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. If you can't afford that, there is one thing that everyone can do. If you have an ad-blocker, turn it off and click on every ad you see. It won't cause you any problems, but it will make a significant difference to me. In my last post I asked people to consider some help for me, and I was surprised by the level of support. Thank you to the kind people to put significant sums in my tip jar. Also, the few people who clicked on my advertisements raised more money in my account than I had in the previous five years! Sorry to ask after all these years, but I now have a family to support and every dollar counts. 

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.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Sculpting Our Own Consciousness

The other day I was teaching a neighbour how to make her own wine. A year ago, I got her into making wine at one of the "you brew" places, which made her realize that wine can be incredibly cheap if you go about it the right way. It was now time to show her how it can be even cheaper still if you do it in your kitchen. (We are trying a kit right now that cuts the cost of white wine to about $1.65/bottle.)

While the primary fermenter and fermentation lock were sanitizing, I made her some green tea and we had a visit. I mentioned an acquaintance from my youth who was recently hospitalized for malnutrition after decades of reclusive behaviour, which culminated in being found starving in an apartment so dirty it was declared a hazard. My friend commented that someone had once told her that he thought that people could "think themselves into mental illness", if they weren't careful.

This is a complex issue. First of all "mental illness" is a very broad range of things. It's like the word "cancer", which is more like a symptom (unregulated cell reproduction) than a specific disease. Lung cancer, which is usually created by inhaling a pollutant---like cigarette smoke---is different from cervical cancer which is usually caused by infection with a virus. In the same way, depression is different from PTSD, which is different from Schizophrenia, and so on. I seems obvious to me that these different types of problems arise from different causes---just like in the case of cancer.

Having said that, I suspect that there is some truth, in some cases, in what my neighbour said. One widely-used psychiatric treatment known as "cognitive behaviour therapy" (CBT) is based on the idea that one aspect of several forms of mental illness come down to people having faulty thinking
Cognitive Behaviour Therapy,
Urstadt, From Wiki Commons
processes that shape their way of experiencing the world around them. The therapy is to have people examine the key elements of their thinking, and get them into the habit of changing them to another, more functional way of doing so.

When I was trying to give up smoking I found that I would often relapse and begin again. This was frustrating, but after a while I noticed something. When I felt optimistic about the future it was easy to stop smoking. But when I was pessimistic, I would inevitably say to myself "oh, screw it---what's the point?" and relapse. My addictive behaviour was related to my mood. And I was "blue" or slightly depressed a lot of the time. When I figured this out, I tried to remind myself when "blue" that this was a time when I would be tempted to start smoking again, but which I would regret later on. This helped me avoid restarting.

A related issue came from a period of time when I went to a Roman Catholic hermit for spiritual direction. One of the things he did to support himself was teach the Ignation spiritual exercises at a local retreat centre. One the practical suggestions that come from this system is the idea that people often oscillate between periods of "desolation" and "consolation". Desolation is what modern people would recognize as "depression", and the exercises teach that this is a natural part of human self-transformation. When things are working well in our lives, we come out of this desolation and enter into consolation, which is a greater understanding and insight into how our psyche and the world around us operates.
Ignatius Loyola, From the Jesuit Institute, via Google Images

This was a tremendously important insight for me, as it changed the way I viewed my periods of feeling "blue". I stopped feeling that they were this horrible, totally worthless state of mind and instead saw them as part of a process who's end result was a growth in wisdom. This isn't to say that they were any better (knowing that the doctor is breaking your legs to straighten them out doesn't mean that it hurts any less), but the pain is bearable now because I often remind myself that I will probably come out of this experience with a better understanding of life.


I've pretty much built my life around this process of paying attention to my awareness and how what I do impacts it. For example, if I don't write a little bit every day I start getting progressively more and more "scattered" in my consciousness. This, in turn, stops me from being even-keeled in my emotions, which leads me to doing and saying things that I don't want to---and being more fearful of potential reactions from others. (To be perfectly honest, this is why I am writing this blog post. I've been doing a lot of research lately, which means that I haven't been writing and it has been catching up with me.)

