Monday, December 29, 2008

Miracles Explained

I've offered to give a couple workshops on meditation for my local Unitarian congregation, which gives me a bit of an incentive to write something about the subject.

As I see it, there are two sides to trying to explain an issue: what it is, and, what it is not. I'm going to start this discussion by describing what meditation isn't, because by doing so I hope to make it a little easier to understand just exactly what it is. And the first part of understanding what meditation isn't is to drop the some of the wild claims that are associated with it.

A significant, although minor,  fraction of the people who talk about meditation (especially Daoist) believe that if one masters it they gain the ability to have weird, supernatural powers. I suppose most of this comes from popular literature being filled with "mystic" teachers who have psychic powers. The character "Yoda" from the "Star Wars" trilogy comes to mind, but ancient literature is also filled with enlightened masters who were about do amazing things because of powers they gained from meditation. Take for example the Indian epic poem, Mahabharata. It has several examples of heroes that seek out religious holy men, or "sadhus", in order to gain magical powers or weapons that they can then use in their great war. It isn't surprising that the popular literature adopted this trope, because if you study most of the great mystical traditions you will find reference to miraculous powers that can be gained from intensive practices. The Yogic tradition of India calls theses "siddhis".

Personally, I don't really have a strong opinion about these things. I have had some very weird experiences while meditating that are pretty hard to explain away as just "hallucinations". But having said that, I think that the vast majority of references to miraculous powers are very easy to explain as manifestations of ordinary physics, human psychology or human society.

First of all, it is really important to understand the role that trickery has played in traditional spirituality. Any society that values holy men is bound to create a reason why people would want to mascarade as them. People want to believe, and if they do, they are quite willing to give wealth, power, and other forms of gratification to anyone that they believe has some sort of pipeline to God. And the quickest way to get people to believe that you are the "real deal" is to manifest some sort of super power. And the easiest way to do this is through some form of trickery. For example, take a look at this Christian evangelist who has already been exposed. I suspect that a great many of the miracles that have been presented in religious literature really boil down to this sort of thing---even if was not much more than a shaman figuring out how to confuse his followers with false teeth that he whittled out of basswood (complete with fangs and designed to show that he had transformed into a half-man/half-animal) and a bullroarer that he swung around his head to make an unearthly sound.

There is also a half-way sort of trickery that may actually have not been conscious. This involves learning how to do things that are perfectly explainable without recourse to miracles, but which most people would consider impossible. One example that everyone knows about is fire-walking.
This used to be a major mystery to people and was seen as evidence that someone had a magical power. But now it is a simple parlor trick that is routinely done by people at business retreats as a trust building exercise. The issue comes down to simple physics: even though a hot coal is very warm, it is a very poor conductor of heat. In contrast, the human foot has a lot of sweat pores on it, which give off moisture, which is very good at cooling the foot in such situations. The interior of the foot is also very good at cooling itself because of the flow of blood through it. So as long as the person fire walking doesn't stand still, have a coal stick to her foot, or steps on a foreign object with different conductivity (such as a nail or other piece of iron in amongst the coals), she can usually walk over the coals with no problems.

This sort of thing can be taught without the apprentice shaman or sadhu knowing how it works. This means that they may very well actually believe that what they are doing is miraculous. In this case, they are not consciously deceiving the public, but none-the-less a deception is going on.

The deception can also be based on a confusion between different cultural assumptions. To cite an example that surprised me, in Arthur Koestler's book The Lotus and the Robot he gives the example of a sadhu who was widely reported to be able to walk on water.  Koestler made the effort to go out to the countryside and find the man. It turns out that in this part of India the only water that the peasants would ever see was that in the local village reservoirs, or "tanks". In this context, no one had ever learned how to swim and it was universally known that no one could survive if he fell into water over his head. Along comes this sadhu who had learned how to control his fear and relax, which allowed him to float and dog paddle around in the tank---which seemed like a bonifide miracle to the local peasants.

When this story spread beyond this very limited milieu, it was sustained by a conflation of cultural assumptions. Because these rural, landlocked peasants didn't know about swimming, their definition of "walking on water" was slightly, but significantly different from those in the outside world. The villagers defined "walking on water" as "being able to consciously move around in the water without drowning", whereas the outside world defined it as "being able to stand upright on water and walk exactly the same way we do on land".   The issue is one of different expectations based on different types of experience, which leads to using language in a different way.  Once one gets one or two steps removed from the actual event being reported, then people make assumptions that dramatically change the information being transmitted. 

