Thursday, December 8, 2011

To Create Without Owning

One of my favorite texts of all time is the Tao Te Ching, a Chinese classic believed to have been written in the 6th century BC by a monk named Lao Tzu, or Laozi.  A short, poetic text of 81 verses, it was not only the basis for Taoist philosophy, but it was also influential in other Chinese philosophical and religious traditions.  Even when Jesuit missionaries translated the Gospel of John into Chinese, they borrowed the word Tao as the best possible translation for Logos in chapter 1, verse 1.  Thus, "In the beginning was the Logos" (translated into English as Word, referring to the Son, the second person of the Trinity who incarnated as Jesus Christ), became "In the beginning was the Tao."  Typically translated as "Way" (also a self-description of Jesus Christ and the word used for the faith of his followers before "Christianity" was coined), the Tao is said to be the essential, unnameable, guiding principle of the universe.  To my mystical sensibilities, Lao Tzu's meditations on the Tao present a most humble and humbling perspective on the internal processes of the cosmos.

The Lao Tzu "Old Man Rock" near Quanzhou, Fujian Province, China

From time to time, I read a few verses of the Tao Te Ching for spiritual inspiration, rarely thinking of how its content might apply to any of my academic interests.  Recently, however, I came across a line that applies perfectly to some of the Rastafari whom I interviewed in Jamaica last year for my thesis.  It is the first line in this closing stanza of Verse 51:

To create without owning
To give without expecting
To fill without claiming
This is the profound action of Tao
The highest expression of Te

This comes from Jonathan Star's 2001 translation, one of many English versions.  Others offer the first line of this excerpt as "Giving life (or having) without possessing," "Creating without claiming," or "Produces but does not possess." I have chosen "To create without owning" specifically because both of these words expressed as such, creating and owning, were central to my ethnographic inquiry among Rastafarians of African descent in Jamaica.  My initial question and overall research topic was, "How do black Rastas feel about whites playing reggae, a musical expression that grew out of a black liberation struggle?"  I was curious about how members of an ethnic group perceive a sort of collective or cultural ownership of music.  What I found was that, not only is there a diversity of views on whether or not Rastas own the music, or what exactly such an ownership might entail; there was also an intriguing variety of terms used to describe the authorship or invention of the Rastaman's music.  For my thesis title, I used a phrase offered to me in one of my interviews: "We Black build the music" - that is, reggae (and its spiritual ancestor, Nyahbinghi music) is a construction of the African people.  Others suggested that reggae "was born out of" the black struggle in Jamaica, or that binghi drumming was "discovered by" or "given to" the Africans, presumably by Jah (God).  While some of my interviewees spoke of Rasta music in terms of a continuous evolution that culminated in Nyahbinghi as it is known today (albeit performed differently between subgroups), others stressed that Nyahbinghi is the "original" music, much like the African is the original human.

Without going into great detail about the discussions I shared with the Rastafari about black supremacy, I need to preface the following quote from Bongo Shephan Fraser (Nyahbinghi priest who guided me throughout my stay in Jamaica) with an explanation of a common view among Rasta that, because God is a black man, black people may closely identify with him.  The original humans were black, and they are the founders of civilization.  Because the African is made in the image of Jah, the divine creative potential may be ascribed to black people.  According to Bongo Shephan, black people created the entire world (and in this claim, he includes reminders of the contributions of black slaves who built the white masters' cities), so there is no question for him that Nyahbinghi and reggae music were created (or authored, or invented) by the black people.  In Shephan's view, this naturally implies a sort of ownership distinct from exclusivity:

As I say again, the music belong to us.  We are the creators of the music.  Seeing that music transcends all boundaries, though it’s my creation, any other nation have privilege to use this music for his upkeeping or his upliftment, because it’s a music of the heart.  So if it touch your heart, you’re gonna have to go and respond to it.  So by no reason could I use that against the I, regardless that this music was been created by I.  There are many things created by other nations and people that maybe I enjoy, many other people enjoy it also.  And you can’t use, because it was been created by a man to make a hammer to break the stone, you restrict the other man over there from using a hammer to broke the stone.  I don’t see that wise.  I see that every nation, kindred, and tongue have privilege unto the tree of life, and music is life.  Everyone have to enjoy himself playin’ music, because there is nothing sweeter to a man or a woman.

Bongo Shephan Fraser in his "office"

Bongo Roy, another Nyahbinghi Ancient (elder) responded differently to the question of ownership.  "Rasta can't own the music. It is for the world!"  In some cases, there may be a significant difference in meaning between "owning music" and "music belonging to," yet it was clear in some cases that cultural production necessitates cultural ownership, though not necessarily exclusivity.  One woman seemed rather conflicted on the issue, saying at one point that "Music belong to anyone. Music is universal," and a few moments later, "Definitely it belongs to the black people, culturally, yes."  But, while everyone I interviewed, regardless of their views on ownership, made no claim of exclusive privileges to Rasta music, some suggested varying degrees of entitlement to profits from international reggae music sales, especially in the form of racial reparations and "strengths" (charitable donations) to impoverished Rastas in Jamaica.  Only one of the twenty people in this study said that the Rastafari "demand reparation," and even in this case, it is difficult to infer from his statement that he would demand royalties from music sales based on his movement's authorship and ownership of reggae.

