Saturday, December 12, 2009

Taoism, Leviticus, and the golden mean

Taoism often reminds me of the moderation or "golden mean" discussed in a lot of Greek classical thought as well as the attention to physical cleanliness and health in Leviticus. This speaks, I think, to the common concerns of people in close-knit village societies. In all honesty, it's impossible for me to read much of Greek writing, especially Homer of course but even high classical stuff, without thinking of the small village society; and the same is true of the Mosaic books of the Old Testament as well as the Confucian classics. When I read this stuff, I generally visualize African tribal communities that I've seen in National Geographic documentaries. I realize that's not how most people imagine Achilles or Moses!

Village life also comes to mind when I read the classics of Daoism. For example, the great Chinese doctor and Taoist Sun Simiao writes in the classic text Zhenzhong ji (here translated in Readings in Daoist Mysticism, Livia Kohn, 2009) writes:

If you think much, the spirit will disperse.

If you reflect much, the heart will be labored.

If you laugh much, the organs and viscera will soar up.

If you speak much, the ocean of Qi will be empty and vacant.

If you enjoy much, the gall bladder and bladder will take in outside wind.
For a child of the Enlightenment, some of this seems a bit harsh: what could be wrong with thinking and laughing? I think it makes a bit more sense for a monk or villager in tight corners. There the goal is accommodation to some extent. You're just trying to live together without conflict. Note also that the problem is with excess and the goal is moderation, as in Aristotle. I also like the emphasis on the body, although the idea of the bladder taking in outside wind is pretty amusing. The idea that it’s really about being moderate and calm in tight living conditions comes across as the passage continues:
If you get angry much, the fascia will push the blood around.

If you delight much, the spirit and the heart will be deviant and unsettled.

If you mourn much, the hair and whiskers will dry and wither.

If you like much, the will and Qi will become one-sided and overloaded.

If you dislike much, the essence and power will race off and soar away.

If you engage yourself much, the muscles and meridians will be tense & nervous.

If you deal much, wisdom and worry will be all confused.

All these things attack people’s lives more than axes and spears; they diminish people’s destiny worse than wolves and wolverines.

I’d imagine wolverines are more trouble that delight, but that’s just me. The ideal seems to be a sort of peaceful balance. I think again of the golden mean. There’s also the idea of being somewhat detached or indifferent to the world.

Where Sun Simiato reminds me of Leviticus is that he also talks a lot about eating and cleanliness, in similarly specific rules. Perhaps the funniest rule in Leviticus- that the people of Moses should not eat owls- is less specific than Sun’s rule never to urinate facing east. But there’s a similar emphasis on bodily purity. The Old Testament atones for uncleanness through very specific animal sacrifices, and sometimes executions. This text feels they can lead to physical ailments. But, in both cases, I understand it as inattentive behaviors can lead to physical pollution and this can cause spiritual problems. Leviticus is notoriously harsh about male homosexuality and female menstruation, and Sun is a bit harsh about laughing and thinking. But I think this comes from the village milieu, and reads strangely to us because we live in a much different world.

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