Tracking Trackless Tao

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Immortal Heaven Hall in the Mountains, attributed to Dong Yuan, middle 10th C., CE, ink and light colors on silk, vertical scroll, 183,2 x 121,2 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei.

I began studying Oriental philosophy at age 13. That was when such phrases as “tracking trackless Tao” or “tracking the trackless Way” and “Zen” entered my awareness. Although I wasn’t quite sure what they meant, I thought that “not being able to make sense of them” was part and parcel of the “mystery” of “deep wisdom.”

As a 13 year-old, my favorite uncle in Belgium was recovering from a heart attack. A medical practitioner at the hospital recommended that he eat a macrobiotic diet to restore his health. My uncle invited me to attend a “Zen Macrobiotics” weekend cooking class with him.

We learned Japanese Zen cooking from a charming French Jewish guy, René Levy, mixed in with a healthy dose of Yin-Yang theory and how to balance the forces of Heaven and Earth. I was fascinated. Our teacher was an accomplished chef, an engaging expositor on Oriental philosophy, and had spent two years in a Zen monastery in Japan. I found him entertaining, interesting and admirable.

In a book my uncle bought for me there, full of Zen tales, quotes from the classic Chinese writings of Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu, and strange, Japanese Zen cartoons, I came across the Chinese word “Tao,” translated as “the Way.”

Since Zen also has scriptures from India, “the Way,” it was explained, was also related to the Sanskrit term “dharma.” Something of both the Indian Buddhist vision and the Chinese Taoist vision of “the Way” came to Japan, as the Chinese Ch’an tradition became Zen in Japan.

If you wonder what the heck that last paragraph meant, don’t worry. Let it stand as an example of how, as a 13 year old, I somehow got the impression that by knowing more and more words and “facts,” I was becoming wiser. I also thought that “wisdom” wasn’t available in my culture of origin, and thus had to seek it elsewhere.

I am pointing to something precise: I wanted to “learn” something that I thought was “wisdom.” I did not even have any grounded sense of what the word “wisdom,” in English, or its equivalent in French, “sagesse,” points to, much less that there is a profound difference between “making meanings” and “making sense.” The sense of “Tao,” in Chinese, was entirely lost to me, but I didn’t know it.

Suddenly I was privy to all kinds of new words, concepts, histories about faraway cultures and different ways of looking at the world. I was hooked. Learning all this, I wanted “more.” More of what? I never stopped long enough to really give consideration to the question.

I read Autobiography of a Yogi. Then my aunt gave me book after book out of her “esoteric” library. These included a whole slew of books by the famous “Tibetan yogi,” Lama Lobsang Rampa whose entire work, it would later be revealed, was a British fraud who had never been to Tibet.

What did I learn? What will learning that do for me? Is there another way of learning? Could the way of “learning” that I’ve taken obscure another way of learning, even for decades?

I was surprised to discover that it can. It took decades for that to come clear.

Many people read my articles or, if they receive my newsletter, they read the e-mail introducing an article, and their immediate response is “yeah, I already know that” or “oh yeah, I already read about that. Next!” They recognize some words, some book titles, a concept and are sure that they’ve already “got that down.” I’ve done the same thing.

It’s a challenge to move beyond an approach where, because I can label and define something, I believe that I “know” it, to one where I challenge myself to discover more subtleties, interrelationships, nuances and the multi-layered, multi-textured qualities that form reality. It takes far more to  grow beyond narcissistic “spirituality,” and engage with unfolding consequences in the Greater Community of Life.

And that’s more challenging that it appears on the face of it because being “modern,” by definition of its Latin root, modo: “just-right-now,” points to an immediacy born our of a lack of context and commitment to community. Such a person, in societies rooted in and responsible to the Continuity of their Community, is referred to as a slave. But a modern slave is not just a mere slave. S/he is something far more tragic: a breeder of unwitting, yet insistent, enslavement; an enslavement rebranded as “freedom from any responsibility to anything or anyone you don’t like,” with a “culture” that, in fact, cultivates permanent childishness; the anti-culture of everything reduced to an entertaining, or soothing, consumable.

Living response-ably for the consequences at play in my life, and that my living generates requires a deep sense of how consequences unfold in the Long Game of Living.  Gaining these abilities requires developmental steps that the continuance of a Community of People rely on, multi-generationally, and that are at the heart of all Wisdom Traditions in their Communities of Origin.


