Wednesday, November 30, 2005

What Has Changed in 2,600 Years? An Interview with Lao Tzu

Those of you who have been reading along here over the past year or so (that would amount to about a half dozen of you) are aware that I occasionally will quote an old Chinese poet, philosopher, and curmudgeon by the name of Lao Tzu. I do this because I know a little bit about his work, having translated his major work, the Tao Te Ching, and because I know he has a lot to tell us about ourselves and our culture—because he's kind of a "been there, heard that" kind of guy. If there is governmental corruption, corporate thievery, the lust for fame or profit, or murderous warfare going on, Lao Tzu has seen it and talked about it; and he has a unique perspective that is astonishingly pertinent to our moment.

So, starting tonight, I'm going to be asking the old philosopher some questions about current events, allowing him to respond from either his Tao Te Ching (in my own translation) or from the Wen Tzu, a collection of teachings that have been attributed to Lao Tzu. The latter I will be presenting from a translation by the great Thomas Cleary. Let us begin.

DAILY REV: Here at Daily Rev, we've been observing quite a trend in the Bush administration of incompetent, inexperienced, and unknowledgable people being promoted to lucrative positions of the highest accountability, complexity, and risk potential. We have noted this trend in the Dept. of Homeland Security, FEMA, and the Dept. of Defense. Did you have any experience with this phenomenon, and what would your advice be to us in dealing with it today?

LAO TZU: Excessive favor and excessive harshness are both contrary to the Way. If they who give favors richly reward those who have not achieved anything, and give high ranks to those who have not done any work, then people who are employed will be lazy in their offices, and those who live at leisure will be quick to advance.

DR: As you may know, we are now in the midst of a war of occupation, during which we have taken over a sovereign nation for the sake of its oil and perhaps also to threaten another nation that we believe has nuclear designs. There is no end in sight to this war, in spite of the fact that it's not going very well and fully two-thirds of our people are against its continuance, while a vast majority of the worldwide community condemns our country's prosecution of this war. Based on your experience amid the "warring states period," how do you think this will all turn out?

LT: When people have many desires, that injures justice. When they have many anxieties, that harms wisdom. Therefore an orderly country enjoys things conducive to survival, while a cruel country enjoys things that lead to destruction. Water that flows downward becomes deep and wide; rulers who lower themselves to their subjects become perceptive and lucid. When rulers do not fight with their subjects, then the Way of order goes through.

Natural law decrees that violence backfires
Upon all who resort to its means.

Armed forces camp and crawl
Amid thorns and brambles,
Which grow like cancer and close like traps.

Wherever group violence is done,
Desolation walks in its wake.
Truly, the harvest of violence is misery.

The best leader is himself led⎯
He builds consensus, achieves his aim,
And then departs.
Force and intimidation
Are neither his means nor his end.

He is inwardly firm, without display.
He is inwardly firm, without arrogance.
He is inwardly firm, without contempt.
He is inwardly firm, without demand.
He is inwardly firm, without violence.

DR: We have had many occasions in the past year to note the strange inability of this Bush administration to admit error and show humililty and remorse for its many mistakes. What have you noticed is the common result of such behavior? And if you had a message to deliver to President Bush and his handlers in a short space, what would it be?

LT: Gather people by humility, win them by generosity, preserve yourself by restraint, and do not dare to be complacent. If you are not humble, people will become estranged and alienated. If you do not nurture them, the people will be rebellious. If you make a display of wits, the people will be contentious. If you exert pressure, the people will be resentful. When the people are estranged and alienated, the strength of the nation wanes. When the people rebel, the leadership has no authority. When people are contentious, they easily do wrong. When those below resent those above, then rank is dangerous.

Aggrandize yourself or your group,
And you have chosen the path of decadence.
This is called separation from the Source.

To separate from the Source
Is the way of swift and certain death.

DR: Thank, you, Lao Tzu. We hope you can come back and visit us again often.


afterthought said...

I think Lao Tzu shows great
wisdom, but I fear our leadership
does not.

theotherone said...

Oh, I love how Chinese can sometimes provide so much insight into modern affairs...

And I was slightly bemused by the coincidence that about the time that all of the FEMA stuff was coming out, I had just happed upon the idiom "滥竽充数" in a reading, meaning "to fill a post without real qualifications."

Way to go; great interview.