Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Mencius: Filial Piety and the Rise of Neo-Fascism

In Chapter VII of David Hinton's translation of Mencius, the sage is quoted as saying
Imagine all beneath Heaven turning to you with great delight. Now imagine seeing that happen and knowing it means nothing more than a wisp of straw: only Shun was capable of that.
He knew that if you don't realize [sic] your parents you aren't a person, and that if you don't lead your parents to share your wisdom you aren't a child. He fulfilled the Way of serving parents completely until Blind Purblind, his depraved father, finally rejoiced in virtue. Once his father rejoiced in virtue, all beneath Heaven was transformed. One his father rejoiced in virtue, the model for fathers and sons was set for all beneath Heaven. Such is the greatness of honoring parents.
Mencius, Chapter VII, section 28, David Hinton trans. 

There are two elements to this quote, and I find it hard to connect them. The first is indifference to fame, which I understand can be enormously hard. I certainly find it very hard to be personally uninterested in it---even though I have tried mightily my whole life to live that way. I've always worked at menial jobs, and routinely tried to "do the right thing", even if that means sabotaging whatever sort of career I might have been able to garner. And without some sort of fame, most careers are impossible (think about how much more popular this blog would be if I was a famous person.)

For example, I was once organizing a slate of candidates for local Council elections and I had a fairly good shot at getting elected in Ward One. But two other people who also had a good shot at winning a seat were running in Ward Two. Since there was only one slot open for their "flavour" of politics, the odds were that if they both ran they would split the vote and neither would get elected. Since neither one of them were willing to back out, I approached one and told her to run in my ward and I'd not run. Both of them ran and won, and the woman ended up becoming a very successful Mayor of my city. It was the right thing to do, but it meant that I never got elected to public office and instead have supported myself moving furniture and being treated like a moron by management. Objectively, I can see that this is irrelevant, but emotionally, it annoys me. I am not like Shun---fame is still far more than a "wisp of straw" to me.


The next bit deals with what is routinely called "filial piety", or, "xiào".  People might find it weird that I would write a post about filial piety for a blog about Daoism. Most Westerners who have been exposed to Daoism tend to have this idea that it's followers have nothing but contempt for stuffy Confucian nonsense. Actually, this is a profound misunderstanding. The Temple that I was initiated into (part of the Dragon Gate Sect of Quanzhen Daoism) has three core texts that they suggest people should study. They consist of the Daoist Jade Emperor Mind Seal Classic, the Buddhist Diamond Sutra, and, the Confucian Classic of Filial Piety.  (More about these in future blog posts.)


Filial Piety is a very complex subject to understand, and I don't want to overwhelm readers with their first introduction to the concept, so I'll just raise a few aspects that most people probably haven't thought about just so they can start getting prepared to think about it in depth. 

Most people think of filial piety exclusively with regard to family: "Honour your father and mother". But it is important to understand that Confucianism bases its morality not exclusively on reason, but rather emotion. So to understand filial piety you don't suggest an argument in favour of pursuing this as an ethical standard, you put forward an example that illustrates the innate human tendency that it is based upon. And this is the point that Mencius refers to when he says "if you don't realize [sic] your parents you aren't a person". That is to say, if you don't feel some sort of emotional connection to your parents, your lack of emotions disqualifies you as a member of the human race.

Perhaps a psychopath has no feelings one way or the other about family, which would mean that they aren't a "person" according to Mencius. But the feelings that arise around family are not always positive. Indeed, the language associated with filial devotion always sounds really strange to me---(and I suspect a lot of other people too.) It also sounds odd to me when Christians recite the Lord's Prayer and say "Our Father who art in Heaven---". It's even worse when union leaders talk about members as being "brothers" and "sisters". That is because my father died when I was a child after a long, horrible illness; I also spent a very important part of my childhood being beaten by my older brother; and, my mother had an out-of-control, crazily emotional streak that terrorized me as a child. "Family" has a very strong emotional connection for me---but it is negative, not positive. So I am a "person" according to Mencius, but not one that is terribly "filial".

But it is important to remember that for Confucians like Mencius filial devotion is not just one directional. Parents have an obligation towards their children that is just as important as the child's obligation to their parents. And if the parent fails in that obligation, the child has as much of a duty to instruct the parent as the parent has to instruct the child:
"if you don't lead your parents to share your wisdom you aren't a child. He fulfilled the Way of serving parents completely until Blind Purblind, his depraved father, finally rejoiced in virtue"
Think about this passage. Mencius is putting forward Shun as a paragon of filial piety because he patiently taught one of his parents the difference between right and wrong.


So what exactly is xiào? It doesn't seem to be the stereotypical ideal of children "shutting up and doing what they are told". Right now I'm reading a new translation of the Xiaojing by Henry Rosemount, jr, and Roger T. Ames that translates it as "family reverence" because the scholars believed that the English word "piety" carries too many resonances with self-righteous, unfeeling, religious fanaticism. Instead, they believe xiào refers more about the feelings of someone who is in a genuinely warm, reciprocal relationship based on real emotion. It's unfortunate that so many people---like me---have had such bad experiences with our families that the emotions we feel are negative, but to my way of thinking that means that we still long for that connection, not that it doesn't (or shouldn't) exist. I see this as evidence for the basic value of Confucian family reverence, not evidence against it.

This longing for a sense of "family reverence" might begin in the family, but for Confucians it is not supposed to end there. The entire culture of a nation is supposed to function like a family for Confucians. The leader of any grouping---such as the Emperor---is supposed to exist in a dynamic with his subjects much like that of a family. Leaders are supposed to actually care about what happens to their followers, and the followers are supposed to not only be able to engage with leaders when they are acting improperly, they are actually obligated to do so in some circumstances.  Shun was expected to gently reprimand his father, "Blind Purblind". In the same way, the court officials of the Emperor were expected to disagree with the Emperor and try to change his opinion when they believed he was acting improperly.

In ancient China this could often be a very dangerous thing to do, as many Emperors were half-mad with power and were quite willing to torture and kill any scholar who had the courage to criticize an imperial policy. But that was the role that a scholar was supposed to play. Indeed, during the reign of the second Qin emperor there was an incident where a stag was brought before the Emperor. The
Prime Minister (who was the real power behind the throne) declared it to be a horse and then asked the court scholars what they thought it was. The ones who were afraid of him, agreed that it was a horse. The others, who had a greater commitment to the truth, said it was a stag. The latter group paid a heavy price for their statements, as not only they themselves, but their families too were punished for their independence.

Is this a horse? If you say it isn't, you and your family will die.
But if you say it is, your entire society may collapse.  Pressure?
1902 drawing by Frank E. Beddard, c/o Wiki Commons

I've been watching a modern Chinese drama titled "The Legend of Chu and Han", but which on Netflix Canada is called "The King's War". It is based on the collapse of the Qin dynasty and the founding of the Han.

