The Music of the Earth

THE INNER CHAPTERS Chuang Tzu, translation & commentary by Solala Towler

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Tzu Chi leaned against an armrest. Looking towards heaven he breathed deeply and slowly, seeming to lose all sense of self. It seemed as though time had stopped and he was floating freely in the firmament.

His friend, Yen Cheng, said to himself, ‘What is going on here? I see before me Tzu Chi, yet he is not the person I have known. It seems as though his body has become as wood or as a withered log, it is so still. And, listening to him breathing and watching, his sight on so far a distance, it seems to me as though his heart has turned to ashes. How is this possible?’

Later, when Tzu Chi was done with his meditation, Yen Cheng questioned him about this. ‘Yes,’ answered Tzu Chi, ‘your question is a good one. Indeed, when I meditate like that it is as though I lose all sense of myself completely. Can you understand this?

‘For most people it can be compared to hearing the music of people yet not being able to hear the music of the earth. Or it is like hearing the music of the earth but not being able to hear the music of the heavens.’

‘Please tell me more,’ asked Yen Cheng.

The forest sings
‘Well,’ said his friend, ‘it is like this. When the Great Clump of the Earth emits a vaporous breath we name it ‘the wind.’ As long as it is still, we hear nothing. Then, once this wind begins to blow, all the hollows of the earth begin to sing and moan and bellow forth. In the mountains there are all sorts of clefts and hollow spaces that the wind blows into and many kinds of sound come flying out.

‘And deep within the forest there are great and ancient trees whose limbs scrape against each other, and whose trunks also have hollows that the wind plays like a great horn, and all sorts of moans and creaks and scraping sounds come forth.

‘It is as though these mountains and these forests have mouths to sing with, as well as noses and ears. There seem to be bowls, and holes, cups and mortars, puddles and pools.

‘As the wind rushes over them we hear the sounds of screams and screeches, moans and groans, shouting, laughing, crying. At times it seems as though we can hear the cries of battle, the yelling of orders, the rumble of horses’ hooves, the cries of the wounded and dying. We can hear the whizzing of arrows overhead and the clanging of swords crashing together.

‘At other times it seems as though the wind in the front is crying out to the wind behind, which answers ‘woooo.’ When the wind is soft there is a soft reply and when it roars and blows fiercely there is a great roaring back.

‘And then, when the wind dies down, the sounds all stop and the mountains and the forest are quiet again, though the very rocks and leaves of the trees seem to vibrate softly, with the memory of that mighty wind.’

Tzu Chi stopped here and looked at his friend, who sat before him, so moved and filled with the images Tzu Chi had been describing that he thought he could still hear the amazing sounds of the vast mountains, and the ancient and endless forests.

‘If I understand you then,’ said Yen Cheng, ‘what you have been describing is the music of the earth. I think that what you mean by the music of the people is the sound of the bamboo flutes that are played at festivals and ceremonies. What then, is the music of the heavens?’

‘Ah,’ said Tzu Chi, ‘perhaps we can think of the music of the heavens as that force that allows the ten thousand beings to each put forth their own music, without interference from above. These sounds – each comes forth on its own, because it is in its nature to do so. They do not need to be ordered or to be inspired to do so. It is their true nature to do so and so they do.’

Commentary
When Yen Cheng sees his friend meditating, it seems to him that ‘his body has become as wood or as a withered log, it is so still.’ This bewilders him, and his friend seems to be another person entirely.

When Tzu Chi comes out of his trance, Yen Cheng asked him how this could be. ‘Yes,’ says Tzu Chi, ‘when I meditate like that it is as though I lose all sense of myself completely.’

But when asked to explain just what that means he says that, while most people are familiar with the music of people, very few understand the music of the earth and fewer still understand the music of heaven. What can he mean by this?

The music of the earth, he tells us, comes from the wind moving through spaces and hollows of the earth, and also from deep in the forest where the trees themselves move and dance and emit strange sounds. Sometimes one can even hear the sounds of battle.

Sometimes the wind calls out to itself and, when it is done, the very rocks and leaves still vibrate softly, as if they can still hear the sounds that have poured forth in the wind.

Yen Cheng is transfixed and feels he can hear the music of the earth all around him. Once, while hiking in the Yellow Mountains in China, I sat by the side of the trail and listened to the sound of the wind whispering through the trees. It was a foggy day and there were very few people out on the trail; for much of the time I was alone, a very rare experience in China! I could see only a small way before me and when I stopped and sat by the trail and watched the tops of the trees swaying in the breeze, I could hear the music of the earth that Chuang Tzu talks about here.

Yen Cheng asks about the music of heaven, he is told that it is ‘that force that allows the ten thousand beings to each put forth their own music.’ The term wan wu is usually translated as ten thousand things. What it actually means is all life in the world or the material plane. I like to translate it as ten thousand beings, as that phrase denotes all the myriad forms of life on our planet, from rocks to plants to animals to people and everything in between.

Again we are told that in the natural cycle of the Tao, all life expresses itself in its own natural and unique fashion. It does not need to be ordered to do so, it just does.

Being natural is the highest goal of Taoist philosophy. The goal of Taoist spiritual cultivation is to rediscover our own authentic nature. The Chinese term for sage or enlightened one is zhen ren, which means authentic person. It can also be translated as realized person. To discover or uncover our own authentic nature is to realize our true, eternal self. Once we discover our true nature, we are naturally true to it. It does not have to be orchestrated from above.

From The Inner Chapters, ©2010 Chuang Tzu translation & commentary by Solala Towler, published by Watkins.