Title Page

Gaining the Pass

a play about why Lao Tsu wrote the
Tao Te Ching

By George Harvey


Copyright © 1991. 2013. George Harvey
One of George Harvey’s Blogs
Posted in Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Why Lao Tzu wrote the Tao Te Ching | Tagged , , | Leave a comment


Lao Tzu (Li Erh), the philosopher, a small man of about ninety.

Wen (Kuan Yin), the Warden of the Pass, a large and powerful man in his mid forties.

Yung, a helper of Lao Tzu, a young man.

Teng, Wen’s daughter, young, modest, and feminine.

The Floozy, a beautiful and sexy woman of about thirty.

3 Soldiers

Peasants, Merchants, Bearers

The complete cast consists of a minimum of eight people, with ten to fourteen perhaps a better number.  Since Lao Tzu is old and small, his part might be played by a woman.

copyright © 1993, 2013, George Harvey
Posted in Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Why Lao Tzu wrote the Tao Te Ching | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Gaining the Pass – Scene 1

China, ca. 375 B.C.

Travelers Through Mountain Passes, Dai Jin, 1388-1462. Public Domain.

Travelers Through Mountain Passes, Dai Jin, 1388-1462. Public Domain.

The scene is outdoors, in front of a border station in a pass leading into the mountain wilderness.  The building itself is stage right, and has a door into its office.  A guard stands at the door.  At center stage is a long, low customs table where goods can be displayed for the inspection of the border guards.  Beyond it are distant mountains, valley walls on the sides.  At stage left, in the fore, is a table, high enough to be used as a writing desk by a seated man.  Two stools sit at the table.  A road passes from behind the writing table, stage left, around the customs table, center stage, in front of the office door and offstage, stage right.  There may be a stand of bamboo between the writing table and the place where the road goes offstage.  Also, the writing table may be on a porch or gazebo-like structure instead of simply outdoors.

Two peasants enter, stage left.  One is old, the other younger.  They carry bundles of sheepskins.

Younger peasant:  Is this the border crossing?

Older peasant:  It is.  Now do as I told you.  This Wen is a man who is not to be trusted.  He is very temperamental and contrary.  There are people who say he treats with respect those he regards as completely honest.  There are also people who tell of horrible things that have happened to those who tried to pass without declaring their goods.  Better to take the path of safety with this one.  (Pause as he looks around.)  Put the bundles on the inspection table.

The younger peasant motions toward the customs table, as if to say, “Do you mean this?”

Older peasant:  Yes that’s it.  I’ll get the warden.  And remember, if you address him, call him Brother Wen, or even just Wen.  Whatever you do, do not call him Master, and call him by no name but Wen.  (He continues more quietly, almost under his breath, but still directed toward the younger peasant.) He is the one man I’m sure I’ve never been able to understand.  (He walks to the office and calls through the office door, which stands ajar.) Brother Wen?  (He knocks on the office door and peers inside.)

Wen (within):  Who is there?

Older peasant:  We seek to pass.

Wen emerges from the door, almost knocking over the old man.  He speaks in a harsh, choppy manner, the way Japanese soldiers do in films.  He looks a bit like a Mongol horseman, but he is very large.

 Wen:  Two of you.  What have you to declare?

Older peasant:  We have two bundles of sheepskins to sell in town.

Wen:  Let me see them.  (He walks over to the table and lifts each bundle to judge its weight.  He speaks to the younger peasant.)  Untie those.  (When the bundles are opened, he looks quickly at the skins, lifting the edges to see what is beneath.  He speaks to the older peasant.)  There is a toll of a penny for each of you.  I will also charge two pennies for the skins.  If you cannot pay for the skins, I will take one of them instead.  It is as you prefer.

The older peasant hands him the money, and Wen returns into the office.

Younger peasant:  I don’t understand why everyone thinks he is so difficult.  I expected to pay more tax on the skins. He seems quite just and honest to me.

Older peasant:  You shall learn.  Things are not always as they seem to be.

Lao Tzu and Yung enter on the road, stage right.  Yung is carrying a small bundle of clothing on his shoulder.  He places this on the ground, against the inspection table.  The two men stand between the table and the office door, looking at the mountains.  Yung, who is twenty-three, looks very tired.  Lao Tzu, who is ninety, is quite fresh.  The two peasants tie their bundles up and exit, stage right.  Lao Tzu and Yung stand still, looking at the mountains for a moment.

Yung (softly): The mountains!

Another pause.

Lao Tzu: The time is here at last, my friend, for me to go into the wild.  (He pauses and turns toward Yung. His motions display an inner serenity.)  The time is here.  I shall miss your noble nature and your kind heart.

Yung (excitedly, but softly): I must come with you, Master.

Lao Tzu (with a slight chuckle): No, No.

Yung: But you need someone to look after you!  You are an old man.

Lao Tzu: I can look after myself, Yung, as you should know. Look at me and see what I really am.  At ninety, I am still younger than you are at twenty-three.  (He laughs quietly.) I should be looking after you.

Yung:  But Master, here you stand at the border, ready to pass into the wilderness, and you still have no knowledge of where you are going.  Where will you live?  What will you do?

Lao Tzu: Such questions!  You want to be my disciple, but you sound like you never listen to what I most often say.  I shall go where I am led; I shall do what comes to be done. As water flows in a brook, I flow contentedly toward that which will receive me.  How can I go wrong?  What harm can come to a man who is at one with the ways of all things?

Yung:  You are right, Master.  I know you are right.  Yet though I know this, I worry and fret, for at every pulse, my heart says, “What if he’s wrong?  What if he’s wrong?”  The conflict between knowing what is and fearing what might be does not cease; it does not even pause.  My mind can’t rest. I am – unhappy.

Lao Tzu: If I am right, then there should be no fear for me. If I am wrong, then I am unworthy of your admiration.

Yung: I know that – you have said it before, and I have given it much thought.  I know it is true.  But it does not help much yet.  Perhaps in time.

Lao Tzu: When you are bothered by your feelings, think of what Feng promised.  How could I be happier than with the blessings he described.

Yung: Master, one thing I have never understood is how you attend to the words of such a man.  How can I take seriously the counsels of oracles and diviners?  Their words have no meaning!

Lao Tzu:  My young friend, Feng is not an oracle or diviner. He is not one who seeks to enslave the minds of others.  Nor does he aim to enrich himself.  He has more wisdom than you seem to know.  He speaks in words that are difficult to understand, but the meanings are not derived from superstition.  Rather, they come from inexorable logic.  He has long studied the classic Treatises of Change, observing the manifestations they represent, and because of this, he understands what inevitable alterations of being will manifest themselves in any situation.  As things evolve, what they will become can be seen from what they are.  It may seem strange to see how he does this.  But that is only because you do not understand the method, and so cannot understand the close tie between cause and effect it uses.

Yung: But even if he is absolutely correct, how should we know the meanings of his words when he says such a thing as, “A dragon appears in a field”?  And why should you leave all you have just because he says, “Retreat, the way lies before you”?

Lao Tzu: The words were, “Retreat, a blessing … next beneath Heaven lie the mountains.”  I knew what was to come long before old Feng told me those things.  I knew the time was at hand for me to go on my retreat into the hills.  I should admit, I suppose, that he guided me on what road to take.  But I am steered far more by my own counsel than by the best sounding words from others.  (He brushes off his jacket and sits on the table.)  Dragon?  The words were, “A Dragon appears in the field; one should consult with the Master.”  It means, I think, that I must see a great teacher. One lesson remains for me to learn in this life, perhaps, one last test of the progress of my soul.  But I look forward to it with composure.  I welcome it.  My rest draws near.  A final lesson to learn, one last trial, and then contentment. It is a blessing indeed.

The two men sit in silence for a moment.

Yung: I should come with you.

They sit in silence another moment.

Lao Tzu:  Even if I wish you not to come?

Yung (anxiously): Why should you wish me not to come?

Lao Tzu:  I would do you a disservice if I allowed it.  Your path lies elsewhere.  You know this, Yung.  Why do you wish to contest it?

Yung (quietly, and after a short silence): It is because I love you so.  My life shall be much the less without you. You have stilled the agitations of my restless mind.  You have quieted my soul’s vexation.  Today, my life is a voice in harmony with the song of all things under Heaven.  When you are gone, who shall guide me?

Lao Tzu:  You!  You shall guide yourself.  You have no need for me.  I am only an old fool who dabbles in the art of attaching words to one another.

Yung: I have gained so much from your teachings.

Lao Tzu:  Pah!  I have no teachings!  You speak as though I had taken you through long years of careful education.  You are not my disciple.  I am not your teacher.  I am no one’s teacher.  I have never taken a single student, and I never shall.

Yung:  But you are…

Lao Tzu: I am not your teacher!  You taught yourself.  It just happens that I was there when it you did it.

Yung: Master, there are many who regard you so.  Why don’t you admit it?

Lao Tzu:  Remember, my friend, the things that I have told you.  What I have said, you may choose to believe, or not to believe.  But it cannot be learned, and so it cannot be taught.  What you call my teachings cannot be teachings.  I have explained this to you already.  Please let us not go through it all again.

Yung:  Master, you have quite abundantly stressed your point, that truth cannot be made an institution.  I heard in clearly in your discourse on the teachings of Confucius.

Lao Tzu (using this as a convenient place to change the subject):  There is one thing I have never understood about the teachings of Confucius.  I see the words, written on the page.  I can analyze the sentences.  I even know their meanings.  But why anyone would say such things, I have never understood.

Yung: More importantly, Master, why would anyone want to follow them?

Lao Tzu (shaking his head sadly):  Because it is easier to be a slave to tradition than it is to be a master of one’s self. A slave never needs to think.  A slave never needs to take responsibility.  And so we have slaves – our officials, our ministers, even our kings are all slaves – who impose the same hardships they bear on the children they love, and call it good to do so.  It is easier to teach a child to follow the way of decorum than it is to teach him to be good.  And even that is far easier than it is to teach him to be both good and free.

An aged peasant man enters stage left, carrying a basket of vegetables.  He puts these down, as Lao Tzu and Yung continue talking, and walks to the office door.  Once there, he knocks and waits.

Yung (after another pause): Are you really sure, Master, about this last lesson you must learn of this world?

Lao Tzu:  Lesson?  Oh, I can assure you, there is more than one lesson for me to learn!

Yung:  What I meant to say was, are you really sure you are led to the right place?  And what master could there be to teach you?  What sort of person would it take to test you or what you have learned?

Peasant man (yelling into the office door):  Brother Wen? Are you in there?  I wish to pass!

Yung: I know of no reason to believe there is any great teacher in the wilderness beyond the pass.

Peasant man:  Brother Wen?

Wen (from inside the office):  Who is that?  Gao?  Why do you bother me, old Brother Gao?  You paid your toll already! Now go away!

Peasant man:  Brother Wen, I am not Brother Gao.  If I pass, you will see I am not Gao as you look out your window, and then you may think I tried to trick you into thinking I was Gao so I could get by without paying.  Then you would say, “He did not pay his toll – I shall punish him!”  And the soldiers would come after me.  I do not want soldiers to come after me.  Please come and let me pay my toll and pass.

Lao Tzu: I need no teacher.  Fate will take care of that.  As for the rest, I shall not be hard to test – even the greatest master can be tested.  The gods themselves may cloud his mind and confuse him so he hardly knows who he is.  Then he must pass or fail on the merits of his nature alone.  Then all preparation he could have made falls away like leaves from a tree in autumn to reveal his inmost nature.

Wen (appearing briefly at the door):  Oh, it’s you.  What do you have there?  Small cabbages?  Radishes?  I see.  Well, there is a penny toll for you, and for the goods…  I’ll take a nice radish.  How is that?

The peasant pays him and bows.  Wen disappears.  The peasant rearranges the goods in his basket by the door, and a soldier comes through the door of the office, bumping into the peasant inattentively.  His uniform is clean but unkempt, his shirt, perhaps, is partly untucked.

Peasant man (to the soldier, as if by way of explanation):  I have heard such terrible things about punishments at this station!  It makes no sense to take a chance for a penny and a radish.

Soldier (distractedly):  Please excuse me.  I beg your pardon.

The soldier disappears around the corner of the building.  The peasant walks away from the door, shaking his head.)

Yung: Excuse me, old father.

The peasant looks at him, and bows low.

Peasant man:  In what way can I serve, my lord?

Yung (surprised to be addressed so): Why, I hoped you would be so kind as to answer a question.  Do you know the people beyond the pass?

Peasant man:  I have lived there all my long years, my lord.

Yung:  We have heard there is among them a great teacher.  Do you know of whom we speak?

Peasant man (considering deeply):  Teacher?  (pause)  Teacher… My lord beyond the pass for many, many miles there live only the most humble folk.  I do believe there is not one among them who can read writing.  (He shakes his head.)

Yung:  Surely there is one, at least, who…

Wen (coming to the door): Where did that guard go?  (He looks around, sees that the guard is not there, and returns to the office muttering.)  Damned, untrustworthy rascals…

Peasant man (after looking to the door to see what the problem was, to Yung): I am sorry, my lord.  How may I help you?

The sound of the floozy’s husky, but decidedly feminine, giggle comes from behind the office, where the soldier went.  Yung is somewhat taken aback.  The peasant tries not to notice.  Lao Tzu is unperturbed.

Yung: Is there no one at the other side of the pass who is learned in the ways of your people.

Peasant man: Oh, (he nods his head and smiles broadly) to be sure.  Very far out, in the mountains, there are many learned people.  It is a long way, almost to the greatest mountains, but I have heard that if one travels for many days, one may come to the home of a woman of great legend, the one we call the Old Crone, or the Wife of the Several Woodcutters, as she is also called.  She speaks to demons and knows the all the ancestors of everyone she meets.

