In this piece I would like to reflect on a couple of verses from Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching, composed in China around the time of Buddha:
He who stands on tiptoe doesn’t stand firm.
He who rushes ahead doesn’t go far.
Often, I talk about the difference between the tortoise/turtle and the hare/rabbit. The rabbit is running, running, running, trying to win the race. He may run three laps around the lake surging forward on his tiptoes without seeing the sky, the trees, or even the kids playing in the water, because he is so intent on getting somewhere, becoming someone, or just winning. The turtle just takes one step and then another, one breath and then another, appreciating and reveling in the greenness of the grass, the blueness of the sky, the stillness of the lake… and when he gets a little excited or anxious about winning or losing the race with the rabbit, he just draws his head and legs into his shell and rejuvenates himself by doing absolutely nothing.
At some point the turtle realizes that his inner world and his outer world are not separate and that he has already won the race, while the poor rabbit is always judging and comparing himself to others and misses the deep happiness of just being.
Through turtle practice we learn to stand firmly where we are. As Lao Tzu’s fellow Taoist Chuang Tzu says, “Sink into your rootedness in the great mystery. Your vitality and power are hidden there. A wedge cannot enter as long as you are just who you are.”
This is the secret to the turtle’s imperturbability and longevity.
You may wonder how you can settle into this imperturbability yourself. Miles Davis was asked how to become a trumpet playing master. He said, “It’s simple. Just blow, blow, blow.” Meditate, meditate, meditate. There will be times which are boring and times that are frustrating, as blowing, blowing, blowing must be, but this continual, non-judgmental effort is the core of our Zen practice. It’s hard work and we are bound to feel at times like we are not making progress. It may even seem that our meditation is nothing but unpleasant work.
But Is it possible that our meditation can be play as much as it is work? Did you know that turtles love to play and that a happy turtle is a playful turtle?
When I was a boy, I had a turtle who loved to play with an empty shell I put in his tank. He would slide the shell across the tank bottom and chase it. He even played with snails I put in his tank. And when I took him outside to my yard he would dig, dig, dig in the ground with great abandon and then look up to me in what seemed like a grin.
Humor, laughter, and play breaks down the division between the beautiful and the ugly, the spiritual and the material, the sacred and the profane. Here are two stories:
1.) A Zen student went to a temple and asked how long it would take him to gain enlightenment if he joined the temple.
“Ten years,” said the Zen master.
“Well, how about if I really work hard and double my effort?”
2.) Seeing his teacher on the other side of a raging torrent, a student waved his arms and shouted out, “Master, master, how do I get to the other side?”
The master shouted back, “You are on the other side.”
This teacher is pointing out that if we don’t rush ahead, but instead sink firmly into the earth which we are standing on, grit and all, whatever happens, we are always “on the other side.”
The Chinese poet Yuan Mei wrote,
I burned incense, swept the earth, and waited for a poem to come… then I laughed and climbed the mountain, and leaning on my staff, I laughed again. I’d love to be a master of the blue sky’s art: See how many sprigs of snow-white cloud he’s brushed in so far today!
Even though there is a 2000-year gap between Lao Tzu and Yuan Mei, I think they are best friends!
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher