“The ancient masters of the Tao Had subtle marvelous mystic

“The ancient masters of the Tao
Had subtle marvelous mystic penetration
A depth that cannot be known.
It is exactly because they are unknowable
That we are forced to pay attention to their appearance.
Hesitant, like one crossing an ice-covered river.
Ready, like one afraid of his neighbors on all sides.
Dignified, like a guest.
Loose, like ice about to melt.
Straightforward, like an uncarved block of wood.
Open, like a valley.
Obscure, like muddy water.
Who can be muddled, and use clarity to gradually
become lucid ?
Who can be calm, and use constant application for
eventual success?
The one who holds to this path does not crave
Precisely because he does not crave fulfillment
He can be shattered
And do without quick restitution”
~ Tao Te Ching
Verse 15
Translation by Charles Muller
Faiza Aizaz
Silk Roads
Fall Quarter 2014
Daoist Masters and Their Qualities
In the West as well as in Chinese folklore there has long existed this concept of wise and
mysterious Daoist masters. Throughout China’s history there have been various depictions of
Daoist masters found across the cultural spectrum from myths and legends, to literature, art,
theater, opera and even in modern Chinese kung fu cinema. However, as often occurs in
storytelling, these depictions are usually highly caricatured and somewhat superficial. Thus, in
order to understand the true qualities of the illusive Daoist master, one must turn to the Dao De
Jing, the first known text on the Dao, written by Laozi, Daoism’s founder. Very little is actually
known about Laozi. Although his existence is shrouded in mystery, there is one famous legend
that explains the origin of the Dao De Jing. The story tells of the old master (Laozi) coming to a
gate along a mountain pass. Days earlier, the gatekeeper had seen an auspicious purple cloud in
the sky foretelling the arrival of a very wise man. Recognizing Laozi as the emanation of this
wise man, the gatekeeper stopped him, and would not allow him to pass unless he wrote down all
of his wisdom. Laozi agreed, and it is said that the result was the Dao De Jing. Besides Laozi,
perhaps the most famous Daoist master in Chinese history is Zhuangzi. His classic writings on
Daoism are renowned in China as some of the greatest literature on the subject, and his timeless
words of wisdom are prevalent throughout China to this day. These two monumental figures in
Daoism are widely acknowledged as ancient masters of the Dao. However, the Dao also states
that there were “masters of antiquity” so there must have been Daoist masters to precede these
two as well. However, unless it is commonly known, identifying a Daoist master may prove to
be quite difficult. Plus, someone who has fully embodied the Dao is truly a rare phenomenon
(especially in these times). Nevertheless, being the only religion native to China, Daoism is
currently practiced significantly throughout the country, and is actually one of China’s most
popular religions or pools of wisdom along with Buddhism and Confucianism. Basically, while
many may have been exposed to the teachings of the Dao, there are very few true masters.
Various verses of the Dao De Jing mention the qualities of these masters; however, in verse
fifteen, it is the central focus. Some of the qualities revealed in this verse of Charles Muller’s
translation of the Tao Te Ching include: hesitance, readiness, dignity, looseness,
straightforwardness, openness, and obscurity among others. It also mentions that the majority of
these qualities are “unknowable”, or not immediately apparent, but together these seven qualities
point to the “subtle marvelous mystic penetration” and/or deep realization of a Daoist master.
Nonetheless, they can easily be overlooked or unnoticed especially by the unassuming eye which
is why “we are forced to pay attention to their appearance” and look closely for the following
Hesitance (豫兮 yù xī) is the first one of these qualities discussed in the verse. It
describes the ancient masters as: “Hesitant, like one crossing an ice-covered river”. Hesitation in
this context implies that the Daoist master is neither too fearful nor too confident in crossing the
river, as excessive fear would lead to him/her not crossing the river, and over-confidence could
result in him/her stepping on unstable ice and falling into the river. Instead, the Master crosses
the river hesitantly, or carefully, calculating each step precisely so as to cross, unscathed. The
Stephen Mitchell version says of this verse says “They were careful/as someone crossing an
iced-over stream”. Mitchell uses the word careful to elicit the nature of the master crossing the
stream which is perhaps more direct than ‘hesitant’ as ‘hesitant’ may be misinterpreted as
fearful. In Gregory C. Richter’s translation the word ‘cautious’ is chosen to express this same
meaning. Daoist masters exhibit carefulness or hesitance in their actions because they are aware
of the fundamental law of cause and effect and that for every action there is a reaction otherwise
known as the law of karma. Therefore they act very carefully to ensure their actions have no
unintended results.