This reality is lost on most Westerners. Our communities have been shattered repeatedly over millenia.  Instead of facing, understanding, and taking steps to gain skills to address that situation, and the profound, ongoing trauma at the heart of it, we prefer to “adopt” somebody else’s “spirituality,” “ceremonies” or “spiritual vocabulary.” While avoiding making sense of  our own genuine experience and a way of relating to everything,  the Wisdom Traditions of other Peoples become bastardized into another consumable product or event, and just as disposable.  No real commitment to learning anything deeply, much less serving a Community competently generating multi-generational Continuity required. 

No matter how many “Boddhisattva vows” we repeat, how many “sweatlodge ceremonies” we mis-appropriate and grotesquely  imitate, how many times we take ayahuasca, peyote or magic mushrooms, or how “fine” we feel about ourselves the despair our way of relating generates in other Life Forms,  in our own children and intimates only deepens. Despair doesn’t need another costume, another “magical recipe” or more “hope.” True despair needs to be met, honestly, Truth-fully with real connection and not more mystical pacification. 

I thought that in dodging the foolishness and despair I grew up in the midst of, I might eventually find “wisdom.” So I went shopping.

Wisdom doesn’t grow by dodging foolishness and despair, but by meeting ourselves and our “people” in our authentic experience, right where we are, humbly, no costumes, no “magical recipes and rituals” required.

Would Westerners study the reality of how our health, communities, economies and even most basic sense-making capacities are being shattered by so-called “Western culture,” we might come far more rapidly and directly to a spirituality rooted in real relatedness and responsibility than by our insistence in shopping without any rootedness whatsoever in the “traditions” of peoples whose fundamental, adult premise of relatedness and responsibility underlies the way of living that their Wisdom Traditions emerge from and support.

If I merely label or congratulate myself on “already knowing that,” learning stops there.

This is nothing new. Socrates talked about this in Plato’s Phaedrus. At the point in question Theuth (typically spelled “Thoth”), the builder of the pyramids, comes to the ruler of all Egypt, Thamus, to discuss his many inventions, among which is writing:

“This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.” [bold italics added]

This article is about what Socrates pointed to here, precisely.

“Travelers Through Mountain Passes” (关山行旅图), Dai Jin, Ming Dynasty, China, Palace Museum, Beijing. Hanging scroll, ink and color on paper. 61.8 x 29.7 cm.

Many have lost all memory of our origins and the truth of how we came to this place, in this condition, much less any memory of other options of “being human.” Failing to find satisfaction in our own traditions, histories, and ancestries, reduced to cartoonish parodies of their originals, we seek out traditions from elsewhere, generally from a bookshelf, a workshop, or other format adapted to our culture of “convenience” and “personal preference.” These are just as bastardized as Chrisitianity, for example, but we don’t know it.

“Teachings” are necessarily reduced to parodies of their originals, for maximum “customer appeal” to a public “curious” about “other wisdom traditions” while profoundly ignorant of our own. Wisdom must now be repackaged for “maximum sales.” We may discover, after decades of study, that our studies aren’t leading to anything very useful, beyond our capacity to babble on about an impressive array of foreign jargon. This changes little in our lives beyond our “identity,” some new vocabulary, and the delusional conviction that our “cosmic confusion” is part of the great “mystery” that we presume to be “learning about.”

Western imperial anti-culture breeds sense-LESS-ness. Sense-ability is replaced with an infinite capacity to spin off “ideas” disconnected from any patient, sense-able observation of anything. We “think” autistically: in isolation, in disconnection, “in our heads.”

It is easy to reduce everything to our frame, to our reference points, to our habits of relationship. We may think that wisdom is something one gains by parroting and collecting, rather than recognizing, respecting and making our way through reality, and learning to eliminate.

Few pretenders-to-”wisdom” know that the word points to, literally, “the house of trails,” “the condition, the state of the trails in our homeland.” Wisdom orients and connects us, in reality. It’s sublimely terrestrial.

I didn’t know that until just a very few years ago. Yet I’ve fancied myself a “student of wisdom,” since age 13! I devoted my life to the cultivation and pursuit of something whose very sense entirely escaped me! Thinking myself “wise,” I was a fool. Perhaps my experience can serve as a cautionary tale.

I’ve asked friends who have been “seeking wisdom” for decades what the word “wisdom” points to. They’ve all rambled on with all kinds of lofty theories, unable to make sense of it.

