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Lao-Tzu’s Black Ox

by Matthew H. Kennington

It is said of Lao-tzu that he was born jaded and gray. He lived when China had lost the perfect harmony it had known under the reign of the Duke of Chou – a time when people yearned for a return to that perfection, for someone to lead them back.

Lao-tzu means Old Boy.

He was a courtier and an officer, and this is how he wrote the Tao-Te Ching. One day he rode out of town on a black ox. He was stopped at the city gate.

“Where are you going?” asked the gatekeeper.

“I cannot say,” said Lao-tzu, “for fear I will end up somewhere else.”

“Then why are you leaving us?” the man wanted to know.

“To dwell,” said Lao-tzu, “in the thick, and not in the thin. To dwell in the fruit, and not in the flower.”

Through the gate, just beyond the city wall, was the near edge of an orchard. It was the hot season, and the trees, in numberless ranks, dark and green, swayed under their own weight. “I am fleeing for my life,” said Lao-tzu.

There was no one in the street. There was no one under the eaves or in the garden that the gatekeeper kept beside his post. He turned to the man on the ox and bowed low. “You are a great man of letters,” he said. “I can see that. If you would do one thing before you go.”

“I am weary,” said Lao-tzu. “If you would open the gate…” But the man had shuffled off to the windowless room that was his post. He returned with an armful of papers.

“If you would be so generous,” said the man, “as to write down for me what you have learned in your long life, I’m sure I would be the better for it, and you would be none the worse. Then you can go your way and my gratitude with you.”

So Lao-tzu sighed and took the pen.


This is the story of a man whose name was not, of course, Phat. Phat came from the bottom part of Vietnam that hooks around under Cambodia, an area which neither country really wants, except that they don’t want the other to have it. This, and the fact that he spoke Cambodian in Viet tones, practically singing it through his nose, made Phat what is called Gampuchia-groum, “Under Cambodia.”

He moved to Cambodia, where he married and lived for ten years, Gampuchia-groum. He didn’t speak of it much, but it was the only thing he spoke of.

Lao-tzu made the characters slowly and clearly, without pausing.


                   The highest virtue is not virtuous; therefore it truly has virtue.

                   The lowest virtue never loses sight of its virtue;

                            therefore it has not true virtue.

The gatekeeper stood behind Lao-tzu, who was sitting in the dust. He peered at the letters. He was a stocky man with a drizzle of a beard and full cheeks, and his lips moved at the corners. He was enjoying himself immensely. “You may be surprised to learn,” he suddenly said, “that I am not an ordinary, ignorant gatekeeper. So please you, my name is Sung-up Moon, and I am teaching myself to read!”

“Ah,” said Lao-tzu and went on writing.


                   When the highest type of men hear the Way,

                            with diligence they’re able to practice it;

                   When average men hear the Way,

                            some things they retain and others they lose;

                   When the lowest type of men hear the Way;

                            they laugh out loud at it.

                   If they didn’t laugh at it, it couldn’t be regarded as the Way.

“That is a good thing, is it not?” said the man.

Lao-tzu lifted the pen and regarded him. “Is what a good thing?”

“Teaching myself to read?”

“I don’t know,” said Lao-tzu.


Rumor had it that Phat was once a military man. Some said for the Vietnamese, some said for Cambodia. There were other rumors that Phat helped the Khmer Rouge during the sour, bitter time of the killing fields, but that seems doubtful. The Khmer Rouge did not take help from Gampuchia-groum. Still, rumors feed on little and thrive on nothing, and Phat told his neighbors nothing.

At last he had to flee. He put his wife and a son on a ship headed for Bangkok. His older boy was in the military and could not get out, but Phat knew that three out of four was exceptional luck, so he tucked his son into a dim corner of his mind and went about the ship with a pleasant air, smiling at everyone. He joked with the other Gampuchia-groum aboard, who was a twenty-year-old girl named Cheng, whom he would never meet again.


                   Those who work at their studies increase day by day;

                   Those who have heard the Tao decrease day by day.

                   They decrease and decrease till they get to the point

                            Where they do nothing.

                   They do nothing and yet there’s nothing left undone.


The gatekeeper licked his lips and rubbed his nose. “I’m not sure I follow you here,” he said.

Lao-tzu stopped writing and looked up. “Entirely,” added the gatekeeper.

“And who asked you to follow me?” said Lao-tzu.

“Ah,” said the man. “Just so.”


In Dallas, there is an apartment complex at 4909 Live Oak. Upstairs, there are six or seven Cambodian families who have been in the States for several years. Downstairs, Phat lived between a Mexican family and a Cambodian woman who lived on welfare because her husband had driven off to California. The woman had a son and two daughters. They did not play with Phat’s son.

The caseworker drove Phat to find a job. Dallas Semiconductor said he had steady hands, and they could take him as a solderer if he could find a way to get there every day. There was a bus, the caseworker said, that came up Live Oak; he could use that. But the bus cost money. “Then you’ll have to catch a ride from someone in your complex,” the worker said.

Instead, he went to Red Hanger Cleaners and took a minimum wage job that he could walk to.


At first, the ox had lumbered into the shade of a mango tree, where it stood and switched flies with its long, unkempt tail. But the shade had gradually slipped off its back and down its broad, black side until the ox stood snorting and slobbering in the full heat of the sun.

“Won’t you be more comfortable inside?” said the man who kept the gate. He stood to the side of the seated man and shielded his head with one hand. The man was nearly bald.

Lao-tzu finished another page and let it slip to the ground. All around him, white papers lay like petals in the dust. He did not hear.

No need to leave your door to know the whole world;

                   No need to peer through your windows to know the Way of Heaven.

                   The farther you go, the less you know.


                   Therefore, the Sage knows without going,

                   Names without seeing,

                   And completes without doing a thing.


In easy, black strokes he built column after column. “it is easy to see,” said the gatekeeper, “that you are a sage yourself.”

Suddenly, Lao-tzu stopped writing. “You may know better than I,” he said, “but it is my opinion that mine is the mind of a fool – ignorant and stupid!”

“Not to show disrespect to your extraordinary humility, but I believe you are now having a joke of me,” the man said.

But Lao-tzu shook his head. “The common people see things clearly; I alone am in the dark. They discriminate and make fine distinctions; I alone am muddled and confused.”

“If you say so,” said the man who kept the gate.


At Red Hanger Phat swept and cleaned after the workers had gone. He moved the clean garments onto other racks, matched the tags by color and number. Then he filled the racks with the next day’s batch. At 8:30 P.M. he went home, where he would sit against the doorjamb of the outer room and watch the children move about the muddy courtyard.

After six months, the caseworker came to see why Phat was still in 4909 Live Oak. If he still refused to commute, why didn’t he find a second job nearby? In fact, Phat could even make use of his evening hours at home doing piecemeal work. The caseworker went to the car and returned with a cardboard box.

The three plastic pieces and short wire were the components of a fishing bobber, a simple enough device to construct. All Phat had to do was load the copper wire with a spring, pass it up through the plastic pieces, and bend the tip back down with a pair of needle nose pliers. In a matter of seconds, Phat could make three cents. His wife could help too, or his son; it didn’t matter, just so the work got done. Phat accepted the entire box with much bowing and grinning.

But in fact, he made very few bobbers.


                   The one who was skilled at practicing the Way in antiquity,

                   Was subtle and profound, mysterious and penetratingly wise.


                   Hesitant was he! Like someone crossing a river in winter.

                   Undecided was he! As though in fear of his neighbors on all four sides.


It was not much later that Phat had a very lucky break. One of the other janitors happened to mention that his brother’s friend was selling a car. The janitor was a man Phat quite liked, so even though he’d never met the fellow’s brother, let alone his brother’s friend, Phat was interested. On Tuesday of the next week, Phat drove home in a $175 silver Impala. He parked it behind the building in the blacktop lot that had never housed more than two or three cars at a time. He parked in the same spot every night. In the morning of the third day of his newfound freedom, there was a commotion outside Phat’s door. The young men of the complex were milling about, and through a rip in the curtain, Phat could see them pushing and elbowing each other. “What do they want?” he said aloud.

His son slouched in front of the television. “They want you to move your car,” he said.

Phat was startled, partly that something he had done mattered to his neighbors. “Why would they care where I park my car?” he said.

“Because they play basketball there. You’re in the way.”

“I’m not in the way,” Phat said, his voice rising. “What is in the way? That is a parking lot. Not a place to play ball.”

His son was silent. Phat went to the door and looked out. The boys slunk away.


The gate keeper retreated into his shack, but he now appeared cupping a clay bowl in his hand. He walked bent over the bowl, so that the thin string of his beard brushed its sides. He approached the man in the sand.

“What is it,” Lao-tzu said, still bent over the pages.

The man waited, switching the steaming bowl from hand to hand.

Lao-tzu looked up. “Yes?” he said.

The man bowed from the waist and held out the bowl. “I am sorry,” he said, “that I have only this crude bowl to give you. If we were at my home, I could…”

“Thank you,” said Lao-tzu, and laying the papers aside, he rose to his feet. He bowed and accepted the bowl with both hands. “I am not thirsty at the moment, but perhaps the ox could take a drink?” He approached the beast and held the bowl below its muzzle.

The man knit his brows. His chin worked side to side, and he fingered his beard. Lao-tzu returned the empty bowl and bowed. The man returned to his shack, holding the bowl away from his body.


When he returned, Lao-tzu motioned for him. “Listen to this,” he said, and read aloud:


       We fire clay and make vessels;

       It is precisely where there is no substance, that we find the usefulness of clay pots.

       We chisel out doors and windows;

       It is precisely in these empty spaces, that we find the usefulness of the room.

       Therefore, we regard having something as beneficial;

       But having nothing as useful.


All the while the gatekeeper had been nodding and smiling tightly. In the silence that followed, though, his nodding turned to a sort of rocking from the waist, an unconscious sway. His hands were clasped over his chest, and the smile was gone. He knit his brows. “I don’t get it,” he said at last. “What’s the use of having nothing?”


With the car, Phat was finally able to take the Dallas Semiconductor job, and with the job, he was able to move upstairs. He was placed on the assembly line, one station down from the woman who was his new neighbor at 4909 Live Oak. They had never spoken, but he had heard her yell to her children in the courtyard, calling them to supper. And he had seen her squatting outside the door, talking with the other women. Her Cambodian was rural and rushed – from the Battembong province – and he could not catch everything she said to the woman who sat across the line from her, but he did catch the words “Gampuchia-groum.”

He decided he would do something about his neighbors before it got out of hand. That evening after supper, when they were sitting outside their doors, he made the rounds. Four other people in the complex worked at Dallas Semiconductor, all of them Cambodian. He approached them one at a time. “You see I have bought a car,” he told them. “It is old and ugly as an ox’s rear, so I park it out back. But it runs well, and I would be glad if I could ever help when you need a ride.”

They acted as though they could not understand his Cambodian. But the laughter he heard as he reascended the stairs was not from misunderstanding.


“I have a son,” said the man at the gate. “He is a grown man now. Years ago he left our city. He will never return. He was a good son; he would have stayed and cared for me, but I sent him away. He was cunning and quick, and he could not bear to see me sit here day after day. I am like that ox of yours, and he was like a tiger. He went to school, to be with other tigers. But someday…” The man fell silent.

Lao-tzu had been watching the man and squinting. His hand was still poised over the words,


       Heaven and Earth will of themselves be correct and right.


He sighed and put down the page.

“And what of you?” said the gatekeeper. “Are you unhappy too? Why must you go from our city?”

“I am sick, and I believe there is only one cure.”

“What cure is that?” the man said, and stepped nearer.

Lao-tzu motioned to the papers with his lower lip. “If you cannot find it on your own,” he said, “how can I show it to you?”

The man bobbed and smiled again, as a young boy caught in a fib. He took up one of the pages that had fallen at the old man’s feet.


       As for the Way, the Way that can be spoken of is not the constant Way.


“This thing you style ‘the Way?’” he said. “Is it your cure?”

“If it is not,” said Lao-tzu, “then there is none.”


That night there was a fire. A siren blared in the alleyway next to the apartment, and lights flashed through Phat’s window. He dressed and went outside.

The iron gates of the complex had been locked for the night, but they now hung wide open. By the back gate, young children milled about the legs of the adults, peering out. Phat moved along the walkway over their heads. He gazed down into the parking lot.

Scattered glass sparked and flashed in the swirling light like so man thousand red embers, flaring out and dying again. Great, swirling balls of flame rolled out of the car, first from one window, then another. The silver pain vanished like dew in the sheer heat. A fireman had a steady gush trained on the blaze, but none of the water seemed to quite reach the flame.


Five thousand characters later, Lao-tzu returned the pen. “It is enough,” he said, “how can one say what cannot be said?”

“But you have said t beautifully,” the man replied. “I will study these things as I sit here at my post; I will read and study it all. I know the world like a tiger knows the forest and everything that moves in it. Then I will write to my son and I will know the words to say.”

Lao-tzu closed his eyes and dropped his head. The man fell silent again. “There is no way to bring my son back?” he said softly.

“There is a Way,” said Lao-tzu. “That ought to be enough. It has to be enough.”

The man suddenly seemed very much older. He moved slowly to collect the papers and gently brush the dust away. “I cannot repay you for your goodness,” he said.

“You can,” said Lao-tzu. “You can open the gate.”


The ox had found where several branches had fallen. It was lying calmly beside a palm tree. When the gatekeeper approached, it rocked itself up.

He led it back by its nose rope. “It is a wonderful beat you have here,” he said. “In this world, there is no other like it.”

“That’s true,” said Lao-tzu as he ambled off into oblivion. “It is all I need. And yet it is not mine.”