Having said all of the above, I think it is important to make a significant point about the interaction between meditation and what people call "miraculous".  The original sadhu who learned that he could walk on hot coals (or float in a village water reservoir) was manifesting something quite amazing in that he learned to control his very strong fears of being burnt or drowned.  Moreover, he probably did some observation about the world around him and did some experiments to find out what would and would not work.   The ability to control one's fear, look at the world in a new way and manifest creativity are all qualities that one can develop through a regular meditation practice.  And if one makes the effort to be able to develop these qualities all through one's life, you can start to do things on a regular basis that will look pretty amazing to people who don't understand this fact.  

At risk of appearing to be bragging, let me illustrate with a couple examples from my life.

I have learned through observation and reading that monarch butterflies only lay their eggs on milkweed.  I had a friend in my back yard one summer day and saw a monarch floating around, I told him that it would land on this particular plant (a milkweed), which it did.  He was absolutely dumbfounded that I could predict this.

Another time I was sitting at a table with a couple friends and one of them had the hiccups, which were really bothering her.  I told her that I was going to cure her, then started to could out loud backwards for long enough and with a threatening voice that got her beyond thinking I was joking to the point where she began to think I was getting "creepy" (which meant that she was taking me seriously).  All at once I yelled at her "your hiccups are gone"---which startled her. And indeed, they were gone.  The point was that I put her into a state of fear arousal and induced a startle response---both of which blanketted-out the feedback loop the neres in her diaphram were stuck in.   I could tell that both of my friends were very surprised and a little bit scared that I was able to do this.

If someone lived a long life in a community of people and chose to do things like this on a regular basis, you could see how they would begin to think of her as a "miracle worker".  But I would argue that these are nothing more than the fruits of being able to see the world more clearly and interact with it more completely as a result of meditation.  I believe that this is the root of most of the stories about the "siddhis".  I will admit that there are also very odd things that happen when you meditate.  But I would suggest that their oddity is more a question of our lack of current understanding about the world around us than evidence of some sort of supernatural.  If telephathy, for example, really does exist, I suspect that it will eventually be understood in a prosaic fashion---just like electricity and the periodic table---rather than be some sort of proof of an old man in the sky.   

Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Response to Zhekai

My last post drew a significant response from a reader. Since it raises a lot of interesting points, I thought that I'd respond to it in some detail. His (I'm assuming the gender) statements will be in red, my responses in regular text.

I find it ironic that someone drawing on the wisdom of the Dao De Jing would criticise Christianity from such a modernist perspective.

Actually, I try not to "draw upon the wisdom of the Dao De Jing" so much as access the same source as wisdom as the people who's voices are recorded in the Dao De Jing. As I understand it, Daoism is an "inspired" religion, not a "revealed" one. The difference is that Daoists are taught how to connect with the world around them and find the truth that lies within it, not to follow a revelation that was given only once in the historical past and which can now be accessed only through an ancient and obscure book.

My specific Daoist practice consists primarily of following practices such as meditation, ritual, taijiquan, etc. Moreover, as befits someone who was initiated into a heterodox offshoot of the Quanzhen tradition, I have studied with a lot of people in other faiths---Buddhist, Catholic, Unitarian, etc. I also read a lot of books besides the Dao De Jing----the Daoist Canon is the largest of all the religions of the world. If a religion believes that someone can still gain wisdom from the wellspring of inspiration, then its scriptures will continue to grow just like any other library of literature. This is a very significant difference from the Abrihamic religions, which believe that the time of revelation has long past and no additions can be anything but heresy.

Oh, and I don't think what I wrote was a critique of Christianity per ce, just a form of very conservative Roman Catholicism.

I don't know enough about Mother Theresa to defend her, but I know enough about Catholicism to disagree with your criticisms.

For example, although it is wrong to baptise someone without their knowledge or consent, their is nothing wrong with the desire to convert people to the religion which you believe to be true.

If you say that it is wrong to baptise someone without their knowledge or consent, then you are agreeing with me that Mother Teresa was doing something very wrong. If the ex-nun is telling the truth, this is exactly what she was instructing her nuns to do.

In fact, it would be truly abominable if she believed in her religion, but *didn't* desire to share it with others.

So in fact, this motivation is higher than simply wishing to relieve poverty. You can disagree with her religious beliefs, but at least she is consistent with them.

There are a variety of issues here.

First of all, what does her religion consist of if it is possible to "share" it with another person by simply wiping someone's brow and mumbling some unintelligible words just before they die---and then telling no one else about it? This is a form of simplistic, "magical" thinking. My understanding of Christianity is that it is not about giving people a "ticket to heaven", but rather about changing the way people relate to each other in this world. This is why there is all that stuff in the Gospels about "the Kingdom of God", giving to the poor, etc.

