Modesty: Earth Above, Mountain Below

The I Ching is a marvelous book, one of the oldest in the world.   I have mentioned before that it’s more than book of divination; it is philosophy, and poetry.

As the English title, “Book of Changes”, implies, the subject is change.  The text and commentary accompanying the sixty-four interrelated hexagrams at the heart of the book provide insight and guidance to help us work with the changes of life.  The hexagram text is attributed to King Wen (1150 BCE) and his son Duke Chou King Wen of Zhou, and the commentary to Confucius and his disciples.  There are countless other commentaries, interpretations, and translations.

qian1Let’s take a very brief look at Hexagram 15: qian, modesty or humbleness.

Alfred Huang’s translation (The Complete I Ching) reads,

The structure of this gua [hexagram] is Earth above, Mountain below.  Normally mountains are high and the Earth is low.  What makes a mountain a mountain is its standing high above the Earth.  In this gua, the mountain stands underneath the Earth.  This image represents a state of becoming humble.

The Commentary on the Appended Phrases (in The Classic of Changes by Wang Bi) reads,

qian0The Master said: “To be diligent yet not to brag about it, to have meritorious achievement yet not to regards its virtue, this is the ultimate of magnanimity.  This speaks of someone who takes his achievements and subordinates them to others.  As for his virtue, he would have it prosper ever more, and as for his decorum, he would it ever more respectful.  Modesty as such leads to perfect respect, and this is how one preserves his position.”

Qian is how virtue provides a handle to things.

Qian provides the means by which decorum exercises its control.

In Taoism and Buddhism, modesty or humbleness is a vital quality to develop.  Tibetan Buddhists value the idea of seeing oneself as lower than others.  But this can be misunderstood as depreciating ourselves, and humility is often seen as a sign of weakness.   But it is really about seeing ourselves and others as equal.  Another word for it might be respect, seeing everyone, and everything, as our teacher.

Finally, in the commentary on the I Ching by T’ien-t’ai priest Chih-hsu Ou-i (1599-1655), translated by Thomas Cleary in The Buddhist I Ching, we find these words,

In Buddhist terms, [qian] means taking from the mountain of infinite virtues of Buddhahood to add to the earth of sentient beings, realizing that all beings have the mountain of virtues of Buddhahood within them, assessing people’s potentials and what suits them, impartially giving out the bliss of Buddhahood, not letting anyone realize nirvana alone.

For buddhas and sages, modesty is a vital trait to cultivate because it is an antidote to pride, one of the five poisons, an affliction caused by self-cherishing and attachment to the notion of “I”.  Buddhas and sages know that modesty is a dharma door that opens not only to to a remarkable and contented life but also to the sublime greatness of altruism.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Complete I Ching, Trans. Alfred Huang, Inner Traditions International, 1998

The Classic of Changes A New Translation of the I Ching, Trans. Wang Bi, Columbia University Press, 1994

Chih-hsu Ou-i, The Buddhist I Ching (Chou i ch’an chieh), Trans. Thomas Cleary, Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1987

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Nagarjuna’s Golden Bowl

Evidently, there was a Tibetan guru, an alchemist and tantric master, named Nagarjuna who lived during the 7th century.  This Nagarjuna and the legends surrounding him were mixed up with the earlier Nagarjuna (c. 250), known as the “second Buddha,” the founder of the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) philosophy.

There is a story about how one of these two Nagarjunas, who was also a metallurgist, turned an iron begging bowl into gold bowl.

bowlOne day, as he was taking a meal, Nagarjuna saw a thief passing by his open door.  The thief noticed the golden bowl and wanted to steal it.

But Nagarjuna saw into the thief’s heart, and to save time, he went outside and gave him the bowl, encouraging the man to go ahead and take it.

The next day, the thief returned and handed the bowl back to Nagarjuna, saying, “Great teacher! When you gave away this bowl so freely, I felt very poor and desolate.  Show me the way to acquire the wealth that makes this kind of untroubled detachment possible.”

The short tale empathizes an aspect of non-attachment that we probably don’t appreciate enough, which is, that letting go of attachments to material things is actually a way to realize great wealth and abundance.

A key element in cultivating non-attachment is said to be renunciation, a word that means to reject something, e.g. a belief, claim, or course of action.  It also coveys sacrifice, giving up.   Naturally, in the context of Buddha-dharma and Taoism, there is more to it.  The Dalai Lama says, “True renunciation is a state of mind.  It does not necessarily mean that someone has to give up something.”

In his version of the Tao Te Ching, the late Professor of Philosophy at the University of Hawaii, Chung-yuan Chang translated chapter 59 this way:

In guiding people and working according to nature,
It is best to follow renunciation.
Following renunciation means returning soon.
Returning soon means accumulating attainment.

He goes on to write, “The key word in this chapter is se, or renunciation, which means returning soon to one’s original nature . . . Thus [Te-Ching’s commentary says]: What Lao Tzu means ‘in guiding people and working according to nature, it is best to follow renunciation,’ is that nothing is better than the cultivation of returning to one’s original nature.”

I did an internet search for se and found it defined as “stingy, mean.”  But as the story of Nagarjuna’s golden bowl suggests that non-attachment requires generosity.

Atisha, in Kadamthorbu or “Precepts collected from Here and There”, is quoted as saying,

The greatest generosity is non-attachment.”

And in Nagarjuna’s Guidelines for Social Action, Robert Thurman writes,

Those who . . . simply consume and hoard, soon lose their wealth, just as Nagarjuna states.  It is a fact of economics that the basis of wealth is generosity.”

For us, a key aspect of non-attachment means to go beyond the mere rejection of materialism. Go beyond ‘giving up.’  Spread out into giving.  Non-attachment is a state or quality of mind that helps us develop openness, spaciousness of being.

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Summer in the Mountains

From Chuang Tzu:

mountains-b1bWandering on the sunny side of Yin Mountain, T’ien Ken came to the banks of the Liao River and met a Man with No Name.  He asked this man, “Could you tell me how to govern the world?”

The Man with No Name said, “Get away from me, peasant! What kind of stupid question is that! I’m busy doing nothing.  You have a lot of nerve coming along with this talk of governing the world and disturbing my mind.”

But T’ien Ken asked his question a second time.

The Man with No Name replied,

“Let your mind wander in simplicity, blend your spirit with the vastness, and follow along with things the way they are.  Rest only in inaction.  Relax your body, expel your intelligence, release both body and mind, and all things will return to their root.  Then the world will be governed.”

By “inaction” the nameless man is referring to wu-wei, which means not to struggle with things, to find a more natural way, to let your spirit flow like a gentle summer breeze.

Li Po, the Chinese poet from the 8th century, like Chuang Tze before him, liked to portray himself as lazy.  More than likely it was partly true, but I suspect the representation was also used as a metaphor, as in this poem, “Summer Day in the Mountains”:

Too lazy to wave a white feather fan,
sitting stripped to the waist in a green wood.
I take off my cap and hang it on a overhanging rock;
the wind through the pine-trees brushes my bare head.

Happy Summer, y’all.  Have fun, and remember to take it easy.

– – – – – – – – – –

Chuang Tzu and Li Po adapted from translations by Burton Watson, Arthur Waley and D. Howard Smith

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Nagarjuna’s Golden Bowl

There was a Tibetan guru, an alchemist and tantric master, named Nagarjuna who lived during the 7th century, and who has been confused with Nagarjuna (c. 150–250 CE) the “second Buddha” and founder of the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) philosophy.  The legends surrounding both are numerous.

Nagarjuna-2016-1In one story, the Tibetan Nagarjuna, who was also a metallurgist, turned an iron begging bowl into gold. One day, as he was taking a meal, Nagarjuna saw a thief passing by his open door. The thief noticed the golden bowl and wanted to steal it.

Nagarjuna saw into the thief’s heart, and to save time, he went outside and gave his golden bowl to the man, encouraging him to go ahead and take it.

The next day, the thief returned and handed the bowl to Nagarjuna, saying, “Great teacher! When you gave away this bowl so freely, I felt very poor and desolate. Show me the way to acquire the wealth that makes this kind of untroubled detachment possible.”

