The Old One and the Gatekeeper (2)

The story of the Old One and the Gatekeeper told in Part One may be just that – a story. Or it may be the truth, turned into legend. Classical Chinese history places Lao Tzu as a 6th century BC contemporary of Confucius, and there are reliable records of their meetings. They were said to have great respect for each other’s work.

But, beyond his book, very little is known about the mysterious sage Lao Tzu, other than he was an imperial archivist in the outgoing Zhou dynasty in the 6th century BC.

In contrast, the story of Confucius is set (by himself) in a well-documented historical milieu. His heroes are the legendary figures of the past. In comparison with Lao Tzu who left no historical basis of his own existence, The Analects, compiled by Confucius’ disciples after his death, presents twenty volumes of work that weave their teacher’s life into China’s history.

Lao Tzu, the author of the Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching) had no interest in such temporal things… he had other matters on his mind and in his heart. His quest was what we would now call a mystical one, and that is the reason I embarked on this difficult project – to put forward some hopefully helpful comparisons between the Book of the Way and modern mysticism. Lao Tzu is credited as being the father of Daoism, but scholars of philosophy find little similarity between his provocative and enigmatic writings and the animistic religion of present-day Daoism.

In terms of spirituality, Chinese antiquity focuses on the two great teachers Confucius and Lao Tzu. Our first posts will look at the work of the latter. Later, we will consider the part that the I Ching (Book of Changes) played and continues to play in the transmission of ancient oriental wisdom. Confucius did not create the I Ching, which was already an old and established system of divination when Lao Tzu wrote his book in the sixth century BC, but it was said he drew heavily on its for his own philosophy.

A detailed consideration of the life and work of Confucius is beyond the scope of this series of posts.

The two books: the Book of the Way and the older Book of Changes were not related and were different in their intentions. Confucius did not write the Book of Changes – I Ching – but it is considered to be far more Confucian than the Book of the Way written by Lao Tzu. There is a tendency in the west to consider the two traditions as related or even the same. But they are different.

However, the mixture of wisdom from the two sources informed Chinese thought and life for hundreds of years to such an extent that later extrapolations of meaning carry the flavour of both. The spirit of Confucianism was focussed on effective and moral behaviour, and good government. The spirit of Lao Tzu’s teachings was to step aside from traditional explanations of the world and look at it in an entirely different and radical way.

Lao Tzu was a spiritual revolutionary – though he sought no notoriety – and, in my opinion, was more similar to the much later mystical Sufis than any of his contemporaries. Tradition says he left China heading west, and is believed to have settled in India. There is no suggestion that he was instrumental in the establishment of Buddhism, which sprang from that region at the same time, but there are certain similarities of approach in how the two systems see our relationship with the world.

Nothing in Lao Tzu’s work suggests that he wanted himself to be remembered, but everything in his work is aimed at the retention of the thoughts, ideas and practices put forward in the 81 aphorisms of the Book of the Way – a set of wisdom texts that were to be consulted as such, and not used as the basis for divination in the way the I Ching was.

Richard Wilhelm, one of the most famous translators and interpreters of China’s ancient traditions, divides Lao Tzu’s translated work into three sections based on the the sage’s naming of the book, itself.

Dao De Jing translates, literally as Way-Life-Meaning

The three divisions are: The Way and The Life and then their combination, the Meaning. As a prelude we might consider two of the core considerations of the work: the nature of our relationship with the world; and, by inference, the nature of duality.

Lao Tzu’s work begins by instructing us in the nature of consciousness and the nature of its inherent duality.

Lao Tzu’s work begins by instructing us in the nature of consciousness and the nature of its inherent duality. These are necessarily subjective, as we each gain insight from the aphorisms appropriate to our understanding at the time:

The universe is undivided.

Only our way of perceiving it is divided.

Such division is necessary for us to come into the world and see it because we are of the world.

We are the world seeing itself and are capable of gradually realising our true relationship with it.

The societies into which we are born may resist our attempts to do this; and insist that we adopt the ruling dogma. This can be the hardest of tasks.

The diagram – my own – illustrates these points in terms of the establishment of duality. The universe – the whole – establishes ‘existence’: a field within which there will first be chaos. There is a purpose in the manifestation of the universe and this is served by the establishment of order over chaos. Mankind’s intelligence is expected to play its part in this task. S/he has been given a brain in order to use it in service to the universal cause, this is the primary belonging that should be borne in mind.

Mankind has been given a heart so that sympathy will be felt and become a motivator to assist others

We belong to this quest, not to our self-aggrandisment.

The One therefore divides itself, as seen from below. To itself it is whole and undivided; but chaos must now be mastered with order, with symbolic ‘light’.

The children of the One exist at their own levels, but they are also of the One and seen from above are undivided; that is, they carry the seed of greatness within them, a seed designed to germinate in the spirit of service to the group quest.

A ‘child’ looking back up at the universe sees only duality: it and the world. To see beyond this requires the intervention of the spark of the One within the child. There are certain conditions under which this will be favourable.

To be continued…

6 May 2020

©Stephen Tanham 2020

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

#ShortWrytz : The Time-Capsule

(Above: The Saltpetre – a 19th century gunpowder store at the end of our garden!)

I’ve written about it, before. The Saltpetre is a gunpowder store that was used to house the produce of the local gunpowder factory by the river Kent. The ‘black powder’ as it used to be called, was brought up through the village, slowly, by horse and cart – the cart having dressed wheels to help prevent sparks. There were many deaths in the village from explosions, so everyone was deeply conscious of the danger.

Old (black) gunpowder was mixed in the following proportions (by weight): 75% potassium nitrate (saltpetre), 15% softwood charcoal, and 10% sulphur. Our quirky outbuilding was named after the component with the greater part by volume – 75%. We suspect that gunpowder was also generally known as ‘saltpeter’ in those days when the bargemen would collect it from the canal wharf that is now our garden and take it south.

The photo was taken from the lower part of the garden. It’s lower because it was the canal bed. The Saltpetre was constructed in about 1820, the year the local Quaker banker and gunpowder entrepreneur, the first John Wakefield, persuaded the canal trust to change their route and run as close to his works as possible.

The simple stone structure has been there ever since, enjoying many incarnations, but none as exciting as its original use. For the past decade, we have been filling it up with our ‘stuff’. It’s bigger than it looks and has taken a lot of filling! But, with the Covid-19 lockdown in place, it made sense to spend some of the time doing the long-promised clean out.

Right at the back were three shoe boxes, each one carefully taped closed so that not even dust could get in. I had packed them – several house-moves ago, but any knowledge of their contents had long vaporised.

Grubby from the day’s dusty excavations and disposal into a mountain of ‘black bags’, I reached for a my knife and sliced open the tape, feeling intrigued as to what was in there.

Much of it was instantly binable. But an inner ‘jiffy pack’ contained two items: a vintage pocket watch, bought on a business trip to The Hague, and a passport sized photo of me taken approximately 25 years ago. I had thought the watch was long lost, and was delighted to be reunited with an object I loved. It cost me the equivalent of £150 back then. Not a huge investment, but I found its slim and elegant lines very pleasing, and simply wanted to keep it.

The second item was more shocking. There’s nothing quite so sobering as seeing yourself as you were a quarter of a century ago… Ageing is inevitable, but such a brutal confrontation across the years requires a deep breath.

The day was ending in a lovely and still-warm sunset when, freshly showered, I brought the two objects to our patio table, where Bernie had made us each a long gin and tonic.

We sat in silence, gazing at the evening gold reflected in drink and watch, and laughing at the young man. Talk about a time capsule!

©Copyright Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

The Old One and the Gatekeeper

The Old One crested the rise in the road and turned to look back at the land he had loved. If all went to plan, it would be the last time he saw his home.

The breeze that should have been summer-warm was cold and frigid, yet carried the warm stink of corruption. He could no longer breathe its air. He had to leave; had to find a new home for the few years that remained. The low nature of man had triumphed. Now, only nature, herself, could return the rotted civilisation to the country’s soil and make it fit for fresh seeds.

Ahead of him the final barrier to his exile loomed in the near darkness. The old tower that guarded entry and exit along the western road spanned the track, its heavy wooden gate lowered to forbid the unbidden. High up in a recess in the black stone, a single light burned. Had he been seen? The skin on the back of his head began its familiar sensation of ripples in the sand, as though an incoming tide was patterning his mind, as in the paintings he had seen of beaches…

There was no escaping the onset; in the other world, he was being eaten by the way, the path, the track… In the other world; the one that flowed over and alongside this seemingly fixed and rigid one. The one that was more real than this land of rocks could ever be.

Ahead of me a lamp in one of the high windows burns. The thought would not leave, the rippling scalp remained. Its signature was on this moment. There would be no escape from the payment demanded.

Before he could cross the short distance to the gatekeeper’s door, the heavy portal opened and a kindly face – at least as old as his – peered out, straining to see in the half-light.

“Is it you?” the voice croaked at his approach.

