Friday, May 25, 2007

Why are people recluses?

I suspect that most people find it hard to understand why someone would isolate themselves from humanity. Human beings are almost all gregarious by nature and I suspect that very few people really like being alone. I too rejected the ideal of isolation when a spiritual friend and confidant, who is a Catholic hermit, suggested that this is my particular path on the Way. It was only after a great deal of soul-searching that I realized the wisdom of his suggestion.

Being in physical proximity with other people is not the same thing as being connected with them. And I know that in my case the times that I feel most alone are when I am with others who do not share the same values that I do.

Let me illustrate with a trivial example.

I work much of the time by myself (evenings), but there are parts of the year when I have come in during the day and help other staff members. One of the things that irks me about this is that my co-workers keep the receiving roll-up door wide open even during the hottest times of the year---even though this creates a gaping (20'x15') hole that the air-conditioned air rushes out all day long. (I live in a part of Canada that gets hideously hot during the summer months.) I have repeatedly tried to get them to close the door to save energy. The building mechanic has also done the same. We both have had to give up because these people absolutely, categorically refuse to change their ways and they will not listen to any argument in favour. Their responses are either to say that this is simply a question of personal choice: "You can shut it when we leave at night." Or, to deny that their behaviour has any effect on others: "Global warming is caused by the Americans, and it doesn't matter what we do."

I care deeply and passionately about the environment. I read things like the UN reports on climate change, so I know that future generations are going to curse all of us for the misery and damage we are causing to them. It is an open sore on my heart to see people who so royally and obviously do not give a damn about other people and Mother Nature that they will not make even the slightest, most trivial effort to prevent waste. (There is no convenience or benefit at all to having the doors open---they just like to look out the door and see the street.)

This is one example, and as I have already admitted, somewhat trivial. But it is indicative of the insane, crazy behaviour that I repeatedly see each and every day that I am out in human society. The feeling it gives me is that the ethical bedrock of my life, the essential core values that unify my life---are fundamentally worthless. It is like being punched in the solar plexis by just about everyone I meet.

What makes it so much worse is the knowledge that the intentions of the vast majority of these people are quite good. They want the best for their children, they don't steal or break any other conventional values. It's just that they are not terribly thoughtful and whatever values they hold are those that they were taught as children and which are reinforced by society. They do not have the creativity, education, time or interest to go out and try to think about what humanity is doing to the world around us and what the implication will be for future generations. They do not wander the Dao, they live small lives on the underside of an individual leaf.

So you see, when I am alone I actually feel a lot less isolated than when I am with other people. I have the birds, the insects, my cat and books that help me meet minds with the wise men and women of humanity's past. And on a good day, I can connect with that generalized sense of purpose and meaning in life that some people call "the Dao". These are my friends. They share my values and teach me new things every day. Moreover, they never make me feel like I "don't belong".

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Something About My Personal History: Part Three

One issue that I have been wrestling with over the years is that that of Cultural Appropriation. That is, how can I possible have any appreciation of what Daoism is all about without speaking Chinese, being Asian, or, having ever lived in China? Moreover, isn't there something inherently wrong about claiming any affiliation with a tradition from another culture?

As I see it, where one falls on this question comes down to whether one views religion as being inherently universal or bound up with a specific cultural identity. This insight came to me when I was attending a Roman Catholic mass. The priest was waxing eloquent about how much he enjoyed the Corpus Christi celebrations of his childhood. I grew up in a nominally Protestant, but totally non-religious family so what he was describing was as alien as if a Hindu was describing a festival in favour of the god Durga. What the experience was really bringing home to me was that I simply did not have any religious background at all---Christian, Daoist, Buddhist, Hindu, or anything else.

I understand what the priest was getting at, however. The overwhelming majority of believers are people who were simply born into a faith and never had to put any thought or effort into learning about it. It was just "there" like the sorts of food they eat and the language. But I don't think anyone who takes religion seriously would want to find themselves in the position where they are saying that all religion is, is a tradition. If so, it begins to sound dangerously like superstition and nothing else.

A very closely related issue revolves around the issue of orthodoxy. Some people feel that they can come up with very hard and fast rules about what is and is not "real" Daoism, and anyone who fails that test is at best deluding themselves and at worst a charlatan. The problem that I see with this sort of argument is that I have never been able to find any really significant meaning to the word "orthodox". In my study of religion I've repeatedly found a lot more significant difference between believers within a religious faith than "insiders" are usually willing to admit. And, strictly speaking, each and every one of those people believes that they are "orthodox" in one way or another. (That is to say, "heterdoxy" or "heresy" are inherently negative terms that no one uses to label themselves.) So the term "orthodox" is simply a way of saying "Yeah for me and mine" and "heterdox" is a way of saying "Boo for thee and thine".

And related to the question of orthodoxy is that of tradition. As I mentioned before, Eastern teachers often create very long lineage charts to show that their tradition stretches back to antiquity. The problem with this is that contrary to these claims, this is simply not historically true. There had to have been gaps in the chain of transmission. So what happened when the chain broke down? The fact of the matter is that in all religious traditions there have been charismatic individuals who started traditions either by themselves or as the result of a collective decision by a group. And if you accept that someone in the distant past created a tradition, then the question arises about why can't someone do the same thing today?

The problem is that once one chips away at the inviolability of historical tradition, one ends up opening a Pandora's box of potential innovation. That way leads to cults, New Age chicanery, and God knows what else. I understand this point, but on the other hand there are also significant problems with the status quo too. First of all, there are people like myself who were simply not raised in any religious tradition at all yet feel a strong impulse towards something. I might be white and speak English, but I am no more a cultural Christian than I am a Daoist. Am I supposed to stay on the outside of religion for the rest of my life simply because I didn't have the good luck to be born into a family with a religious tradition? Secondly, the existing religious structures of the world are falling to pieces because of their insane inability to adapt to a rapidly changing society.

My feeling is that we are going through a period of rapid religious change and in such a period we have to accept that there is going to be a huge amount of wild experimentation. Once we settle down and have a mature world culture (in tune with Mother Nature), then the good parts of this spiritual mix-master will survive an evolutionary sifting out and the bad stuff will disappear into the compost heap of history. In the interim, I respectfully stand on my right to do what makes sense to me and my own personal history.

So a Daoist I am.

Something About My History: Part Two

My previous post was primarily about my personal experiences as a Daoist. There are several issues that come out of this story, so I thought I'd take the time to discuss them.

People who are involved in religious quests make a big deal about credentials. I suppose that this is understandable because people take so much of what they are taught "on faith" that they want to know that they being exposed to the "real deal". In the case of oriental religion/philosophy/martial arts this usually involves coming up with some sort of statement about a teacher's lineage.

After I left the Fung Loy Kok and eventually regained some interest in the subject, I wanted to learn something about its relationship to other Temples in China, and, where Moy Lin Shin fit into to the grand scheme of things.

This was not a trivial task, as I found it very hard to hear anything except "wild history". Some folks talked about him being afflicted by a deadly illness as a child and being given to a Temple to raise as the only means of saving his life. Others talked about some sort of dwarf, Daoist Master he'd met in a park who taught him all he knew about martial arts. Others talked about a temple that he had build in Hong Kong after escaping from the Reds. Others suggested that he was some sort of shady character who had some connection to organized crime. One person I connected with over the internet even sent me a lineage chart that someone had given to her that listed Moy Lin Shin at the bottom of long chain starting with both Laozi and Bodhidarma!

Not knowing what to make of all this, I took a page from Zhuangzi and simply accepted the fact that I would never really know the true story.

What I have learned from my studies and in conversation with academics is that there are several things we need to remember when we look at claims about oriental "teachers".

First of all, we have to accept that naive Westerners have developed a weird attitude about oriental wisdom traditions. North Americans are programmed by our popular culture to assume that truly wise, "enlightened" people speak in enigmatic phrases and manifest strange quirks. The trope is very well established in characters like "Yoda" from "Starwars" and the Shaolin Monks from the television program "Kungfu". This means that people looking for meditation, martial arts, etc, teachers are expecting to find incomprehensible, absurd behaviour from someone who says that they "know". The best discussion of this is by Jane Naomi Iwamura and is titled The Oriental Monk in American Popular Culture.

