Taoism and Linux

by Phil Hughes

Since early December (2001) I have been reading 365 Tao: Daily Meditations, by Deng Ming-Dao. Reading the book was sort of Linux-inspired, and the meditation for January 17 made me think a lot about Linux and Linus himself.

When I was on the Linux Lunacy cruise last October, I was talking to maddog's cabinmate Jon. (Yup, two Jons in the same room--fortunately we can call one of them maddog.) Jon had studied comparative religions and knew little of computers. I had been casually looking at various religions, and at that time, I was reading about Buddhism.

I mentioned this to Jon, and he said that he had "been into Buddhism" for a while but saw Taoism as a better fit for him. While I knew of Taoism I didn't know anything about it, and we talked some more. The very simple explanation Jon gave me was Taoism isn't really a religion but more a way of life. You didn't have to worship in a prescribed way; rather, you should live your life in a good way.

Being the kind of person that likes alternatives (Linux being a good example), I was interested and picked up a couple of books to find out more. 365 Tao was one of the books, and reading the daily meditations has become part of my daily routine.

In the book there is a page for each day. On that page you find a title with the Chinese character(s) that describe it, followed by a short description and then a discussion. For January 17, the title is Cooperation, and the description is:

Cooperation with others.Perception, experience, tenacity.Know when to lead and when to follow.

This immediately got me thinking about the evolution of Linux. I could give you many examples where this philosophy has been the secret ingredient that has made Linux evolve in an organic fashion. I can also give examples where individuals and companies have strayed from this track and, as a result, have really strayed from the Linux community.

Getting on the discussion part of the page, it starts with:

When we become involved with a fellowship, we must gradually become an integral, organic part of that organization. The relationship will be one of mutual influence: We must carefully influence the collective, and in turn, we will be shaped by the company we keep.

The page ends with:

True leadership is a combination of initiative and humility. The best leader remains obscure, leading but drawing no personal attention. As long as the collective has direction, the leader is satisfied. Credit is not to be taken, it will be awarded when the people realize that it was the subtle influence of the leader that brought them success.

This made me think of Linus. The first time I met him was at a party at John Martin's house, outside of Washington, D.C. When I arrived, Linus was talking to a small group of people who had done work on the Linux system. Eric Youngdale was one and, I think, Donald Becker was another. There were maybe six people in all.

What immediately struck me was that Linus was not leading the group, he was an equal participant. Here was the person who had managed to get hundreds of programmers, many of whom he had never even met, to essentially work for him for free, and he wasn't being "the boss". I quickly realized that was the secret to his success and the success of Linux--the ability to influence without having to command.

The other times I have "hung out" with Linus, I have seen him take the same position. I have seen him shy away from situations where he is put into the spotlight. On the other hand, he is always an active participant in any discussion, not leading but certainly participating.

In another 320 days I will know if 365 Tao should be added to the recommended reading list for those who want to become an integral part of the community.

Book Information

Title: 365 Tao: Daily MeditationsAuthor: Deng Ming-DaoPublisher: Harper CollinsISBN: 0-06-250223-9Price: $16.00 USDThis book may be purchased from Powells and other bookstores.

Phil Hughes is Publisher of Linux Journal.

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