A Lesson About Virtue (De)
De often gets translated in the West as Virtue
De / Te
(/deɪ/; Chinese: 德; pinyin: dé; Wade–Giles: te)
A concept in Chinese philosophy meaning:
“virtue (oneself); inner power; integrity” in Taoism,
“virtue (social); morality” in Confucianism
“quality; “merit; virtuous deeds” in Buddhism.
This came up today when talking with a student. It’s a slippery term because in the west we also have more than one concept of virtue. Now notice above in the definition of how Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism hold to what De (virtue) means in a different manner. So in truth, literally everyone does have a different way of holding virtue, and that is a clue.
From my perspective, De is essential in how we flow and are authentic to our essence. So from a Taoist perspective, it is natural to look more inward in defining De. (side note: also always factor in how outside influences interplay with you.) However, on average more people than not tend only to focus and look outward to define De (as morality, to do what is right). To cut it down with judgment and then force yourself to fit into society.
In other words, in Taoism vs. Confucianism, you can see the classic struggle of being an individual compared to fitting in with society.
Society is now changing in deeper manners, the conflicts between our individual rights compared to social pressures are increasing and shifting. The west is evolving into a profoundly legalistic society, where social engineering is happening at an ever grander scale, trying to hammer down rules for everything.
So the question of how to hold De for each of us, how to be authentic is going to be a very interesting challenge for many of us.
When trying to hold virtue, in your life, in your stories: trying to keep all the stories authentic to outside measures (judgement) means you will be kept running in circles. Because it isn’t possible to balance De in this manner. On the flip side trying to be purely yourself will keep you isolated from others. So you can’t just run to a monastery to hide from the world to reset your De either.
An Exercise in De
Take some time to to ask yourself if you were to define De for yourself what would virtue being authentic would look like for you.
- First do this relative to your essence, relative to your style.. what matters to you and how do you stay true to that?
- Secondly, then do this relative to society and others you interconnect with. Understand what matters to you in the bigger picture or how you hold your relationships.
Notice these are almost always two very different things, two different De that we can hold.
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The Layers of Our Essence
In reality, our essence is split into several layers: For example, we have our personal essence and our social essence. People try to merge them into one which will create all sorts of conflict, and contradictions in how to hold oneself.
I will re-stress: keep them separate and understand both sides of yourself so you can act with De, to be consistent with how your essence needs to flow in each circumstance you face.
The previous exercise will help you understand and accept De on several levels at once. Then you can act with a deep De, with more integrity and consistency which will reinforce your life.
So for instance: say you are a person in the middle of separation. You have the need to act for yourself, and be true to yourself (personal essence). AND Then you have how you need to act relative to your ex partner and family (social essence). You will need to balance two very different sets of De to keep yourself moving with grace and alternative between them in order to be graceful.
Often people try to force it down to one answer, and then it breaks for everything keeping no one happy. You don’t force De you dance with De.
Abuse and Judgement Undercut De
One problem many people face is abuse.
Power is the capacity to define.
Abuse is when the power to define yourself has been suppressed or taken away.
When abused, when you are unable to be your own person: you are disconnected from your own essence. Abuse disconnects a person from their essence and De the ability to flow and live to your own essence.
When De has been undercut by abuse, by others, who have taken away your power, your virtue. You will keep the pattern going, keep re-trapping yourself with self-judgments that come into play to undercut your authenticity.
To my students, I teach attaining personal freedom and strength from the choice of releasing judgment. To release any and all abuse in their life. To only keep a dash of judgment to use as a tool in retaining some grounding. But too many people have been abused heavily in our world today. Walking away from abuse takes power, and if your power has been redirected to undercutting yourself, you become trapped in a psychological prison. So walking away from abuse is easier said than done and can be a complicated process.
Abuse is the removal of power that drives virtue: Abuse destroys De. Abuse undercuts and stifles De.
It’s a hard lesson to let go of self-judgment, but once you do, you will also discover it is easier to move and flow into De / Te.
De isn’t forced.
I think from one angle: De is more about how we see ourselves rather than how we hold ourselves, and in working with it, we slowly polish ourselves to flow more gracefully in life.
Of course, we learn in Taoism to hold many angles so don’t be confused by the other angles, rather learn to hold the current perspective you do have, find value, learn against it and improve who you can be.
Be open enough to un-force abused De by sharing with honesty your feelings in a balanced manner. That is virtue also. In an expression of our virtue, we will see angles to improve ourselves, be careful not to over-push yourself nor to learn too fast, lest you trip up and reinforce the negative judgments designed to keep you from embracing your own De.
(The trap of abuse)
This isn’t easy stuff, at times we will expose harder aspects of life. We won’t shy away, nor paint happy faces on everything. Rather we will step by step find De in our terms, expand upon it, and live our lives the most gracefully we can in small steps find better answers that over time help us evolve into ever stronger humans.
De and Social Justice
A common question I get is how Taoism would handle morality problems found within our culture such as this government and Corporate Abuse.
The truth is morality is not something you can write down into commandments. To do so is to create terrible situations such as the Spanish Inquisition. To force De into morality is to create immoral government structures.