My thesis raised some interesting questions about cultural/intellectual property rights, something I hope to explore further in the future.  I am not pursuing this topic because of a conviction, one way or another, about the exclusivity of cultural production, the entitlements of purported "originators," or the authenticity of "outsiders" who imitate or reproduce indigenous art forms.  I do wish to open up an honest inquiry into these ideas (ownership, authorship, exclusivity, and authenticity) that gives equal consideration to emic perspectives on perceived cultural products, especially those that seem to contribute to social cohesion and a sense of ethnic identity.

But let's go back to the Tao thing.  The passage I quoted above (Verse 51) proclaims that the "profound action" of the Tao (the essence, internal nature, or guiding principle of the cosmos) is to create, produce, invent, or give without any expectation of receiving something in return.  This is also the "highest expression" of Te (virtue, honor, or morality), for one to act in accordance with the Tao by performing unrequited acts of giving, filling, and creating.  While avoiding syncretism, this unselfish action of the Tao reminds me very much of the way in which we Christians often speak of God, especially in this time of year, the Advent or Nativity season - i.e. Christmas.  One critique of Christianity (or religion in general) that I hear frequently is, "Why does God need us to worship him so badly?"  This would make God the opposite of the selfless Tao; however, I think this characterization of religious adoration is both simplistic and unfair.  While certain Biblical language and Western theological statements tend to characterize God in terms of his "jealousy" and insistence upon being the sole recipient of worship, it may be helpful to think of these as figures of speech that should not be interpreted as God's narcissistic need for love and devotion, but as something else entirely - I'll leave it for the Bible scholars and theologians to debate this while I close my thoughts with a little bit of Christmas spirit.

We talk about Christmas, or "the holidays," as the season of giving.  Christian tradition talks about the Nativity of Jesus Christ as a divine gift, a kenosis or self-emptying, and while there may be some Christians who say that God became incarnate to claim what he created for his own, what is ultimately idealized on the approaching holy day is, first and foremost, a selfless act of unrequited love.  With this in mind, we all celebrate the joy of giving at Christmas.  But can we truly give without claiming the act of giving, either in an expectation of gratitude or a reliance on the self-gratification that comes from making another person happy?  Maybe not, but what I wish for all of us this Christmas is that we may experience a spark of the desire to strive for that "highest expression of virtue," the power to create without possessing.


  1. Right near the end of your essay (is it fair to call it an essay?--i don't know) you mention a paradox that people sometimes bring up and that I find fascinating: that of the "selfless act."
    Some will claim that there is no selfless act because doing something for another typically rewards the do-gooder with feelings of positivity.
    I wonder how a Taoist would reconcile that claim. Can a person "give without expecting" once they possess the knowledge that giving (in the individual sense, such as with a gift OR in the general sense, such as the presentation of an art form to the world) provides a feeling of well-being?

    In my opinion, doing a good thing for the sake of its goodness and doing a good thing for the sake of its personal rewards are not the same, and one is more noble than the other. If I were to make an assumption, it would be that the Taoist would attempt to do "good things" to be more in tune with the nature of the universe ( = "for the sake of its goodness" ), and, in that way, successfully "give without expectation."

  2. I think it's technically an essay, but you can call it a "rant," if you like.

    Yes, this dilemma of genuine altruism is something I've thought about for several years. It may be my tendency toward cynicism, but I have trouble seeing how we can be motivated to do something unless we are rewarded, at the very least, with endorphins. The knowledge that we've made someone happy, done the difficult-but-righteous thing, or improved the standard of living for our species - this satisfaction can be a source of guilt or disappointment in ourselves if we're self-expecting to act completely for others (and you can see where this expectation itself is problematic). I'm coming to terms (I think) with the fact that, because our brains operate in such a way that self-preservation and gratification (which are often closely related, but also often conflicted) are at the heart of our decision-making, it may be inevitable that we put "self" first. But, in my opinion, this does not mean that we can or should not idealize the "giving without expecting," "dying to self," or detachment that religions and (ironically) some self-help strategies demand of us.

    It becomes more clear that this idea of the "selfless act" can be paradoxical when we think of "action" in a Taoist sense. Look at Lao Tzu's doctrine of wu-wei ("inaction") - It is not that "doing" as such is to be avoided in order to live that noble, "in tune with nature," enlightened life; it is that "doing" with an agenda, or "striving" (to borrow a word from Buddha, which he might as well have taken from Lao Tzu, if he didn't) is in conflict with the Tao. In this context, "action" may be defined as an extension of the ego, where ego is a lifelong process of negotiation between id (biological desires, cravings) and what the brain perceives as "other" or external influence and "reality." Action is thus not only "by self, of self, and for self;" it may also be synonymous with self if we conceptualize self as a social process in which an individual (body) acts toward, and is acted upon by, other bodies.

    I'm going to stop right there because I'm currently reading up on social identity theory, and I've been trying to figure out exactly what aspect I want to blog about. Thanks for the comment, Dan!

    Everyone check out Dan's blog. He's a great writer and thinker.