Let me step away from historical issues and return to my primary interest: ancient Chinese thought in modern American life.
I went to a funeral on Saturday, a sad occasion. The deceased was the sister of a friend. She was my age, born in 1957, a late-hippie-era free-spirit. The service, set in a Baptist church, was focused on celebrating her life and included poems and songs that captured her and the moment we found ourselves in. They played "Turn! Turn! Turn!" by the Byrds which, for someone of my age, was familiar and apt. For me it was especially fitting, since I am in the midst of reading the Daodejing with my students, and there is a notable resonance between that song and a couple of parts of that text.
"Turn! Turn! Turn!" was written by Pete Seeger in 1959. He adapted a Bible passage, Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8 into a song and it became an anthem of its time. The Byrds cover of it (embedded below) is its paradigmatic expression. The first lines from the Bible verse capture the sense of the song:
- To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
- A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted;
The sense of what I will call cyclical complementarity - the natural ebb and flow of polar tendencies - is prominent in the DDJ, and Daoism more generally. This excerpt from passage 29 gets at it:
For things sometimes lead and sometimes follow, sometimes sigh and sometimes storm, sometimes strengthen and sometimes weaken, sometimes kill and sometimes die. (Hinton)
And Passage 2 also revolves on this same notion:
All beneath heaven knows beauty is beauty only because there's ugliness, and knows good is good only because there's evil.
Being and nonbeing give birth to one another, difficult and easy complete one another, long and short measure one another, high and low fill one another, music and noise harmonize one another, before and after follow one another... (Hinton)
In the song, and the Bible, a certain comfort inheres in cyclical complementarity: death is as natural and inevitable as the passing of the seasons, the movement from night to day. We can't hold on to our bodily form forever, so we should accept its disappearance. Of course, Ecclesiastes ultimately invokes God as the grand designer of the movements of heaven and nature:
He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.
We worldly mortals can perceive the patterns of God's work but we cannot understand His will or purposes in regard to any particular thing. We can know that death, in general, is unavoidable, but we cannot know why a specific person dies at a specific time.
Daoism does not bring God into it, but also seems to find comfort in cyclical complementarity. We cannot know why a particular person lives and dies in precisely the way he or she does, but we can gain a measure of solace in the balance and reliability of it all. Zhuangzi suggests as much:
Life and death are inevitable. Heaven gives them the constancy of day and night. And we can't alter any of it - it belongs to the very nature of things. If we honor heaven as our father and love it that deeply, imagine honoring something that transcends heaven. If we honor a ruler or a sovereign and offer up our lives for him, imagine honoring something truer than any ruler. (Hinton, 85)
That "something" that transcends heaven and is "truer than any ruler" is Dao, in all its fullness and complexity and vastness.
Daoism offers a kind of liberation: if we simply accept the movement of Dao, the inexorable complementary shift from one polarity to another - life to death, joy to sorrow, day to night - and back again (not that there is reincarnation in Daoism; just cosmic extension and repetition), then we can escape our fears and anxieties. If we are experiencing something bad now, something good will come around eventually. If we face an ultimate demise, we know that we are simply experiencing what all things in Dao experience: a shift toward nonbeing in the midst of being.
I think it is easier for Americans to embrace the Christian story: that sense of an all-knowing and loving God making sure that, as we move from life to death we are cared for. Daoism requires a greater faith, in a sense; a faith that transformation from one form to another, or from form to formlessness, is its own reward.