This activity of "paying attention" to how your mind operates, and what it is in your life that affects it is actually part of the very earliest Daoist spiritual practice: "Holding onto the One". This is a practice referred to in the Taiping Jing and the Nei-Yeh, which involves paying attention to the world around you---both outside and inside of ourselves---and looking for the subtle rules (or "Daos") that govern it. In a way, this is very similar to cognitive behaviour therapy---which is hardly surprising, as I read somewhere that the people who developed this school were inspired by reading from ancient schools of Greek practical philosophy such as Stoicism and Cyncism.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Dao, Dharma, Li, Culture, and, Eusociality

Over the past thirty or so years I've slowly developed a personal philosophy of life. A key part of it come from work of biologist E. O. Wilson. 
E. O. Wilson, by Ragesoss, from Wiki Commons
Wilson is famous for suggesting that human beings are what he calls "eusocial" animals. That is, animals whose evolutionary advantage comes from working together in large communities of individuals. The most obvious examples of eusociality  are insects like ants, termites, and, bees. But it does exist in other species---even mammals, like naked mole rats.

As I understand it, eusocial insects manage their relatively simple societies through the use of biological clues, such as the scent trails that ants use to mark paths to food sources. Human beings use something far more complex: culture. We have language, teaching, literature, and so on to create and transmit complex ideas from generation to generation, and this allows us to create increasingly complex societies.

Indeed, as I look at my life, I see it increasingly as simply a fragment of a eusocial whole that's only real "purpose" is the creation and transmission of that culture. In a way, I see human beings as being individual parts of a giant thinking machine---or organism---that is the consciousness of the planet (or universe.)

A question suddenly occurred to me yesterday: "If this is so, where do the religious traditions fit into this worldview?"  Obviously, they are important parts of culture. But the more I think about them, it occurs to me that with only minimal violence to the way they view themselves, they fit quite nicely into my understanding of eusociality. Consider the three religions of China:  Confucianism, Daoism, and, Buddhism. Each has some sort of key concept that I believe fits neatly into this idea of culture being central to the human experience.

Confucianism has "li", which is often translated as "ritual", this governs the relationship between people within society.  As the Wikipedia describes it,
The rites of li are not rites in the Western conception of religious custom. Rather, li embodies the entire spectrum of interaction with humans, nature, and even material objects. Confucius includes in his discussions of li such diverse topics as learning, tea drinking, titles, mourning, and governance. Xunzi cites "songs and laughter, weeping and lamentation...rice and millet, fish and meat...the wearing of ceremonial caps, embroidered robes, and patterned silks, or of fasting clothes and mourning clothes...unspacious rooms and very nonsecluded halls, hard mats, seats and flooring"[2] as vital parts of the fabric of li.

Daoism has "Dao", which is something like a "natural law", but which applies to both human society as well as nature.
The word "Tao" (道) has a variety of meanings in both ancient and modern Chinese language. Aside from its purely prosaic use to mean road, channel, path, principle, or similar,[1] the word has acquired a variety of differing and often confusing metaphorical, philosophical and religious uses. In most belief systems, the word is used symbolically in its sense of 'way' as the 'right' or 'proper' way of existence, or in the context of ongoing practices of attainment or of the full coming into being, or the state of enlightenment or spiritual perfection that is the outcome of such practices. (Wikipedia)

And Buddhism (as well as other Indian religions) has "dharma", which has resonances of both religious teaching and natural law at the same time.
In Hinduism, dharma signifies behaviours that are considered to be in accord with rta, the order that makes life and universe possible,[10][note 1] and includes duties, rights, laws, conduct, virtues and ‘‘right way of living’’.[7] In Buddhism dharma means "cosmic law and order",[10] but is also applied to the teachings of the Buddha.[10] In Buddhist philosophy, dhamma/dharma is also the term for "phenomena".[11][note 2] Dharma in Jainism refers to the teachings of tirthankara (Jina)[10] and the body of doctrine pertaining to the purification and moral transformation of human beings. For Sikhs, the word dharm means the path of righteousness and proper religious practice. (Wikipedia)

Buddhism goes a little further than these other religions, though, by suggesting the doctrine of "turning the wheel of dharma". That is the idea that dharma isn't eternal or immutable, but rather that it progresses and changes as humanity becomes more complex and increasingly capable of comprehending more subtle understanding. To my feeble understanding, this would explain the changes as Buddhism started with Theravada, moved on to Mahayana, and, from that to Vajrayana systems.

Daoism doesn't go into such detail, it just suggests that it is impossible to "pin down" what the Dao is, and suggests that it is constantly changing and can't be exhaustively expressed. This lacks the suggestion of gradual progress that is implied in the Buddhist idea of "turning the wheel of dharma", but this distinction need not be evidence of an irreconcilable difference. Progress can be part of humanity without being an inevitable law of nature. Setbacks can occur in each system, as could an unforeseen "slate wiper"---like an asteroid hit that would exterminate the human race. But all religions were created before the concept of extinction became part of the human vernacular, so they can be excused for missing this point.


I find all of this personally quite satisfying. I've pretty much absorbed the idea of anatta, or that the human ego has no real existence and is instead a fiction created by misunderstandings about the nature of consciousness. If I really never have existed as a continuous entity except as a product of the imagination---my past being a fiction and the future anticipation---then why should I be concerned about personal extinction? And yet, I get up in the morning and find purpose in life, as a creator and bearer of culture. I write this blog and another besides.  I write books that almost no one wants to purchase or read. I am an avid participant in discussions between like-minded people on social media. I talk to friends and, when I can find the time, try to participate in politics. I don't know why I care about the future of the human race or what it thinks---it is just as much a product of the imagination as my own personal ego---but I do. I suspect that that is a biological drive or instinct, much like the scent trail that the ants follow on my kitchen counter top towards some spilled sugar.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Using the "Ring of Control" and Bodily Awareness to Control the Mind

If you've read Journey to the West one of the things you should remember is the way Xuanzang (the Monk) controls Sun Wukong (Monkey) is through the use of a golden band that Guanyin gives him. He gets tricked into placing the band over his head, where it shrinks, and, actually binds itself to his skull. Guanyin teaches Xuanzang a mantra that he can recite that makes the band shrink, squeezing Sun Wukong's skull and causing excruciating pain. This is the only way that Xuanzang can control his "chief disciple".

A Japanese painting of Sun Wukong 
Journey to the West is a collection of folk tales that people have been reciting as entertainment for a long time. But most people don't realize that that the most popular version of the text is considered by some to be a Daoist teaching story. It's taken me a lifetime of learning, but reading the W.J.F. Jenner translation for the third or fourth time, I can now see this is obviously true.

People sometimes get hung up on this interpretation because they believe that these sorts of teaching allegories have to be totally universal, or else they aren't real. They point at the characters of the Dragon horse and Sandy and ask what they are supposed to "represent". But the fact is that Journey to the West is primarily an piece of entertaining fiction, not a book of Daoist theory. It needn't be completely allegorical, all the time---it just needs to be so once in a while.

Another complaint is that since Xuanzang is a Buddhist monk and the journey is to the Western Buddhist heaven to get Buddhist scriptures, it "obviously" cannot have anything to do with Daoism. Well, this misses the constant refrain in the book that "all religions are one", the way Daoist teachers are often referenced, and, the many, many allusions to arcane aspects of Daoist teachings---all of which would be missed by the casual reader of a bad translation.