Secondly, what does this deception say about Teresa's understanding of human dignity? It may be that a person can believe with all their heart that something is in another's best interests, but once one uses trickery or force to deny them the right to choose another option, you are denying them something exceptionally important. These dying beggars had only one thing left to them---their faith as a Muslim or Hindu---and Mother Teresa tried to steal it away from them. If she really valued them as human beings she would have to allow them the right to freely choose to die as Muslims or Hindus, no matter what she thought herself. That is what it means to respect someone else.

Yes, Teresa may have been, in some ways, consistent. But consistency is a pretty weak foundation to build respect upon. History is littered with thoroughly consistent fiends.

Moreover, I would argue that there is a basic inconsistency to the message of Teresa. She said that she loved the poor, yet she felt no responsibility to treat them as equals, nor any to defend them against the predators of the world that feed upon them, and even she admitted to her spiritual director that she felt like she was deceiving her nuns because she kept going on about the love of God in her public utterances while feeling nothing at all herself.

If you believe in the truth and value of Daoism, would you not desire others to reach an understanding or appreciation of it? If not, then how much do you really value and believe in it?

Your language undoes your argument. I am interested in helping others "understand" and "appreciate" it, but that is totally different from wiping a dying person's brow, mumbling under my breath and keeping the whole process a secret from the community. Understanding and appreciation comes from a genuine, two-way back and forth interaction---one where both sides enter in with the chance of learning. Teresa entered into her relations assuming that she was in a position of moral superiority and refused to engage the people she dealt with as equals. This is not a way to spread understanding but rather one of imposing your will on another.

Another point you criticise was her attitude to suffering. The idea of sharing in Christ's suffering is a profound element of Christian theology. It may sound strange to 'modern' people, but that isn't necessarily a problem is it? ;)

The problem isn't that it "sounds strange", but rather the reason why it sounds strange. Again, it is magical thinking. The idea is that God requires a scapegoat to deal with the consequences of a set of rules and regulations that he set up in the first place. If God is all powerful, why can't he simply forgive people's sins without the whole idea of his son being tortured on the cross? The concept of scapegoating is fairly well-understood by anthropologists and has existed in a great many societies---ranging from the Jewish ritual where the term "scape goat" comes from to the Indian and African tribes that used to torture people to death in order to ensure a good harvest. It may be that there is something in humanity that creates this sort of activity in primitive human societies, but its presence in conservative Christian theology seems to be unnecessary in this day and age. I might also add that there is a very significant school of Christian theology that rejects this form of thinking.

Beyond my questioning of the scapegoat theology, I might also point out that what I was most repelled by was the way Teresa seemed to revel in pain. I'm no psychologist, but it seemed really unhealthy and masochistic in nature. It strikes me that a spiritual director should have tried to wean her off of this simply for her own good. But the issue becomes much more problematic when we realize that she was running an order of nuns who mission included dealing with the dying. People who are dying often have very significant pain issues, and it shows profoundly bad judgement (and a real lack of compassion) to have someone in charge who thinks pain has some sort of intrinsic value. This attitude explains why---even though there seems to have been lots of money in the bank---she ran homes for the dying where there was no better pain killer than aspirin on hand. There are people who get off sexually through sado-maschocism, but in that case it is consensual. What Teresa was doing was non-consensual, and as such, was criminal.

I appreciate your understanding that life is an 'ocean of suffering', but i disagree that her views are merely a 'coping mechanism' any more than meditation and detachment are.

My apologies if I was not clear enough in my explanation. Meditation, detachment, and diverting your gaze are all coping mechanisms. My concern about her "faith" is not that it is such a thing, but rather that it is such a profoundly awful one. I was arguing that her "leap of faith" removed any opportunity for her to grow as a human being and that it was why her life was one of such profound misery and has done very little to make the world a better place.

The image of the crucifixion is one of suffering and death - which were seen as unavoidable flaws in creation - meeting with the incarnation of the Creator himself, someone who is completely free of such flaws.

The whole thing is regarded as a 'mystery', which means it is true, but hard for us to understand. It is regarded as the key to life itself. I don't think this should be too hard to appreciate at least on a symbolic level, given that you are familiar with the concept of the Dao lifting up the lowly and lowering the great.

