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2. Turtle-Shells and Deep Water

In daily life we can be so preoccupied with external things that we do not live but are “being lived”. We do not walk; we run. Our eyes strain under an endless stream of images: streets, walls, faces, newspapers, television. Our ears take in the continuous noise of screeching traffic, prattling talk, pulsating music. We are under pressure. We have to succeed. We are meeting minimum standards and deadlines. Competition impels us forward; so does the clock. Hardworking achievers as we are, we drive ourselves on. Then, in the evening, flushed and fatigued by the day’s activity, we get drunk on newsy thrills or intoxicating fiction - till we pass out. And this we call living.

Lao Tzu recorded a warning in his Tao Te Ching:

Block your mouth,
shut the doors of eyes and ears,
and you will have fullness within.
Open your mouth,
be always busy,
and you’re beyond hope ! (1)

Instinctively we may feel that he is offering valuable advice. Yes, we have to stop running. We have to guard our senses; or we will run dry. But what exactly did the ancient Chinese master mean? Was he talking about the same problems that afflict us today? How, in fact, can we presume that someone who lived twenty-three centuries ago, and in a country so far removed from our own, has anything sensible to say to people who live here and now?

I believe the original Taoist thinkers should be listened to for two reasons. First, they reacted to social conditions that were not so different from our own, as I will presently explain. Secondly, in formulating a solution they drew on their own deep mystical insights; so that the truths they expressed retain lasting validity. A ruby set in a gold ring may have been fashioned for a princess whose name is forgotten; it retains its beauty because the quality of its material and the skill of its craftsmanship do not diminish with time.

When presenting Taoist thought in this and the next two chapters, I want to avoid the kind of academic discussion that would distract. For simplicity’s sake I will take for granted that the Tao Te Ching was written by the legendary Lao Tzu (2) and the Nan Hua Chen Ching by Chuang Tzu.(3) Even if some chapters were added later by disciples, they reflect the teaching of the masters. Then there is the question of which version to use. Chinese idiom is short and pointed, but often hard to render in clear English. When quoting original passages I will offer my own free translation, which will be partly based on the more literal, classical versions available, and partly on my own interpretation in the light of context and commentary. Being faithful to the mind of Chinese teachers requires more than literal renderings. It calls for a dynamic interpretation that makes sense to twentieth-century seekers.

The Taoists arose during one of the most confusing political eras in Chinese history, the “Warring States” period (475-221 B.C.). For China it was a time of painful growth. Agriculture was intensified. New crops were introduced. Fertilizers were imported. Irrigation schemes became commonplace. Towns and cities sprang up, to serve both as fortresses and trade centres. Silk, lacquer, silver ornaments and other luxury goods changed hands as eagerly as wheat, rice and wool. The iron industry, based on locally invented blast furnaces, produced high quality tools and weapons. A more relaxed feudal system of government was replaced by centralized monarchies. The new kings surrounded themselves with civil servants to tax the farmers. They raised professional armies to defend the land against enemies. For in this period of rapid change everyone was enemy of almost anyone else. Thirteen larger and smaller states were continuously in conflict with each other. The wars which thrived on the insatiable greed and ambition of kings, chancellors and generals, could never lead to lasting peace.

This was the chaos Chuang Tzu came to know so well as a minor official at Ch’i-Yuan in his home state of Meng. If we are to believe tradition, he left his post, withdrew to the countryside and turned philosopher, giving advice to whoever came to consult him. Soon his reputation grew, and the king of the neighbouring state of Ch’u decided to enlist his services. He despatched two envoys with a letter that stated: “Hereby I appoint you my chancellor.” The envoys delivered the message to Chuang Tzu as he stood knee-deep in Pu river, fishing with a bamboo pole.

Still holding his pole and looking speculatively at Pu river, Chuang Tzu said: “I believe there is a sacred turtle, offered and canonized three thousand years ago, which is worshipped by the king. Wrapped in silk it lies in a precious shrine on an altar in the temple. What do you think: If you were a turtle, would you prefer to lose your life and leave your dead shell to be an object of worship shrouded in incense for three thousand years? Or would you prefer to live as a plain turtle that drags its tail in the mud?”

“For the turtle”, said the envoy, “it might be better to stay alive and drag its tail in the mud!”

