Friday, April 27, 2007

The Tory Green Plan and Despair

The media has been all abuzz with the latest government plan for dealing with global climate change. As was expected, the Conservatives have come up with a program that really doesn't take the issue seriously. I was watching the CBC news last night and the usual morality play came on one more time. The government economists said that the economy cannot afford to follow the Kyoto Accord, and the climate scientist pointed out that Kyoto was supposed to be only the first step and much more has to happen beyond it if we are going to avoid a tremendous catastrophe.

As someone who has spend most of his life trying to help the human race avoid collective suicide, my later years are becoming a horror. No matter how hard my friends and I scream, the "powers that be" seem incapable of listening. I've attempted to be very careful through this process. I've bitten my tongue, tried to be "upbeat" and "positive", etc---even though part of me wants to get angry and hit everyone who lives their life as if there is no problem at all.

I wish I had the sort of religious faith of a Christian who can go through life in the assumption that nothing we do on earth really matters and the great "Daddy in the sky" will set everything right. But that simply seems like a cop-out to me. At times the one thing that does give me some release is to remember Zhuangzi's meditation on the issue of scale. If we remember that the life of humanity is a tiny pimple on the butt of the earth; and that the earth itself is a tiny planet around an average star, in an obscure corner of an average galaxy, in a universe that is so huge and so old that it is impossible for humanity to understand. And moreover, that our universe may simply be one of an infinite number that exist; and that it may simply be one that was created in a big bang only to collapse and be recreated in an infinite number of big bangs.

Well, then, we simply are just frogs sitting in a well thinking that we are everything. But I cannot help but care about what shape this well is going to be in for the tadpoles that are still swimming in the water---.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Key Terms from Daoism

People who don't have access to a good Daoist teacher will often hear some pretty mysterious terms. I've spent decades studying the subject, so I thought that I'd share my own understanding of the following words. I will admit that I am not the final authority on the subject, but I have yet to hear any better discussion of the terms. Hopefully these will help others avoid wasting some of the time I have---.

Qi Gong (Nei Dan): Most people don't know that the term "qi gong" or "chi kung" is actually a modern invention. Until the Republican revolution in China, these practices were called "Nei Dan" and were specifically spiritual in nature. They were part of a religious system called "internal alchemy" and were designed to help a Daoist refine their spiritual essence through a three-stage program of refinement. This sort of alchemy was not designed to change lead into gold, but rather to change an ordinary human being into a much better person. Since the initial stage of this three stage process is to increase human vitality, they are often very good exercises for human health. The Republican government wanted to retain the health value of these practices while it rejected any religious overtone. As a result, they created a new name "Qi Gong" and tried to get rid of the alchemaical elements.

Immortal: People often talk about the idea that the goal of Daoist practice is to become an "immortal" with the idea that some people literally do not die and live forever. But if you take a look at both the Dao De Jing and Zhuangzi, they both "pooh pooh" this idea. In the Laozi there is a passage that says "to die and not be forgotten, that is true immortality". Zhuangzi talks about "transformations" and mentions the death of great masters with the implication that while death may simply be one more transformation and nothing to be feared---it is still inevitable. My understanding is that the word for "immortal" (xian) may also be translated as "realized man" or "shaman" or "mountain man" or "alchemist" or "wizard". I would suggest that any idea of physical immortality is something that has crept into the meaning of the term because non-Daoist outsiders spread wild rumours about old men in the mountains that have been there "forever". (In a society with a very low life expectency, anyone who lived into their 60's or 70's could easily have seemed to be immortal to outsiders!) Certainly, my understanding is that all mature Daoists accept the inevitability of death and seek through their studies the realization that would make them unafraid of their eventual demise.

Jing: This term is often translated as "sperm", but I think a much better term would be something like "life energy" or "vitality". The term used is important, because many people take the term to literally mean seminal fluid, with the result in a wide range of weird sexual practices ranging from celibacy through to tying weignts onto the testicals! The important issue is that someone should conserve their Jing through practicing a healthy lifestyle.

