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.


Anonymous said...

hi...i'm wondering what you didn't like about the Taoist Tai Chi society

Bill Hulet said...

There were several things that added up together.

First of all, I am a scholar with a Master's degree in philosophy. As such, I have a real commitment to the value of constant study and the quest for truth. The TTCS actively discouraged people from learning about taijiquan or Daoism from other sources. I find this really unhealthy because people who never get exposed to other viewpoints never have a reference point to evaluate the truth claims of the organization.

Secondly, even though the organization was quite willing to make maximum use of individual's volunteer efforts, it never acknowledged the efforts or achievements of its members. This means that every individual---no matter what the level of commitment or learning---was always in the position of being treated like a child by the "Master". In contrast, Karate and Judo organizations have a recognized belt-ranking system which is like an academic diploma system. This system allows people to gain some status within the organization and as such some ability to participate in a form of collective decision-making.

There were several specific incidents that I could cite, but I think that they all stemmed from these two unhealthy organizational issues. I wasn't the only person who felt this way about the TTCS. A great many of their most gifted instructors and leaders ended up leaving. (I believe even one or two entire clubs just got up and left.)

On the whole, I am somewhat ambivalent, though. I suspect that Mr. Moy was simply being true to the values of the world he came from. I suspect that the people who built the great cathedrals of Europe were much the same. But those days are gone and we need to come up with a more modern spiritual tradtion.

Anonymous said...

ps. I wonder if things have changed a bit since Master Moy died.

Bill Hulet said...

No doubt some things have changed and will continue to change. And large institutions routinely change for the better as they make the transition from founders to institution. But as I stated in another post, however, I did look into rejoining a few years ago and at that time, with the people I was connecting with, things were substantively the same. Think of what I have written as a historical record more than a current new report---.

Anonymous said...

Hi Bill.. I wrote a longer comment but it didn't appear. Somehow only my p.s appeared. Basically what I said was that I can see where you are coming from. Also I am doing a PhD in political theory and so have been keen to learn about the philosophy of Taoism. I’ve found the people aren’t discouraged from learning from other sources. However I have found the instructors are largely not really interested in the philosophical underpinnings of the practice. Some other members have brought along friends who practice other styles so that they can learn and exchange ideas. This has not been explicitly discouraged (as far as I know) but the senior masters just seem disinterested. The feeling I have got is that the aim of the organization is to make the practice available to a large number of people so as to help them and that this has meant that aspects that may discourage people (such as philosophical reflection) have been down played.

As someone who has learned to ‘win’ within the academic credential system I can see its appeals. However one of the things I like about TTC is that because is no explicit system of ranking then the practice has to become its own motivation. I cannot be motivated by getting the next belt, or certificate and thus I have to choose to do it because I want to enjoy it doing it for its own sake.

Bill Hulet said...

I am glad to hear that things have changed a bit. I just know that when I enquired about rejoining I was explicitly told that I would have to quit the Canadian Taijiquan Federation and have nothing to do with any other martial arts group.

I think you misunderstand the point I was trying to make about ranking systems. The point I'm trying to make is that once someone gets a Phd, for example, that is his and remains his for the rest of his life. It cannot be taken away from him. It is the same thing with belt ranking in karate.

The problem with the Taoist Tai Chi Association was that all status flowed from where one sat with Mr. Moy. And he was quite willing to yank someone's status as a chief instructor, or whatever, and dump them. This is a profoundly unhealthy way to run an organization because it gives the leader life and death control over the career of everyone in the group.

This is the way a cult is run, not a volunteer-based service club.

Anonymous said...

Ok I see what you mean about the ranking system. I think things maybe have changed because now once a person has done the instructor course they are entitled to teach beginners and once they pass a continuing instructor course they are entitled to teach continuing and so on. I do not think that status can be arbitrarily removed from someone. Also the centre I’ve joined has committees that are open to everyone and are relatively transparent. I don’t get the feeling that there is any individual who holds a lot of power and can have people dumped etc. Maybe if I got more involved I would notice these things but no-one has every asked me about my affiliation with other organizations and certainly we have never been told that we should not be affiliated with any other organization. If that happened I would definitely feel like I was in a cult and I would leave. It has been interesting to hear about your experiences.

Bill Hulet said...

I'm glad to hear that things have become more stable in the organization. I've always suspected that the roots of the problem came from the way Mr. Moy ran the organization like a personal fiefdom. I suspect that that is just the way he was taught. Thanks for filling me in.

Old Fogey said...

Several years ago I wrote a few words about the question of cultural appropriation.

Bill Hulet said...

Yes, there are a variety of different opinions about how much any non-Chinese person can really understand Daoism. And the Taoist Restoration Society and Russell Kirkland have very strong positions about this. I think that Thomas Cleary's point is very apropos---Daoism made China instead of the other way around. I also think that your point about soybeans makes sense too.

I think it is also important to make sure that we aren't projecting our assumptions onto other cultures. Chinese culture---especially contemporary---is influenced by a lot more things than just Daoism. I remember when I lived at the Daoist retreat centre I took a group of recent immigrants from Hong Kong on a tour. In the middle of one of these "walk abouts", I remember one woman turning to me and exclaiming something to the effect that "you caucausians are so calm and relaxed!"

Anonymous said...

Hi Bill,
Something you might find of interest is that the TTCS Centre near Orangeville has just opened a large Taoist temple (the biggest in North America, they say) There was an elaborate Opening Ceremony in September, with Taoist monks who came from Hong Kong to enliven the Temple. If you go on the website you can see pictures of the ceremony and the new Temple. I know you're not connected with the TTCS anymore, but thought you'd still find this of interest.

I enjoy reading your site!