“He who defends everything defends nothing.”
-Frederick II of Prussia
“The wise stay behind, and are thus ahead.
They are detached, and thus at one with all.”
-Lao Tsu in The Tao Te Ching, translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English
I remember sitting near abandoned American airfields in Vietnam, talking to a Buddhist monk about peace, world history and his beliefs. I remember the coffeeshop he showed me a few hours later, where my cup had almost as much condensed milk as coffee. I remember a story he told me about Buddha, a river, and a thief. I remember that I didn’t understand what he meant by non-attachment. There was something there, beyond his words, inside his kind eyes, but I couldn’t make out what it was.
I thought I was supposed to care: about my family, the environment, the world we’re creating. I thought non-attachment meant not caring about anything. Maybe I had that backwards. To be detached, Lao Tsu says, is to be connected with everything. Defending this village or that ideal chooses it, highlights it as more important than other villages and ideals. That’s one kind of value. That’s one kind of caring. It gives me something to grasp. Lao Tsu, I think, doesn’t want to give me something to grasp: he wants me to open my hand, and breath. He wants my work to be a part of all things, and to care, in a small, attentive way, for all things. There’s more to breath than I could ever hold.
The wise “are detached, and thus at one with all.” Fortresses and troops must defend this city, or that one; this idea, or that one. Maybe hearts and minds have another way of being.
I’d like to sit with that. And I like that this thought about a Vietnamese man’s teaching comes to me, an American, through Chinese writings. There is a lot of hurt and anger in the history of those three countries. There are plenty of moments in which we’ve gone off, to fight, to win, to defend whatever we’ve decided is worth defending. But there is also a look of calm compassion, left in my mind by a far off monk, and this quiet passage from a man long dead. A look left behind, and so ahead of me, ready for me as I walk by looking for a way forward.