Qi or Chi: This is often translated as "breathe", but I think that it is better understood as "consciousness" or "bodily awareness". When we practice neidan the point is that we need to be aware of what is happening in all the different parts of the body. This is what it means to "project the chi" into a specific part of the body. This fits in with the way other religious systems use the breath as a word for the "essence" of what it means to be a human---such as "prana" in Hinduism and "pneuma" in Christianity. This is a much more productive way of understanding the term than when we think of "qi" as some sort of weird, cosmic force that people can never really explain.

Shen: This is very rarely mentioned by Westerners, who tend to focus more on Qi. But the traditional understanding of Nei Dan practitioners is that Jing turns into Qi which turns into Shen. Usually it is translated as "spirit", but I think it is more useful to think of it in terms of "wisdom" or "integrity", since those are words that mean a lot more to most people. The process of studying nei dan is ultimately not to have weird powers or to live forever, but to become the best human beings we can possibly be. And the process of being more and more aware of the world around us is how we become wise. And this is only possible if we treasure and conserve the gift of life.

The greatest truths in life are quite humble, yet they require a lifetime of practice to understand. Thus we come back to the basic truth of Kung Fu.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

What is the Dao De Jing?

I sometimes get asked to comment on manuscripts by authors who write about Daoism. Usually the person asks me just as they are about to send it to the printer, and just as usually I am a bit of a "wet blanket". This comes about when people read a rotten "version" of the Dao De Jing and then start making a lot of big assertions about the religion.

Please note that I didn't write "translation" but "version". This is because the most popular editions of the book are written by people who don't even read Chinese---let alone classical Chinese. The worst offender of this is Stephen Mitchell, who has written a "fortune cookie" version that blandifies and dumbs down the text.

Let me try to give a quickie intro to what the book is really about:

The title is "The Way" (Dao) "Power" (De) "Classic" (Jing)

There are two very important issues that most people do not understand about the text.

First of all, it is a collection of wisdom sayings from an oral tradition. As such, the chapters are often composed of two or more items that have very little to do with each other. If you don't understand this point it is common to do real violence to the text in order to make a chapter "hang together".

Secondly, it is primarily a book about amassing political power. The idea is that if you understand the principles that govern the universe (i.e. "the Dao") you will amass enough "power" (i.e. "De") to be able to govern a state effectively.

Of course, these general principles often can be applied to ordinary life which is why it has common appeal, but the problem comes when modern Westerners assume that the book is a book of pop psychology or sort-of Christian theology. If it is, it is only in the same way that all gnomic sayings act like mirrors to reflect back our assumptions. At this point, however, it ceases to be a book of ancient wisdom and instead becomes a literary Rorschack (i.e. inkblot) test.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Yin and Yang, versus Good and Evil

I just got off the phone with a friend who was concerned about a recent agreement between the leaders of the Green Party and the Liberals. To make a long story short, the leaders of both parties have agreed to not run candidates against each other in the next election.

My friend was concerned that this agreement was undemocratic because it bypasses the Electoral District Associations of both parties. I'm not a big fan of giving too much power to "supreme leaders", but I see the issue in a significantly different way. I see it as two people who are very, very concerned about the future of the planet and who have agreed to take a tentative step towards a "government of national unity" during a time of crisis. The government did exactly the same thing during WWII---which the leader of the Liberals specifically referred to as an precedent. It's too bad we don't have a system of proportional representation which would assure that Greens would get elected to Parliament. (The latest poll numbers I can find say that the party is running at 11%, which would give it a lot of seats under proportional representation.) But under the current system this is at least a gesture in the right direction.

As I see it, the problem my friend had was that she was seeing the world in terms of "Good" versus "Evil", whereas I was looking at it from the point of view of "Yin" and "Yang". As I see it, our political system is too darn Yang, and any attempt to reduce the partisanship and build consensus is a move towards balance. (When I was in on the board of directors for the Green Party I viewed it as being far too "Yin", which is why I fought tooth and nail for it to be more professional and rigorous.)

As I see it, Daoism teaches us to through away ideas that a situation is "right" and instead askes us to think in terms of "appropriate". I think our political leaders could all use a little more thought in those terms.

Friday, April 13, 2007


I've just started learning the taiji spear form. It's been a long process just to get to the "starting point". First of all, there are no teachers that I know of anywhere near my neighbourhood---let alone any who would like to teach me. This means I had to find a teaching DVD, and it had to be got over the internet. It also took me a fair amount of time to find a real spear, which like the DVD, came over the internet. That was not the "begining" but to paraphrase Churchill "it was just the begining of the begining". ;-) Because at that point I realized that I simply did not have enough time to take on a new learning task. It took me about two years to divest myself from enough commitments to have the time.