The Old One was startled… and began to laugh at the sentiment. Is it me, indeed?, he mused, tripping over an unseen stone by the roadside and landing in the dust at the other’s feet.

“It would appear to be me… arrived in all my diminishing glory.”

The Gatekeeper smiled down at him, extending his hand to a man he did not know, but had wanted to all his life. The Old One took it, grateful, and they came face to face.

“I saw you once, passing through the royal courts. You’re the Royal Archivist, yes?”

“I was…” The Old One replied, returning the gentle fire in the other’s eyes. Glad to be with a man he hoped would not only understand but become a friend. “Now I am nothing… and hope to stay that way…”

The Gatekeeper nodded. “Many now leave the realm by this west gate. Have no fear. My respect for you is as great as my thirst for your knowledge of the Way.” He looked down, embarrassed at what he was about to say. But the old eyes blazed with fire and resolution.

“I will give you food and shelter and in return I ask that you teach me a little of that understanding.”

“You cannot teach understanding,” the Old One said. “But I will pass to you some knowledge and we will see if you can begin the Way… for those whose first steps are firm may find the Way teaches them.”

The Gatekeeper nodded and they climbed the wooden stairs together – slowly, for the four legs had seen younger days…

——-

The warm fire smouldered in the grate. The wooden bowls contained only crumbs – and few at that. Before them, the two wooden goblets of huangjiu, the local yellow wine, lay untouched; to be savoured during the discourse to come. The Gatekeeper’s eyes were fixed on the Old One, but he said nothing to his guest, who appeared to be sleeping in his chair.

“I am not asleep,” the Old One remarked, eventually. “I am listening to the Way, and how it will approach the task of leaving you something meaningful.”

The Gatekeeper bowed and remained silent.

“Do you remember how I fell over the rock in the road?” The Old One smiled at the memory.

The Gatekeeper shook with mirth. “Solid things, rocks…”

The Old One’s head nodded. “More sense to go around it, had I seen it at all!”

The Gatekeeper was seized with a sudden depth of understanding. “And you speak, not just of that rock, perhaps Lǎoshī!”

The teacher smiled at the use of the formal name. “Good. The Way is a flow, it does not resist, for to resist is to increase the ‘me and it’ : the opposition of the situation. Action belongs to The Way, and so, in any situation, it will seek the flow by which the resistance is made small…When we are aligned with The Way, then we become it, in action – which is its own fulfilment.”

The Gatekeeper bowed his head, again, understanding. He was silent for a while, while the Old One watched. Then he asked, “How do I come to know The Way, Lǎoshī?”

“You must talk with it, Gatekeeper.” said the Old One. “You must read its thoughts and let them guide the changes in your life.”

“And how will I read those thoughts, Lǎoshī?”

“You will consult a book of its wisdom, and in that way become a Man of Calling.”

“And where will I find this book, Lǎoshī?”

“When you wake in the morning, you will find it waiting for you… Now drink your yellow wine and sleep.”

“And what will you be doing, while I sleep, Lǎoshī?”

“I will be writing the book!” said the Old One, furrowing his brows in mock anger.


When he awoke in the morning, the Gatekeeper found the Dao Book of the Way (Dao De Jing) on his table. There was no sign of his guest, whose last action was inaction – leaving no trace. No-one ever recorded meeting with Lao Tzu, (literally, the ‘Old One’), again, though many, including Confucius, had known and respected him.

In the next few posts, we will explore Lao Tzu’s astonishing legacy, beginning with some of the fundamental principles that informed his view of life, the universe and the meaning of ‘meaning’.

We will also look at the second such ‘book’ of ancient Chinese wisdom, the more familiar ‘I Ching’ – Book of Changes, and consider the process and power of divination using such treasure-chests of wisdom.

We’re all going to need access to wisdom in the coming years of turmoil – much as Lao Tzu did in the face of a collapsing society whose values had become meaningless.

30 April 2020

©Stephen Tanham 2020

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

Shaman, viral… collective unconscious

The last time it happened, I was in Mexico, in the Mayan temple of Chichen Itza. After a long coach journey, and a beautiful swim in cold but crystal clear cenote, we had arrived at the fabled temple complex; and were lucky enough to have one the best guides I have ever encountered.

He was of the native people and described – with great gentleness – how the spirit of what happened at the city-temple complex was gradually being lost. As we were guided around the different locations in the vast complex, the day grew hotter, but the warmth seemed to take on an aliveness which fed me, rather than drained.

