The Record of Water Mirror Turning Back Heaven
By Tripitaka Master Hsuan Hua
From the 1986 issues of Vajra Bodhi Sea
Translated by Shi Yi
The Venerable Elder Laozi
Laozi’s surname was Li. His first name was Er, and he was also known as Ran. He was born in the Ku County of the state of Chu during the Spring and Autumn Era. He served as an imperial librarian in the Zhou Dynasty and advocated unconditioned, effortless action. He scorned conditioned actions.
Hence, he said, “When people abandon the Great Way, they choose to honor the teachings of kindness and righteousness. When intelligence prevails, hypocrisy appears. When there is disharmony in the family, filial piety and kindness appear. When chaos is rampant in a nation, loyal ministers emerge.”
In government, he favored small states where “the people of neighboring states can see each other and hear each other’s dogs and chickens; however, they never visit one another until they are old or about to die.” Regarding education, he advocated purifying the mind and diminishing wanton desires in order to return to the nature.
He later rode a blue ox westwards, passing through the Hangu Pass [one of the many outposts along the Great Wall]. At the request of the Xi, the officer at the pass, he wrote a five-thousand-word essay, the Classic on the Way and Virtue (Daodejing). The first part of the essay discusses the Way (Dao): “If the Way could be described in words, it would not be the eternal Way.”
The second part of the essay talks about virtue: “One of superior virtue does not brag about his own virtue; thus he is truly virtuous.” This essay later became known as the Classic on the Way and Virtue (Daodejing). No one knows where Laozi went after he left the pass. Later generations revered him as the founder of Daoism.
In China, there was initially Daoism, then Confucianism, and finally Buddhism. Even though Buddhism was not transmitted to China from India until the very last, Daoism and Confucianism paved the way and served as the foundation for Buddhism. The founder of Daoism, Laozi, was actually the reincarnation of Mahakashypa, whereas Confucius was the transformation body of the Pure Youth Water-Moon. Because they had observed that the Chinese people would soon be ready to accept the Mahayana teachings, they made vows to be born in China to propagate Daoism and Confucianism in order to facilitate Buddhism’s transmission to the east. These three religions can be described by the following analogy: Confucianism is like elementary school, Daoism like middle school, and Buddhism like the university.
Laozi’s last name was Li. His first name was Er, and he was also known as Boyang and his posthumous title was Ran. He was born in the Ku County of the state of Chu during the Spring and Autumn Era. He worked as an imperial librarian (keeper of the archives) during the Eastern Zhou Dynasty and was a great philosopher who advocated unconditioned, effortless action and scorned conditioned actions.
Unconditioned action does not mean one is like a wooden puppet or clay doll, which does nothing. It means: “one does nothing, yet everything is done.” One uses an unconditioned mind to do everything one ought to do. Upon accomplishment, one does not take credit for the work or become attached to what one has done. Absorbing conditioned actions into the unconditioned, he seems to do nothing yet has done everything. If one is attached to conditioned actions, such efforts can only be considered small actions, not great ones. Unconditioned action is the substance and source of conditioned action. It is most mysterious and wonderful.
Once, Confucius visited Laozi to discuss kindness and righteousness. Laozi said, “Seagulls are not white because they bathe everyday. Crows are not black because they are dyed that way everyday, either. They are white or black by nature, so you cannot say that white is better than black. Now you are using kindness and righteousness as a measure to discriminate good and evil.
From the perspective of a person who understands the great Way, you are making a mistake similar to that of trying to differentiate whether black and white are good or bad.” After Confucius got back, he was silent for three days. His disciples could not help but ask him, “Teacher, when you visited the Elder Er, what teaching did you impart to him?” Confucius said, “I saw a dragon! This dragon transformed in a myriad ways in accord with yin and yang. I was simply flabbergasted and speechless; how could I possibly teach him?”
Confucius believed that Laozi had obtained the Way of Nature, which has infinite transformations. To a person who has attained the Way, words are superfluous and unnecessary. If one is attached to defined and tangible principles, how could one hope to catch sight of even one claw or one scale of the dragon?
Therefore, Laozi advocated: “When people abandon the Great Dao, they choose to honor the teachings of kindness and righteousness. When intelligence prevails, hypocrisy appears. When there is disharmony in the family, filial piety and kindness appear. When chaos is rampant in a nation, loyal ministers emerge.”
