A Daoist Fragment of Questionable Origin.

by Ronnie Pontiac and Tamra Lucid.

 

Here in Beijing I feel as if I am now working on two Ph.D.s: my doctoral thesis but also an understanding of this culture.  China is like an amnesiac slowly remembering.  Ah! What treasures of wisdom wait to be discovered by the people to whom they belong most!  Beijing reminds me of a dream in which you hurry to reach someone only to find that instead of getting nearer you’re now further away.  Sometimes so charming as to appear magical, yet also disturbingly institutional and indifferent.  There’s no getting used to the air pollution.  I’ve worked my way up from a terry cloth surgical mask, which seemed to do no good, all the way to my current charcoal filter mask but my eyes still burn.   You could have linked me to a blog about gas masks when you advised me to specialize in Chinese Imperial history!   But enough about life abroad.  My investigations in the museum archive have left me with a strange wonder.  The object of my wonder is a page of writing that may belong in the collection of some distinguished professor of ancient Chinese philosophy.  But I must warn you it could simply be a hoax, a mistranslation of the common English phrase “if not now, when?”  If possible please forward the following to a scholar who might be able to establish authenticity. 

EDITORIAL NOTE: These translations and comments present a mystery.  While they seem straightforward they in fact correspond to no other known facts regarding Chinese history.  Of course, that might be expected when a document purports to unmask secret societies.  But historians have so far failed to identify the province described in this fragment found among the papers of Isabel Ingram, but not in her script. Ingram tutored Wanrong, the last empress of China. This attribution is not entirely trustworthy as it derives from hearsay by way of a mid 20th century antique dealer of dubious reputation. The translations by the unknown author of the commentary, or perhaps by some other translator, appear in italics. No date occurs anywhere on the page.

Item 1:

Inscribed on a 10cm by 21cm rectangle of lavender jade found in a Chinese tomb:

“How certain is tomorrow?  We postpone our desires turning them into dreams.  A marriage, children, a house, a business, wealth, beauty, adventure become ghosts haunting our lives as we wait for a day that most despair of ever seeing.  This is not the way.  Equally wrong is the belief that nature will satisfy our demands when we make them.   We may want wealth and so we miss a good marriage.  We chase a business only to lose beauty.  So then for each of us the most important practice is listening.  Hearing not with our ears.  With quiet minds and soulful hearts we follow where we are led.  We call our school the Way of the Mare.  We do not miss the opportunities put before us at every moment.  In the right moment we rest.  In the right moment we act.  We are easily led.”

The Mare School produced especially lovely art.  The beauty of nature presented not only with great realism but also with a sense of charming moments.  However the school over time proved to be a breeding ground for not only hedonists but also bullies.  Hedonists found ways to exploit pleasure at every turn, while bullies seized whatever they could in the name of the way.  For the masters of this school life was simple as they showed a quiet but obvious relationship with serendipity.  They did seem to be at the right places at the right times.  But for lesser elements of this once popular school opportunism proved to be a poor spiritual practice.  Still, the school continued as a minor cult at the royal court long after it had lost credibility among the local people.

Item 2:

Inscribed on a broken tortoise shell found in the ruins of a Chinese temple:


“You did not have it then.  So you have it now.  If you had it then, would you need it now?  Did not having it then teach you the importance of having it now?  Are you ready to have it now because you did not have it then?  How long will you be attached to then before you realize you are missing now?  If you realize now where is then?”

The Riddle School can best be understood as a reaction to the effects of the Mare School.  Under the influence of the Mare School society had become less patient and responsible as many searched for immediate and unearned rewards.  In reaction the Riddle School offered an austere devotion to responsibility.   For example, a woman who suffered an assault was advised to learn martial arts and to teach others.  A beggar was offered the chance to work at the temple long enough to learn skills worthy of pay.  No task earned higher praise than providing stable homes for children.
Whereas the Mare School held up the ideal of the individual with freedom to react to whatever life offers the Riddle School celebrated community and self sacrifice in the name of the greater good.  For the revered masters of this school life was the simple repetition of wholesome actions.  However over several generations it became clear that the Riddle School fostered hostility to new ideas, to anything or anyone unusual.  Since so many advances and beauties of life come from the unusual the culture stagnated.  Secret vices occupied many and authorities quickly became corrupted, although ceremonial displays of superficial honesty were still practiced and celebrated.

Item 3:

Embroidered in white silk thread on a triangular 2m x .30m yellow silk banner:

“If not then, now?”

This famous koan of the Invisible School became so popular among the people that it eventually degenerated into slang meaning something along the lines of “get on with it!”  Understanding the excesses caused by the two previous schools of their lineage the masters of the Invisible School live ordinary lives in every possible way.  They make no claims to spiritual authority.  They only become visible because their lives so clearly marked by serendipity cannot be ignored.  Because it advocates no program of behavior, and because anyone attempting to gain favor or profit from it is immediately recognized as a fraud, the Invisible School endures to this day, influential in subtle ways.

Another of this school’s sayings “live the life you are given” is still hotly disputed.  Some consider this saying a gesture of respect to the Mare School, meaning “take every opportunity life gives you.”  But others argue that the saying refers to the Riddle School, with the meaning “conform to the responsibilities of your station in life.”  The most famous saying of the Invisible School is a riddle but it would not be accurate to claim that the Riddle School influenced the Invisible School.  It would be more correct to say that the Invisible School influenced the Riddle School and the Mare School.

 

 

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