It is not going to be easy. I couldn't find an English language DVD, and I don't speak or read Chinese, which means that I'm stuck watching frame by frame while listening to an explanation that I simply cannot understand. Moreover, I don't have access to a gymnasium, which means that I can only practice in my living room or the patio. This means that I have to be very careful not to "ding" my furniture, the ceiling or my walls as long as it is too cold to practice outside. (Luckily I own a 100 year old home, which means that I at least have 9 foot ceilings.)

Why in heaven's name would someone put themselves through this exercise in masochism?

The first thing is that every form I have learned has come through a similar nightmare.

When I went to my first taijiquan workshop my legs were so stiff from the "post lifting" exercises that I had crawl up the stairs to apartment on my hands and knees. Not only that, but I was such a disaster as a student (even though I practiced probably more than anyone else in the class) that I had to take three beginners classes one after the other before I learned the gross moves of the open hand set.

When I learned the sabre form I didn't have a car and was working at a minimum wage job as a janitor. I signed up for a class over two weekends at a retreat centre that I had to spend hours on a bus just to get to. The cost was $600 over two weeks (a huge amount of my very limited disposable income at the time.) When I got there for the first weekend, the teacher had gotten very drunk the night before and the one other student and I had to drag him out of bed and force him to teach us even though he had a terrible hangover.

When I learned the straight sword I couldn't find any teachers at all in my area, so I got a video tape and learned the form from it (after a fashion) over two years. Luckily, after a while I heard about a local woman who had moved into the area from China and had been on a provincial wushu team. It turned out that she was teaching a class on the sword. All that work with the video meant that I was able to absorb a lot from her two hour, Saturday morning classes---even though her English was pretty bad.

So my experience has been that if you make the effort, it will eventually pay off. Actually, this is a key principle of religious Daoism. Sincere effort will bring results. Moreover, that is pretty much what the word "kung fu" means: hard work over time. The point is the personal investment, not what particular thing you invest in.

When I was living at a Daoist retreat centre I had this pointed out to me by one of the cooks. Ming was an apprentice chef who had been brought over from the mother Temple to work in the kitchen. He spoke pretty good English so I asked him one day why I never saw him doing any taijiquan. He said "I do all my taiji in the kitchen".

This idea of taiji as kungfu as work pretty much goes against what a lot of "groovy" people think of when they talk about taijiquan. In fact, a lot of people specifically talk about taiji as "play". There is a way in which this makes sense, but that isn't the sense in which these folks mean it . Taiji isn't "fooling around", it is hard work!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Daoist Sues Walmart

Last summer I sued Walmart in order to help protect a Jesuit retreat centre from some pretty ridiculously bad planning. To make a long story short, Walmart decided to jam a big box retail centre in between three burial grounds and next to a 600 acre retreat centre. After a 12 year court battle that involved three City Council elections (and planning flip-flops), competing developers, and a citizen's group; Walmart won. At that point on behalf of a multifaith coalition, I sued the company under Canada's Charter of Religious Freedom. We settled out of court by having the company agree to the principle that nothing that happens at the shopping centre will be either seen or heard on the property.

Here's the website for our group. And here's the deposition I wrote for myself.

Years ago, the ancient Daoists were very involved in various political initiatives out of self defense. The founder of the Quanzhen school (part of my lineage) was famous for meeting with Genghis Khan to encourage him to moderate his policies towards the common people. And Daoists of Wudan Shan were famous for the martial arts they developed for self defense. I'd like to think that my court battle on behalf of the Ignatius Centre is in the same tradition of the martial monks fighting bandits to save their Temple.

What is a "Recluse"?

The first question a naive person might ask is "How can someone be an "urban recluse"? I had this question explained to me by a Catholic urban hermit who said that the main issue is not whether or not one is surrounded by people, but rather whether or not one is connected into a specific religious community.

In my own case I once was a member of a Daoist community. I lived a summer at a retreat centre (amongst other things, I worked in the garden and did all the baking), "knocked head" at a Temple and used to take part in the services. But things didn't work out for me in that community, so I walked away from it. But that didn't end my involvement in Daoism, but rather led me to deepen my faith through decades of individual study and practice.