“Precisely”, Chuang Tzu replied. “Go home. Leave me here to drag my tail in the mud.” (4)

It is not difficult to see that Chuang Tzu is speaking of plain survival. Prime ministers led conspicuously short lives in those days, and few came unscathed through the incessant bloody court intrigues. A king might overwhelm an official with favours one day; and then cheerfully chop off the man’s toes the next, at the request of one of his consorts. Some commentators therefore see the main point of Chuang Tzu’s reply in escape from entanglement and death—Taoist wisdom aimed at physical survival in turbulent times, they contend.

Survival yes, but then of a special kind. Let us look at the story again. Chuang Tzu was put before a vital decision. Any normal Chinese of that time would have wondered what the most auspicious course to follow would be. And here the turtle comes into the picture. Turtleshells were the favourite tool of divination in those days. It was thought that each turtle represented heaven and earth in his shell: the vaulted sky in its carapace or upper shell; the earth in its lower shell. After killing and sacrificing the turtle, its shell would be placed on a fire. From the cracks in its lower shell favourable or unhvourable omens could be read. In fact, it is almost certain that the sacred shell in the royal shrine referred to by Chuang Tzu, was precisely a shell venerated and preserved by the monarch because it was believed to confirm the accession of his dynasty. Sometimes the diviner’s interpretation was engraved on the shell next to the tell-tale cracks. Such engravings on tortoise-shells commissioned by the Shong dynasty (l8th-l2th centuries B.C.) are the earliest known Chinese ideographs we possess. In short, no one would have been surprised if Chuang Tzu had caught a turtle to find out what divine counsel could be found on its shell.

The real Taoist “twist” is that Chuang Tzu “reads” the turtle in a new way. There lies a mystery in the turtle, as even diviners admitted. We read in Kuan-yin-tzu: “The turtle-shell has no Self and yet it has knowledge of great matters.” (5) And the I Ching declares: “To unravel complex matters, to search out what is hidden, to bring up what lies deep and reach out to what is far, thereby discerning good from evil among all events under the sky . . . there are no more potent means than yarrow stalks and the turtleshell.” (6) Chuang Tzu agrees with the mystery, but sees it on a deeper level. The turtle carries a divine answer in itself, though not as markings on its shell. It carries it, like any other being, in the mysterious principle that causes it to be and that gives it life.

For the turtle is a remarkable animal. It is hard and soft at the same time. lt waddles on land but swims nimbly under water. It has serious eyes and a funny tail. When threatened it pulls in all its limbs and lies rigid as a stone. But when it moves in its own space, in the muddy water of the river, it darts along, happy and agile. The lesson of the turtle is that it can only grow and be happy in its natural surroundings. How does this apply to human beings? Where is our “space”, our natural surrounding? Do we find it in competition, warfare, ambitious production? Do we obtain it by victory, power, wealth? Or does it lie on a deeper plane - when we discover what it means to be human?

Fish thrive in water;
human beings thrive in Tao.
Water animals seek the deep shadow of the pool
and satisfy their needs.
If human beings who thrive in Tao
immerse themselves
in non-action,
their nature is realized.
The lesson is:
Fish need to lose themselves
in rivers and lakes,
people in the practice of Tao. (6)

In this text we meet for the first time the expressions “Tao” and “non-action”. I will explain them more fully in the next two chapters. Here it may suffice for us to notice that they denote inner realities. It is characteristic for human beings to be happy when we open ourselves to such spiritual dimensions. Though external involvement is necessary and fruitful, as we shall see later, it only makes sense if we have first discovered depth and truth in ourselves. The Taoists did not preach escape - though we can hardly blame them for wanting to be spared the hassle of unchecked ambition or the risks of senseless warfare. What they advocated was the return to deeper waters where the human spirit could discover its own worth. In practical terms this meant: withdrawing from external noise and diving into silence.

“Our mind benefits greatly from peace and stillness. Do not fret, do not allow yourself to be upset and the experience of deep harmony will come, of its own accord. It is close at hand, standing at the door; yet is intangible, outside our conscious control. It may seem as distant as the furthest limit of the universe; yet it is not far off. Every day we use its power. For Tao fills us completely but we cannot pin it down. It leaves us, yet has not departed. It arrives and is not around. It is silent, producing no sound that can be heard; but suddenly it is present in the mind. It is hazy and dark, has no distinct contours, yet in a great stream it flowed into us at birth.” (7)

To combat noise, our chief enemy, we should first of all temper the inner turmoil of our thoughts and words. Why do we talk so much? The Tao Te Ching points out how hollow and shallow talk can be.