One of the ways to see this is to understand the group travelling to the Western heaven as one entity with each character representing one particular part of the human psyche. Pigsy represents the instinctual drives of the human beings. Xuanzang is the higher intellect that attempts to control the other elements of the human being. And Monkey is the "mind ape" that is the well-spring of mental activity that gives human beings their ability to think their way through the problems of life.

The part of human beings that Monkey represents is that bubbling well-spring of creativity that goes on in our mind and allows us to think of solutions to the endless problems that life throws our way. As such, it is essential to life. That is why Sun Wukong is the protector of Xuanzang in Journey to the West---because our "monkey mind" is what has allowed human beings to survive and prosper. But the problem with this bubbling well is that if we don't exert some control over it, it creates havoc in our lives. The well can create ungrounded fears that eat us alive. Or it can develop weird prejudices that alienate us from the community we need to survive. Or it can create strange obsessions that cause us to waste away our lives pursuing absurd delusions. All these problems are represented in the start of the book by the crazy havoc that Monkey creates in Heaven.

10th century Northern Chinese wooden Guanyin
The Buddha traps Sun Wukong under a mountain for five hundred years until Guanyin releases him to become Xuanzang's protector. But she realizes that without some way for the higher intellect to control the "monkey mind", there is no way that anyone can become realized or enlightened. So she tricks monkey into wearing her band and teaches the monk how to recite a mantra to control it. This is the important point.  The band is a literary device, but a mantra literally is a way of controlling our run-away creative thought process. It is like a "clamp" that blocks up the bubbling, crazily over-flowing ability to create ideas that can overwhelm our minds.

The problem is that most of us live our lives with a constant internal voice burning through out minds that says all sorts of destructive things like "you're too fat", "what's wrong with you?", "what if I run out of money?", "what if I lose my job?", "who the Hell do they think they are to tell me what to do?", etc. This voice can get louder and louder until they take over our life entirely. Repeating some phrase over and over again---which is what saying a mantra really is all about---literally drowns this voice out and allows our intellect to regain control of  our thought processes. Contrary to what some people may tell you, it doesn't really matter what the mantra is. You can repeat "om mani padme hum", "da do run run, da do run run", or, whatever. My first meditation teacher said if I wanted, I could repeat "cocksucker, cocksucker cocksucker" over and over again if it made sense to me. But the point is to be able to "clamp down" on that monkey mind and stop it from becoming so loud that it overwhelms your consciousness.

People often go into great detail about the various and sundry ways there are to meditate. But ultimately, meditation is a very simple process. It is looking at the way your mind operates, deciding what is the ideal way for it to be, and, finding out ways that you can learn to control it. In the case that I've mentioned from Journey to the West, I've identified one of the easiest---using a mantra. But there are other mechanisms too.


The traditional Daoist
map of the body
One that I use a lot lately involves bodily awareness. I suppose that to explain it in Daoist terms I could say that by practicing neidan (qigong---in this case taijiquan), I have learned to move my qi around the body from my lower Dantian up through the mysterious gateway, along my twelve-story pagoda up to the mud pill. At least that's the language that comes from traditional Daoist teaching, and what is used in Journey to the West.

Being a modern Westerner, I would much rather say that through a process of dissecting my body with my consciousness, I've learned to identify different elements of my bodily awareness. This allows me to loosen my lower abdomen and chest region. This has allowed me to dramatically improve my bodily posture. It also allows me to become aware of the subtle ways in which my visual, auditory, and, bodily awareness interact with my consciousness to influence my thought processes. Frankly, I find this sort of language a lot more useful than saying that "my qi moves" from one place to another. But I do think that I am describing the same thing as the old Daoists.

