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Brecht saw himself as an exiled teacher, sent off like Lao-Tzu, or Empedocles. Familiar with these works, he takes their departure as a starting point for his own didactic poems.

The adoption of a foreign mode distanced these poetic treatments from the fray of discrete and pointed politics that was occupying the pages of Das Wort, a publication for German émigré writers in which he was continually raked over by Stalinist-oriented critics in Moscow.

The first poem here, about Lao-tze has as its theme the persistence of slow and gradual force, one to which Brecht would return over and over again. Successful from the first in print, it was read and broadcast over the radio in Switzerland.  It has become a favorite with teachers and students around the world.   

tao te ching


Click on title for German original

The Legend of the Origin of Tao-te Ching
on Lao-ste's Emigration from his Country

When he was seventy and growing frail,
The teacher pondered as his need for respite grew,
For decency in the land had begun to fail,
And evil once again was on the increase, too.
And so, he buckled up his shoe.

He packed what he thought was right.
Not much. The few things he could not shed,
Like the pipe he smoked at night,
And the little book he always read.
The food he needed to stay fed.

A final look at the valley and he let it pass,
As he made his way into the highlands,
And his ox was happy for fresh grass,
Chewing while he carried the old man,
Fast enough, for one with time on hand.

But on the fourth day among cliffs and rocks,
A customs agent held them caught:
"Any valuables to declare?" The boy who led the ox
Said, "No, none. He taught."
An explanation clear and short.

But the customs man in a flash of quick emotion,
Asked, "To what conclusion did he come?"
Said the boy, "That soft water in its motion,
Over time makes mighty stone undone.
You understand. Hardness will succumb."

So as not to lose the last light,
The boy drove the ox on
Around a dark fir tree, almost out of sight.
The customs agent, when they were almost gone,
Ran after them. "Stop! Wait! Hold on!

Old man; The water, stone, what's that about?"
The old one looked. "You're interested, I see?"
"Yes. Who conquers whom, that I must find out.
I just collect the tolls and fees;
If you know this, then please do tell me."

"Write it down. You can't just go away.
Dictate what you know and feel.
There's ink and paper here, a place to stay.
I live over there. I'll bring a meal.
What do you say? Is this a deal?"

Over his shoulder the old man looked down
At the agent: patched up jacket, no shoes,
His face creased into one big frown.
No, this was no conqueror insisting on his due.
And he muttered, "You, too?"

To decline such a polite request,
The old man, it seemed, was just too old.
For he said out loud, "Those who quest,
Deserve an answer," And the boy said, "It 's getting cold."
"Good then. A day or so, all told."

Down from his ox the teacher climbed.
With the boy he wrote for seven days.
And the customs man brought food (and the whole time
Only cussed the smugglers softly on their way.)
And then came the day.

One morning, the boy handed the agent
A sheaf of verses, the eighty-one we prize.
They thanked him for some travel food and went
On around the fir tree, off to where the mountains rise.
A polite exchange, just made to size.

But let's not praise the wise man solely,
Whose name blazes from the title page.
One has to first seize wisdom from the holy.
Therefore, let's praise the customs agent.
He's the one who asked it of the sage.

 (May 1938)

Click on title for German original


The Shoe of Empedocles

After Empedocles, the Agrigentian  
Had won the honors of his fellow citizens
And was suffering the ravages of age
He decided to die. Since he did
Love some of them, by whom he too was loved
He did not want to come undone before them, but
Preferred to turn into nothing.  
He invited  them to an outing, not all,
Leaving out this one or that one, to bring the element
Of chance into the selection of
The total undertaking. .
They climbed Mt. Etna
The effort of the climb
Made for silence.  No one missed
Wise words.  Far up
They paused to breath, let the pulse return to normal
Preoccupied with the view, happy to be at their goal.
Unnoticed the Teacher left them.
When they began to talk again, they still did not
Notice, until a bit on after word or two seemed  missing,
They looked about for him.
But he had already gone past the knoll on the final hill
Not in such a great hurry.  Once
He stood still, and heard
How in the distance far below the knoll
The conversation had started. He could not
Make out the words: he had begun to die.
As he stood at the crater
With his face turned away, not wanting to know anything further
That did not concern him, the old man bent down slowly
Carefully undid his shoe from his foot and, smiling, threw it
A few paces to the side, so that it would not be found
Too soon, but still in time, namely
Before it rotted to pieces. Only then
Did he approach the crater.  When his friends
Came back from looking for him
His dying gradually began, the way he had wanted it to.  Some of them
Were still waiting for him, while others
Had given him up for dead.  Some were still putting
Of their questions until he returned, while others were
Trying to solve theirs by themselves.

