Freedom and the Dao
Cross-Cultural Collaborative Poetics: Deep down, almost everybody reflects on the big questions of life. How should I live? What can I hope for? What must I accept? At JJB we believe that a healthy society is one that permits and encourages people to undertake such reflections. These reflections can be especially important for university students, who feel so much pressure to “succeed” and “pass exams” and “get jobs.” At JJB we want to provide an opportunity for students to undertake such reflections. This is why we are glad to have the reflections below by a Chinese university student, Kongsi (Margaret) Ning -- 孔斯凝 -- from Heilongjiang University. Her ideas and feelings are mirrored by many students in China, and also by many in other parts of the world. An important feature of her article is that it was given much editorial assistance by an American university student. In a certain sense Kendall Lewellen helped Margaret write the essay. For us at JJB, poetics is the activity of seeking wisdom for daily life, from whatever sources are available. This essay is a good example of cross-cultural collaborative poetics. The views are Margaret's but their articulation belongs to both of them.
The flapping of a butterfly’s wings can cause a huge change in life. In chaos theory, “the butterfly effect” refers to a minor change to initial conditions which grows into a massive difference after experiencing a continuous amplifier. We can use a popular western ballad to illustrate this effect:
Lost a nail,
bad an iron heel;
bad an iron heel,
tripped a horse,
tripped a horse;
hurt a knight,
hurt a knight,
lost a battle;
lost a battle,
died an empire.1
The Chinese aphorism “A small discrepancy leads to a great error” also calls to mind how small changes in the present ripple into huge changes in the future.
I. Perfection and Pity:
I recently saw a film called “The Butterfly Effect” which reminded me of this phenomenon. Given the ability to change the past with a magical diary, Evan is swiftly taught this lesson by the inevitable downfall of his friends and family sparked by his minuscule efforts to better the past. Every time he returned to the present after editing his past, he found the people close to him had suffered imprisonment, permanent disability, or death.
His attempts to improve his life by altering the past were misguided because life is imperfect by nature. Throughout most of our lives, we feel hope and pity simultaneously. The pity that we feel is towards our own mortality, but it is this realization of our inevitable demise that makes our lives meaningful. We are imperfect creatures who will feel sadness at some point in our lives despite our best intentions. The fragility of life is the source of its beauty which teaches us to appreciate every moment and materialize a Hanging Garden in our own hearts.
Everyone yearns for immortality. The First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty once sent envoys to the East Ocean in search of an age-defying elixir, while the Second Emperor of the Ming Dynasty was sent Zhenghe to the West Ocean in search of faeries with similar properties. A desperate desire to escape death belongs not only to the political elite, but to all people. In the midst of this yearning for an immortality we can never achieve, people rarely stop to ask themselves how desirable immortality would actually be. What anguish there would be in living forever! Although infinity allows for a level of perfection most people would never achieve, immortal individuals would never feel the satisfaction of fleeting moments. Because the moments they would experience are doomed to repeat themselves, they would never experience regret.
The regret that sparks most poetry has a special sort of beauty to it. The reader is immune to the sorrow which fills the poet, while they are free to see their own unique experiences reflected in his or her words. These experiences that fill the poet with pity go on to inspire a poetic hope for the same beautiful yet fleeting moments in the reader. So is the poetry of life: From sorrow comes hope and treasure.
II. Fate and Dao:
Like Oedipus in his attempt to escape destiny, we are all tragic heroes in our inability to alter fate. This is an enigma which God cannot solve. The Taoist concept of fate is called “Dao”, which contains all the laws of nature and human behavior. People cannot capture Dao in their hands; it is eternal and boundless yet always present. Although we are often unconscious of its presence, we are always instruments to it. Our attempts to disrupt Dao are met with resistance; from this stems human conflict and natural disaster.
There is no way to rewrite the past. Even if that were a possibility, we would have no guarantee that our actions would not grow into something disastrous. Every moment is fleeting, and it could be as bright as the summer's flowers or as hopeless as autumn's leaves. The pain we will inevitably feel is a sad reality that we must face with a brave heart. If we can survive life's trials and tribulations, we can learn to carve a stone of hope from a mountain of despair.
So here, at least for me, is the life-lesson. My version of the “reflecting on big questions” which is at the heart of Jesus, Jazz, and Buddhism.
Learn to be brave and strong, even if it is next to impossible to change the things have passed. What we can change is our attitude, and then hope for the best. As the events in our lives unfold, we can persevere, no matter what happens, and seek happiness, facing each challenge with courage. We need not dwell in memories too long; we can also have the courage to forget things. Yes, we cannot escape the Dao or the natural course of things. But we can alter our attitude. Moreoever, we need not fear death. We cannot escape or change it. The end of life is also a sort of Dao, whether there is freedom and love or not. In death everyone is equal. For my part, I hope that death is not our end. I hope the journey continues. But I cannot know. What I do know, though, is that I adored the light in this life, so I will never fear the darkness. Dark nights gave me dark eyes, but I am bound to use them to search for the light. As hard as the fate can be; as dark as fate is, we are seeking a beam of hope. When there is no light we ourselves are the light source in the dark.
1 This ballad has a striking similarity to the Chinese phrase “Shi zhi haoli , cha zhi qian li.”