And the upshot is that I can control my "monkey mind" by focusing my consciousness on the subtle feelings in my body. One part of this is feeling my feet come into contact with the floor beneath my feet when I walk. The experience is somewhat like what I expect walking on my hands would feel like. The heel makes contact, I can feel my weight rippling through my (pitifully collapsed) arch, and then each of my individual toes engages with the floor and then rolls off. At the same time, I consciously "drop" my shoulders and chest, counter-acting my genetic predisposition to "hunch" my shoulders into a "scholar's hump". At the same time, I consciously try to look through both of my eyes, giving each equal weight of attention instead of allowing one or the other to dominate. Together with these and other conscious activities, I create a calm and peace of mind that results in a feeling of something coming up my spine and manifesting itself in between my brows and on the top of my head. (At the same time, I am acutely aware of the almost constant throbbing of my chronically infected sinus cavities and ear canals---I get a lot of virus infections at work, plus I am very allergic to dust.)

This "hyper awareness" has the same effect as repeating a mantra constantly. It overwhelms the chattering monkey mind and allows the intellect to assert control over the random creative impulses that the mind spews at us like a fire hose. As a side effect, for me the hyper awareness technique has added benefits lacking from the mantra method. For one thing, it helps improve my physical health. I suffer from many complaints:  arthritis, tendonitis, tennis elbow, chronic sinusitis, etc. (Most are the result of a hard life doing physical labour, inheriting some bad genes---such as very, very flat feet--- and being exposed to thousands of teenagers from all over the world every day at work. Without taijiquan and other neidan practices, I'd be a mess.)


I was asked recently why it is that I write about this stuff and do all the things I do. After all, I walk a very narrow path. Traditional religious Daoists have sometimes attacked me very angrily for being a Western "innovator" who they feel "spits on the tradition". At the same time, I often meet Westerners who can barely hide their contempt for me because they think that I am an apologist for "New Age super-naturalism". But the point is that we all suffer greatly from the delusions that our monkey minds create for us. In fact, I don't think that there could be a greater gift that a man could give another than to help them tame the dumb notions that befog their minds.


Zen Buddhism is the "first cousin" of Daoism and there is a story about a Japanese Zen hermit named Ryōkan.
One evening a thief visited Ryōkan's hut at the base of the mountain only to discover there was nothing to steal. Ryōkan returned and caught him. "You have come a long way to visit me," he told the prowler, "and you should not return empty-handed. Please take my clothes as a gift." The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away. Ryōkan sat naked, watching the moon. "Poor fellow," he mused, "I wish I could have given him this beautiful moon." (From Wikipedia.)
The point is that Ryōkan had something that was absolutely priceless:  insight into how his mind operated and the ability to unify his consciousness. Ryōkan would have dearly loved to be able to give this insight to everyone, including the thief. Yet the thief not only didn't want it, he didn't even know the value of this gift or that Ryōkan could give it to him. That is the point of Ryōkan wishing he could give the thief the moon. That is the dilemma that anyone who has gained any realisation faces---almost no one knows enough to even want it.  Yet, we have to keep on trying.  That's because once in a while someone actually does want the moon---.

Sculpture of Ryōkan
by Dready at Wiki Commons

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Ebook Version of Digging Your Own Well is Out!

My new book, Digging Your Own Well:  Daoism as a Practical Philosophy, is now open for sale as an ebook. The price is five dollars at Smashwords, but other ebook resellers are offering it too, usually for a bit more. To get a copy, just go here.  Of course, if you want to hard copy, you can get it from Lulu books for fifteen dollars plus deliver.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Mind-Fasting and Donald Trump

A lot of people have been freaking out about the election of Donald Trump. As near as I can tell, the consensus seems to be that the sky is falling and we all need to panic immediately. Let me offer an alternative viewpoint.

Heaven and earth are not humane,
They treat the ten thousand beings as straw dogs.
The sage is not humane,
He treats the hundred families as straw dogs.
Between heaven and earth, 
How like a bellows it is!
Empty and yet inexhaustible,
Moving and yet it pours out ever more.
By many words one's reckoning is exhausted.
It is better to abide by the center. 
(Chapter 5, Laozi, Ellen Chen trans.)

