chapter 5: giving the straw dog a real bone

by kye on May 21, 2010

It’s said that the sage treats all nature as straw dogs. This sounds at first as though the sage treats nature with contempt. Not so.

A straw dog in ancient China was a sacrificial object. It was treated with utmost reverence before its sacrifice. But once it was sacrificed its time was over. It was no longer treated as something alive. It might then be gathered up by the fuel gatherers. When its time was over, it was over.

So the text actually invites me to treat everything in nature–human beings included–with great reverence while they are alive. (And not reverence as merely a feeling: reverence as something active, which actually gives the highest I have to give.) But the invitation is a challenging one at its core. It requires me to recognize that we, just like the rest of this whole precious-cargo, insanely beautiful world, are not permanent.

If I really take that impermanence seriously, it only deepens my reverence and cherishing of all nature–including myself and other human beings–rather than making it contemptible. We have so little time. And when our time on earth is over, it’s over.

I don’t think this means that we should forget those we’ve cared about after their deaths. The fuel gatherers don’t forget the straw dogs–they use what’s left, for fuel.

It’s in our nature to continue to love what we love. A cat or dog will mourn a lost loved companion and we’re no less than that.

What’s here is simply an invitation to accept impermanence as basic: an invitation to love what we love with all our hearts as the creatures we are, to know that now is what we have, and to lay down our own lives when our time is over.

Coming from here is very different than relating to others as a ‘good’ person doing ‘good’ things.  That’s an obligation which grows out of an abstraction about what I ‘should’ do.

But if I embrace the way of the world, how can I do anything but cherish the new mockingbird I saw last night singing his first songs? –then my heart just does what it does, without thinking of  ’good’ or ‘bad’.  It’s in this sense, that the sage is ‘inhumane’, if ‘humane’ is seen as a kind of ‘being good’ that is put on like your best clothes. That’s sentiment. The sage is not sentimental, but reverent.

Now if I feel for what reverence needs in order to be alive in me, I find my way back to the quiet again. Reverence needs a quiet space. Quiet makes room for it to express itself as a living impulse, instead of dead sentiment.

heaven and earth are not sentimental
seeing all creatures as straw dogs
the sage isn’t sentimental either
treating everyone as straw dogs

the empty space between heaven and earth
is like a flute from which our breath produces music
because of its very hollowness–
or like a straw with which our breath can feed air to the fire

that emptiness is never exhausted
the more it works, the more comes forth

now, many words–those fill up the silence
those lead to exhaustion
many words make it hard to hold fast to the center
to the inexhaustible emptiness within

— Kye Nelson: translation and commentary on Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching

Comments?  Burning questions? Leave them here

This post was written as part of the tao together project.  Would you like to join us?

©2010 Kye Nelson

Previous post:

Next post: