The Legend of How the Tao Te Ching Came Into Being on Laotse’s Journey Into Exile

When he was seventy and fragile,
the Teacher felt compelled to seek repose,
for the Good within the land was on the wane,
and Evil gaining strength again.
So he drew on his shoe.

And he packed up things that he might need,
not much, but still there was this and that—
the pipe he smoked each evening,
the little book he always read,
and what he might need of bread.

Enjoyed for one last time the valley and then
forgot it as he took the mountain path.
And his ox enjoyed the fresh green grass,
munching, as he bore the Old Man on his back.
For slow was fast enough for him.

But on the fourth day out, in scree and stone,
the customs officer barred his way.
“Any valuables to declare?” “None.”
And the boy who led the ox spoke up: “He taught me.”
So that was then declared.

But the man, his eyes lighting up, went on to ask,
“So what exactly did you learn?”
And the boy replied: “That water, though it’s soft,
in time wears down the hardest rock.
What’s hard gives way, you see.”

In order not to lose the day’s remaining light,
the boy now led the ox along.
And the three had disappeared
behind the firs when suddenly our man
ran after, shouting: “Hey, you there! Halt!

“What’s this about the water, Old Man?”
The Old Man halted: “That interests you?”
Said the man: “I’m just a customs officer,
but who conquers who, that interests me.
So if you know, then speak!

“Write it down! Dictate it to this boy!
A thing like that can’t be allowed to leave
the country. We have paper here, and ink,
and supper, too. I live yonder.
Could you ask for more?”

Looking over his shoulder, the Old One
took in the man: patched jacket, barefooted,
a single furrow for a forehead.
Ah, the man who came toward him was no winner.
And he murmured: “So, you too?”

To decline a courteous invitation
the Old Man was, it seems, too old.
For he said, aloud: “Those who ask deserve
an answer.” Said the boy: “It’s getting cold.”
“Good. We’ll rest awhile.”

And the Wise One got down off his ox
and the two together wrote for seven days,
the customs officer bringing them their meals
(the whole time cursing smugglers beneath his breath).
And then the work was done.

And one morning the boy handed over to the officer
the sayings—eighty-one of them. And, having given
thanks for a little travel gift, the Old Man
and the boy descended through those pines and on.
Can one be more courteous than this?

But let us not sing the praise alone of him
whose book of sayings bears his name!
For one must first extract the wisdom from the Wise.
Therefore the customs officer should be thanked, as well.
He made him hand it over.

Jon Swan is the author of two collections of poems—Journeys and Return and A Door to the Forest. His poems have been published in several magazines and reviews in the United States and the United Kingdom. In collaboration with director Ulu Grosbard, he translated Peter Weiss’s Die Ermittlung (The Investigation), and, in collaboration with Carl Weber, Weiss’s Hoelderlin. He lives in Yarmouth, Maine, with his wife, Marianne.
 
tags: Poetry   
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