Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Openness of the Dao De Jing


In recent years, many Asian political leaders have come out advocating ‘Asian Values.’ This has been an attempt to thwart what they consider to be western interference in their part of the world as well as a push for some sort of separation from western cultural influences. This has been particularly true as a way to avert democratic institutions such as direct elections. Many times these leaders use the convenience of calling for ‘Asian Values’ in order to quell dissent from within their own borders and keep a tight grip on their power. Western leaders and thinkers have all too many times engaged them in dialogue or debate to no fruitful end as they tend to continue citing western values as universal values. Perhaps an alternative would be to cite the universal aspects of certain ‘Asian Values.’ Values are such that people defend them with their lives, but in order to achieve a more open and tolerant global society, we need to delve deeper into their roots and find what is common instead of different.

As stated previously, Daoist philosophy has been an invaluable source of insight to thinkers throughout the history of Chinese thought. It has given Buddhists and Neo-Confucian philosophers material to strengthen their own systems of thought while, in the spirit of the Dao, staying pretty much in the background. Daoist philosophy has been able to accomplish this through the tenants of one of its own most powerful books, the Dao De Jing. The Dao De Jing gives us unlimited potential through the development of the Dao and the De. The Dao is seen not through the manifestations of the things, but from the eternal source of creation that is non-being. Non-being here is not nihilistic or devoid of essence, but rather the very encompassing of unlimited essence. This non-limiting aspect of the Dao is then shown in the world of temporal beings through the De. Although the world of things is subject to change and ultimate passing, we have a connection with the Dao through our De. The De is more than virtue and even more than attainment, as it also allows us to ascend back into the realm of the eternal.

The sage who intuits this is one best suited to rule. This ruler, however, is not absolute, as he owes his power to the Dao. This power too is not one of power over things, but one of internal power that comes about through identification with the humility that is emphasized throughout the Dao De Jing. This power does not come from controlling others, but rather through ‘non-action’ that leaves nothing undone.

The Dao De Jing thus does not advocate the type of government that has come down to us in some Asian nations as ‘father knows best’. The patriarchal hierarchy that some hold may be an unhappy byproduct of Confucian thought wrapped in the garb of modern rhetoric. Perhaps like the Legalists of old, some modern Asian leaders are reading into their past what best suits their needs. In the Dao De Jing, we have an implicit respect for each and every individual thing as it is connected ultimately with the greatest principle of all in the Dao. The open nature of the Dao De Jing in particular and Daoism in general is something that we need to examine in order to help make Asian values universal.

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