Secondly, weird stories about Daoist teachers is not only an artifact of Hollywood. They are also part of the way Chinese culture has traditionally described Daoist teachers. I found this out when I tried to make my way through the book that purports to be an autobiography of a modern Daoist---Opening the Dragon Gate: The Making of a Modern Taoist Wizard. The experiences and practices described were so "over the top" that I went to the point of emailing a famous academic who studies Chinese religion to see if this is a modern fake. He made the interesting point to me that whatever one may think about whether what described actually happened, it is definitely the sort of book that is traditionally written about Daoist Xians. As such, it is authentically representative of an ancient genre.

Finally, it is the case that there has been a tremendous explosion of self-styled "gurus", "wizards", qi-gong masters, etc, in modern China. Some are simply confidence men who are out to fleece the gullible. Others have created movements large enough to frighten the Communist Party, i.e. Falon Gong. So when it comes to anyone who describes themselves as a "Daoist", let the buyer beware.

But having said all of that, I have found some interesting tidbits that have led me to a "working hypothesis" about Moy Lin Shin. First of all, I came across the Yuen Yuen Institute. I have met some people who argued quite adamantly that this is not a "real" Daoist organization because it has made several significant accomodations with modern society, most notably with regard to lineages. But it is a very large Temple complex in Hong Kong that has extensive charitable and educational projects. I have been told by a couple people that the Fung Loy Kok was a very minor sub-temple in the Yuen Yuen complex. (I have since been told that it has folded.) Recently this large organization has started a huge program aimed at spreading information about Daoism through a website that posts information written by many Chinese and a few Western scholars of Daoism.

As a result of bitter on-line discussions about what is and is not a "real" Daoist, and the role of the Yuen Yuen Institute in this, an American Daoist of Chinese ancestry sent me an article (since lost when the fan on my computer melted over the CPU) that describe a form of "grass-roots" popular Daoism that emerged in China during the 18th century. This emerging movement was populist, ecumenical, and had something like a "social gospel". It appears to have been an attempt to create a lay-movement around the hitherto strictly monastic Quanzhen Daoist tradition. The suggestion was that the Yuen Yuen Institute was a modern manifestation of this movement. This certainly made sense to me, as Moy Lin Shin's Fun Loy Kok was a committed to respecting all religions and charitable acts towards the greater community.

So the end result seems to be that the Fung Loy Kok is a modern manifestation of a religious movement that began in the peasantry of 18th century China, was stamped out by the Communist government in the mainland, yet spread to Hong Kong where it flourished. It since "jumped the ocean" to spread to North America, and from there around the world. In the process, a few individuals like myself "got tapped" to be insiders yet decided that we weren't "team players" and jumped ship. In the process, however, we "got the bug" and have continued to get more and more involved in the religion. Since recluses and hermits are so essential to the tradition, it strikes me that this is almost an inevitable part to the spead of Daoism to North America.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Something About My History: Part One

People often find it impossible to believe that I was ever initiated into Daoism. After all, Daosits are scarce as hen's teeth in China---how could a non-Chinese person from rural Ontario ever get involved in something so alien to his culture? To be honest, it does sound more than a little weird, so it's probably time I offered a little personal history. In the process, I thought I might write a little about the whole idea of lineages, cultural appropriation, and, the role of ethnicity in religion.

Let's start at the begining.

A couple decades ago I decided that I wanted to learn a martial art, and I ended up studying Taijiquan at the local Taoist Tai Chi Association club. I fell in love with taijiquan, primarily because it has such incredible and almost immediate results---even though I was not, and never have been, a terribly co-ordinated person.

I tend to be a "joiner" and whenever I like something, I tend to want to get involved in helping promote and build the group. Eventually, I started going to the head office in Toronto once in a while for instruction and I also spent a summer helping out at the Orangeville retreat centre as a volunteer when it first opened.

Eventually, I was asked if I would like to go to "the Temple". It was a little structure over the top of the Toronto taijiquan club. To participate we used to dress up in ornate, brocade gowns and participate in chanting services. These were nothing at all like my experience of either Christian services (incredibly boring and pointless) or Buddhist meditation (extremely intellectual and painful on the knees). We kneeled on benches and chanted phonetically-rendered Chinese texts according to the tempo of a cantor who beat out time on a wood block. Periodically he would call out "Kow Tow" and we would "knock head" on the floor before us. Written here, it may sound absurd, but it was one of the most enjoyable, holistic experiences I have ever had. The only thing I can compare it to is what I have seen of an American Black Gospel congregation holding one of their services where everyone gets totally absorbed.

At the time, the leader of the Taoist Tai Chi Association (Moy Lin Shin) was asking individuals if they wanted to "join" the temple. I thought he was looking for yet another way of squeeze money out of the members (there was a $300 fee), so I said something to the effect of "Great idea, too bad I simply cannot afford it." He came back to me the next time I saw him, raised the idea again and made a "special introductory offer" of only $30 to join.

I couldn't see any problem with this, so I agreed. Later on, I went through this ceremony that involved going to the head of the Temple with Moi Ming Do (an older Daoshi from Hong Kong that used to visit once in a while and taught meditation.) I was asked to Kow Tow several times and offer three sticks of sandalwood incense in front of an altar. I didn't have a clue about what was going on and didn't think very much about it.

A little while later I saw some things about the organization that I didn't really agree with, so I left.

I was totally surprised by the extreme reaction that came from Moy Lin Shin. I tried to teach taijiquan at a few places after I left the club, and he went to the trouble of sending instructors to tell these institutions that I was unqualified. This was understandable, if a bit weird. (He had a habit of doing this sort of thing, which was part of why I left the group.) What struck me as bizarre was that he went to the trouble of sending telegrams to all the Taoist Tai Chi clubs in the world in order to tell them that I was "persona non-grata".

I went on with my life, but kept doing tajiquan, meditating, etc. Years went by and I never really thought of myself as a "Daoist". In fact, I flirted with becoming a Buddhist, Sufi, Christian, or anything else as I continued in my own personal spiritual search.

Then along came the internet and I found a website called the "Taoist Restoration Society" (it no longer exists.) This group was set up to help Westerners learn about Daoism and help the re-emergence of Daoism in mainland China. In actual fact, the website seemed more than anything else to be designed to insult and antagonize the sorts of people who learned about Daoism from books like The Dao of Pooh. It did have the value, however, of introducing me to the whole world of academic scholarship that deals with Daoism.

One of the first things I noticed was a "Questions" part of the website that dealt with the sort of naive things Westerners ask about the religion. One person asked how they could become "baptised" as a Daoist. The response was that there is no such thing. I wrote in at that point and described the ritual that I had gone through and got the response that this was not a "baptism", but rather an "ordination". The implication was that I had not "joined a temple", but rather that I had been initiated in to a Daoist lineage. The difference is that there are no "ordinary believers", but only "Daoshis"---who are more like monks/priests/medicine men than the sorts of people who sit in the pews of Christian churches.

I eventually gave up on this website because of a couple characters who dominated the site, but in the interim something called "Google" had been invented. This allowed me to do some name searches on Daoism and came across a paper written by a Phd candidate by the name of Elijah Siegler . (It appears that he is now an assistant professor at a college in the USA.) I wrote to him (the wonders of email!) about my experience with Moy Lin Shin and he contacted me and eventually came to my home to interview me as research for his thesis on Western Daoists.

I learned some very interesting facts from Elijah. One of which was that Moy had only initiated a few people for a very brief time. (The most famous is Eva Wong---who has translated many books on Daoism for the Shambalah Press.) This explains why Mr. Moy made such a big deal of my leaving the Taoist Tai Chi Association. No doubt he considered initiating me into his Temple as an enormous gesture, one that I had thrown away without any consideration!

Monday, May 14, 2007

Leaving the Land of Dust

One of the things that people routinely say about Daoism is that it discourages people's involvement in the world of politics. This has certainly been the opinion of many Daoists over the centuries and there is ample evidence for this point of view. For example, the traditional explanation of how the Dao De Jing was created involves Laozi being stopped by a border guard and asked to leave something in writing before he disappeared into the wilderness.

Another story involves an official coming to invite Zhuangzi to accept a post with the local Lord. His response is to ask the official if he would rather be a revered dead sacred turtle or a live one still wallowing in the mud. When the official says that of course he'd rather still be the live turtle, Zhuangzi asks him to leave him alone and let him continue to wallow in the mud.

But having said that, Daoism has a great deal to say about how the human world should be organized. Modern scholars believe that the Dao De Jing is primarily a book about how a state should be run and is only secondarily a book about how an individual should live her life. It should also not be forgotten that traditionally both Laozi and Zhuangzi supported themselves as minor bureaucrats in some state's government. Finally, there are parts of the Daoist Canon that are very specifically about political issues. One of them, the Huainanzi, has actually had exerpts translated by Thomas Cleary and published as The Dao of Politics.

My personal take on this is to try and understand the political context that the ancients lived in. They did not live in Periclean Athens or a modern Liberal democracy. Instead, their's was an authoritarian society where power was everything, individuals had no rights under the law, and, being a leader was extremely dangerous. In such a context any sort of involvement in politics was to a greater or lesser degree, suicidal. (This was the point that Zhuangzi was making when he contrasted the live turtle in the mud to the dead one in the temple.) To attempt to try and change the world was bordering on insane.

We simply do not live in the same world as the ancient Daoists, so we have much greater opportunities for community involvement. It can be extremely frustrating, it can even be so stressful that it may damage your health, but no one is going to cut off our noses, chop off a foot---or worse---if we make a mis-step. The Zhuangzi is full of references to people suffering these penalties.

Having said the above, however, I think that it is important as followers of Wu-Wei to understand where our efforts will do good and where they are wasted or even counter productive. My personal feeling is that we should accept that there are times when a public life is a good thing, and when it is time to "cultivate our own garden". My hope is to emulate the lives of both Laozi and Zhuangzi: they both had public lives in their youth but eventually retreated to the private when their opportunity to do good had run its course and disappeared. At that point they gladly turned their backs on "the land of dust" and retreated into the vastness of the Dao.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

A Few Words About the Gods of Daoism

A lot of people who call themselves "Daoists" have a very hard time accepting anything that involves the ritual worship of the Daoist Gods. I can respect this point of view, but I think that it misses a great deal.

The first thing to understand is that the religious Daoist worldview is significantly different from that of the naive Westerner. The Western view is that a God is a being that is absolutely omniscient, all-powerful and eternal that live in a perfect realm far beyond the hopelessly corrupt earth. In contrast, Daoist "Xian"s, or "Immortals", are portrayed as being ordinary human beings who through diligent study and practice (i.e. "kungfu") have transcended their mortal nature to ramble the universe in freedom. Daoists do not posit that Gods are "better" or "more important" than mortals, but rather that they are part of a mobile continuum. Moreover, they do not believe that the earth is less important than "heaven", but instead is an equal. They express this by describing spiritual matters not by a term like the Western "God" but by the more inclusive "Heaven and Earth".

The second thing to remember is that Daoism is infused by the Confucian idea that society is held together by tradition and ritual. Westerners live under the illusion that it is possible to have a life totally based on freedom and rational choice, but this is impossible because it would be like trying to communicate if every individual was allowed to use their own personal meaning for each word they speak. Human beings live in a universe of symbol and the more we cut ourselves off from the symbols that unified our ancestors the harder it is to understand each other. The rituals that we use as members of a religious tradition are unifying elements that keep us together even though we may disagree on much else. When people attend a ritual some will think of it literally as paying homage to a real being. Some may simply see it as a pleasant aesthetic experience. Still others may see it as a symbolic representation of some subtle yet important element of existence. Others may simply see it as an opportunity to do some quite contemplation. The fact that the people are brought together for a ritual experience instead of a lecture means that they can come together without having their differences made obvious. This is a community building experience.

The final point I'd like to make is that people believe in the Gods to a very large extent because many practitioners have an actual experience of meeting them. That is to say, Daoism is a shamanistic religion that is based on the personal experience of its practitioners instead of relying upon a historical revelation based on some ancient text. This interaction with the Gods takes the form of visions, mystical experiences, revelatory dreams, "channelling", oracles, and other altered states of consciousness. Again, people have various interpretations of what is taking place during these experiences. Some literally believe that a "God" is communicating with them. Others may have a more modern understanding and believe that their unconscious mind is making manifest some truth that through the use of symbolic representation. Others simply "suspend judgement" about their ultimate cause and choose to follow them for purely pragmatic reasons. No matter the explanation, the phenomena itself does exist and is an important part of the Daoist faith.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

A Few Words About Rituals and Altars

A lot of Westerners talk about "Daoism" as a philosophy as opposed to a religion. They read the Dao De Jing and Zhuangzi, but don't know very much about or have any interest in anything else that comes under the heading. I have a lot of sympathy for this position, as I believed much the same thing for many years. But I eventually came to change my viewpoint and began to have growing respect for the idea of ritual and other elements of formal religious practice.

