Chapter 62 – Refuge

Tao is the storehouse of all things.
It is the good man’s treasure and the bad man’s refuge.
Fine words can buy honour,
And fine deeds can gain respect from others.
Even if a man is bad, when has (Tao) rejected him?
Therefore on the occasion of crowning an emperor or installing the three ministers,
Rather than present four large pieces of jade preceded by teams of four horses,
It is better to kneel and offer this Tao.
Why did the ancients highly value this Tao?
Did they not say, “Those who seek shall have it and those who sin shall be freed”?
For this reason it is valued by the world.

Translated by Wing-Tsit Chan (1963)

In the discussion of Chapter 60, it was pointed out that there may be a lot fewer metaphors in writing than many of us would think. Well, most of this commentary is going to be a metaphor – or example, perhaps? – together with a travelogue.

Place of Refuge

Place of Refuge

The society of ancient Hawai’i was governed by a strict system known as kapu, a word that is similar to tabu or tapu in other Poynesian languages and a source for the modern term “taboo.” Essentially, a thing which was kapu was forbidden, though the term had connotations beyond simple proscription.

Many of the acts which were kapu would be familiar to modern society. For instance, murder was kapu. Others, though, were not so obvious. For example, there were areas where fishing was forbidden, at least at certain times of the year; or certain foods could not be eaten by women. It was also kapu to look at a chief or king, or to be in his presence with one’s head higher than the chief’s or to walk on ground where the chief had walked.

No matter what the offense, the punishment was generally the same – capital punishment. There was no trial and no judge. If one was caught in an act that was kapu, he or she was immediately executed. While that seems harsh – and it was – there was at least one way to avoid that very permanent result.

Throughout the Hawai’ian Islands there were special heiaus (temples) known as Pu’uhonua, which is generally translated as “Place of Refuge.” If a kapu-breaker could elude those pursuing him to exact punishment and reach a Place of Refuge, he or she was granted a form of amnesty. There the miscreant would find specially trained kahunas who would spend perhaps three days performing rituals of cleansing and kala, after which the person was absolved and free to return home as an upstanding member of society.

Most of the Pu’uhonuas, and most heiaus, have been reduced to piles of stone these days, but on the South Kona shore of the Big Island is one called Pu’uhonua o Honaunau that has been restored and is operated by the National Park Service as a National Historical Park. The Place of Refuge itself is set off from the rest of the park by a stone wall; and that seems realistic. A place with enough mana (energy) to restore a person deserving of death to the status of a law-abiding citizen was a place that was cherished and valued by all. A village was built nearby, and next to the Place of Refuge was one of the homes of the island’s king.

As a tourist, you can visit the park now, and see all of those things. Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) visited (after the kapu system had been abolished) and sat chatting with King Kamehaha V on a wall that stands in the park. Honaunau Bay and the nearby marine life sanctuary at Kealakakua Bay offer the best snorkeling I have ever experienced.

The concept of places of refuge was not unique to the Hawai’ians. The Old Testament tells us of certain towns in Israel and Judah where one who had killed another could seek asylum to avoid blood vengeance. In ancient Athens, runaway slaves were entitled to asylum at the Temple of Theseus.

Before going any further, we should return to Wing-Tsit Chan’s translation. He tells us that Tao is the storehouse of all things. Thus, it is in Tao that we can experience the power or holiness or mana that is generally found at places of refuge. It is Tao that is said to be the “good” man’s treasure and the “bad” man’s refuge.

However, “good” and “bad” are not normally terms that are thought of as existing within Tao. It might be better to say that the more a person acts in accord with Tao or Nature, the more he appreciates what Tao offers. However, Tao exists exactly the same for all; and remains a refuge and available even to those who may not presently recognize or act in accord with it.

Therefore, the Hawai’ian kings, who were seen as deities – and, by definition, the embodiment of Tao – could enjoy the good life in the beauty surrounding those whose very life depended on the ability or good luck to reach the refuge of (let us say) Tao. Indeed, there are many stories of kapu-breakers who were killed by the king’s soldiers just as they reached the wall of the Pu’uhonua.

Similar concepts remain even today and even for those of us who are not Taoist. The Catholic sacrament of confession is an example. A “sinner” goes into the holy grounds of a church to seek forgiveness and cleansing. That person finds in the confessional a place of refuge in the arms of God – in Tao.

To live in and with Tao is what Lao Tzu tells us is appropriate for an emperor. He was not alone in that belief. Look at Solomon, for example:

Solomon, son of David, established himself firmly over his kingdom, for the Lord his God was with him and made him exceedingly great. . . . That night God appeared to Solomon and said to him, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.” Solomon answered God, “You have shown great kindness to David my father and made me king in his place. Now, God, let your promise to my father David be confirmed, for you have made me king over a people who are as numerous as the dust of the earth. Give me wisdom and knowledge that I may lead this people, for who is able to govern this great people of Yours?” (2 Chronicles 1, 7-10).