The essential element is not whether or not one lives in physical proximity with people, but whether or not one is able to make any sort of human connection. I have friends and have been involved in many public battles in defense of nature, but I do not have any spiritual community, which is what makes me a recluse.

Believe me, that makes me as isolated as if I was living on a mountain top!

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Button Problem

Years ago I saw a “Twilight Zone” episode titled “Button, Button” that I cannot get out of my mind. It involved a couple with money “problems” that had a visit from a mysterious stranger who delivered a mechanism with a big button and offered them a proposition. If they pushed the button, two things would happen: they would receive $200,000 cash, and, a complete stranger would be killed. After considerable debate, the wife pushes the button. The next day the stranger returns, hands her the cash and informs her that the button will be reprogrammed and given to someone who “doesn't know her either”.

The reason I cannot get this television program out of my head is because that button exists and just about everyone in our society pushes it every day.

Let me illustrate with an example.

Last week I met with some friends for a celebration and conversation got around to travel. It appears that just about everyone there spends a fair amount of their vacation time jetting around the planet. Oddly enough, one of the people there used to make a living doing complex fuel calculations for airlines. He tells me that flying is just about the most fossil fuel intensive thing any individual does in our society. (In fact, he told me that it is common for an airliner to burn through $5,000 in fuel just taxiing around the airport before it gets into the air.)

One of the things that the UN climate change panel predicts, but which hasn't been reported much by the media, is that if global climate change causes the destruction of the Greenland ice cap, sea levels are expected to rise by as much as 7 meters. (They have already gone up by 20 centimeters simply because of thermal expansion.) Just one example of the consequences of only a 1 meter rise would be that 13% of Bangladesh would be under water, which would displace 15 million people and severely damage its rice crop.

The button is being pushed every time someone gets into an airplane and the person that isn't known is some peasant in Bangladesh.

The important issue is that my friends are very, very good people. They would never put a gun to the head of a peasant and blow his brains out. But they are not making a connexion between their behaviour and the environmental consequences. This is the moral conundrum of our age. As a society, how can we convince people to take moral responsibility for the consequences of their behaviour when the results are not only not in plain sight but can happen on the other side of the world to people we've never met and may even happen long after we are dead?

Laozi warns us that the Dao is indifferent to human suffering (i.e. that people are of no more value than "straw dogs".) This means that unless we consciously choose to live lives of moral integrity there is no "Daddy in the sky" who will make it all "OK". It is up to us, each and every moment of each and every day.

Drunks, Bars and Living A Rooted Life

I've been sick with a bad head cold this week and was home when a local restaurant owner came to visit. You see, I live almost downtown in a fairly large city (at least for Canada) and we are having a problem with hordes of drunken young people taking over the city when the bars close down. In an attempt to get a handle on this problem, various people---including myself---have been lodging complaints whenever a new business applies for a liquor license. (We already have an astounding 8,000 seat capacity in our quite small downtown area and weekend nights usually end with a drunken brawl and someone going to the hospital from a beating.)

The latest applicant is someone who is a pretty good fellow. He doesn't want to open a bar---just a restaurant that has dancing, live music and can stay open until 2:00 am. It's too bad that we have to draw the line with this fellow, as he would probably be a much better business citizen than the boobs that run the already existing bars downtown. But even if he runs a perfect establishment, once we open the door to another bar the license cannot be revolked and he can sell it to any slob that puts money on the table to take over business.

In life there are very few situations that are clear-cut "good" versus "evil". Often it is more a question of balance. And ignorance can be extremely dangerous. This fellow has invested money into a business that may very well fail before it gets off the ground because he didn't think about the impact that allowing too many bars down can cause.

This is one of the biggest lessons that can be learned by the "rooted life". People who live "nowhere" can't understand that there are natural limits that have to be respected in order to preserve the integrity of a specific place. If I were a rural recluse I would have aquired a sensitivity to the number of trees that can be harvested in a year before the bio-diversity of the area begins to suffer. In the same way, in an urban life if too many bars are allowed in an area the "cultural diversity" begins to suffer.

This has nothing to do with the intentions of my friend the would-be barkeep. It is simply part of how the Dao operates.