Q: How is the French Revolution like Zen Buddhissm?
A: They both rely on the concept of virtue.
The two concepts of virtue reveal a fatal flaw in the Western tradition. During the French Revolution virtue, with a capital V, became directly associated with “l’Incorruptible,” Maximilien Robespierre. Robespierre, a little-known deputy from a sleepy northern city, emerged as leader of the Jacobins largely because of his ability to prove he embraced Virtue. Armed with Virtue, he became the guiding spirit of the Revolution under the Jacobin-run Convention government (1793-94), where he spearheaded many a draconian decree punishing humans for weaknesses such as gossiping, hoarding, and complaining. His attitude is described as “beyond the reach of passion, he was fully available to virtue. Having eliminated in himself all distinction between private and public, between self and love of country, he had completed the cycle of ‘regeneration’ that would become the center of his politics: he came to the Revolution a citizen while others remained subjects.”*
This kind of virtue, as is painfully evident to any student of the Terror, proved difficult to sustain even for l’Incorruptible, and extremely difficult to spread around a nation. The kind of Virtue promoted during the French Revolution requires depriving the human spirit of its cocoon of selfhood, in the name of an abstract collective and a distant goal. Virtue is never easy to import. Its virtue lies in being native to an entity.
Indeed that second kind of virtue, of carrying certain characteristics or powers innately, is a very different way of thinking about behavior. That kind of virtue draws its power not from political theory but rather from biology: virtue is the innate goodness (or suchness) of all things and people, like a medicinal plant produces balm people produce their presence, actions, and consequences. It inheres in every sentient creature, the Buddhists would say, and is manifest as reliability among the most awakened people.
As Hellmut Wilhelm explains in his analysis of the I Ching, reliability and change are one in Chinese thought. “Change is the unchangeable.” It is the natural order of all things under heaven (tao). In the human realm as among animals, individuals and families follow the same cycles of germination, development, and decline. Fathers and sons, for example, see their status and power evolve over time so that the weak eventually becomes strong and the strong weak. The stability of change is the counterpart of the human virtue of reliability, writes Wilhelm. “One can grasp it, hold to it, count upon it. Change is not something that is carried out abruptly and irrationally. It has its fixed course in which the trends of events develop.”**
To flesh out that concept (of the virtues innate to sentient creatures), consider Bob Klein’s portrait of a python deftly gliding its enormous 20-foot body through jungle branches before striking his prey, a huge tiger walking below. “Quantities of power unimaginable to us seem poised within the giant serpent,” Klein writes,” waiting for just the right moment. We humans can sense a degree of attention, a level of power in this scene which seems unattainable to us. It is almost mystical and other-worldly. Too often we accept sickness, emotional confusion, tiredness, and feelings of helplessness as part of our lot as humans. And yet, we are part of the same natural system which has given rise to the tiger and the python, the soaring eagles and other awe-inspiring creatures.”
T’ai chi teaches practitioners to feel that sort of strength and develop that sort of mental and physical reliability. Klein states, “The body’s healing ability is magnified. The mind and emotions are calmed, and tension and trauma are dissolved. … T’ai-chi-Ch’uan serves as a self-defense system, physically, emotionally, and psychically.. students are taught … to relate to people in a more spontaneous, natural and holistic manner.”***
Parting thought: If only the Jacobins had thought to learn and teach the practice of T’ai chi!
Happy Bastille Day, allez les bleus!
*Patrice Gueniffey, “Robespierre” in A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution, ed. François Furet and Mona Ozouf, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA: Belknap / Harvard University Press, 1989), 299.
**Hellmut Wilhelm, Change: Eight Lectures on the I Ching, trans. Cary F. Baynes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960), 20-21.
***Bob Klein, Movements of Magic: The Spirit of T’ai-chi-Ch’uan (North Hollywood, CA: Newcastle Pub., 1984), 1.