Yung:  Wife of the Several Woodcutters?  How many husbands has this woman had?

Peasant man:  I really don’t know all together.  She is old and doubtless had a few husbands die.  Right now, they say, she has three, all brothers.

Yung is shocked.

Lao Tzu (unperturbed):  She is of the mountain people.  It is considered virtuous for a woman to keep all her husbands within one family.

Peasant man:  Yes, my lord, just so!  I see you understand.

Yung:  Master, are you sure this is a good idea, to go into the wilderness?

Lao Tzu: Feng assured me.  I have never known him to be wrong.  If he is, however, it does not matter.  I will go where heaven leads me.

Peasant man: Have I told you what you need to know, my lord?

Yung:  Yes.  Thank you.  (He turns to Lao Tzu.) Are you sure? What, precisely, did Feng say? What was his own interpretation of the words of the treatises?

The peasant exits, stage right, with his basket.

Lao Tzu:  What Feng said was, “Go through the Western Pass, and you shall learn a final lesson from a great Master.  Pass his test, and then you may rest through your years in a green valley where the winds do not blow cold.”  But Yung, I must point out to you that Feng does not play games with words. His design is not to deceive.  He is a plain man of plain manners, and he has always been honest with me.

Yung:  I did not mean to imply…

Again, very briefly, the floozy’s low laughter is heard from behind the office building.

Lao Tzu:  Yung, you are still too concerned with the words of false oracles.

Two merchants enter, stage right.  Each carries a box.  They put them on the table and go to the office door.  One knocks, and Wen appears.

Wen: So.  What do we find here?

First Merchant: We travel through the mountains to India, Master Wen.  We have hitched our mules at your post and brought the goods they bore here for you to see.

Wen (with some irritation): What do you have?

First Merchant: Jewels and jewelry, pearls and jade, inscriptions on silk, a gold box, medicinal herbs.  They are on the table.

Wen: Let me see the jade.

Second Merchant: It is in the box here.  (He opens his box and digs about inside.)  Here!  (He hands the jade to Wen.)

Wen looks at the jade briefly, then holds it in his hand for a moment with his eyes closed and a look of growing disgust on his face.

Wen:  I do not understand why you travel so far to take such worthless stuff to people so stupid they pay for it.  This has no value.  What else do you have?  (He pushes the merchant aside and digs into the boxes himself, muttering.) Gold?  What trash.  Herbs?  What do these heal?  Never mind, I know too much about the sicknesses you people concern yourselves with already.  Jewels?  I ought to have you fined for fraud.  Have you sold anything in the lands of the King of Chou?

Merchants (almost breathless at the threat):  Oh, no, brother Wen.  We only buy here.  But we assure you, these items are all of greatest value.  That gold assays pure.  You can have it proven and see for yourself we are hardly criminals.

Wen:  Pure gold!  Pah!  (He leans into the face of one of the merchants, whose expression tells of the strong smell of Wen’s breath.)  Pure gold or not, it is worthless!  What rascal sold you this stuff?  (He backs off.)  Never mind. With my luck he was one of those foolish cousins of mine. They place as much trust in the assayer as you do to tell them the values of things.

First Merchant (Cautiously):  Brother Wen, we only came to pay our toll and enter the pass.  If you would name the tax on our goods we shall pay it and be on our way.

Wen: A penny toll on each of you.  As for these trinkets – just get them out of my sight.  They disgust me.

Merchants  (smiling and bowing with some delight at getting out of paying the tax):  Thank you Master Wen!  Thank you! (One steps up to Wen and hands him the toll.  They get the boxes and retreat, stage right, still bowing.)  Thank you.

Wen (shouting):  I am not Master Wen!  I am Brother Wen! Remember it, or be prepared not to be allowed to pass by here again.  (muttering) Stupid people!

Wen exits through the office door.

Yung:  I suppose the time is upon us to part, Master, though I am uneasy still about leaving you here among these people.

Lao Tzu (smiling – he shows mixed emotions in parting company):  Yes, Yung.  (He rises.)

The floozy enters, tripping backwards, laughing, from behind the office.  She is bare from the waist up, but holds a shirt up to her breasts in false modesty.  Her hair is long, black, straight, and lustrous.  Her fingernails are painted bright red.  The soldier is pulling at the other end of the shirt, but he never quite appears on stage.

Floozy (noticing that Lao Tzu and Yung see her, with wide eyed surprise):  Oh!  (She laughs and runs back off stage, behind the office.)

Yung (decidedly):  I cannot leave you here, master.  These people are uncouth and untrustworthy!  It frightens me to think that things probably get worse in the wilderness.

Lao Tzu (with a low laugh): Why, Yung, are you afraid I will be taken in by a prostitute?  No, you must be off, and I am quite fine here.  Now go.

Wen comes through the office door.

Wen:  What do we find here?  A slave?  Boy, this man is too old to have any value at all, but you must pay a penny toll on yourself.

Yung: He is no slave, Master Warden.  He is a philosopher.

Wen (crossly): Boy … (He stops, thinks, then laughs, surprised.)  A philosopher?  (He throws his head back and laughs deeply.)

Yung (defensively) Yes, a Great Philosopher.

Wen (laughing even louder – hands on his belly) A Great Philosopher!

Lao Tzu: Yung, really, there is no need for you to stay longer.  It is time to go.  Good-bye, my friend.

Yung: But master, I must stay with you here!

Wen: Boy!  A Great Philosopher has told you to go!  Now GO! (He looks Yung in the eye menacingly.)

Yung: But…

Wen steps toward him in a threatening manner.

Lao Tzu:  Good-bye, Yung.

Yung backs up two steps, keeping his eye on Wen.  He turns quickly to Lao Tzu.

Yung (softly): Good-bye.

Yung turns and exits, stage right, walking at a pace measured to show his lack of fear.

Lao Tzu: You must pardon my young friend.  He is inexperienced in travel.

Wen:  What do you declare?

Lao Tzu: Master Warden, I have nothing but what is in this bundle.  It is only a quilt, some clothes, some food, some tea, and my bowl.

Wen opens the bundle, and looks through its contents.

Wen: Where is the rest?

Lao Tzu (slightly bewildered): That is all there is.

Wen: Don’t you lie to me! Your friend said you are a great philosopher, did he not?

Lao Tzu (puzzled): He did.

Wen: Do you deny you are a great philosopher?

Lao Tzu:  Master Warden, modesty constrains…

Wen (roughly):  Modesty is a proud man’s way of concealing his pride.  It is dishonest.  I’ll have no modesty here!  Can you deny you are a great philosopher?

Lao Tzu: I shall not deny it.  Neither, however, do I admit it.

Wen: Your inability to deny it is proof enough!  You are a great philosopher!  And I demand to see your baggage. Great philosophers always have great baggage!

Lao Tzu: But I have nothing other than what lies before you.

Wen:  We shall see, my friend, we shall see.  Guard!

A guard runs from the office.

Wen:  See to it this man does not go through the pass.  He has not paid his tax, which I have yet to assess.  (To Lao Tzu)  When you are willing to show us the things you intend to take through this station, we shall consider your tax.

