Monday, December 17, 2007

The Need for an "Open Source" Religion

People sometimes think that I am a bit of a pendant because I am such an advocate of modern scholarship. For example, I often advise people to stop reading the Stephen Mitchell translation of the DDJ and get a more scholarly version---such as the Mair or Hendricks ones. I believe that I have a more nuanced approach than that of a simple intellectual snob, though.

First of all, it isn't that I am opposed to a non-academic source so much as I find scholarship so fruitful. A lot of people treat religious texts like idols that need to be worshiped on a regular basis. By this I mean that a lot of folks spend time repeatedly re-reading books over and over again in an attempt to "prayerfully discern" the "deep meaning". While there may be some sort of meditative value to this, I haven't personally found this a good way to deepen my understanding. Moreover, when I converse with others who do follow this practice I rarely get the feeling that they have gained much understanding either.

In contrast, when someone reads the work of a good scholar it is very common to find insights that can dramatically change his or her understanding of a text or the tradition as-a-whole. For example, many people start off with the assumption that the DDJ was written by one person---Laozi---and work heroically at trying to interpret the different chapters in a way that renders the entire book internally consistent. When I found out that the majority of scholars believe that the name "Laozi" is probably a corruption of the phrase "the Old Ones"; and that the book is a compendium of different voices preserved through a collective oral tradition; it made studying the text much easier because each fragment can be thought about separately from all the others.

But this appreciation of the value of scholarship is not totally without reservation. Scholarship is very good at dissecting dead schools and ancient texts, but it does real violence to living movements. The root of this problem comes from the fact that scholars try to deal exclusively with with "objective facts", whereas members of a living movement live in a realm of "opportunities" and "potential". That is to say that a person studying the ancient, dead tradition of "Daoism" is only confronted with the question of "how did people think about and do things 800 years ago?", whereas someone who is a modern Daoist must ask himself "how should I live my life here and now as a contemporary expression of this ancient tradition?" As the saying goes "all the world looks like a nail to a hammer", so to an academic all religious traditions are ancient artifacts preserved in formalin rather than "works in progress" being created by living human beings.

The strongest example of this point of view that I can find on the internet is the text of a talk by Russell Kirkland with the ridiculously long title of The Taoism Of The Western Imagination And The Taoism Of China: De-Colonializing The Exotic Teachings Of The East. Now I do not particularly take issue with Kirkland's position, especially as he is clear to point out that he is not so much arguing that these biases are inherently wrong, but rather that they should become more conscious and less unconscious in nature. But given the tone of the address, I suspect that almost all readers are left with the impression that Kirkland feels a great deal of contempt for people like me who are trying to construct some sort of authentic, Western spiritual tradition based on ancient Daoist foundations.

The problem with this position is that all ancient traditions have reinvented themselves from generation to generation. A scholar like Kirkland would be the first to admit this, as he has spent his life teasing out the nuances of the historical record. And each an every innovation was itself the result of individual practitioners reacting to external influences and novel situations. And, again, each and every one of changes faced opposition both from "conservative" elements, and from alternative innovations. It is only in hindsight that any one school or tendency became so dominant that it entered the historical record where scholars, like Kirkland, were able to study it and declare it "authentic" after-the-fact.

A problem that is similar in form, if different in context, is that of ecclesiastic authority. That is to say, people who are attracted to some form of spiritual practice are constantly on the look out for someone with "credentials". That is to say, they want to find a person who is ordained, or comes from some long lineage of teachers, or, a book that is contains some ancient wisdom handed down from ages past. This makes a great deal of sense because people who are starting out have to take a great deal on "faith". That is to say, someone who is seeking wisdom really has no way of knowing if the specific practices and way of life they are entering into really will lead them to what they are seeking. In this context, people want to have the same sort of confidence with their teachers that they would have when they seek a medical doctor or certified auto-mechanic.

Unfortunately, once one starts looking critically at the ecclesiastic institutions that award these "certificates", one begins to find a lot to be desired. The Pope may hold the keys to heaven, but if you study the history of the Papacy in any detail, you will find that most seemed to be no wiser than any other people who have ascended to the position of CEO after a long career of service in the bureaucracy. And at the lowly level of individual cleric, recent scandals in both the Roman Catholic and Buddhist institutions would seem to indicate that it is simply impossible for a large institution to exert the sort of quality control that would allow a neophyte to know exactly what he or she is getting into when they first walk in the door. Even recognized Zen Masters, who are supposed to be the hand-picked bearer of a person-to-person transmission that stretches back to Gautama Buddha, have been shown all too often to have feet of clay, as has been shown by Brian Victoria's Zen at War, Janwillem van der Weterling's AfterZen, and, Michael Downing's Shoes Outside the Door.

This all-too-human quality of religious institutions means that even at any one given time, there are currents within a ecclesiastic body that are constantly at odds with one another. Some people suggest that believers need to retreat from society, others suggest engagement with the social issues of the day. Some suggest that God lives in the here-and-now, other suggest that one's entire life should be devoted to some sort of afterlife. Some suggest that if we save one life it is as if we had saved the world, others that everything is just an illusion. Add to these theological differences the constant bickering and conflict that comes from the practical needs of institutions where buildings need to be maintained and salaries paid, and the church becomes a very amorphous institution indeed. I heard a Zen Master in a talk sum this up by saying that no Zen Master should ever come within 20 miles of another---in order to keep the arguments to a minimum.

What this all tells me is that most people have their understanding of religion all wrong. Religion and spirituality is not some sort copyrighted mechanism that has come forged from the anvil of God. Instead it is a piece of open-source software that is the result of generations of tinkering by thousands and thousands of individuals. And my life, and its contributions---like this blog---are my particular, tiny contribution to the Daoist kernel and the North American distribution. Whether it has any longevity or is erased in the next release is not up to me or anyone else. It simply is the will of the Dao.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Contacting Me

Recently a regular reader went through some heroic efforts to contact me privately because he didn't want to go through the comments section. I would prefer people contact me in public so everyone can benefit from it, but if you do feel the need to contact me privately, please use the following email: I will try to check this address regularly, but if I forget and the issue is important, please feel free to make an anonymous comment reminding me to check my email.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Some notes about the "Mysterious Realm"

I mentioned a while back that my type of Daoism tends to focus on the prosaic, "here and now" of life. At least one person commented that while they understood what I was getting at, they wanted to emphasize that there are other, more "cosmic", elements. I agree, and I have experienced this sort of thing first hand. So I thought I'd take the time (now that I have some) to discuss this issue.

The Force of Kundalini

When I was first getting into spiritual matters in a serious way, I had a few, very odd experiences. The first time I sat down to seriously meditate, I felt a tremendously powerful force in the base of my spine that felt like a physical thing pushing up it and out of my head. At that point I had an "out-of-body experience" which involved floating in the air and looking down on my body. When it ended, I had the very odd experience of being half in, and, half out of my body; and found it difficult to reconnect. During this time I also had a very odd, and hard to describe, experience of having my consciousness split into two different beings---which was like being in two totally different places at the same time.

This sounds like a classic experience of what the Indian tradition calls "Kundalini". It took place after I met with my first meditation teacher, who literally sat down next to me in a bar, introduced himself, and, taught me a great deal about spirituality over the next year or so.

Numinous Dreams

Another type of experience I have had over the years involve what are called "numinous dreams". These are dreams that have an extreme "live" feeling, and a tremendous emotional importance to the person who dreams them. I have had quite a few, so I'll just share two.

The first was where I was a peasant in a rude farm house in 19th century Spain. I was at a table when the door burst open and two French soldiers came in. I stood up and turned around to face them, whereupon they threw me backwards over the table and one of them drove the bayonet on his musket right through my chest, pinning me to the table. I could feel the bayonet go right into my chest and scrape between two ribs. The pain was so intense that it woke me up and I was very, very freaked-out.

The second involved a visit to the Chinese afterlife and a meeting with the "Ghost King". I was in some sort of place where I was surrounded by a group of very tough members of a Chinese kungfu club I once visited. I should have been afraid of them, but instead I felt such a tremendous feeling of compassion coming from them, that I wasn't afraid at all. At that point, a dried out, leathery corpse on a motorized wheelchair came over to visit me. Again, he looked absolutely grotesque, but I could sense nothing but boundless compassion from him, which removed any sense of revulsion. After-wards I woke up and felt that any fear that I might have had of dying had been removed.


I have had a few other weird experiences that are hard to categorize. For example, when I was a student doing my Master's degree, I had my own office. One day I was in it reading away when I found myself spontaneously putting my hat and coat on, and setting out to leave the building. I stopped and mentally asked myself what I was doing, and my lips spoke and said "We're going to meet Wayne" (a friend of mine.) I walked out the door and down a path to the student union building, when I put my hand on the door my lips spoke again and said "No, Wayne is not there." At this point I turned to the left and walked towards a campus sidestreet. When I got to the curb, Wayne drove up, stopped, and I opened the door and got in.