We seek something in the outer reaches of the galaxies, while wisdom is hiding right under our feet.

It requires noticing, rather than seeking.

We are standing on wisdom. Our bodies are made of billions of years of wisdom. In our seeking, we never notice.

Wisdom is not only inherent to our humanity, it’s also systematically and institutionally annihilated by modern conditioning and imperial culture. Empires thrive with populations of self-involved fools.

A few years after that Zen macrobiotic introduction, a few more years as a Hare Krishna monk studying the Bhagavad Gita and the Srimad Bhagavatam in English and Sanskrit, in my mid-teens, another few studying the Bible, with Greek and Hebrew Concordance, I picked up a copy of the Tao te Ching by Lao-tzu.

Many of you already “know” the Tao te Ching.

DO you know it? How? What is the nature of this “knowing”?

How many of us have been true Beginners in anything that we pretend to “know”? Do we even know what that means? How would we do that? Who would we go to? What might be required of us? How quickly would we look for the exit?

The modern conceit is to go from “beginner” to “advanced,” as soon as possible. We sail past the “beginner” part. We proceed with all kinds of different enthusiasms, generally simultaneously, oblivious that we’ve already lost the Essence.

This kind of foolishness is consequent, and ignorant. It underlies much of how we relate to everything and everyone, as Westerners. The Consequences are borne by the entire fabric of Life and the results are less than flattering.

Reading the Tao te Ching over two decades and, of course, “liking it very much,” I esteemed that I was becoming more and more advanced with every reading.

Fishermen Returning on a Frosty Bank, hanging scroll, ink and color on silk, 144 x 89.7 cm. Located at the National Palace Museum, Taibei.

After a few decades of Tai Chi, reading in “Tao,” the Taoist commentaries, the Zen commentaries, the Pure Land School commentaries, more readings in Taoism, in Buddhism, travels with all kinds of people around the world, all kinds of “Qigong” by a so-called Chinese “master” in Thailand, supposedly “taoist” sexual calisthenics and multi-orgasmic hijinks, all kinds of visualizations, formulas and recipes, added one on top of the other, my advanced state of idiocy was not only certified with the shiny, golden, seal from the Great Temple of Cosmically Self-Deluded Idiots, but completely invisible to me.

Idiocy” comes from the Greek idios: “self” which then becomes idiotes: “self-referent.” An “idiot” is someone who is self-referent. He can’t see beyond his or her own frame, is oblivious to a larger context with any real depth and connection, and lives a life pursuing personal interests without enduring commitments to a greater community of related, and mutually-responsible people. This not only happens individually, it also happens culturally.

In my pretense to “discover another wisdom tradition,” with no grounding in my own history, or the history of the People whose “wisdom tradition” I presumed to discover, I had no way of knowing how many of my unconscious presumptions I was bringing to my pursuit.

Decades into my supposed “journey into wisdom,” I was caring, as a nurse, for a Chinese patient in an outpatient surgery center one day. He had some minor diagnostic procedure done. When he’d recovered from the sedatives he received, upon recognizing his name as Han Chinese, I said “Ni hao” (“hello,” in Mandarin) to him. He responded in Mandarin, quickly discovering the limits of my Mandarin vocabulary. He smiled kindly, as if bemused by the curious character who welcomed him with a few words of Mandarin, and had shown a hint of interest in his culture.

Having lived with many different kinds of people, I recognized the smile.


Any foreigner living in the United States who has delved deeply into his own native histories and wisdom ways, soon discovers how shallow the typical American’s interest is in anything, even, and especially, pertaining to their own “culture,” or even the history of only the last 50 years. Yet we feel that we have a “consumer right” to “pick up” any tradition spanning millenia, and are quite certain that we know how to do so.

Thus “the smile.”

I know “the smile.” I’ve seen “the smile.” I’ve worn “the smile.” When my Chinese patient “smiled” at me after my cute little “Ni hao,” I recognized the smile. And I recognized that there was a doorway to someone else’s experience in that smile.

Idiocy is not “bad.” It’s self-reference and self-involvement. It’s a very essential and important childhood developmental step, which we would naturally complete, but which modern childhoods rarely allow us to complete because that completion requires a level of connection which few children have with their parents.

So we stay stuck there, and the world becomes “all about me;” my likes, dislikes, opinions, preferences, beliefs, and ideas. The world is reduced to a plaything, with no real life of its own, set up for my amusement; no responsibility, no depth, everything is disposable as soon as “I don’t like it anymore.”

