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.

Friday, June 15, 2007

The Interior Life

I've been busy with lots of things over the last couple weeks, which is why I've been away from this blog. All of these things are very different: working on my patio, attending meetings, going to municipal committees to deal with neighbourhood nuisances, etc. All of this has kept me so busy that I haven't had time to keep up with my taijiquan and meditation (indeed, I could be doing that now instead of working on this blog.)

But through this I've been reading The Masks of God by

Joseph Campbell. I just got through his discussion of Shamanism and was struck by his contrast between the shamanic religions of hunters and the priestly religions of hierarchical civilizations. The distinction is that the shamanic quest is geared towards expanding the self and seeking deeper and deeper wisdom. In contrast, the priestly quest is that of submitting to the will of the collective society. I found this statement important to me because it resonates with my experience as a recluse.

Daoism is a tradition that has connections with shamanism---even to the point where there are still practitioners who become possessed by individual gods and spirits. Moreover, Daoism has always been a faith where wisdom is perceived to come from an isolated individual who pursues his own wisdom. (Indeed, one of the translations of the word Xian--usually translated as "immortal"--is "mountain man", or, recluse.) The great thing about Chinese civilization is that it allowed Daoism to continue as a minority religion even though it developed its own priestly faiths in the forms of Confucianism and Buddhism. In the West, the Abrihamic faiths destroyed anything else that threatened the ecclesiastic hierarchy---and routinely persecuted any mystical elements that developed within their them.

Of course it is one thing to say that a person has isolated themself to pursue wisdom, it is another to actually do it. One of the themes of shamanism is that of suffering. One of the metaphors that Campbell says is very common throughout the literature about shamanism is that of the shaman being "ripped to pieces" in a psychological crisis.

I have been thinking of this in the midst of the various projects that I have been working through. I find myself constantly thinking about just about everything I do. At its worst, this manifests itself in "analysis paralysis". But I am a very productive individual, so I probably don't have to worry about this becoming a persistent syndrome. The one thing I do find within myself is a huge fear of "not doing the right thing". I worry about the way I build my patio---trying to balance off my interest in not having too big an ecological footprint with my concerns about the other members of my housing co-op thinking I'm not "keeping up my share". I'm also constantly worried about whether or not I spend enough time meditating and doing taijiquan; or; whether I obsess too much about it. I wonder if I spend too much time on activism; and; whether the religious, spiritual side of life is not some elaborate superstition. I worry about whether the whole Daoism thing isn't some ridiculous exercise in cultural appropriation. I worry----well, I'm sure you get the picture.

I think many folks might simply dismiss the above as a form of neurosis. There is some truth to this, but it is also simply what it means to be a man with an "interior life". And the interior life is the means by which a recluse or hermit (or shaman) deepens his or her wisdom. In the outside world society goes to great lengths to avoid reference to an interior being. For example, if someone at a workplace starts to make reference to deeply held beliefs, almost invariably her co-workers will attempt to change the subject. If she is feeling sad about something, people will try to cheer her up. If it is something else, maybe political, then usually she will be quickly teased into shutting up or changing the subject. People don't talk about serious things and learn instead that social interaction has to be reduced to light banter. Eventually, people lose the ability to express deep feelings. Maybe some people stop having them. (We never really know because it is so common for people to have strong feelings yet not be able to articulate them because of the intense social conditioning we have internalized.)

I'm not about to say that this social conditioning is without its uses. Our society is probably too complex to allow much genuine human interaction. The trains would probably stop running on time if the engineers were allowed to spend more energy expressing their true feelings! (I do suspect that we perhaps have too little energy spent on deep thinking and feeling, though. I suspect that if we elected leaders with a little more interior life we would not be facing our global climate crisis.)

For someone who has specifically decided to follow the life of a Daoist recluse--in the early 21st century, in an urban, Canadian environment--this is a large part of the pain that I have to bear in order to gain the prize of wisdom. I must constantly be in the grip of a battle between my interior nature and the external conditioning that holds our society together. It means that I not only find myself stuck in internal disagreements about the right course of action, it also means that I am constantly battling with friends, family and neighbours about the choices that I have made. (And perhaps seeing battles that do not really exist---.)

Through my life I have come to the conclusion, however, that Socrates was right when he said that "The unexamined life is not worth living". Sometimes the pain really does feel like the flesh is being stripped off my bones, but a greater degree of wisdom is always the end result.