Emerging from turbulent times: the origins of the Analects and the Daodejing

Dao

The Daodejing emerged at a time in Chinese history that was every bit as turbulent as the one we live in now.

During the five centuries that comprised the Spring and Autumn Period (771 to 476 BCE) and the Warring States Period (403 – 221 BCE), rulers of a veritable patchwork of feudal states and fiefdoms vied with each other for supremacy while the traditional culture and civilization of the ancient Zhou Dynasty (1046 – 771 BCE) collapsed around them. Wars were waged, armies were slaughtered, and alliances were broken almost as soon as they were forged, while the common people were left to lead miserable lives of endless poverty, back-breaking labor, and relentless suffering.

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Situational leadership in the Analects and the Daodejing

The main reason for my interest in the Analects and the Daodejing is that they focus on providing practical solutions to real-world problems.

Unlike many of the works in the Western philosophical cannon, they don’t feature any agonized searches for a universal “truth” or any promises of eternal salvation for ascribing to the “right” set of values or behaving in the “correct” manner. Instead, they are concerned with dealing with the challenges of the here and now, exploring how you can improve your character to make a greater contribution to the stability and prosperity of your family, community, and society overall.

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Two reasons for reading the Analects and the Daodejing

Statue of Confucius, Nishan
Statue of Confucius, Nishan

How are the teachings of Confucius and Laozi relevant to the modern world? This is the question I have been asking myself as I have been reviewing my translations of The Analects and the Daodejing.

On one level, this is an easy question to answer. Given China’s growing global political and economic influence, it makes practical sense to learn more about the two seminal philosophical texts that provide the underpinnings of a nation that President Xi Jinping pointedly reminded President Trump yesterday has the longest uninterrupted culture in the world. What could be a more effective way of understanding China’s traditions and customs than reading two of the most influential and enduring works in world history? Continue reading Two reasons for reading the Analects and the Daodejing

Daodejing Chapter 31: instruments of doom

「夫佳兵者,不祥之器。物或惡之,故有道者不處。君子居則貴左,用兵則貴右。
兵者,不祥之器,非君子之器。不得已而用之,恬淡為上。勝而不美,而美之者,是樂殺人。夫樂殺人者,不可得志於天下。吉事尚左,凶事尚右。偏將軍居左,上將軍居右。言以喪禮處之,殺人眾多,以悲哀泣之。戰勝以喪禮處之。」
Weapons are instruments of doom.
Everyone hates them.
Therefore, followers of the Dao avoid them.
When residing at home, a gentleman favors the left side.
When waging a war, a gentleman favors the right side.
Weapons are instruments of doom,
Not the instruments of a gentleman.
When compelled to use them;
He should do so without relish.
Even in victory there is no glory.
Those who celebrate victory are gloating over killing others.
Those who gloat over killing others must never be allowed achieve their worldly ambitions.
In times of joy, the left side is given precedence;
In times of grief, the right side is given precedence.
In times of war, the second-in-command stands on the left;
The general stands on the right;
This the same way as the mourning rites are conducted.
When great numbers of people are slaughtered,
We should mourn them all with heartfelt grief.
When victorious in war,
We should observe the occasion with the mourning rites.
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Daodejing Chapter 37: The Dao takes no action

Daodejing Chapter 37

「道常無為而無不為,侯王若能守之,萬物將自化;化而欲作,吾將鎮之以無名之樸。夫亦將無欲,無欲以靜,天下將自定。」
The Dao takes no action,
But leaves nothing undone.
If princes and kings are able to stay true to it,
All things will be transformed of their own accord.
If, during their transformation, desire should arise within them,
I will calm them down using the nameless uncarved block of wood.
This will free them of desire.
Being free of desire, they will be tranquil;
And the world will find peace of its own accord.
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Daodejing Chapter 36: subtle enlightenment

Daodejing Chapter 36: subtle enlightenment

「將欲歙之,必固張之;將欲弱之,必固強之;將欲廢之,必固舉之;將欲奪之,必固與之;是謂微明。柔勝剛,弱勝強。魚不可脫於淵,國之利器,不可以示人!」
If you want to shrink something, you must first stretch it.
If you want to weaken something, you must first strengthen it.
If you want to destroy something, you must first raise it up.
If you want to take something, you must first give it.
This is called subtle enlightenment.
The soft and weak overcome the hard and strong.
Fish cannot leave deep water;
A state must not make a show of strength.
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Daodejing Chapter 35: grasp the great image

Daodejing Chapter 35: grasp the great image

「執大象,下下往;往而不害,安平泰。樂與餌,過客止。道之出言,淡兮其無味。視之不足見,聽之不足聞,用之不足既。」
Grasp the great image,
The whole world will flock to you;
Flocking together but causing no harm to each other,
Living in comfort, peace, and tranquility.
Music and good food may make a passerby pause.
But when you speak of the Dao,
It leaves a bland and flavorless taste.
When you look at it, you cannot see it.
When you listen to it, you cannot hear it.
But when you use it, you cannot exhaust it.
Continue reading Daodejing Chapter 35: grasp the great image

Daodejing Chapter 34: achieving greatness

Daodejing Chapter 34: achieving greatness

「大道氾兮,其可左右。萬物恃之而生而不辭,功成不名有,衣養萬物而不為主。
常無欲,可名於小;萬物歸焉而不為主,可名為大。以其不自為大,故能成其大!」
The great Dao flows everywhere,
Both to the left and to the right.
All things depend on it for life;
It never turns away from them.
It accomplishes its work,
But it claims no credit for it.
It provides for and nourishes all things,
But it does not claim to be the master them.
Since it is without desires, it can be called small.
All things return to it;
But it doesn’t act as their master.
It may be called great.
Because it never claims to be great,
It achieves greatness.
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Daodejing Chapter 33: Those who know themselves are enlightened

Daodejing Chapter 33

「知人者智,自知者明;勝人者有力,自勝者強;知足者富,強行者有志;不失其所者久,死而不亡者壽。」
Those who know others are wise;
Those who know themselves are enlightened.
Those who conquer others have force;
Those who conquer themselves are strong.
Those who know they have enough are wealthy.
Those who persevere have willpower.
Those who do not lose their roots endure.
Those who die but are not forgotten live forever.
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Daodejing Chapter 32: streams and rivulets

Daodejing chapter 32: streams and rivulets

「道常無名,樸,雖小,天下莫能臣也。侯王若能守之,萬物將自賓。天地相合,以降甘露,民莫之令而自均。始制有名,名亦既有,夫亦將知止;知止,可以不殆。譬道之在天下,猶川谷之與江海。」
The Dao forever has no name;
Although the uncarved block of wood is small,
No one in the world can subordinate it.
If princes and kings are able to harness it,
All things will submit of their own accord.
Heaven and earth will come together,
And cause sweet dewdrops to fall.
The people will share them fairly without being ordered to.
Only when the whole is divided are names required for each part.
When there are names,
You need to know when to stop.
Knowing when to stop averts trouble.
For the Dao is to the world,
What streams and rivulets are to the rivers and seas.
Continue reading Daodejing Chapter 32: streams and rivulets