Monday, November 30, 2009

This Time De, Not Dao

People who are interested in such things usually spend a lot more time thinking about the term "Dao" than they do "De". But it is still very important, so much so that one of the oldest versions of the Laozi that has been found actually bears the title "De Dao Jing" instead of the more common one.

Like most important philosophical or spiritual words, "De" seems to have a lot of different associations and connotations. People like me who have not spent their entire lives learning ancient Chinese and all the nuances associated with specific characters have to get by with translations and what little scholarly reading we can find time for. To illustrate the sort of thinking that I do about such things, take a look at the following translation of chapter 38 of the Laozi. It is the first chapter of the "De" portion of the text and the one that most specifically deals with the concept. (The translator, Victor Mair, has used the word "integrity" to translate "de", so everywhere you see the first word, you know the original text has the second.)

The person of superior integrity does not insist upon his integrity;
For this reason, he has integrity.
The person of inferior integrity never loses sight of his integrity;
For this reason, he lacks integrity. (1)

The person of superior integrity takes no action,
nor has he a purpose in acting.
The person of superior humaneness takes action,
but has no purpose in acting.
The person of superior righteousness takes action,
and has a purpose for acting.
The person of superior etiquette takes action,
but others do not respond to him;
Whereupon he rolls up his sleeves and coerces them.(2)


When the Way is lost, afterwards comes integrity.
When integrity is lost, afterwards comes humaneness.
When humaneness is lost, afterwards comes righteousness.
When righteousness is lost, afterwards comes etiquette.(3)


Etiquette is the attenuation of trustworthiness, and the source of disorder.(4)

Foreknowledge is but the blossomy ornament of the Way,
and the source of ignorance.(5)

For this reason,

The great man resides in substance, not in attenuation.(6)

He resides in fruitful reality, not in blossomy ornament.(7)


He rejects the one and adopts the other.

(Chapt 38, Victor H. Mair trans.)

Before we get to discussing "de", I think it is important to point out a couple other things first.

Scholars tell us that like the Christian Bible, the Dao De Jing wasn't written by a single writer. Instead it is a collection of sayings from an oral tradition that were brought together and edited into the form we have today. With this in mind, it is very useful to look at a translation and try to parse out the different parts that were brought together. In a scholarly translation like Victor Mair's, clues are left in the text---in the way the stanzas are laid out---so the reader can work out them out.

With that in mind, I've labelled what I am assuming are different "voices" in this chapter from "1" to "7". I've also changed the colour to pink of what I am assuming are "transitional words" that editors have inserted to give the illusion that the chapter is a complete entity instead of a collection. Finally, I've changed the words to green that I think make up a conclusion that the editor inserted.

I've done this to remind myself that because this is a collection of oral sayings instead of the creation of one mind. This means that I shouldn't assume that each one of these stanzas is informed by the same way of looking at the world. Indeed, when I do make the effort, I think I can see a subtle difference.

Another thing I find useful to do is to try and step back from the decisions that the translator has made and substitute the original word so I can just see them in their context without the connotations that the English word brings. Let's do this for the first three stanzas.

The person of superior de does not insist upon his de;
For this reason, he has de.
The person of inferior de never loses sight of his de;
For this reason, he lacks de. (1)

This stanza is arguing that "de" is something that is involved in one's awareness of self. If one is self-conscious about their "de", they lack it. This could be referring to someone who is following a course of action more because of how he wants to be perceived by his neighbours than by whether or not he thinks the action is the "right thing to do". It could also be referring to someone's internal self-image and how that constrains their behaviour. (My Daoist teacher once said that one of the biggest problems people have in life is their self-image that says things like "Oh, I couldn't do that!") Finally, it could be referring to the idea that the act of thinking about some things makes it difficult to do them. (There is a teaching story I read once about a centipede who lost the ability to walk when someone asked him just exactly how he was able to control so many legs. Once the started thinking about it, he found he could no longer do it.)