Someone stuck at this developmental stage has a hard time deeply integrating a greater reality. We see our likes and dislikes as the measure of all things. Depth is lacking.

Western culture is certainly idiotic in this sense. We want to bring “our way” to the rest of the world. Never mind that our children need to be medicated just to be able to sit through school, teenagers want to kill their classmates, or 60% of adults experience profound depression… we want the rest of the world to “enjoy the benefits of our way of life.” If they don’t want to, we’ve got endless weaponry to “help” them, along with countless New Age “shamans” to sell us another ticket to “the land of NOT-BEING.

“Oh, so you are interested in Chinese culture,” my Chinese patient said, very graciously.

-“Yes, I’ve studied Tai Chi for 15 years and I’ve been studying Lao tzu’s Tao te Ching for over 20 years,” I responded with a duly humble demeanor as I simultaneously alluded to my “deep knowledge” of “advanced” and “esoteric” Chinese culture and philosophy.

Out came his smile again. He sort of cocked his head sideways, looked up in the air, went quiet, looked at me deeply, sideways, with a little pinch to one side of his mouth, as if evaluating whether I was a complete fool or a teachable fool. Then his demeanor changed. I saw that he was going to give me the benefit of a doubt, instead of just playing me as a ‘foolish American’ and being ‘diplomatic.’ He said “hmmmm…” then stared off into space for another while, quiet.

I got the distinct impression that this was a very polite “hmmmm…” It seemed he was figuring out how, and how much, to give me the benefit of that doubt.

The curious thing about traveling, living, learning and unlearning with different people in different cultures, around the world is that, eventually, with patient and sustained attention, one eventually learns, not only about other people, but about our own cultural and relational presumptions, which is a polite way of talking about our blindsides and, often, our very enthusiastic idiocy.

Herd of Deer in an Autumnal Grove 951-968AD, Anonymous Painter

“You study the Tao te Ching?” he asked, with a look of surprise.


“How do you do that?” he asked with a curious, diagonal scrunch on his face, his eyebrows all bunched up.

I told him of all of the translations of the Tao te Ching that I had read over the decades, the commentaries, etc.

“But you do not speak or read Mandarin, beyond a few words.” he said.


He looked straight at me and went quiet again, as if mulling over whether to bother saying anything to me. I listened, quietly, with interest. Then I saw him decide to go straight at it:

“What you are saying is impossible. I’m not saying that you can’t read translations of Lao-tzu. You can. You cannot grasp tao this way. I have spent over fifty years studying Lao-tzu’s Tao te Ching. I study the old classical Chinese, the Seal Script that Lao-tzu wrote in, and have spent time with Taoist masters, learning Taoist classics. My father and my grandfather started teaching me when I was five years old. This is my lifetime study. It was theirs, as well. They were true students of Tao. I am only a beginner, even after a lifetime of study. At the same time, I get the impression that you have been earnestly and sincerely seeking understanding. What do you understand tao to BE?”

This gentleman was being very generous with me.

Traditional generosity points out errors and misgivings where and when they exist. This is increasingly rare in the West. Many Westerners avoid any course correction, even when they ask someone to “teach” them, thus reducing all “teachings” to mere entertainment and ending their so-called “study” as soon as it is no longer “entertaining.”

He was inviting me back to a Reality that was impossible for me to “read my way into” by reading more books.  I had thought I could grab tao “off the shelf” without any deep, ROOTED, sustained,  related and COMMITTED  language, the tradition, the landscape, the teachers, or fellow students, and the greater history, economics, politics, climate and folk culture that tao is rooted in and nurturing of.  In brief, I was “attracted to” a foreign wisdom tradition without any root in or guidance from such a tradition in the web of my own relations.  In other words, it attracted me as “an experience” I could “enjoy.”

It would take me decades to begin to more fully appreciate the shallowness and pitfalls of this approach. And yet this is what much of so-called “spirituality,” and the entire Fabric of Life itself, have been reduced to in Western culture: a consumer experience that becomes disposable as soon as it becomes truly challenging.

This Chinese gentleman was inviting me to recognize what I ignored, starting with my ignorance of the very essence of what I thought I was “studying.” To be more precise, he was inviting a very “advanced” Westerner to recognize my very “advanced” state of idiocy (literally “self-reference”) and look beyond my conviction of knowing something whose very essence I ignored.

