All ancient Chinese poetry is song, to be sung in a high-pitched voice often accompanied by musical instruments.1 And those songs most often tell about the small, ordinary things of our common life together. Chinese poetry focuses on the actual, the things of this world, the here and now. It delights in the physical. It is humanistic and full of common sense and seldom touches on the supernatural or indulges in extravagant flights of fancy or rhetoric.

2 It is remarkably accessible and although periodically ancient Chinese poetry got rarefied, effete and intellectual, some poet always came along, like T’ao Ch’ien in the 4th century A.D. and Po ChŸ-yi in poetry and Han YŸ in prose during the T’ang Dynasty to bring it back to the simplicity and directness, the plainness which is the ear mark of any classical style.

There is a radically different aesthetic, world view, operating in ancient Chinese poetry from the one that controls poetry in American today. Much of contemporary American poetry, by Ancient Chinese standards, is pretentiously philosophical and mercilessly overwritten. Ancient Chinese poetry seeks out the simplest things in life and celebrates them. It does not want to be lofty or profound. It wants to tell of life on this earth. It finds the great universal truths in the mundane. 3 Although full of the celebration of this life, it is full of sorrow also. There is no poetry anywhere so imbued with the anguish of old age, the loneliness of sad partings, the ravages of war, the other myriad tribulations in our lives. Yet, as Robert Payne points out in his Introduction to The White Pony: An Anthology of Chinese Poetry, this Chinese sorrow is not the final sorrow of Virgil’s Christian West which looked forward to the end of the world in some catastrophe or a resurrection outside of time. 4For the Chinese there is no life after this one, only, as the Tao Te Ching puts it, a short while as one of the ten thousand things and then a return to the undifferentiated Way. At the same time that we are only passing through, the Chinese know that the world is permanent. The sorrow in Chinese poetry is the sharp and painful sense of time and life passing, the sense of our impermanence in the larger permanence.

Because in Chinese philosophy and religion there is no idea of an afterlife, the eternal now becomes where heaven must be. As T’ao Ch’ien puts it in a poem:

 

The ten thousand changes follow each other
away–so why shouldn’t living be hard?

And everyone dies. It’s always been true,
I know, but thinking of it still leaves me

grief-torn. How can I reach my feelings?
a little thick wine, and I’m soon pleased

enough. A thousand years may be beyond me,
but I can turn this morning into forever.5

Yet T’ao Ch’ien knows also that by noon forever will be gone.

This sense of time fleeing is the basis for Chinese poetry’s awareness of the terrible impermanence of things6 and because of this impermanence, a sharply felt regret7 for the passing of the things of this world which is why Chinese poetry is always imbued with melancholy. And because of this melancholy sense of the temporality of our lives there is in all Chinese poetry a tender pity, a universal friendliness8 regarding what we westerners would call “the human predicament.”

There is never any of the misanthropic hatred of ourselves so common in current western literature and philosophy or the hellfire and damnation pronouncements of the impending apocalypse issued daily by current religious or ecological groups.

This apocalyptic and eschatological way of seeing the world is peculiarly Judeo-Christian. In our contemporary, non or anti-Judeo-Christian intellectual society we have discarded our religiously based ideas of the end of time and the end of being, but we have kept the attitude that went with those discarded ideas, and therefore in the most sophisticated of intellectual circles one gets a disdain for any religion, but the eschatological attitudes, now detatched from the discarded religion, remain. I am talking about the fashionable gloom with which modern art of all kinds has been enamored for decades, what I like to call “chic bleak.” In place of this gloomy, cynical, post-modern, self hatred the Chinese put a sweet melancholy, a tender pity, a universal friendliness, a great sadness over our inevitable suffering as we pass through this life. As Robert Payne puts it :

There is no Christian apocalypse, no crucifixion, no final blaze of glory. [The Chinese] were more human than the Europeans, who from earliest times have hinted secretly that they were gods, or at least could become gods. And because [the Chinese] had no belief in a future world, they loved the concrete things of [this] life passionately and with a kind of abandon, and where we find glory in a dying youth on a wooden cross, they would find the same glory in a leaf, in the silence of the woods and the distant roaring of tigers. 9

They also, by the way, found glory in sex and developed elaborate sex manuals and theories of sexuality necessary for what they considered good psychic and physical health. These theories were based on the idea that it was critically important for partners to exchange the liquids of Yin essence and Yang essence on a regular basis.