Visions While Meditating

In the beginning of my meditation "career" I had a couple very intense experiences where I was "somewhere else". One time I sat down in my lotus posture and instantly found myself skiing down an intensely white hill at high speed (something I've never done in real life.) As I zipped down the hill, I could hear the voice of the fellow who got me meditating beside me yelling "you can do it!" At this point my alarm clock went off and a half hour had passed by in what seemed an instant.

Zen Buddhists call this sort of thing "Makyo", which is sometimes translated as "devil illusions". I once heard a Zen master ask an introductory class whether or not anyone had experienced this sort of thing. She mentioned in passing that there were two types: simple hallucinations and true paranormal experiences. Most teachers consider them simply as an obstacle in the way to enlightenment, but the American Zen Master Robert Aitken has a more nuanced understanding than that and believes that while many Makyos are simply distractions caused by the mind, others should be understood as evidence of the "mysterious realm" and used as indications that the student is making some sort of break-through in their practice. Either way, they are something of a stage that people simply go through and leave behind when they are involved in what Daoists call "sitting and forgetting" and Buddhists call "Chan" or "Zen". (This was certainly the case with me as these experiences have pretty much disappeared from my life.)

The Collective Unconscious

I had the priviledge of taking a few very small classes with a professor by the name of Jacob Amstutz who had been in his youth a protege of the famous psychiatrist Karl Jung. He projected the image of being a Swiss-German academic "hard-ass", yet had a delightful twinkle in his eye and a wonderful sense of what a particular student needed at one particular point in time. (He would issue assignments by pointing at someone and say "You will read such-and-such a book and the title of your review will be such-and-such. You will not read any journal articles on the subject because I want you to read books---not books about books!")

He used to play around during his talks by using imagery from esoteric European spirituality (alchemy, Theosophy, etc) in talks by way of tiny little asides and then make quick glances around to see who picked up the reference. (Sort of like in Journey to the West when the Daoist Master makes the secret hand signal that only Monkey notices and understands.) I mention this because a key part of Karl Jung's understanding of the human psyche is his notion of the "collective unconscious". This is based on the observation that all people routinely employ a limited set of symbols to express a specific set of ideas. So Professor Amstutze was showing his students examples of various symbols in order to see if they understood their relevance to the ideas he was expressing in his lectures.

I raise these points because I think that they are tremendously important to understanding the sorts of spiritual experiences that I have been relating from my own personal experience. It may or may not be the case that they show that humanity should doubt the sort of naive 19th-century materialism that many people assume is the only sort of legitimately "non-superstitious" worldview (except with the example of precognition.) But even if we are nothing more than atomic billiard balls bouncing around in a vacuum, these experiences would still suggest that the epiphenomenon of consciousness is "pre-built" in a way that supports the illusion of a kundalini force and the delusion of a Ghost King.

I had this point driven home to me the other day while at work. I got into an elevator car and noticed that someone had drawn a picture of an erect penis with scrotum on the wall. (This was nothing profound---merely the usual obscene vandalism of adolescent boys.) The moment I looked at it, I immediately thought of a Priapus. I had come across this ancient image when reading about the Athenian invasion of Sicily (an ancient military disaster with resonances with the current Iraq war.) On the night when the Athenian fleet set out on the doomed invasion, someone went around and broke off the penises from all the Priapus statues in the city. What became immediately obvious in the elevator, however, was the fact that all the examples of phallic graffiti that I had seen over the years were simply a modern manifestation of the same archetypal impulse that had led to the sculpting of statues in ancient cultures like Greece and Rome.

The point I'm trying to make is that whether or not there is such a thing as "magic", there most certainly is a collective unconscious---and that is what the "mysterious realm" is all about. Part of the process of meditation and spiritual practice is its exploration.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Willpower and Habit

In my last post I tried to illustrate some of the complexities that surround the concept of “freedom”, primarily from a Daoist perspective. I thought that this time I'd raise some further complexities with regard to what we call “willpower”.

Daoism is full of what people call “disciplines”. Martial arts, neidan, meditation, calligraphy---all the “kungfus”---involve strenuous effort over a long period of time. The fundamental issue is how to get someone to actually do these things. This was less of an important issue in times past, because people didn't have as many distractions and many monks and nuns lived in very structured, hierarchical environments where they were forced to follow the rules “or else”. But in modern North America there aren't any proctors standing around with sticks to force people to work harder. Indeed, one of the reasons why I gave up trying to teach taijiquan was I could never get students to actually practice between lessons, which made the whole process of teaching fundamentally worthless.

I think that the fundamental issues involved in willpower are best illustrated with regard to someone trying to overcome a drug addiction. I can speak from personal experience on this because I went through a very difficult process when I gave up smoking (which experts tell us is as hard to give up as heroin.) What I remember most clearly was that I would backslide whenever I became depressed about my future. As long as I thought that I could accomplish something in my life, the effort needed to become healthier was worth the investment. But as soon as I despaired for one reason or another, I would tell myself “why bother?”, and I'd be smoking again.

No matter how hard I tried, I could never gain the willpower to constantly be “on guard” against depression and despair, and I would eventually backslide. But I learned a few things from this. First of all, I read a government study that stated that the more times a person tries to quit smoking, the greater the chance that they actually will. The great value of learning this fact is that it derails the idea that a person is too “weak” to quit. People sometimes think that because they failed once or twice, they will inevitably fail again. This study said the exact opposite: because they tried and failed once or twice, they have a greater chance of succeeding this time!

The second thing I learned was that people do things because of habit and association. People who have quit often go out to bars and start again because they are surrounded by people who are still smoking. I had the same thing happen to me, so I simply started going to bars that didn't allow smoking at all. (At that time there were a few in my town---now it is against the law to smoke in any public place in my entire province.) The result was very little interest in smoking even though I had a beer in my hand.

A final issue I learned is that we are creatures of habit. Some folks treat this as a terrible problem and argue that we need to be more spontaneous. But my experience is that it is simply impossible to be spontaneous more than once in a while, and if one attempts to do this more often, it simply becomes forced and its own sort of stale routine. Instead, I realized that our habits are a method that the human being uses to solidify our lives and turn our hopes into reality. The point is that if we want to change the way we are, we need to craft some sort of routine habit and stick to it long enough (usually about a month) that it becomes second nature. At that point, it requires an effort to stop doing it. If it is a healthy habit, then we are on the way to a better life.

Another point to realize is that if we are going to take on a new discipline, we need to make room for it in our lives. People often think that they can keep piling on new responsibilities and projects without subtracting something else. But if you make unrealistic demands on your time, you will be constantly finding that you simply do not have time to do it, or you will feel so harried that you no longer enjoy the project that you have taken on. Even if that doesn't happen, being exhausted all the time because of over-commitment can lead to depression, which will short-circuit all your good intentions.

These issues are all important for modern Daoists to consider because internal alchemy is much more that vague statements of “cosmic qi” and “flowing with the Dao”. It is learning to really understand what it is to be a human being and what general rules and principles govern our lives. Indeed, I would argue that most of the time this high-blown language is just a metaphorical way of talking about the issues that I've been dealing with in this post.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Freedom and Discipline

I have spent a lot of time wrestling with the issues of “discipline” and “freedom”. This might seem a trifle odd for someone who calls himself a Daoist. After all, am I not supposed to be the ultimate “go with the flow” type? Didn't Alan Watts call Daoism “the water-course way” and use the analogy of the leaf flowing downstream to the sea?

In actual fact, if you spend some time studying Daoist arts and Daoist monasticism, you will find that it is quite a rigorous path. I found this out personally when I went to my first taijiquan class and found that my legs were so tired afterwards that I had to crawl up to my apartment because my feet couldn't clear the treads! People who wish to live in Daoist monastic communities or pursue the path of internal alchemy quickly find out that they have to work, work, work!

Of course, only a very simple-minded person really thinks of freedom as the ability to sit in an easy chair and eat potato chips for the rest of her life. Real freedom is intimately linked with discipline. That is to say, a person who is incapable of choosing to not give in to his desires is not really free. A drug addict or alcoholic does what she “wants” to do (i.e. inject or drink the drug of choice), but people still say that he has a “monkey on his back”.

Having said all of that, there is an important paradox here. Many people become so addicted to discipline that it too becomes another monkey on their back. Take for example the issue of dieting. It is terribly important to watch how much we eat. If we don't, the mountain of poisonous, over-rich food that our modern capitalist society is constantly trying to seduce us into eating; plus our extremely sedentary lifestyle; will push us into eating too much. But if we assign too much of our consciousness to counting calories, we run the risk of becoming obsessive.