I'm fascinated by the character Liu Bang, who became the first Han Emperor, Gaozu. This is because the show is playing around with different conceptions of what it means to be a great man. Gaozu's ability isn't so much his brilliance as a general, but rather his ren, or benevolence. He is able to attract and inspire people to want to serve him, because it is obvious that he really does want the best for everyone around him.

One scene where the director really pointed this out was where Liu was on the march with his army and he fell sick with the flu. His mistress had rolled him up in a quilt and was plying him with hot water to keep him hydrated. A Confucian scholar insisted on seeing him, even though the guards said he was too sick to see anyone. Eventually, he sneaked in to see Liu, who heard him out. After introducing himself, he started talking about how he was going to get Liu's army into some key city without a fight. Liu was not interested (because he felt awful and had heard it all before), so he showed his contempt by taking a pee in the scholar's special, groovy hat. He then make the guy leave and take his hat with him.

This peeved the scholar, but after throwing his hat away, he ran back in and then told Liu that he was really an expert at drinking wine. Instead of having the guy dragged off (which really isn't Liu Bang's style), he asks his girl friend to bring in two pitchers of wine. (Liu is a bit of a drinker.) The scholar downs one without a pause, and then suggests that Liu drink the other. Liu refuses, saying he's too sick to be drinking wine. But he says he'll hear out the scholar.

The scholar says he's friend with the Qin prefect who rules the town and can get him to surrender rather than force a fight. Liu asks why he is interested in helping him. The scholar says that he noticed that on the line of march Liu's soldiers are very careful to not trample the peasant's crops, and, that in general they are careful not to abuse ordinary people. (Not to mention that Liu has put up with some pretty strange behaviour by the scholar himself---even though he's not feeling well.) The scholar is saying that he's spent his whole life trying to find a benevolent ruler to serve, and as near as he can tell, Liu Bang is it.

In the show, "King's War", this is Liu Bang's "secret weapon"---he is able to attract people of real talent, inspire them with tremendous loyalty, and, get them to perform amazing things for him. This contrasts with his main rival, Xiang Yu, who is portrayed in what Westerners would recognize as the "heroic" model of someone like Alexander the Great. He has the strength of a Hercules, is absolutely fearless in battle, and, has the martial arts skill of Bruce Lee. But he lacks ren.

The director of the show actually underlines this point through a scene where Yu orders the execution of 5,000 captured Qin soldiers because they didn't surrender as fast as he said they needed to in order to be spared. Yu places a great emphasis on keeping his word---something that Confucianism says should always be tempered by benevolence. When Yu's uncle find out about this act he is so angry that he slashes Yu across the face with a whip and punishes him with house arrest. He informs Yu that this is a catastrophic mistake to make, because it means that he has no ren---and that there is no way he can become Emperor without it. A leader who cannot build a sense of trust in both his followers and the people that he will act benevolently towards ordinary folk is doomed to fail. It is this lack of trust that has doomed the Qin dynasty, and Yu's actions show why he failed in his competition with Liu. That is why Liu became the first Emperor of the Han dynasty and Yu ends up killing himself after losing.


So what has this got to do with modern life?

I recently read a post on FaceBook about a story in the Guardian about a movement called "the New Optimists". In a nutshell, their argument is if you use objective measurements of things like life expectancy, global poverty rates, death by violent crime, warfare, etc, people around the world have never had it so good. But at the same time, lots of people really feel awful about their lives and the future. How come?

Well, there are lots of good suggestions as potential reasons. For example, just because people on the other side of planet are doing better than ever before that doesn't mean you are. Moreover, just because things have been getting better over the past 200 years doesn't mean that it couldn't all go to Hell in a few years because of something like climate change, nuclear war, or, an economic catastrophe caused by something like a computer virus.

All of these are legitimate concerns, but I wonder if maybe part of the problem is that human beings are suffering the effects of a catastrophic decline in our generalized sense of "family reverence" as defined by Confucianism.

No, I don't mean that we all need to embrace some sort of fundamentalist nonsense like that spewed by groups like "Focus on the Family". Instead, I'm talking about the more generalized sense of emotional connection that Confucians found mostly within the family. The key point of "family reverence" isn't the family, it's the emotional sense of connection and belonging that most often found within families. (Please don't confuse the finger pointing at the moon with the moon itself!) People who cannot find this emotional connection within a family seek it in other aspects of life---for many people it is absolutely essential to their well-being and all leaders ignore it at their peril.

What is this sense of "emotional connection"? Well, like Mencius, I can't really define what it is, I can just suggest examples and ask the reader to think about whether or not I am right when I say that these seem to be indicative of an intrinsic human quality. People during war time often develop very strong interpersonal connections that they hold onto for the rest of their lives. It's also why some people have such a strong emotional connection to the university that they studied at while young. I know that in my case I had very strong emotional connection to the school and Temple where I learned Taijiquan and was initiated into Daoism. I also had a similar attachment to the Green Party where I learned the "nuts and bolts" of political activism. They were both like "families" for me. I also have very strong friendships and a significant other that also provide that sense of emotional connection for me.

I might suggest, however, that for many (if not most) people our modern society undermines and attacks this sense of emotional connection. For one thing, families and friendships are shredded when people are expected to travel all over the world in order to pursue their career paths. Even worse, the temporary nature of jobs means that people routinely get picked up and tossed into a task for a short period of time then discarded like a used wrench---which makes it impossible to develop anything like an emotional connection with co-workers. Increasingly, even that shrinking pool of people who do have permanent jobs are denied the stability of even having their own personal work-space. Instead, they are expected to just grab whatever computer is free at any given moment, or, park their laptop at whatever desk is free. These are called "back pack" offices.  (My job just transitioned from one where I had a office to being one of these "migrants", and I can attest to how much it makes me feel like I'm no longer a valued part of the workplace!)

I believe that the alt-right has been very good at manipulating the vague, inarticulate sense of emotional loss that comes from this lack of emotional connection in work, community, and, family by playing up people's sense of emotional connection to patriotism. There are lots of videos to choose from on line, but here's one that illustrates my point.

Just a few things to explain about this video. There were two times in European history where the continent faced invasion by a determined empire of the East and a heroic battle by an out-numbered force managed to save the day. The first is battle of Thermopylae where a small force of Greeks led by the Spartan king managed to hold off a huge Persian army long enough to allow an Athenian fleet to decisively defeat the Persians at Salamis. This is the battle that was popularized by Frank Miller's comic series and the movie "300". The second was the battle of Vienna.  In that battle after a long, heroic siege, the city was about to fall to the forces of the Turkish Sultan but at the last minute an attack by the Polish Winged Hussars destroyed the Turkish army and permanently removed it's threat to Western Europe. 

Please note in this video the clever way the Sabaton song has been merged with movie clips about these two battles with other clips of refugees, and the "heroes" and "villains" of the alt-right (the former are Putin, Trump, Le Pen, and, Farage), whereas the latter is Angela Merkel (who has opened the doors of Germany to refugees.) These stirring appeals to ancient glories and emotional connection to "race consciousness" is a classic type of Fascist propaganda. The rise of new Fascist parties in the Western democracies, IMHO, is because our leadership has turned its back on the Confucian ideal of ren and has instead decided that the free market will deal with all problems. This has worked to undermine and destroy the sense of emotional connection that people have with both their community and where they work. This has created an inarticulate and deep sense of longing for re-connection in the greater community among the citizens, and the neo-Fascists in the alt-right has learned how to exploit it to their gain. That is how Britain voted for the Brexit and how Donald Trump got elected President of the USA. 


Oh, one last point. I started off this crazy post with a quote from Mencius where he mentions a guy named Shun and says that he was indifferent to public acclaim because of his devotion to filial piety. I found it hard understand this point. But now I do. If you have a vague need to feel the support of a real emotional community, you will have a real hunger for acclaim. But if that need is being met by a real understanding of ren and have manifested a Sage's feeling towards the people around you, you no longer have that hunger. Not because you have transcended this human desire, but rather because you have satiated it. 


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Friday, September 8, 2017

Daoism and the Dominant Paradigm

At work the other day I was asked to cover up some furniture with so that when some contractors came in to do some construction work they would be protected with dust. It wasn't a terribly difficult job, but it put me in a totally foul mood. This carried on with me for the rest of the shift, over the night, and on into breakfast the next morning.

I mentioned my emotions to my partner, Misha, and we talked about them over bacon and eggs. We came to the conclusion that the reason why I was so annoyed was because I had been asked to do a half-assed job that served almost no useful purpose, and, which resulted in totally unnecessary waste to the planet---and there was effectively nothing at all I could do about it.

The thing is that I was asked to use plastic film to cover up the stuff. And plastic film is useless at this job---even though most people use it. It doesn't drape properly, it is repelled by static electricity, and, it is so light that it gets moved even by the slightest air current. You can't tie it up with string, it is slippery so it slides off items easily, masking tape doesn't stick well to it, and, it actually attracts dust which doesn't stick to it (that's a neat trick)---which means that when you take it off a piece of furniture the dust will slide off it onto what you are trying to protect. For these reasons, I never ever use it for this purpose at home. Instead, I have a heavy-canvas drop cloth that I've used for years. It has none of the problems I've mentioned above, and on hot sunny days I can clean it off with soap, a deck brush, and, a garden hose.

So part of my funk was just about the half-assed, ridiculous job I had been asked to do.

Another part of this exercise in futility was the fact that once the work was done the plastic film would be removed and tossed into the garbage, and from there into a landfill. I'm a bit of an expert on our local municipal government as well as a manual labour drone, so I know about how much time, money, and, political anguish goes into solid waste issues in my town. So the idea that we would create another bit of stupid garbage in order to just go through the motions of protecting some not-terribly valuable (and easily cleaned) furniture just seemed irritating as Hell. 

My partner Misha took this annoyance and ramped it up a notch by pointing out that there is no sense at all blaming any of the people involved in this process. Each one of them exists in a system of thought and organization that creates a logical justification for the decision to do something inherently wasteful with only marginal utility. That is, the idea that the cost of disposal and the impact on the environment are rarely part of the design criteria of any decision. And, that in many cases it is more important to be seen to care about an issue than it is to actually accomplish anything. Until society decides to put an actual cost on environmental destruction, it is called an "externality" and ignored. And, in order to ensure the smooth functioning of a large, horizontally-organized institution, it is very important to let each individual know that their concerns are being considered by management. This means that people are rarely told "No, that's a dumb idea" and instead are told "OK, I'll get someone to do that right away."

The really annoying thing about all of this is the fact that as a species we are skating very close to the edge of an existential environmental disaster. I personally believe that we have already overshot the carrying capacity of the earth  and we are causing a lot of very expensive and deadly extreme weather due to anthropogenic climate change. And yet, none of this seems to filter down to the level of ordinary human behaviour around things like construction. There is nothing at all like a consensus around having to get "all hands on deck" to save humanity, instead it's just "the same old, same old." Until the government makes a collective decision to take climate change seriously and mobilize society to the same extent it did to fight World War Two, it is ridiculous to expect most ordinary people to just spontaneously "get with the program"---because there really isn't any "program".

We can mobilize the public to fight a war,
why can't we mobilize them to save our civilization?
When I'm able to get my rational mind to keep my emotions under control, I realize that as Daoists my lovely Misha and I have isolated ourselves from the rest of the human population. We see things so differently from people who "buy into" the "Dominant Paradigm" (DP) that sometimes we must seem like Martians to ordinary folks. And it goes the other way too. I often find it hard to understand how these people think. Mostly, however, I find it profoundly frustrating to be around what I call "DP'rs". I know that they cannot do any better, so there is no sense blaming them for their individual choices. But that doesn't mean that I am not annoyed with the casual and unconsciously brutal way they affect the natural world and future generations. To a large extent that's why I have spent most of my work life trying to avoid being around them. But sometimes I cannot avoid interacting with DP'rs, and this generates negative emotions.

I suspect that this has always been the way with Daoists. It's true that global environmental destruction is not something that loomed large in ancient China, but there was always the casual brutality of the ruling class towards the peasants (that's why Daoists were involved in the Yellow Turban Rebellion), or, the tendency of military leaders to smash and destroy anything or anyone in their way (that's why Changchunzi met with Genghis Khan to try and soften his aggression towards the Chinese people.) When you make the effort to "embrace the void", "hold onto the One", and, "follow the watercourse Way", you find yourself more and more estranged from DP'rs.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Confucius and the John Birch Society: Rectification of Names and Modern America

Recently I did an experiment where I used two social media sites---FaceBook and Quora---to ask why so many Americans say that they don't live in a "democracy", but instead a "republic". That is to say, why do many Americans believe that there is a contradiction between the two words---that a country can be a "democracy" or a "republic"---but not both at the same time

I ask this because if you look up the Google definition of both terms, you will find the following:
a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives
a state in which supreme power is held by the people and their elected representatives, and which has an elected or nominated president rather than a monarch
If anyone knows much about systems of government, it is obvious that these two terms are orthogonal. That is to say, they refer to fundamentally different issues---which means that they aren't the sort of concepts that can contradict each other. An example of two orthogonal concepts are the class of an vehicle and the company that made it. So two classes of vehicles are "car" and "pickup truck", and, two companies that make them can be "Datsun" or "Ford". That is, a car can be either a Datsun or a Ford, and, either one of these companies can produce both cars and pickups. It simply isn't a case of "either it is a Datsun or it is a pickup", or "either it is a Ford or it is a car". So, China is a republic, but not a democracy. Canada is a democracy, but it is not a republic. And, the USA is both a democracy and a republic.