The next quality is readiness (犹兮 yóu xī). The text reads “ [the ancient masters
of the Tao were] Ready, like one afraid of his neighbors on all sides”. A synonym for the word
ready in this case is alertness. The character 畏 (wèi) that is translated as “afraid” in this line is a
pictographic character meaning fear; its representation is meant to be a person with a scary face
(Yellow Bridge). The kind of primordial fear the character 畏 alludes to arises when one is
faced with danger. In order to assess a dangerous situation and act accordingly at the proper
moment, a Daoist master demonstrates extreme alertness and attention to the circumstances of
the present moment. In fact, Mitchell’s version of the Dao delivers a different form of diction
using the word ‘alert’ instead of ‘ready’: “[the ancient masters were] Alert as a warrior in enemy
territory”. One who is surrounded by danger must be deeply alert in the moment of fear so as to
act swiftly and efficiently. Similar to the Zen Buddhist idea of absolute single-pointed
concentration or attention, this idea of readiness deals with absolute awareness, attention, and
The third quality is dignity (俨兮 yǎn xī). “[the ancient masters were] Dignified, like a
guest.” This verse brings to mind the question: how is a guest dignified? In ancient China guests
were received with a great deal of honor and respect. Even today, guests are received with an
abundance of respect, generosity, kindness and also many gifts. Therefore, the role of the guest is
actually very dignified. Contrarily, in other verses of the Dao De Jing, the Sage is often painted
as childlike, humble, or as in this verse, loose, yet he/she also somehow sustains a sense of
dignity. Childishness or playfulness and dignity seem like incompatible traits when one thinks of
dignity in a traditional sense of the word. However, the dignity of Daoist masters is not derived
from a social status or role, but rather it originates from within. It is the dignity aligned with the
immortal greatness of the Dao.
The fourth quality is looseness (涣兮 huàn xī): “like ice about to melt”. The Dao is
constantly being equated to water, and it makes sense that a person who embodies the Dao is also
similar to water. The vivid imagery of melting ice delivers so much information in such a
succinct way, and beautifully captures the qualities of looseness, evanescence or fluidity. Daoist
masters are loose because they are unattached, allowing them to be loose, adaptable, and worryfree. The melting drop of water is no longer stuck to the frozen block of ice that it once was and
can now flow freely as water does in its liquid form. Someone who understands the Dao
understands that all forms are impermanent, while the formless essence of the Dao is constant
and all pervasive. Thus the Daoist master is unattached to the outer realm of form and is rooted
within (where the Dao lies). This insight allows looseness to arise naturally.
The fifth quality is straightforwardness (敦兮 dūn xī): “[the ancient masters were]
Straightforward, like an uncarved block of wood.” Like water, the uncarved block of wood is
mentioned numerous times throughout the Dao De Jing. Depending on who is looking at it, an
uncarved block of wood can contain various implications. For the carpenter, the uncarved
wooden block represents infinite potential. But in the eyes of a layperson, an uncarved block is
unmistakably just that: an uncarved block of wood. The Dao is utterly straightforward, sincere,
or directly itself as an uncarved block of wood is to the average person, nothing more than what
it is. Meanwhile it is also very multifaceted, holding infinite potential for creativity as the
uncarved block appears to a sculptor or carpenter. Like the Dao, or an uncarved block, a master
is also an unadulterated pure mind essence with infinite creative potential.
