There exists a very special book which I have had it in the back of my mind to tell you about for some time. And thinking about Spring brought it to mind because the seasons are a central theme of its wisdom. The book is called ‘Back to Beginnings – Reflections on the Tao’ by Huanchu Daoren, translated by Thomas Cleary. You probably never heard of him, and I only know him by the sheer luck of falling on his book in a second-hand bookstore. But I am here to tell you that there is more concentrated wisdom in this little book than in any other I know.
As soon as the plants and trees have withered, they show sprouts at the roots. Even though the order of the seasons brings freezing cold, eventually it brings back sunny energy. In the midst of purging and killing, the sense of continually renewing life is always in control. Thereby one can see the heart of heaven and earth.
The book was written around 1600 by a retired Chinese scholar and civil servant named Hong Yingming who took the Taoist name of Huanchu Daoren, which means ‘A Wayfarer Back to Beginnings’. The book is in the form of a collection of meditations on the seasons of life, on serenity, on discerning truth in a complex society and on practical ways to live in harmony with the Tao.
Wealth, status, honour, and praise that come from enlightened qualities are like flowers in the mountains, growing and blossoming naturally. Those that come from achievements in one’s career are like flowers in pots, being moved about, removed, replanted. Those that are gained by temporal power are like flowers in vases, without roots, soon to wilt.
The teachings are a synthesis of several Chinese schools of thought. In his introduction to the book, Thomas Cleary says:
In it can be seen a form of lay Taoism dating many centuries further back into history, in which the historical and sociological insights of pristine Confucianism were combined with the advanced educational and psychological knowledges and methodologies of Buddhism and Taoism.
Here is a passage supporting that assertion, and we should not be surprised to see the importance attached to sincerity, should we?
There is a true Buddha in family life; there is a real Tao in everyday activities. If people can be sincere and harmonious, promoting communication with a cheerful demeanour and friendly words, that is much better than formal meditation practice.
Perhaps the hand of the translator has something to do with it, but there is a direct, simple, easy to grasp message in each of the meditations. There is nothing obtuse or requiring extensive footnotes here. The language is plain and pertinent as if the author were living today.
The learned should be vigorous and diligent, but they should also be free-spirited. If they are too rigorous and austere, they have the death-dealing quality of autumn but lack the life-giving quality of spring. How can they develop people then?
There was a period when I carried this book around with me. Just reading one or two of the quotes in a spare minute several times a day is a sure way to keep your day in perspective. It is like taking a step back to observe events through the eyes of the ‘observer within’. Through the eyes of this great wisdom, you can see things for what they really are.
In adversity, everything that surrounds you is a kind of medicine that helps you refine your conduct, yet you are unaware of it. In pleasant situations, you are faced with weapons that will tear you apart, yet you do not realize it.
Reading these quotes again is like meeting an old friend. A wise and knowledgeable friend whose ‘adoption is tried’ and who I should ‘grapple to my soul with hoops of steel’. Now I have introduced him to you and I encourage you to do the same.
Be deferential in dealing with the world; deference is the starting line of progress. Be generous in your treatment of others; helping others is really the basis on which you help yourself.
Open a cool eye in the midst of intense activity, and you save yourself that much bitter thought. Keep an enthusiastic attitude in hard times, and you gain that much true enjoyment.
Those who turn things around by themselves do not rejoice at gain or grieve over loss; the whole world is the range they roam. Those who are themselves used by things hate it when events go against them and love it when they go their way; the slightest thing can create binding entanglements.
Whatever meets the eye is the realm of immortals for the contented, the realm of mortals for the discontented. All the bases of activity in society have life-giving potential if used well and death-dealing potential if not used well.