If you try to explain this in an American context, you get a bunch of responses. One of the more common ones is to suggest that the only real meaning of "democracy" is "a government without any form of elected representation". That is the word "democracy" for them means "a system where every single issue is decided directly through popular referendums". Another popular statement that they make is that in a "republic" there are constitutional laws that protect the rights of individuals against the capricious will of the majority.

When I try to work through the implications of these idiosyncratic definitions of both terms, I find that there are lots of strange results. For example, what is a "representative democracy" if you simply define "democracy" as only being exercised through referendum? Does that mean that all the nations of the world that have elected representatives aren't really "democracies"? Wouldn't arguing this case be committing tremendous violence to the common understanding of the concept?

In addition, the idea that only a "republic" has legal protections for minorities against the fickle decisions of the majority is also a bizarre reading of the term. Nations that specifically say that they are not republics---such as Canada, Sweden, Great Britain, etc---do have things like constitutions, Supreme Courts and so on that protect individuals from bad legislation.  In contrast both the Russian Federation and the People's Republic of China---both of which call themselves republics and fit the dictionary definition---have terrible reputations when it comes to protecting the rights of individuals when they annoy the powerful. Moreover, what exactly is it about the difference between popular referendums and elected legislators (if we accept that this is the distinction between a republic and a democracy) that ensures protection of minorities? Surely it is just as possible for elected legislators to deny individual rights as the general public in a referendum? The Jim Crow laws in the Southern US that kept blacks under the thumb of the white majority were not passed by popular referendum, but rather by elected representatives in a state legislature governed by a constitution based on recognized law.


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Most of the responses I got from my question were of the sort mentioned above. I found this interesting, but the real issue I was trying to deal with was "why do so many Americans believe this?", not "how do they justify this way of thinking?". As far as I know, no one outside of the US uses the words "democracy" and "republic" in these ways. They use the standard dictionary definitions that I gave in the beginning of this essay.

When I asked one person why his definition was so different from a standard dictionary one, he replied that the new dictionaries are wrong, and it is necessary to check older ones. When I went on to ask him where specifically he got this idea from, he said that he got the info directly from the "Founding Fathers", although he didn't suggest a specific document. Another woman simply said that America has a different "culture" than other nations, and she likes it that way---. Several others just agreed that it is an idiosyncratic definition, but it helped people understand the limitations of extreme democracy, so it is a good way of understanding the terms.

One person who understood what I was trying to learn from the question said that these odd definitions come from the Republican party because it wants to justify ignoring the opinions of the majority of voters. Another said that this is a distinction dreamed up to encourage people to think the names of the two major parties represent really different ideas about how the country should be run: Republicans support the rule of law, and, Democrats support mob rule.

Finally one fellow suggested that "point zero" for all of this can be traced to a video tape put out by the John Birch society. He provided me with a link that ended in a pay wall, but a little more effort and I found this which seems to get to the heart of the issue. (I'm going to be discussing a lot of what goes on in this video, so take a good look at it. What follows isn't going to make much sense without having seen it.)

Let me start by stating that the above is a piece of very effective propaganda. And like all very good propaganda, it doesn't work by telling the viewer absolute falsehoods, instead, what it does is manipulate the way people think about issues by leaving out crucial issues while at the same time suggesting that they have completely explained the state of affairs.  Propaganda is often most effective by what it doesn't say, instead of what it does. To understand this point, consider one of the first ideas introduced in the video.

At about the 0:45 point, the narrator discusses what people routinely call "the political spectrum"---communism on the left, fascism on the right---and suggests that it is all wrong. He suggests at about 1:15 that people who call NAZIS and fascists right wing "never define their terms", and instead argues that the key issue in left versus right is the amount of power that a government has over an individual.

The video is correct to a limited extent. It is true that some people often throw around the words "left", "right", and, "fascist" without really clearly defining what they are talking about. But the John Birch solution is no answer either. The idea of "left" versus "right" comes from a specific moment in the French revolution where the representatives of various political factions were seated either to the left or right of the President of the Assembly. As such, it has continued as a very rough way of articulating where a specific individual or party sits in relation to others. The problem that arises, of course, is that politics is so complicated that it is impossible to accurately map any particular political system on one single axis. Indeed, I'd suggest that it is probably impossible to accurately map all human political tendencies in any specific sort of two-dimensional map.

The left/right spectrum that is introduced in the video suggests that communism should be on the left and fascism on the right. But it is important to understand that this only deals with one or two variables: nationalism and corporate ownership. The major Axis powers of WW2 gave great power to the major corporations in their countries:  for example, Krupp, Fiat, and, Mitsubishi. In addition, all three were tremendously involved in an extreme nationalist agenda: Lebensraum for the Germans, recreating the Roman Empire for the Italians, and, the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere for the Japanese. In contrast, communism believes in state ownership of the means of production, which means elimination of all privately-own corporations. It is also internationalist in orientation, which means that it doesn't support the creation of empires specifically for the benefit of one particular nationality.

The spectrum that video introduces is based on a totally different set of criteria: relative power of the state versus the individual. This is a perfectly legitimate move---but only if you understand that you are switching what is being measured. What makes this video propaganda is the subtle move to suggest that the first spectrum is wrong and the second one right, instead of saying that they each measure something totally different. Political scientists are quite aware of the problems of the left/right way of measuring different tendencies, which is why they have attempted to come up with various other ways of encapsulating differences in easily understood graphics.

Another way of mapping political tendencies
Image by Liftarn, c/o Wiki Commons
This map separates out the role of ownership in differentiating Marxism from Fascism on one axis, but on another one it brings them together on how each deals with personal freedom. Please note, that this particular graphic doesn't deal with the relative role that nationalism plays in various political tendencies. That's the problem with these sorts of things---no matter how hard someone tries, they end up leaving something really important out. The problem with the video's depiction of this spectrum isn't that it says anything particularly wrong, it just leaves out an enormous amount of complexity and implies that what has been said pretty much exhausts the issue.


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The video goes on to make an argument in favour of the radical split between democracy and republicanism that brings in several similarly wildly over-simplified descriptions of reality. But I hope that I've already shown how the John Birch society is manipulating the naive into believing something false in order to promote their agenda.

I've put forward this modern example to illustrate a point from Confucius' Analects that has direct bearing on modern society. In Chapter XIII, part three, of David Hinton's translation we read:
Adept Lu said: "If the Lord of Wei wanted you to govern his country, what would you put first in importance?"

"The rectification of names," replied the Master. "Without a doubt."

