Hold on to Being, Yet Keep to Non-Being

“Hold on to being and keep to non-being” is an important verse in the Tao De Jing. The meaning is quite complex and can apply to various situations. But to help illustrate one of the meanings I will tell you an old story about a monk and a female benefactor.

There was once an old woman who took care of a monk for many years. Far from her village she provided him with a hut and food, and the monk devoted twenty years to practicing Taoist meditation and health exercises by himself. The implication was that he daily practiced Zuo Wang (Sitting and Forgetting meditation), Taijiquan, and Eight Brocades Seated Qigong.

One day the old woman decided to test the monk to see how well his practice had progressed. She decided to send her beautiful young daughter to visit the monk’s hut. She instructed her daughter to pretend she was in love with him and wanted to elope with him to some remote place where her mother could not find them. When the young woman arrived at his hut she poured her heart out to him, professing her deep love and desire for them to be together. After hearing her pleas the monk responded, “There is a dead tree leaning up against an ice rock. Winter months have no warmth.”

The daughter returned home and told her mother what the monk had said. The old woman became very angry, and thought the monk’s response meant he was in need of female companionship. She went immediately to the monk, accusing him of being a paramour and that his practice had not matured. Then she kicked him out and burned his hut down, and the monk just wandered off into the mountains muttering some happy tune.

The old woman had misunderstood the monk’s response. He wasn’t speaking literally of the cold months of winter and a need for the warmth of a woman. He was actually saying he was not moved by the young woman’s antics, like a dead tree leaning up against a rock of ice there was no movement or interest in the young girl on his part. He did not care if he had warmth in the winter months. His response actually showed his practice had very much progressed and he was transforming into an immortal, as later the old woman remembered the song he was humming when walking into the mountains was actually a verse from the Clarity and Tranquility Scripture,

“Clarity  is  the  source  of  turbidity.  Movement  is  the  basis  of tranquility.  If  people  were  able  to  constantly have  clarity  and tranquility,  they  would  then  understand  that  all  of  Heaven and Earth return to the Dao.”

But at the time the old woman did not get the meaning of the monk singing this verse.

The monk was unattached to his hut, as well as the old woman and her young daughter, so whether in a hut or in the mountains he was with the naturally-just-so of the Tao.

The story is saying that in life we can easily merge with either favorable or unfavorable conditions, but it’s really important how we react in unfavorable ones. For example, the monk, even though he was kicked out and his hut was burned, faced that unfavorable situation with calmness. He simply walked away with no anger towards the old woman or her young daughter. He had no attachment to the hut, having progressed in his cultivation to reaching selflessness. Lu Dongbin (the great immortal of the Tang dynasty and one of the Eight Immortals) related that being selfless is to be immortal. Why? Because if there is no self what then can die?

The old woman made a very big mistake. If she had realized at that time the monk was an immortal she could have been saved and reborn in an immortal paradise. She simply didn’t understand the context of “Hold on to being, yet keep to non-being.” The monk understood it quite clearly. His practice was to digest all the many things that come forth from the illusionary external world, but living in accord with Reality (the True Tao), which is so vast, nothing can ruffle you, nothing can create anxiety, and nothing can bring about a disturbance to your clarity and tranquility. The monk had the clarity to see the young woman was attempting to disturb him, and he had the tranquility not to be moved by it. The monk understood that things are neither real nor unreal, existent or non-existence. Hence, he held on to the idea of having a self, and yet could embrace having no self simultaneously.

One final comment, when practicing meditation do not have thoughts of good meditation or bad meditation. Sitting is just sitting and nothing more. Don’t attached yourself or be disturbed by good and bad. Just sit. “Hold onto the act of sitting, yet keep to the idea of not-sitting.” So sitting is neither sitting nor not-sitting, it’s just Tao.

—Stuart Alve Olson

Sanctuary of Tao