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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM

Striking a Balance

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, March 22, 2009


Many, many years ago—I believe it would be about 2,600 years ago now, as you reckon time--a great thing happened in my life. I came face-to-face with one of the great teachers of all time, and he told me his story. Let me tell you what happened…


But first, let me tell you my name; I don’t believe I have introduced myself yet. How very rude of me! I am Yin Hsi, and a long, long time ago, I was the keeper of the pass at Han-ku in what you would call southwestern China , near where China meets another land called Tibet .


It was a pretty good job, which my uncle had gotten for me after the death of my father. If people wanted to go through the pass on the way to the lands of the west or the south, they had to stop at my little station and give me their names, which I would record. Then, they had to pay a fee, of which I kept a small percentage; the rest, we turned over to the Emperor, or the war lord, or the provincial governor, or whoever happened to be in charge at the time.


You see, those were very difficult years in my land. You call them the “Period of the Warring States” now; we just called them a damned mess! Fighting, fighting, competition for power between this faction and that, so much uncertainty and dislocation, the people’s needs not being cared for. They were just terrible years, and the bad times went on and on, for well over a century. I was just as happy out there at my little outpost at Han-ku. It was pretty lonely sometimes, but at least I was away from all the violence and mayhem in the cities of the east. It was a pretty good life, as long as the marauding armies stayed away-- which they did usually did (I mean—who wants to go around marauding in the mountains, after all?)


I saw him approaching from the distance, riding on a water buffalo. He looked like a small, old man, one who had seen many winters. From the way he rode, so slowly, I could tell he had given up hurrying a long time ago. When he finally arrived at my post, I could tell that the old man was obviously very learned, but he also had a warm and pleasant demeanor.


I asked his name, and he told me: Li Erh—which means “Large Plum Tree” in your language. Such an interesting name for a venerable old man, I thought. “From where do you come?” I asked. “Loyang,” he told me—the Imperial capital. Then, he volunteered that he had been, years ago, a keeper of the Imperial Archives. “So you are a man of learning,” I said. He sort of shrugged. Then, I asked, “Grandfather, how old are you?” He just smiled and replied, “This is my 160th winter. I won’t see many more—and I would like to spend the final ones away from all that nonsense I’ve lived among for too long. It is time for me to rest—far away from cities, and the messes that people have made there.”


Then I knew in a flash that this was the legendary Lao Tsu himself!

Then he sat, and I poured tea, and he told me his story:


He had been born, as he said, well over a hundred years before, a most amazing birth: His mother had conceived, he said, while admiring a shooting star—more than sixty years before his birth. He was over sixty when he emerged from her womb; his hair was already white; his soul was already old; he could already speak in complete sentences. His mother had given birth while leaning against a plum tree—and so, the child named himself “Li Erh”-- “big plum tree”. But everyone in China knew him as Lao Tsu.


For a number of years, he had pursued a normal career. He had risen in the government service, had become a leading librarian in the capital. But then, he said, he had felt called to give it all up and become a teacher. The scene at court depressed him: the careerists vying for influence; the rigid social structure which allowed no space for creativity; the warring factions striving so hard to outdo one another.


So, he gathered a handful of disciples, and went around from place to place, sharing his lessons with all who would listen. And nothing happened; the handful of followers remained a handful. Society didn’t change; the harsh structures and strictures didn’t loosen up. Lao Tsu’s reputation grew, certainly; but usually, when people mentioned him, they just shook their heads and called him “a “dreamer”. Society needed rules and regulations, everyone said. More rules, more regulations, more control to deal with the uncertain times. It didn’t need idealistic nonsense.


Now, Lao Tsu told me, he was leaving it all behind. He was going away, he said, to get some rest; with that, he rose to leave…


Then a voice from inside of me (I don’t know from where) cried out: “Great teacher, you cannot go yet! You must give me the book of your teachings!” (“Why was I saying this?” I thought to myself. I had no interest in books, in philosophy, in writings.) I found myself hurrying into my office, and coming back with several bamboo tablets and a quill and ink, and I put them in front of the old man, and I implored him: “Please, Old Master, give us the book of your way and power!” In the language I spoke, that would have been said “Tao Te Ching”—“The Book of the Way and the Power”—and that is what you call Lao Tsu’s work even today. He wrote the book—but I came up with the title!


He just looked at me and sighed, and took up the quill, and began to write. And write. And write…


He wrote for almost three days, stopping hardly at all, until finally, his work was done: 5000 carefully drawn characters, which he grouped into 81 separate chapters or poems.


Then, he rose from his seat and dusted off his cloak. He thanked me for my hospitality; implored me to take good care of his book; then he paid his fee, and with no delay, but in no hurry either, he climbed back onto his water buffalo and made his way through the pass, with just a little wave as he went.


What did I do then? I read the book of course! It wasn’t really very long, and I finished it in no time. But still, it was rather tough going. Here’s how the book begins (in your language, of course):


The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The way that can be told is not the eternal Way.