The sixth quality is openness (旷兮 kuàng xī): “[the ancient masters were] Open, like a
valley”. Yet another recurring image is conveyed here, that of the valley or valley spirit which
comes up frequently in the Dao De Jing. The valley (spirit) represents openness and all
encompassing embracement that is tied to the feminine energies of acceptance, allowance,
openness, surrender and receptivity. Daoist masters accept anything that Life offers them, be it
good or bad (and they are not one to distinguish the difference, but that is another essay). They
surrender to the flow of Life rather than try to direct it. Therefore the Daoist master like a valley
is spacious, open, humble, and accepting of everything as a manifestation of the multiplicity of
the Dao.
The seventh quality is obscurity (混兮 hùn xī): “[the ancient masters were] Obscure, like
muddy water”. Daoist masters appear to be very obscure because they dwell within the depths of
the Dao, which are unknown and mysterious or obscure to those unfamiliar with the essence of
the Dao. They prefer to remain in obscurity to fame, staying out of the spotlight; they are
reserved, and not overly forthcoming.
Finally, the verse ends with two questions followed by two statements. The first question
is: “Who can be muddled, and use clarity to gradually become lucid?” The meaning of this
question is pretty straightforward. Someone who is “muddled”, or has a cluttered mind, uses
“clarity”, or attentiveness, to become “lucid”, or awakened. This refers to a Daoist master
transcending the muddled or unconscious monkey mind and returning to undisturbed clarity of
perception, which arises along with the realization of the Dao. In other words, someone who is in
tune with the Dao does not get carried away by mental projections and instead stays centered in
the root of the pristine eternal wisdom of the Dao. The following question is not as direct, but
holds a similar meaning: “Who can be calm, and use constant application for eventual success?”
The second half of the sentence may cause some confusion initially, specifically because of the
phrase “constant application”. However, in reality it is quite simple, it is merely referring to
application of the Dao for “eventual success”. A synonym for success in this sentence can be
realization. Another quality of Daoist masters is brought up in this line: calmness. Another word
for calmness is stillness. Stillness is an inherent and fundamental quality of one who embraces
the Dao. This phrase does not refer to stillness on a physical plane but rather the internal state of
a master. The two statements that follow the questions deal with desire: “The one who holds to
this path does not crave fulfillment. Precisely because he does not crave fulfillment / He can be
shattered / And do without quick restitution” These statements are extremely clear and therefore
need little (no) explanation. The Daoist master is desire-less. Through non-judgment (a theme
found regularly in other verses of the Dao De Jing) he/she does not distinguish between that
which is good or bad. Everything just is. This lack of desire also stems from that deep sense of
openness or acceptance discussed earlier, known as the valley spirit. Daoist masters identify with
the essence of the Dao and do not identify with any forms. When the verse says “he can be
shattered and do without quick restitution” it implies that the Daoist master does not feel any
sense of loss upon being ‘shattered’ and therefore needs no restitution because the Dao is
limitless, highly empowering, and absolute.
In conclusion, though Daoist masters are unknowable or illusive, the Dao De Jing
provides distinct guidelines for recognizing the clear signs of a truly realized master. We also
know that there have been Daoist masters since antiquity, even before the transcription of the
Dao De Jing. Therefore, Daoist masters must have appeared in many forms, and probably still
do, ranging from a wise old hermit living in a mountain cave, or as Benjamin Hoff contends in
his novel The Tao of Pooh, Winnie the Pooh which is why, historically, their depiction has been
problematic. Appearance, however, plays little to no role in determining one’s level of
consciousness. In accordance, the Qualities referenced in the Dao De Jing are not external traits.
When the verse says, “pay attention to their appearance,” it is talking about their mannerisms,
actions, and poise, not their physical appearance. The qualities of hesitance, readiness, dignity,
looseness, straightforwardness, openness, and obscurity all contain a deep wisdom associated
with the embodiment of the Dao. However, a master does not seek or desire to achieve these
qualities. Seeking to cultivate these qualities goes against the flow of the stream (to use another
water analogy); it involves effort, and wrong intention. Rather, one should practice remembering
his/her eternal essence and connection with the Dao in the present and these qualities will arise
naturally and effortlessly.