"That's crazy!" countered Lu. "What does rectification have to do with anything?"

"You're such an uncivil slob," said the Master. "When the noble-minded can't understand something, they remain silent.

"Listen. If names aren't rectified, speech doesn't follow from reality. If speech doesn't follow from reality, endeavors never come to fruition. If endeavors never come to fruition, then Ritual and music cannot flourish. If Ritual and music cannot flourish, punishments don't fit the crime. If punishments don't fit the crime, people can't put their hands and feet anywhere without fear of losing them.

"Naming enables the noble-minded to speak, and speech enables the noble-minded to act. Therefore, the noble-minded are anything but careless in speech."
Chapter XIII, part three, Analects, David Hinton trans.

To a certain extent, I've tried to do a little "rectification of names" on this post with regard to the terms "democracy" and "republic". I'm concerned about the confusion that surrounds these words, because how ordinary people understand these two concepts has tremendous impact on what they expect from their society. If people associate "democracy" with mob rule, they are not going to be as upset if the influence of ordinary people declines in society. And if they believe that the existing legal structure trumps the aspirations and needs of common folk, they will be easier to convince that they shouldn't expect help from society-at-large for their problems. The John Birch Society definitions ultimately support an elitist vision of society where the legal right of the wealthy to own property effectively trumps every other value that people support. If they can control the definition of words that people use to understand politics, they will have already won half the battle to convert the USA into a Plutocracy.

Confucius wouldn't be a fan of the John Birch Society!
Engraving c/o Wiki Commons

Monday, July 3, 2017

How Realistic is Your Taiji Sword Form?

I've done the Government of China official short Yang form of taiji sword for quite a few years, but I've recently become somewhat frustrated with it. I learned from a pretty good source, a woman who was on a provincial wushu team from the People's Republic, so I cannot find fault with her expertise. It's just that I've spent a bit of time learning about swords from people on-line who discuss the European tradition, and I simply cannot believe that wushu sword techniques are realistic. Let me explain why.

How could I possibly suggest that wushu sword forms aren't realistic?
photo by "Wushu One Family", c/o Wiki Commons

Using a sword is a complex issue because it involves a lot of different physics problems. Consider, for example, the issue of "cutting". This is not as simple as you might think, because it involves applies two directions of force at the same time. To illustrate this point consider the following YouTube video.

This is what my the fellow who initiated me into Daoism used to call a "circus trick". It looks impressive, but it's really based on simple physics. The point is that the sword hammers down onto the fellow's abdomen without importing any sliding movement. This means that when the sword goes through the watermelon and meets the towel, it just bounces off instead of cutting.

A water melon has very different qualities than human skin and cloth. It is rigid and has almost no tensile strength. This means it splits very easily. In contrast, skin and cloth have much greater tensile strength, so they are very difficult to split. Moreover, there is an added complication: skin slices very easily---cloth not so much. If the guy with the sword had tried to slice or saw through the watermelon, it would have taken some effort and the sword might very well have gotten stuck. So what the sword hit what is in effect a laminate consisting of watermelon, a towel, and, the karate teacher's abdomen---all three of which react to cutting in very different ways.

So the key to the trick is the sword splits the watermelon, then bounces off the towel. If the towel wasn't there, then there might have been a little bit of residual sideways, slicing motion from the cut, which might have cut the sensei's abdomen (note that the fellow wielding the sword cut his hand while cleaning the blade.)


The sword splits the watermelon only because it is rigid. If it wasn't, the sword would bend around after it hit the watermelon, which would probably cause it to bind and stick. To understand this point. Let's look at another circus trick, this one done by people who perform as Buddhist martial monks. (They may actually be Shaolin Temple monks---but I'm told that a lot of the guys who perform for tourists are just acrobats and not real monks.)

The secret to this trick is that penetration---like from the tip of a spear---can only happen if the force is directed at right angles to the body. If there is even a slight bend in the "spear"---and the "spear" has enough flexibility---the harder you push on it, the more the spear bends, and the more it bends, the more the force comes from the side of the spear blade and the less it comes from the point. If you look carefully, those "wax wood" spears don't act anything like a real one. First, they have a pre-set bend in them, which the two helpers aim towards the floor. Secondly, after the demonstration is over, they hold a very definite, much greater bend after the fact. This shows that the spear shafts are not made of a really strong, mostly rigid, and, only slightly springy material (like real wax wood.) Instead, I suspect that what they really are are thin, easily bent, mild steel rods with something over top that makes them look like wax wood. 

This is an issue not only with spears, but also with swords. If the fellow slicing the watermelon had been using one of those floppy wushu jians, the blade would have deformed when it hit the fruit and bounced around inside the fruit---not neatly splitting it, but probably getting stuck. 

This isn't the most floppy wushu/taiji jian I've ever seen, either.
Photo from the "Wudang Store"

There's a third issue at play here. That's the shape of the sword. A straight sword acts very differently from a curved one. A curved blade imparts slicing motion with just about every move it makes, simply because of its shape. This makes it much more effective in cutting. In fact, the shape and movement of the blade is so important to the way a sword cuts that the edge can sometimes almost seem irrelevant. I found this out once when I was "fooling around" in my taiji club with a blunt, aluminum "willow leaf sabre".

A willow leaf sabre,
original art by Nazanian, c/o Wiki Commons
I saw a small poster tacked up on the bulletin board that was supporting a group that I knew was a bit of a religious cult. So I stabbed the poster with the tip of the sabre, pulled it off the board, tossed it up in the air, and, did a draw cut (from my taiji sabre form) on it in mid-air---which neatly cut it into two pieces, which then lazily fell to the floor.

(I'm not trying blow my own horn here. There is no way I could do this on command, but it was an amazing example of Zhuangzi's idea that there is tremendous power in spontaneous action.)

A more prosaic way of understanding this point involves thinking about what happens when you suffer a paper cut. No one could ever use a piece of paper to cut anything, but we all have experience of quite painful cuts from drawing the edge of a sheet across our skin "in just the right way". Exactly the same issues are at play when it comes to swords.
If you look at the above drawing of the willow leaf sabre, you will see that between the curve of the blade and the handle, there is a complex "S" curve to the whole sword. This means that when you thrust the blade forward, draw it back back, or, chop from top to down, you are always going to be imparting some sort of slicing motion to the edge. That's the whole point of the shape. It would be a bad idea to try to do the watermelon trick using a willow leaf sabre. It might still work OK, but it's best to no take any risks.

If you look at the sword used to cut the watermelon, it is a straight "ninja" type sword. This is the absolute best type of sword to use in for this trick, as the straighter the sword, the easier it is to us it in a straight chopping motion with minimal slicing action.
A "ninja-type" sword,
From a commercial website


What this means is that for a sword to "work" it simply cannot be floppy. And it is more work for a straight blade to cut than it is for a curved one. And cutting is more difficult than people think, because of the issue of armor and clothing. This again has something to do with the watermelon trick---that little towel on the skin actually acted like a piece of armor.