Wen walks back into the office.  The lights dim as the floozy giggles softly in the background.

Posted in Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Why Lao Tzu wrote the Tao Te Ching | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Gaining the Pass – Scene 2

Gao Xiang-Tanzhi Pavillion. Qing Dynasty, 1688-1753. Public Domain.

Gao Xiang-Tanzhi Pavillion. Qing Dynasty, 1688-1753. Public Domain.

Same setting, the next day. 

As the scene opens, it is dark out.  There is a guard at the door of the office and Lao Tzu is lying down on the customs table.  Gradually the lights brighten. 

A cock crows.  A guard enters from the office, relieving the one standing at the door, who exits through the office door. 

The lights nearly at bright, Lao Tzu awakens and sits up.  As he rubs his eyes, the lights come to full brightness.

Teng enters from the office door carrying a bowl.  She is carefully dressed in modest clothes.  She is about eighteen years old, is on the small side, and has a sweet voice.  She is beautiful and innocent looking.  She is conservative in her actions and keeps her eyes down and bows appropriately when speaking to people.

Teng (to Lao Tzu): Here, My Lord.  This is a bowl of food for you.  I shall be back with some tea in a moment.

Lao Tzu: Thank you.  (He takes the bowl.  As Teng begins to turn away, he continues.)  Young lady.  Miss.

Teng turns back to Lao Tzu, bows and looks down.

Teng:  My lord.

Lao Tzu:  What is your name?

Teng: I am Teng.

Lao Tzu:  Well, thank you, Teng.

She bows and exits through the office door.

Wen emerges from the office door.  He is closely followed by the floozy.  She taps him in the shoulder.  He pauses, she whispers something in his ear, they laugh together.  She runs back through the office door.

Wen: Well, philosopher, where are the goods you wish to take from the lands of the King of Chou?

Lao Tzu:  As I told you, Master Warden, there are no goods.

A peasant enters, stage right.  His actions are humble.  Teng enters with a small tray, just big enough to hold a teapot and a cup.

Wen: Why do you lie so?  Are you afraid the tax will be too great?

Teng: Tea for you, my lord.

Lao Tzu:  Thank you, Teng.

Teng goes back into the office door.  Lao Tzu does not wait for her to leave to continue talking.

Lao Tzu: I also have no money for a tax aside from a proper personal toll.

Wen: No money for a tax?

Peasant:  Excuse me, brother Wen.

Wen (roughly): What is it?

Peasant: I wish to pass.

Wen: Pass.

Peasant: Brother Wen?

Wen (roughly): Well?

Peasant: Don’t you take a toll?

Wen:  Your brother paid it yesterday.

Peasant: Oh.  (pause)  Brother Wen?

Wen:  What do you want?

Peasant: Excuse me, Brother Wen, I have no brother.

Wen looks mildly perplexed for a moment.

Wen:  What did you call me?

Peasant (confused): Wen?

Wen:  No, not that – how did you just address me?

Peasant:  Brother Wen?  I said, “Brother Wen.”  Is that what you mean?

Wen: Yes.  You called me brother.  Now either you are mistaken and have a brother, or you are a liar.  I want to know which it is.  Are you a liar?

Peasant (very confused):  Please, no, Master Wen.  I’m not a liar.

Wen: Then why can’t you believe me when I say your brother paid the tax.  Now go away, and don’t call me “Master”.  It does not please me to hear it.

The peasant shuffles past the customs table almost silently apologizing, and exits, stage left.

Wen: Now, philosopher, tell me how can a philosopher come to such straits that he can’t pay his tax.

Lao Tzu:  Master Warden, as I said, I have money for the toll.  I have no money for taxes on possessions I do not have.

Wen: Do not have?  What kind of philosopher are you that you would own nothing?

Lao Tzu (regaining his composure):  Master Warden, has any philosopher ever been here before?

Wen: No, not a one.  You are the first.

Lao Tzu:  Do you know what a philosopher is.

Wen (rubbing his chin): Well, not precisely.

Lao Tzu: Why should you think that a philosopher would have any possessions?

Wen:  Of course they do!  Any fool knows philosophers are only employed by kings!  Kings pay very well!  Philosophers must be holders of great wealth!

Lao Tzu: True philosophers do not accrue great wealth.

Wen:  How can that be?  If true philosophers are so worthless, what do kings keep them around for?

Lao Tzu: The wealth of the philosophers lies in the validity of his ideas.

Wen: Ideas?

Lao Tzu: Yes.

Wen: Your ideas are your wealth?

Lao Tzu: Yes.

Wen (slowly and thoughtfully): And your wealth is kept in your head!

Lao Tzu (with some satisfaction): Precisely.

Wen: Then you have no possessions to display on the customs table.

Lao Tzu: Again, precisely.

Wen (after a thoughtful pause): Philosopher, you must tell me all your ideas before I can let you cross the border.

Lao Tzu (Nearly exasperated): What?  Why should I do that?

Wen (firmly):  Because I tell you to do so, and I am the Warden of the Pass.

Lao Tzu: That seems very arbitrary and unfair.

Wen:  I am giving you special consideration, philosopher.  If I wished to be entirely equal in my treatment of all people, I would have you display your wealth on the customs table like everyone else.  (He looks Lao Tzu in the eye and speaks in even tones, without a threat in his voice.) The fact that this means opening a head instead of a purse or package is of no concern to me.

Lao Tzu (with composure): It will do no good for me to tell you the things I know.  They would have no value to you.

Wen: Why?  Do you hold to teachings that have no value?

Lao Tzu: Teachings?  I have no teachings.  There are no disciples, no students, no writings.  Learning the things I believe will do you no good.  Either you already understand them, in which case you would not ask for them, or you could not learn them, no matter how carefully I instruct you.  They are not something that can be taught.

Wen:  Try.

Lao Tzu: Really, a person cannot derive information about these things by hearing of them or reading about them.  They must be understood and borne in the heart and in the soul.

Wen:  Why are you so interested in going through the pass? There is no one out there who can appreciate teachings. There is no one who can share your ideas.

Lao Tzu:  It was foretold that if I went out the pass, the destiny of my life would be unfurled.  I will meet a final, great teacher, who would give me my last instruction and my last trial, and once I am given that, I will be able to retire and rest.  I am over ninety years old, and am beginning to tire easily.

Wen: That is very good.  A most worthwhile goal. I hope you gain it.

Lao Tzu:  Then you will let me go?

Wen:  No.  But I see you do have good reason to tell me your teachings.

Lao Tzu: What is that?

Wen: As soon as you tell me, you can go to your retirement and rest.

Lao Tzu is stumped.  He says nothing.

Wen: Think about it.  I can wait for your decision.  I am young.

Wen exits into the office.  After a moment he appears again.  He walks over to Lao Tzu.

Wen: I tell you what.  Why don’t you do this?  Why don’t you tell me the most important thing you know?  That would be a good beginning.  What is the most important of all the things you know?

