Pope Francis And The Dao De Jing
David Xi-Ken Astor
Over the past few days 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 first few days 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 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.”
First remember the historical context and language of this text. It is Chinese and developed over the period 403-221 BCE. This period in pre-Buddhist 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. The Dao De Jing, however, has been used by Buddhists throughout the ages as a tool that underscores many of the valued lessons also found in the dharma. 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 the 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.