The same point can be made about exercise, saving money, cleanliness, etc.

This particular part of the problem seems to come down to the ends that are being sought. We diet in order to keep from gaining weight. But we do not seek to avoid weight gains simply in themselves, but rather as an intermediate end towards the greater goal of being healthy. If we lose too much weight, we risk becoming sick by that means too, so we rationally avoid this. But substitute a more socially defined objective, such as being “attractive”, and we make the issue much more complex. Young women internalize the ideal of “you can never be too rich or too thin” to the point where they see themselves as being overweight long after they have gone below their ideal body weight.
This is the key point of anorexia: people internalize a cultural norm to the point where they ignore their own personal experience.

In a related vein, people often suggest to young people that they should join the armed forces in order to “learn discipline”. I would suggest, however, that what happens when someone goes to boot-camp has a great deal in common with becoming ill with anorexia nervosa. The process of basic training has been designed to take people and get them to so identify with the group (i.e. the armed forces) that they will no longer view their reality from their own individual perspective (e.g. if I go over that hill I will get shot and die), but rather from that of the group they are involved with (e.g. if I don't go over that hill I will disgrace my regiment and let down all my friends.) As such, people in military service are learning a very specific and limited form of “discipline”, one that involves taking orders from others and subverting one's own will to that of a patriarchal institution. Obviously, such a thing has only a limited value in “civvy street”, which is why most ex-soldiers completely return to previous patterns of behaviour as soon as they are demobilized.

Getting back to the issue of Daoism, I would suggest that the important point of following the “water course way” is not to avoid any discipline at all, but rather to pursue a specific form of it. The Daoist would not want to become so identified with some social norm that they damage their health in pursuit of it. Instead, it seems to me that a Daoist path involves picking and choosing a path (or “water course”) that makes sense to the individual Daoist herself, instead of picking up one that society has chosen and heavily promoted for its own purposes.

Of course it is a terrible mistake to starve yourself to death or become cannon fodder in an unjust war. But those are very obvious and clear-cut examples of the danger that come from internalizing an external discipline. And I would argue that we see similar, but less clear-cut examples all the time. In the sad cases of sexual abuse occurring in religious institutions, it strikes me that the fundamental problem is not the sexual abuse, per se, but rather the habit of deference to authority that kept the abused children from fighting back and their parents from making a huge, public stink. Why didn't the altar boys scream at the priest instead of freezing like a deer in the headlights of a car? Why didn't the parents “name names” during church meetings or call in the media? Everyone in the institutions involved was at least a passive participant in the cover-up process. I would suggest that this is because the “discipline” of deferral to ecclesiastic authority had become so ingrained that the people involved that it would not have occurred to the people involved to act in their own best interests.

(Lest someone waggle their fingers self-righteously about this example from the Church, I would suggest that anyone who pursues Daoism should also ask themselves how much of their actions are being guided by cultural icons that came from bad martial arts movies and the “dao of Star Wars”. )

There are further layers of complexity, of course, such as the relationship between our consciousness and the work (i.e. “kung fu”) that we are already doing, and how that influences our choices. As well, there is the further issue of habit and how we use it to solidify the gains that past effort has made and how that relates to the concepts of “will” and “freedom”. All of these are tremendously important to the practice of neidan (or, “internal alchemy”), so with any luck I will get to them in future posts.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Philosophy and Religion

People commonly make a distinction between Daoism as a religion (daojiao) and as philosophy (daojia.) The problem with this neat formulation is that it rests on the fundamentally naïve assumption that philosophy and religion can be always be easily separated into two, distinct categories of human activity. In actual fact, I would suggest that both philosophy and religion are quite wide-ranging and that there are ways of doing them that overlap to a considerable extent.

Part of the problem comes from the particular ways in which philosophy and religion have come be understood in the modern West.

Philosophy is split up into different schools of thought. Some schools restrict themselves completely to the study of logic and the meaning of words (“logical positivism”) and believe that all other forms of philosophy are at best “poetry” and at worst misunderstanding (“category mistakes”.) Others see philosophy as being the study of ideas in society and spend a great deal of time trying to figure out the cultural context of our fundamental notions (“deconstruction”.) Others believe that philosophy is about trying to find some sort of personal accommodation with the inherent absurdity of existence (“existentialism”.) The list goes on and on. But what all of these different schools currently have in common is the fact that they have become professionalized in the university setting. In effect, the only people who “do” philosophy anymore, are professors and students. And the only place it gets “done” is in university classrooms and academic journals.

This contrasts with another, more popular and ancient way of understanding “philosophy”.

The iconic image of philosophy for most of history has been that of people like Diogenes wandering with a lamp in broad daylight looking for an honest man. Or Socrates asking questions of young men in the market of Athens. At those times and places, being a “philosopher” wasn't a job, but rather a vocation or calling. And it was often one that dramatically changed your lifestyle and involved adopting a specific, visible role in society. For example, at the time of the Roman empire the convention was that only men who identified themselves as “philosophers” wore beards. (If you look at Roman coins, the only emperor wearing a beard was Marcus Aurelius---who was also a stoic philosopher and wrote the famous Meditations.)

Beyond such outward signs of eccentricity, philosophers were traditionally known as being people who often had a very well-developed mystical streak. Socrates had his “daemon”, or mysterious voice that would tell him whenever he was about to do something wrong. Descartes, Thomas Aquinas, Plotinus, Plato, etc, all described experiences that they had had which were very similar to those of religious mystics.

Even those philosophers who espouse belief systems that would not seem to have much in common with religion or mysticism often use gnomic language that could easily fit into a religious context. Take a look at this famous quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein:

"My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)"

Isn't this exactly the sort of statement that one would expect from a Daoist, Sufi or Zen Master?

In addition to these superficial similarities between philosophy and religion, there has traditionally been a specific thing known as being "philosophical". For example, you will sometimes hear common folks say things like “He took the news about losing the money philosophically.” In this situation, the term has nothing at all to do with a specific school of academic thought, but rather a habitual way of engaging with and responding to the world around us. One dictionary defines this as being "rationally or sensibly calm, patient, or composed". This isn't exactly the same thing as being “holy” or “saintly”, but it does seem to have some overlap with that way of describing a person.

These superficial similarities between religion and philosophy need not be mysterious in nature, once one realizes that philosophical investigation has a great deal in common with the spiritual practices of many religious traditions. This involves a lot of time spent in quiet reflection, careful analysis of traditional texts, pondering one's assumptions about life, and, deep reflection on what it means to be a human being. In most religious traditions, this activity would all be labeled “prayer”, “meditation” or “contemplation”. The point is that the practice of looking at the world logically is not only an academic discipline, but it can also be very akin to a spiritual practice, one that can have a practical impact on a person's personality.

Just as people often talk about the solace that people gain from religion, so too there is a sense of peace that comes from philosophy. Indeed, one of the most popular works of literature in the middle ages was Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy, which was written while the author was in prison waiting to be beaten to death with cudgels for the crime of treason against the Roman Emperor. Another example are the Stoic philosophers who taught that the good life is in the grasp of most people, but must be worked for through the use of reason and self-discipline. Ancients like Epictetus would even sometimes write “self-help” manuals that would contain such pithy advice as "Regardless of what is going on around you, make the best of what is in your power, and take the rest as it occurs." (Think of this as the philosophical equivalent of St. Francis' “Prayer of Serenity” that is hung on the walls of countless Christian households.)

At the same time that the West was driving philosophers out of the marketplace and locking them up in the Ivory Tower, it was also chasing religious people out of the hall of reason. That is to say, a certain way of understanding religion that is antithetical to philosophy has gained public prominence to the point where many folks believe that it is the only way to understand the term, and as such, believe that there is no common ground between “faith” and calm, reasoned reflection. Primarily, this understanding of religion comes from a 20th century reactionary movement against liberal values and the modern world known as “fundamentalism”. (This movement began as a form of North American Christianity, but the same tendency has asserted itself in all the world's religions.) In a nutshell, fundamentalist Christianity is based on the assumption that all “true” Christians believe the following: the literal and total inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth of Christ, the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and the authenticity of his miracles. (Forms of fundamentalism based on other religions would obviously come up with a different set of “fundamentals”.)

For followers of this doctrine, the cornerstone of religion is not how one lives one's life, treats one's neighbours, or grows as a human being, but whether or not one publicly associates oneself with and actually believes these assertions. Please note what an enormous demand this is to make of someone. Our democratic system of government is based on the principles of freedom of speech, association, the press, etc. Parliaments and Congresses are based on the ability of elected representatives to ask the government searching questions in order to find the truth. As citizens we depend on the media to investigate and chase down news that is of public interest. In addition, the material prosperity we enjoy is based on the cultural practice of scientific investigation. Fundamentalism wants the citizenry to turn this deeply rooted intellectual freedom totally on its head and instead simply accept whatever the church teaches them to believe without any hesitation or doubt whatsoever.

Please take another moment to consider how great this demand is. Even Caligula understood how difficult it is to control a person's inner being. That is why he coined the famous dictum: oderint, dum metuant (“Let them hate, so long as they fear”.) The theology of the fundamentalists is even more oppressive than that of the mad Emperor---it is not satisfied with just fear and lip-service but demands total, robotic unity of thought.

As such, the followers of fundamentalism are forced to simply turn off their curiosity and faculty of reason or else accept that they can no longer be members of the religious community. In this formulation, therefore, “faith” is defined as the ability to cease to act like a rational human being who has been socialized to live in a democratic, science-based community.

The important point to realize about this sort of belief system is that it is based on fear. On the surface level, the concern is that if someone isn't able to keep the rational mind at bay a vengeful God (or at least an angry congregation) will cast her into a “fiery pit”. On a deeper level, the fear is that once a person looks at religion using the same thought processes that allow him to wire his home without electrocuting himself, he is inevitably going to find out that it is nothing more than a sham. This puts the fundamentalist believer in the same situation as the man who has a re-occurring cough that he constantly worries about, but who refuses to go see a doctor about for fear that it may turn out that he has lung cancer.

A second thing to remember about the fundamentalist world-view is that it is primarily concerned about the internal thought processes of the practitioner rather than her behaviour. It doesn't matter whether or not this person lives a saintly life, if she doesn't believe, she is doomed by a vengeful God. Indeed, the most wretched sinner who believes or even recants on his deathbed is assured a place in heaven while the secular or even liberal religious saint who cannot find it in herself to believe in the fundamentalist creed is doomed to the fiery flames of Hell. Not only does this offend against people's innate sense of justice, but because a person's behaviour is intimately connected to their psychological state, it would appear that, for the fundamentalist, religion has no impact on a believer's psyche than the simple “leap of faith”.

Not only does this reduction of all religious behaviour to belief dismiss good works as irrelevant, it also rejects the value of any sort of spiritual practice. This means that not only does the fundamentalist believer not have recourse to their rational mind, they are also totally cut off from any sort of personal interaction with the spiritual plane. No insight gained from personal insight or spiritual self-transformation is allowed to trump the viewpoint of the fundamentalist, because the ultimate authority is the literal word of the Bible (as interpreted by the fundamentalist preacher, of course.) In effect, no matter how many years of spiritual practice an individual man or woman has followed, or how wise they appear in both word and deed, they have no authority at all compared to an ancient anonymous scribe writing in bad Greek.

My experience with Westerners who identify with “philosophical Daoism” (daojia) and fight tooth and nail against the idea that Daoism is primarily a religion (daojiao) is that they usually consist of folks who make the assumption that by definition all religion is fundamentalist in nature. Conversely, once in a while, I will come across someone who is upset about Western cultural appropriation of the Daoist “brand-name” and will violently argue that nothing in the religion (as they espouse it) should ever be questioned. As a result, they assert that “philosophical Daoism” as such simply does not and never should, exist. As such, they come very close to espousing a form of “fundamentalist Daoism”, which immediately drives the first group totally ballistic. Since these latter folks only reinforce the assumptions of the former, the result is extreme reluctance for Westerners to entertain the notion that there is anything at all worthwhile in the traditions of any religion, let alone Daoism.

This is unfortunate, for while it is true that the fundamentalist definition of religion life is quite common and has been very forcefully promoted by various institutional forces in modern society, it is not currently, nor has it ever has been, the only one. A different formulation of “faith”, for example, is to see it more as a form of “hope” in the ultimate meaning of life instead of robotic assimilation by some simplistic creed. The distinction is that the fundamentalist is terrified that if he follows his logical faculty wherever it leads him, it will undermine his religion and leave him in a place that he does not want to be. The person who's faith is based on hope, on the other hand, trusts that wherever reason leads her it will eventually take her to a place where she will be comfortable. In effect, a great deal of the distinction comes down to whether or not one lives in spiritual fear or courage.

The Westerner who rejects the religious side of Daoism is not just rejecting fundamentalism, however, he is also cutting off some of the most fruitful parts of the tradition he espouses. Logic is not only deductive, it can also be inductive. That is to say, reason is not only restricted to analyzing statements to find out if they conform to the standard rules of set theory and truth-functional analysis; but it also includes the pursuit of direct experience in a systematic and rational way (i.e. the scientific method.) Reason allows for experimentation as well as logical analysis. And this is where the religious side of Daoism has things to offer that simply reading the Dao De Jing, Zhuangzi and a few other texts cannot.

The Daoist tradition includes a wide variety of martial arts and meditation techniques that are all seen as specific methodologies that allow an individual to directly experience that ineffable entity that writers like Laozi, Zhuangzi and Liezi call the “Dao”. These techniques are also integral to the spiritual project of becoming a better human being (“internal alchemy”.) If someone rejects all of the religious elements of Daoism, they reject this rich heritage too.

Finally, people are much more than thinking machines, we also feel, are inspired, love, appreciate beauty, and so on. The rituals, aesthetics, calligraphy, fengshui, etc, of Daoist tradition all respond to these other elements of what it means to be a human being. The exercise of reason is not opposed to any of these things, and it could become an enormous asset to them by helping the practitioner make distinctions between what should be accepted as a useful ornament to human existence, and what should be rejected as superstition. Simply restricting yourself to reading the Dao De Jing, Zhuangzi and a perhaps a few other texts cuts these people off from this entire artistic universe. This is unnecessary and wasteful.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Funny hats and silly clothes---

One of the archetypes of Daoists is that they are eccentrics who ignore social conventions in their personal life, and if you asked my neighbours, they would say that I fit this mold. But I would suggest that this is not the result of some urge to be "different", but because I see things that they are oblivious to. The clothing choices that I make are a good example.

In an effort to both save money and lower my carbon footprint, I've been experimenting with ways of living comfortably in a cooler home. One of the more interesting things I've found out is that Western-style clothing is poorly designed to keep people warm. I found this out when I heard an interview with a couple clothing designers who had studied Inuit clothing.

What they found was that this clothing is designed to trap hot air within and stop it from escaping. This means that its ability to keep people warm in extreme cold is not merely a case of the insulating properties of the fur, but also the structural design of the garment.

I raise this point because it occurred to me that traditional Chinese clothing was designed to keep people warm in a temperate climate even though their homes lack central heating. I found an on-line company that still sells cheongsams

and ordered one to see how warm they are and found out that they are really warm. To understand why, take a look at the two pictures.

The first thing to note is that the collar of the gown is tight, this stops warm air from escaping out the highest part of the clothing. The other thing is the front. It is double-breasted and the frog closures make sure that an air-tight seal exists all along the closure. The long sleeves also keep air from escaping. In effect, the cheongsam is a pyramid that fits over the body to trap as much of the body's heat in a blanket of warm air.

The second thing to note is the men who are wearing hats. I heard a US army report once cited that says that 40% of a person's heat is released by the head. And my meditation master once told me that wearing a hat is an essential part of keeping healthy. As someone who started going bald at the age of 15, I can tell you that hats are essential to keeping warm!

As I mentioned before, I found a source that makes and sells cheongsams on-line for a very reasonable price. They are made of light cotton, but when you wear them over ordinary Western clothing they make it very comfortable to live in a house where the temparture is as low as 10 degrees Celcius (50 Farenheit.)

Another thing I found out came about as a result of a rash I developed on my feet. I try to avoid wearing street shoes in my house, so I have a pair of bierkenstock sandals for indoor wear and I had a pair of "duck shoes" that I used for when I want to quickly duck outside to do yard work, throw scraps in the composter, etc. This meant I could quickly slip off one and slip on the other at the door, which preserves my hardwood floors. Unfortunately, the rubber shoes made my feet sweat like crazy, which led to a very nasty rash. (My doctor told me to throw away those shoes right after I got home.) I still liked the idea of having easily slipped on footware, though, so I looked for an alternative. What I found that works very well are wooden shoes, or sabots.

These are a traditional Canadien footware, although they are usually associated with the Dutch, who call them "klompen" (obviously for the sound they make when you walk on pavement.) The big advantage they have is that they are made of wood, which has huge advantages over rubber or plastic for footware. First of all, wood has naturally occurring anti-fungal and anti-bacterial chemicals that help trees fight off infections. Secondly, wood is a structured, composite material that wicks moisture away from the surface of the wood, which dries out any bacteria or fungus on the surface and kills it. (I heard a scientist on the radio who had compared wooden and plastic cutting boards and cited these reasons for suggesting that the former are far superior to the latter.)