Most people who read this blog have probably never taken part in a religious Daoist ritual, so they don't understand the images expressed in this poem. "Straw Dogs" were something that is sacrificed in a ritual to placate or help spirit beings. But the sacrifice was a bit of a sham, dogs were too expensive to really sacrifice, so little dolls made of straw were created to sacrifice instead. This tradition still exists in Chinese culture and to this day, in many Chinese groceries, you will find "Hell money" for sale to use in these events. Just like "straw dogs", this money is fake because people are far to practical to burn real money in ceremonies.
Basic Hell Money---notice the denomination!
I can remember---many years ago---folding up ingots of "Hell gold" and "Hell silver" for burning in rituals. I also remember chanting the Jade Emperor "sutra" outside during the full moon and burning "sutras" for the enlightenment of the dead.

Burning Hell money
The one time I ever tried doing this on my own, I researched a ritual and performed it to send a message to the "Ghost King" asking for his help trying to protect three cemeteries from a big box mall that Walmart was building. In that one I burned a paper horse and sent letters plus "travelling money" to various deities. I was told that it was "great theater" by the non-Daoists who were watching, (which was what I was trying to achieve.) We were very successful in our legal battle, so perhaps the ritual even accomplished something.  (The smoke from the altar set off the smoke alarm in the Jesuit center where I had the ceremony. This is par for the course---I'm told my teacher once set his Temple in Toronto on fire doing one of these ceremonies.)

Now the thing to remember about all these sacrificial offerings is that they are basically worthless things that get destroyed in part of a greater ceremony. The Laozi is saying that we people are like pieces of paper that are worth so little that we can be burnt at ceremonies with little regard. 

The verse goes even further and makes a statement about where every single person exists in the universe. It talks about the gap "between Heaven and Earth" being like a "bellows". Who exists between Heaven and Earth?  People do! And what does a bellows do? It helps in burning things up. Human beings are the fuel in the forge of the Dao! We aren't even the iron that the blacksmith beats into implements, we are simply the fuel that gets burnt in order to get metal hot enough to forge. Human beings are dispensable, we act out our short lives and what gets forged is history and culture. 


To understand and appreciate this point, think about the historical context of the Laozi. China has never been anything but an authoritarian society, Indeed, at the time that the Laozi was being created in an oral tradition by "the old ones", human sacrifice was still being practiced at the funerals of kings. From that time until today authoritarian rule has been pretty much always been the case, and life has still been cheap. And, want to know a secret?  it is just about everywhere else too. Society is cruel to people in prisons, people without jobs, people with psychiatric illnesses, people with drug addictions, people with disabilities, discriminated minorities---even ugly people. When I walk down to the pub in my city, in one of the absolutely grooviest places in the world---I still will see homeless people sleeping "in the rough". I suffer from watching the people I love suffer through life's torment. I know that sickness and death will eventually be my lot. All people's lives end badly.

So what is the Daoist response to all of this?

The Celestial Master and the authors of the Nei-Yeh  both suggest to people that they should "hold onto the One". By this, they mean that people shouldn't just take life as it appears to be, but should be constantly trying to figure out the hidden patterns and processes that reoccur. That is, "the One", is the Dao. And by "holding onto" it, human beings retain the ability to be conscious actors in their own life instead of mere objects that fate moves from square to square. The ability to act may be---and often is---profoundly limited by your environment. But the very least that we can always do is remind ourselves that we are on a chessboard and that we are not always responsible for the problems we face.

This can be a great consolation in hard times. I remember reading one of George Orwell's books, Down and Out in Paris and London, I believe, where he describes life as a tramp in Great Depression Britain. He mentions that the people who suffered the most from poverty were the ex-middle class. They had totally absorbed the idea that the poor were poor because of their own moral deficiencies. This meant that when fate drove them into destitution they blamed themselves for their situation. The people who had been poor all their lives had no such delusions about why they were poor, so at least that was one burden that they were free of.