Having said this, I'm not much of an expert on Daoist ritual, nor do I do much on a regular basis. One thing I have done for many years is have an altar to the Land God and which I "open" and "close" just about every day.

What I do is light a stick of incense, bow to the little altar, and ring a bell the when I first step out the door in the morning, and, when I step into the house for the last time at night. This is a ritual that we always practiced at the Daoist retreat centre I lived at many years ago. What it does for me (other than have my neighbours think I am nuts) is that it quiets my passionate soul and reminds me to think about the world around and within me---and what I owe it.

I also have an altar in my study which I have tried to develop a formal practice around, but which never seemed to "fit". So it has become more of a piece of sculture than an actual working shrine. Maybe at a future time it will become more important. Oddly enough, I had a film crew come in and shoot me offering incense to it as part of a legal battle I had with Walmart to protect a Jesuit retreat centre.

This isn't a very traditional altar, and I freely admit that I don't know much about this sort of thing. The three cloth paintings are supposed to depict some pretty key characters in my religious worldview: Chang San Feng, Laozi and Gandhi. Unfortunately, the artist I commissioned didn't check with me before she started the work, and as a result, she painted Chang San Feng (the founder of the internal alchemy school) riding an ox, which is a common way of depicting Laozi (or Lao tsu.) Gandhi isn't a tradition Daoist "Immortal", but he is an big influence on my life and he was known as a "Mahatma", or "great-souled one", which is pretty close to my understanding of Daoist "Xian". Moreover, there are lots of examples of non-Daoist deities in Daoist shrines, so it is pretty fair for him to be there.

Underneath the cloth banners I have a mantle with a "Hotei" (the laughing buddha.) He is traditionally known as an incarnation of Maitreya Buddha (the future Buddha) and is known for his sense of humour and patience---both things I am sorely lacking. The middle figure is a Guanyin, or Goddess of Mercy. Guanyin is also a Buddhist figure and is probably the most common figure on Chinese altars. She is very important to me as I believe that I have been repeatedly blessed with a visitation by her. The last figure is a Confucius, whom I also honour because even though I have never been a teacher, I am a scholar to my very bones.

Finally, underneathe my altar are the weapons I use in my taijiquan practice: a spear, straight sword (gim), sabre and dao. By putting them under my altar, I remember that my martial spirit must always be subservient to the teachings of religion. By the same token, they are there to ensure that I always wed my philosophy with action; and that I remember my responsibility to defend justice and Mother Nature.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

More Depressing News

I was listening to an engineer on the CBC yesterday and he made an off-hand remark that was stunningly obvious, yet which I had never heard anyone say before, and, which has tremendous implications for all of humanity.

This guy made the point that since natural carbon sequestration (i.e. the process by which carbon is taken out of the atmosphere, trapped chemically and then deposited in the earth's crust) is incredibly slow by human standards, if we are ever going to stop a runaway greenhouse effect, the human race is not only going to have to stop increasing the amount of CO2 it is emmitting every year, it is eventually going to have to reduce its total emmissions by an astounding 97%! That's right, only 3% of present emmissions get sequestered every year, according to this fellow's calculations.

Now I suspect that this fellows assertions were a bit overblown, simply because it strikes me that it would be incredibly difficult to come up with a number for the amount of carbon sequestration over the entire planet. But when you think about it, all through the history of the earth there has been some pretty intense recycling of carbon, with the only significant imput of new carbon coming from volcanos and the odd comet strike. What this would mean to me is that the CO2 that gets sucked up and turned into coal or limestone must be pretty small per year or else carbon would have become a pretty scarce commodity. So if his precise number is suspect, I don't think his general idea is.

This means that all the fighting and squawking that is going on with regard to Kyoto is just the begining of a very long fight to reduce our collective impact on the planet.