The point to remember is that our world is a very complex, interesting place and the person who is alive to it has a myriad opportunities to see things in a different, more fruitful manner. Even the clothing one chooses to wear can be an opportunity to flow with the greater Dao.

Monday, October 15, 2007


A lot of modern people are concerned about what they eat. Some of this is probably a good idea, but a lot seems to me to be pretty much besides the point. I heard today on the radio that a lot of people try to add Omega-3 oils to their diet because they are good for us. But the scientist that was interviewed said that there are different types of Omega-3 and that most of the additives are pretty much useless.

At the same time, a co-worker told me that a relative in the grocery business told her that the fastest growing part of the food business is the pre-packaged, micro-waveable meals. (What we used to dismiss as "nuke and puke".) The last time I was in a mainstream grocery store (several years ago) I was amazed to see the huge amount of space that was devoted to frozen entrees. Some of this might be OK, but a lot of what I've seen seems to be pretty poor stuff compared to a meal cooked from scratch.

Daoists traditionally put a lot of thought into their diet. Some of the "wild history" stories include people who refrained from eating any of the grains. (One theory I heard was that at one time all taxes were levied against grain harvest---which meant that if someone never grew grains, they never had to pay taxes!) One autobiography I read talked about a young person who lived on nothing but pine needles. (His master told him to "grow up" and eat rice like everyone else.) I have a wonderful cookbook of recipes collected at Daoist Temples by Michael Saso, which has all sorts of hearty, simple fare.

My experience is, however, that eating should be an exercise in self-awareness instead of trying to accomodate one theory or another. Our body gives us all sorts of feedback from the food we eat. Too little fiber and I get constipated. Too much, and I get gas and cramps. Foods with sugar, protein, caffein or alcohol make me dehydrated and susceptible to colds. Vegetables, fruits and soups give us moisture, which makes helps mucous flow and cleans my head. Rich food makes me loggy and sleepy. "Fresh" food eaten out of season and has been trucked long distances has little flavour and is woody, so I try to do the 100 mile diet.

It pays to listen to your body and develop some awareness about what is going on in it. I once had a taijiquan student who complained about regular lower back pain. When she described it, I wondered if what she meant was really kidney pain, so I asked what she drank. It turned out that she rarely drank anything except juice and milk---both of which are dehydrating (because of the sugar and protein.) She said the pain went away almost immediately when she started drinking several glasses of water a day.

I think that this idea of learning to be sensitive to our body is much more important than trying to follow the latest scientific research (or at least what gets reported in the media.) That's why I have the following poster pasted to the wall of my kitchen.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Dao of Daos

People who talk about Daoism often---if not usually---talk about the Dao as if it is some sort of God. Take for example the following quote, which I pretty much randomly selected from the net using a Google search for "cosmic dao".

Who Is God?

Dao is analogous to God, but Dao is not a being. Rather, Dao is the source of all and the ultimate reality, and Dao is the cause of all change in life. Dao permeates the universe and is the principle behind all that is. Dao can only be experienced through mystical ecstasy. Daoists seek transformation of their self and body into a cosmic, Dao-focused entity. This is achieved through ritual and meditation.

I'm not about to say that there haven't been a lot of people over the ages that have thought the same thing, but I don't. Instead, I believe that this way of looking at the term makes a few pretty substantive mistakes---ones that lead people up a spiritual blind alley.

The first thing to remember is that originally (i.e. at the time of Zhuangzi) "Dao" simply meant "way". And all sorts of jobs had a "dao" to do them. (This means that all those self-help books that purport to teach us the "dao" of something or other are actually not that far off.) For example, there is a "way" or "dao" to being a good carpenter. I'm not talking about following the building code, however, even though that is part of the picture. The closest English word I can think of is "knack" or "gift". A carpenter who has the Dao of carpentry is one that seems to be able to effortlessly do the job in a way that is far superior to everyone else. Indeed, Zhuangzi several times makes specific mention to tradesmen and their ability to perform quite mundane tasks.

What I would suggest is that Daoist is someone who has not only looked at a specific example of someone who has managed to develop a "knack" at a special vocation, but has spent time thinking about what it means to develop a "knack" as a "knack" itself. The point is not to become a master carpenter, but rather to become someone who has spent time trying to understand the concept of "Mastery" in and of itself. In effect, a Daoist is someone who seeks to find the Dao of Daos, or the "knack" of "knacks".

It can be easy to start to see this in the same terms as Western religion.

For example, anyone who really deeply looks at a subject can develop what appear to be magical abilities. The example that just about everyone acknowledges is that of the martial arts master who can do seemingly amazing feats. But there are others. One story I came across was that of two friends who met for dinner and totally surprised each other with a seemingly magical act. The first one surprised his visitor by providing him with a sumptous meal when he showed up. The secret was not clarivoyance, however, just that he happened to be on a hill and see him coming from a long way off, which gave him time to tell his cook to prepare a meal. The other feat was that guest had brough some fruit without any pits. This was not fairy food, however, for the visitor had simply pulled the part of the flower that developed into seeds out after they had been pollinated.

Another fascinating example comes from Arthur Koestler's The Lotus and the Robot, which describes his travels across the orient. He decided that he would investigate the "magical" abilities of fakirs while in India. He went to one place where he was told a very magical person lived who was able to "walk" on water. It turned out that in this part of India no one had ever seen anyone swim, and this fakir had simply learned how to float on water instead of sinking. (This sort of radically diminished expectations might explain why magical abilities seem to decline with the spread of rapid communications and literacy.)

With the above points in mind, it should be clear that people who put a lot of effort into observing the world around them, and how to work best with it, will begin to be able to do things that may seem like miracles. But being able to do the unexpected, as the example with the swimming fakir, is far from evidence of divinity.

Having said the above, there are some very mysterious elements to mastery. Where does the spontaneous ability to see, say or do the exactly right thing at the right time come from? I would suggest that there is evidence that part of this ability comes from understanding how our minds work and what it means to be a human being. (Especially if one seeks to be more than simply a gifted "savant" in particular field.) This is where the meditation practice of Daoists becomes important. But as I see it, this is about personal self-awareness rather than a prayer to some God in the sky.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Why are there walls that separate us---

Last weekend I went to a political picnic. It was a good idea and was wonderfully organized. People brought in potluck dishes that only contained food that was raised within 100 miles. (Not a terribly difficult thing to do in Southern Ontario in August---it is one of the best agricultural areas in the world.)

It should have been a good time, but the more I think about it, the more I have a sense of sadness.

First of all, I met a Jesuit aquaintence who told me that he had joined the Green Party but he couldn't vote for it because a policy plank that the media has chosen to fixate says a Green government would remove government funding for Catholic schools. (It is a big issue in this election for some ridiculous reason.) Another friend, who is the leader of the Green Party came over to say "hi" and the two had a somewhat heated, but quite good-natured debate.

Secondly, our new federal leader came over to speak. She is a bit of a media star and very much a "parachute" from outside of the old Green Party. One of the things that wrankles me about her is the way she constantly name drops (it appears that Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Gorbachov, the Premier of Ontario, etc, are all friends.) I know that it adds luster to her for a lot of people, but to me it just seems cheap.

Finally, one of our members has been elected to city hall and he was talking to me about our local downtown, which has a significant problem with hooliganism due to the huge number of bars that are allowed in a very small area. He feels that he is on the "outs" with the mayor's faction, whom he thinks sees no problem at all with the number of bars. I know all of these people and consider them my friends. It saddens me to see how they end up seeing people split up into "us" and "them" groups.

I sit on the outside of most of this because I am fully aware that I am not much more than a two-dimensional character in these people's lives. I help then when I can with their projects, but even if I invite them over to my home for a barbeque, I know that I will never really be able to hear what they really think about things. Perhaps this is because they want to keep things private in order to manipulate me. Perhaps they have worked so hard to "fit in" that they have lost the ability to easily open up. Perhaps they are so inarticulate that they cannot find the words to express what they really feel. And perhaps I simply cannot hear what they have to say.

But for whatever reason, I find myself feeling more and more alone the more I go to social events. I suppose that this makes sense for a hermit, and it is probably what men like me have felt for millenia. But the sadness is still real and doesn't dissipate unless I am able to get away for a while.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Life is fleeting---

I enjoy playing around with plants. This year a friend from work gave me some Datura seeds that have grown into some handsome plants in my patio. Yesterday I had a beautiful bloom in the morning.

