Lightness of Touch

Friday September 5, 2008

Cooking a small fish

In one of my favourite quotes from the Tao Te Ching, the old layabout and sage, Lao Tzu writes that one should rule a large country the way one cooks a small fish. Too much poking, Ursula Le Guin says in her translation (if I remember rightly) spoils it.

Fortunately, perhaps, I am not ever likely to be in a position to be able to put this advice into practice, as it seems highly unlikely that I will be running for public office any time soon; but if we accept Plato’s suggestion that there is a parallel between the governing of a state and the governing of one’s own life, then perhaps Lao Tzu’s words have a wider applicability.

I have been thinking recently about lightness of touch as a necessary component of meditation and of ethics. The way that we think about ethics, very often, is in terms of a kind of heroic struggle for the good, an idea that reminds me of the songs that we used to sing at school about fighting the good fight with all our might. But I am not sure that ethics is a matter of this kind of heroic struggle at all.

Here, there is a lovely Buddhist story that says something, I think, about the necessity for lightness of touch, whether in ethics or in meditation. The story goes (and it is, of course, just a story…) that on the night of the Buddha’s awakening, he was assailed by the terrifying armies of Mara, the personification of death. Here’s a section of Ashvaghosha’s entertaining description of the encounter from Canto 13 of the Buddhacarita.

19 Having the faces of boars, fishes, horses, asses and camels, or the countenances of tigers, bears, lions and elephants, one-eyed, many-mouthed, three-headed, with pendulous bellies and speckled bellies;
20. Without knees of thighs, or with knees vast as pots, or armed with tusks or talons, or with skulls for faces, or with many bodies, or with half their faces broken off or with huge visages;
21. Ashy-grey in colour, tricked out with red spots, carrying ascetics’ staves, with hair smoke-coloured like a money’s hung round with garlands, with pendant ears like elephants, clad in skins or entirely naked;
22. With half their countenances white or half their bodies green; some also copper-coloured, smoke-coloured, tawny or black; some too with arms having an overgarment of snakes, or with ros of jangling bells at their girdles;
23. Tall as toddy-palms with grasping stakes, or of the the stature of children with projecting tusks, or with the faces of sheep and the eyes of birds, or with cat-faces and human bodies;
24 With dishevelled hair, or with topknots and half-shaven polls, clothed in red with disordered headdresses, with bristling faces and frowning visages, suckers of the vital essence and suckers of the mind.

Not a pretty bunch, in other words. Anyway, in certain versions of the story (although not in Ashvaghosha’s somewhat overwraught version) as Mara is throwing whole armies of demons at the Buddha, he demands of the seated sage what right he has to sit there beneath the Bodhi tree. In reply, the Buddha touches the ground lightly with his fingertips. And the barrage of missiles, arrows and burning coals that Mara and his hordes hurls turns into a shower of fragrant flowers.

The gesture of touching the earth – known in Buddhism as the bhumisparsha mudra – is a beautiful one. It is, for me, a gesture that responds to brutishness with subtlety, to sound and fury with quiet attention. And it is one that undercuts the idea that ethics and meditation (and the image seems to be one that says something about both) are a matter of heroic struggle.

Recently, I have been bearing Lao Tzu’s advice in mind as I meditate in the mornings. Meditate the way you would cook a small fish. Too much poking spoils it. It seems, as far as I can tell, to be excellent counsel. And perhaps, if it is possible to put aside what are often self-aggrandising stories of heroic struggle, it is good advice also when it comes to the curious business of how we might best go about the governance of our own lives.

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