Slowly, the way clouds
Grow distant in the sky, unchanged, simply growing smaller
Giving way in the sky, when one doesn’t look at them, more distant
When one looks for them again, perhaps already mingled with others
He removed himself from their habitual ways, the ordinary way.
Then a rumor sprang up. He had not died, since he was not mortal, it was said.
Secrecy surrounded him. It was held possible
That other worldly beings were different, that the course of human existence
Was changeable for some individuals: such claptrap arose.
But about that time, his shoe was found, made of leather
Tangible, worn, the earthly one left back for those, who
If they do not see, begin to evoke belief
The end of his days was once again simply natural.  He had died like any other man.

Yet again, some others describe the process
Differently: Said Empedocles was really
Trying to secure god-like honors for himself
And found a saga by his secretive disappearance,
By means of his clever unwitnessed plunge into Etna’s crater, that he
Was not a mere mortal, and thus not subject to
To the laws of decay.
In the act though
His shoe played a trick on him by falling into human hands
(Some even say that the crater itself, angry
About such an attempt, simply spit out the shoe of this
Depraved man.) But what we would rather believe
Is that if he hadn’t taken off the shoe, he would have
Much sooner forgotten our stupidity and not considered how quickly
Our capacity for making dark things even darker, and our preference to believe
The absurd rather than look for an adequate reason.
And then the mountain would have -
And not because it was outraged about such negligence or even believing
That he had wanted to deceive us in order to garner divine honors.
(For the mountain believes nothing and is not concerned with us.)
But simply spewing fire as it always did - would have thrown
The shoe back at us, and thus the pupils -
Already busy since getting wind of a powerful secret -
Suddenly, visibly distressed, received the shoe of the teacher into their hands,
The very tangible, well worn, mundane shoe.  


Empedocles shoe

Click on title for German original


Buddha’s Parable of the Burning House
Gothama, the Buddha, taught
The teaching of the Wheel of Greed, on which we are bound, and advised
Putting aside all desire and thus
Going with no preferences into the void that he called Nirvana.
One day, some disciples asked him,
What is this void, Master?  We would all
Like to put aside desire, as you advise, but tell us
If this void in that we then enter
Is the same as being one with all creation
As when one lies in the water and the body is light at noon
With almost no thoughts, lazily lies in the water or falls asleep
Hardly knowing that one has pulled up the covers properly,
Quickly sinking to sleep, if this void then
Is a joyous, a good nothingness, or if this nothingness
Of yours is simply a nothingness that is cold, empty and meaningless.
The Buddha was silent for a long time, then he said casually
There is no answer to your question.
But in the evening, when they had gone
The Buddha was still sitting under the bohdi tree and told the others,
Those who had not questioned, the following parable:
Recently I saw a house.  It was burning.  Flames were
Licking at the roof. I went towards it and noticed
That there were still people inside.  I entered the door and called to
Them that there was fire in the roof beams, summoning them
To come out quickly. But the people
Did not seem to be in a hurry.  One of them asked me
With the heat already singeing his eyebrows
How it was outside, if it might not be raining
If there wasn’t a wind, if there wasn’t some other house
About and other such questions.  Without answering
I went outside again.  These people, I thought
Must burn before they stop asking questions.  Truly, friends
Those for whom the ground is not hot enough to
Trade for any other, but would rather stay, to those
I have nothing to say.  Thus spake Gothama, the Buddha.
But we, too, who are no longer occupied with the art of patience
But rather occupied with the art of no-longer-being-patient and have many proposals
Of a fundamental nature and are teaching human beings
To shake off their human scourges, are of the opinion  that for those,   
Who still question all too long in view of the oncoming bomber squadrons of capital,
About what we think of this, how we imagine that,
And what is to become of their cookie jar savings and their Sunday best after the cataclysm -
We have not much to say to them.





Buddha, burning house
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