But the thing about datura blooms is that they are very short-lived. So I took some pictures of them as the day progressed. They add up to being a bit of a metaphor for the transitoriness of life.

Like most people, when I was young it seemed that life could go on forever or at least for a very long time. As someone is who is now past middle-age, however, life seems to me more like a candle that is very quickly burning itself out. I suppose the reason why it seems this way is because as we grow old we gain more and more personal experience. When we compare this to today's events, the days seem relatively shorter because they become a smaller and smaller percentage of our life.

A related effect is that when I was young I was more concerned about the individual than the collective. When it seemed like I was going to live forever, my life was the most important thing. But now that I feel like a candle that merely burns for a small period of time, I more and more find myself concerned about "passing on" the flame of my life to illuminate others. (Amongst other things, that is why I bother to work on this blog.) This is a common thing in people's lives and I notice that the academic library where I work almost always has senior citizens working on historical research in order to keep the past alive for future generations.

One of the reasons why I am disengaging from politics is to find the time---while I still can---to try and share what little I have learned about Daoism with future generations. It would seem a shame to let all the endless hours of work that I have spent in study and practice fall away simply because I couldn't find the time to teach. This is especially important because Daoism is in danger of either disappearing through lack of interest or being horribly polluted by the terrible teachers that have recently appeared. I shall try if for no other reason but to honour the memory of the teachers that I have taught me.

Human effort is by its nature short-lived. Once the blossom has fallen there is nothing more that it can do. Then it is all up to future generations.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Charity and the Dao

I've gotten a couple obviously heart-felt responses to a throw-away remark I made in my last post, so I thought it would be a good idea to put some time and effort into parsing out what I really believe on the subject. So here's the result:


I have also developed a very jaundiced view of most forms of altruism---most of which strike me as being a the result of a form of blindness not terribly different from that which motivates most venal acts.


Like most peripheral comments, this one doesn't explain itself in much detail. But it is not a position that I take lightly, that I adopted willingly, nor is any sort of personal innovation to Daoism.

I have always had a very strong charitable impulse. (In fact I still do.) This has not involved simply tossing a little extra in the collection plate at church or writing a cheque when the "United Way" comes calling at work. Instead, I have literally tried to live the life suggested by the New Testament where I give to the poor a substantial part of my financial worth and personal life. Amongst other things, this has involved inviting total strangers into my home.

One formative experience involved a young woman who I met at the university campus where I was an undergraduate. She looked hungry so I bought her lunch. When we got talking, she said that she was living in a tent at a local conservation area and that she had no work. I happened to be alone in a house that I was fixing up for the summer, so I offered her room and board for the summer in exchange for help. She gladly moved in.

It was a lesson in life. She was a very good looking young woman who had worked as a stripper until (so she said) that she had witnessed a stabbing that so frightened her that she quit her job. I assumed that the summer residency would be a "leg up" so she could find a job and get a place of her own. Instead, she decided that it would be a permanent arrangement. After I pointed out to her that she needed to get a job and that I was supporting her by doing the home renovation gig plus a graveyard shift as a minimum wage janitor, she called these "chump change" jobs. In contrast, she suggested that her career path was to get pregnant and live on child support (this was how she was raised.)

When I had to kick her out of the house it was very traumatic. She got a gig stripping at a local bar. Then she did get pregnant and ended up being an absolute disaster as a parent (I met the parent of a baby-sitter who was totally freaked that the government would not remove the child from her home.) The woman went through a period of heroin abuse and ended up in a somewhat stable relationship in another town. Years later I met her at a wake where it became pretty clear to me that she hasn't changed much since I first met her.

I met another woman when I was still attempting to live a "normal" (i.e. not as a Daoist recluse) life. She had a child from another guy and she had decided to devote her life to raising this baby. The pregnancy had been the result of some sort of minimal relationship but she refused to have an abortion. At the same time, she refused to let the father even see the fruit of his loins but was bound and determined that he was going to help support her and the boy for a long time.

This woman had been trained as a legal secretary and had actually worked in the field. But after having her son, she decided that it would be wrong to not exclusively breast feed him or wean him before the age of at least two. As you might imagine, this dramatically reduced employment opportunities. As a result, she ended up having to rely upon the state for subsistence.

I also had a relationship with a woman who worked as a waitress at a local bar and owned a house. She had a degree in fine art and a teacher's certificate. But there always seemed to be a reason why working at a regular teaching job simply wasn't good enough for her. (She did do a temporary gig at a special program teaching adults, but the funding disappeared and I don't think she even tried to switch to an ordinary program.) She had come from quite a wealthy family, but for one reason or another, she didn't get along with them and had severed all ties.

After I left this woman, she developed a form of mental illness that rendered her unable to make a living anymore. But because she had never been willing to work at a job with benefits, there was no long-term disability program she could plug into. And because she had severed all ties with her family, she ended up with no safety net, formal or informal, to plug into. When she goes off her meds, she sometimes comes to my door in a very agitated and quite confused state. I used to give her money, but I found out that the welfare agency is quite concerned about her but she refuses to allow them to help her.

My heart bleeds for these people. I always has bled for them. But I came to some significant decisions as a result of my lame attempts to help them.

First of all, they are in the mess they find themselves in not because of a cruel world, but because of the values that they hold dear render them incapable of thriving in the world around us. The first woman has an inflated sense of what she is worth in the world---to the point where she will live in dire poverty before she will demean herself by working for the less than inflated salary of a stripper. The second believes that the entire world should turn on a dime for her ovaries (e.g. refusing to have an abortion, expecting the man to pay child support, the government to support her extreme views on parenthood, etc.) The last painted herself into a corner by having such an extreme vision of personal freedom that she left herself with no "safety-net" for when she got sick.

I also used to give money to beggars on the street (there are a lot in my town.) I considered it a "blessing" to have so much money that I could do this. I never asked myself whether or not these folks were "worthy" because I thought that that was between them and God, and not something for me to concern myself with. I noticed very quickly, however, that the panhandlers figured out that I was someone who always gave and sometimes would give a lot. The result was that I found myself being singled-out for attention. In fact, people started coming to my door. The last straw was when I was having a little bar-b-que and a fellow who was obviously suffering from a very bad drug problem "gate crashed" the event.

The point wasn't that I am some sort of prig who wants to keep these people "in their place", but rather that they were beginning to threaten my hold on middle-class existence. Middle-class life requires a lot of things: financial security, home ownership, a secure neighbourhood, etc. Being connected with the "under-class" threatens all of this. If your neighbourhood starts going downhill, you end up with worse and worse people moving into the homes around you. And this raises the danger of crime, lowers the equity in your house, reduces your freedom from things like loud noises late at night, increases vandalism, etc. I am not a rich man, and the only reason why I own my own home is because I have been very careful and frugal. By involving myself with the desperate class, I was threatening my position. (I noticed this because my "good" neighbours absolutely freaked when my ex with mental problems started hanging around the house---they could tell instinctively that this was a bad thing for everyone.)

A man who jumps into the water to save another has to understand that he runs the risk of being dragged down and drowned himself.

I had a lot of conversations with my last partner over these issues. She grew up in Bombay and literally swam in an ocean of beggars from an early age. Like me, she is very concerned about poverty and has spent a great deal of her life devoted to doing "good works". But she doesn't have that same sense of guilt that I feel because I am not living the life that Jesus recommends. (Which is odd because she is the Christian, not me.) Her very wise answer to me, however, was to say "Are you doing this to help these people or to make yourself feel good?"

This really got me thinking and it turned out that I was just as much a victim of my values system as the people I have mentioned above. I thought that giving is a solution, when it clearly is not. This comes about because when I see them, I see myself. But they are not me, and I am not them. Unlike the first woman, I learned early in my life that we have to eat "bitter" in our lives. If we don't do it consciously through things like working for "chump change", we will do it unconsciously through things like heroin addiction. I also believe that whether or not we believe that our present society values children as it should, we have to make compromises with economic reality. I also have decided that "no man is an island" and we need to maintain good social ties with family and institutions (like a good job) if we are going to survive the groin kicks that life inevitably throws at us.

I wish that these people in my life had learned the same lessons that I have. And I still help with folks if I think that it will genuinely be of value. But until they decide to discard the values system that is holding them down, it will simply be pouring sand down a rat hole. And my belief is that Christian charity is simply yet another one of these destructive values that I have had to discard if I am going to live a life in harmony with the Dao.

Please note. I am not making value judgements about these people. They are just like everyone else---they have good qualities and bad. Indeed, I still love some of them. But their core values have rendered them incapable of thriving in the modern world. And until they make the decision to jettison these values and adopt ones that are a better "fit", they are always going to suffer problems. Short of having the state stand at their side and force them to make better decisions; or to give them so much money that they can be totally feckless and not suffer any consequences; there is nothing society can do to protect them from their dysfunctional values system.