And their literature reflects and articulates this earth bound, human, sensual vision also. The Chinese poem is much less a philosophical pronouncement, less a demonstration of the poet’s way with words, less a means for drawing attention to itself and to the author. As Burton Watson says in his Introduction to The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry:

There is less sense than in the West of a poem as possessing a life of its own apart from that of its creator, more of the poem as a form of autobiography, shedding light on the life of the poet and at the same time yielding up its full meaning only when read in the context of that life. The poem is the voice of the poet not self-consciously addressing posterity or the world at large, but speaking quietly to a few close friends, or perhaps simply musing to himself. 10

It may seem odd or contradictory for me to say that the poem is “less a means for drawing attention to itself and to the author” only a few sentences before Burton Watson says that the poem is “a form of autobiography, shedding light on the life of the poet,” but the authorial first person in a Chinese poem is uniquely different from the “I” of most modern American poems. The “I” in a Chinese poem is an “I” connected to the rest of humanity in the most basic, common and ordinary way. It is an “I” speaking out of its particular situation to be sure, but speaking always for the rest of the human community to which the poet feels deeply connected. Even when the poet bemoans his old age, as Chinese poets constantly do, the poem remains somehow wonderfully selfless. I think this selflessness comes from the profoundly physical, sensual and non-intellectual nature of Chinese poems, and from their deep connection to the traditions and history of poetry in their language. The focus of the poem always remains outside the poet and his mind, always upon the world and other people. A Chinese poet does not draw attention to himself, he does not seek his quirky, odd, unique voice. He has an almost mad desire not to be different from other poets and to see himself connected to the past, and therefore, he achieves his uniqueness easily and automatically, since it is already there. In other words the focus of the poem is never on the poet but rather on some thing or person to whom the poet is relating, on a friendship, on the parting of friends, on the peach blossom petals floating down the river, on wine, fish, old age, a cloth cap, but not on the poet.

This human and humane attitude toward our lives, this loving kindness for our predicament is not exclusively Chinese. It is in our heritage as well. Sophocles says in Antigone, “Numberless are the world’s wonders, and none more wonderful than man.” 11 On the last page of The Plague Albert Camus gives the reason for writing the book: “to state quite simply what we learn in a time of pestilence: that there is more to admire in men than to despise.” 12

No doubt the fashionable gloom, the post-modern, chic bleak, of the anti-religious, sophisticated intelligentsia is a reaction to the stupid, can-do, problem solving, infantilism of American optimism, but both attitudes are extreme and extremely Romantic.

The Chinese way of seeing the world and relating to it offers another, plainer alternative, one it seems to me, more human and humane, one full of tender pity, universal friendliness and great sadness. This Chinese way of seeing is at once more bluntly realistic and yet also more comforting.

Addendum to “A Little Introduction . . .”A WORD ABOUT WORDS AND SILENCE
There is in almost all of ancient Chinese poetry, and certainly in poets like T’ao Ch’ien, Po Chu-i, Wang Wei and the Sung Dynasty poet Yang Wan-li, a deep, abiding and unresolved conflict between the desire for silence and the urge to use language to make poems.

This is, I think, more of a Taoist thing than a Buddhist thing. In Bill Porter’s ROAD TO HEAVEN, he quotes one Taoist hermit as saying, “Taoists like it quiet.” Po Chu-i referred to his uncontrollable desire to write poetry–he wrote thousands of poems–as his “poetry demon” and he lamented the fact that he could never overcome his “word-karma.” So there is in much of ancient Chinese poetry a desire to get away from words, to get into silence.