This was a learning and unlearning moment. I had to empty my cup of all the exotic nonsense I’d collected over decades.  I had a whole collection of exotic costumes with which to cover my fundamental idiocy. He was taking me back to the First Step, the one I’d missed in my hurry to “learn something.”

I was UP FOR IT.

-“Hmmm…” I answered, shaking my head , in humbled acknowledgment. “Well, I think that the Tao is ‘the Way,’ ‘a Way that can’t be named,’ ‘a Way that leaves no tracks,’ the Way that the entire universe moves in.”

“Yes, of course. This is all in the first chapter of Lao-tzu. But what do all those words point to? You cannot make sense of it if you do not grasp the sense of ‘tao.'”

-“I am not sure what you are pointing to.”

“In your hurry you missed the Beginning. In adding more and more you stray even further from the essence. What is it that you think you are studying? What is this tao?

I looked at him in mute silence, open, receptive, somewhat stunned. I thought, several decades beforehand, that with knowing that tao is “the Way,” that I could just proceed “on my way,” so to speak. I presumed that tao was some sort of “mystical unfathomable” and that my ignorance of its nature was simply part and parcel of the whole package of “Tao.”

Now this gentleman was pointing out that I didn’t even have the sense of what tao is. My ignorance was very much my own. There certainly were true challenges in grasping the Nature of Tao, but my true challenge started with grasping the nature of my ignorance, of which I had no sense.

“Well, I thought that the tao is unnameable, something mysterious but that we could translate it, in English, as ‘the Way’.”

“Yes, of course. But, to discover the nature of that which is unnameable and trackless, tao, you must first grasp the Nature of its name and its track. To the Western mind this sounds contradictory. When you speak of the ‘unnameable and trackless Way’ without knowing the nature of the name and the track of tao, you miss the sense of what you think you are studying. If, however, you grasp the name and the track of tao, then you will understand very precisely why it is both unnameable and trackless. Tao‘s name and track reveal it clearly. Then you can pay attention to tao directly, instead of only reading about it. You will be much closer to being a true beginner, and a true traveler of tao, than if you keep trying to accumulate all of your so-called ‘advanced’ knowledge without even knowing the nature of what it is that you think you are studying.”

I listened, silently, attentively. I wasn’t quite sure what he was getting at. It all sounded very “oriental” to me. I experienced a moment of familiar confusion, recalling conversations, over many years, with my teacher Rockman.

For years Rockman said things repeatedly that made absolutely no sense to me -BUT FOR ONLY ONE REASON: it took me DECADES to SLOW MYSELF DOWN and to PAY ATTENTION, WITH MY SENSES applied to REALITY to discover the SENSE of REALITY.  “Shopping around” in other traditions was just another way of avoiding doing just that!  Of course, in the Mountain Way, this too is traditional.  We travel, live, learn, teach, and unlearn among many different people.  After doing that long enough we begin to see beyond the exoticism of “differences” and begin to notice REALITY’S underlying dynamics and principles.  We also discover that we are bumping into the same wall no matter how far we try to get away from it.

Rockman told me, at the outset of my studying with him: “You are going to be pissed off at yourself when you see how simple everything I have ever said to you is, once you SEE it!” 

I would listen to him say the same thing to me over five years and I had no idea how to catch even an edge of what he was saying to me, nor how to “SEE” it. I had to slow my ass down and spend a lot of time on the land before I began to notice. Years later, when I started actually using my senses, I was embarrassed to discover how absolutely obvious everything he had ever said to me was, had I only used my senses.

But I had not yet realized this yet when I met this Chinese gentleman in the recovery room of a day surgery clinic.  His teaching was a very great help in getting the sense that my “pursuit of wisdom” had been literally sense-less, idiotic self-distraction. Reality was actually far simpler and far more mysterious than all of the mystical, cosmic B.S. with which I had costumed my fundamental ignorance.

“With all your reading of tao, you know the secret of tao is in Beginnings. This can only be an idea to you because you missed the Beginning from the start. You have twenty years studying something whose most basic essence you ignore! You want to discover the nameless and trackless while ignoring its name and its track. This is the Western mentality. To think in either/or logic. You think that ‘trackless’ means ‘it has no track’. You think that ‘trackless’ is more ‘advanced’ than the track. So you ignore the track that points to the track-less. Having missed the Beginning you think that you’re now advanced!” he said, laughing at the silliness of how a Western mind works without wisdom, without sense.