Most people don't understand this, but for millennia the most basic type of armor wasn't plate, chain mail, or, even leather---it was quilted cloth. Here are three types, from three different times and cultures. 

The Ancient Greek Linothorax

A Medieval European Gambeson
Photo from  Centraal Museum Utrecht, c/o Wiki Commons

Aztec quilted cotton armor, the Ichcahuipilli
From Mexicolore
This issue goes beyond just quilted armor and circus tricks involving watermelons. That's because it turns out that it was often quite difficult for a person wielding a sword to cut through just the clothing that an opponent was wearing. To explain this point, here's a video by the excellent Matt Easton explaining the issues.

With this thought in mind, consider the clothing that the Mandarin in the picture below is wearing. He has a fur lined robe plus layers of clothing below that (cold climate plus no central heating!) Think about how hard these layers of cloth would be to either cut or penetrate in a sword fight. No floppy modern wushu blade would be able to do it.

This guy might as well be wearing armor!


There are other issues beyond the ability to cut. For example, a sword has to have a certain "heft" or mass to be able to parry blows from another weapon. A really light, floppy blade won't be able to force another weapon out of the way. If the blade doesn't just bend around the other sword, staff, spear, or, whatever, the lack of weight will simply overwhelm the arm and push it out of the way.


In addition, we also need to understand how jians were actually made in pre-modern times. Most people are aware of how Japanese swords are made from layers of folded metal---with a soft, resilient core holding a hard, yet somewhat brittle edge. What this means is that compared to modern, European swords Japanese swords are actually really heavy. That's because the folded metal, lamination technique requires a significant cross section. Jians were traditionally made the same way. (Unfortunately, the best illustrations of this were all labelled in either Russian or Japanese, but hopefully the casual reader can get the point. The different coloured sections have different degrees of hardness and resilience.) The consensus among scholars is that the Japanese sword making techniques used to make katanas were copied off Chinese techniques used to make jians. This means that a historically accurate jian would have to have a similarly quite large cross-section. This would add dramatically to the weight of the sword.

Illustration by Tosaka, c/o Wiki Commons

Years ago, I went to a workshop led by a leading light on the Canadian taiji sword team and in the intermission I asked about whether she ever trained with a "real sword". She gave the standard "I'm far too evolved to do such a thing. Are you planning to go out and kill people?" response. I thought that that was kinda lame, but she was the teacher, so I just accepted it as her point of view and finished the workshop.

I kept thinking about the subject, and did a little research on the Internet. Eventually, I found a source in China that said they sold real jians---ones that were modern copies of old ones that were actually used in combat. It cost a few bucks (but of course it would) but it has a real high-carbon steel blade, etc. When it arrived, I was really surprised. First of all, it weighs three pounds. This causes all sorts of problems in the Yang taiji jian set. I'm a big strong guy, but the first part of the set where the sword is held in the left hand is a total killer. It takes a lot of strength to hold that three pound sword balanced by the force of one or two fingers as you hold it backwards in the left hand.

After that, the exquisite, slow motion control that this woman exhibits is simply impossible with that monstrous, three pound chunk of high-carbon steel that I own. 

This raises the question, was I "ripped off" by that company in China? Actually, I don't think so. To understand this point, consider the hand grip on the sword. Almost every modern taiji jian you can buy has the hilt of the sword pointing forwards---just like on a Western sword.  

Here's your standard type of "guard", on a oak practice Jian
Photo from the Sei Do Kai Supplies website

But this "traditional" jian has them pointing backwards. Why?

Here's the "backwards" sword guard.
(I added the cord wrapping onto the wooden handle.)
I came across a book by a martial arts teacher who said that modern jians all have their guard facing the wrong way because there was a period in modern China where the government confiscated and destroyed all the real swords. When martial arts were brought back into favour, anyone setting out to make new swords was stuck copying weapons from opera companies, which were not much more than toys. Probably they were influenced by Western swords, which have a solid hilt whose purpose is to catch a sword blade and protect the hands. The guy who wrote the book then went on to say that the backwards hilt is no good because if you trap a sword blade in it, you can easily have your sword ripped from your hands.

This last bit of the argument seemed bogus at the time, and I could never figure out exactly what he was talking about. I have an alternative hypothesis, one that seems to make a lot more sense to me. In Western martial arts, there were always schools that taught a person to hold their sword with a finger on the hilt. In fact, this became so popular that there are a great many surviving Western swords that have a special "finger ring" on the hilt to protect that digit.

Here's a reproduction of a late medieval Milan sword with a finger ring.
Photo from the Deepeeka Wiki
When I learned about this totally practical European adaptation to heavy swords, I tried to do the same thing with my heavy jian and found out that the "reversed hilt" on it was absolutely ideal for this.
My improved grip on the heavy jian.
Author's photo
IMHO, what this means to me is that what we see as a "hilt" to protect the hand of the person holding the sword was really more about giving the hand more purchase to hold and control a very heavy blade that was designed to chop through and penetrate layers of armor and/or heavy clothing.


I think that this has profound implications about how we should do the taiji jian form. First of all, some of the moves are simply impossible to do safely with a heavy, long sword. Moves that involve flamboyant over-the-top moves with maximum wrist flexibility are just asking to damage the tendons in the arm. As well, moves that are effective and useful when done at speed become dangerous if not impossible when done very slow. That's because the "heft" or mass of the sword works with the taiji player at speed whereas it works against them when done very slowly. It seems clear to me that the modern taiji jian forms were heavily influenced by the use of totally impractical, floppy wushu swords. That means that when people are doing them they are not actually practicing a martial art, but rather a type of dance or gymnastics. 


Many people have no problem with this. They are just jocks or jockettes---like that woman on the Canadian taiji team---but if you want to do taiji as a spiritual practice you have to work within the limitations of the art. And the most important limitation is that it has to actually work. I'm not saying this because I intend to go out and get into sword fights, but because I want to avoid fooling myself about what I am doing. Our biggest problem as human beings is our almost infinite capacity for delusion. Most of us bumble and stumble through life with all sorts of goofy ideas about ourselves and the world around us that create lots and lots of unnecessary problems. 

Modern militaries understand this point, and a lot of boot camp is designed to deal with a small set of delusions that make modern people into terrible soldiers.

One of the delusions is that people cannot do very much. By early adulthood most people have been
The "Inverse Tower", an
Outward Bound Singapore training obstacle.
Photo by Chen Siyuan, c/o Wiki Commons
conditioned to avoid unnecessary risks---to the point where they won't try anything that pushes their envelope a bit. Boot camps force people to do some things that are fundamentally worthless from a military perspective, but which look spectacular and teach people to trust the orders of their superiors and their own ability to do the difficult. Modern training seminars for managers do exactly the same thing, which they often put people through zip lines or fire walking. "Outward bound" style schools do the same thing for young people.

