The essential Taoist guide to living with simplicity, compassion, and integrity
This is a book that draws on ancient Chinese wisdom to explore the critical life issues: What is our place in nature? How do we make right decisions? How do we respect the earth? How are we to view life and death? What is the path we should live to truly achieve a good and meaningful life?
For Deng Ming-Dao, the two entry points for this exploration are two words: The first is the Chinese word for “heart” which means heart, mind, intention, center, core intelligence, and soul. And the second is the word beautywhich connotes the pleasure we take in art, design, fashion, and music. Our hearts love beauty, and beauty opens our hearts.
In this profound collection of fresh and contemporary translations of ancient texts, Deng Ming-Dao gathers over 220 selections that deal with the essence of heart and beauty. Topics include: how to be great, how long it takes to follow your heart, how to bring order to the world, how to know everything, how to pacify the heart, and much more. Here are stories, fables, poems, and epigrams that delight, inspire, and inform.
Those who would subdue people through their own “excellence”
Have yet to subdue anyone.
But if you used excellence to nurture people instead,
The whole world would be subdued.
No one has become ruler of all under heaven
Without subdued hearts.
It has never happened.
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1 | The heart of a great person
A great person won't lose their infant heart.
Mengzi, "Li Lou II" [C]
2 | Not going against Tao
Whoever really cherishes Tao is like a child.
Wasps, scorpions, and snakes won't bite, fierce beasts won't pounce, and raptors won't strike.
A child's bones and muscles are soft, but their grasp is firm.
Not yet knowing the union of male and female, all their organs are complete and their vigor is full.
Crying all day without becoming hoarse shows full harmony.
Knowing harmony is constancy.
Knowing constancy is clarity.
But trying to improve upon life is a bad sign.
The heart uses the body's energy, and that's called strength.
Whatever grows strong grows old; we call that going against Tao.
Whatever goes against Tao comes to an early end.
Daodejing, 55 [??]
3 | For the heart that won't do what's natural
Confucius reached the age of fifty-one, but he had still not fully learned of Tao. He went south to the land of Pei to see Lao Dan.
"You've come, haven't you?" Lao Dan asked. "I have heard that you are the most capable person in the north. Have you realized Tao?"
"How have you sought it?"
"At first, I sought it through measures and numbers. After five years, I still hadn't realized it."
"Then how did you seek it again?"
"I then sought it through yin and yang, but still did not find it after twelve years."
"Of course. If Tao could be presented, then subjects would give Tao to their rulers. If Tao could be given, then people would give it to their parents. If Tao could be told to others, then all people would tell it to their siblings. If Tao could be bequeathed to others, then people would give it to their children and grandchildren.
"The reason for this is nothing other than:
"Inwardly, there is no one to direct it; and so it is unstoppable. Outwardly, it does not conform to our rules, and so it seems to us as if no one moves it. Tao emerges from the center and cannot be taken by what is outside. Similarly, the sage does not go out, does not enter into externals, and so the external cannot enter the center. The sage does not need to hide."
Fame is in the realm of the public. We shouldn't seek it much. Benevolence and righteousness are like the thatched huts of the ancients: we can stay in them overnight, but we can't dwell there for long. We can meet there, but we can't station ourselves there.
The realized people in the past used benevolence as they traveled the Tao. They used benevolence like someone staying in a hut overnight. That's how they wandered and roamed in emptiness, found sustenance in the fields of carefree simplicity, and stood in gardens without debt.
To ramble far, use nonaction. For carefree simplicity, look for easy nurturing. To be debt-free, don't spend. The ancients called this "wandering to collect the true."
Those who exist for wealth cannot give up their incomes. Those who exist for distinction cannot give up their fame. Those who crave power cannot delegate it to others. While they hold these things, they are unstable. As they live with them, they are melancholy. Yet they won't even look once in the mirror, or even consider resting for a moment. They are heaven's cursed people.
Hatred and kindness; taking and giving; admonishment and teaching; life and death. These are the eight standards. Can you comply with them and yet go through all the great changes of life without sinking? You have to be able to use them. The ancients say: "To rectify is to be correct."
For the heart that won't do what's natural, heaven's gate will never open.
Zhuangzi, "The Movement of Heaven"
4 | How long it takes to follow your heart
At fifteen, I set my will on learning.
At thirty, I was independent.
At forty, I had no doubts.
At fifty, I knew heaven's commands.
At sixty, my ears obeyed.
At seventy, I could follow what my heart desired and not exceed the right measure.
Analects, "Wei Zheng" [??]
5 | When Confucius reached the age of sixty
Zhuangzi said to Huizi: "When Confucius reached the age of sixty, he changed. What he first believed to be right he suddenly rejected as wrong. He hadn't realized that what he thought was true for fifty-nine years was no longer valid."
Huizi said: "Confucius was earnest in pursuing the acquisition of knowledge."
"Confucius rejected such a course; he never claimed to be doing such a thing. This is what he said: 'People get their talents from the great root. They should return to the spiritual in this life.' Their singing should be in tune with pitch pipes. Their speech should be as suitable as the law. When gain and righteousness are set before them, others should remark on how they weigh good and bad, true and false, straight and bent. In order to make people use their hearts, they urge cooperation rather than obstinance. Ahh! I have not caught up to him!"
6 | Human nature is good
When it comes to human nature, it is basically good.
That is what is meant by excellence.
If people act badly, it isn't a matter of their potential.
All people have compassion in their hearts.
All people have reservation and shame in their hearts.
All people have reverence and respect in their hearts.
All people have a sense of right and wrong in their hearts.
Compassion in their hearts leads to kindness.
Reservation and shame in their hearts leads to righteousness.
Reverence and respect in their hearts leads to the proper.
Right and wrong in their hearts leads to knowledge.
Kindness, righteousness, propriety, and knowledge don't fuse into me from the outside.
They are part of my own strength.
If you don't think of those aspects, you don't want to be aware of them.
Seek and you will find them.
Ignore them and you will lose them.
Mengzi, "Gaozi I" [C]
7 | When nothing is hidden
Liezi went to study with a teacher.
After the third year, his heart did not dare think of right and wrong. His mouth did not dare to speak of gain and loss. But his teacher, Lao Shang, barely glanced at him.
After the fifth year, his heart thought less of right and wrong. His mouth spoke less of gain and loss. His teacher's face relaxed and he smiled.
After the seventh year, the thoughts in his heart were submissive, and he barely considered right and wrong. His mouth was compliant, and he seldom spoke of gain and loss. His teacher invited him to bring a mat and sit beside him.
After the ninth year, the thoughts in his heart were placid. The words from his mouth were serene. Significantly, he did not consider right and wrong or gain and loss for himself — nor did he consider right and wrong or gain and loss for others. Outer and inner merged.
After that, his eyes were like ears. His ears were like his nose. His nose was like his mouth. His mouth had nothing to which it could be compared. His heart was still, his body was relaxed, his bones and flesh were in complete harmony. He was not conscious of needing a body. His feet left no tracks. His heart had few thoughts. He seemed to hoard his words.
Finally, he went on his way because nothing was hidden from him.
Liezi, "Confucius" [??]
8 | What sages ponder
Laozi said: When the leaders of people ponder, their spirits do not race through their chests, their knowledge doesn't go beyond the four quarters, and they keep benevolence and sincerity in their hearts.
The sweet rain falls with timeliness. The Five Crops grow luxuriantly. Spring sprouts, summer ripens. Autumn brings harvests, winter is the time to store. Reviews are made monthly, reports are given seasonally, and tithes are given yearly.
The leaders nurture all people equitably. They inspire awe by being sincere, honest, and true. Their methods are minimal and confuse no one, and they civilize people impressively. Their laws are lenient, they are slow to mete out punishment, and their prisons stand empty. The world follows a single standard without any defilements of the heart.
This is what sages ponder.
Wenzi, "Sincerity" [??]
9 | Work as a compassionate person
The heart is like a great and boundless ocean plant pure lotuses widely to cultivate body and heart.