It is not "hard to understand", it is incomprehensible because it doesn't follow the rules of logic. There is a famous anecdote in physics where a person said of another's theory that it was so bad that it wasn't even wrong. That is to say that the theory not only didn't accord with experimental facts, but it didn't even make any sense. When you say that there were "unavoidable flaws in creation", you are suggesting that God is either not omnipotent or totally good. Moreover, you suggest that suffering and death are flaws yet then go on to say that the Creator---who is free of flaws---was incarnate. So what is it? Is incarnation unavoidably flawed? If so, how could Jesus be flawless? (The Muslims get around this by having Jesus commit one sin, he stole a pin.) If Jesus was flawless, then how is creation "unavoidably flawed"? And if death and suffering are flaws, then how could a flawless God end up suffering and dying on a cross?

With all due respect, this sort of theology is not much different than the sort of meaningless "speaking of tongues" that happens at evangelical revival shows. It is the result of strong emotions that are divorced from reason. As I pointed out before, it makes more sense to see this theological position as simply a manifestation of classic scapegoating behaviour. And again, there are quite popular Christian theologies that reject this "cross-tianity" in favour of a social gospel based on transforming society according to the teachings of Christ.

With regard to the Dao "lifting up the lowly and lowering the great", I don't know the context you are referring to, but my take on Daoism is that it is a very practical religion that is talking about the way the world really works. In the case of Mother Teresa I would suggest that one particular way this rule is operating is through the idea that "the truth will out". The lowly street person who was complaining about the pain of his cancer who was quoted by Hitchens has been raised by the book (and my blog), whereas the mighty Mother Teresa has been lowered by showing her lack of compassion when she told him that the pain was the "kisses of Christ". Other than that, I can't see the reference as being much more than a non-sequitur with regard to Christ.

Mother Theresa, i cannot comment on her personal state of mind; but if you look at the writings of great Christian mystics, you will find that contemplation of this mystery brings them into a state that contains great detachment and self-lessness without erring on the side of emptiness.

Well, that's the whole point isn't it? When I read the letters she wrote to her spiritual advisor, all I saw was a person suffering in torment but who was too enmeshed in her cultural matrix and too cowardly to admit that what she was doing had granted her neither detachment nor serenity. Religion is supposed to liberate a person, not enslave them. That is the tragedy here. With regard to Christian mystics, I think that you would have to refer to specific individuals as there is a huge difference between, for example, Nicholas of Cusa and St. Ignatius.

I'm sorry, but your criticisms sound like those i have heard directed against buddhists...from christians who call them 'nihilists'. Or who in the past thought of the Daoists as guys who just ran away to forget the world.

Actually, I don't think that my criticisms are anything like the ones you mention. I was suggesting that Mother Teresa's life was a tragedy because her concept of "faith" stunted her spiritual growth. The critiques you are suggesting tend to suggest that Buddhists and Daoists are not engaged in the world.

You may be right that MT was struggling to deal with her suffering, and used her work with the poor to make sense of it. But then this - if we can risk saying so - is a problem for her, not for the religion you criticise. She may be like some peasant buddhist who recites 'omitofo' thinking it will make their life easier...but i don't think that is grounds for criticising buddhism itself.

Do you?

You forget that Mother Teresa was not a peasant. She was the head of an order of nuns, the recipient of the Nobel Peace prize, and will probably soon be declared a saint. She is being used as the pre-eminent icon for the promotion of a specific form of ultra-conservative Roman Catholicism. Moreover, my greatest criticism is not for her---she was an ignorant Albanian peasant girl---but for her spiritual advisors and the hierarchy of the church. They used her to promote the church instead of guiding her to a deeper understanding. It probably is the case that they were just as deluded as she was, which means that we need to dig deeper in order to find culpability. Ultimately, everyone who refuses to make the effort to seek the truth wherever it may lay---and that includes all the people who simply "buy into" the myth---should take some responsibility for her sad and tragic life. We are all interdependent elements of the universe.

It would be interesting to find some buddhists and daoists in similar situations and see how they express their understanding of suffering.

This isn't the place to discuss Buddhist and Daoist ideas of suffering. But it certainly is the case that many words have been written on the subject. Indeed, Buddhism is pretty much in total a meditation on the issue. And some Buddhists and Daoists have been engaged in social work that has placed them face to face with suffering. Moreover, I would suggest that those elements of Christianity that reject the scapegoat theology are the ones most committed to the alleviation of suffering. After all, if you believe that suffering has some sort of grand metaphysical value, why would you try to end it?

Finally, I think you hint at ideas about the roots of poverty, and the significance of abortion which are completely a product of the present age. I don't think it is necessarily a Daoist attitude, and it is certainly not a Christian attitude to think that we can eradicate poverty and suffering by getting to its root causes. Or rather, for christians the root cause of poverty - like all evil - is fallen human nature. I suspect for Daoists it is likewise the flaws in our originally pure nature.


