The Journey of a Thousand Miles

There is a well known saying from the Chinese; “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

I had assumed that the author of this saying was Mao Tse Tung. Apparently he used it as a motivational tool to inspire his troops on the famous Long March which eventually led to the establishment of modern China, but when I looked it up on the net I was surprised to see it attributed to Lao Tzu.

This didn’t seem right. It is not the sort of thing that Lao Tzu would say. It sounds psychological, not spiritual. And especially not in the book of Tao, which is a brief and terse account of essential spirituality.

The story is that Lao Tzu, like Buddha, Jesus and other masters, wrote nothing during his life, aware of the bare inadequacy of written words. He did not intend to write anything down, or allow his disciples to write down his words. His words would pass with him into nothingness.

But when Lao Tzu was approaching death he left his home and headed towards the mountains to spend his last days there in silence. To reach the mountains he had to pass through a gateway which was manned by a disciple of his and this disciple, realising what was happening, insisted that the master write something down for future generations, otherwise he would not let him pass. In this way the Tao Te Ching came to be written.

True spirituality, like meditation, is an end unto itself. It is not like a therapy or a philosophy, or psychological knowledge. It is not a road to somewhere else. It will not sound like a call to arms, or advice, or a list of reasons to do something. It simply is, with no reason or purpose, best enjoyed purely for its own sake.

Lao Tzu wrote a minimalist, mystical book, a long poem to existence. There are many translations of the Tao Te Ching online but they all seemed to use the same phrase, except for one.

The phrase is from Verse 64 of the book of Tao, and the alternative translation I found is ‘A thousand mile journey begins under your feet.’ This sounds authentic. The relevant lines, in Michael LaFargue’s 1992 translation, go:

A tree you can barely get your arms around grows from a tiny shoot
A nine-story tower begins as a heap of earth
A thousand mile journey begins under your feet.
Working ruins, grasping loses.
The wise person does not work, so does not ruin
Does not grasp, so does not lose.

The lines – ‘Working ruins, grasping loses. The wise person does not work, so does not ruin, Does not grasp, so does not lose.’ – are almost anti-motivational. Don’t work so hard, don’t grasp so desperately. Don’t go on walking for a thousand miles. You will still be the same person, just in a different place. ‘The wise person … Turns back to the place all others have gone on from.’

The wise person doesn’t go anywhere because he knows the truth is just under his feet, and a journey of a thousand miles won’t change that. A tree grows from a single shoot and a tower is built from the earth beneath it. They don’t go anywhere. They have all they need within them already, just as we are also complete, just as we are.

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