There are other delusions too. The idea that each person is an individual and we don't need each other is a big one. So is the idea that we don't have to really pay attention to what we are doing. My wife, who was in the National Guard during the First Gulf War, told me a story from her training. They were finally issued rifles, but a "sad sack" in her unit simply couldn't remember the stern admonition that no one should ever point a gun at anyone unless they wanted to kill him. (Something that my family pounded into my head when I was allowed access to a "22" as a child.) That woman "disappeared" and was never seen again. She was discharged and served as an example to everyone else in my wife's unit. The lesson was "guns, grenades, etc, are totally unforgiving and require a totally different mindset to handle safely---civilian-style thinking will not be tolerated".

Martial arts, like taiji jian, are only worthwhile---IMHO---if we use them to cut through delusions. And I don't see how we can use them for that purpose if we labour under delusions in their practice. The weight of your sword has a profound effect on the form. And if you train with a flyweight, floppy sword you are going to be practicing moves that would be are either worthless in a fight and/or damaging to your body if you ever attempted to practice them with a real sword. My concern isn't with what this would do for you if you ever had to fight against the Mongol hordes---it's about what the effect of this sort of training will have on your mind as you navigate the world outside of the studio. Can you afford to allow any easily avoided delusions into your consciousness?


So what're the lessons learned?

The first one is that I'm going to force myself to totally rethink my taiji jian set and change it so it will "work" with a real jian. That probably means doing it at a proper speed so the weight of the blade ceases to be a liability and instead becomes an asset. At the same time, I'm going to have think about various moves where I will incorporate a double-hand grip. The set obviously already has some of these, but with a flyweight sword it is really easy to "fudge" them. Finally, some moves are simply going to have to be dropped or modified as they aren't viable with a full weight weapon.

The second one is to remember to "hold onto the One". Being a Daoist means looking deeply and objectively at every aspect of my life so I can understand the subtle laws that are what the Dao is all about. At the same time, I have to remind myself that it is only through engagement with the Dao that life ultimately has meaning. We only get out of life what we put into it. "Holding onto the One" means that by putting our full attention, effort, and, creativity into everything we do we can be renewed and inspired by the amazing universe that we are all a part of.


If you found this essay useful, please consider tossing something in the tip jar. Or you might consider buying one of my books. If nothing else, share it through social media. Obviously, I don't do this blog for the money, but dollars buy convenience, and if I can afford to spend a little more coin instead of sweat in my life, it gives me more time to spend on my real loves: Daoism, taiji, and, writing.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Mencius: Advice for the Emperor Trump and His Mandarins

In Hinton's translation of the Mencius I've gotten to chapter VII, or, Book One of Li Lou. I think it's especially apropos to what is currently happening in Washington.

Mencius starts off by emphasizing the importance of tradition to a good ruler. It isn't enough to just set out with good intentions, a ruler has to follow the "Way"---or traditions---that has been set by previous leaders. He quotes an unattributed saying:
Virtue alone isn't enough for government,
and law cannot alone put itself into action.
The point is emphasized by an analogy with skilled craftsmen. Even the best of them rely upon tools like a compass or square to draw their circles and right angles. In the same way, a leader needs to rely upon the traditions of his predecessors in order to get things done.

This can sound odd to modern people, but I'd ask readers to try to understand how a government bureaucracy works. Ultimately, it is a huge collection of people who have been hired to make sure that certain policies will be acted upon. And the problem is that getting something done is always a lot more difficult than people think. This requires expertise and myriads of individual choices being made by individual bureaucrats. And to do this, every government requires high officials who have a great deal of authority delegated to them by the sovereign. In effect, every complex society requires a class of Mandarins.
A Mandarin official, Late Qing China, by John Thomson, 1869.
c/o the Wiki Commons

"Mandarin" is the Portuguese/English word that we use to describe the scholar/officials that governed ancient China for centuries. It is also the word that Canadians routinely use to describe the higher officials in our government bureaucracy, though I've never heard an American call any of their officials "Mandarins". Donald Trump ran for office and pledged to "drain the swamp" in order to "get things done". Many people thought that the swamp he was going to drain was the influence of big money in politics, whereas it appears that what he really meant was to destroy the influence of high officials.  

A key principle of modern governance is the idea that the sovereign is not above the law. This is part of the "Way" of American society. It is the square or compass that the president is supposed to use when he is governing the nation. It is also a key principle that allows American mandarins---like FBI Director James Comey---to guide the way they do their job. That is why the President's attempt to get Comey to swear personal loyalty to him, and, his decision to fire him when he refused to take direction on the Russia file, is viewed by the law as "obstruction of justice". No one---even the President---is supposed to be able to stop an independent official from doing his job. This is especially true when the mandarin in question is a law enforcement official who is investigating claims of wrong-doing aimed specifically at the President himself.

A Modern US Mandarin, James Comey
Federal Govt Photo, c/o Wiki Commons
This principle, that the sovereign is not above the law, came about because it is the only way to stop officials from using their power to make themselves rich at the expense of the general public.

It is tremendously important for an efficiently functioning society to create institutional "firewalls" between the politicians and the bureaucracy (eg the Mandarins.) If you do not, you will have government officials "pulling strings" in order to get special favours for wealthy "friends". This is not only unfair, it damages the economic life of a society. Business people need consistency to be able to make long-term plans. And if they have no idea how to tell if something is going to be accepted by a planning commission, for example, because the issue is settled not by legal precedent but by bribing the local official---it becomes very expensive to do many types of business.

Mencius understands the importance of following the "Way" of society to the point where he suggests that it is not only necessary, it can actually be sufficient to sustain it.
If city walls are unfinished and weapons scarce, it doesn't spell disaster for the nation. If people aren't plowing new fields or piling up wealth, it doesn't spell ruin for the nation. But if a leader ignores Ritual and officials ignore learning, the people turn to banditry and rebellion, and the nation crumbles in less than a day. 
This is an important point. What is at stake in the Trump Presidency isn't the economic or military might of the United States. It isn't even it's influence on the world stage. These are ephemeral. What makes America "America" are the such esoteric principles as the rule of law instead of the sovereign. And because these only exist insofar as the bureaucracy keeps them in existence, something that keeps America being America are the Mandarins like James Comey---who refused to put loyalty to the President ahead of loyalty to the law.