Lao Tzu: It is most important to follow the Way.

Wen: Follow the way?  (He begins to tease, unobviously at first.)  What does this mean?  Do you mean way, like a road? Do you mean to travel only on roads?  Or do you mean to keep traveling always?

Lao Tzu: No that is not it.  The Way is something one cannot describe.  Nothing else is like it.  It has no name, so I call it the Way.

A merchant enters, stage left.  He walks to the office door, where he is stopped by the guard who stands there.

Wen: So you believe in following an indescribable road no one has bothered naming.  This is most remarkable.

Merchant: Please excuse me, Brother Wen.  I seek to pay my toll and my customs duty.

Wen: Pass, Brother Gao, and do not bother me again.

Merchant:  Please, Brother Wen.  You will see I am not Gao.

Wen:  I said, “Do not bother me!”

The guard holds up a hand to the merchant’s chest to indicate he should not pass.

Merchant:  But the soldiers will not let me pass.  They know I have not paid my tax.

Wen: Guards!

The merchant is taken aback that a guard has been called and is somewhat fearful of unexpected trouble.

Two guards enter from the office.

Wen:  You guards!  I am busy now learning all there is to know about philosophy.  Whenever anyone comes by, tell them I am not taking taxes on their foolish goods until this philosopher has given me what he owes.  Send them all away. Do you understand?  Good!  You are dismissed.

The two guards exit into the office.

Merchant (protesting):  But please, Brother Wen, I can’t go back through the pass the way I came today!  I must go on and tend my business. Please let me go on!

Wen: Guards!

Again, the guards appear.

Wen:  All of you listen! I don’t care where they go, just send them away – any way they want to go.  Dismissed.  (to the merchant)  Go away! Shoo!

The two off-duty guards return to the office.  The one on duty waves the merchant on, shaking his head as if to say the warden was touched in the head.  The merchant bows and scurries off, exiting stage right.

Wen:  So, we have the most important part of philosophy. What is next most important?

Lao Tzu:  I do not think you understand.

Wen (loudly): I did not ask you to make me understand.  (He continues.)  I only asked you to tell me.  That should be easy for you, and you should be glad about it.  What is next most important?

Lao Tzu:  A man of great virtue does not hold to virtue. If he held to virtue, his virtue would be small virtue.

Wen mouths the words silently with a puzzled look on his face.  Then he laughs loudly.

Wen:  What of a woman of no virtue.  Is her virtue greatest of all?

The floozy can be heard in the office laughing at something happening there.

Wen: Hey, You!  Young woman!  Come out here!

Floozy:  I am not dressed, sir.  I cannot come.

Wen: Since when does that matter?  Come out now!

After a short pause, the floozy enters from the office.  She is wearing a long shirt with slits in the sides from the bottom nearly to the waist, but this barely covers her and she is barelegged.

Wen: This man is a philosopher.  He says that a man of greatest virtue does not hold to his virtue, and a man who holds to his virtue is of less than greatest virtue.  What do you say to that?

Floozy: If that is true, then I have never met a man of less than greatest virtue, sir.

Wen:  Thank you.  Now go.

The floozy goes back into the office.

Wen: You see?  All men are of greatest virtue.  It is simple. Now, we can go on.

Lao Tzu: Please, I do not think you are getting the point.

Wen: Wait!  I can’t spend the whole day here with you.  How much more is there to your philosophy?

Lao Tzu: In truth, it is a lifetime study.  (He continues somewhat ruefully.)  In some cases, it is probably more than a lifetime.

Wen: Then let’s see if there is a way to make it short.  What is the end?  (He thinks)  I know!  We began at the most important thing.  Let’s go to the opposite end.  Let me ask this: What is the least important thing about your philosophy?

Lao Tzu (mystified):  I fail to see how I can answer that.

A peasant enters, stage left, halts briefly at the guard by the office door, who explains the order of the day to him in very low tones, gives him a penny, and exits, stage right.

Wen: Why is that?

Lao Tzu: I cannot point to one of the tenets of my philosophy and say, “This is least important.”

Wen: You mean there are many tenets of your philosophy that are equally least important?

Lao Tzu: I am perplexed.  I suppose one could say that.

Wen:  How many least important tenets are there?

A merchant enters on the road, stage right.  He is bearing a large bundle of silk.  He stops at the guard, who explains things as before, exclaims surprisedly, and happily, and exits, stage left.

Lao Tzu: I have no idea.

Wen:  Well, how long will it take for you to tell me all the unimportant tenets?

Lao Tzu: If we are uninterrupted, I could tell you all my beliefs in perhaps a day, perhaps a week, perhaps two weeks. I have never given the matter thought.

Wen (thoughtfully):  Clearly, I am not pursuing a profitable path.  I do not understand why a king would pay a philosopher to do this.  Without that understanding, I can’t properly know what to ask.  (He brightens.) I have an idea!  Instead of telling me all your thoughts, which will waste much of my time, you can write everything down!  (Lao Tzu winces.) That would be much better.  Then I could have the writing read to me at my leisure.

Lao Tzu: Please do not make me write all this down.  It will mean nothing to you anyway.  I do not wish to have my beliefs made a matter of public record.  If they are written down, people will strive thoughtlessly to abide by them.  If they strive thoughtlessly to abide by them, they will make them into laws and customs.  When they become laws and customs, they will only be a way to coerce people into doing things of no merit or meaning they otherwise would not do.

Wen:  What laws will the people follow if you do not write these down?

Lao Tzu:  I suppose they would follow the rules and customs advocated by Confucius.

Wen: Then you are saying that Confucius’s laws are preferable to your tenants?

Lao Tzu:  No.

Wen:  You must write.

Lao Tzu:  I must give it thought.

Wen:  Then think, philosopher.

Wen departs into the office.  Lao Tzu sits alone for a moment.  Teng appears from the office, modestly dressed, as before, and quietly but busily goes across the stage carrying a small box.  She places these on the writing table.

Teng: Please excuse me, sir.  I have been told to bring you writing materials.  There are ink and brushes in the box, along with a number of bamboo pages to write on.  If you need anything else, please call for me.

Teng returns into the office.  Wen emerges again.  He walks over to the customs table, where Lao Tzu is sitting, and sits next to him.

Wen: Are you only concerned that people will read what you write?  I can see to it that no one would hear what they say except me.

Lao Tzu (with uncharacteristic sharpness):  No!  I wish to be on my way, and you hold me here.  You have no right to do that.  I can pay my toll, just the same as any of these peasants and merchants who pass by.  My bundle has no value. I will leave it here if necessary, so you should not have to tax it.

Three merchants enter, stage left, and talk to the guard.  As Wen speaks they bow and with great smiles express thanks to the guard, possibly to Wen, who would not notice them, and signal bearers offstage, stage left.  The bearers enter, join the merchants, and all exit, stage right.

