Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.
Perhaps some Buddhists who read this can help me by critiquing my concern that I personally need to continue to act to improve the world, despite Daoism’s prescription that we should not, and cannot, act to change our world for the better. Comments are welcome.
Here is how I currently see things:
For the last decade and a half I have been a non-theist, a term that differs subtly from atheist, the main difference being that the former does not believe in God, while the latter actively believes that there is no God. Non-theism can incorporate certain philosophies like Daoism.
See this post for my gradual metamorphosis from active Catholic ministries (music, liturgy and social activism) to a non-theistic approach to activism.
I have recently read Carol Deppe’s wonderful, simple interpretation of the Tao Te Ching and found one Daoist precept difficult to incorporate:
99. The world is a sacred vessel. You can’t improve it. Act on it to improve it and you ruin it. Try to control it and you come to ruin.
I have spent 51 years (since I was 20) trying to improve the world via foreign volunteer service, studying power politics, reading writers who are dedicated to social change, writing songs, attending demonstrations and in 2015 working extremely hard in the Canadian Federal Election.
So I have a real problem with verse 99.
I remember very well the shocking 1963 photo of the Mahayana Buddhist, Thich Quang Duc, burning himself to death to protest the attack of the Catholic President of Viet Nam, Ngo Dinh Diem, on Buddhism. This monk, and many others, seemed to think that it was worth acting to improve their world.
I believe that verse 99 has much wisdom in it (sentences 1 and 4, particularly) but the Tao Te Ching was really the product of a time, about 2500 years ago, when human activity did not threaten the very planet on which we and the “ten thousand” other animate beings depend for our very existence.
I understand that Buddhism considers humans to be pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things (just one of the ten thousand), and I agree. I also agree that our individuality is illusory. And that, despite Genesis 1: 26, we certainly do not possess a God-given right to dominate and ruin the planet!
The Daoist view of nature has as a corollary a view of human beings as relatively unimportant, as simply a part of nature. We should therefore aspire to being simple and unadorned, with no illusions about our own significance in the cosmos.
I know that everything is interconnected and interdependent. And that, from a scientific point of view, DNA is the thread that binds all life together. Living things are one with each other and with our non-living environment.
Somehow, illusory and temporary as we are, my very essence cries out for a little more time for my grandchildren and for so many of the “ten thousand” other living things with which we share this oneness – and whom we so selfishly endanger. We can no longer say we didn’t know any better.
I quoted Thoreau to begin this post. His writings mention many Confucian sayings, and his overall philosophy was probably strongly influenced by Daoism. Nevertheless, Thoreau believed in acting to make the world a better place. He was prepared to go to jail for his activism – and did.
Studying Buddhism and practicing it more deeply, I hope, will help me to soften my stridency. I find it hard to understand why intelligent, caring people don’t even try to find out how serious and powerful corporations, via their servants, the law makers, are locking humanity onto a disastrous path. We may already be past the environmental point of no return.
Of course, if all is illusion, I’ve just churned out a lot of irrelevant nonsense.