The great goal, I believe, of all Taoists is to become anonymous and then to disappear altogether, which of course is exactly what the author of THE TAO TEH CHING, Lao Tzu, actually and finally did.

This urge toward silence and this understanding that in silence is where you will find enlightenment is opposed to, radically different from, what we in the Judeao-Christian tradition have grown up with.

I recently saw a program on public television about a group of rabbis who went to India to visit the Dali Lama. One of the rabbis says, “Monks like silence; Jews like to gab.” My book editor friend Mike Moore refers to Jews as “The People of The Book” which of course leads to books, millions of books.

And it’s not just Jews; it’s us Christians too. Here is the first sentence of the Gospel According to John in THE NEW TESTAMENT, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Well, you can bet a Jew/Christian wrote that. It’s, from a Taoist’s point of view, bad enough to say that the word comes even before God, but it’s really over the top to claim that the word actually IS God.

So there is this conflict in Chinese poetry between getting silent and disappearing and making poems. This topic, this motif, recurs again and again, throughout there history of Chinese poetry.

Here’s just one example, from Sung Dynasty poet, Yang Wan-li.

Don’t Read Books
Don’t read books!
Don’t chant poems!
When you read books your eyeballs wither away,

leaving the bare sockets.
When you chant poems your heart leaks out slowly
with each word.
People say reading books is enjoyable.
People say chanting poems is fun.
but if your lips constantly make a sound like an insect
chirping in autumn,
you will turn into a haggard old man.
And even if you don’t turn into a haggard old man,
it’s annoying for others to have to hear you.

It’s so much better

to close your eyes, sit in your study,
lower the curtains, sweep the floor,
burn incense.

It’s beautiful to listen to the wind,
listen to the rain,
take a walk when you feel energetic,
and when you’re tired go to sleep.

In other words there is an enormous amount of space, emptiness, in Chinese poetry, which is to say, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Dylan Thomas were not Chinese poets.

David Budbill

1 Payne, Robert, THE WHITE PONY: An Anthology of Chinese Poetry, The John Day Company, New York, 1947, p.vii
2 Watson, Burton, THE COLUMBIA BOOK OF CHINESE POETRY: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century, Columbia University Press, New York, 1984, p.2-3
3 Payne, p. xvi-xvii
4 Payne, p, vii
5 Hinton, David, trans., The Selected Poems of T’ao Ch’ien, Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 1993, p. 44.
6 Payne, p.x
7 Payne
8 Payne
9 Payne, p.xii
10 Watson, p.4
11 Sophocles, ANTIGONE, Fitts/Fitzgerald translation
12 Camus, Albert, THE PLAGUE, The Modern Library, New York, 1948, p.278

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Apr

19

2012

SHELL GAME

 

A year after 9/11, it is clear that George Bush and his administration are using the so-called War on Terror as an excuse to advance their dreams of unilateral domination abroad and their Right Wing agenda at home. The sooner we can be rid of This Disaster and his administration the better off we all will be.

Before 9/11 the Bush Administration established an arrogant, go-it-alone attitude toward the world community with acts such as withdrawing from the Kyoto Treaty for climate change. Then, after a brief post-9/11 sojourn into talk of coalitions and allies, Bush & Co. returned almost immediately to its myopic, unilateral way of approaching all issues. They thumbed their noses at Russia and withdrew from the ABM treaty; they refused to sign on to the International Court of Justice and demanded exemption from it; they withheld our contribution to funding for the United Nations Population Fund, to name only three in a depressingly long list of examples of ways in which the Bush administration is an international bully.

And the president’s abysmal failure of leadership in the Middle East, his embarrassingly pro-Israel stand, and his increasingly bellicose rhetoric about invading Iraq have not only alienated and infuriated moderate Muslims everywhere, they have also alienated and infuriated and frightened our former friends around the world.