Wen (looking Lao Tzu in the eye and speaking in measured tones.):  I have the right.  I am the keeper of the pass.  I am commissioned by the king to determine the values of things passing across the border here, and to tax them on the basis of that determination.  You wish to cross.  The king has paid you for years to think up ideas, and now you wish to take the ideas you created for the king out of the country with you. In order to do my job, I must know what those ideas are so I can tax them appropriately.

Lao Tzu: The king did not pay me to be a philosopher.  He paid me to be a librarian.

Wen (thoughtfully): Oh! (He studies the thought for a moment.)  You still must have your ideas judged for taxing. Even if they were not paid for, they have value.  In fact, (he speaks with more conviction) all the more reason.  (He begins to look as though he feels he has made a discovery of great merit.)  The king has, perhaps, never heard your ideas. That would make them all the more valuable.

Lao Tzu:  How can you tax ideas?  How can you determine their worth?  You cannot judge them; you will not even understand them.

Wen: So you tell me.  If you write them down, however, (Wen begins to speak in honeyed tones) they will have been left behind, and there is no tax.  I have done my duty, and you are doubly blessed for having gained free exit and having left a present of value for the king you served.

Lao Tzu (showing wear – almost under his breath):  You do not understand.

Wen:  As I said, I am young.  I can wait long for your reply.

Wen rises and walks back into the office.  Lao Tzu sits alone for a minute or two.  A peasant or two enter on either side, pass by the guard, and exit on the side opposite their entrance.  The laugh of the floozy is heard.  Lao Tzu rises, walks to the writing table, and opens the box.  He removes the contents, looking at each in turn and placing it on the table.  When everything is spread out for him, he looks a moment, shakes his head sadly, and puts everything back in the box.  As he walks back to the customs table, Wen appears.  Lao Tzu sits.

Wen:  I have thought of this a while, and I find myself thinking perhaps I have been unjust.

Lao Tzu (looking up):  Oh?

Wen:  I think I ask too much.  You should not be asked to write all this down – it is an unfair burden to make you labor so.  So!  Since I cannot supply you with a scribe, I propose to pay you for your writing.

Lao Tzu:  You really do not understand.

Wen:  Look you!  I have been patient with you!  I do not know what you want, but this has gone too far.

Wen stamps into the office, and immediately stamps out again.

Wen:  I will only make one final offer to you.

Lao Tzu:  All I want is to cross the border into the hill country.

Wen:  I see you really do not place store in money and material goods.  I can understand this.  I have known some soldiers who were much like that.  I am not an unreasonable man.  I will propose this to you:  Write all your teachings down, and in return I will give you my daughter!

The floozy appears from behind the office, walking toward the office door.

Lao Tzu (astonished):  What?

Wen: Daughter!  Come here!

The floozy hears Wen, looks to him and backs out of the way of the office door.  It should look to the audience like she is answering Wen’s call and must, therefore, be his daughter, but the effect should be subtle.

Teng appears from the office.  Immediately after she clears the door, the floozy exits into the office.  Teng walks over to the men, and stands before them, head bowed.

Lao Tzu (surprised):  This is your daughter?

Wen (smiling):  I considered offering you the floozy, but I knew you could buy her yourself if I gave you money.  Since you did not want money, you clearly were not interested in the floozy.  I can understand a man who appreciates purity. My daughter is pure.  She also is beyond price.  She is, perhaps, much like the tenets of your philosophy I wish you to write down.  So I offer her to you in exchange for them.

Teng shows only slight emotion at this, but continues to look modestly toward the ground.  What she shows should be limited to mild surprise.

Lao Tzu (discomposed): What can I possibly tell you?

Wen: Doesn’t she please you?

Lao Tzu: Master Warden, how could I take your daughter?

Wen: Damn you!  What do you want?

Lao Tzu: I only want to pass.

Wen glares at Lao Tzu a moment.  He strides into his office in disgust.

Lao Tzu: He is your father?

Teng: Yes, master.

Lao Tzu: You are quite unlike him.

Teng: Yes, master.  I take after my mother.  But my father is a good man.  He is kind and his nature is noble.

Lao Tzu (somewhat ruefully): I am happy to hear that.  But Teng, did he not just offer to give you to a stranger?

Teng: My father loves me dearly.  Of this I have no doubt whatever.  He has always protected me, and he has been kind and gentle.  Perhaps He knew you could not accept his offer. He may have meant only to startle you.  Or perhaps he knew you are kind and gentle and genuinely wishes me to go with you.  He knows I am unhappy here, for the people of this land seem so foreign to me that I cannot feel at home.  Who is to say his intent?

Lao Tzu: He is indeed startling.  But Teng, you should not judge the people of this land by those you see here.  This place is not filled with ordinary people.

Teng: My lord, I have been to the great cities and to the court itself.  I have been through the provinces.  Nowhere are the people my people.  I am a stranger in this country, though I was born here.  I act the part of the dutiful daughter, but it is not because my father taught me thus, and it is not because I feel most comfortable with the ways of duty and keeping with the customs of the land.  All my life I have thought that someday my happiness, my health, perhaps even my life would depend upon my fitting into the mold into which all women in Chou must fit.  So I practice diligently at being what I am not and pray for deliverance.  Do you think this is dishonest, to give the world the gestures and the words it expects while being, indeed, something else?

Lao Tzu:  No.

Teng:  For that, I am glad.  Good night, my lord.

Teng bows and exits.

Scene closes in the same way as scene 1.

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Gaining the Pass – Scene 3

Looking Three Times at the Thatched Hut, Dai Jin, 1388-1462. Public Domain.

Looking Three Times at the Thatched Hut, Dai Jin, 1388-1462. Public Domain.

Scene 3 opens the same way scene 2 did.  During this scene peasants, merchants, and/or bearers, singly or in pairs, enter, cross to the guard at the door, continue across stage, and exit in normal manner of customs business, at the discretion of the director, up to the point noted in the script, where traffic stops.

Teng enters, carrying a bowl of food.

Teng:  I have a bowl of rice for you my lord.  (She hands it to him.)  In a moment I shall return with some tea.

Lao Tzu:  Thank you, Teng.

Teng returns to the office.  Lao Tzu sits, deep in thought, seemingly studying the opposite sides of a question.  After a wait, the floozy enters.  She is dressed in ordinary peasant garb.  Her face is not made up, but her fingernails are still bright red.  She sits, possibly in a Lotus position, on the customs table, next to Lao Tzu.  She is a very self-confident and independent person.  Lao Tzu looks up at her quizzically.

Floozy: All men know of many unpleasant things about my place in life.  One pleasant thing they do not see is that I never have to excuse my manners.

Lao Tzu:  Pardon me!  Good morning, young woman.

Floozy:  Good morning.  What’s your name?

Lao Tzu:  I was born Li Ehr.  I am called Tan by most people.

Floozy:  Most people just call me “Hey you.”  The rest usually call me by someone else’s name anyway.  If you have a name for me, just let me know, and it will be mine whenever we are together.  I have a good memory and do not forget such things.  They say you are a philosopher.

Lao Tzu:  I try to be.

Floozy:  I thought philosophers always had disciples hanging around them.  Why don’t you have any?

