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Tao and the Chinese Mystic

by Manly P. Hall

We can begin, then, as they did, to look for beauty—looking for beauty in the sense of looking for the work of Tao. We should look for things that are beautiful for the reason that if they are truly beautiful, there is a great secret power in them. This secret power means that in the line or the motion of the color or the shapes or the forms, something universal has been captured. In the same way, the great painting must have captured within it the sense of Tao, the feeling of Tao; and we can find this in many things. We find it, for example, in simple clay ceramics made long ago by a peasant who never learned to read or write, and had no intention of using them for any purpose except to hold water. To the Chinese, these simple products of untutored persons were Tao. These little bowls, with this extremely simple form, had somehow captured the infinite. When you look at them, you suddenly feel your heart going out into the universe. You feel oneness or kinship with life because some exquisite beauty is held there. You cannot define it; your heart simply experiences it. It gives you a warm, friendly feeling, and you are brought back over the centuries. You feel a kinship with the potter, for there was something in his soul when he made it, and that something was Tao. He did not stop turning it on the wheel until he liked it; and because he liked it, you like it; and because the two of you like it, the whole world will like it.

It is this peculiar quality that the Chinese mystic was forever searching for. He went forth and looked at things, trying always to see in them some little shadow, some little gate that would open into this world of radiance. Nor did he limit himself to objects; he looked also in living creatures for this quality. He looked in human beings for it, but it is in human beings that it is the most difficult to find, because man has adulterated his own nature so tremendously. He has done so many ignoble things in the name of rank and honor and success; he has corrupted his own instincts. He is no longer close to nature in his own consciousness, and that is why he must cultivate it. A chrysanthemum will never need to take lessons in Tao, but man has not the simple heart of this flower. So the Chinese were looking for this child heart, this rapport that brought them into harmony with the infinite mystery that cannot be described, but can only be sensed or known when it has happened.

The old Chinese sages had their wonderful experiences. Perhaps the old gentleman was sitting quietly by the side of a little stream, reading a scroll and stroking his very slender beard, and thinking about ineffables, when all of a sudden a radiant, golden fish jumped into the air out of the water, turned in a very beautiful arc, and fell back again. The old Chinese scholar just sat for a moment, and suddenly an expression of the most incredible light came upon him, and he said, "I have it! In that instant, I have it. Now I have Tao. Now I have gone through the gate." What happened? To us, nothing very important. It had to be that this man's whole life was suddenly strangely sensitive. He had sensed infinite motion, he had suddenly realized something, and in that moment he had broken through the inner wall of his own mind. Perhaps he was rather detached at the moment, far away from worldliness in some beautiful poem. Then, suddenly, with a flash of light, this beautiful fish whirled through the air for a second and dropped back with the grace of the most perfect diver or swimmer. And the old man suddenly knew what Tao was. He suddenly realized the infinite freedom of life, the infinite joy and grace of motion; and even the little splash became great music. And in the ripples that slowly came out and extended around that spot in the water—radiant ripples—he saw the whole motion of energy moving in great rhythmic circles throughout the entire area of space. He had suddenly come into the heart of life, because he had come to understand one of the simplest things that there can be in life.

Manly P. Hall, The White Bird of Tao pp. 28-29

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