Learning to Wonder

We would not be human, if we were not at times filled with natural wonder. We "wonder" at a colourful sunset, at a panoramic view from a mountain top, at the night sky filled with thousands of twinkling stars. This natural wonder makes us ask questions like this:

What we need to learn is to take this natural sense of wonder a step further. We have to learn to probe deeper, to see at what is going on "behind" things and events. We need to wonder at the Ultimate Reality that lies underneath everything in our world. To acquire this skill, we will turn to the Chinese spiritual masters Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu.

Looking at an old tree

With even a little experience of life we know that things are often not what they seem. Chuang Tzu goes further. "Things are never what they seem", he tells us. "There is success in failure and failure in success. Beautiful things are ugly and ugly things are beautiful. For failure and success are but two sides of one coin. Beauty withers and ugliness turns into beauty. Everything changes; except for the immutable reality, Tao. Tao underlies both failure and success, beauty and squalor."

gnarled tree

A story may illustrate the point. A carpenter called Shih was on his way to the state of Chi accompanied by an apprentice. When they arrived at Chu Yuan, they rested under a huge tree that overshadowed the village shrine. The tree spread a wide canopy of branches and towered as high as a hill. The apprentice was impressed.

"Master," he exclaimed, "never since I took up my axe and followed you, have I set eyes on more tempting timber. Why don't you even look at it?"

"Shut up!", Shih replied. "This tree is useless. The branches are gnarled and twisted; they won't do for beams or rafters. The trunk is curved and knotted; it can't be used for coffins. Look at its wood: it's all worthless timber. A boat made of it would sink, a coffin would rot, a tool would split, a door would ooze sap and a beam would have woodworm. That's why it has been left alone, because it's useless."

That night the sacred tree appeared to Shih in a dream. "Why are you belittling me?", it cried. "Are you comparing me to so called useful trees? Have you never noticed what happens to them? Apple, pear, orange and other fruit trees are stripped bare at harvest. They are pruned or cut down when they don't produce; all because they are 'useful'. And what about catalpa, cypress and mulberry trees? As soon as they reach maturity, they are sawn into planks, beams and boards. You see, if you're useful you attract attention. I've been trying for a long time to be useless. Once or twice an axe was laid to me, but being useless saved me. Could I ever have grown so large, if I had been useful?"

When the carpenter remained speechless, the gnarled tree continued with even greater scorn. "You and I are both things. How can one thing presume to judge another thing? What does a fallible and useless man like you know about a useless tree?"

Shih woke up and began to reflect on the meaning of his dream. When he narrated the dream to his apprentice, the latter said: "If the tree really wants to be useless, why does it overshadow the shrine?"

"Good gracious! You are right", Shih exclaimed. "It's only pretending to be useless. No one will dare to cut it down because it is a sacred tree. That's how it protects itself. We must look at it from a different point of view.'' (Chuang Tzu, 4.11)

The story deliberately baffles us. A giant tree proves to be useless. We then realize how useful this uselessness is. Finally we discover it has some use, after all. The point is not only to make us discover that everything is relative; that much depends on the angle from which we view things. The Chinese master wants us to feel the "swing" from one extreme to the other; as from usefulness to uselessness, and vice versa.

For life is an endless chain of such "swings". The one undeniable observation we cannot miss is that everything we know changes: from life to death, and from death to life; from fame to disrepute, and from disrepute to fame; from weakness to power, and from power to weakness. An insignificant seed grows to be a strong tree, then succumbs to the axe. A promising sapling is struck by lightning but turns out to outlive all other trees in its patch of forest.

What happens to a dead tree?

The Taoists loved the image of the gnarled and useless tree. For them it was a frozen symbol of change - and thus capable of pointing to the permanent reality underlying all change.

Suppose some sacrificial bowls are carved from an old tree. The bowls are painted with green and yellow designs. The splinters of wood that have been cut away lie rotting in a ditch. One part of the tree has become a piece of art, the other part trash. But are they really different? Were they not both part of the natural tree? Our senses deceive us. Fingering the bowl we love its touch, we admire the colours, we smell the perfume it contains and we like the sound when we tap its sides. Thus we are taken in and fail to see the original nature of the wood.

