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.
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.”