The Classic of Mountains and Seas: In The Muddle Thick of it All!


One of my favorite books is the ancient Chinese ‘Classic of Mountains and Seas.’ The character depicted in the picture above is the deity, Muddle Thick. The Classic has this to say about him:

“There is a god here who looks like a yellow sack. He is scarlet like cinnabar fire. He has six feet and four wings. He is Muddle Thick. He has no face and eyes. He knows how to sing and dance. He is in truth the great god Long River.”

On the face of it, such descriptions may make the classic seem like a ridiculous bestiary. But, when we remember that it is a Taoist sacred text, and that Taoists loved to hide profound, mysterious teachings underneath absurd surfaces, the symbolic, shamanic richness of the text begins to become clear. The various gods described in the classic are just symbols for the variegated attributes of the Tao, which itself, can never be illustrated or described.

Let’s start with Muddle Thick. Muddle Thick is just a middle. Like eternity, has no beginning, no end, just a never-ending present; and, being the middle, he is also a symbol for the moderate mind and lifestyle of the Taoist Middle Path.

His very name is itself a perfect example of Taoist humour. Whilst Taoists advocate cultivating wisdom, spiritual power, undying strength and flexibility, eventually attaining spiritual immortality, they know that the more great power and wisdom are flaunted, the more readily will they be lost. Thus, they recommended wayfarers to ‘hide their enlightenment’ appearing to be ordinary, even dumb, absent-minded, and dull, so that their light could be preserved, only displaying and using it when beneficial and necessary. As it says in the I Ching, Hexagram 36:

“Light enters into the Earth, illumination is concealed. Thus do superior people deal with the masses, acting unobtrusively, whilst in fact illumined.”

And Hexagram 38:

“Above is fire, below is a lake, disparate. Thus are superior people the same yet different.”

So, Muddle Thick, embodiment of sagacious wisdom, gives himself a stupid form and a stupid name, saying he is confused and dense, when he is actually clear and enlightened. If you walk around wearing jewels, everyone will want to rob you. But if you hide your gold within, and robe yourself like a beggar, no one will touch you or harass. They think you have nothing to offer them, when in fact, you have it all. Muddle Thick is following the same principle, increasing his infinite greatness by countering it with lifelong humility. Trees with the best wood are chopped down. Great statesmen attract assassins. Who would want to bother a lifeless torso?

That he is a yellow sack shows that he is earthy, grounded, and receptive, capable of being filled with infinity, and receiving all wisdom – yellow being the color of the Earth in the Chinese philosophy of the Five Elements, located in the centre – in the very Muddle Thick of it all!

Cinnabar is a substance much prized by Taoists, and constantly mentioned in the classic. A scarlet rock containing mercury sulphide, it was an ore of transformation. Mercury is unstable, volatile, elusive, changeable. This is just like Tao, which is impossible to pin down or grasp, always changing so as to transcend all definitions. Fire has the same qualities, and also represents the heart – the need for compassion and silently roaring joy.

Having six wings shows that he has risen above the five elements by combining them into one; his four feet show that he flows in all directions. With no face, eyes, or distinguishing features, he has completely renounced the shackles of selfishness by making himself faceless, unknowable, incapable of being seen. Having no face, he can take on all faces. Having no eyes, he can see through all eyes, beholding everything, everywhere.

Though mouthless, he sings and dances, because his silence makes him capable of singing every possible song, and making every possible noise in the entire universe. Dancing, moving and shaking, he demonstrates the movement and change that arises from stillness and constancy. Being in truth, a Great River, he flows on into eternity.

So, we see how the profound can be hidden within the seemingly stupid; how sobriety and sagacity can be hidden in sheer absurdity. Be like Muddle Thick. Belong to The Way.



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