The tree has become a parable. It teaches us that we should look underneath realities that change. What we find there is Tao, Ultimate Reality.

"Life is followed by death;
death is followed by life.
What cannot be done, can be done;
what can be done, can no longer be done.
Right becomes wrong and wrong right.
The flow of life changes circumstances and then things themselves are changed in turn . . .
People will never see Tao when they only notice one of a pair of opposites,
when they concentrate on only one aspect of being . . .
The pivot of Tao passes through the centre where all affirmations and denials converge.
He who holds to the centre is at the still-point from which all change and all opposition can be seen in its right perspective.''
(Chuang Tzu 2.3)

Looking at the transformations of a gnarled tree we become aware of Tao. Tao holds the unchanging "whole" of which all limited things are temporary expressions. When we become aware of Tao, all becomes relative.

"When we look at things in the light of Tao, there is no 'better' or 'worse'. Everything is good and can be considered 'better' than something else, seen on its own terms. Everything is greater than one thing and smaller than another. The whole world is a grain of rice. The tip of a hair is as large as a mountain.'' (Chuang Tzu 17.4)

Unbelievable though it may seem, in one useless old tree we may suddenly glimpse the core of the universe.

What is "Tao"?

Tao is the absolute reality that produced all the things we see.

"The Tao begot one.
One begot two.
Two begot three.
And three begot the ten thousand things.''
(Tao Te Ching 42,1)

The One is the Tao itself, Ultimate Reality, looked at as unifying principle. The two are heaven and earth, or yin and yang, the pair of opposites. The ten thousand things comprise all changing creatures. Tao made everything to be what it is. It created from within the most various beings.

"From the beginning, these things arose from the One:
Heaven is clear through the One.
The earth is solid through the One.
The spirits have power through the One.
The valley produces plenty through the One.
The ten thousand things have life by the One.
Kings and lords rule the country through the One.
It is the One that makes them what they are."
(Tao Te Ching 39,1)

The Tao is, therefore, the inner life force that brings forth, causes to be, supports. The Tao is inescapable. It is the bedrock of existence. It is the foundation, the source, the root. Things are what they are because of it.

"The Tao is that from which one cannot deviate.
That from which one can deviate is not the Tao."
(Chung Yung, Tao master)

"The Tao causes life and death;
losing it people die, gaining it they live.
Whatever is done without Tao fails;
whatever is done through Tao succeeds.
Tao has no roots, no stem, no leaves, no blossom.
And yet the birth and growth of the ten thousand things, each according to its kind, depend on Tao."
(Kuan Tzu, Tao master)

What more can we say about Tao? Is the Tao of the ancient Chinese masters the same Ultimate Reality whom Christians call "God"? The answer is Yes, even though the "Tao" and "God" are the same Reality perceived from different angles.

When we speak about God, words fail. Human language uses nouns and names to distinguish specific objects. But the characteristic of Ultimate Reality is precisely that it is not specific. It does not carry any of the limiting traits that apply to the creatures it produces.

"The Tao that can be put into words is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the everlasting name."
(Tao Te Ching 1,1).

"It cannot be seen - it is beyond form.
It cannot be heard - it is beyond sound.
It cannot be held - it is intangible . . .
Hard to observe, it cannot be named.
It fades into nothingness as the shape of the shapeless
as the image of the imageless;
indefinable, beyond imagination."
(Tao Te Ching 14,1-2)

A reality mysteriously formed,
complete before heaven and earth,
silent and void,
standing on its own and unchanging,
ever present, never outdone:
it can be the mother of the ten thousand things.
I do not know its name.
Therefore I call it 'Tao'."
(Tao Te Ching 25,1)

Suggested practice

During your time of silent meditation, spend some time in "wondering".

In practice this will move through two stages.

Text from: JOHN WIJNGAARDS, God Within Us, London 1988.

Short Readings on Wonder

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