The Mountain Pathway:
A Conversation Between Two Masters
air has no smell water has no taste the truth is inconceivable
One day, in a moment of inspiration, Lao Tzu took up his brush and quickly wrote down this poem. Then he set the paper aside, to let the ink dry, moving on to other work.
Later–copied over, handed on, and discussed widely by students—these mystifying words came to the attention of Confucius himself.
The most famous scholar of the age, Confucius considered the poem carefully, without making much headway. Finally, he decided to pay Lao Tzu a visit.
When he arrived at Lao Tzu’s stately home, the two masters greeted each other respectfully. A servant set forth some tea, and when the two were alone, Confucius began to ask about the work.
Confucius. “Master, this poem seems to me profound, but I cannot sound its depths by myself. May I ask the author a question?”
Lao Tzu. “I will answer if I can.”
Confucius. “First, can the truth be known?”
Lao Tzu. “Yes.”
Confucius. “How can one know the truth, if it is inconceivable?”
Here, Lao Tzu paused, then he said: “Do you really want to understand this poem?”
Confucius. “Yes, of course.”
Lao Tzu. “Perhaps you are going at it the wrong way.”
Confucius. “What would you recommend instead?”
Lao Tzu. “Don’t ask any questions at all.”
Confucius. “But master—how will I ever understand this work?”
Lao Tzu. “If you can keep still—like a mountain—eventually you will get in harmony with the universe.”
Confucius. “And then?”
Lao Tzu. “Then you will just know.”
Confucius. “How can this be?”
Lao Tzu. “I don’t know.”
Confucius smiled to himself.
Their conversation went on for a while longer, but not wanting to impose on his host, Confucius soon gathered his attendants and journeyed home.
The next day, Confucius began, for the first time, to meditate. When asked about it, he claimed that meditation is not a departure from scholarship, but a continuation of it. And thus his search for knowledge took a new turn.
At the age of 70, Confucius turned his attention to the ancient mysterious poems that make up The Book of Changes. His last great project was to write a commentary shedding light on that classic. Nothing he ever wrote is quite as deep as this commentary, and sinologists study it carefully to this day.
As for Lao Tzu, he remarked to his students, “Have you read the commentary yet? It is sublime. For example, notice especially the treatment of Fellowship with Men, line five. You should memorize it. Yes, every one of you.” At this, he looked out the window and gazed at the sky. “Truly,” he said, “Confucius is a great scholar. Next to him, I am like an infant who hasn’t learned to speak yet.”
By now, his students were accustomed to hearing such pronouncements.
Nevertheless, 2,500 years later, Lao Tzu’s own Book of the Way is, after the Bible itself, the most translated work in history.
When he had completed the commentary, Confucius laid down his brush and wrote no more. He retired to the country and soon passed away—peacefully, as they say. And then there was mourning across the nation. After the funeral, though, among his belongings was found one slip of paper. On it, he had enscribed the following words.
It is written.
“Air has no smell.”
“Water has no taste.”
“The truth is inconceivable.”
We breathe the air.
We drink the water.
And we know the truth.
Michael Edwards describes himself as a “po-boy from Memphis.” Nevertheless, at The University of Virginia, he held the Emily Clark Balch Fellowship for Creative Writing. And he now teaches English at Santa Fe College, in Florida.