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True words are not beautiful. Beautiful words are not true. (Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching)
Speaker: Lao Tzu says, “True words are not beautiful. Beautiful words are not true.”
What could he mean probably? “True words are not beautiful. Beautiful words are not true.” And I would also want to extend this to, “Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram (Truth, Godliness, Beauty)”. The Upanishads say that only the ‘Truth’ is ‘Beautiful’. And here we have Lao Tzu saying, “True words are not beautiful and beautiful words are not true.” How do we reconcile the apparent contradiction?
Let’s look at beauty. What do we mean by beauty? Usually, when do you say that something is beautiful?
Listener 1: When it is pleasing to our senses.
Speaker: When it is pleasing to our senses and it is conforming to the patterns already experienced and stored. That is the reason why what one calls as beautiful, the other may as well call as ugly. We have become habituated to using terms like ‘beautiful face’, ‘beautiful place’, ‘beautiful words’ and so on. But what exactly is a beautiful face? What do we mean by a beautiful face?
A face is a particular configuration, a geometry, a form, a complexion, an expression. There can be nothing special about geometry, there can be nothing special about a form. A circle has nothing that a rectangle or a rhombus does not have. They all exist in the same dimension, in the same geometrical dimension. To call a circle as beautiful and the rectangle as a little less beautiful is just unnecessary, subjective labelling.
What does a beautiful river have, or beautiful mountains have, that some other place does not have? What does one search for by the side of a hilly stream? Why does one call it beautiful? Is it because of the vibrant colours? Is it because of the nice sound? Is it because of all that the senses perceive? Is that what makes it beautiful? Yes, that happens to be our regular concept of beauty.
Beauty is something taken in through the senses and processed in the mind, and finally certified as ‘beautiful’. If such were beauty, then the mountain side would lose all its significance the moment we lose our eyesight. Now there is nothing beautiful there, it is all gone!
If the mind were to label a stream or a fountain as beautiful, then the beauty would disappear as soon as the mood would change, because the mind is nothing but the moment’s inclination, the mood. What we call as ‘beautiful’ necessarily depends on likes and dislikes, and hence on conditioning. Hence, it is a fragmentary activity that necessarily creates the ugly, along with the beautiful. It is always beautiful, by comparison.
There is something ugly and there is something far more preferable compared to it, and that is what we call as
‘beautiful’. In short, whatever I like, I call as ‘beautiful’. And what do I like? Anything which conforms to my pattenrs, anything which does not hurt my world view, anything which will not cause me discomfort. This surely is a very superficial definition of beauty.
It is easy to say that this is superficial, but we spend our lives centred around this and other such definitions. Every young man has in his mind, the image, the concept of the beautiful face of a woman. And that beautiful face necessarily depends upon the cultural background. That beautiful face does not suddenly take shape one fine day. It has been there, it has been growing, and it has been taking assertion since childhood. So such is the unfortunate importance that we have attached to our concept of beauty, howsoever superficial it is. It might be superficial but we spend our lives around it.
Is there another kind of beauty that will not break, not divide, not choose, not label, not divide the world into good or bad? Is there another kind of beauty where the pleasant is beautiful, and the unpleasant is equally beautiful? Is there another kind of beauty where the likable is beautiful, and the not so likable is equally beautiful, where the beautiful is beautiful and the ugly is equally beautiful? Can there be another kind of beauty which does not depend upon the sensory inputs but is a state of one’s own mind?
If it is a state of one’s own mind then obviously it cannot be the mind that depends on the sensory input. It has to be a mind that is independent of the world and the mind that feels beautiful about being independent. ‘I am feeling nice, because my state does not depend on what you can do to me or show to me or say to me. Beauty is not something that I perceive, beauty is something that ‘I am’. It is my intrinsic state. I have settled into a particular peace. A peace that has no opposite, a peace that cannot be shaken.
Show me, I will see. Speak to me, I will hear. But how do I see? I see being what I am. How do I hear? Sitting, where I am. No sight, no sound has the power to dislodge me from my seat. And being here is so beautiful that whatever comes to me is beautiful. I am in such a good mood that whatever you show to me, appears good. Now my mood, my being, my deepest feeling, is independent of what is happening around. I am no longer dependent on the events around to give me something. This is beautiful and that is beautiful, because I am beautiful.
The greatest beauty and the only beauty that can be, I am sitting close to it. I have embraced it, I have become one with the only beauty that is possible. And now such is the climate that everything appears beautiful, like when it rains. It is pouring, that is the climate. Now who has the time or the inclination to differentiate, to choose, to say that this is not looking good and that is looking good. When it is really pouring, then it is just beautiful. Everything is beautiful. It is pouring within. It is pouring within and I am drenched. Now even the so-called ‘ugliest’, looks so nice. Now the sacred is sacred and even the profane is sacred.
The question then arises that why is it so, that mankind in general would call a snow-covered peak as beautiful, that the first rays of the sun in a jungle would be called beautiful by almost everybody, that the face of a baby would be termed beautiful by almost everybody? What is it that we see there? Why does mankind in general call these scenes as beautiful? Why does the flow of a mountain stream sound musical to almost everybody? Everybody would say that it is beautiful to hear. Why?
Beauty is that beautiful point within. Sights and sounds that remind the mind, that gently deliver a message to the mind and push it towards the source can be aptly called as ‘beautiful’. But remember that their beauty is a secondary beauty, their beauty is a reflected beauty. Their beauty is just a reminder of the real beauty.
Do not fall in love with a mountain, or an innocent face. Ask yourself that if the message delivered by the beautiful is so pleasing, what would be the grandeur of the beautiful himself! They are just reminders, not the real thing. And anybody who mistakes the messenger for the lover, would miss the lover. Anybody who becomes fixated to the sight of the flowing Ganga or the lovely moon, would miss. Look at the river so that you are reminded of THAT, the moon comes as HIS messenger, otherwise there is nothing in the moon. Do not get obsessed with the moon.
Now, what does Lao Tzu mean when he says, “True words are not beautiful”? Obviously, he is referring to our everyday concept of beauty. Our everyday concept of beauty is based on the denial of the really beautiful. If the wife’s face itself is beautiful, why do you need to remember THAT? If your new car is beautiful, then your search for beauty has stopped at the car. Why do you need to go to the aatman?
And we abuse the word ‘beautiful’ badly. The pizza topping is beautiful. That’s the level to which we have brought it down. Now the Upanishads say that only the ‘truth’ can be ‘beautiful’- Satyam Shivam Sundaram (Truth, Godliness, Beauty). For us, sundaram is the pizza topping. So it’s very apt that Lao Tzu says that those who take the car, the dress, and the façade of the building as beautiful, for them, truth will be very ugly, actually it will shake you up. It will be very discomforting to you, very, very discomforting.
If you seek refuge in a nice face and a Kabir or a Fareed comes and throws a thousand couplets at you, reminding you of death, you will feel very uncomfortable, very uncomfortable. What you thought of as beautiful, is no more beautiful. True words are not beautiful, if beauty is what you call it. True words are not beautiful, going by your concept of beauty. And there is nothing more beautiful than the truth if you realize what is real beauty- Satyam ShivamSundaram (Truth, Godliness, Beauty). It depends on where you are standing.
When you are standing as the conditioned mind, then Lao Tzu is describing your story. At the centre, at the aatman, the Upanishads are revealing the glory. Two different points, two contrasting messages.
– Excerpts from a Clarity Session held at Advait office. Edited for clarity.
Watch the session at: Beauty is to see beauty in beauty and ugly
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