A smile at the last

‘Lao Tzu cultivated the way of virtue, and his teachings aimed at self-effacement. He lived in Chou for a long time, but seeing its decline he departed; when he reached the pass, the Keeper there…said to him: “As you are about to leave the world behind, could you write a book for my sake?” As a result Lao Tzu wrote two books, setting out the meaning of the way and virtue in some 5000 characters, and then departed. None knew where he went in the end.’ (My italics.)

(Quoted in the introduction to the Penguin edition of the Tao Te Ching, 1963)

I remember as a schoolboy being intrigued by the Emperor Charles V departing imperial glory and retreating for his last years to a monastery. Why would he do that?

And later, in my 20s, by the music master with a smile of his faith at the end of his years, in Herman Hesse’s The Glass-Bead Game.

I’ve always imagined my last days as being a time of calm when, within and without the world, I would have a smile of my lips.


We make so much noise in the world but when our time for making noise is over, it’s wise to recognise the fact and seek the silence that lies before, behind and after the noise. At that point we no longer want to know the world, as once we did, and the world loses interest in us. Our power to influence the world long gone, we may smile at the consequence and inconsequence of all we’ve done, and rest gently in the silence.

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