A Day in the Life of a Straw Dog

Lao TzuOne reason I feel deeply drawn to the Dao De Jing is that it relies heavily on metaphor in order to explain the way the cosmos works. This suits me just fine as a poet and translator – here at last is a classical text that expounds a coherent world-view and has been composed in a way that’s immediately accessible to me -- not requiring any specialist knowledge other than a well-developed ear and readiness to appreciate Lao Tzu’s incantations as a reasonable facsimile of the spiritual truth.

Of course metaphor and poetry are an important part of all pre-modern religious texts -- from the Old and New Testament, to the Quran and the Bhagavad Gita, many of our favorite Psalms, Sutras and Suras are filled with great lyricism.   The Sura an-Nur glows with a light of the most extraordinary beauty and verily my beloved skips over the hilltops and so on and so forth.  But in all these other holy scriptures, the poetic verses are just part of a much bigger story – one that’s more cinematic in scope, action packed and featuring a cast of thousands, from the God of Abraham to Allah and God the Father on down the line, through various experiments in creation, and the illumination of prophets and assorted disciples and contention with all His adversaries; there’s a story arc that starts at the very beginning of time and traverses all the way through the end of days itself. 

Whereas the Dao De Jing is similarly cosmic in theme yet remains far sparer in detail and more modest in scope.  In fact, it is altogether bereft of mention of any particular God, anthropomorphic or otherwise; it’s characterless (except for passing mention of a great sage) and totally without plot.  Comprised of a mere 81 short verses in total, it is thereby that much more impressive in its poetic concision.  In fact, it’s little more than a chapbook put together by an old gentleman named Lao Tzu; yet somehow it manages to convey essential truth about where we humans stand in the grand scheme of things.

To my mind, the fifth verse of the Dao is the very epitome of poetic concision, summing up much of the Daoist cosmology in a few swift strokes of the brush.

Heaven and Earth
Are without compassion
Looking down on all
Ten thousand things
As straw dogs easily hewn
The Holy Sage likewise
Lacks compassion
Seeing human ties
The same way too

Heaven and Earth
Are aligned like
A bellows or flute
Hollow but straight
Down the middle
A breath applied at one end
Soon emerges at the other
But it’s not the same
With words which
Greater in number
More paltry seem
Because meaning often
Gets lost in the middle

五 章

天 地 不 仁
 以 萬 物 為 芻 狗
 聖 人 不 仁
 以 百 姓 為 芻 狗
天 地 之 間
 其 猶 橐 蘥
 虛 而 不 屈
 動 而 俞 出 
多 言 數 窮
 不 如 守 中

This strikes me as incredibly masterful.  In the hands of a lesser poet, the passage could easily end up sounding like a mixed metaphor, as it jumps from the straw dogs of the first stanza to the giant bellows of the second.  Yet it is the classic Daoist move – highlighting the deep connection between spiritual extremes – on the one hand, the extreme detachment cultivated by the Holy Sage, and on the other, the spiritual immanence that pervades the entire universe.  How is it that we can have a heart that is both so very detached yet remains attuned to this spiritual immanence?  That is one of the central riddles of Daoism, I think.  As we read the Dao we begin to understand how this can be.  We are all of us straw dogs inasmuch as we are all sensitive to the slightest puff of breeze through the cosmic bellows.  There is indeed a deep connection between these images – immanence and detachment are mutually determined qualities that describe the way the cosmos is and ought to be arranged.

    And nothing could be more poetic and concise than the way Lao Tzu closes this verse with a reminder about the dangers of relying too much on words in shaping our understanding of things.   This is a text (much like every great poem) that invites our apprehension unmoored from the literal, as the images it conjures up linger long after the echo of its articulation has faded.  In that sense it’s fair to say the Dao is very imagistic.  It provides a visual mnemonic to support our belief.  Even the shape of the poem  -- how the characters line up on the page – can be read as an important part of its overall meaning, reinforcing the essential message about the abiding correspondence between Heaven and Earth.

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The Cloud

The image on the left is a print from a series by my friend Brian D. Cohen.  Brian and I are thinking about collaborating together on a new book project so this issue of the Tang Spirit newsletter is a first salvo fired off in that direction.  You can learn more about Brian’s work here:    www.bridge-press.com.  Or else follow him on Facebook where he regularly posts images of his work.

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Thanks and best wishes to all of you for the upcoming Mid-Autumn Festival, in the Tang Spirit may you enjoy your many Moon Cakes --

Joe Lamport (formerly known as Lan Hua)
September 1, 2014
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The Tang Spirit web site has been developed as a joint effort by Joe Lamport and Steve Zhang. Our goal is to help preserve and promote the spirit of Tang poetry. Whether you are new to Tang poetry or already an enthusiast, a student of Chinese or a lover of poetry, we hope you'll visit our site and find something of interest there.


You can also find more poetry by Joe Lamport online here (lampoetry.blogspot.com) and follow my continuing adventures with Richard Musto here (the Musto blog).