The cloud is free only
to go with the wind.
The rain is free
only in falling.
The water is free only
in its gathering together,
in its downward courses,
in its rising into the air.
In law is rest
if you love the law,
if you enter, singing, into it
as water in its descent.
Or song is truest law,
and you must enter singing;
it has no other entrance.
It is the great chorus
of parts. The only outlawry
is in division.
Whatever is singing
is found, awaiting the return
of whatever is lost.
Meet us in the air
over the water,
sing the swallows.
Meet me, meet me,
the redbird sings,
here here here here.
— Wendell Berry

, from “Collected Poems, 1957-1982”
I mentioned the other day how BU religion scholar Stephen Prothero identifies the Sage of Kentucky as a Christian Confucian because, in Prothero’s words:

… only in community, he argues, is it possible to become fully human. Only in the midst of community propriety (and impropriety), community goods (and evils), can we experience “our partiality and mortality” and our many connections to place and past, the quick and the dead.

The poem above illustrates Prothero’s point … but to me, aware of my extremely limited understanding of Chinese thought and religion, it also implies a certain Taoist stance. As I understand it — and I invite correction from more knowledgeable readers — Confucianism teaches that harmony can be imposed on human society by everyone agreeing to live by certain hierarchies and laws. People find their purpose in life by living out the role prescribed to them by their station in life. A son does what a son must; a father does what a father must; a neighbor does what a neighbor must; and so forth. Taoists, though, believe Confucianism to be spiritually stifling formalism, and instead preach spontaneity, going where the spirit takes you. But Taoists do not preach, “Do whatever you want to.” Rather, they argue that there is a Natural Law governing the universe, but that it is better realized not through obeying formal statutes, but rather by allowing it to emerge in one’s life through freedom of action. It’s not that the Tao (Way) is whatever you want it to be, but rather the true Tao cannot be defined, only lived out in freedom.

In this poem, Berry strikes me as clearly Confucian, in that he finds freedom in the law — freedom to be and to become who we are. But there is a Taoist spirit there too, it seems to me, in the poem’s lightness of spirit. Perhaps it’s important to remember that both great Chinese traditions seek the same goal: harmony. With that in mind, it may be the case that Confucianism is the heavy, masculine yang, and Taoism is the light, feminine yin — and both are necessary, one stronger than the other, depending on the context.
More from Beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad