When we think of the word treasure we think of Trump-like wealth, Smaug’s lair, or a buried trunk of pirate booty.
But upon deeper reflection we realize our real treasure is our loved ones – our children, our spouses, our families, and our friends.
Yet in the ancient Chinese book of wisdom called the Tao te Ching, Lao Tzu offers a very different definition of treasure. In chapter 67 he writes, “I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, and compassion. These are your greatest treasures.”
How are simplicity, patience, and compassion our greatest treasures?
With each passing day we take on more and more, adding, never subtracting – more property, more commitments, more obligations, more appointments, more expectations. It’s a wonder we can even breathe. The more buried we are under layers of adornment and intricacy, the further we are from our essence. We lose our center and live increasingly in the outer world of thoughts, forms, and accomplishments. All of this busyness sets up a screen through which we try to view the uncarved wholeness of the world. But everything grows cloudy, distant, removed. We end up isolated in a thicket of our own judgments and thoughts. The real world – the people we love, the essential core of life – recedes into the haze. This is the disease of over-thinking and over-complexity. Simplicity is the antidote. As Lao Tzu writes, “In the pursuit of knowledge, everyday something is added. In the practice of the Tao, everyday something is dropped.”
In his longest speech, The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offered similar advice. “Do not worry about your life” he said, “what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable then they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?”
Simplicity then means simplicity in the outer world as well as simplicity in the inner world. “Simple in actions and in thoughts,” Lao Tzu writes, “you return to the source of being.”
Without lifting a finger we shift into awareness. As the Upanishads of ancient India proclaim, Thou art That – we are already one with the sacred essence of all things. No seeking, no struggle. We have only to grow still enough to allow the realization of unity to rise up from where it is hidden beneath all of our complexes. In this sense then, less definitely is more. The advice Henry David Thoreau offered for hikers in his 1857 journal was no doubt meant in a much broader sense – “The rule is to carry as little as possible.”
If the first treasure is simplicity, then the second treasure is patience. “Patient with both friends and enemies,” Lao Tzu wrote, “you accord with the way things are.” How does patience put us into accord with the way things are?
Patience is the virtue of accepting what is. Impatience generates anxiety, suffering, and conflict. Patience generates serenity, joy, and peace. Impatience says no, patience says yes.
In Vedanta philosophy we often hear the word renunciation. It means relinquishing the illusion of control and coming out of ego-demands and into the consciousness of surrender. Renunciation is the path to awakening and enlightenment. In Buddhist teachings the focus is on non-attachment. Dropping our endless list of cravings and complaints we finally arrive fully alive in this now moment able to experience the depth of our own loving interconnectedness with all that is.
As the contemporary Zen Buddhist teacher John Tarrant puts it, suffering is the phrase “Not this,” while enlightenment is the phrase, “What is this?” The first stance is full of judgment and resistance, the second open-hearted and appreciative.
Patience then is Lao Tzu’s word for that state of serenity wherein one is content in the present moment, no longer caught by the snare of craving something else. When you are free of expectations, the pace at which things unfold is exactly the right pace.
And he’s specific about where we are to apply the virtue of patience – toward our friends and enemies. We all know that it is in the realm of human relationships that our serenity is most sorely tested.
What if instead of silently demanding that everyone conform to our arbitrary expectations, we set them free to be who they are? Why are we so quick to demand our own freedom, and so reluctant to grant theirs? Let others drive the way they’re going to drive. It really is none of our business. Go around.
This is especially challenging when it comes to our enemies. But in Jesus famous words, “love your enemies,” we hear an even deeper truth – there are no such things as enemies. There are only other people suffering like us, working with incomplete information like us, clouded by storms of chaotic emotions like us, trying to make their way and sometimes saying horrible things and acting in confusingly destructive ways, like us. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said it best when he wrote, “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”
In chapter 15 of the Tao te Ching Lao Tzu writes, “Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear?” Patience means leaving the universe enough room to provide you with solutions, mercies, and healings you did not foresee and could not create on your own. In chapter 64 he writes, “Rushing into action you fail. Trying to grasp things, you lose them. Forcing a project to completion you ruin what was almost ripe.”
The third treasure is compassion. Lao Tzu wrote, “Compassionate toward yourself, you reconcile all beings in the world.” How does self-compassion lead to universal reconciliation? It’s simple. If you cannot experience love, mercy, and forgiveness for yourself, how do you think you can offer these gifts to another? When you learn how to better love yourself, your love for others grows clear, pure, and genuinely nurturing. Still, how does this reconcile all beings in the world? Many of us already understand this: our spiritual awakening is our greatest contribution to world peace. It is through our spiritual growth that the whole world is healed. If one person shows up awake, everything shifts. Imagine if ten of us do, or a hundred, or a hundred thousand?
Taoism avoids intricate ideology, elaborate doctrine, and complex ritual. Also missing is a specific list of prohibitions or exhortations. Instead, Lao Tzu simply draws us toward what the Zen Buddhists call our “Original Self.” Coming out of our busy minds and into our cores, we know what to do, how to do it, when to do it, and why. We just feel it. That’s how great treasures work.