Laotzu's Tao and Wu Wei, by Dwight Goddard and Henri Borel, , at sacred-texts.com
"WHAT is art?" I asked the hermit.
We were sitting upon the mountainside, in the shadow of an overhanging rock. Before us stretched the sea-one endless gleam of light in the sunshine. Golden sails were driving quietly over it, and white seagulls sweeping in noble curvings lightly hither and thither, while great, snow-pure clouds came up and sailed by in the blue, majestic in progress, steady and slow.
"It is as natural as the sea--the birds--the clouds," he answered. "I do not think you will find this so hard to gasp and feel as Tao. You have only to look around you--earth, clouds, atmosphere, everything will teach it you. Poetry has existed as long as heaven and earth. 11
"Beauty was born with the heavens and the earth. The sun, the moon, and the red mists of morning and evening illumine each other, and yet--inexhaustible and wonderful as are the changes presented by them--Nature's great phenomena--there exist no pigments, as for garments., to dye them withal. All phenomena of the world bring forth sound when set in motion, and every sound implies some motion which has so
caused it. The greatest of all sounds are wind and thunder.
"Listen to the mountain stream racing over the rocks! As soon as it is set in motion the sound of it--high or low, short or long--makes itself heard, not actually according to the laws of music, it is true, yet having a certain rhythm and system.
"This is the spontaneous voice of heaven and earth; the voice that is caused by movement.
"Well! In the purest state of the human heart--when the fire of the spirit is at its brightest--then; if it be moved, that too will give forth sound. Is it not a wondrous metamorphosis that out of this a literature should be created?
"So Poetry is the sound of the heart?"
"You will feel how natural this is. Poetry is to be heard and seen everywhere, for the whole of Nature is one great poet. But just because of its simplicity, therefore is it so strict and unalterable. Where the spring of movement is, there flows the sound of the poem. Any other sound is no poetry. The sound must come quite of itself--Wu-Wei--it cannot be generated by any artifices. There are many--how many!--who by unnatural movement force forth sound; but these are no poets--rather do they resemble apes and parrots. Few indeed are the true poets. From these the verse flows of itself, full of music,--powerful as the roaring of the torrent amongst the rocks, as the rolling of thunder in the clouds,--soft as the swishing of an evening shower, or the gentle breath of a summer night-breeze.--Hark!
hark to the sea at our feet! Is it not singing a wondrous song? Is it not a very poem?--is it not pure music? See how the waves sway, in ceaseless mobility--one after the other--one over the other--swinging onward and onward--ever further and further--returning to vanish in music once more! Dost thou hear their rhythmic rushing? Oh! great and simple must a poet be--like the sea! His movement, like that of the sea, is an impulse out of Tao, and in that--tranquil, strifeless, obedient as a child--must he let himself go. Great, great is the sea! Great, great is the poet. But greater--greater--is Tao, that which is not great!"
He was silent, listening to the sea, and I saw how the music of it entered into him.
I had reflected much since hearing his first words concerning Tao. I was fearful lest his great and lofty philosophy should mean death to the artist, and that I also, in giving myself over to this wisdom of his, should become incapable of feeling the inspiration of the poet, and of being any more childishly enraptured at the sight of beauty.
But he himself was standing there in the purest ecstasy, as though he were now looking upon the sea for the first time; and reverently, with shining eyes, he listened to the rush of the waves. "Is it not beautiful?" he said again, "is it not beautiful,--this sound, that came out of Tao, the soundless?--this light, that shone out of Tao, 'the lightless? and the word-music: verse, born of Tao the wordless? Do we not live in an
endless mystery?--resolving one day into absolute truth!"
I was a long time silent. But its very simplicity was hard for me to grasp. And I asked him doubtfully: "Can it really be so easy--to make and sing poems? It is surely not so easy for us to bring forth verse as for the stream to rush over the rocks? Must we not first practise and train ourselves, and learn to know the verse-forms thoroughly? And is not that voluntary action, rather than involuntary motion?"