Honest words are not beautiful;
beantiful words are not honest. (c.81)

The more words, the less they count. (c.5)

Don’t boast or brag.
Who strides cannot maintain the pace. (c.24)

Who knows does not speak;
who speaks doesn’t know. (c.56)

Talking little is only natural.
Gusty winds don’t last all morning;
downpours cannot last all day. (c.23)

A truly wise person is not a chatterbox. The best guide teaches without words (c.43). The master instructs his disciples in non-talking (c.2). Only thus can the Tao be found.

In order to become aware of this interior source of energy we have to make space for silence. We must refuse to be deafened by noise all day or to be totally immersed in external activity. In practical terms this involves consciously seeking silence from time to time. The Taoists called this tso-wang, sitting with an empty mind. By a cessation of outside impressions and the withdrawal of the senses to an interior point of focus, calm and quiet may be found. Silence functions as healing. Our soul has, as it were, been silted up by successive deposits of talk, work and trouble. Travelling back through these layers of external consciousness, we have to “return to stillness”. It is in the point of original stillness that we discover our true self, says the Tao Te Ching.

The heavy underlies lightness.
The still overcomes unrest. (c.26)

Empty yourself of everything.
Let your mind hold to stillness.
The ten thousand things rise and fall
while the Self watches their return.
They teem and flourish,
then return to the source.
Returning to the source is stillness
which is the way of nature. (c.16)

Movement generates heat,
but stillness overcomes it.
Stillness and tranquillity
set things in order in the universe. (c.45)

By adopting stillness we can learn to see with new eyes. We drift like the waves of the sea (c.20) ready to be guided. We become receptive like a hollow cave (c.15). We are as open and flexible as a little child with no prejudice (c.49). We return to the state of an uncarved block of wood (c.28).

These were the kind of things that went through Chuang Tzu’s mind as he stood fishing in Pu river. How could he ever exchange the experience of inner stillness with the noise and turmoil of a job at court! Rather, like the turtle seeking deep water, would he plunge himself in an encounter with Tao. What that means we will see in the next chapter .


1. Tao Te Ching 52,2.

2. More than forty translations exist of the TAO TE CHING. Among those I consulted are: L. Giles (Murray, London 1906); A. Waley (Macmillan, New York 1934); Lin Yutang (Modern Library, New York 1948); J.J.L. Duyvendak (Murray, London 1954); R.B. Blackney (Mentor, New York 1955); W. Chan (Bobbs-Merrill, Indianapolis 1963); D.C. Lau (Penguin, Harmondsworth 1963); G. F. Feng and J. English (Wildwood, London 1972).

3. The work of CHUANG TZU has been translated by: H. A. Giles, Chuang Tzu (Quaritch, London 1926); B. Watson, The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu (Columbia University Press, New York 1968); Y. Fung, Chuang tzu (Commercial Press, Shanghai 1933); T. Merton, The Way of Chuang Tzu (New Directions, New York 1969; selections only). G.F. Feng and J. English, Chuang Tsu: Inner Chapters (Vintage, New York 1974).

4. Chuang Tzu 7,11; cf. T. Merton, op. cit., pp. 93-4.

5. Kuan Yin Tzu; quoted by D. Howard Smith, The Wisdom of the Taoist Mystics, Sheldon Press, London 1980, p. 60.

6. I Ching, The Great Appendix, section I, no. 72; see J. Legge, I Ching, The Book of Changes, Bantam, New York 1964, pp. 373-4.

7. Chuang Tzu 6,11. 1

8. Kuan Tzu, P'ien 49; compare A. Waley, The Way and its Power, Macmillan, New York 1934, p. 48.

Next? Go to:

The Creative Void of a Hunchback

The Way in to GOD

Creator in us

Inner Judge

Beyond thought



This course is based upon the book God Within Us by John Wijngaards and published by Collins, Fount Paperbacks, London, 1988..

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