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Nobility & Civility: Asian Ideals of Leadership and the Common Good.

Nobility & Civility: Asian Ideals of Leadership and the Common Good. By Wm. Theodore de Bary. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004. 256 pages. $24.95

In Nobility 6, Civility William Theodore de Bary takes up the questions of how nobility and civility developed in Asian traditions and their "relevance to how organized life today can be sustained in the face of the unprecedented violence that dominates so much of contemporary life." The author's primary strategy is to eschew definitions of the terms nobility and civility while showing how China, India and Japan have each taken up the discourse of noble personhood and leadership for the common good within their own evolving cultural contexts. "Examination of these ideals," he writes, "reveals both the commonalties and diversities within and among Asian traditions--enough commonalties so that one could conceive of shared Asian values even though one recognizes that historically there was little cross-fertilization between, say, Confucianism and Hinduism."

De Bary shows the internal tensions within Confucianism concerning knowledge and virtue, self-cultivation and public authority. In a culture dominated by "family-styled leadership," how may one take up the "heavy burden of public service?" His response: the interplay between the ruling elite and the public is based on "mutual remonstrations and reformation." The advantage of this is "a participatory process that does not restrict the counseling function only to the elite." While de Bary maintains that Zhu Xi's community compact is relevant in offsetting the dangers of centralized power, he questions whether the idea of "rule by virtue" does anything more than "protect the superior authority of the Communist Party." Can it be legitimately argued that tianming is identical to the revolutionary mandate?

De Bary's explication of Chinese Buddhist conceptions of nobility and civility, however, is thin. The author's focus on 'heravada in India seems to have colored his reading of the myriad Mahayana traditions. The Chan tradition in China developed a repository of insights into ethics and leadership. While such texts as Extensive Record, Records of Equanimity, Records of the Fields, and Records of Things Heard, have partially disappeared, the surviving texts have been translated by Thomas Cleary in Zen Lessons: The Art of Leadership an anthology of significant teachings about human nature from Chan Buddhist communities that originally dates from the early twelfth century.

In his four-chapter study of Japanese conceptions of nobility and civility De Bary shows how the Japanization of Confucianism and Buddhism helped construct a unique version of the noble person and the common good. In much the same way he puts into question the CCP's appropriation of Confucianism, he questions the ways in which the military in Japan has appropriated Buddhism and Neo-Confucianism to legitimize its abuse of power. It is de Bary's contention that despite these problems, the elements of veneration for the emperor, the Japanization of Buddhism, the portrayal of the samurai as a Confucian junzi all show an impulse to the common good: the ideal of "transcending life and death."

In his analysis of the Dhammapada as the representative text of Buddhist tradition and Ramayana for Hinduism, de Bary makes a convincing case for Indian "heroic nobility" that exemplified the conflict between local and universal values. In both traditions, nobility informs leadership only when the hero embraces a higher religious ideal. For the emerging Buddhist community, nobility is understood to be superior to political power and social rank; thus, nobility is a liberating practice based on self-restraint. In the Ramayana, the emphasis is on keeping one's word even if it puts one at odds, as it does Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita, with one's kin: "true nobility means being true to oneself, not just good and loyal to one's kin."

In the "Epilogue" de Bary takes issue with those who proclaim that only westerners are concerned with "the status of the individual or person." He writes, "most Asian religions and philosophies . . . have exhibited a self-awareness and a consciousness of individual responsibility predicated on a high evaluation of the human potential--variously expressed in language that affirms this value in relation to the different ends of life that might be served by, or serve, individuals." Indeed, it is an important theme in the work that a culture is first and foremost a culture in tension with itself in an evolving context.

Tom Pynn, Kennesaw State University
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Author:Pynn, Tom
Publication:East-West Connections
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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