And here at home Bush & Co. seem determined to alienate everyone but the most conservative. John Ashcroft invents TIPS–the Terrorism, Information and Protection System–so that we can spy on each other in the name of security. It sounds like the McCarthy Era or Communist Russia or Maoist China. The same man who invented TIPS also spent thousands of dollars to cover up the bare breasts of The Spirit of Justice. A year ago we were attacked by religious fanatics from far away; now our civil rights and our own spirit of justice are attacked by a religious fanatic here at home.

George Bush & Co. have found that The War on Terror is a handy tool for doing what they wanted to do anyway: gut environmental legislation and regulations, give more tax breaks to the rich, cut support for the young, the old and the poor. The list is endless.

Yet the American people are silent. Why?

Is it because Americans are brow-beaten and bamboozled by the shenanigans of the last Presidential election–an election that was “won” with illegal and racist tactics in a state where the president’s brother is the governor?

Is it because Americans know that “our” president was not elected but appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court?

Is it because Americans are incredulous at the Bush administration’s self-righteous, moralistic bombast about business ethics while criminal CEO’s run the White House?

Is it because Americans are genuinely threatened by and afraid of future terrorist attacks? We want wise, far sighted leadership in the White House, not self-serving megalomaniacs.

Is it because Americans are frustrated and angry, because an unelected President declared a war that is not a war? We haven’t smoked Osama bin Laden out of any hole. In fact nothing has happened except we’ve got a huge, new deficit, the stock market has fallen apart and the President has proposed a military budget larger than all the rest of the world’s military budgets combined.

And for what? So we can fight Rogue States? Some wacko Axis of Evil?

The plague of Pax Americana is upon the world. And it is upon us also. We–you and I and our country–we are the Rogue State. As Pogo said once, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Yet as a nation, it’s as if we are hypnotized by a bunch of fast talking street corner con-men and shills eager to sell us a bill of goods we know we shouldn’t buy.

When are Americans going to wake up and realize that this so-called War on Terror is a sham, a scam, a shell game played on a cardboard box on the nation’s street corner? On September 11, 2002, it is clear that George Bush has found a way with his War on Terror to keep the American public from speaking out about and rebelling against the insane travesty of justice and governance that is now transpiring in our nation’s capitol.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay first appeared in a slightly different version in THE RUTLAND (VT) HERALD and THE BARRE (VT) TIMES ARGUS on September 11, 2002. The essay was originally commissioned by THE BURLINGTON (VT) FREE PRESS, a Gannett paper, but was rejected for being “too partisan” and because it was “a two-by-six to the face.”

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The most striking image for me in all the hours of television I watched on September 11th was the picture of a man and a woman, both African Americans, both dressed in business suits, both completely covered in gray ash, both fleeing hand in hand, their mouths open in gasping Os. Their ashen faces and bodies, their postures of woundedness, grief and confusion made me think of images I’ve seen of people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the moments and days after we dropped atomic bombs on those cities.
A lot of people have been saying the American age of innocence is over. To cite just one example, shortly after 1:30 in the afternoon on Sunday, September 16th, Mara Liasson on National Public Radio said, “A certain amount of our innocence is gone.” She gave voice to a common misunderstanding. We as a nation have never been innocent. What is over is not our innocence. What is over is the American age of impunity. Now the jealousy, hatred, envy and resentment that we have generated for ourselves around the world comes home to visit us, now we get to suffer as the rest of the world has suffered.
Seeing those two people staggering through the rubble of the World Trade Center and thinking about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, made me think about the saturation bombing and the napalm we loosed on Vietnam and that made me think about the TV pictures of our relentless bombing of Baghdad, you remember those squeaky clean images of our “smart” bombs falling all over Baghdad, you remember how we sat at home and watched on our TVs as Generals Powell and Schwartzkoff explained to us the technical details of our devastation of Iraq.
What unites all of these images of human suffering, these acts of carnage and devastation, from Nagasaki to Baghdad, until September 11th, is how all of them were so far away, just pictures to us, just TV images to be analyzed and watched with a cool and pristine fascination.
Not anymore.
My daughter stood on the Brooklyn shore of the East River and watched tens of thousands of ash covered New Yorkers stream across the Brooklyn Bridge as if they were refugees, this timeless image from Germany, Japan, Vietnam, China, Iraq, Bosnia, Ethiopia, Rwanda, this image of dazed and confused refugees fleeing–this image come home now to New York.
No amount of macho, saber-rattling, bravado out of the mouths of politicians and generals can save us from the images of September 11th. Now we know what it’s like to have done to us what we do to others.
Let us pause a moment.
Let us ponder what unleashing yet another wave of violence will do to create yet another generation of people who hate us and vow revenge upon us.
Let us ponder what unleashing yet another wave of violence will do to continue this international curse of war on civilians.
Let us act now to stop the carnage rather than perpetuate it.

David Budbill © 2001

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A Listener’s Guide to O’NEAL’S PORCH the debut album of The William Parker Quartet released by Centering Records

William Parker is not only one of the world’s most accomplished and creative bass players, he is one of the great melody makers, song writers, of our time. In song after song on this CD, through the sheer beauty of his sweet melodies, his bubbling, effusive, good humor and the energizing, life-affirming, great joy that infuses everything here, William gives us the gift of his love for us and for the world. As pianist and composer Cooper-Moore says, “William is like Duke Ellington to us; he’s like Mingus, even beyond that because neither Mingus nor Duke had the compassion William has.” (50 Miles of Elbow Room, Issue #1)And it is compassion and love that drives this album forward–that and the killer rhythm section!

Which brings up the drummer on this date: Hamid Drake. Lewis Barnes, the trumpeter here, says,” William and Hamid play together like twins separated at birth! No two guys can better anticipate each other’s musical moves than these two men, and on top of it all they play in and out better than anyone and at the same time!” Or put another way, Hamid Drake takes in with him when he goes out. In short, the propulsive force of Hamid’s drumming means that no matter how far out a solo may go, it always swings. Louisiana-born, Chicago-based, Hamid Drake, who is in constant demand as a Reggae drummer–and when you listen to him on this album you’ll hear why–has been playing regularly with William only since 1998, yet it seems like they’ve been together for years. When a drummer who is as great a time keeper as Hamid is gets in a situation where he is free to go outside time you get the best of both measured and free playing.

In front of this rhythm section stand two soloists: alto saxophonist, Rob Brown, and trumpeter, Lewis Barnes. Rob Brown has never sounded better; his playing here is full of passion and confidence. As Lewis Barnes says, “I don’t know what Rob Brown had for breakfast the day of this recording but he played like a man possessed.” Lewis Barnes, if he weren’t so modest, could have said the same thing about himself. Again and again Barnes’s playing here makes me think of Kenny Dorham, yet Lewis’s tone is rounder and fuller than Dorham’s was, less angular, thus adding yet another element to the warmth and sweetness of the tunes on this album. Lewis’s self-effacing, almost reticent, way of playing adds, in its quiet way, great dignity and richness to these tunes. And Rob and Lewis together make a sound sublime. Again and again here, they play together as if the alto saxophone and the trumpet had been recast into a single instrument. Call it an altompet. Miles and Cannonball played the altompet too, lots of other players have, but none any better than Lewis and Rob.

PURPLE, the opening tune, and perhaps the hardest swinging number on the CD, begins with a statement of the melody line, then a little ensemble improvisation, then Rob Brown’s solo, then back to Rob and Lewis and off to Lewis’s solo. These players pass the tune between each other as effortlessly as a well rehearsed 400 meter relay team. Hear also how closely they keep to the melody in their improvisations. No matter how far out they go, they always carry with them fragments of the head. Lewis concludes his solo and passes the baton to Hamid. Very quickly William enters playing the Talking Drum. William begins by responding to a figure Hamid has just played, and off those two go. All four then back in, some ensemble flights of fancy, and back to the head twice through and fade out on the retard.

SUN opens with a figure in the alto similar to the one in PURPLE, yet this is a totally different tune. Bass intro, drums in, the simple six note figure of the melody in the alto, trumpet in playing quarter notes under the alto, then trumpet and alto together working out on the head. Now off to the solos. First Lewis’s sweet, legato trumpet solo. There is no rush here. This is thoughtful, pensive, graceful improvising, and Lewis always staying close to the melody. Rob’s alto solo is more out and away from the head than Lewis’s. Back now to the head, alto and trumpet together. Then William’s rich, deep pizzicato solo and Hamid always there keeping the groove going. William out and Hamid into a very brief outside drum interlude, William back in and back to the melody again for all four, repeating the original theme with delicacy and grace.

William’s Uncle O’Neal who lived in South Carolina must have been a wonderful guy with a great sense of humor. I wish I could have sat on O’NEAL’S PORCH. After the bass and drum intro, there’s that wonderful altompet to begin this good natured tribute to William’s Uncle. Rob’s solo here goes further out than is customary for this album, but his brilliant flights of imagination are always rooted in the groove-heavy, dancing bass and drums. It’s this combination of in and out, and both at once, that makes this tune, and all the other tunes on this album so remarkable. Listen to the bass line–William playing dance rhythms–as always–and Hamid’s in-the-groove drumming accentuating, driving forward William’s joy. Now Lewis; that rich and luxurious tone; those thoughtful phrases, adding up to sentences, paragraphs, a statement of his own. Then a bass solo, and a drum solo. And then all four go out, out there in the front yard in front of O’Neal’s Porch and dance in the yard. Then, as with all the tunes on this album, back to the head and out with all the joy and good humor imaginable.

RISE begins with William’s bass line walking down the street, that steady, determined, even stride of his, then Hamid in, playing on the rims, then the altompet again, then an ensemble dissembling in which Lewis even plays the call to the horses, yet as always when the players go out they take the in of both the melody and the rhythm with them. And also as always in the cacophony of the ensemble improvisation there is William holding everything together and at the same time driving everything forward. Then arco bass under Hamid’s solo evolving into a quiet, introspective section full of space and emptiness out of which William’s walking bass line emerges again and leads the four players back to the head and out.

The bitter-sweet, touchingly beautiful ballad, SONG FOR JESUS, opens with the melody on alto and Harmon muted trumpet. Rob is at his lyrical, yearning best here in his solo, while Lewis’s meditative and muted trumpet provides just the right foundation for Rob’s explorations. Opposing tempos in Hamid’s brushes on the drum heads and William’s bass create a rhythmic counterpoint against which the soloists play. Lewis’s solo is especially poignant and all the more so because William and Hamid engage in an up tempo dialogue, inspiring each other ever onward, right in the middle of Lewis’s meditation which takes place at half the tempo of the bass and drums. Then, as usual, back to the tender and sweet melody and out. Here, as elsewhere on this album, William’s great gift as a melody maker provides the foundation for these melodic and rhythmic flights.

LEAF is the story of a day in the life of William Parker. The tune begins with William’s bass line walking down the street, that usual, determined, focused walk of his. Hamid comes in, then Rob and Lewis, their horns–the altompet–the horns of the city–blaring and crashing in the welter and confusion, the energy and excitement–and the distraction–of the city. Yet plowing though all that hustle and chaos, is the determined William Parker intent on going somewhere with that steady, focused walk and his calm, undistracted manner–that ten note figure in William’s bass. While the sounds of the city crash and bang all around him, William moves steadily on, not oblivious to the life around him, but rather totally within that life, yet always focused on his own life also, always listening for the music coming from The Tone World. William Parker is a black, urban, Zen monk, a roshi, a self-possessed, yet completely modest and humble just-another-one-of-us, and therefore someone able to be fully outside himself and attentive to the world. William Parker is, as Christians would say, “totally in but not of the world.” As he moves through the weltering swirl, he is the point of reference, the inner eye, the stillness at the center of the storm.