The person of superior de takes no action,
nor has he a purpose in acting.
The person of superior humaneness takes action,
but has no purpose in acting.
The person of superior righteousness takes action,
and has a purpose for acting.
The person of superior etiquette takes action,
but others do not respond to him;
Whereupon he rolls up his sleeves and coerces them.(2)

This stanza seems to be making a different statement. The person in the first line is following the path of Wu Wei, or non-action. But please note that this statement is not some variant of the medical "first, do no harm". That is to say, that there are a great many cases where more harm is done through thoughtless action than would have resulted from letting things follow their natural course. Instead, this stanza seems to be saying that the superior man is acting without purpose at all. I suppose that this could be read---if it was seen in isolation from what follows---as saying that the sage is supposed to spontaneously sleepwalk through life.

I believe, however, that what the author really means is that the superior man of "de" has no motive when he acts. He just does what seems "right" or "natural" as it looks to him at that time. This could mean several different things. It could mean that he has no "ulterior motives", by which I mean that he is being forthright and honest in his dealings instead of following some selfish hidden agenda. It could also mean that he doesn't believe that "the ends justify the means", no matter how good the ends might be. It could also mean that he tends to act instinctively and "in the now", sort of the way people work when they practice "process art". The emphasis is still, however, that when a man with de acts in a "right" or "natural" way, he has a tendency towards doing nothing at all rather than getting busy. (And don't forget that even the process of not acting is still a conscious act.)

The next line of the stanza puts the word "humaneness" in the place where "de" was in the previous one. I suspect that the word that Mair has translated as "humaneness" is the Confucian term "ren". This word is about as important to the "Ru Jia" (Confucians) as "Dao" is to Daoists. If this is the case, then the author is trying separate Daoists from Confucians by saying that both are disinterested members of society---but one is engaged and the other is not.

The distinction is not just conceptual, however, for the author is clearly trying to suggest that "de" is superior to "ren". He does this by placing the former ahead of the latter in a series of declining value. The next step is righteousness, which is specifically mentioned as not being disinterested in nature. This could be the sort of "tough love" of Puritanism or mere hypocrisy based on ulterior motives. The final line about "etiquette" is, I suspect, a jab at the sort of person who's ethical framework is not much more than the conventional forms of social behaviour and who will not shrink from imposing his will by force if someone refuses to abide by the "norms". (Think of the boss who is all "noblesse oblige" as long as his underlings are properly deferential---but fires anyone who has the gall to talk back to him.)

The suggestion might be that once someone commits herself to acting---"ren" instead of "de"---she starts on the slipperly slope that ends in not much more than convention and force.

This slippery slope argument is also the basis of the next stanza.

When the Way is lost, afterwards comes de.
When de is lost, afterwards comes humaneness.
When humaneness is lost, afterwards comes righteousness.
When righteousness is lost, afterwards comes etiquette.(3)

But note that there is a new element involved here. The Dao (or "Way") is being placed ahead of "de". In fact, a progressive decline is suggested Dao>"de">"ren">righteousness>etiquette. So instead of "de" being the attribute of a life lived in tune with the Dao, it is a degenerated form of existence that comes when one has lost the Dao yet is still above the lowly Confucians, who are in turn above the more plebian sort of humanity. This seems to be at odds with much of the rest of the book, which would rest on the idea that a person's ability to manifest "de" is a result of living in harmony with the Dao. Indeed, the title of book is usually translated as something along the lines of the "The Way and its Power Classic" (i.e. Dao De Jing.)

Now let's look at a list of possible translations for "de" that I found at the Wikipedia.