Lest people think that I am some sort of modern nihilist, I would point out that I have read translations of Daoist texts who attempt to make this very point. As I recall (I don't have the text at my finger tips) one story involved a Daoist who opened a box that was filled with demons that personified all the impediments to realization. The last one was a child that represented all the altruistic impulses that tie someone to the "land of dust". It was pointed out in the commentary that this is the most dangerous demon that a Daoist has to overcome.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The world will not end---

I went to a family get together last week and while there I noticed something extremely surprising. One of my nieces handed my brother-in-law a copy of the Al Gorevideo "An Inconvenient Truth". Later on, I noticed that all of my family was engaged in a variety of animated discussions about global warming and the need to make big changes in our lives. It seems that after 30 years the penny has finally dropped with my family. Moreover, if I can believe the polls, it looks like the same thing can be said about the rest of Canadian society.

Oddly enough, I didn't really know how to take this. Probably as a result, I went through a period of depression (or as the Jesuits would say "desolation".) Yesterday I finally finished the A.C. Graham translation of Liezi and it finally dawned on me that I can walk away from environmentalism with a clear conscience. This is not merely an empty realization, as I went to a meeting that night and bowed out of a commitment that I had made to take on a position of responsibility in an upcoming very important political campaign.

As a Daoist, I have always believed that it is insane to wear yourself out in the pursuit of personal gain. I have also developed a very jandiced view of most forms of altruism---most of which strike me as being a the result of a form of blindness not terribly different from that which motivates most venal acts. For example, I once took it upon myself to try and help a homeless young woman only to find out that she was the author of almost all of her own misfortunes and any help that she received from family, friends or the government only served to "enable" her self-destructive behaviour. In retrospect, I realised that my attempts to help were motivated by my own equally dumb conditioned responses. (Namely, the folly of putting yourself into another's shoes. In actual fact, most people are very different from each other and empathy is almost always delusional.)

But I have always thought that the environment is different. It strikes me that it is a crime against nature and future generations to damage the ecosystem. In retrospect, I now realize that I was also afraid that we would end up killing off the human race. A lot of people I meet in the environmental movement say that this wouldn't be such a big deal, but I have always believed that they were simply lying to themselves to appear "cool" or to simply win a debate. Perhaps this fear of human extinction was a form of displaced fear of my own mortality, but either way it was my primary motivation for the huge effort I have put into ecological politics for the last two decades.

But now I realize that the extinction of the human race is probably not a real consequence of global warming. A population crash is possible, and people are already dying from the effects of climate change. But extinction is simply not in the cards. Instead, the fight is for both the plants and animals; and the individuals who will suffer greatly from things like hotter heat waves, longer droughts, and the flooding that will happen when the polar caps melt. (Good bye Bangladesh--.)

This is sad, but it is not really all that different from other human disasters. Plagues, famines, wars, and so forth have been the lot of humanity ever since it first became civilized. (These were all grim realities when the Daoist masters Laozi, Zhuangzi and Liezi were writing.) I have done my bit at trying to raise people's consciousness and it is now up to them. I will now turn my back on the environmental community. My duty is done and I can now pursue my true love, which is following the Dao.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Desolation, Consolation and Depression

I identify myself as a Daoist, but I have learned a great deal from a variety of the world's religious traditions. For example, I spent several years meeting and talking with people from a local Jesuit retreat centre. They introduced me to a form of spiritual practice known as the Ignatian Exercises. These are a faily involved series of practices that are taught by the Jesuits and involve a process of detailed introspection. I never actually entered into the Ignatian exercises myself, either because of ego or because that is not my particular path, but I did gain a fair amount by entering into a conversation with people who teach using that tradition.

Primarily, I learned a great deal about the nature of depression, at least as it has manifested itself in my life. The way the Jesuits describe it, all of us are prey to "spirits", both good and bad, that constantly try to influence the choices we make in life. The best way to understand this is to think of the cartoons we often see of a little devil whispering in one ear and an angel in the other. The idea is that when we are depressed (or what the Jesuits would call "in a period of desolation"), the evil spirits predominate.

I certainly can say with certaintly that that is exactly what happens when I am depressed. It is as if a chorus of voices is constantly repeating in my ear "I wish I had a better job", "I wish I wasn't a fool", "I wish I wasn't single", "I wish I wasn't crazy", etc, etc. The thing I learned from talking to the spiritual advisors was that this is a very predictable syndrome that St. Ignatius has carefully analysed and spelled out in great detail. And the processes that we go through when we are in a period of desolation can be predicted and tactics can be mapped out for dealing with it. Some of these spiritual "rules of thumb" include things like not making any decisions, continuing or increasing one's meditational practices, and, reminding oneself that a time of desolation is usually followed by a deepening of one's wisdom. (For anyone who's interested, this link gives a Ignatian gameplan for surviving desolation.)

This last point is of greatest importance to me, as I have gotten to the point where I expect to gain some insight when I go through one of these periods of distress. Perhaps this will end up in retrospect as being some form of hubris, but it does seem to me that every time I have gone through one of these spiritual "troughs" I have found myself looking back on it and thinking that I have learned an important lesson. (The technical term for these gains in insight is "consolation".)

As I wrote this blog entry, I was going to make some sort of statement to the effect that what I am talking about is not clinical depression. But I'm not sure if that is correct. I have only gone through one period that would be described as such. It was awful. I felt miserable for weeks, lost a pile of weight, made all sorts of crazy statements, sought clinical help, and reached out to all my friends in wild desperation. But the end result was a real acceptance of a great many things that had niggled away at my soul for a very long time. Perhaps the problem with depression is not so much the desolation, but how individuals and society respond to it. Maybe some people get "stuck" in the middle of their desolation experience without finding some way through it to the wisdom it may give us.

I admit that I am not a psychologist, so I simply am not qualified to speak on clinical depression, but I wonder if I had been prescribed prosac if I would have made it through my period of extreme desolation to savour that little taste of serenity that came out the other side.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Just what exactly is religion?

As I mentioned before, I've been working through Joseph Campbell's mind-blowing, four volume magnum opus The Masks of God and have been recently reading about the transition in Egyptian society that ended the practice of human sacrifice. One of the citations he uses is that of an eye-witness account by a British officer who saw a 16 year old Indian woman voluntarily submit to being buried alive with the corpse of her husband. The account mentions that she not only agreed to the procedure, but that she sat with her back to her husband's seated corpse, put her hand above her head and continued to gesture for the burying to continue after her head had been covered and she was already slowly suffocating.

Campbell used this citation to point out that we should not project our modern ways of thinking into the minds of the ancients who were buried alive in the tombs of ancient Egypt. He did not see these archaeological sites as evidence of some ancient mass murder, but rather that of evidence of people bye-and-large voluntarily going to continue their service to their master after death. The point being that their consciousness was so in the grip of their mythic world-view that they did not feel that they were being murdered but rather that they were entering a new life.

Of course, people do not feel this way anymore. (Indeed, the British officer who observed the Indian woman's act of sati felt extreme revulsion and tried to talk her out of it.) And in the same way, we moderns feel extreme revulsion at many of the things that this officer would have taken for granted, such as slavery or sending young children into battle as drummer boys or "powder monkeys". The point is that contrary to the modern mythology that states that "all men are created equal", there is a significant difference in people's consciousness from one time in human history to another.

People often fail to understand this point, which is why we see dramas on television that portray ancient peoples as if they were exactly the same as you or I. (Think about those BBC shows like "I Claudius" or the "Brother Cadfael Mysteries.") In actual fact, I suspect that if we were able to speak to a Roman Emperor or a Medieval monk we would find that beyond the barrier of language, there would be a huge difference in the the way that they see the world from that of the average modern Westerner. (I noticed one example of this extreme difference when, as an undergrad, I was studying medieval philosophy and read that St. Augustine was the first historical figure who is described as being able to read silently. It appears that until his time the only way people read was out loud. Think about what that says about their interior lives!)

These differences also occur between modern cultures. I recently came across an account of the failed American mission to Somalia (think "Blackhawk Down") and was struck by the extreme difference between the American and Somali vision of warfare. The American soldiers were appalled at the way women and children were used as "human shields". One army ranger mentioned having to shoot a woman with a baby in her arms because she pulled a pistol on him once she got close enough to shoot. In contrast, a Somali leader is quoted by saying that the Americans are very brave but too unwilling to let people die. He knew that once a helicopter was shot down their comrades would fight foolishly in order to try and save its crew---no matter how badly that exposed their position and how many soldiers died in the attempt. (Of course, the current fiascoes in Iraq and Afghanistan could furnish similar examples.)