That is essentially what Lao Tzu would advise the emperor, and what he thought we should advise our leaders. And the true leader would respond by saying, “Mahalo.”

Aloha, y’all.

5 thoughts on “CHAPTER 62 – REFUGE

  1. Mahalo indeed. Serendipity is such a delicate grace. My uncle’s family – as you recall he passed away a bit less than a year ago – are in Hawaii right now and asked me to write something to be read at the commemoration of his life they will have next week. The sentiments I expressed are reflections of what you observe here. In a land where the ancient gods and spirits of humanity and our ancestors are alive, we all meet together as one, in the One, to remember one of us who is now arrived at the Pu’uhonua of the Tao.

    I’ll share what I wrote here.
    We are gathering in Hawaii, some of us in person and the rest of us in mind and spirit, to commemorate the life of Richard L. Griffith. We are here together, with our memories of him, on a small island in the middle of a great ocean beneath an endless sky.

    In this place the eternal rhythms of life are present in the elements of surf and wind and sun and moon and stars, and in this land the ancient gods and spirits of our ancestors are alive and all around us. The One which unites us all is here. We are here as single souls who share that Oneness in the whole and holy experience of life; and we are joined with all the spirits and gods here, and in particular, today, with the spirit of Richard Griffith, “Darf”, who was – and is – our father, husband, friend, uncle, mentor, compatriot, co-worker, benefactor, and loved one.

    Grief has had its moment with most of us now, and we are reconciled to his passing. We have each found, in our way, the separate peace within which allows us to accept that he was here and has now gone on, leaving us to remember and cherish his part in each of our lives.

    There are times in life when, having lost a loved one, we yearn for there to be someone who would gather up a full picture of that person’s life and then speak the full truth of the mind and heart there, and bring understanding and healing and acceptance and recognition of the unique and intrinsic goodness of the person’s life to everyone who knew them.

    We each can speak for the dead here, but only if we remember one thing first. The dead speak for themselves. They speak through us, they speak in us, and, if we listen closely, they speak to us.

    Today, here, in this place, Darf speaks to each of us – and today of all days it would be a good thing to take the time to listen to what he says to us, and then, after he has spoken, to share it with one another if and when we can.

    In Darf’s final moments a light shone out of him which was a beacon shining out to all of us from the very heart of God. Gwen, his daughter, was there with him and that light refracted through her and out to us all. It was about each of them, but it was so much more than that. It was an ineffable infusion of grace into a moment which delivered an answer for us all, here and now. This is what Gwen wrote:

    I sang ‘Hawaii Aloha’ to him – and felt more sense of a response, his mouth moving, swallowing. I took him on a guided meditation about being back in Hawaii, feeling the warmth of the sun and the coolness of the breeze on his face, the intense blues of the skies and the seas, and the shades of green…but also the sense of coming home, going back to where you belong, meeting with aloha and love, finding a deep peace (obvious metaphor…)… da kine. I also spoke of all of you, the love we all had for him, and all the things you would want to say to him.. what a good father and grandfather he’d been, how much he’s done for so many people and the love and gratitude they had for him, and that they were all with him now. All through this I could hear his breathing relax more and more. In some indefinable way I felt his being ease, like something was relaxing, letting go, and finding a deep peace and calm.

    If we listen for Darf’s voice here, we will hear him. We will hear what he has to say to each of us as individuals, and we will hear him say what, in different ways, those who have lived before us would say to us all:

    “What was good is good still; where there was joy there is joy still; where there was love there is love still, and my love will always be here. What was wrong is wrong still, and what was right will always be right. What was lived is lived, and will be alive forever and ever.”

    “Aloha oukou. Malama pono.

    “My love to you all. Keep doing what you do so well, and which you are clearly meant to do, and be well.”

      • I thought I had shared my reflections on the above prayer here before, but I can’t find them using the search tool so here they are:

        “Amama ua noa. Lele wale akua la.” The literal translation is this:

        “The prayer takes flight. Let the rain of blessings fall.”

        It can be interpreted as “So be it. It is finished. Let the spirit join the One.”

        When nuances of the Hawaiian language are applied, it expresses the following:

        “Release to the gods the essence and the thought,
        release thy final prayer.
        The prayer is the essence and the thought of thee
        sent home to abide in the mystery
        of the One.
        It is finished.
        Thou art with the One.
        Your soul has leapt, and our tears grace your passing. Now you are in the rain, and we are there with you.”

          • LOL. I do have a difficult time keeping track of myself. Although the older I get I do feel like I know where I am and what I’m talking about because I’ve heard it somewhere before…

            I think that might be because I’m turning into a garrulous old geezer. Can’t wait until the cane shows up so instead of talking I can just give directions to others seeking guidance simply by pointing with it, no words required.

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