1. Rise, go up, climb, ascend. [升; 登.]
2. Morals, morality, virtue, personal conduct, moral integrity, honor. [道德, 品行, 节操.]
3. Denoting a wise/enlightened person with moral character. [指有道德的贤明之人.]
4. Kindness, favor, grace, graciousness. [恩惠, 恩德.]
5. Grateful, gratefulness, thankful, indebted. [感恩, 感激.]
6. Benevolent rule, good government, good instruction. [德政, 善教.]
7. Objective regulations/rules. [客观规律.]
8. Quality, nature, basic character, characteristics, attribute. [性质; 属性.]
9. Intention, purpose, heart, mind. For example: "Be of one heart and mind". [心意. 如:一心一德.]
10. In Five Phases theory, a reference to seasonally productive energy/air. [五行说指四李的旺气.]
11. First growth, initial stage, beginning of something. [始生; 事物的开始.]
12. A phoenix-head pattern/decoration. [凤凰头上的花纹.]
13. Blessings, good fortune, happiness, resulting from benevolent actions. [福, 善庆的事.]
14. Used for zhí "straight, just". [通 "直 (zhí)".]
15. Used for zhí "to plant, grow, establish". Plant a tree. [通 "植 (zhí)". 立木.]
16. Used for "get, obtain, result in". [通 "得".]
17. A national name. An abbreviation for the Republic of Germany during World War II. [国名. 第二次世界大战结束前的德意志联邦的简称.]
18. A star name. [星名.]
19. A river name. Another name for the Yellow River. [水名. 黄河之别名.]
20. A surname. [姓.]

I think we can ignore meanings seventeen to twenty. (I doubt that the "old ones" were thinking about Nazi Germany.) But as you can see if you think about meanings one to sixteen, a translator has a lot to choose from when he thinking about a English word that will have all the relevant resonances. Indeed, Mair says in his introduction to his translation that it took him two months of very intense thought before he settled on the word "integrity".

If you look at the possible translations, it strikes me that they break down into three different complexes: goodness (3-6), wisdom (3, 6, 7, 14), and power (1, 10, 11, 13, 15, 16.) From my own limited understanding, it seems to me that the problem that Mair and other translators face is that there is no word in English that encapsulates at the same time the three concepts of goodness, wisdom and power. And the reason why no English word does so is because the common wisdom of our society is that these are totally unrelated---if not mutually exclusive---concepts.

Indeed, for our civilization "de" is a rather revolutionary idea. Most people conceive of goodness in terms of weakness. Think of all the images in popular culture of the weak priest or minister, or soft woman, who is "goodness" incarnate. Their only real strength is their ability to sacrifice themselves for their ideal. And there are only two ways that good "triumphs". The first is through its ability to convert some sort of hard, strong man to support it (think of the classic Western "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" where the good man survives because a strong man murders the villain.) The second is through some sort of heroic sacrifice that results in divine intervention (think of the clergyman who sacrifices himself to the Martians in a futile attempt at peace-making in the 1950's movie "War of the Worlds" which leads to their death from disease---a "divine" intervention if there ever was one.)

In the same way, wisdom is usually considered to be separate from goodness and strength. Again, if you look at popular depictions of wise people, they are usually described as old and feeble types who need young, strong types to be able to achieve their ends. (Even powerful Gandalf from "Lord of the Rings" needed the support of the youthful hobbits in order to achieve his ends.)

The idea that a type of real power can be associated with both goodness and wisdom is really a rare idea in Western civilization. Usually our archetypal figures of power have some sort of character flaw that renders them foolish in one way or another. (Think of King Arthur and Sir Lancelot, for example, they never seem to get over their silly infatuation with Guinevere---even though the result is a ruinous war and the destruction of the kingdom.)

The oriental, Daoist-inspired, archetypes are different from the Western ones. The wise, good man or woman is also very potent. The Shaolin-monk or priest from Wudang-shan may be old and wise, with good in his heart---but he is also able to fight and, when necessary, make the tough decisions. The nun (such as Ng Mui) may have a heart of gold, but God help any man who thinks he can take advantage of her because she can fight too! And, of course, there are many different types of power. Martial arts are but one example, the powerful tactics and strategies that the Daoist advisor Zhuge Liang used in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms are another example. But they do use the same principles as expressed in the Laozi and manifested as "de".