The story is about the importance of non-attachment, emphasizing that to let go of attachments to material things is to realize a state of wealth and abundance.

A key element in cultivating non-attachment is renunciation, a word that to me always seems to convey sacrifice. The Dalai Lama says, “True renunciation is a state of mind. It does not necessarily mean that someone has to give up something.”

In his version of the Tao Te Ching, the late Professor of Philosophy at the University of Hawaii, Chung-yuan Chang translated chapter 59 this way:

In guiding people and working according to nature,
It is best to follow renunciation.
Following renunciation means returning soon.
Returning soon means accumulating attainment.

Chang comments that “The key word in this chapter is se, or renunciation, which means returning soon to one’s original nature . . . Thus [Te-Ching’s commentary says]: What Lao Tzu means ‘in guiding people and working according to nature, it is best to follow renunciation,’ is that nothing is better than the cultivation of returning to one’s original nature.”

When I did an internet search for se, I found it defined as “stingy, mean.” But as the story of Nagarjuna’s golden bowl allegorizes, the state of mind of non-attachment includes generosity of spirit.

Atisha, in Kadamthorbu, Precepts collected from Here and There, is quoted as saying,

The greatest generosity is non-attachment.”

And in Nagarjuna’s Guidelines for Social Action [found in Engaged Buddhist Reader], Robert Thurman writes, 

Those who . . . simply consume and hoard, soon lose their wealth, just as Nagarjuna states. It is a fact of economics that the basis of wealth is generosity.”

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Principles for Leadership

Etre harcelee par la presse is a French expression that means “to be hounded by the press.” That’s what has been happening with me the past several weeks. The news media won’t leave me alone. They all want to know who I am endorsing in the 2016 Presidential election. To get them off my back, I have decided to reveal the candidate I will support:

No one.

I don’t think I have been so underwhelmed by a crowd of contenders before.

I would love to see a woman president, but to be honest, I have had enough of the Clintons to last a couple of lifetimes. And if you think Obama was one of modern history’s most polarizing presidents, just wait until Hilary wins . . . man, oh, man.

I agree with most of what Bernie Sanders has to say, but I can’t help but feel that anyone who identifies himself as a socialist has little hope of winning a general election in 2016. Besides, Bernie comes off as kind of grouchy and we have enough of that with the GOP (Grouchy Obstructionist Party).

Speaking of which, with the bag of mixed nuts the GOP is serving up this year, the grip on reality has never been looser.

In Chapter 66 of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu says, “If a sound person wishes to become the leader of the people, that person first displays humility before them.”

Lao Tzu’s work contains many other timeless principles for leadership. There are countless seminars and courses, and a multitude of books devoted to distilling lessons from the Tao Te Ching on this subject, as well as daily life. Fortune 500 corporations, including IBM, Mitsubishi, and Prudential, have long used the book as a management/leadership training text.  Our politicians should take a look at it.

I don’t recall where I ran across this but it’s a nice compilation Lao Tzu’s essential leadership teachings:

Lao Tzu’s Principles for Leadership

lao-tzu-2016bThe best leaders are those whose presence is barely known by others.

Leaders value their words highly and use them sparingly.

Because a leader has faith in others, then others have faith in his or her leadership.

When a leader’s work is done, others will say: we did it ourselves.

Govern a great nation as you would cook a small fish. Do not overdo it.

To lead people, walk beside them.

Love people and lead without cunning or manipulation.

The ancient leaders who followed the Tao did not give people elaborate strategies, but held to a simple practice. It is hard to lead while trying to be clever. Too much cleverness undermines the people’s harmony. Those who lead without such strategies bring benefit to all.

By being lower, rivers and seas are able to receive the homage and tribute of all the valley streams, thus they rule over them all.  Therefore, it is a wise leader, wishing to be above the people, who by his words puts himself below them, and, wishing to be before them, follows them.

Leaders go first by putting themselves last. It is from their selflessness that they are able to fulfill themselves.

It is good to empower people, so that no one is wasted.

The best leaders are effective because they do not try to seize power. They are effective because they are not conceited, proud or arrogant.

The wise keep their word and do not pressure others.

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