Letting go of the ten thousand things
It’s one of the strangest folk tales and also one of my favourites. You can find it in Franz Xavier von Schönwerth’s collection, The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales (Penguin, 2015).
Anyone who knew the carpenter Hoydel wasn’t entirely surprised by the shape of his life, at least to begin with. Where many would see forestry as necessary for supporting life, for firewood and carpentry, Hoydel saw only the taking that forestry required. While he worked with the wood taken from the woods, he felt disconnected from the help his work might offer others. It’s no wonder he missed miraculous signs of new shoots rising from the stumps of chopped-down trees. He saw only taking. He took and took and became a thief.
Where some would notice the transformation of live wood into dead lumber as part of what was needed to make the world more pleasant to live in, for furniture and fire, Hoydel saw only death in that lumber. How he saw changed what he saw. His carpentry had been, for him, an endless reminder of death as he chipped away at that wood. He missed the miracle of life itself. He took and took and became a murderer.
Just because you ignore a law, though, doesn’t mean the law goes away. The moral structure of the universe is built into the universe itself. One natural law says that contraction follows what stretches too far; that the overextension of strength soon turns into weakness; and that taking itself is a revelation of the given (Tao Te Ching §36).1 Hoydel was the kind of man who saw everything moving in one direction, without any tensions or paradoxes. He thought of taking but forgot the givenness and the restoration bound up in that taking. He saw reality as monodirectional, not as composed of tensions and paradoxes.
Since he wasn’t the sort of man to add limits to his engagements with the world, Hoydel didn’t stop at one killing. He kept going, killing and killing and killing. And because these were the days before sleuths and detectives and forensic science, Hoydel got away with murder. Every time he killed, he’d cut a notch into the staff he carried with him.
Let’s not be so hasty in thinking that this story doesn’t concern us. We’re not out there killing anyone and counting our killings. But Hoydel’s contracted awareness of the world may be quite easily likened to the modern reign of quantity and the widespread tyranny against quality. That’s something we’re all prone to accepting as normal.
Multiplicity, psychologically speaking, takes the form of a life in the process of fragmenting and breaking apart. Details, details, details. “Our life is frittered away by detail,” says Thoreau. The failure to see the tensions in life, as Hoydel did, is echoed in ignorance of another great natural law—the law that tells us that the ten thousand things (all the details of life) only hold together when you keep your eyes on the gift and unity of being (Tao Te Ching §16). When you attend to the ten thousand things without any higher principle, without any sense of being itself, everything starts to fall apart. “Racing, chasing, hunting, drives people crazy” (Tao Te Ching §12). When sentiment replaces metaphysics, you end up with a world in ruins. Lots of people bickering with each other over their little patch of nothing. You might try to accumulate things: money, attention, things to do, accolades, task lists, likes and more likes. Well, that’ll tie you in knots. Reality itself gets murdered when attention is rootless.
I spoke recently with a friend whose life is a complete mess. Relationships in tatters. A marriage drifting into distrust and disgust and, right now, what looks like an impending divorce. Kids driven to perform their lives so that they don’t have to live it, just like their parents. He’s tallied up his successes. He’s got empirical proof that he’s made a success of everything he’s done. People find him impressive. He’s got so many notches in that staff of his. Not deaths but, still, lots of death.
Just now he’s started to realise that it’s all just a collection of little nothings, proof that he’s succumbed to some sort of tyranny against the real. He was chasing after the wrong things. Unfortunately, his consciousness hasn’t changed. He knows he’s in pain but not how his own consciousness has betrayed him. He’s had no conversion experience. But he has hope. To fight the sense that his life is tearing at the seams, he’s got a plan; he’s drawn up a strategy. And you know what? Unsurprisingly, it’s just more moral accounting, more accumulating, more activities, and stockpiled sentiments. More notches in his staff. He’s fighting fire by pouring paraffin onto it. He’s trying to fight the splitting apart of the ten thousand things by adding an entirely different collection of ten thousand things. I tried to tell him that this isn’t the way but the seed planted on unreceptive ground is soon stolen by crows and the cares of the world.
Well, anyway, back to our story. Far sooner than Hoydel could have accounted for, that stick was so heavily pocked with evidence of his villainy that there was space for only three more marks. He thought to himself that perhaps now was a good time to try to change. He had the theory of transformation in mind, at least. He had empirical evidence that his diabolical accounting exercise was at an end. Drawing on the childhood memory of a faith he’d inherited but never practised or believed, he went out of his way to find a priest and he told the priest about the blood on his hands. He confessed it all. He showed the priest the pockmarked staff as proof.