“If you read Chinese you would not have this confusion.”

I wasn’t sure exactly what he was pointing to. “I would like to understand what you are telling me.”

You cannot just storm into a wisdom tradition from another people, country, history, and language without any grounding in the people, country, history, and language. If you miss the Beginning then all of your ‘progress’ only takes you further and further away from the Essence. You presumed to gain ‘advanced knowledge’ in something while ignoring the Essence.”

I nodded in recognition of what he said.

“Do you know how tao is written?”


“If you give me a sheet of paper I will show you.” He wrote:

“This is ‘tao.’ Do you know what these elements are?”


“When I write it in the older small seal script it will be much easier for you to SEE.” He wrote:

“The first character is a head. We write from right to left. What a head is, for Chinese people, is not the same as for Westerners. Westerners use their heads in a way that is very different from our way. Even what a ‘head’ is, for a Han Chinese, will not be so obvious for you. Western language defines everything, by writing or saying it. You think you know something because you can say it or write it. So when you pay attention, with your head, you pay attention until you can say what something is, labeling it in a way that satisfies you, then you stop paying attention! This is not the Chinese way.”

“Chinese language invokes the Presence of what is written. With that we still know nothing. We have to enter into relationship with the Presence, IN REALITY, of what the written characters can only point to and discover it deeply.

Our language does not define, it invokes. When we invoke something then we have to enter into relationship with the nature of what is being pointed to in order to discover its sense. When we write ‘head,’ there is a ‘head.’ The word does not define ‘head.’ It only calls the reality of ‘head’ to our attention.

To discover the nature of ‘head’ you have to discover and explore your relationship to your head, for a lifetime. To discover the nature of ‘heart’ you have to discover and explore your relationship to your heart, for a lifetime. To discover the nature of ‘movement’ you have to go to that which moves, for a lifetime.

When we write something, in Chinese, we still spend the rest of our lives paying attention to the reality that words only point to, even when they are our own words. Our words don’t define, they invoke. A Chinese ‘head’ has a quality of ‘attention.’ Our head speaks from connection to our hearts, our belly, and our organs, and our attention. You already know this, from Tai Chi.

A Western ‘head’ shuts off its attention as soon as it defines something. Your head speaks all alone. You think you know something because you can say it. You think you can catch the world by putting words around it. Even with this first element, ‘head,’ we are in two different worlds. Right here, at this first character, ‘head,’ this ‘head’ is not the Western head that thinks it knows because it can say something. Without a Chinese person pointing this out you would never know this. Our head pays attention in connection. This is essential to tao. This is part of the track of tao yet, right at its beginning, you already missed it. How could you possibly follow its track, all the way to where it becomes trackless?”

“When a Westerner hears these words he may think I am defining head as attention. The head has attention, many qualities of attention. What kind? Spend a lifetime paying attention and you will discover what qualities of attention you can discover. This is our way, our tao: pay attention, in connection.

If, on the other hand, you use your head to define everything, and believe that, because you define something, you know it, then attention is dead. If you apply yourself, maybe you will discover and know the Beginning, but only if you pay attention.

The Westerner misses the Beginning, pretending to be ‘advanced.’ You have spent many years reading very advanced commentaries about something whose very nature escapes you!

When we speak, open our eyes, use our ears, and taste with our tongues, in our Han Chinese way, we do this in a very, very, very different way from how Westerners learn. If you come into our wisdom system, and do what Westerners do, then you are already shut out. But you don’t know it. You continue. Even for a Chinese person tao is not easy. But if you ignore what tao is, then it is simply ridiculous. You are fooling yourself.”

I nodded and listened.

“I know that you have lived in different places and with different people because of how you are listening to me. You already have this sense that different people have very different ways of being, am I right?”

-“Yes, and I get it that I may not get what you are saying.”

“Excellent. Getting that you may not be getting it is essential to getting it. It is the essential first step because, as Lao-tzu says, the tao is so close that most people never find it. You say you study Tai Chi, right?”


“What is the first step, in Tai Chi?”

“To stand.”

“Right. The first step does not step. The first step stands. It is still, grounded. It sinks in the ground of attention. It rests. It stops. It roots. It connects.

The depth of your standing is the depth of your form. The whole form is in your standing. If you learned Tai Chi in China you might spend one, two, even five years just standing, and ROOTING.