Another Daoist response is to practice something called "mind fasting". As I was taught this, it is simply the practice of removing distractions from your consciousness in order to learn how your mind operates. We weren't given any theoretical talk about this, we were just told to sit. But the process of "just sitting" for long periods of time on a regular basis forced us to pay attention to how our minds operate. It was, in effect, a process of "holding onto the One" with regard to our internal world as well as the external one.

Learning how your mind operates is a very difficult process. Once you get into it, you find that you have enough work to do until the end of your life. For example, the last two nights I have awoken from sleep due to nightmares. In one I saw a group of women who had been sentenced to death by the state. The were executed by being hurled while still alive into a deep gorge, the floor of which was so filled with rotting corpses of previous victims that they landed soft and smothered in the filth. In the second one, I woke after a disturbing dream where I was with my sister-in-law listening to my wife who was tying up someone who sounded like a scared child who was begging and pleading with her to let him go. When I woke up I realized that the scared child was myself.

The process of mind fasting teaches the person who pursues it valuable insights into who they are by peeling away the "noise" that distracts us from our true nature. In the case of my disturbing dreams, I would suggest that what we call a "human being" is actually a complex mixture of different competing idea complexes that are at war for dominance. Through meditation and contemplation you learn to identify these different bits and pieces, and learn to control them to a certain extent. The women being executed in filth were people I love who are living in poverty because the world around them is indifferent to their medical problems. That scared child blubbering away in my dreams was the part of me that is afraid of taking on obligations towards the other people in my life. Another part of me tried to get me to fall asleep during the formal sitting part of my training. It is also what causes wild emotional freak outs and hallucinations among people who are doing serious meditation. These "beings" exist in all of us, and mind fasting is about learning that they exist and gaining some semblance of control over them so we can live lives of clarity and value.


So what has this got to do with Donald Trump?

The bellows of the Dao has been burning a lot of people lately in order to forge a new world. Not in the sense of there being a huge uptick in the material suffering of people. But the political process has whipped a lot of people into a frenzy of fear about what the new president will bring. They are afraid that Latinos, blacks, gays, Muslims, women, etc, are about to be horribly abused by a Republican party triumphant. To some extent, this may happen. But to a large extent I think that this is just a chimera that was created by the Democrats in order to win their election. (After all, in a lot of ways these people's lives were pretty crappy under the Democrats too.) They lost, but unfortunately the fear that they were counting on to fuel victory lives on after November 8th.

There are lot of Daos, some of which are dark and awful. One of them is the Dao of torture. People who have studied it realize that the worst part of torture is often not the torture itself, but rather people's fear of it. In medieval "jurisprudence" prisoners were usually "shown the implements of torture" before they were tortured, and offered an opportunity to confess first. This was done because the judges knew that if you whipped up people's anticipation, you could get a lot more confessions than if you just started out with the torture from the get go. Similarly, the military and secret services torture their own people in order to prepare them in case of capture by an enemy. This dramatically increases their ability to resist.

Unfortunately, the Clinton election campaign did such an effective job of raising voter's fears of a Trump presidency that a huge fraction of the public is now in a state of tremendous panic. Not only is this damaging to individual people's psyche, it is also tremendously counter-productive from a political point of view. The net result of all this "Chicken Little-ism" is going to be that the bar will have been lowered so far for Trump that people will think he is a success if he doesn't round people up in concentration camps, cancel all future elections, or, totally trash the economy.

The solutions to this problem are the same that the Daoists learned thousands of years ago when they had to deal with supreme autocrats who held ordinary people's lives in the palms of their hands. Hold onto the One---try to understand the subtle processes that govern the world around us. And practice mind fasting---learn how your mind operates so you can exert some control over it. In both cases, use the knowledge you have gained to find a little bit of personal peace---even if it is nothing more than realizing that we are nothing more than leaves floating down a stream.