Lao Tzu:  What I believe cannot be a subject for instruction. It follows that there is no use in having students.

Floozy:  Oh.  (She pauses with a thoughtful look.)  Why is that?

Lao Tzu:  What I believe goes somewhat contrary to the common sense of man.  It is the sort of thing most people laugh at.

Floozy: Is this why you defy Wen and refuse to write down your teachings?  Are you afraid of being laughed at?

Lao Tzu: No.  Those who believed as I do, do not want their beliefs written down.  To do so would go against the beliefs themselves.

Floozy:  Why is this?

Lao Tzu:  Look at it this way:  If I tell you tradition is what we use so we need not think about things, for with tradition, one can adhere to the form without troubling to think of the meaning, does this make sense to you?

Floozy:  Yes.

Lao Tzu:  And piety toward our ancestors is what we use so we need not love, for with piety, one can speak the words of honor without troubling to love the ones they are meant for. Can you understand this?

Floozy:  Yes.

Lao Tzu:  Then you can understand this:  Teachings are what we use so we need not understand, for with teachings we may maintain the rules without troubling to understand them.  (He pauses briefly.)  If I had disciples, they would collect my words and write them down.  If they wrote them down, the words would be analyzed.  People would then derive rules of conduct from them.  And the derived rules of conduct would then be the basis for mindless actions ending in a host of injustices.  (He pauses again.) Would you have me be the father of injustice?

Floozy: Hardly, but are these the sum of your beliefs?  Are they what you were telling Wen?

Lao Tzu: No.  Most importantly, I believe one should follow the Way.

Floozy (with a giggle):  I followed the Way.  It brought me here!

Teng Returns with tray, teapot, and cup.

Lao Tzu:  Thank you, Teng.  You have treated me kindly.

Teng:  I have always been taught to be kind and respectful, my Lord.

Teng remains, listening to the conversation.

Lao Tzu (To the Floozy):  No, no, that is not what I mean. The Way is not a road.

Floozy (teasing a bit):  I didn’t say I followed a road.  I said I followed the Way.

Lao Tzu: The Way brought you here?

Floozy: Of course it did!  What else do you believe?

Lao Tzu: Well, I believe that a man of great virtue does not hold to his virtue, which is why he has great virtue.

Floozy: Yes, I heard that yesterday.

Teng sits on the ground, so she can remain and be comfortable.

Lao Tzu: And laughed, as I recall.

Floozy: Well, it was funny, the way Wen put it.

Lao Tzu: I suppose I failed to see that.

Teng: The wisest man cannot see all things all the time.

Lao Tzu: Thank you.

Floozy: That’s true, though.  What else do you believe?

Lao Tzu: I believe in refraining from contention.

Floozy: I never contend. (She giggles, laughs aloud, and continues in rueful comedy, almost crying, almost laughing.) I suppose you could say I never contend – I always give anyone whatever he wants.

Lao Tzu:  My child…

Floozy (composing herself):  No, I am all right.  It is not all that bad.  Many women are beaten by husbands who say they love them.  I have no husband to love me, but I also have none to beat me.  The men I know do not love me, but they also fear to beat me, for they know there are those I pay to protect me.  We laugh together, and if it is not love, laughter is at least far better than nothing.  But please go on, tell me what else you believe.

Lao Tzu: I believe we should be like water, flowing toward the places where we belong.  Do you know the Classic Treatises of Change?  They say, “Water flows on without interruption and reaches its goal.” Now why, do you suppose, does water always reach its goal?  Partly it is because water does not contend.  No other thing seeks the low places were water is at home.  Partly it is because the water always takes the turns that present themselves to it.

Floozy: You mean it does that which presents itself to it to be done.

Lao Tzu: Precisely!  And this leads us to the next idea.  In the end, it is always the weak who overcome the strong.

Teng: Master, how can this be?

Lao Tzu: Look at the water, my child.  You can see from the rocks in the stream that they are worn by the ever-flowing water.  The water is the most flexible and softest of all things.  And yet with the passing of time, it carves these solid stones.  When the stones are carved entirely away, the water shall flow on, bearing the dust it has carved them into, to the sea.

Teng: So is the sea the greatest of all things?

Lao Tzu: The water flows and flows into the sea, and yet the sea never fills up.  That means that the sea is very great. But look at the Way.  All things come from it, and yet it was never full.  Look at it!  It is empty!  Draw from it!  What you draw emerges!  It is a great mystery.

Floozy: Master, is it always called the Way?  I have heard it called the Word.

Lao Tzu: It has no name, and so I call it the Way.  You may call it the Word, and this is just as good. Each is better than the other in its own fashion, because neither is precisely correct. It is the Word that cannot be uttered. It is the Word that has been since the beginning. It is the Word that stands before God.  Of all things, it is the deepest mystery, and it is the one thing one must understand to understand all else.

Teng: What was at the beginning?

Lao Tzu: God, the Way, and what I call the Virtue, or the Strength or Presence.  God is that which arose without invocation.  God is without name.  God is That Which is of Itself.  The one gave rise to the Two.  The two gave rise to the Three.  The Three gave rise to all things.

Floozy:  Master, what should we do in our lives?

Lao Tzu: Do that which comes to be done.  Since it comes of itself, there is no contention, and when there is no contention, there is no error.

Floozy: Master, you believe in doing what comes to be done. You believe in remaining free of contention.  These things I can understand.  But in light of them, there is one thing I cannot understand:  Why do you fight so hard to avoid the task before you, writing down the things Wen wants?

Lao Tzu sits in thought, dumbfounded.  After a minute, Teng rises and goes into the office.  Lao Tzu sits for another minute or so.

Lao Tzu: My child, if you were Wen, I would say you were manipulating me.  If you were guided by Wen, I would say you were manipulating me.  I do not believe you are manipulating me.

Floozy: I make a point never to manipulate anyone … , (she thinks for a moment and then giggles) well … , except physically, of course.  (She begins to giggle uncontrollably, covering her mouth.)

Lao Tzu (not noticing the Floozy’s giggle):  Therefore, though I do not understand why it has presented itself to be done, I find I must do that in which I have no faith.  There is a mystery here.  Do you know what it is?

Floozy (not yet entirely composed):  No, master.

Lao Tzu: I could observe that a powerful man is not as strong as a woman whose only hope lies in her humble station.  That is mystery enough for many people, but it is not the mystery to which I refer.  The mystery is why my beliefs, that cry out to remain silent, demand that they be written down.

Lao Tzu rises and goes to the writing table and begins removing the writing instruments from the box.  The floozy, with a slightly teary-eyed smile, rises and leaves.

Lao Tzu:  I suppose it is not necessary to know why a person seeks wisdom.  It is not necessary to understand how a person can derive wisdom from scribblings.  Perhaps there are readers with skills beyond what I might guess.  May they come to good.

Lao Tzu works silently as toll business continues to go on without Wen.  Teng appears, bearing a bowl of rice, which she places before Lao Tzu.  She leaves, returns with tea, and silently disappears again.  Business stops, the lights dim somewhat.

