Many years ago, I sat in a cafe with my teacher sipping coffee and chatting about life. I asked him why ancient Taoist writings were so obtuse, when in fact, it is a very simple and straight forward view of life.
He winked and said it had to do with survival. I didn’t have a clue what he meant, so he explained that as long as the Emperor thought the ancient Taoists were a bunch crazy mystics with little ambition he left them alone.
The Taoist mystic, Chuang Tzu, once told a story that illustrates this point. Because of Chuang Tzu’s reputation as a wise man, the Emperor sent a couple of men to bring him back to the capital to run the empire. They found Chuang Tzu fishing on a river bank and offered him the job.
Chuang Tzu pointed out that an ancient, but very dead turtle, was on display in the capital. He asked the emissaries if they thought the turtle would rather be alive and dragging its tail in the mud along the river bank, or on display in the emperor’s palace. The men agreed that the turtle would rather be alive than dead. Chuang Tzu turned the job down, saying he’d rather keep dragging his own tail through the mud.
When the emperor felt threatened by the growing power of the Buddhist sect, he destroyed the Shaolin Temple. On the other hand, he left the Taoist alone because he viewed them to be lazy and more than a little crazy. He couldn’t understand their mystical writings or why Chuang Tzu would turn down such a powerful position.
At some point, a man has to stop hiding from men like the Emperor. As we sat in that cafe many years ago, I promised my teacher I would do the best I can to explain Taoism in simple ordinary terms. My novel, Naked Tao, is the beginning of my efforts to keep that promise.