Well one thing that needs to be understood is that abortion is a modern issue through and through. It wasn't all that long ago that church doctrine was that the soul of a child did not enter it until birth. (Which is a position than that even the most extreme pro-choice advocate would reject.) Abortion simply wasn't much of an issue before it became a safe, therapeutic procedure and large families became a liability instead of an asset. Infanticide was the option of choice for people who could not afford an extra mouth to feed.

Yes, poverty is a modern issue too. Up until the modern era most people did not see the world in terms of social and economic systems. Instead, there was just the "world" and people who were either "good" or "bad". Now we can see through the study of sociology that there are ways that the world operates, and very good people can end up following "the rules of the game" and thereby create a great deal of misery. Because Teresa had been so isolated from the hard-won gains of modern learning, she was oblivious to the way people like dictators and financial swindlers abuse people that they never even meet. She could meet Charles Keating Jr. and think "what a nice man" and not be aware of the people he had driven into poverty through his phoney businesses. (Teresa not only accepted money from him, but even wrote a letter to the judge who was trying him asking for forgiveness for his swindling.)

Incidentally, one of the things that I find appealing about Daoism (and some elements of Confucianism) is the way various thinkers do meditate on the roots of poverty. For example, Daoist writers do think about things like the way regulations impact on people's lives, and how the increase of desperate people who become bandits is related to the level of taxation in a society. Daoists tend to see the world in terms of impersonal processes rather than that of sinful people willfully breaking God's laws. Indeed, the Celestial Master suggests that good people should not be prideful because much of their good comes from their personal history and social context, and bad people should not be totally condemned because much of their evil comes from similar sources.

It may be that individual people have specific psychological drives that keep them from seeing the evil they do---such as psychopaths---but society as-a-whole can work to limit the damage that they do. And people who are being put forward as exemplars of spiritual attainment should have the discernment to be able to avoid being used to by these individuals. If the discernment is lacking, then what exactly is the spiritual value that people like Teresa are supposed to have?

Finally, again with all due respect, I don't think what you are saying about Daoism is comprehensible. If our original nature is pure, how can it have flaws? If it has the potential to be flawed, isn't that a flaw in itself? I can hear Zhuangzi in the background chuckling and tossing in the comment "Now, how would I know that?"

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

We Swim in an Ocean of Suffering----

I haven't posted for a long time primarily because I've been working on a book. Whether anything comes of it or not, I have enjoyed taking the time to research, think and write about things without any time pressures.

As part of the research, I've been reading a lot on Mother Teresa; and this, in turn, has got me thinking about some pretty deep questions.

I got interested in Teresa because she seems to embody the failings conservative Catholic spirituality. I say that because there is a lot of published material from her (especially her book of letters to her spiritual directors), so it is relatively easy to "get inside her head"----and what there is to see isn't very pretty.

A lot of people would be surprised by this (actually, as I was too.) Most of what we know about her is some sort of generalized feeling that she spent her life helping the poorest of the poor. And to give the woman her due, it does seem that her order of nuns have done a great deal to help suffering people in the world.

But if you read her writings it all seems to have been built on a set of ideas that would repell most modern folk. For example, her primary motivation seems to not have been to help the poor and relieve suffering, but rather to convert them to Roman Catholicism. And her pity for the poor is ultimately because they are going to die as non-Catholics and end up in Hell. For example, she had the phrase "I thirst" placed prominently in the chapels of all Missionaries of Charity homes. I suspect that most people who see this assume that it refers to the idea that Christ suffered when he was on the Cross (where the phrase comes from in the New Testament), and similarly the poor also suffer. Teresa's writings make it very clear, however, that she placed the motto because she saw it as meaning that Christ "thirsts" for the souls of the poor and suffering. Indeed, an ex-Missionary of Charity relates in an unpublished manuscript (quoted by Christopher Hitchens) that Teresa instructed her nuns to secretly baptize dying Hindu and Muslim patients by asking them if they would like a "ticket to heaven" and then mopping their brows with a wet cloth if they said anything positive in reply.