The Western mind is repelled by this. You think that this is severe, or demanding. Severity has nothing to do with it. Westerners want to learn the form, and avoid the root. You go for the appearance but ignore the essence. You think you can learn something vast, without bringing depth to it. The Western mind wants to become “advanced,” to accumulate. In Tao, however, we go to the Essence, not piling one thing on top of the other. We discover first things first, deeply, then we rediscover the first things even more deeply.

Only when we have a root do we pretend to take the first step. The Taoist way is to return to Origins, to Beginnings, to Essence, to Simplicity. Lao-tzu says

“In learning every day something is added. In tao every day something is removed.’”

He looked at me, quietly. I listened. He continued:

“Lao-tzu wrote 81 chapters in the Tao te Ching. With the Western ‘head,’ you think that when you read one chapter, then another, you are going to ‘get’ more of tao. You want more and more tao before even knowing the nature of tao. Lao-tzu did not write chapter after chapter to give the reader MORE ‘tao.’ The chapters were not written to give you MORE of ANYTHING. Every single chapter takes something AWAY.”

“To the Western mind this is incomprehensible. You ‘think’ that words define reality. For example, you read that the tao is “trackless” so you ignore the tracks. Okay. So what are you paying attention to? Nothing! Nothing at all! You are already lost before you even started! 

In the Western way of using language there is little to no sense that the words are tracks, pointing to realities that leave tracks which, if you follow them out, eventually become track-less. When you go from the track of the words, to what the words can only point to, you go from the track to the track-less. But if you don’t even know where the words point, you are lost in nonsense, right from the outset!

Then you think that ‘being lost in nonsense’ is some sort of mystical ‘Taoist’ state. It is not!

Being lost in nonsense is being lost in nonsense.

You think you can find the ‘trackless’ by ignoring the tracks. When you pay attention to the tracks, then you discover the track…less. Pay attention to tracks in Nature and this will not seem as mystical as you imagine. The Westerner ignores the track and wants to go right to the trackless. He has no root. Then he is surprised that he becomes disoriented.

You can’t imagine, for example, a whole book being written in such a way that you return to the title and then, eventually, return to the FIRST TRACK in the title of the Tao te Ching, tao, so that you look beyond this track, at what it points to, and discover how close it has been all along.”

“The very nature of the track-LESS includes, and is revealed by THE TRACK. You think you can discover the track-LESS by ignoring the TRACK. Then you go reading chapter after chapter, adding word upon words, and you think you are learning more and more about track-LESS-ness. This is absurd, but you cannot know it because you cannot read the tracks that Lao-tzu wrote. Instead, you read words in English. Lao-tzu did not write those kinds of words. English words define. Chinese words invoke. Lao-tzu wrote tracks. You have to track them out, not copy them, or repeat them. Every track he wrote is a track to track out until it becomes track…LESS.

“’Track-less’ starts with ‘track.’ Once you have the track, then you get the ‘less.’ In Mandarin this is bu, which is the ideogram that you translate as ‘no’ or ‘not,’ in English.’ The English ‘no’ or ‘not’ is definitive. Bu is not that English kind of “no,” or “not.”

The character for bu is a bird flying up into the sky. The line on top is the horizon where the bird goes from being visible to no longer visible. When the bird is no longer visible, that is bu. But the bird is still there. In the ‘bird…less’ the bird still flies. Bu is that edge, that transition. All things are moving from this side, to the other side of that transition.

You have to pay attention, not just define. You have to observe the movement of things, not just trap them in a definition at only one point in time. Even the word bu, which you translate as “no,” or “not,” doesn’t have the same sense as in English. What you translate as ‘no track,’ and think you can define by doing so, is actually where the track becomes invisible. All tracks go from seen to not seen. It is not the absence of a track. It is the movement of a track,. It is not the negation of the track.

To know Tao, the trackless, you first have to know the tracks and follow them until they become track…less! It is not one or the other. It is movement. It is cycling. It is change. It is where things move across the edges. All tracks become track…less.

Tracklessness is not the negation of tracks or of that which makes the tracks. It is the immensity in which all tracks are made and to which all return, while they still continue to make tracks. Even in the sky that appears empty birds are flying. Even though it is bird…less the birds are still there. Even in the track…less, the tracks are still there. ALL the tracks are there. If you discover tracklessness you will know the tracks, even in the track…less. But first start with the tracks.