My question did not embarrass him, and he answered at once:--
"Do not let that perplex you. All depends on whether a man has in him the true spring from which the verse should flow, or not. Has lie the pure impulse from Tao within him? or is his life-motive something less simply beautiful? If he has that source in him he is a poet, if he has it not he is none. By this time you surely realize that, considered from a high standpoint, all men are really poets; for, as I have told you, there exists in all men the essential, original impulse emanating from and returning to Tao. But rarely do we find this impulse alert and strongly developed--rarely are men endowed with perception of the higher revelations of beauty, through which their bank-bound life-stream flows till lost in boundless eternity. One might express it thus: that ordinary men are like still water in swampy ground, in the midst of poor vegetation; while poets are clear streams, flowing
amidst the splendour of luxuriant banks to the endless ocean. But I would rather not speak so much in symbols, for that is not plain enough.
"You would fain know whether a man who has the true inspiration of the poet must not nevertheless train himself somewhat in his art, or whether he moves in it entirely of himself, like nature?--The latter is without doubt the case! For a young poet, having studied verse-form in all its variety for but a short time, suddenly comes to find these forms so natural as to preclude his inclination for any other. His verse assumes beautiful form involuntarily, simply because other movement would be alien. That is just the difference between the poet and the dilettante: that the poet sings his verse spontaneously, from his own impulse, and afterwards, proving it, finds it to be right in sound--in rhythm--in all its movement; whereas the dilettante, after first marking out for himself a certain verse-form, according to the approved pattern of the art-learned, proceeds to project by main force a series of wholly soulless words upon it. The soulful words of the poet flowed of themselves just because they were soulful. And, if we view things in their true light, there do actually exist no hard and fast forms for poetry, and absolutely no laws; for a verse which flows spontaneously from its source moves of itself, and is independent of all preconceived human standards! The one law is that there shall be no law. Mayhap you will find this over-daring, young man! But remember
that my demonstrations are taken not from men, but out of Tao, and that I know, moreover, but very few true poets. The man who is simple and pure as Nature is rare indeed. Think you that there are many such in your own land?"
This unexpected question embarrassed me, and I wondered what could be his drift. It was hard to answer, too, so I asked him first another question:
"Great Master, I cannot answer until I hear more from you. Why does a poet make a poem?"
That seemed to astonish him mightily, for he repeated it, as though doubting if he had heard aright:
"Why does a poet make a poem?"
"Yes, Master, why?"
Then he laughed outright, and said:
"Why does the sea roar? Why does the bird sing? Do you know that, my son?"
"Because they cannot help it, Father, because they simply must give their nature vent in that way! It is Wu-Wei!"
"Quite so! Well,--and why should it be different with a poet?"
I considered, and my answer came none too readily:
"Yes, but it may be different. A poet may sing for the sake of creating or enriching a literature, where there is none, or it is in danger of dying out. That has a fine sound, but is no pure motive. Or some poets sing in order to cover themselves with glory--to be famous, to be
crowned with shining laurels, and to gain smiles from the fair, bright-eyed maidens strewing flowers on the path before them!"
"You must express yourself with greater exactness," said the hermit, "and not desecrate words which thousands hold sacred. For poets who sing for such reasons are no poets at all. A poet sings because he sings. He cannot sing with any given purpose, or he becomes a dilettante."
"Then, Father, supposing a poet to have sung as simply as a bird, may he afterwards take pleasure in the laurels and the roses? May he jealously hate those who wear the laurels of which he deems himself worthy? or can he believe his soul's convictions, and call beauty ugly, despising the beauty which he has created?--Can he call the beautiful hateful, because the laurels come from unwelcome hands?--Can he drape himself in a false garb, and elect to act differently from other men, in order to gain prominence through eccentricity?--Can he deem himself better than the common run of men?--Should he press the common hands which applaud him?--May he hate them who deride instead of honouring him?--How can you interpret to me all these things? They all appear so strange to me, in comparison with the little bird and the great sea!"
"All these questions, young friend, are an answer to my question," he replied; "for the fact that you would know all this is a proof that there are not many poets in your country. Remember
that I understand and use the word 'poet' in its purest, highest meaning. A poet can only live for his art, which he loves for itself, and not as a means for securing fleeting earthly pleasures. A poet looks upon men and things--in their nature and relationship--so simply, that he himself approaches very nearly to the nature of Tao. Other men see men and things hazily, as through a fog. The poet realizes this to be an incontestable fact. How then can he expect his simplicity to be understood--by this hazy mind of the public? How can he cherish feelings of hate and grief when it ridicules him? How feel pleasure when it should do him honour? It is the same in this case as with the four 'seasons' of Chuang-Tse. There is nothing specially agitating in it all, because it is the natural course of things. Consequently the poet is neither in despair when he is not heard, nor happy when he is feted. He looks upon the state of things with regard to the multitude and the way it comports itself towards him as a natural consequence, of which he knows the cause. The judgment of the common people is not even so much as indifferent to him--it simply does not exist for him. He does not sing his verses for the sake of the people, but because he cannot help himself. The sound of human comment on his work escapes him entirely, and he knows not whether he be famous or forgotten. 'The highest fame is no fame.' 1 You look at me, young man, as
though I were telling stranger things than you have ever dared to dream. But I am telling nothing but the plainest truth, simple and natural as the truth in landscape or sea. Having dwelt until so lately mid the strenuous life of your countrymen, you have never yet seen true simplicity. For so long you have heard nothing spoken of but 'fame', 'earnings,' 'honour,' 'artists' and 'immortality,' that, for all you know, these things may be indispensable as air, and veritable as your soul. But it is all a seeming and deception. Those whom you have seen may indeed have been poets of true fibre, but they had been led astray from the impulse derived from Tao which was their life-principle, and they did not remain what they were, but sank through their weakness to the nature of commonplace men. So that they have come to do as ordinary men do, only they do it more strongly. So much do I gather from your questioning. But all these are poets no longer, and will sing no more true poetry so long as they remain as they are. For the smallest deviation from the original impulse is sufficient to kill the poetry within them. There is but the one direct way: single and simple as a maiden--uncompromising as a straight line. This straight line is spontaneity; on either side of it lie false activity and the unnatural--also the roads to fame and notoriety, where occur murder, and sudden death, and where one bosom friend will suck the life-blood from another to further the attainment of his own ends. The straight line
cuts its own way, without deviation or secret windings, in simple continuance into infinity.
"You understand then, that thus, by the nature of things, all those situations which would convert the poet into the sacrificial victim of the mob become impossible. You have probably read, in the history alike of your country and my own, of poets who have died of grief at want of recognition, or who have taken their own lives on account of undeserved contumely. I have indeed always felt the pathos of this, yet have realized that to such poets as these the term truly great cannot be applied.
"And I am speaking, of course, not of the, artists of speech only, but of all artists. Shall I show you now something by an artist as true and simple-minded as I can conceive a man to be?--Come with me then!"
He led me into a small chamber in his hut--a cell with white walls and no furniture save the bed, a table covered with books, and a few chairs. He opened a door in the wall, and drew out from it a wooden chest. This he carried as carefully as though it had been some sacred object or a little child. He set it gently down upon the floor, opened the lid, and lifted out a closed shrine of red-brown wood, which he placed upon the table."
"See," he remarked, "this is a beautiful shrine, to begin with. A beautiful thing must have a beautiful setting. At present the little doors are shut. Do you not find this a goodly idea: to
be able ever thus to hold it hidden from profane eyes?--But before you I may well open it."
And the two wings of the shrine flew apart.
