Monday, May 14, 2007

Leaving the Land of Dust

One of the things that people routinely say about Daoism is that it discourages people's involvement in the world of politics. This has certainly been the opinion of many Daoists over the centuries and there is ample evidence for this point of view. For example, the traditional explanation of how the Dao De Jing was created involves Laozi being stopped by a border guard and asked to leave something in writing before he disappeared into the wilderness.

Another story involves an official coming to invite Zhuangzi to accept a post with the local Lord. His response is to ask the official if he would rather be a revered dead sacred turtle or a live one still wallowing in the mud. When the official says that of course he'd rather still be the live turtle, Zhuangzi asks him to leave him alone and let him continue to wallow in the mud.

But having said that, Daoism has a great deal to say about how the human world should be organized. Modern scholars believe that the Dao De Jing is primarily a book about how a state should be run and is only secondarily a book about how an individual should live her life. It should also not be forgotten that traditionally both Laozi and Zhuangzi supported themselves as minor bureaucrats in some state's government. Finally, there are parts of the Daoist Canon that are very specifically about political issues. One of them, the Huainanzi, has actually had exerpts translated by Thomas Cleary and published as The Dao of Politics.

My personal take on this is to try and understand the political context that the ancients lived in. They did not live in Periclean Athens or a modern Liberal democracy. Instead, their's was an authoritarian society where power was everything, individuals had no rights under the law, and, being a leader was extremely dangerous. In such a context any sort of involvement in politics was to a greater or lesser degree, suicidal. (This was the point that Zhuangzi was making when he contrasted the live turtle in the mud to the dead one in the temple.) To attempt to try and change the world was bordering on insane.

We simply do not live in the same world as the ancient Daoists, so we have much greater opportunities for community involvement. It can be extremely frustrating, it can even be so stressful that it may damage your health, but no one is going to cut off our noses, chop off a foot---or worse---if we make a mis-step. The Zhuangzi is full of references to people suffering these penalties.

Having said the above, however, I think that it is important as followers of Wu-Wei to understand where our efforts will do good and where they are wasted or even counter productive. My personal feeling is that we should accept that there are times when a public life is a good thing, and when it is time to "cultivate our own garden". My hope is to emulate the lives of both Laozi and Zhuangzi: they both had public lives in their youth but eventually retreated to the private when their opportunity to do good had run its course and disappeared. At that point they gladly turned their backs on "the land of dust" and retreated into the vastness of the Dao.


The Imugi said...

Yes, I think you are absolutely right about the political implications of Daoism. I think there in the tendency to focus solely on the mystical elements of the Daodejing, people forget the political aspect of the text.

Something I have been thinking about lately is the advice given to the ruler in the Daodejing. In the context of democracy, I wonder if we could re-interpret the teachings about the ruler to apply to, say, the constitution---after all, "we are ruled by law and not by men". Alternatively, since we all contribute via the election process, we could simply take the political advice as voters (and hence as "rulers").

Heaven and Earth know we would be in a much better situation politically if the US and the UK had adopted a policy of wu wei with regard to Iraq! >_<

Bill Hulet said...

I've been involved in a political party for many years and was instrumental in writing its constitution. The experience has undermined any faith I might ever have had in either the rule of law or the authority of constitutions. Ultimately, laws are only as good as the people who choose to interpret and apply them.

I certainly agree about Iraq! I was asked to take part in a panel discussion shortly after 9/11 and I quoted from the DDJ the line about Heaven and Earth treating human beings like "straw dogs". My point to try and get some perspective on the ultimate significance of the destruction of the twin towers in order to warn against blundering around like a wounder bear. Unfortunately, the Daoist sensibility went totally over the heads of all present. Just as it seems to have gone over the heads of both Mr. Bush and Blair.

The Imugi said...

Hmmmm, perhaps you are right about laws. There is plenty of skepticism in the DDJ about the value and strength of laws alone.

The "straw dogs" metaphor generally doesn't go over too well. Buddhism would say they are too attached. I think Daoism tends to be too subtle for many people---the most some get out of it is a kind of "do whatever you want" which is at worst a gross distortion, and at best an idea that's often taken out of context. The problem is, the current Middle East situation requires great subtlety--something US and UK leaders are in critically short supply of...