Keep both your hands free of worldly involvements, and work as a compassionate person in this world.
Blue Cliff Record [??]
10 | Truly study
Truly study Buddha: don't be attached to body, heart, or worldly affairs.
This is great generosity.
Truly study Buddha: don't generate greed, hatred, or ignorance.
This is great morality.
Truly study Buddha: don't calculate the rights and wrongs of others or oneself.
This is great tolerance.
Truly study Buddha: don't be disruptive or distracted.
This is great diligence.
Truly study Buddha: don't keep deluded thoughts or pursue them.
This is great concentration.
Truly study Buddha: don't be confused by delusion.
This is great wisdom.
Ouyi Zhixu (1599–1655), "Song of the Six Perfections in Studying Buddha"
11 | Free your heart, but don't lose it
Kindness is your heart. Righteousness is your road. Keep to your road; do not lose it. Free your heart and don't look elsewhere. That would be sad!
If you lose your chickens or dogs, you know to look for them. But too many who lose their hearts, don't think to look for them! The Tao of learning and inquiry is nothing more than to look for your own lost heart.
Mengzi, "Gaozi I" [C]
12 | A good heart comes with depth
The greatest good is to be like water. The good of water is that it benefits all things without conflict.
It flows in places that people despise, and so, it's akin to Tao.
A good dwelling comes from the earth, a good heart comes with depth, a good ally comes from kindness, a good word comes from trust, a good government comes from rule, a good outcome comes from ability, a good movement comes from timing.
One who has such goodness does not fight and is therefore free of fault.
13 | Protect your true heart
My heart is like the autumn moon. The azure lake is pure, bright, and clear. Since nothing can compare, tell me, how could I speak?
Anger is a fire in the heart; it can burn down a forest of virtue. To practice the Tao of bodhisattvas, endure humiliation, protect your true heart.
Hanshan (Tang Dynasty), Selected Poems of Hanshanzi [??]
14 | Live in your heart
If your heart has been exhausted you will know your character. If you know your character you will know heaven.
Live in your heart, nourish your nature, and serve heaven.
If you don't think twice about dying too soon or growing too old, but you cultivate yourself with patience instead, you will be set for life.
Mengzi, "Jin Xin I" [C]
15 | The sages ruled by opening hearts
Not singling some out as better will keep people from fighting.
Not prizing goods as costly and rare will keep people from stealing.
Not showing what stokes desire will keep hearts from tangling.
The sages ruled by opening hearts, filling bellies, soothing wills, and strengthening bones.
They always kept the people free of thought or desires — for where there was thought the cunning were sure to act on it. Where there were no such deeds, all was peaceful.
16 | Keeping the natural beauty of the heart
The trees of Bull Mountain were once beautiful. But they were on the edge of a great country and men used axes to chop them down. How was there beauty anymore?
Still, through steady growth for day and night, and watering by rain and dew, buds and sprouts returned. That drew cattle and goats to graze. The slopes were again stripped bare. People who saw the bald peak never thought timber had been there. But we couldn't call that the mountain's true nature.
In the same way, should we say that there is no natural kindness or justice in your heart? If you lose your good heart, like a mountain that has had all its trees gradually chopped down, how will your heart keep its beauty?
It's not likely that beauty will grow back over time. You won't be able to distinguish the good and bad of others, even if you sit in the calm breath of dawn. You will be fettered or destroyed by the next day. This oppression will go on and no amount of effort on your part will bring any quick relief. When all has been ruined, your heart won't be any different from that of a wild bird or animal.
When we happen to see savage people, we might not imagine that they ever had any potential for good. But how can that be the right view of human nature?
Anything will grow and thrive if it receives the right nourishment. Deny that nourishment, and everything declines and falls away. Confucius said: "Hold it and it stays with you. Let it go and you lose it."
He was talking about your heart!
Mengzi, "Gaozi I" [C]
17 | Use your heart as a mirror
Don't try to control fame. Don't try to be a storehouse of future plans. Don't try for career and office. Don't try to be the lord of all wisdom.