One of the memes that has been bandied about a lot recently is the existence of the "Deep State". This term was originally coined with reference to the way the military in Turkey and Egypt, as well as the Security Apparatus in Russia control the organs of government without any significant influence by elected officials. It has also been suggested that this is also happening in the USA through the machinations of what Eisenhower called "the military industrial complex". Supporters of Donald Trump are arguing that the work of the FBI, the CIA, and, the Judiciary, to investigate his administration for ties to Russia and also to block his orders banning Muslims from entering the country is evidence of the Deep State's opposition to a democratically-elected president.

This is a profound misuse of the term "Deep State". What is happening in the US is that the bureaucracy is doing its job of defining and limiting the ability of elected officials to trample over the rights of its citizens. The constitution and the traditions of the USA mean nothing if they are just words on pieces of paper. A society also has to have effective leaders who devote their lives to making sure that the spirit of the law remains enforced. Mencius said:
When all beneath Heaven abides in the Way, small Integrity serves great Integrity, and small wisdom serves great wisdom. When all beneath Heaven ignores the Way, small serves large, and weak serves strong. Either way, Heaven issues it forth---and those who abide by Heaven endure, while those who defy Heaven perish.
What he is talking about is the rule of law versus the rule of the powerful. The only defense that any society can have is the existence of honourable people who put their allegiance to what they believe is right ahead of their own personal careers. That is to say, in a large society like ours, an essential element of its defense against the abuse of power is the existence of Mandarins like Jame Comey.


This isn't to say that the man is a saint. His behaviour during the election with regard to Hillary Clinton's emails was ridiculous. I don't know the man, so he could be totally and utterly wrong about any number of things from civil rights, the environment, to, Black Lives Matter. In fact, I suspect that he's the sort of patrician Republican that I would consider an ignorant boob if I ever met him. But within his understanding of right and wrong, he was unwilling to put his own career ahead of the constitution. As such, he did his job as a Mandarin. That is all anyone can ask of him. Being a Mandarin doesn't require any great insight into the great issues of the day, it just requires a personal commitment to the principles that sustain the nation---even at the cost of your own career. I may not particularly like the USA as it presently exists, but I have no illusions that it could not get significantly worse. I believe in the importance of change, but I want the change to be for the better.


One last point. Once the United States loses its ability to find and appoint Mandarins to high office, it will be totally destroyed as a nation. Mencius said:
---only after a person has demeaned himself will others demean him. Only after a great family has destroyed itself will others destroy it. And only after a country has torn itself down will others tear it down. The "T"ai Chia" says:  
Ruin from Heaven
we can weather.
Ruin from ourselves
we never survive. 

If the USA cannot continue to find Mandarins of integrity (however they define it) and place them in positions of responsibility, the nation will be destroyed. It is that simple. We have to see who will win in this battle between demagoguery and integrity.


If you enjoyed this essay, please consider tossing something in the tip jar. Even a dollar would be significant.

Walk lightly on this beautiful earth!

Saturday, April 22, 2017

What is a Hermit?

KMO from C-Realm Podcast
I've been thinking a lot about politics and society lately. I did an interview with a Vermont radio station as part of my feeble attempts to promote my recent book, and in the conversation the idea of success came up. In terms of radio shows and podcasts, as well as blogging and book publishing, the important issue is how many "subscribers" or "readers" you have. By that metric, both my interviewer (KMO fromthe C-Realm Podcast) and myself are abject failures. He has spent long periods of his life interviewing people for his podcasts and only has a relatively small number of subscribers (including myself.)  And I have spent many years writing---first for newspapers, then blogs, and, now books and have a very small number of followers too.

Bodhidharma, by Yoshitoshi, 1887.
c/o Wiki Commons
I answered this question by suggesting that this obscurity is why I call myself a "hermit". People often get hung up on the idea that I am a hermit by pointing out that I have a job, friends, a wife, live in the city, etc. To their way of thinking, to be a hermit exclusively means living in a cave on some remote mountain top. Well, most people only see the surface of things and not the core, so I generally ignore this opinion when it gets raised.

What a word, phrase, or, idea "means" is a very slippery thing---especially if it has any sort of depth to it. The famous book Zen Flesh, Zen Bones gets it's title from a story told about Bodhidharma (the supposed first "patriarch" who "brought" Zen from India to China.) According to the story, after nine years of teaching, he wanted to go home. So he tested his disciples to find out about their understanding of the "Void".

Dofuku said :  "In my opinion, truth is beyond affirmation or negation, for this is the way it moves."
Bodhidharma replied:  "You have my skin."
The nun Soji said:  "In my view, it is like Ananda's sight of the Buddha-land---seen once and for ever."
Bodhidharma answered:  "You have my flesh."
Doiku said:  "The four elements of light, airiness, fluidity, and solidity are empty [i.e. inclusive] and the five skandhas are no-things. In my opinion, no-thing [i.e., spirit] is reality."
Bodhidharma commented:  "You have my bones."
Finally, Eka bowed before the master---and remained silent.
Bodhidharma said:  "You have my marrow". 
I'm not directly interested in what the "Void" is in this post. Instead, I'm concerned about what it society makes of someone who is interested in it in the first place. This is important to Daoists, because the things that make Zen Buddhism "Zen" are elements that it has borrowed from Daoism.

The "skin" of the Void is the idea that there are truths that step outside of conventional dichotomies such as "Left" and "Right", or, "Moral" and "Immoral". The "flesh" of the Void is the idea that once you get a glimpse of this different way of looking at the world, it changes how you see everything. The "bones" is the idea that once you understand that the unconventional truths exist, and, having seen them use them to reassess how you view everything, your evaluation of what is or is not important changes. And the "marrow" suggests that when this re-evaluation takes place, your behaviour changes profoundly---especially how you interact with the rest of society.

Understanding this point, a hermit isn't just someone who lives in remote physical locations. It can also mean someone who lives in a remote ethical, spiritual, or, metaphysical space. If someone lives in the middle of a bustling city, there is still the question of how much she is engaged with the world that surrounds her. Doe she see it as being inherently valueless? Irrelevant to her life project? Does she think that there is any future to it? If not, then I would say that she is a hermit.

Confucius has a saying that has a one-dimensional take on this issue. But since that one dimension was crucial to him, I think it is apropos of the same point that Bodhidharma and I are making.
In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of.
Confucius, Anonymous, 1770,
c/o Wiki Commons
So I would suggest that being "not successful" is not something to be ashamed about. It may be caused by many things, but in some cases it is simply the result of having a deeper insight into how our society---if not the very universe---operates. In those cases I would suggest that it means that someone has a "hermit's soul".


Having said the above. I still have bills to pay and a family to support. I've added a Patreon button and a tip jar. Both of which remain very empty. OK. If that is too much to ask, there is another thing that would help. Turn off your "ad-blocker" for my site and click on the adverts---even if you instantly close the window. This has a significant impact on how much money I make from my "Ad Sense" account, which helps me support my family---even while it costs you nothing at all.