Against a background of pale blue silk appeared a large figure, gleaming, and shimmering, and diffusing a wonderful radiance of its own. It was the Buddha Kwan Yin, seated upon a lotus that reared itself, straight, and graceful, and modestly opened, above a tumult of wild waves. 13
"Do you perceive the utter simplicity and beauty of this?" he asked me; and in his voice there spoke a great and tender love. "Is not this the very embodiment of perfect rest?--How serene is the countenance--how wonderfully tender, and yet how tensely grave, with its closed eyes gazing into infinity!--See--the cheek,--how delicate and tender! See--the mouth--and the lofty curving of the eyebrows--and the pure pearl gleaming above her forehead 14--symbol of a soul taking its flight from the body! And the body--how few are the lines of it! Yet see: what infinite love and mercifulness in the downward pose of the left arm; and in the uplifted right arm--with two raised fingers, held together as in the act of preaching---what an indescribable holiness! And how beautiful the repose of the crossed legs resting so softly upon the lotus!--And see--how tenderly felt, notwithstanding the immense strength and restraint of the whole--the delicate soles of the feet, curved with such subtle gentleness!--Is it not the quintessence of the whole of Buddhism in a single picture?
[paragraph continues] You need not to have read anything of Buddhism in order to appreciate it now, here, in all its inmost meaning. Rest--is it not absolute rest--this ideally pure countenance gazing thus stilly into eternity? Love--is it not absolute love for the world--this simple drooping of the arm? And is not the essence of the whole doctrine grasped and confined in the pose of the uplifted fingers?
"And then--the material of which such a figure as this is made! So you realize, I wonder, that an artist such as this must have laboured for years and years before his material became as pure and ethereal as he required it to be? For the nature of stone is so hard--is it not?--and the general idea of it: matter--that would suit but ill for the plastic representation of the ideal conception: Rest.--So the artist wrought upon all kinds of common materials such as clay, sand, and earth, and transformed them, by means of fit and harmonious combination with precious stones, pearls, and jasper, into costly substances. And so the material for this figure became something that was no longer material, but rather the incarnation of a sublime idea. The artist wished to symbolize also in his representation the rosy dawn which broke upon mankind on the appearance of Buddha; and so, shimmering through the snowy white of his porcelain, he introduced just such a vague rosy glow as plays upon the morning clouds before the glory of the sun bursts forth. Is not this half-realized, growing light more instinct
with feeling than light itself? Can you perceive this most indefinite, yet clear and rosy colour shimmering throughout the white? Is it not chaste as the first soft blush of a maiden? Is it not the godly love of the artist which thus glows in the pureness of the white? Such a figure is, in fact, no longer a figure. The idea of material is entirely obliterated; it is an inspiration."
For a long time I was too much moved to speak. More strongly yet than the pure wisdom of the old man, did the beauty of this art take hold upon and purify my soul. At last I asked gently:
"Who has created this marvel? I would fain know, that I may hold his name with yours in veneration."
"That is of little importance, my young friend! he answered. "The soul that was in this artist is absorbed again into Tao, just as yours will be one day. His body has fallen away, like the leaves from a tree, just as yours in time will fall away. What weight can attach then to his name? Nevertheless, I will tell it you; he was called Tan Wei, 15 and he engraved this name in finely-devised characters upon the back of the figure, such being the custom at that time.--Who was he? A common workman, surely, who did not even know, himself, that he was an artist; who seemed to himself nothing more than a common peasant, and who had not the least suspicion that his work was so beautiful. But he must have gazed much at the heavens and clouds above him, and have loved the wide seas, and the landscapes,
and the flowers; otherwise he could not have been so fine in feeling; for such simple lines and pure colours are only to be found in Nature. He was certainly not celebrated; you will not find his name in any history. I could not tell you whence he came, how he lived, or to what age. I know only that it is more than four hundred years since such figures as these were made, and that connoisseurs reckon that this one dates from the first half of the Ming-Dynasty. Most probably the artist lived quite quietly the same sort of life as the other people, worked industriously as a common labourer, and died humbly, unconscious of his own greatness. But his work remained, and this image, which by a fortunate chance has found its way to this district, where the last wars never raged, is still the same as when he made it. And thus it may last on for centuries and centuries, in inextinguishable radiance, in maidenly majesty. O, to create such a thing, in pure, unconscious simplicity--that is to be a poet! That is the art which dates not from time but from eternity!--How beautiful it is! Do you not find it so too? This porcelain, that is almost indestructible; this radiance, which never dies away! Here upon the earth it stands, so strong and yet so tender, and so it will be, long after our successors are dead!--And the soul of the artist is with Tao!"