Another thing that certainly sounded weird to me was the way she glorified suffering in a way that sounds like out-and-out masochism. For example, in many places she writes about her nuns as being "victims of Christ's love". And in a quote from Hitchens she describes the pain of a person dying of cancer as "the kisses of Christ". Indeed, this revelry in pain and suffering seems to have been the core of Mother Teresa's spirituality. As her letters to her spiritual directors reveal, after the initial period when her order of nuns was established, she seems to have suffered from a never-ending horrorshow of depression (what Catholic spirituality calls "desolation" or "spiritual aridity".) At points she even doubted the existence of God. The way she dealt with this wasn't to let it spur her into a re-examination of how she was living her life and guiding her nuns, however. Instead, she decided that Jesus had singled her out for the especially excruciating "gift" of sharing in his pain and suffering. Her advisors didn't see this as unwholesome masochism, however, but evidence of faith in God.

Originally, I wasn't terribly sympathetic to all of this---and I still think that it is extremely wrong-headed---but as I spent more time thinking about it, the more I came to think that I understand what was going on. As I see it, we have to remember that this earthly existence is an ocean of human suffering. The Dao De Jing acknowledges this with its statement that 'Heaven and Earth treat humans like straw dogs'. The Buddhists understand this by saying that 'Life is Dukkha'. This comes especially home to me when I go to my local Unitarian church and listen to people in the congregation announce their various "joys and concerns". Even in a very small congregation on one Sunday it isn't that uncommon to have more than one person stand up and announce a really nasty concern in their life---a terminal illness, death of a child, business collapse, etc. As a nun ministering to the desperate poor of Calcutta, Teresa spent a great deal of her life dog-paddling around in this sea of misery. As such, I suspect that she simply had to develop some sort of coping mechanism for dealing with it.

The response of most people to all of this suffering is to turn their heads away and try to ignore it through various forms of denial. But people who live introverted, spiritually-directed lives (like Catholic nuns who aspire to sainthood) do not allow themselves this luxury. They try to stare full-on into the face of this misery and understand it. Mother Teresa was a very simple, uneducated woman from a very conservative Catholic background. As such, she simply couldn't start to see the poor in a social context, which means that she was consigned to the ultimately fruitless job of what Henry David Thoreau would have called "hacking at the leaves of evil while leaving the roots intact". Moreover, since Christianity teaches believers to focus outside of the believer onto a deity, she had no meditative practice to follow that would have allowed her to develop detachment and equanimity in her daily work with the poor. Instead, she had to "put everything onto Jesus". My understanding is that followers of Eastern spirituality can develop the wisdom to see suffering as an illusion, but all Christianity gave to Teresa was the option of using an act of willpower to simply accept it all on faith. Faith was enough to keep her going in a punishing work schedule and put forward a cheerful facade to her nuns and the rest of the world---but it does not seem to have been enough to let her be happy.

And if Christopher Hitchen's book about her can be believed, this faith was not enough to give her any wisdom about the world around her. She was regularly used by evil people who gave her money so they could use her to give them credibility, she seems to have not used the vast sums of money donated to her mission in anything like an efficient manner to help the poor she was supposed to be serving, she opposed any sort of artificial birth control, and, when she won the Nobel Peace Prize announced to the world that the greatest threat to world peace was abortion. In other words, the fruits of her life of service and prayer amounted to not much more than non-offensive charity work and whatever platitudes the Pope had decided were important.

How very sad and empty.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Daoism and Science

I cruise around the internet a fair amount and once in a while I "eaves-drop" on conversations on Daoism discussion boards. Usually I'm more than a little disappointed by what I read (which is why I decided to start writing this blog.) Part of this stems from the antagonism to science I routinely observe.

I understand why many ordinary people are concerned about "science". But it needs to be pointed out that what people are reacting against is not science, per se, but rather something altogether different: the rapid adoption of powerful technologies without any appreciation of their impact on the world.

Scientists often get upset about this antipathy and proclaim that it is totally misplaced, but I think they have to accept some blame because the culture of scientific research consistently evades any sort of moral responsibility for the consequences of the application of their research. (Incidentally, I think at least part of the solution would be to make being a scientist a regulated profession---like a doctor or lawyer--- so there can be sanctions applied to misconduct.) To a large extent, I think that this is because most scientists see what they do with a certain romanticism that is increasingly out-of-step with reality. For them, the iconic image is that of a lonely researcher seeking the roots of reality. In contrast, ordinary citizens more often envision a huge corporation developing new some new technology and willfully "fudging" its research to hide from government regulators any harmful side-effects. Scientists think "penicillin", while concerned citizens think "thalidomide".

In actual fact, there are precious few independent researchers in the world today. The overwhelming majority work for large institutions following agendas that are far from altruistic. Researchers mostly work for corporations, the military or universities. And of those that work at universities, most either work for grants by the military or corporations, or departments that increasingly tailor their research to make themselves more attractive to outside money from these two sources. (I know a retired biology professor who complains bitterly about how concern about patent infringement has destroyed the sense of collegiality that used to exist at the university where he taught.)

