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.