In the ancient era, the Three Emperors governed the world in accordance with the Way, and all the people were united. The Way was incorporated into the moral practices of daily life. Everyone did their share of work. Therefore, kindness and righteousness already existed although they were never explicitly mentioned. However, the rulers of later dynasties did not govern according to the Way, nor did they cultivate the virtuous example of unconditioned action. This gradually resulted in the decline of the Great Way. It was not the case that the Way had abandoned people. On the contrary, it was the people who had renounced the Great Way. Consequently, kindness and righteousness had to be established to educate and transform people’s minds.
After they were established, kindness could not prevail and righteousness could not be practiced widely without wisdom to guide and assist the teaching of kindness and righteousness. As a result, intelligence became predominant, causing the citizens to become more clever and deceitful. Gradually, simple and austere lifestyles disappeared; people became hypocritical and phony. Eventually, the country marched down the road of its demise; the danger of the Warring States and the Five Powerful Nations arose. During this period, so–called clever and ingenious gentlemen came forth. However, most of them were sham benefactors or righteous knights who used deceitful means to seek fame and advantages for themselves. All of these are the side effects and disadvantages of intellect.
When families are in disharmony, it is difficult for one to be filial to one’s parents or to be loving and kind to one’s siblings. If one could truly practice these virtues, they would spread throughout the world. For example, the father of Emperor Shun was blind, deaf and stubborn. Shun’s stepmother and stepbrother planned to kill him in order to snatch his wealth and property. Regardless, Shun was still very filial to his stepmother and kind to his stepbrother. These three people, in a way, helped Shun accomplish great filial piety.
When an emperor is muddled and the country is in chaos and danger, ordinary ministers and citizens only seek to protect themselves. Therefore, it is difficult for officials to preserve their dignity and integrity, or to practice loyalty and righteousness. If at this time, one can sacrifice oneself to repay the nation’s kindness by advocating righteousness and stabilizing the nation and the society, loyalty will naturally be evident without anyone having to explicitly promote it.
Concerning government, Laozi promoted the idea of having small states of solitary citizens. He said, “The people of neighboring states should be able to see each other and hear each other’s dogs and chickens; however, they never visit one another until they are old or about to die.” The citizens of each state lead simple and austere lifestyles. They are content with their surroundings, share the quiet living spaces and enjoy their own customs. They are neither given to high ambitions nor are they curious about new or strange things. They dislike moving afar, thus, carriages and ships are not of any use. Even though the people of neighboring states can see and hear each other, they do not exchange visits. Since they do not intervene in each other’s lives, there is no war. As a result, there is no place to house military forces or weapons.
The idea that people of neighboring states do not exchange visits does not mean these citizens just live in their own little world and peer at the sky from the bottom of a well—i.e. be narrow minded. It is a more highly evolved state of being.
At this point, everyone puts forth their best effort, understands their own spiritual natures, and knows that everything comes from their own selves. Proper energy pervades heaven and earth. Their minds for the Way extend throughout the six directions (east, west, south, north, above and below). Their spirits can travel throughout space, arriving at any destination without physically having to travel there, reaching it promptly yet without having to hurry. They behold everything between heaven and earth as if it were in the palm of their hand.
At this point, there is no boundary between heaven and the human realm. Being on earth is no different from being in heaven. Nevertheless, this highly evolved state must occur as the result of a natural progression. If one attempts to carry it out at the wrong time, chaos will occur. If humankind advances step by step, it will take at least a few hundred years to get started, and at least a thousand years to perfect this evolution. Thus Laozi’s proposition is very lofty.
Regarding education, Laozi advocated purifying the mind and diminishing desires. Starting by eliminating selfishness, then gradually reducing cravings, one can realize the goal of returning to one’s original divine nature.
Later, when the Eastern Zhou Dynasty was on a decline, Laozi rode a blue ox westwards through the Hangu Pass. The chief magistrate of the pass, Xi, invited him to leave some words of wisdom in written form, and what he wrote became known as the five-thousand-word Classic on the Way and Virtue (Daodejing). The first part of the essay discussed the Way: “If the Way could be spoken or described, it would not be the true, eternal Way.” The second part discussed virtue: “One of superior virtue does not brag about his own virtue; thus he is truly virtuous.” People of lofty virtue would never regard themselves as being virtuous; and that is the reason they have true virtue. The first and second parts together make the Classic on the Way and Virtue.