EVERYTHING he was saying to me was at the heart of all that I had “learned,” yet had completely and, amazingly, ignored, in all my years of “studying” tao, and Tai Chi, the shadow language on Sacred Mouintains, and everything I had pretended to be “learning” in my quest for some measure of understanding.

I was stunned. He showed me how I had converted everything into definitions, ideas and ideals, rather than invitations to pay attention to what’s real. I had spent years mystified by what amounted to my own very basic ignorance. As soon as he showed me the actual tracks of tao, I got what he was giving me. Suddenly, I was empty. There was attention. There was movement. There were tracks. They appeared and disappeared.

He looked at me deeply, quietly. I was undone. My supposed “decades of study” were empty.

He replaced my heap of “precious non-sense” with pure sensing. I found myself at the Beginning for the first time. Everything he said was obvious. I had ignored its essence, its reality, even while being able to say it. I got a deep taste of the dimensions of my ignorance, of the obviousness of what I had read, and studied, and been told, over and over again, and which escaped me. I was dumbfounded.

He went on:

“So… here we come to the second character, which is a leg. The three strokes at the top of the leg indicate movement. The leg moves. There is movement. This is not an idea. It is reality. Reality moves. To know movement you need to notice movement, in reality, with awareness. You don’t go there with only one awareness; awareness moves. You become aware of that: awareness moves. There is movement in awareness. There is a head, our kind of head, a head that pays attention. There is a leg that moves, like a Tai Chi player moves, from standing before stepping, from stillness, from center, from having a root – not just to get somewhere and do something like Westerners who are always busy.

We step from standing. If you have no root then you cannot take even this first step.

If you step, before learning to stand, you are already lost.

Waterfall falling from a towering cliff, by the Painter Mei Qing (1623-1697). Vertical scroll – 298×55 cm – Ink on Paper. Östasiatiska Museum of Stockholm

That which flows from the awareness of movement also flows from the movement of awareness. Awareness of movement moves awareness. You may be tempted to think that because you can say these words that you understand tao. But tao moves in awareness and becomes aware in movement. That is the very track and the very name of it. The track and the name cannot show you tao but they point to it. In that sense tao is track…less and name… less. Yet you cannot find tao if you ignore the pointing. Tao moves in awareness and becomes aware in movement. Go to movement and awareness, deeply, to know tao.” When you reduce the essence of what the Chinese ideogram for tao points to, to an English expression of “the Way” as used among people who have, for the most part, NO ROOT to their own ANCESTRAL WAY, then you run a very real risk of spending a lifetime journeying in the shallow clichés that you started your so-called “journey” with while being quite convinced that, the more you read, the more you “know” something about something whose very essence you ignore.  And the impact of that relationship to ALL of reality is already devastating.

I began to sense what he was showing me and the invitation to paying attention that was there.

He laughed, delightedly.

“Yes. You are seeing it. Be careful. The Western mentality is to get it as an idea. Look around you, right here, in this clinic. There is movement. Look around you, there is a movement in your awareness. This is where tao is found, as awareness and movement, not an idea. See the nature of what the name and the track of tao point to, then you will see where the track becomes track…less, IN YOU and you will see that it is happening all the time and all around you. All names and all tracks reveal it. Awareness of movement and movement in awareness reveal its track-LESS-ness and name-LESS-ness. Don’t hurry. Return to Beginnings. Awareness moves and movement awakens awareness. Drop the words and pay attention. The first step is to stand. This is my gift to you.”

I bowed to him quietly, gratefully, and he smiled. I knew he had just given me a treasure.

“Thank you for taking good care of me. Maybe after all of your years of study of tao you can start at the Beginning. First find the track, then discover track…less…ness. You have taken a long detour made of many steps. Now you will know the value of standing, just standing, noticing in the awareness of movement and the movement of awareness.” he said.

“Thank you for this gift.” I answered, grateful, enriched, humbled.

“The track reveals track…less…ness. There is no contradiction. Pay attention. Tao is so close that most who seek it will never find it. The first step is to stand.”

He smiled and laughed with delight. I smiled with him, grateful. He gave me a treasure of pure awareness and movement. He unburdened me, pointing to the Art of Tracking the Trackless in the movement of awareness and the awareness of movement, returning to the first step, which is to stand.

Gather Seeds.

Move in Awareness

Be Aware in Movement.

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