Buddha and Lao Zhu

Forms of self-restraint

The forms of self-restraint introduced by Buddhism and Taoism should be understood from a historical perspective. They are not the beginning of a development, but a result. Two layers of values and institutions have already been created, before in history some form of self-restraint has become an explicit part of the human development. In fact we have a deal with three layers of values:

  1. The values of family and clan (belongingness, loyalty, tradition, etc.)
  2. The values of hierarchical rule and control (respect for authority, exercise of functional behavior, etc.)
  3. The values of restraint and denial of control as a moral and institutional countervailing force.

This is important to note, because the powers of abnegation in human history have been invented, created, introduced, in order to readjust and counter the excesses and violence of self-affirmation. Take the values of hierarchy and empire: it is already an achievement to have put in place some form of central control by means of strict authority and a labor division based on functional tasks. Without such forms of cooperation human society is in a bad shape. Implicitly it already requires self-restraint, because members of such societies have to adapt. The same counts for the belongingness and loyalty, tradition of tribe and family. Those values, implicitly, introduce forms of self-restraint and abnegation. A human being is not allowed to give in to immediate impulses in whatever way. Group belongingness in a way, for that reason, is also a form of self-restraint. But the very same value of group belongingness or obedience to authority can also run, so to say, wild. It can become too much. The consequence of too much authority is oppression. The consequence of too much group belongingness is exclusion and prosecution. As a consequence, the human society, as much as it needs the values of cooperation and tradition etc., also needs “countervailing values”, values that go against the grain of established society.

Four traditions of criticism and abnegation stand out in the history of mankind. Two of those value traditions originated in the East: Buddhism and Taoism. Two of them originated in the West: Judaism and Christianity. They are new as compared to the earlier set of tribal and hierarchical values. They are even in tension with those earlier sets of values.

Four traditions of self-abnegation and criticism

  1. Buddhism introduced the denial of attachment to outward reality of struggle and competition: the eye objectifies and looks through everything. It reduces the hot steam of anger and the will to power to nothingness. Just Maya, appearance. It doesn’t make an impression anymore.
  2. Taoism introduced another value, to let go of recognition within society and do without. Lao Zhu disappeared behind a mountain. To make oneself unimportant within society, not to compete for respect and status, doing nothing and withdrawing, paradoxically is a necessary condition to find the one right moment to intervene. Even such an intervention is like doing nothing, Wu Wei, literally translated by ‘non-action’. A movement of one’s little finger may change the universe if it’s done at the right moment.
  3. Judaism introduced the denial of the powers that be in function of the one power of justice that is beyond them all, putting emphasis on a common origin of humanity, beyond the myths of each group. This criticism of the present myth gives to all the peoples a common destiny beyond the complacent existence of every individual people. This common destiny challenges each particular myth tribes and nations would like to sacrifice to.
  4. Christianity operationalized this value by giving up the claim of a total change, as voiced by the prophetic criticism of the Old Testament prophets. Instead, a path was opened of constant and gradual change in limited steps, but always in view of that ultimate reality.

If we take this cruciform diagram of time and space in an ideal-typical sense, societies, religions, even denominations within religions, and concomitant values can be put somewhere on a continuum on one of the arrows (see figure). They also reinforce each other and evoke each other. In a sense they need each other. They need to be supplemented and corrected by each other. For instance: a critical stance towards the powers that be can become one-sided and forgo options for gradual change. In a similar way not making oneself too important in combination with a detached attitude in the struggle for existence, although different values and qualities, may help and support each other. In China often Buddhism and Taoism were in such a symbiosis. Being without recognition, unimportant, and at the same time critical may also sometimes be necessary. That has often been the attitude the Taoists in China during the many peasant revolts. In a similar way the Buddhist attitude of self-renunciation and a compassionate Christian attitude may sometimes supplement each other to prevent Buddhism from becoming too passive and the Christian striving for change too active, etc. etc. These four spiritual attitudes and traditions should, however, better not be understood as expression of some common denominator. It is their differences that make them meaningful for each other, if they face each other, correct each other, and supplement each other like real people do.

The figure above summarizes these two value sets on the axes of space (vertical: inside society, and outside reality) and time (horizontal: the tension and interaction between past and future). To the familiar space oriented terms subject and object for inside and outside the terms of traject and preject are added as equivalents for the time axis.


Wherever East and West meet these two value sets also meet. These values do not only exist in the abstract. The different civilizations and societies that populate our planet are their embodiments. Whether one calls it our unconsciousness or our soul, in some way we carry a particular formative heritage along with us. That means, we are formed in a moral sense, in our feeling and outlook, by the value-sets of our cultures and religions. We are pre-formed by our education, our parents, our schools and authorities to react in a particular way. We cling to certain values as a solution even before reflection. We see a red light when we see particular behavior that we cannot allow. We consider particular forms and expressions of self-interest legitimate, but others we cannot tolerate. Western nations for instance see a bottom-up approach of pluralistic public opinion and criticism as a natural part of making politics. By Eastern powers the same behavior may be perceived as threatening the coherence of society with chaos. If everybody has his own opinion, in their eyes rule and direction becomes impossible.

Kings, emperors, chiefs initially may have seized power in a naïve effort of self-affirmation of a special group in the name of its group identity or its gods (group identities and gods being more or less the same thing from the perspective of the social function of religion). But for sustained larger scale rule some form of self-restraint of the rulers always has been a necessary requirement. Rulers who know of no self-restraint cannot cope with political and moral systems that are different from their own and cannot cope with the tactical management and sensitive negotiations that are necessary to conquer and/or co-opt the stubborn self-affirmation of diverse opponents. Sustainable large scale rule takes the ability to give in and deal with ‘otherness’ in whatever way. As a consequence in the more sophisticated forms of imperial rule we find at least three different layers of values – the values that have been mentioned above. :

The axial age is generally considered as a decisive turning point in the history of mankind in this respect. Since the axial age, roughly from 800 before the Christian era until the end of antiquity, these four traditions of self-restraint mentioned emerge. All of them criticized unjust rule, but at the same time they are of fundamental significance for larger scale rule. Rulers could perform better if the criticism was internalized into the system of rule. It gave them a broader repertoire of action, thought and judgment. It made them more capable of dealing with difficult and stub-born people without entering into conflict and without conflicts becoming too serious. It equipped them with the ability to deal with quite different value-sets by adding four different elements of flexibility to the repertoire.