Pope Francis and the Dao De Jing

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

Over the past few months we have been experiencing the social reaction to the election of the 266th Christian Catholic Pope.  Like many former Catholics, I have been drawn by curiosity to see what this change may be all about.  If what the early days of his pontificate may teach us, it will be quite a change.  Pope Francis is bringing an old message back into the light of day, one that seems to have been muddled over the recent decades in our technological and capitalistic driven age.   This old message was also one that was echoed 2,500 years ago by Siddhartha, the Buddha.  Pope Francis is wasting no time in issuing an appeal that in the limited time he has in Rome we must return to the basics of social justice as it is reflected in responsible economic policies, having compassion for the less fortunate in our communities, in the focus of doing good, and in protecting the world environment.   He said, “We must not be afraid of goodness or even tenderness.”  A statement that is universal to a spiritual path.  He went on to say that, “Let us never forget the authentic power is service.  Only those who serve with love are able to protect.”

As I think about his message I am reminded of the expansive thoughtfulness found in Chapter 60 of the Dao De Jing that speaks to this encompassing ideal.  When I say encompassing, I mean universal.  So lets look at this Chapter, and my commentary on it, to experience the lessons that point directly to the responsibility of social governance.

“Bringing proper order to a great state is like cooking a small fish.
When way-making (dao) is used in overseeing the world,
The ghosts of the departed will not have spiritual potency.
In fact, it is not that the ghosts will not have spiritual potency,
But rather that they will not use this potency to harm people.
Not only will the ghosts not use their potency to harm people
But the sages will not harm people either.
It is because the ghosts and sages do not harm
That their power (de) combine to promote order in the world.”

COMMENTARY:

First remember the historical context and language of this text.  It is Chinese and developed over the period 403-221 BCE, which was also during the time of Alexander the Great.  This period of Buddhist expansion in China paid homage to how ancestors influenced world order in many ways.  Like in the time when Siddhartha lived it was believed that the realm of ghosts existed.  In our 21st century reality some creative re-description is called for in bringing this chapter into contemporary understanding, but in doing so takes nothing away from it’s core message.

While this verse identifies the expectation of the state, the importance of social responsibility can also be extended to all social institutions: governments, religious, courts, military, educational, and the like.  For effective leadership requires patience and a light touch on those that assume control.  The first line can be interpreted in several ways.  The reference to small fish for example can be pointing to the importance not to over cook them taking care to fry the fish briefly and without much ado.  The message here is subtle and the language used is deliberate.  The word “overseeing,” suggests a need for a soft hand in concentrating and crafting governing policies in order to achieve useful and productive outcomes for the greater good, the importance of a pragmatic approach to applying social control.

We can consider the world around us as being transitory with an element of the spiritual in how we come to realize human experience.  Such power can be either positive or negative depending on how it is directed.  This reservoir of spiritual renewal is available to promote human flourishing within the world community, as it can be channeled to maximum advantage by utilizing it as a way forward toward a better place.  This process of concentrated power can be either strong or weak depending on how those in power proceeds with considerable care and awareness for achieving positive effects.

The lessons of the Dao is like the preparing of small fish, it should be a simple activity.  Similarly, a leader’s (sage‘s) actions should not be over powering, and should give clear and concise direction that promotes the common good.  In this simple form of governance it is necessary to let things take their natural state and fulfill their natural functions.   In ancient China it was believe that the world was ordered by interaction between man and those in the other world (ghosts).  In an orderly world man and ghosts do not disturb each other.  Let us consider a contemporary interpretation that ghosts is about the past.  How often are we under the influence of past expectations that we do not see a new path ahead.  So we continue to trod the “path of the past” without thinking that change is not only a good thing, but enviable.   Institutions are often the last to see value in change.  New policies will experience reluctance among those in control.  But the past and future do not have to be adversaries.   Thus the last stanza would mean that if two, past and the future (or then and now), will work together it could enhance the progress for every human to flourishing, no matter their beliefs .  It is about bringing the power of our institutions for doing good in line with the natural expressions of the Universe.  Not always an easy task as Pope Francis is about to find out.  The new does not have to be a break with the past, however.  The challenge is to find elements of the new in past actions to discover new meaning in what was and will continue to bring to those not in power the social justice that is only a natural state for their human flourishing.

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