Creative Corner|Nov 23, 2012 4:00 AM| by:

On the Road to Exile

(Legend of the origin of the book Tao Te Ching on Lao Tzu’s road to exile)

Once he was seventy and getting brittle
Quiet retirement seemed the teacher’s due
In his country goodness had been weakening a little
And the wickedness was gaining ground anew.
So he buckled his show.

And he packed up what he would be needing;
Not much. But enough to travel light.
Items like the book that he was reading
And the pipe he used to smoke at night.
Bread such as he thought right.

Gladly looked back on his valley, then forgot it
As he turned to take the mountain track.
And the ox was glad for the fresh grass it spotted
Munching, with the old man on its back
Happy that the pace was slack.

Four days out among the rocks, a barrier
Where a customs man made them report.
‘What valuables have you to declare there?’
And the boy leading the ox explained, ‘The old man taught.’
Nothing at all, in short.

Then the man, in cheerful disposition
Asked again, ‘How did he make out, pray?’
Said the boy, ‘He learnt how quite soft water, by attrition
Over the years will grind strong rocks away.
In other words. That hardness must lose the day.’

Then the boy tugged at the ox to get it started
Anxious to move on, for it was late.
But as they disappeared behind a fir tree which they skirted
Something suddenly began to agitate
The man, who shouted, ‘Hey, you! Wait!’

‘What was that you said about the water?’
Old man pauses, ‘Do you not know?’
Man replies, ‘I am not at all important.
Who wins or loses interests me though.
If you have found out, say so.’

‘Write it down. Dictate it to your boy there.
Once you have gone, who can we find out from?
There are pen and ink for your employ here.
And a supper we can share; this is my home.
It’s a bargain, come.’

Turning around, the old man looks in sorrow
At the man. Worn tunic. Got no shoes.
And his forehead just a single furrow.
Ah, no winner this he’s talking to.
And he softly says, ‘You too?’

Snubbing off politely put suggestions
Seems to be unheard of by the old.
For the old man said, ‘Those who ask questions
Deserve answers.’ Then the boy said,
‘What is more, it’s turning cold.’
‘Right. Then get my bed unrolled.’

Swiftly from his ox the sage dismounted.
Seven days he wrote there with his friend.
And the man brought them their meals
(and all the smugglers were astounded
At what seemed this sudden lenient trend)
And then came the end.

And the boy handed over what they had written –
Eighty-one sayings – early one day.
And they thanked the man for the alms he’d given
Went round that fir and climbed the rocky way.
Who was so polite as they?

But the honour should not be restricted
To the sage whose name is clearly writ.
For the wise man’s wisdom needs to be extracted.
So the customs man deserves his bit.
It was he who called for it.

Berthold Brecht