The priest was horrified and frightened. He’d heard confessions, so many sins recounted, but never like this. He’d seen unholiness and monstrosity in people but he’d never met someone who’d become a monster. He couldn’t bring himself to absolve Hoydel. He was taken up into the ten thousand things wrong with Hoydel and with himself and forgot the God in whom he lived and moved and had his being. He abandoned his piety and tried to run away.
This enraged Hoydel, who at that moment had all his suspicions of religion confirmed. He was quick on his feet to catch the priest and he beat him to death then and there with the very stick he’d been using to count his misdeeds. Then he cut another mark into it and noticed that there was space for only two more notches. He killed someone else soon after that and then saw that he’d come to the end of his staff. Only one more notch and then it’d be full. “Ah, but there’s no changing, is there?” thought Hoydel to himself. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, can you?” He’d tried to change once before and it hadn’t worked.
By some astonishing grace, he met another priest; a hermit. The priest was living in a wood that Hoydel had gone into to hide after his last murder. Just by glancing at the former carpenter, turned thief, turned killer, and seeing how his robberies had robbed him and how his murders had deadened him, that hermit-priest immediately discerned the sort of man he was talking to. The holier you are and the clearer your sense of the form of the good, the clearer your picture of the principle of unity, the quicker you are to notice the deformed shape of evil. The scent of the truth in your nostrils makes the stench of wickedness worse.
Still, this priest did not run away. Hoydel asked him if he would hear his confession and he agreed, already knowing something of what he was about to hear. “If this priest refuses to absolve me,” thought Hoydel, “he’ll be dead in no time.” He planned to strike that last notch into his staff, a final pronouncement on his own soul: damned for damned sure. He’d make that mark, then he’d kill himself. But—ah!—only if the priest didn’t absolve him.
What is the sacrament of reconciliation but a return to quality? Sins can be tallied. But that’s not the point of confession and repentance and forgiveness. The point is to take up the ten thousand things into the higher unity and to allow what is higher to reconstitute the lower. The point is to relativise the relative; to render it subordinate to the Absolute. Well, that’s part of the point. There’s more to it, of course, because it is a mystery. No mystery is so easily summarised.
The priest heard Hoydel’s confession. Hoydel meant every word he said. He suddenly felt what he had done instead of just thinking about it. He was in the presence of a holy man, someone who had submitted his entire existence to the Highest Principle and Reality Itself.
Hoydel recalled the horrors he’d inflicted on the world, the many ways he’d brought ruin everywhere he went. He’d taken a stand against being. His hands, which had once been capable of making things for people, he had used to unmake and undo. He had broken the world and he wept for the way that he had broken himself by sowing so much destruction. He let it all go. He stopped clinging to his sins. He stopped worrying about his obsession with taking and murdering and tallying everything up. “For these sins and for those I can’t even remember, I ask forgiveness,” he said.
“Te absolvo,” said the priest with profound finality. “I forgive you and through me, God forgives you too.”
Then and there, Hoydel felt the first surprising stirrings of healing within his own heart. “The wise soul watches with the inner and not the outward eye, letting that go, keeping this” (Tao Te Ching §12). Something inexplicable had just happened. The priest told Hoydel that he needed to take his staff, the very one he’d been using to tally his crimes, and plant it in the ground. He would then need to kneel down before the stick and pray.
“If the staff begins to grow leaves, blossoms, and then bears fruit, you will find salvation,” the priest told Hoydel before leaving that place. Hoydel stood there for a while, dumbfounded, and then did exactly what the priest had told him to do. He planted that dead stick in the ground and knelt down right there in the middle of that clearing in that forest. “Who can by stillness, little by little, make what is troubled grow clear?” (Tao Te Ching §15). “Ten thousand things arise together, in their arising is their return. Now they flower, and flowing sink homeward, returning to the root. The return to the root is peace” (Tao Te Ching §16).
Many, many years later, the hermit-priest was passing through the forest and he came to that same clearing. There he saw Hoydel still kneeling in front of his staff, a perfect picture of serenity. And the staff was no longer a dead thing but very alive. It had turned into a beautiful, tall tree bearing the most scrumptious-looking red apples. “Great-minded people abide in the kernel and not the husk; in the fruit and not the flower” (Tao Te Ching §38).
The priest gently held his hand out to touch the shoulder of the penitent. Instantly, Hoydel turned to dust. Out of that dust emerged the most pristine white dove, which looked briefly at the priest and then took off, flying up beyond the forest trees, up into the heavens.1
I’m drawing from Ursula Le Guin’s beautiful translation of the Tao Te Ching.