Minutes later I had a vivid image of a jaguar leaping from the central pyramid at me… Later the guide told the group of the importance of the Jaguar to the ancient Mayan priests.

My good friends Allan and Ann Pringle assured me this was a Shamanistic experience…. and implied that I had better get used to them. Several more followed in the heat of that day. Throughout, I felt no fatigue, although those around me were becoming visibly tired by the day.

Allan is a trained Zuni Shaman. In the same year, I had a similar experience at Uluru Rock in central Australia, while visiting my eldest son and his family. Again, there was the sense of being nourished by the heat.

Today it was a simple fire that triggered it; that and a thought I considered to be of great importance for my forthcoming Tuesday blog on Sun in Gemini – still unwritten at that point.

We have had a hard-working day, mainly in the garden. There’s not a lot of choice of location in this Covid-19 lockdown period. So, jobs that have been put off for a while are brought to the fore, and Bernie and I find ourselves putting in a long day of quite intense physical work. Our lawn has suffered over the very wet Cumbrian winter. The moss has overtaken the grass in large parts of the garden. The only cure is to scarify the three separate lawns – made simpler by a petrol-driven machine we bought a few years ago; but still a five or six hour job. We had set aside the whole day to get it done.

Extraordinarily for an English April, the sun has been beating down for weeks. Monday dawned the same. By the start of the afternoon, it was obvious that cooler weather was not coming to our aid. We began the work. It was towards the end of this very physical period of over five hours that I decided we needed a small bonfire to get rid of some of our excess cardboard and help reduce a pile of old logs that have been accumulating as we demolished earlier attempts at landscaping.

I was lighting the fire when the thought that had been in the back of my mind came again. Since the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, I have been having vivid dreams. Some of them have seemed to contain a message that my sleeping mind has struggled to retain. Usually, during the course of the day, these are lost to waking consciousness, but today I awoke with a clear picture of what I wanted to set down.

Over the previous week, I had noticed that other bloggers were making reference to similarly intense dreams. I believe they are all connected.

Staring into the flames of the garden fire, I recovered the clarity of my own dream. Jung spoke of the ‘collective unconscious’ – a shared place of conscious awareness which speaks to us in dreams and symbols. Throughout mankind’s history, periods of turmoil and chaos have been interpreted as being of deeper importance than just the ‘physics’ of their happening. I’m not fanciful in these matters, but I believe that it is essential that we throw off old ways of thinking. We have many crises to solve, but the old and powerful controlling forces that hold the planet’s social and economic conventions intact are resistant to change – seemingly regardless of the cost to life on Earth.

I believe that the intense dreams many are having are the seeds of the new. These will need to germinate in the collective unconscious mind until they are strong enough to break free into the ‘day-world’ of our social, political and economic lives.

When I came back to ordinary consciousness, I was still staring at the fire. The sun was setting and some time had passed. I felt at peace that the earlier dream memory had been recovered.

Time will tell if the vision is accurate or even important, but I sense a period of great change – one brought about by the breaking down of the present order of things and the fragility of our ecosystems on this beautiful planet.

There will be no escaping Earth if we get it wrong. I find the idea repulsive that, having failed to be guardians to such a beautiful place, we could escape a dying Earth to seek other hospitable planets without fixing ourselves first. There will be no second chance. We must fix things here…

Still intensely moved by this, I walked around the garden in the sunset to take a few photos that I hope express this mood… and this feeling of hope and renewal. I hope you like them.

©Stephen Tanham 2020

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

It’s okay that it’s not okay

From Sue…

The Silent Eye

Shards of glass flew everywhere, surrounding my bare feet and covering the work surface with sparkling motes. The sun through the window lit the tiny fragments with incongruous rainbows. My hand, abused by a heavy day in my son’s garden, had refused to grip the slick surface. It was nothing much, a simple accident that would normally have passed by almost unremarked, save for the odd expletive. Instead, I could feel a knot tighten in my stomach, the pressure of tears demanding release behind my eyes as I ordered the dog to her bed to protect her paws. The mythical ‘stiff upper lip’ began to quiver and I felt about as steady on my feet as a jelly.

Even as the tears came, I could not help laughing at myself. It was ridiculous to get so upset over a broken glass.

As I started to clear up the mess, though…

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Marking the Horizon

Our garden is south-facing, which is lovely when the sun shines, as we benefit from its rays through most of the day.

I’ve begun to write about the history of our ‘gunpowder’ village of Sedgwick in other posts. The old (drained) canal bed that runs through our garden has been a challenge to incorporate into a coherent design, but, a decade on, we seem to have achieved it.

One benefit of the garden’s orientation is that the evening sun sets along a ridge about a mile away. In winter and early spring we have a clear view of this progression, as each day gives it a little more clockwise distance along the horizon line. As the foliage on the far side of the canal grows with the maturing summer, the ridge becomes more difficult to see, but is always there to our right – given that the sun is visible at all…

The approach to midsummer is, for me, the most emotionally powerful time of the year. As a mystically inclined person, I marvel each year at the level of sheer ‘aliveness’ that permeates the summer air, particularly as the sun is setting over that far ridge and filling the Cumbrian world with a last blaze of gold as it sinks between the distant trees.

I take a lot of photographs, as you may know from previous posts. One of the delights of the summer is to poke a long lens towards that sunset and let the blends and reflections create Their own work of art. It doesn’t matter if the photo is not technically good. What matters is to bathe in the beauty of the blazing reds and oranges as they project through the wooden branches of the near and far trees and shrubs.

Beginning in late March, if the day is clear, I will often be found nurturing a final cup of tea on our patio (occasionally, something stronger) and snapping dozens of shots of the moments just before, and just after, the sunset. I throw away most of these, but the odd few are worth keeping… and on a correspondingly dark day in winter, provide some fuel for the soul and a sense of ‘hang on in there’. Cumbria has long, dark and wet winters, which makes the spring and summer all that more precious. Summer, itself, is not guaranteed, though we always have the intense green and the knowledge of summer.

I’ve often tried to express that glorious feeling of the gentle months. It’s not just the obvious warmth, though that is pleasant. There is also a softness to the air, and the sense that it is filled with a kind of creative energy. There is the sense that you are being pulled out of the body and into a state of merged being… I suspect that we all, as children, do this naturally, and that is why kids go crazy with energy and fun when the sun shines.

Really, it’s a state of just being. As a verb it doesn’t need an object: In that golden state, I don’t need to be anything… It’s bigger than that and I will dilute it if I restrict it to a something. That golden feeling of summer captures this. Just to be is the most powerful thing possible. Throughout mystical history, people have sought to express and symbolise this in different ways. The Christian world, for example, names the longest day the Feast of St John. John is viewed as the most mysterious and the most mystical of the Christian fathers, and, for me, the attribution fits well.

This year, Bernie and I have decided to create a permanent marker in the garden to show the alignment with the solstice and the Sun’s final point of zenith on the horizon. One of my sons and his wife bought me, for my birthday last year, an armillary sphere, otherwise known as a spherical astrolabe. This is a model of objects in the sky, based on the the celestial sphere above us, rather than the celestial globe, which is a smooth sphere that maps the constellations.

The armillary sphere consists of a spherical framework of rings, centred on the theoretical Earth or the Sun. It shows lines of longitude and latitude and other important features such as the ecliptic. Our intention is to design a setting for it whereby the arrow can point to the point of farthest progress of the Sun as it crosses the far ridge in its final moment of setting.

This marking of the horizon of the longest day is, of course, an ancient practice. The solstice has been associated with festivals of ‘full-nesss’ for as long as mankind has gazed at the heavens and given thanks for the energy than enables us to have food for our bodies. The harvest comes later. The energy of the Sun is, by then, embedded in what keeps our bodies alive.

We hope our marking of the horizon in this way will provide us a little ‘food for the soul’ as we inch towards the third week in June. This simple act of marking the horizon, will become very special in the weeks to follow.

©Copyright Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

Complex Harmonic Motion

Sphere or disc, it matters little

What your complex words cry

Into the wind – the only thing that separates us

Not distance, not when: 

Your smallest sigh,

Your first breathed sound,

The movement, even, of your lips,

Stirs my heart to action

⦿

And, pumping blood, 

In ancient ways you could not grasp

I change before your eyes into arrowed fur and claw

Head stretched on neck reaching into time

Purposeful and sleek beyond your unformed dreams of dog

And watching full of awe as wolf emerged

To hold you, hazel-spelled, with her softened eyes.

Intelligent, now, they guide the ‘snook’

The word you gave the tip of this living arrow

That now, like a lightning strike

Steals the ball from the air before it lands

A second time… waiting…

⦿

To hear, from far behind my vortex tail

Your howl of delight

A noise I taught you, long ago

When puppy legs were shaped like ‘A’

And we began…

⦿

Your she-wolf

Run me well. man-friend

as I curl my warm life

Around yours

In complex, harmonic motion

⦿

Stephen Tanham

20April20

©Stephen Tanham 2020

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.