We continued long to look upon the image. Then he took careful hold of the shrine once more.
"It is so delicate," he said, "that I hardly dare
to expose it to broad daylight. For this miracle of tenderness--ethereal as a soul--the daylight is too hard. I feel a kind of anxiety lest the light should suddenly break it in pieces; or cause it to dissolve like a little light cloud--so wholly soul-like is its composition!"
And softly, very softly, he replaced the shrine within the chest, which he closed.
He went out now, before me, and we seated ourselves again beneath the overhanging rock.
"How beautiful it would be," I said, "if every one could make things like that, in all simplicity, and surround themselves with them, everywhere!"
"Every one!" he answered; "well, that is perhaps too much to expect! But there really was once a time when this great kingdom was one great temple of art and beauty. You may still see the traces of it here in China. At that time the greater number of the people were simpleminded artists. All objects surrounding them were beautiful, the smallest thing as well as the greatest--whether it were a temple, a garden, a table, a chair, or a knife. Just examine the little tea-cups, or the smallest censers of that period! The poorest coolie ate out of vessels as perfect in their way as my Kwan-Yin image. All objects were beautifully made, and involuntarily so. The simple artisans did not consider themselves 'artists,' or in any way different from their fellow-men, and no, petty strife can have arisen between them, otherwise there would have been an end of their art. Everything was
beautiful because they were all single-minded and worked honestly. It was as natural in those days for things to be beautiful as it is now-a-days for them to be ugly. The art of China has sunk to its lowest ebb; that is a consequence of its miserable social condition. You have surely remarked that the art of the country is deteriorating. And that is a death-sign for this great Empire. For Art is inseparably connected with the full-bloom of a country's life. If the art declines, then the whole country degenerates. I do not mean this in the political, but rather in the moral sense. For a morally-strong and simple-hearted people brings forth involuntarily a strong and healthy art.--Yes, what you said is true; how much better would men's lives be, could they but create for themselves better surroundings! And how extraordinary that this is not done! For Nature remains ever and everywhere accessible to them. See the clouds--the trees--the sea!"
The sea was still, as ever, splashing at our feet--boundless and pure. Clouds sailed majestically landwards, with a slow motion, in the full blaze of the light. Golden gleams, falling upon the mountains, vanished again with the rhythmical sweep of the clouds. Light and motion, sound and play of colour, everywhere!
The hermit gazed calmly and confidingly at this infinite loveliness; as though deeply conscious of the intimate relationship existing between him and all his surroundings. He seemed to guess
what was in my mind as I looked at him, for he said:
"We fit as naturally into this beauty around us as a tree or a mountain. If we can but remain so always, we shall retain the feeling of our own well-being amid all the great workings of the world-system. So much has been said about human life; and scholars have created such an endless labyrinth of theories! And yet in its inmost kernel it is as plain as Nature. All things are equal in simplicity, and nothing is really in confusion, however much it may seem as though it were so. Everything moves surely and inevitably as the sea."
There rang in his voice both the great love of the poet and the quiet assurance of the scholar who takes his stand upon incontrovertible truth.
"Are you satisfied for to-day?" was his friendly question; "and have I helped you forward a little? Do you feel more clearly what poetry is?"
"Father," I answered, "your wisdom is poetry, and your poetry is wisdom! How can that be?"
"That is quite true, from your point of view," he answered. "But you have yet to learn that all these words are but a seeming. I know not what my wisdom is, nor my poetry. It is all one. It is so simple and natural when you understand this! It is all Tao."
87:1 From the "Nan Hwa King," chap. xviii.