Embody everything to the fullest and leave no trace wherever you go. Fulfill all that you have received from heaven, but don't see yourself as getting anything. Be empty, and let that be all.
The perfect person uses their heart as a mirror. It conveys nothing, it receives nothing. It responds, but does not take. Such a person can triumph over anything without risking hurt.
Zhuangzi, "The Normal Course for Emperors and Kings" [??]
18 | Cleave to beauty
Youzi said: "In putting propriety to use, prize harmony. The Tao of the Early Kings was to cleave to beauty. Great and small follow it."
Analects, "Xue Er" [C]
19 | How to be great
The disciple Gong Du asked: "Everyone is equal. Yet some people are great and some people are petty. Why is that?"
"Those who follow their own greatness become great," Mengzi replied. "Those who follow their own pettiness remain small."
"Everyone is equal. But some follow their greatness while others follow their pettiness. How can that be?"
"Our senses, such as hearing and seeing, provide information, but they cannot think. They cover only external things, following from one to another as they gather them in. The heart is a place of consciousness, and thinking there brings understanding. If we don't think, we don't comprehend."
Heaven gave everything to us. If we make it our priority to stay with what is great, then pettiness will have no place. This is what makes a great person.
Mengzi, "Gaozi I" [C]
20 | Autumn Floods
The season for autumn floods arrived. Hundreds of streams poured into the river and the currents swelled drastically. The distance from one shore to the other grew so wide that one could distinguish neither cattle nor horses. The river god, He Bo (Earl of the River), was overjoyed because he thought that he now possessed all the world's beauty.
He Bo strode eastward along the river's course until he came to the Northern Sea. He stood looking further to the east and could see no end to the waters. As he slowly turned his face over the endless waves, he saw Ruo, the God of the Northern Sea.
A folk saying came to He Bo and he sighed in realization: "'One who has heard a hundred times about Tao thinks he's as great as Ruo.' That could be said about me. I once heard people belittling Confucius's knowledge and ridiculing Bo Yi's righteousness, and I didn't believe them at first. Now I see my own inferiority and fault. If this had not happened, I would have been endangered by my own ignorance and laughed at by people on all sides."
Ruo of the Northern Sea said, "You can't discuss the ocean with a frog in a well; it thinks its narrow confines are an enormous space. You can't talk to a summer insect about ice; it only knows its one season. You can't discuss Tao with a scholar; they are trapped in their teachings. Now, you have come from your riverbed and you have seen the great ocean. You have confronted your own inadequacy. So take all that you're about to hear as a great philosophy:
"Of all the waters under heaven, none are so great as the ocean. Ten thousand rivers return to it, and we will never know a time when they will be filled. In turn, the oceans keep draining, and we will never know a time when they will be emptied. Whether spring or autumn, these facts don't change, and it doesn't matter whether there are floods or drought. The oceans are supreme over rivers such as the flowing Yangzi or Yellow Rivers, and they cannot be measured or counted.
"Nevertheless, I have not made much of myself. I have never compared myself to heaven or earth, or the energy I receive from yin and yang. I live between heaven and earth, no different than a pebble or a sapling set upon an enormous mountain. Since I realize that I am so tiny, why should I make so much of myself?
"Consider that all the four seas between heaven and earth may not be much more than what a pile of stones are to a huge marsh. Consider that our entire nation compared to the size of an ocean is smaller than a grain of rice in a huge granary. Out of all the things in this world that number in the millions, human beings are only one of them. Although people occupy all nine states, if you compare them to all the creatures who live by eating, or the far distances that boats and carriages travel, people are only one kind of creature. When put beside all the beings in the world, humanity is but one hair on the body of a horse.
"Now this includes the lineage of the Five Sovereigns, the struggles of the Three Emperors, the sorrow of honorable people, and the labors of all trustworthy persons in government. Bo Yi was famous for declining to serve his liege any longer. Confucius is praised for having had a wide impact. But both of them were making too much of themselves — just as, not long ago, you made much of yourself and your water."
Excerpted from "The Way of Heart & Beauty"
Copyright © 2019 Deng Ming-Dao.
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