SONG FOR JESUS 3/4, a reprise of the sweet ballad, up tempo now and the rhythm in three/quarter time, the melody in four/four. Lewis’s muteless trumpet retains its lyrical sweetness as it lags slightly behind Rob’s inventions, each soloist’s distinct personality defining itself in relation to the melody, and as always Hamid and William propelling it all forward.

MOON–up tempo and swinging–opens with that altompet sound as smooth as it’s ever been. Here as throughout this date Lewis’s trumpet makes a somewhat spare, almost reticent, statement compared to the fullness of Rob’s improvisations. Here also, as elsewhere, Lewis stays closer to the melody than Rob does. Then it’s out with that wonderful altompet sound again.

Each player in this group is a distinct individual with inclinations and ways of playing all his own. Each man knows musically exactly who he is, and all four men are radically different from each other. Because of their distinctive personalities and their differences, they make together a new song of great beauty. Here then is the debut album of The William Parker Quartet, four men and eight tunes packed full of all the groove and sweet soul of Reggae, the crackle and snap of Hard Bop, and the emotional intensity and outside flights of imagination of what some people call Free Jazz. This music, however, is beyond category. This is simply joyful and compassionate music full of love for this world. And, oh, my, does it swing!

Lewis Barnes summed it up better than I ever could when he said, “I felt so excited by everyone’s playing that I felt just as thrilled as a musical fan as I did as a musician on this date. These cats play!” Indeed they do.

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Go to New York City. Get yourself to the intersection of Canal and Bowery down on the Lower East Side in Chinatown. Brace yourself if you are from the country or the suburbs because this is going to be a scene from Beijing, Hong Kong or Singapore.

Great waves of humanity, mostly Chinese–But not all. I was there.–surge back and forth packing the sidewalks and spilling out onto the streets. The streets likewise overflow with cars and trucks of every description all of them blowing their horns all at once, or so it seems, and the traffic so congested the cars and trucks spill up and onto the sidewalk. Yet–in a wonderment that never ceases to amaze me every time I’m there–all these cars and trucks and people mix together in this chaos of noise–this halting, stalled, horn-blaring, weltering confusion–yet none is injured and all somehow progress, albeit slowly, toward wherever each intends.

Go south now on Bowery about a block. You can see him just ahead, over there on your left, rising above the cars and trucks, out there in the middle of the traffic where Division Street splits into a Y and joins Bowery. In that triangle of asphalt and concrete created by the forking Division Street, on a pedestal about seven feet high stands a ten foot bronze, and therefore green, statue of Confucius.

He’s looking southeast and stands there in his robes, still as a statue, deep in his meditative calm amidst the noise and chaos of commerce.

Most people who know anything about Confucius (551-479 B.C.E.) or the ideas for the governance of human society he devised think of him as the perpetrator of a set of rigid, hidebound, legalistic, restricting rules and regulations for every imaginable human encounter, relationship or event. And certainly that is what “Confucianism” became over the centuries in ancient China. But just as there is no necessary relationship between the teachings of Buddha and Buddhism or the teachings of Christ and Christianity so it is also with Confucius. Confucius’ initial vision of a good society, “The Great Harmony,” as he put it, is a vision of societal peace, cooperation and understanding unsurpassed in the history of human contemplation.

On the base of the statue chiseled in the stone is the following quotation from his writing called The Great Harmony, the TA TUNG.