The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.
The unnameable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin of all particular things.
Free from desire you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestation.
Yet mystery and manifestations
Arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.


Pretty tough stuff, huh? At first, I thought the old man had lost it; that it was all just jibberish: “What can be told isn’t the Tao. What can be named isn’t the Name.” But then, I got to thinking about it, and you know, there are things that we can’t name, that language cannot describe. The deepest things in life, we only hint at with words. Words don’t penetrate to the inner essence. That remains a mystery. We sense the outer manifestations of reality (sight and sound and taste and fragrance)—but the deeper mystery—the “Darkness within Darkness”-- remains. And that Darkness is the gateway to our deeper understanding.


Then, he wrote:


Look, and it can’t be seen.
Listen, and it can’t be heard.
Reach, and it can’t be grasped.


The harder we try to control the mystery—to describe it—to discover it—to see it and hear it and hold it in our arms—the more illusive it is. The harder we try, the more frustrated me become, until we are focused solely on our frustration, rather than on the mystery any more. So then, we need to just let go:

Approach it and there is no beginning;
follow it, and there is no end.
You can’t know it, but you can be it,
at ease in your own life.
Just realize where you come from:
This is the essence of wisdom.


Be open, Let go. Don’t be too rigid. Learn to bend. That is the essence of wisdom. That is the essence of the Way, of the Tao. One has to be open to the Tao to experience it, not tight and closed off. The Confucians who ruled China in Lao Tsu’s time (and for many years afterward) thought that only by regulating everything precisely—by having rules and regulations for every little aspect of life—could you bring things under control. Lao Tsu thought that was all nonsense!


The worst sin of the Confucians (and authoritarians like them—you have your share in your world, I’m sure) is that they want put the whole society in a corset and tighten it up as much as they can. They might be able to safeguard social conformity that way—sometimes. But they always kill the spirit and creativity.


Lao Tsu suggested a much less complicated and balanced way to approach life. There was no need for rigid governments and lots of rules and regulations, he said. They just get in the way most of the time. Keep it basic, he said:


In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep it simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don’t try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.
When you are content to be simply yourself
and don’t compare or compete,
everybody will respect you.


One had to be open to the energies of creativity, the Great Teacher wrote. To know the Tao, one had to let the tao flow within oneself—like water flowing in a stream:


Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible, nothing can surpass it.
The soft overcomes the hard; the gentle overcomes the rigid.
Everyone knows this is true, but few can put it into practice.


Lao Tsu said that we need to exhibit an attitude of wu wei in our lives: wu wei—“not doing”. Not striving, seeking, controlling, fighting, planning, executing, busy, busy, do, do, doing all the time. “Stop doing and just be!” Lao Tsu taught. Be—and that will be enough. In every man, woman, and child—in every creature—there is embedded the essence of the eternal Tao. Every creature, at birth, is a pu i’—an “uncarved block”—perfect as he or she is. It is only the later additions of society which corrupt us and spoil us and cause us to hate and fight and rage. If we let our natural man or woman arise, the Tao Te Ching teaches, then that will be more than enough:


Accept the world as it is.
If you accept the world,
the Tao will be luminous inside you
and you will return to your primal self.
Too much activity corrupts us. Too much fiddling with life cuts us off from life. “Governing a country is like frying a small fish,” Lao Tsu wrote, “you spoil it with too much poking.”


The more prohibitions you have, the less virtuous people will be.
The more weapons you have, the less secure people will be.
The more subsidies you have, the less self-reliant people will be.
Therefore the Master says:
I let go of law and the people become honest.
I let go of economics and the people become prosperous.
I let go of religion and the people become more serene.
I let go of all desire for the common good
And the good becomes as common as the grass.


Too often, in striving to fight evil head on, we become like the evil we oppose. It is better to move with the flow of life, to accept the evil and good that are always part of life, and to live according to one’s natural goodness. By living this way, by living according to the Tao, we transform our lives and gradually transform the face of society and the world:


The one who is centered in the Tao
can go where she wishes without danger.
She perceives the universal harmony,
even amid great pain,
because she has found peace in her heart…
Use your own light
and return to the source of light.


Oh, my new friends, I have spoken too long! I fear I have worn out my welcome! But if you remember anything that Lao Tsu taught remember this:


There is a being, wonderful, perfect,
That existed before heaven and earth.
How quiet it is!
How spiritual it is!


That Being—that Way—is within each of you. Live with it. Be at peace with it. Remember:


All life comes from it. 
It wraps everything in its love as in a garment, and
Yet it claims no honor, it does not demand to be Lord.
I know its name, and so I called it, Tao,
and I rejoice in its power.


Perhaps you have other names for that life spirit within yourselves. But it is the same spirit, beating in your heart, moving in your hands, coursing through your blood, creating all life. Call it what you will. But listen to it, live it, become one with it. Rejoice in its power! For that is where you, perhaps, can find balance and peace and hope in this period of warring states in which you are now living.


Use your own light
and return to the source of all light.


            He who finds peace in his own heart will radiate that peace to all the world.


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