If scientists are honest with themselves they admit that science is now big business. And while ordinary citizens see a great deal of value in the free market, they also understand that it is basically amoral and reckless. The invisible hand is simply not interested in moral questions or the well-being of the community.

Some of the people who are concerned about the dangers that market-controlled technology end up on Daoist discussion boards. There are probably a lot of reasons why, but several immediately come to my mind.

People see concerns about education in some Daoist texts and then jump to the conclusion that this is similar to modern fears about technology. For example, if you check out the Dao De Jing you will find passages that say a ruler should keep his subjects' stomachs full and their minds empty. But contrary to what modern readers may think, the scholarly consensus is that this is a suggestion that ignorant peasants are easier to control than educated ones, rather than a statement about the inherent value of knowledge. (Large parts of the Dao De Jing are somewhat cynical suggestions about how a governor can retain control of a state. But that is at topic for another post.)

There is also a significant strain in Daoism that suggests that greed for knowledge can be just as great a barrier to wisdom as greed for wealth and power. Zhuangzi, for example, begins chapter three of his book with the following:

Our lives are limited,
But knowledge is limitless.

To pursue the limitless

With the limited
Is dangerous.
(Victor Mair trans.)

The casual reader has to understand, however, that this rejection of greed for knowledge was always balanced by a profound interest in a certain type of learning. This gets back to a paradox that lies at the root of Daoism---the striving to become someone who doesn't strive. The author of the Dao De Jing starts the book by warning that the Dao that can be spoken of is not the real Dao. And yet, he goes on make a great many statements about the Dao anyway. More to the point, no matter how many times in the Daoist tradition people have written about the value of "going with the flow", a great many more words have been used to describe very intense practices aimed at changing oneself. "Going with the flow" only seems to happen after one has put a lot of effort into swimming upstream! A problem I have with a lot of casual modern readers who identify themselves as "Daoists" is that they simply refuse to see any reason for putting in all of this effort.

Modern readers don't understand the cultural assumptions that the ancient Daoists were working with or reacting against. The first of these is the concept of "kung-fu", which is probably one of the deepest held of Chinese cultural artifacts. Most Westerners will only associate this concept with Bruce Lee and acrobatic martial arts. But the term really refers to any type of applied work that results in a deep and almost miraculous ability to do something well. So "kung-fu" in martial arts results in someone like Bruce Lee or the Shaolin Monks. But it also applies to any other human activity, and Zuangzi discusses it with regard to butchers, carpenters, boatmen, archers and so on. Another example of kung-fu comes from Journey to the West. In that book all the miraculous creatures, demons, Gods, immortals, etc, started out as ordinary beings and gained their powers through applied work. Even animals and plants can become immortals if they simply apply themselves to kung-fu.

Zhuangzi is not arguing against kung-fu, but rather against a sort of pedantic Confucianism that has been prevalent in China for time immemorial. Modern readers don't understand this because they don't live in a world where all the major institutions are controlled by a literati class that gained most of their power by passing examinations based on a very stylized and abstract form of Chinese scholasticism. (Anyone interested in this subject might consider reading The Scholars, by Ching-Tzu.) Moreover, because we live in such an egalitarian society (at least in contrast to ancient China) we don't understand that Zhuangzi was making a very strong statement simply by taking as examples people in such lowly occupations as butchers, carpenters and boatmen. In effect, Zhuangzi is not opposed to learning, but rather a specific form of pseudo-learning that is based on rote repetition of the Confucian classics. Indeed, since it can be argued that what is so valuable about the teaching of the butchers, etc, is that it is grounded in practical reality, Daoists should be seen as supporters of scientific study instead of being opposed to it.

Another way in which modern-day supporters of the Way oppose science comes from their tendency to latch onto old metaphysical language from ancient texts and hold onto it with the grip of death. The worst offender is the concept of "qi" and the practice of "qi gong".

"Qi" is word that is found throughout texts from the very beginning of Daoism yet is never really well explained anywhere. The important point for Daoist practitioners is that it has become associated with the strange feelings one gets when one begins to practice an internal art like taijiquan or internal alchemy. The problem is that people are not content to describe these feelings as they experience them but feel obligated to move on to make wild generalizations about what these feelings are caused by and their relative importance in the practice.

