage avoids “managing” other people’s lives, for he knows the world is a spiritual thing that should not be controlled or interfered with. He tries to restrict his own influence on others. He will rather suffer loss than manipulate others to reach his aims. Freedom to him has spiritual implications: it is to avoid any form of interference or manipulation. He therefore rejects the basic tenets of power. He prefers to be seen as a loser if success entails tampering with the lives and fates of others.

The Taoist sage is honest in his relationships, never calculating. He does not flatter. He would treat his “superiors” with the same honesty than he would deal with his “colleagues” or “subordinates.” He does not cringe when threatened, nor laugh ingratiatingly at the boss’s jokes. He has no hidden self-promotional agendas. Responding to his natural impulses, he would spontaneously do what is virtuous, and instinctively avoid the false and the mean. He would participate in an organization and obey orders as far as they are of benefit to sentient beings, but he would go no further, no matter what it might cost him in terms of career, promotion or prestige. His incorruptibility is remarkable, for it springs from the inner strength of a person who has diminished his own ego to a degree where he has become independent of the judgement of society. He is essentially, genuinely anarchic: he is master of himself, and he will not be controlled by any system of power.

What the upwardly mobile person would find unforgivable in the Taoist sage is his lack of ambition. The sage avoids a life brimming over with goals and objectives, which he finds a hindrance rather than a help. He realizes that some goals might be essential for survival, and some might even be useful to make life pleasant. Most goals, however, do not give meaning to life. In fact, striving with great effort to reach numerous goals often destroys compassion as one becomes insensitive to the needs of others.

The sage instinctively avoids becoming too busy, which he sees as the worst form of laziness. Mostly, being too busy is nothing but the effort to sidestep the issues that really matter in your life. No matter how lofty or altruistic your goals might seem to be, being too busy is often a form of egomania, regularly accompanied by a martyr complex, in which the protagonist overtly or subtly displays how much he is “sacrificing” himself and “suffering” for “others” or for “the company” or some “worthy cause”. Instead of giving meaning to your life, hyperactivity can create delusions which alienate you from your own self and increase your confusion.

Being too busy is like running fast without knowing where you are going. The sage refuses to run blindly in any direction. He moves at leisure with his eyes wide open, sensitive to the needs of living beings around him. Like the Good Samaritan, he will have enough time to help his fellow traveller lying, helpless, next to the road.

14. The detached one

Other people are excited,
as though they were at a parade.
I alone don’t care,
I alone am expressionless,
like an infant before it can smile.

The Taoist sage seems strangely detached. He functions unconstrained by his own emotions. He knows that his own observations, emotions, thoughts, concepts and judgements are just ripples on the mind’s surface, inconstant and perpetually changing. He realizes that the mind can only reflect compassion clearly – like a tranquil pool the perfect moon – when it has become free of the ripples of thoughts and emotions.

Acts of mercy are not acts of passion to him: they come as naturally to him as sneezing or falling asleep.

Therefore you can rely totally on the sage: his mercy is not dependent on his emotional state, his affinity or aversion to an object, what he believes or any thoughts that might be disturbing the tranquility of his mind.

In a world of inconstancy and illusion, his compassion is constant and real.

15. The heathen

Therefore the sincere man concerns himself
with the depths and not the surface,
with the fruit and not the flower.
He has no ego to follow.
He dwells in reality,
and lets all illusions go.

By almost any Western standard, the sage qualifies as irreligious. Stale ritual has little meaning to him. Even if liturgy should be filled with emotion, the sage remains aloof and suspicious of it. Emotions come and go, and religions that depend on something so volatile as emotions usually forsake their followers when they need comfort most.

Prayer to the sage is not asking God for favours.
Prayer is to dissolve the ego and to become still.
The Taoist sage has experienced it:
the purest revelation is stillness and silence.

16. The coward

The sage views the parts with compassion
because he understands the whole.
His constant practice is humility.
He doesn’t glitter like a jewel
but lets himself be shaped by the Tao,
as rugged and common as stone.

The Taoist sage shuns competition, for it nurtures egotism, fosters brutality and justifies humiliation. The triumphant pose of the strutting victor is a sign of spiritual bankruptcy to the sage. The demonstratively humble acceptance of the prize, with the losers looking on in awe, is the pinnacle of vanity, and might corrupt even the purest of hearts.

He does not see God as his personal mentor, coach or advisor supporting him at the cost of others as he moves up social or corporate ladders. He realizes the Calvinistic urge to prove your closeness to God through competition and the outward show of success is a futile exercise in vanity. Proving your superiority at the cost of somebody else is a proof of inferiority and ignorance. Trying to show you are more in God’s favour than someone else is evil. Insulting other religions to demonstrate your own nobility is an insult to your own religion and yourself. Persecuting because you differ on the incomprehensible, as Christians or Muslims or Jews have been doing in their sad histories, is a form of barbarism.

To the sage, feelings of superiority based on adherence, creed, position, possession, appearance, intelligence, performance or achievement are symptoms of spiritual poverty. The sage’s vision is non-divisive. It is one of unity. But he does not see unity on a grand political scale. He lives his own vision of harmony in the simplest of ways in his everyday life. He is quite simply unaffected by differences between people, and he is untouched by pride, vanity and greed.

17. The traitor

Nothing is impossible for him.
Because he has let go,
he can care for people’s welfare
as a mother cares for her child.

The Taoist sage has the tolerance of someone who knows his ideas are less important than his own well-being. He lives with the constant awareness that his convictions are not as precious as the well-being of others.

He has the patience of someone who knows his insights are limited and subject to continuous change.

He has the humility of someone who realizes what really matter are mostly beyond the grasp of mind and language.

Creating discord to defend your own limited vision is absurd to the sage who believes that harmony is the essence of meaningful life.

Therefore the sage does not take sides in intellectual pursuits.

He does not wear the colours of any sect or party.

He does not wave flags patriotically in the wind.

He does not sing anthems with tear-filled eyes.

He refuses to “die for his country”.

He refuses to kill for some nationalistic cause, or in patriotic fervour, or to satisfy the greed of his rulers, or because he has fallen for some propaganda.

He is a true warrior. He would rather be declared a traitor than betray himself. He has conquered himself and therefore cannot be conquered.

18. The mystery

Look, and it can’t be seen.
Listen, and it can’t be heard.
Reach, and it can’t be grasped.

The Tao is nowhere to be found.
Yet it nourishes and completes all things.

God or Tao or the Absolute or Allah or Jehovah or Brahma – or whatever you prefer to call whatever is or is not wherever or nowhere or everywhere:

It is not a feeling that can be conjured up in liturgy.
It is not a riddle that can be solved intellectually.
It is not a concept that can be captured in science or philosophy.
It is not a dogma that can be formulated in Theology.
It is not something lurking in the ultra-depths of our psyche.
It is not going to be discovered in our DNA.
It is not something still undetected on the sub-quark level.

And yet it is all of these.
For all things come from it
and all things return to it.

The whatever-you-prefer-to-call-it becomes real to you if you live in harmony with it.

It is there to be lived, and that’s that.

You either live it, or you don’t.

The Taoist sage lives it, and yet he doesn’t.

Source: “The Modern Taoist Sage,” from, taoism.net, Jos Slabbert
Photo credit: Leonid Plotkin