Lao Tzu:  Teng! Please, Teng!

Teng enters from the office and walks to the writing desk.

Teng: Is there something you wish, master?

Lao Tzu: Teng, would you be so kind as to bring me a lamp?

Teng: Certainly, Sir.

Teng goes to the office, and comes back with a lamp.  She places this silently on the writhing table.

Lao Tzu:  Thank you, Teng.

Teng: Yes, Sir.  Do you need anything else?

Lao Tzu:  No, thank you.  Good night, Teng.

Teng: Good night.  She exits.

Lao Tzu works on as the lights grow dimmer and go out.  He remains illuminated by the lamp.  One may hear the Floozy’s giggle.  The night goes on and Lao Tzu works.  Things are completely silent a while, an owl hoots, and then the lights begin to brighten again.  The cock crows.  The guard changes.  In a moment, Wen emerges from the office.  He swings his arms as an early morning exercise.  He walks over to Lao Tzu.

There is no customs traffic after this point.

Wen: I see you are writing the book.  I have moved you to comply with my desires.  I would exclaim, “How fortunate!” But I am unsurprised at my ability to persuade.  I deserve a good deal of credit for being able to move a Great Philosopher, don’t you think?  When will you finish?

Lao Tzu (not looking up): Very shortly.

Wen:  Good!  It is the third day since you came here.  I should not want to keep you longer.

Teng appears with food.  Wen exits.

Lao Tzu: Thank you, Teng. (He continues working.)

Teng goes back to the office, and returns with tea.

Lao Tzu: Thank you, Teng.

Teng (cautiously, for she sees Lao Tzu is working):  Is the writing going well?

Lao Tzu:  Yes, Teng, thank you.

Teng: How long will it take you to finish?

Lao Tzu:  Very little time.  (He looks up.)  The greatest knowledge is said in the fewest words.  Yesterday I talked about the single Word that transcends all things.  Well, the more you say, the farther you get from the truth.  So. I have tried to say everything I know in the fewest words possible. I am only human – I cannot do it in one, but I have managed to keep it to five thousand or so.

Teng:  Five thousand words!  Imagine that.  And you compiled all this in one night.

Lao Tzu:  No, actually, it took longer than that.  But it took very little time to write it all down.

Teng: Please excuse me, my lord, I have chores.

Teng leaves and Lao Tzu goes back to work.  After a moment, the floozy enters.

Floozy: Hello, Li Ehr.  Are things going well?

Lao Tzu:  Very well, thank you.

Floozy: How long will it take to finish your work?

Lao Tzu (not looking up – raising his eyebrows to indicate he is speaking to her):  I am finishing the last stroke of the last character just now.

Wen emerges from the office.  Lao Tzu looks up and speaks to him.

Lao Tzu: Master Warden of the Pass.  I am just finishing the work you commissioned.  I hope it pleases you well.

Wen walks over to the writing table.

Wen:  This looks quite lovely, Master Philosopher.  Does it hold all your ideas?

Lao Tzu:  Not all, surely.  I did not include some that have no value whatever.

Wen laughs.

Lao Tzu: The ink is quite dry on most of my leaves.  Perhaps you would like to read what I have written.

Wen picks up the pages of the text.

Wen:  Teng!

Teng scurries from the office.

Wen: Read me this, Teng.  I wish to hear the philosopher’s words.

Teng:  The Way that can be traveled is not the infinite Way. The Name that can be called is not the timeless Name.  That which arose without invocation created both Heaven and Earth. By calling their names, it brought all things into being. By freeing yourself of your desires, you may see this secret. By cherishing your desires you may partake in its manifestation.  Begotten of one, these two are yet said to be different.  The begetter of them is a great enigma. It is the subtlest of all mysteries, but the gateway to all understanding.  (Teng has completed the page and looks up.)

Wen:  Very good, philosopher.  For a penny, now, you too may pass.

Lao Tzu:  Thank you my lord.

Wen (With a twinkle in his eye):  And perhaps you can now learn the last of your life’s lessons and go to your retirement.

Lao Tzu:  Late last night, my lord, I heard an owl.  I could not tell from which way he called, whether from this side of the border or the other.  It occurred to me then that I had never been told on which side of the pass the test would come.

Wen smiles to Lao Tzu to acknowledge his last statement, and then he looks to the office.

Wen: Guards!

The guards appear from the office.

Wen:  Fetch the philosopher’s bundle.

One of the guards goes back to the office and emerges with the bundle.  He hands it to Lao Tzu.

Lao Tzu: Thank you.  I have finally come to appreciate your hospitality, but I still look forward to the wilderness. Thank you, and goodbye!  (He begins walking off down the road.)

Teng: Wait!

Lao Tzu stops.

Teng: My lord, please wait.  (She turns to her father.)  You said if he wrote for you, you would give me to him.  He never said yes or no.  (To Lao Tzu)  Please take me with you.  I wish to study and be your disciple.

Lao Tzu (quite take aback):  No, please!

Teng: Please.  You wrote the book.  It was a great change in your thinking that allowed you to do that.  But the same great change should allow you to take a disciple.  Is this not true?

Lao Tzu: It cannot be, dear Teng!  I am seventy years older than you, my child.  Someday I shall die, and then you shall be alone in the wilderness.  I cannot allow that.

Floozy (stepping forward):  When you die, I will look after her.

Lao Tzu: How can you offer such a thing?  She will have to return here to find you; it could be very far.

Floozy: No, I will come with you also.

The soldiers all moan, nearly silently.

Lao Tzu: You would come with me into the wilderness?

Floozy: My lord, one thing a person of my station can always do, anywhere, is fend for herself.  But I would much rather come with you than stay here.  I wish, like Teng, to be your disciple.  Would a man as wise as you be so proud as to turn such an offer down?  You talk as though you would have to tend to her needs.  But we can tend to yours as you grow old.  Besides, any good philosophy requires teaching.  If the value of a thought is in its elegant expression, what value has a thought unexpressed?  And to whom will you express you thoughts, alone in the wilderness?

Lao Tzu: I have learned a good deal in this place.  (He speaks with some resignation in is voice, having discovered he was wrong about having disciples.)  Why you should want to know what I know, I could not guess.  But it is not for me to say yea or nay to your coming.  If you wish to be my disciples, who am I to argue?  Indeed, (he looks at the Floozy) who am I that I could argue with you over anything? (He shakes his head silently.)

Teng looks questioningly toward Wen.

Wen: Be kind to my daughter, old man.  Bring her, perhaps, to the land where she can be at home.  She shall bring comfort to your old age.

Teng:  Good-bye!  Good-bye, father!

Lao Tzu:  When the great Master lives among the people, he often veils the light of his being.  It is darkened without, but yet shines on within.  How hard it is to see that light through the subtle guise of human fabric!  How many Masters have we seen here on this day?  And how many would we have seen, but for this little play?

Teng and the floozy walk toward Lao Tzu as the curtain falls.


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