To get back to the point that Campbell was making, he believed that the role that religion plays in our society is directly connected to the form of human consciousness that is manifest in its adherents. Moreover, the form of individual human consciousness that is manifest has a huge impact on what form a society can take. So the evolution of human society is also the evolution of human consciousness is also the evolution of religious systems. Both individually and collectively, we are what we say that God is.

This position makes a lot of sense to me. People who believe in retribution believe in a God that supports the credo of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth". And people who believe in mercy support a God that says "turn the other cheek". The point is that they are externalizing their values and projecting them into the metaphysical realm.

Where does Daoism fit into this? I suppose that folk Daoists who believe in the actual existence of a realm of Gods would also be in the same camp as the folks that Campbell is talking about above. But from the very beginning Daoism has also had a very strong tradition of calling all of that into question. Laozi warns that the Gods treat individuals like "straw dogs". Zhuangzi's radical skepticism about how much anyone can know about anything also draws into question the idea that we can know much about the ultimate "rules and regulations" of existence. So if we just talk about those Daoists who inhabit the stratospheric limits of the faith and have gotten beyond all the folk beliefs, it might be that they are beyond all of this need to believe in someone "out there" who reinforces all their beliefs.

But there is another level to this. When the scales fall from our eyes and we realize that we are players in a game we can get angry and try to toss over the board and scatter the pieces hither and yon. This is the way of the angry atheist like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. But if we aren't willing to be perpetually angry, what then? We still have to live our lives and get along with the other people. I would suggest that because the Daoist believes that the best way to get on with life is to try and find the way things work and then "go with the flow", then she would recognize and accept the role that religion plays in the formation of human consciousness and society-as-a-whole, and "play the game" to the best of her ability---but all the while reminding himself that it is indeed a game.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

We are the stuff that dreams are made of---

I've been very busy doing construction on my "heavenly cave" over the last few weeks and have let this blog slide. This involved some pretty hard physical work of a sort that I used to do when I was younger, but which now I find quite hard to do. In particular, I had to shovel three tons of gravel, move and set 60, 50 lb slabs of cement, put in a retaining wall, dig a trench for a weeping tile, and, smash a hole in a 1 foot thick reinforced concrete retaining wall. (My whole body ended up aching by the end of the week!)

One thing did strike me, however. During my "coffee breaks" I was slowly reading through the A.C. Graham translation of Liezi and I found myself thinking about the fundamentally dream-like quality of life. The chapter that Graham titles "King Mu of Chu" contains several stories about people who found it hard to separate their dreams from reality---including the famous question of Zhuangzi about whether he was a man who dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly who is dreaming that he is a man.

Of course I've heard about these stories for years and I've also had the experience of having a vivid dream only to wake up to "reality". But in the middle of shoveling the gravel off the sidewalk in front of my house and wheeling it onto my patio, I had the sudden revelation of the purely episodic quality of existence. That is to say, that at that particular moment of my existence I could not only look back on the dreams that I had had the night before and question their reality; but I could also look back at the work I had done the day before in exactly the same way. When I did so I found that the notion was immensely liberating. It meant that when I shovelled the gravel I was just shovelling gravel----I was no longer digging a trench, carrying concrete, sawing wood, or anything else. Nothing else mattered, just the task at hand.

People who look at religion from the outside in usually assume that the mystical experience resides in altered states of consciousness, visions, miracles, and so on. But in actual fact, the really important stuff of spirituality comes down to gaining insight into how complex and mysterious the "mundane" is. The revelation that one only lives through the individual "task at hand" and not in the totality of what one calls their "life", is probably the most profound thing that a person can learn. If we meditate on it and integrate this insight into the way we see the world, then it cuts away our fear of death and allows us to identify with the entirety of life instead of our own petty theoretical existence.

Of course, however, this truth cannot be given to another through mere words on a page (or blog), all one can do is point the way and hope that others will make the effort. Then someday, and in his or her own individual way, another person will have the same insight. And then perhaps they will try to explain the experience to another----.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Why scholarship is important

There are a lot of really bad translations of Daoist texts being published and since most readers simply don't know a lot about how to read an ancient text, a lot of misconceptions are being fed by these books. There is a whole scholarly field devoted to the systematic study of books, which is known as Hermeneutics. I thought I'd spend a little time introducing the reader to a couple ideas that came to me while reading the Liezi.

Let's look at a short passage from the Eva Wong translation:

"The Book of the Yellow Emperor says, "The Valley Spirit that does not die is the Mysterious Female. It is the foundation of heaven and earth. It continues forever and cannot be used up." Because the valley is hollow, it can hold the spirit, it can embrace, and it can nourish. Because the valley is empty, it is not subject to birth and death. To transcend birth and death is to enter into the Limitless (wu-chi) and be at one with the origin of heaven and earth.

The Gate of the Mysterious Female is where all things are created. And yet heaven and earth are said to be born from the not-born. This is what is meant by "that which is not born gives birth to everything," for the Mysterious Female is that which is not-born. Its origins belong to the realm of non-differentiation, where there is neither birth nor death. Because it is never born, it never dies. Because it never dies, its energy lasts forever. It is in heaven and earth, and heaven and earth do not know it. It is in all things, yet all things do not recognize it.

If we understand that birth and death are part of the natural order things, we will know that our lives cannot be controlled by our own efforts, and coming and going are not our own doing. At birth, we take a shape and form; in growth, we undergo development and change; and when our course has run out, we dissolve and return to where we were before we were born.

If we know the order of things, we will understand that when intelligence and wisdom have reached their zenith, they will begin to fade and decay. The rise and fall of shapes, colours, thoughts, and feelings are not subject to control. Because we don't know whence they come or where they go, we can only say that everything that is born comes from the not-born. (Eva Wong, Lieh-Tzu, Shambala, 1995, p.27)

Now let's look at a more scholarly translation of the same text, this one by A. C. Graham

'"The Book of the Yellow Emperor says:

The Valley Spirit never dies:
It is called the dark doe.
The gate of the dark doe.
It is called the root of heaven and earth.
It goes on and on, something which almost exists;
Use it, it never runs out. 1

'"Therefore, that which gives birth to things is unborn, that which changes things is unchanging."'

(Birth and change, shape and colour, wisdom and strength, decrease and growth, come about of themselves. It is wrong to say that it brings about growth and change, shape and colour, wisdom and strength, decrease and growth.) 2

(1) This passage is also found in the Tao-Te-Ching, ch.6.
(2) If these obscure sentences are rightly translated, they must be a critical note by another hand.

(A. C. Graham, The Book of Lieh-Tu, Mandala/Harper-Collins, 1991, p.18)

At first glance a reader might say that the Graham translation is more "choppy" and the Wong one "reads better". But I would like to point out that in the Graham version there is a lot more information about the text being conveyed to the reader. In effect, we learn from his presentation there is very little in the quotes that actually comes from Liezi himself. Instead, what we have is part of the Dao De Jing which has been attributed to The Book of the Yellow Emperor, plus a couple lines that seem to be some marginal notes that ended up getting included in the text through a copying mistake.

What we learn from these two pieces of information is that this text is not a complete document that came directly from a realized Daoist master, but rather a result of a collaborative process that included several people. Bits and pieces came from previous books and there are actual editing mistakes. For the modern reader this is incredibly important because it reduces the likelihood of a naive reader making a fetish out of the text.

In contrast, the Wong translation not only glosses over the fact that the text is largely quoted from the Dao De Jing, it is heavily laden with interpretation that seems to come directly from Ms. Wong's own version of Daoism. Of course, she is entitled to her understanding of Daoism; but Graham seems to be suggesting that the original text is much more terse and metaphorical than her translation would suggest.

People who elevate religious texts to the level of revealed WISDOM cease to see the authors as being fallible and rooted in a specific historical context. As a result, they tend to assume that every single word of the text is literally true in a way that the original audience and the authors themselves would never have. As a result, they cease to read the book "against the grain" in an attempt to find out what makes sense to them, and what does not. Fortunately, for Western Daoists this doesn't lead to fundamentalism of a sort espoused by Osama Bin Lauden or Jerry Falwell, but it does mean that they stop seeing the texts as being practical guides for the here-and-now and instead see them as some sort of "cosmic statement" about "ultimate reality".

Realized men do not want people to follow them slavishly, or to put their writings on a pedestal. Instead, they want folks to make the same sort of effort they did, and find their own particular wisdom. Reading a bad translation of an ancient text over and over again without learning anything in the process is simply one more way in which people fail to find their own spirit. It might be best to not look in books at all. But if we do, then the serious student of Daoism should be availing herself of the latest scholarly wisdom---if for no other reason than to free herself from her lingering infatuation with a specific text.