Two “Ways:” Olamina’s Books of the Living Compared with the Daodejing

While reading Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, I could not help but note the similarities between Lauren Olamina’s ideas and those of Laotzu, the mythic author of the Daodejing (the foundational text for Daoism, translated approximately as “The Classic of Dao (The Way) and De (Virtue)”). The two texts bear striking resemblances in their “historical” roots, style, and philosophical underpinnings.

I could find no hint in “Conversations with Octavia Butler” that Butler consciously tried to emulate Daoism with Earthseed, or even that she studied it at all. In an interview, Butler says “I wanted something that I could have believed in and joined when I was 18.” I wonder what the impact on her life and work would have been if she had discovered Daoism at that age. I find it difficult to believe that she could have been totally unfamiliar with Daoism, but I am inclined to think that she never consulted the actual text of the Daodejing because she says, later in the interview, “I wanted everything about Earthseed to feel true, mainly because the destiny of Earthseed feels fantastic. So you had to have a lot to build off of before you got there.” In a 1993 interview with Lisa See, Butler says, “I looked around for a force [note the Star Wars parallel and that The Force was inspired by Daoist teachings] that nothing could escape. One of the first poems I wrote sounded like a nursery rhyme. It begins: God is power, and goes on to: God is malleable. This concept gave me what I needed.” So I don’t think she was working from a model, though the Daodejing would certainly have been an effective one.

I will now attempt to explain the similarities between Earthseed and Daoism as I see them. Here are the first lines of Earthseed: the Books of the Living:

“All that you touch

You Change.

All that you Change

Changes You.

The only lasting truth

is Change.


Is Change.”

The opening lines of the Daodejing are as follows:

“A Way that can be followed is not a constant Way.

A Name that can be named is not a constant Name.”

Daoism intentionally utilizes paradoxical language, so do not get too hung up on the word ‘constant.’ When it refers to ‘constant’ ways (of being, of acting) it means ways that can be depended upon. A dao (the word is most often translated as “way” but another translation is “teaching”) that takes a concrete unchanging form cannot be depended upon because the world it inhabits is ontologically in flux, forever changing and renewing. These are the metaphysics of Daoism, and they are shared exactly by the Earthseed religion. There are other similarities in their ontology:

Chapter One of Parable of the Talents begins with the quote from Earthseed: the Books of the Living,


Gives shape to the light

As light

Shapes the darkness.


Gives shape to life

As life

Shapes death.

The universe

And God

Share this wholeness,


Defining the other.


Gives shape to the universe

As the universe

Shapes God.”

Here is the second verse of the Daodejing:

“To have and to lack generate each other.

Difficult and easy give form to each other.

Long and short off-set each other.

High and low incline into each other.

Note and rhythm harmonize with each other.

Before and after follow each other.”

Again, the metaphysics is common to both of them: dualities shape each other, define each other, and in fact are ontologically dependent on each other. You cannot have one without the other, you cannot have darkness without light. What is really interesting is that both the Daodejing and The Books of the Living use this idea to teach a specific dao, or way of doing things. Because opposites define each other, we are directly responsible for the world in which we live, and the Daodejing and the Books of the Living arrive at this conclusion the same way.

This fixation on a world that is utterly without fixity can be understood as a response to the “historical” (I use the term for lack of a better one with respect to Earthseed) environs that shape each text. The Daodejing was composed during the Warring States period, after decades of fighting had ravaged China to the point that a world without warfare seemed utterly unattainable. The Daodejing was largely intended to be a guiding text for rulers, but its teachings are understood to apply to ordinary people as well. Its function was to give comfort and guidance to people who had been taught all too well that the world is constantly in flux. The same can be said of Earthseed: the Books of the Living. Lauren Olamina wrote the text during the “Pox,” a possible future in which the rule of law has been largely eliminated, several types of slavery are alive and thriving, and millions of people have been displaced by economic, environmental, and social disaster. People living in such situations know how to adapt, and the texts that speak to them are often the ones that recognize their shifting circumstances. The success of both Daoism and Earthseed can be understood in these terms.

Besides historical similarities, I would like to point out that the Daodejing and Earthseed: the Books of the Living share striking stylistic similarities. Both texts are composed in verse form. While this is not unusual for religious texts, it must be noted that both texts are epigrammatic and this is rather unusual for a foundational text. Lauren Olamina writes that The Books of the Living are written concisely, in such a way as to spark multiple different discussions; the same can be said of the Daodejing which is famous (or infamous) for its obscurity. Not only are both texts written in simple, compact, beautiful language that anyone can engage with, they both choose poetry as a medium for doing so.

I would like to point out a few differences between Daoism and Earthseed, as well as to propose a framework for understanding their relationship with each other. As Larkin observes, Lauren manipulates people. Her religion encourages its adherents to take action, to actively shape the world in which they live. In the text, Olamina writes, “Respect God. Shape God. Pray working.” This is a clear directive to take on the universe, to actively shape it. Contrast that with the second verse of the Daodejing: “Sages enact wuwei [nonaction] and everything becomes well ordered.” Daoism can be usefully pared down to the cliché, “go with the flow.” It teaches that the best way to success is wuwei, “doing non-doing.” It is not quite that clear cut, and there cases where this does not apply, but that is the general idea of the teaching.

So, while Daoism and Earthseed agree about the metaphysical state of the world, they offer fundamentally different antidotes. I propose that they can be understood using yin-yang duality. Daoism largely teaches the way of the yin, the passive course of action, emphasizing and privileging the way the world shapes the person dwelling within it. Earthseed is the yang, emphasizing active participation in the world’s events, and privileging the way a denizen of the world may shape the world. Daoism is sometimes understood as the necessary historical yin response to the yang of the Confucian movement, but Confucius’s writings are utterly different stylistically, often taking the form of parables(ironic), and it is fun (and infinitely ironic) to see a text like Earthseed posit the counterpoint to Daoism using its same methodologies.

The difference in moral teaching between Daoism and Earthseed is especially great on the topic of education. Lauren Olamina teaches that education is a basic right and a foundation of a civilized society. In 4th century BC China, this was not the prevailing opinion. The Daodejing reads that “they [the sages] make sure that the people are without zhi, “knowledge,” or desires.” The early Daoists believed that too much education for the masses would cause them to revolt, and thus that popular education was a destabilizing force. This fits in nicely with my proposed framework: one the one hand, teaching, actively shaping the minds of the next generation. On the other hand, inaction, an approach that allows the state of things to continue to its natural conclusion without interference.

The final point  I want to make with respect to how we can use Daoism and Earthseed to understand each other is that both push the boundaries of many people’s definition of religion. In class, Liam mentioned that he struggled with treating Earthseed as a real religion. The same has been said of Daoism, which is often alternatively characterized as a philosophy, a mode of thought, or an outlook on the world. I don’t see any of the other definitions as particularly problematic – in many ways, they do work better than ‘religion’ – but I think we should be careful with what we exclude from our definitions of religion. Earthseed and Daoism may lack anthropomorphized deities, common bodies of stories, and simple and direct moral teachings, but each of them does have something to say about the way we live our lives, a particular dao to espouse, and I think that for this reason they each occupy a space in their practitioners’ lives that is similar enough to those of our more familiar religions to qualify them as such.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *