From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Living and Learning (7)—Nothing Doing

Click here to go to section one of "Living and Learning."
Click below for the other "Living and Learning" posts.
1         2         3         4         5         6         7         8         9         10          11          12
The Emperor's Teacher—Chapter Two
During the month of June I will be posting segments of The Emperor's Teacher (the big business book that will rock the world). Chapter two is called "Living and Learning," and forms (along with chapter one, "Breaking the Vessel") the first section of a three-part book.
If you have read The Art of War, you have arrived at the doorstep. Still, no one ever managed anything in China having just read Sunzi (Sun-tzu), but don't despair. You are now ready for what comes next in leadership. Compiled nine-hundred years ago, it is the greatest management book ever written, and there are only two problems: (1) it is in "medieval" Chinese; (2) it is 10,000 pages long. No worries, though. That's what I am here for. I have been studying this stuff for thirty years, and I have been waiting for you. Welcome. 歡迎. 
Let's begin to study real Chinese management together.
[a] Of its own accord   RF
After reading chapter one, "Breaking the Vessel," you will have some acquaintance with Sima Guang and the Comprehensive Mirror (資治通鑒). Now, it is time to consider how people learned "management" lessons in early China. From there, we will begin to tackle the heart of the management book in the rest of this summer's entries (July and August), which will deal with practical lessons from the Comprehensive Mirror.
Don't worry.  If you want to start here and loop back to chapter one (Breaking the Vessel) in due time, that is fine.  This chapter should stand on its own as a way of thinking about living and learning (and living) at any time and in any place.
Nothing Doing

So what do you do when you have found the Way—when you have chiseled, or cycled, or ironed, or cash-registered your way into harmony and oneness?


Nothing? Nothing will come of nothing, (as King Lear said to Cordelia).

Yes, precisely. Nothing. If you do something, you will foul up the rhythmic flow that is the Way. The best advice from the early Daoist thinkers was to be one with the getting out of the way.

There is no need to tell me how ironic it is that in this essay I will follow those profound statements with a thousand or so words about doing nothing. The early Daoist thinkers understood the irony, too, yet they kept writing, and kept explaining that just going with the flow and doing little was the whole point. Many words. It is one of those things that makes all of this as complicated as it should be. Yes, even the parts that are supposed to be uncomplicated (just...flow) really are.

So let's begin to study...doing nothing. What does that mean, and from what kind of nugget of insight might the idea have emerged? Here is the phrase, as taken from the Classic of the Way and Virtue. My translation is meant to be quite literal, although the first two characters could just as easily be translated "do nothing."

無  為  而  無  不  為
nothing-doing    and/yet nothing (is) not    done

This is the extreme political statement in the Warring States period that a good ruler does not act. How would we lead our lives like that? Strangely enough, the idea had a resonance in early China that has not diminished with time. According to this position, it is by not categorizing, not making rules, and not ordering the people that order will be achieved. It is an elbow into the nose of both the Confucians and the Legalists. There is a fair dose of contempt here for those who argue that the people must be forced to be ordered, of course, but also a hearty disdain for doctrines of goodness and caring. It is as though the Daoists were saying "stop doing anything; just leave everything alone!"

In fact, that is precisely what they were saying. "Therefore the sage says:

                    I contrive nothing, and the people are naturally civilized;
                    I am fond of tranquility, and the people are naturally upright.
                    I have nothing to do, and the people are naturally enriched;
                    I have no desire, and the people are naturally simple.[1]

[b] Flow  PD

Although there are elements of argumentativeness and even in-your-face obtuseness directed at Confucians in such rhetoric, many people have found truth in it throughout the ages. Most everyone has seen the results of a competent manager who lets members of the organization work within the "flow" of their jobs—the kind of leader who seems to do little, yet the work is accomplished, and well. This is easy to see on the part of managers and coaches of extremely successful teams who need only make the slightest moves to "fine tune" the flow of championship play. Its opposite is also readily apparent—the micro-manager who seems to have all of the details and none of the harmony that is necessary for success. Changing lineup cards every day and benching players for poor performances, his team still plays like it is in the minor leagues.

[c] Flow  PD
Although there is a pointed message in these Daoist critiques of Confucians (and Legalists), we must remember that it, too, is a doctrine meant to teach people how to manage themselves, their families, and even the state. The message is a complex one, but it is useful to remember that many Daoist teachings of this period stress that in trying too hard (does this sound familiar?)—in organizing too much—everything falls apart. It is a minimalist philosophy meant to challenge the doctrines of the Confucians, and further lines from Laozi's Classic of the Way and Virtue explain it well:

When "everyone knows" beauty is beauty, this is bad.
When "everyone knows" good is good, this is not good.[2]

Once action is made into "phrasing," (and when "everybody knows") it becomes something else—and all too often its opposite. Once we articulate it and create a net of rules around it, we have lost whatever "it" is...or was. We catch the idea of wheel chiseling in the butterfly net of "how-to manual" writing, put it into print, and sell copies. The magic of the chiseling is lost. Gone.

Legalists and Confucians will always fail, according to the Daoists, because by trying to mold it (the family, the state, the world) they will break it. They will take something that "works naturally" and make it brittle—a museum piece to be pondered, but not a thing (or Way) to be lived. It is as though the "order types" want to take the flowing veins of jade and freeze them into form. For the Daoists, they will fail every time, over-and-over, into eternity.

                    Should you want to take the world
                    And contrive to do so
                    I see you won't manage to finish.
                    The most sublime instrument in the world
                    Cannot be contrived
                    Those who contrive spoil it;
                    Those who cling lose it.[3]

Zhuangzi is especially apt with his mockery of Confucians, who (in his telling) wish to imprint all that is flowing and natural into rigid structures. One of his most memorable examples brings together government officials, a reclusive hermit (is there any other kind?), and talk of a turtle. It is justly famous in Chinese culture, and beautifully states the case for flow.
Once, when Zhuangzi was fishing in the Pu River, the King of Chu sent two officials to go and announce to him: "I would like to trouble you with the administration of my realm." Zhuangzi held onto his fishing pole, and without turning his head, said, "I have heard there is a sacred tortoise in Chu that has been dead for three thousand years. The king keeps it wrapped in cloth and boxed, and stores it in the ancestral temple. Now would this tortoise rather be dead and have its bones left behind and honored? Or would it rather be alive and dragging its tail in the mud?"

"It would rather be alive and dragging its tail in the mud," said the two officials.

Zhuangzi said, "Go away! I'll drag my tail in the mud!"[4]
Just be. So say Laozi, Zhuangzi, and the others. Find the patterned flow of your activity—live your life—and follow the pattern, the wave, the rhythm. It is that simple, from this point of view. Drag your tail in the mud. And be.
[d] Patterns  RF
[1] Thomas Cleary, The Essential Tao (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1993), 44.
[2] Cleary, Tao, 9.
[3] Cleary, Tao, 26. 
[4]John Minford and Joseph Lau, Classical Chinese Literature: An Anthology of Translations (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2000), 215.

Cleary, Thomas. The Essential Tao. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1993.
Minford, John and Joseph Lau. Classical Chinese Literature: An Anthology of Translations. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2000.

Living and Learning 1          Living and Learning 2            Living and Learning 3           Living and Learning 4
Living and Learning 5          Living and Learning 6            Living and Learning 7           Living and Learning 8
Living and Learning 9          Living and Learning 10          Living and Learning 11         Living and Learning 12

Losing the Way
Of course, it's not "that simple." What happens when we fall off the horse or our tails get stuck in the mud? 
We do, and they will.

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