Xerxes first learned of the eighty-one poems of the
Tao Te Ching in the introduction
to one of her favorite books of all time, Philip
Koch's Solitude, which reports this story:
"At the age of 160 Lao Tzu grew disgusted with the
decay of the Chou dynasty
and resolved to pursue virtue in a more congenial
atmosphere. Riding in a chariot
drawn by a black ox, he left the Middle Kingdom
through the Han-ku Pass which
leads westward from Loyang. The Keeper of the
Pass, Yin Hsi, who, from the
state of the weather had expected a sage, addressed
him as follows: 'You are
about to withdraw yourself from sight. I pray
you to compose a book for me.'
Lao Tsu thereupon wrote the 5000 characters which we
call the Tao Te Ching."
Koch then notes that he never returned, and
reflecting on his own study says:
"I ask these questions of solitude for personal
reasons. All the while through the
arguments and the poetic evocations, I stalk the
creatures of my own ambivalence:
should I, as the days pile into years around me,
move ever closer to other people,
giving now out of the rich stores of past solitudes?
Or should I quietly,
unobtrusively, head out westward through the Han-ku
Answering this question (and its larger theme of the
right balance to be achieved
between solitude and engagement along life's way) is
among the hardest tasks Xerxes
has ever attempted. She also thinks it is one
of the most important to get right.
Xerxes appreciated the excellent introduction to
The Inner Chapters by the scholar,
Angus Graham, and although she could hardly be
further apart in temperament
from Zhuangzi, she thought these writings had a lot
to say to her and others.
Happily, she first encountered (a version of) the
following idea in the character of
Elder Brother in Hesse's The Glass Bead Game
(where she was receptive to it).
Without that advantage, she might have not have
noticed it again in this passage from
Chapter 5 -- "Worldly Business Among Men." She
invites you to think about it:
"When Carpenter Shih was travelling to Ch'i he came
to a village at a bend in
the road, and saw the chestnut-leaved-oak by the
altar of the god of the soil. It
was broad enough to give shade to several thousand
oxen and measured by
the tape a hundred spans round; it was so high that
it overlooked the hills and
the lowest branches were seventy feet up; boughs
from which you might
make a boat could be counted by the dozen. The
crowd gazing at it was like
the throng in a market, but Carpenter Shih did not
give it a glance; he walked
straight on without a pause.
When his apprentice had had his fill of gazing at it
he ran to catch up with
'Since I took up the axe to serve you, sir, I have
never seen such noble timber.
Why is it that you didn't deign to look at it,
didn't even pause as you walked?'
'Enough, don't mention it again. That's a
good-for-nothing wood. Make a
boat from it and it will sink, make a coffin and it
will rot at once, make a bowl
and it will break at once, make a gate or door and
it will ooze sap, make a
pillar and it will be worm-holed. This wood is
wretched timber, useless for
anything; that's why it's been able to grow so old.'
When Carpenter Shih came home, the sacred oak
appeared in a dream and said,
'With what do you propose to compare me? Would
it be with the fine-
grained woods? As for the sort that bear
fruits or berries, the cherry-apple,
pear, orange, pumelo, when the fruit ripens they are
stripped and in being
stripped they are disgracefully abused, their
branches broken, their twigs
snapped off. These are trees which by their
own abilities make life miserable
for themselves; and so they die in mid-path without
lasting out the years
assigned to them by Heaven, trees which have let
themselves be made
victims of worldly vulgarity. Such are the
consequences with all things. I
would add that this quest of mine to become of no
possible use to anyone has
been going on for a long time: only now, on the
verge of death, have I
achieved it, and to me it is supremely useful.
Supposing that I have been useful
too, would I have had the opportunity to grow so
big? Besides, you and I are
both things. What nonsense! That one of
us should think it is the other which is
the thing. And the good-for-nothing man who is
soon to die, what does he
know of the good-for-nothing tree?'
When Carpenter Shih woke up he told his dream.
'If it prefers to be useless,' said the apprentice,
'why is is serving as the sacred tree?'
'Hush! Don't say it. It's simply using
that as a pretext, thinks of itself as
pestered by people who don't appreciate it.
Aren't the ones which don't
become sacred trees in some danger of being clipped?
Besides, what that tree
is protecting has nothing to do with the vulgar, and
if we praise it for doing a
duty won't we be missing the point?'"