“When the great principle prevails the world is a Commonwealth in which rulers are selected according to their wisdom and ability. Mutual confidence is promoted and good neighborliness cultivated. Hence men do not regard as parents only their own parents nor do they treat as children only their own children. Provision is secured for the agŽd till death, employment for the able bodied and the means of growing up for the young. Helpless widows and widowers, orphans and the lonely as well as the sick and disabled are well cared for. Men have their respective occupations and women their homes. They do not like to see wealth lying idle, yet they do not keep it for their own gratification. They despise indolence, yet they do not use their energies for their own benefit. In this way, selfish schemings are repressed, and robbers, thieves and other lawless men no longer exist, and there is no need for people to shut their outer doors. This is the great harmony. ”

Imagine such a society. Imagine leaders in a society having this ideal toward which they strive.

Last year I saw a program called GREED on one of the TV networks. This was months before the game show of the same name. The show was an open and unabashed defense, and promotion, of pure and simple greed. Ted Turner–not exactly Mother Teresa himself–was on the show as a kind of straw man, a fall guy, to be ridiculed for giving away a few million of his dollars, by other corporate CEO’s who argued that the best thing for everyone in America is for people like themselves to make as much money as possible and keep it all for themselves or use it to generate greater profits for their businesses.

The program posited the idea that since profits in the private sector are what make our country prosperous and strong, any notion of anything even remotely approaching the idea of “the public good” is not only laughable but, in fact, actually bad for the economy.

These words from Confucius about the nature of the social contract and the public good, about how to be just and caring with your neighbors–even THE LONELY are cared for!–and how unchecked greed and the profit motive will destroy anything and everything, seem surreal in the middle of modern American life.

How far have we as a people strayed from the kind of Confucian humanism presented by this quotation from the TA TUNG?

Or perhaps my mistake is to imagine that we Americans have ever shared this Confucian vision of a social contract and the public good. Perhaps the real American vision is a loose fitting anarchy devoted exclusively to the aggrandizement of the individual and his or her ability to acquire money and power. Perhaps Donald Trump and Bill Gates are the only true American gods.

Yet a part of the American dream has also been movements devoted to something bigger than the individual. I think about J. Phillip Randolph and John L. Lewis and the Labor Movement born to resist the greed of the Captains of Industry, or the cooperative Credit Union movement born to overcome the rapaciousness and usury of bankers. Both of these movements sprung from visions of something bigger than the self, both come out of the idea that cooperation can benefit all. Or what about the phenomenon of Frederick Law Olmstead and the creation of public parks all across America–spaces for The Public to enjoy? Anybody who has wandered through Central Park in New York City or The Emerald Necklace in Cleveland or walked along the lake shore in Chicago, knows the joy of a public space. There is a tradition of “the public good” in America; it’s just been trampled to death by our stampeding economy here at the turn into this new century.

Yet I keep hearing a faint voice coming from that statue of Confucius, a voice saying that human community is better, fairer, easier, kinder, gentler, more effective and more just when we know there is a social contract and something called The Public Good. But it’s hard to hear that small voice these days.

Here at the beginning of this new millennium as the Stock Market soars off into the stratosphere or crashes or does one and then the other and no matter what happens the New Rich drive off into A Bright New Day in their Sports Utility Vehicles decked out in their Designer Clothes sipping a double-half-caf-decaf-organic-low-fat-latte, it truly is what Ronald Reagan said it was: It’s Morning in America, and, because it finally truly is Morning in America, finally Free Market Capitalism and “the private sector” can stand up and shout to the whole world what they’ve meant to say all along:

Anything public is not only bad for the economy, it is, in fact, evil and must be eliminated as soon as possible: public transportation, public parks, public agricultural and medical research, public libraries, public health care, public education, public care of the poor and the mentally ill–they all must go.

In other words, when we can’t hear that quiet Confucian voice or remember our own traditions of cooperation, when self-aggrandizing greed and personal gratification are all that matter, when Money and Me and an open hatred of “the public good” stand at the center of our society’s profoundest philosophy of life–what can we expect from the future?

© 1998, 1999, 2000, by David Budbill, all rights reserved,
permission to reprint must be gotten in writing from
David Budbill: david@davidbudbill.com
or from the publication in which the essay first appeared.

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