So this far too long post ultimately has a conclusion. That is, that the ideal of "de" is different from Western ones.

But more importantly, this post is an attempt to show how scholarly thought is also a type of Daoist meditation technique. I wanted to work through this for at least one post because it is a traditional form of Daoist internal yoga, but one that Westerners know almost nothing about and probably wouldn't recognize if they fell over it.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Mustard Seed of Happiness----

Most people nowadays suffer from the delusion that it is possible to find happiness in the externalities of life. It isn't surprising that this is the case, because our culture pretty much rams this idea down our throats from an early age. Not only is it enshrined in the US Constitution and constantly dinned into our ears through advertising, but I find that people increasingly police each other in order to ensure that each of us has a "positive attitude".

I was reminded of this the other day at work when a co-worker made a comment about my countenance. I had been reading a newspaper article about a researcher who was saying that a very high percentage of men leave their wives when they suffer significant health problems. I don't know if this is truly a problem or just some more hype created by the media. But I'm not sure that I ever want to be the sort of person who isn't visibly disturbed by reading this sort of thing.

Several days before I'd been listening to two of my co-workers talking about some issues that one of them had been facing. The one fellow had been off work for a couple months because he had had two major arteries in his heart almost totally block by plaque. He didn't have a heart attack, but it was almost a miracle he didn't. Thanks to the Canadian health care system, though, he had both blockages fixed and he is back at work now. But in the interim, it was discovered that his wife has breast cancer. So not only was this guy stuck at home and forced to do nothing in order to recuperate from the insertion of two stents, but now he had to watch his wife undergo surgery, help with her post-operation recovery, and, wait to see what the tests will say about the lump that was removed.

What was really interesting about this was the response of two of his co-workers. One said "I bet you're glad you got the plasma screen tv!" The other said "rent movies, lots of comedies". In effect, the solution of life's problems is to keep yourself distracted.

I'm not about to say that there is no sense in trying to cheer oneself up with entertainment. I myself have been a little "down" lately and last night I made my own attempts at distraction with a Patrick O'Brian novel and a glass of red wine. But I do think that our society is really misguided in its attempt to convince people that some sort of physical "happiness" can be the baseline without the odd tragic fluke intruding once in a while. When I look around me I see so much evidence of real tragedy that I cannot think that the odd person I know who really does seem to be immune from bad things is simply the result of my own ignorance of their true condition rather than some objective reality.

I've been contrasting our society's response to human tragedy with one that comes from the literature of Buddhism.

The Buddha was once taken to see a woman who had lost her mind in grief from the death of a small child. She would not even allow anyone to bury it, and she continued to carry the body around. The Buddha told her the following "I will make a magical elixir that will bring your child back to life. But in order to make it, I need you to give me an essential ingredient. Bring to me one mustard seed from a home where no one has ever died." The woman ran off and went from home to home looking for this seed. But everywhere she went she got the same reply "You cannot get it here, many people have died in this house." Eventually, this exposure to the reality of death wore away her grief and brought her back to her senses. She reconciled herself and allowed the child to be buried.

As I see it, the people of our civilization are like that woman running from house to house seeking a mustard seed that could return her child to life. But unlike her, most of us never really twig into the fact that there is no home where things are all sweet and rosy. I suspect that a big part of this comes from the fact that unlike the home-owners in the story, no one tells us "no, this too is a house with sorrow". And I think this gets back to what was happening at work. The co-worker who was trying to jolly me out of my pensive mood, and the others that were suggesting that the other fellow distract himself with movies, were suggesting that the way to deal with sorrow is through denial.

This isn't to say that the problem of suffering is answered simply by refusing to be in denial. In Buddhism the acknowledgement that death is universal is simply part of the first of the Four Noble Truths. And understanding those truths is not enlightenment itself, that only comes from following the Eightfold Path. But having said that, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a first step. And this step will never be taken until people admit that life is, on the whole, more of a veil of tears than a cornucopia of joy.