Chapter 35 – Temporary Pleasures
When you follow the path of Tao,
the world of all things naturally follows.
All things follow without harm
and in complete peace.
The worldly lure of music and cake cause
people passing by to stop.
The Tao has no taste, no sound
and is invisible,
yet its effect on the world is never ending.
Translation as posted on taotechingdaily.com
Beautiful music, delicious food, good wine, a lover’s embrace, a new car, a successful business negotiation, the ovation of an appreciative audience, a large bank account – each of these can bring temporary pleasure. Sometimes they can bring happiness. Each, however, is fleeting and ephemeral. The delight that is given by a thing cannot last for no
thing in the physical world can last indefinitely; and even if the thing could last, our physical bodies cannot.
It is not a bad thing to appreciate physical pleasure. The danger is that one may become attached to it. When that happens, the cessation of the temporary enjoyment brings a desire for another experience and another, leading to addictive behavior. A person may not think that seeking a good meal each day or moving through life with earbuds attached to an mp3 player are addictions – any more than another may feel that since marijuana is legal in Colorado, a couple of joints after work each day is something less than the fix the heroin user needs as he begins to crash.
These physical things, like all of the 10,000 things, originate in the nameless and formless Tao. As Lao Tzu says here, all things naturally follow the path of the Tao in peace and without harm to themselves or others. It is when they stop in response to a temporary pleasure that trouble occurs. If gold, for instance, is seen as having value, man will fight against man and nation battle nation to control it. Those who become so attached to the physical that they engage in those battles forget that the flow of nature continues without them. They have stopped and stepped out of the flow.
Let us look briefly at music and cake, which are both wonderful things, but are the examples given in this chapter of experiences that can cause a person to stop and move out of the natural flow.
According to Deepak Chopra, a number of years ago Maharishi Mahesh Yogi asked a group of physicists (presumably physicists who had studied his transcendental meditation) to agree on the qualities of what has been called the “unified field.” That field is seen as the sort of cosmic soup from which our physical reality bubbles out. The unified field is similar to the Tao and the physicists said it was characterized by, among other things, “infinite silence.”
Silence is the natural state of the Tao. It is the formless that brings forth all form, the nameless that produces the 10,000 things that we have named in this world and the silence that is the genesis of all music and sound.
Claude Debussy, the French composer, once said, “Music is the space between notes.” Without that space, the individual sounds could not resonate. The lack of structure would produce not music but cacophonous noise.
The sounds that we think of as music are produced from the silence. The most popular song of the last quarter of the 19th Century was “The Lost Chord” by Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame), who during the last days of his brother’s final illness set music to a haunting poem by Adelaide Anne Procter. It tells of a composer sitting at an organ and idly running his fingers over the keys when he:
…struck one chord of music,
Like the sound of a great Amen
… It quieted pain and sorrow,
Like love overcoming strife;
It seemed the harmonious echo
From our discordant life.
It linked all perplexed meanings
Into one perfect peace,
And trembled away into silence . . .
He goes on to say that he has never been able to find that chord again, so “It may be only in Heav’n/I shall hear that grand Amen.”*
Enough said; now let us consider food.
In Herman Hesse’s novel Siddhartha, he tells of the young Siddhartha living as an ascetic monk and fasting for a period of weeks until his friend Govinda becomes so concerned that he begs Siddhartha to eat. In answer Siddhartha remarks that he can eat or not eat as he wishes because the result of his fasting is that hunger is no longer a force that can influence his behavior. He has become more free of the physical world.
Later when Siddhartha decides to leave the monastic life and engage once again in the material society, he applies for a position with a merchant who asks what skills he has. Siddhartha replies, “I can think. I can wait. I can fast.” The value of fasting he explains is: “When a person has nothing to eat, fasting is the smartest thing he can do. When, for example, Siddhartha hadn’t learned to fast, he would have to accept any kind of service before this day is up, whether it may be with you, or wherever, because hunger would force him to do so. But like this, Siddhartha can wait calmly, he knows no impatience, he knows no emergency, for a long time he can allow hunger to besiege him, and he can laugh about it.”
In the Gospel of John, the story is told of how Jesus had fed 5000 people with only a few loaves and fishes. Then, as the sated crowd slept, Jesus and his closest disciples withdrew to the other side of the Sea of Galilee (Jesus walking part of the way across those waters). When the masses realized he was gone, they gathered boats and followed him. When they caught up, Jesus told them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” (John 6:26) In other words, their physical needs had been satisfied. The satisfaction of worldly desires was a primary reason crowds followed Jesus seeking healing. Most people did not understand that there is more to life. Jesus tried to explain it them, saying “Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.” (John 6:27)
The Tao described by Lao Tzu is the space between the notes, the nourishment having no taste, but which endures for eternity. It is the void from which all that satisfies the physical senses is created – and to which those things ultimately return since they cannot endure. We should learn not fill our life with things but to leave spaces in which we might have a taste of the formless silence that endures.
It was noted above that physical pleasures can bring happiness, but even that happiness is fleeting and is but a shadow of the state of bliss that is the Tao. Bliss is not the result of a particular experience, but is joy arising from the essence of existence. It follows the one who knows it as Lao Tzu says that all things naturally follow one who follows the path of the Tao. It is a love, an acceptance, a calm serenity that can radiate from all things and attract and enhance all others. This bliss is another quality of the unified field noted by the Maharishi’s physicists.
*The Moody Blues, a British band, produced an album entitled In Search of the Lost Chord in which they recognize the human need to name things. They name the chord, “AUM.”