So how would we apply De in a manner to handle this morality problem of corrupt unkind government actions?
Taoism teaches that it isn’t a question that Taoism can answer for the whole. Rather Taoism reminds each person how to live to kindness, compassion, and grace. It takes time and patience to illustrate what this means to each person’s heart and how to work in relation to others with open communication. Then once arming you with an education and not sword nor commandments, it leaves it up to you to follow your own heart. This is why the historic Taoist definition of De often gets confused to be kind and compassionate actions.
How the more significant social De gets resolved is based on our actions of De. Our actions must start small and true to our life, and then together, those actions add up to the point where together we can stand. Where each person stops self-abusing themselves against an inflexible morality of the larger culture. Then most ironically, once De has ripple back upward into society is when we can resolve this problem since we have stop abusing ourselves somewhere along the line of discovering what it meant to live kindly.
In the reflection of no longer abusing ourselves, is the starting point when as a whole we actually can stop abusing each other also.
This is no different than building an arch; you cannot place a keystone without a framework to first support it. Once you have everything in place, you can remove the framework and then the keystone of kindness stands on its own. However, before that moment Taoism does provide a framework of education and patience to help show people what it means to live with kindness in one’s life.
Additional Comments About De
One student responds quite correctly:
It’s easier for me to point to the times I am not holding De than when I am holding it.
At times it’s easier to know when we are deviating away from our essence due to the tearing it creates, but we won’t always notice when something is going smoothly. Of course, if you go numb to the tearing and pain, then you may not even know if you not holding De… Many leaders of today’s world are too numb to know they have lost social grace.
Another question then arises: What is my essence, which story is the one I should hold and then flow with De?
Don’t try to simmer yourself down to a simple single essence; there is more in play than meets the eye at any one moment. Instead, you work with the angle you see in the current moment and then work with what you do see. You don’t ignore an edge you are feeling, but you climb any current edge to grow against. That is another aspect of De most westerners ignore. At times you have to work against something to grow.
The path of being authentic is a long patient one of much climbing against so many edges that cut away the bits which aren’t you.
Additional Materials About De.
To quote Scott A. Barnwell From his article above
Is spoken of in texts of this period as something that can be present or absent, abundant or slight, high or low, bright or dark, good or bad, consistent or inconsistent.
Can be accumulated, or it can be distributed and spread abroad. It can be maintained or neglected, kept intact or dissipated.
Is something that can elicit changes in living things. It can be used by rulers to pacify a population and it can win the people’s hearts and minds, making people turn to them for direction. It can be used to guide and transform others.
Is almost always attributed to human beings, the literature also shows that both Heaven and Earth have some sort of De , as does a ruling house, a government, the seasons, milfoil, roosters, jade, and alcohol, among other things
How I Look at De
Personally, for myself, I don’t hold De as a measuring stick, nor do I ever try to hold a static definition to it. It’s a fluid concept, so if you try to use it as a hard measurement line, it creates problems. De, for me is de. Much like Tao is Tao. It isn’t a word that lends itself to other words trying to constrain it. De is always shifting as a reminder of how we act does shape us and those around us.
Instead, I use De to understand the shifting nature of how we hold ourselves.
1) There is a graceful manner to hold true to ourselves,
2) There is a graceful manner to hold true to our relationships,
3) There is an elegant manner to stay true to our society.
That all three of these things can be quite different, so don’t try to force it all down to one. That in itself is a powerful realization and one that helps people balance their lives in a better way, over trying to force oneself to fit in socially at the cost of how you hold yourself personally.
That on average due to the layered nature of De, I don’t think as De as something to practice against: I use it instead to look at how I balance my life in terms of my lifestyle and circumstances.
Finally, Taoism reminds me De expressed within a higher social framework is more graceful when it is held in a manner that allows individuals to be individuals even within larger group settings.
Taoism helps people release stories.
People are unruly, when lost in stories.
To govern a country thru deceit is to rob the country.
Being open to govern a country is good fortune for the country.
To know this is also a story.
Being always aware of the stories
is hidden De (virtue).
Conclusion about De
What I want you to walk away with is this: De is a concept that has evolved over several thousand years. As a result, don’t try to simmer it down to only a single thing. You could study De for a lifetime and still gain insights when you least expect it.
To study De is to spin around in circles. To simply live with De, to improve as you make mistakes and rest when things are flowing well, is De at a simple but graceful level of expression. As such Taoists strive to hold De in such a manner and then with time come to terms with De.
De isn’t a physical measurement of how to live but think of De as an indicator of how well a human or society works and moves with both spirit and stories. Since how a story plays out does impact the world, De then does indirectly manifest itself within physical aftereffects of how everything plays out.
At a higher level, De represents how to best balance the social forces. At a Personal level, De represents how to flow and grow to your terms from your own stories. We will always see many levels of interplay between a person and culture. This interplay is De.
We also see many levels of interplay between a person and the spirit of the larger world. This interplay is also De.
So this weeks homework is simply to Dance with De.
Enjoy the flow.
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