After Laozi passed through the Hangu Pass, no one saw him again or knew where he ended up. He could be considered the beginning of the Way and virtue. His spirit continues on, transforming all who hear of him, without beginning or end. He was truly a great person! Later generations honored him as the founder of Daoism.
The character dao (the Way) encompasses all phenomena, and it is wonderful beyond words.
It is said,The myriad things are born from the dao.
One who attains it naturally penetrates its efficacy.
Awaken completely to the truth within this;
One’s bodhi (wisdom) wouldn’t become less or more.
In terms of its structure as a chinese character, dao ( 道 ) starts with two dots, representing heaven and earth; the sun and the moon; yin and yang; they could also be said to symbolize the Infinite (wuji) and the utmost (taiji). The Infinite means True Emptiness whereas the Utmost denotes Wonderful Existence. The Infinite gives rise to the Utmost. When the Utmost is active, it generates the yang. When the utmost is still, yin is generated. When these two dots are rotated one hundred-eighty degrees, they become the character for ‘human’ or ‘person’ ( 人 ). What this implies is that when cultivating the Way, we must reverse and go against the flow instead of with the flow. Going with the flow, we are in the realm of birth and death. Going against the flow, we reach nirvana.
Underneath the two dots of the chinese character dao ( 道 ), there is the character ‘one’ ( 一 ). The One did not start out being the first. It was actually a Zero, written as a circle ( ○ ) in Chinese, that represents the Infinite. Breaking this circle-shaped Zero, it becomes one ( 一 ). One is the beginning of all numbers and gives birth to heaven and earth as well as the myriad creatures, including immortals, Buddhas and sages. It is said, “if heaven gains the one, it is pure. If earth attains the one, it is at peace. People who attain the one become sages. When all the myriad beings attain the one, they each rectify their lives.”
Therefore, the one is the start of all the myriad beings; however, this principle is not the ultimate dharma. Though we say that “when the one is attained, everything is complete,” if one becomes attached to the One, then one falls into the secondary meaning and it is not yet the ultimate of True Emptiness. What is True Emptiness? It is the Zero (0), which is neither great nor small, not inside or outside, without beginning or end. It does not fall into any category of numbers, yet no number is apart from it.
The true principle of Wonderful Existence is beyond expression. Where does one find this incommunicable principle? The answer is ‘oneself’ ( 自 ), which is the character underneath the One ( 一 ) of Dao ( 道 ). The character ‘oneself’ ( 自 ) is composed of a left-falling stroke over an ‘eye’ ( 目 ). This means that the Dao cannot be sought outwardly but only looking inwards. One must introspect and reflect within. One cannot find the proper Way by seeking outside.
The Dao must be practiced. Hence, it has a ‘walking’ radical ( 走 ) to the right of the Chinese character Dao ( 道 ). This means that by practicing (walking toward) the Way, one then can gain a response and achieve success. If only understands principles but does not practice, it is of no use. Therefore, there’s a saying: “A foot of practice is better than a yard of talk.” I always say, “The Way must be practiced (walked), or else how can it be the Way? Virtue must be created. Otherwise, how can there be virtue?” The same principle applies here. Therefore, cultivating the Way means practicing it personally and diligently. To return to the origin is to go from the One back to Zero, hence returning to our original source.
In principle, the Way has no shape or form. Nevertheless, its functions are everlasting and endlessly transforming. This refers to the Zero, which contains this kind of function and energy; therefore, it can give rise to heaven, earth and the myriad beings, including immortals, Buddhas and sages. All of these are born from the nature of the Zero. To make it more explicit, Zero is the original Buddha nature. It is the bright treasury, perfect and illuminating. It is smaller than a mote of dust. At the same time, it is greater than the Dharma Realm. It has no limit, being infinitely small and yet infinitely great.
The Zero (0) is also the circle of the Infinite. Because the Infinite has no end, it is represented as a circle. When one perfects the cultivation of this circle of the Infinite, it becomes the Great Perfect Mirror Wisdom. If one fails, it becomes Ignorance. To cultivate, one ought to start from the One (existence) and returning to the state of Zero (emptiness). When one reaches the point of there being nothing whatsoever, limitless and boundless functions arise from this state of Zero. At that point, one has reached the ultimate liberation where “not a single dharma exists; the myriad thoughts are empty.”
A verse in praise says:
The Great Way has no form,
Yet it gives rise to heaven and earth.
The Great Way has no sentience,
Yet it moves the sun and moon.
The Great Way has no name,
Yet it grows and nourishes the myriad beings.
I do not know its name,
So I style it ‘the Way.’
The Great Way has no form, / Yet it gives rise to heaven and earth. The original substance of the Great Way is invisible, formless, traceless and beyond expression. Though the substance is nonexistent, it contains limitless energy. It generates existence from emptiness and transforms myriad things from one. All beings between the heaven and the earth are born from it.
The Great Way has no sentience, / Yet it moves the sun and moon. Even though the Great Way has no feelings/emotions, it contains an invisible substance and essence. All is replete with the Great Way so that the sun and the moon move and rotate.
The Great Way has no name, / Yet it grows and nourishes the myriad beings. The Great Way is the origin of all beings though its shape and identity cannot be described. Zero produces the changes of True Emptiness and Wonderful Existence and as a result, it becomes the nourishing mother of all creatures.
I do not know its name, / So I style it ‘the Way.’ I, Laozi, do not know what this is so I just give it a provisional name ‘the Way’.
Another verse says:
Through purity and unconditioned doing, guard the original truth.
The spirit of the valley never dies and is called the root of heaven and earth.
From the same source but bearing different names: observe the mysterious wonder.
Lessen desires and cut off love to conserve one’s energy and essence.
Highest good is like water, benefiting the myriad creatures.
The ultimate kindness resembles trees that shelter all beings.
Riding a blue ox to the west, he vanished without a trace.
Auspicious purple clouds hover from the east; his thoughts are everlasting.
Through purity and unconditioned doing, guard the original truth. Laozi proposed pureness and no doing; there is nothing being done and yet everything is done.” Although there are ten thousand things going on simultaneously, his mind is still pure and at ease. There is no coercing, no discriminating, and no artificial effort. Everything progresses with the nature. Great wisdom is nourished in great foolishness in order to keep the true and everlasting mind.
The spirit of the valley never dies and is called the root of heaven and earth. The immortal spirit is empty yet it includes everything. Because it is intangible and markless, it can last eternally and not cease. The Way is like the immortal spirit that contains everything and is in all subtleness. All creatures are born generation after generation because of it. That is why it is called the mysterious female. The gateway to the mysterious female is the root of heaven and earth.
From the same source but bearing different names: Observe the mysterious wonder. True Emptiness, Wonderful Existence, cravings and the lack thereof are recognized differently. However, they are from the same nature of truth and permanence that is mysterious and unfathomable. All things and phenomena are wonderful when one contemplates the wonder of the Way from the perspectives of true emptiness and wonderful existence. Being a person in the world, we first have to know the mystery and wonder of all matters. If in cultivation we are unaware of this, we could lose our lives; if in governing we do not know this, we could cause chaos and decline in the nation.
Lessen desires and cut off love to conserve one’s energy and essence. Laozi promoted purity and few desires. Cutting off desires and love, we reserve our inner light, spirit, essence and energy. When we draw in one thought, we keep one share of true yang energy. When we practice humbleness, we gather and gain one share of true yang energy.
Highest good is like water, benefiting the myriad creatures. Water can benefit all beings by staying at the lowest place, not contending with anyone or anything. Because it does not compete with people or things, it makes no mistakes. The highest sages are just like water. They do not have selfish minds. Instead, they only benefit others. They do not look after their own gains nor do they fight with others. Although staying in the lowest places which people loathe, they are at ease. Thus, it is close to Way.
The ultimate kindness resembles trees that shelter all beings. The Great Way exerts its power, which is so great that it causes the transformations of all beings between the heaven and the earth without cease. All this is giving and transforming unintentionally. Such extreme virtue of greatness is like trees that protect and shelter living beings.
Riding a blue ox to the west, he vanished without a trace. Later, Laozi rode a blue ox through the Hangu Pass and headed westwards. No one knows where he went after that.
Auspicious purple clouds hover from the east; his thoughts are everlasting. The Way of Laozi is such that you may look for it but you cannot see it; you may try to grasp it but it cannot be attained. It is like a divine dragon, diving or leaping, hiding or manifesting, transforming in unfathomable ways. Laozi’s words resemble myriad rays of light that formed a purplish canopy. This auspicious energy permeated the universe and flowed into China, bathing China in peace and vitality so that it seemed to enjoy an everlasting springtime.