The problem is that people use the idea of "qi" as what philosophers describe as an "occult quality". Occult qualities (or, "faculties") are metaphysical substances that are used to explain other phenomenon. The problem is, however, that they are totally unknown, (hence the term "occult"), which means that they do not actually serve any purpose at all in describing the phenomenon at hand. In the language of science, therefore, if you cannot actually measure what you are talking about, it serves no purpose whatsoever and merely confuses people. In the case of Qi-Gong, therefore, the fact that we cannot actually measure or point to "qi", it is best to simply describe what we feel and not make any further step to talk about "qi".

The English rationalists came up with the idea of "occult qualities" because they were trying to cut away a lot of empty verbiage that was left over in scientific discourse from a previous era. If, for example, they were looking at an herb that helped people sleep the traditional way of understanding it was to say that it contained a "dormative (i.e. "causes sleep") quality"---like all other similar herbs. What the philosophers were pointing out was that the only thing that we can say with any faith is that this particular herb helps people sleep. Other herbs also help people go to sleep, but it is an over-generalization (because we have no evidence to say so) to say that the reason why this herb helps a person sleep is the same as the reason why another herb does too.

In fact, an appeal to occult quality actually hinders our understanding because it seems to give an answer (e.g. "dormative quality"), when it does nothing of the sort. At this point people were thinking that they had an answer and then stopped looking more deeply into the subject through observation and experimentation. I would argue that in the same way many self-described Daoists have a similar attitude to notions like "qi". They think that the word means more than "a funny feeling I have when I do taijiquan", and then stop paying attention. (Usually this is the point where they hang up a shingle and start charging money for lessons----.)

What I think this all stems from is that ancient China was a pre-scientific society. And in such places people still need to be able to transmit information from generation to generation. But this can be extremely hard to do if we don't have a conceptual framework that links different ideas together. To understand this point, think about any difficult subject you have had to learn. Until you understood the underlying principles that explained everything you are doing, you felt like you had to memorize a lot of jumbled steps. Once "the penny dropped", however, everything seemed to make sense.

If no one in your society really understand how it is that things link together, the "penny" is never going to drop for anyone. So in order to help make sense of it all, people have to create pseudo-reasons to explain things. And that is where ideas like "qi" come from. Saying that a martial arts move (or the progression of the seasons, change in government, etc) comes from the flow of "qi" isn't really telling anyone what is happening. It is sort of like using a "spacer" to fill in the part of a puzzle where the piece is missing just so the whole thing won't jumble up again if the table gets bumped. As such, it served a very useful purpose way back when. But if we hold onto it now simply because we venerate the old, we are not gaining "ancient Chinese wisdom" but instead making fools of ourselves.

The thing to remember about the old Daoists is that they lived a long, long, long time ago. They were confronted by a very different world and came up with answers that were remarkably sophisticated and very practical. Our world is very, very different. There is a lot that we can use from the Daoist solution, but only if we apply it properly. By focusing on peripheral issues, instead of holding onto its fruitful core, we completely and absolutely miss the point. The people who reject science as being opposed to the Dao have done so.

Monday, July 28, 2008


I recently got a good translation of Journey to the West and while primarily an entertaining work, I have also been trying to learn what I can from it.

For those of you who have never heard of this work, it is a huge written collection of stories that grew out of an oral tradition about the travel by a Chinese Buddhist monk, Xuanzang, to India to collect Buddhist scriptures from the huge monastic universities that existed then. (He lived at about 600AD, which means that he got there before Muslim invaders destroyed Buddhism in Afghanistan and much of Northern India.)

The books centre on the exploits of his four magical guardians: Monkey, Pigsy, Sandy and the dragon/horse, as they protect the monk from many enemies out to thwart him. For anyone interested in the worldview of "folk Daoism" in old China, it is a wealth of details about the make-up of heaven. It also offers some ideas about how ordinary people live their lives. (For example, at one point a wood cutter talks about eating the leaves of the tree-of-heaven. This led me to research the subject and come across a posting that says these were indeed eaten during times of famine, although it appears to be slightly poisonous.)

One of the key parts of the "machinery" of the book is the way various magical creatures are able to make "transformations". The monkey king is the best at changing himself into different creatures and objects, but all the magical beings are also able to change to one degree or another. I've wondered for years about how these transformations relate to Daoism. The answer recently came to me as a result of reading the Taiping Jing (see my last post.)

The way to understand the transformations in Chinese folklore is to think about the way people transform themselves as they move from one part of their lives to another. That is to say, when we are children we act in a certain way. When we are lovers, parents, employees, bosses, etc---the way to flow effortlessly with life is by being able to transform ourselves in order to fit what is needed. Problems arise when we refuse to transform our behaviour at the same time that our life circumstances change. People who know when to bow to circumstances never end up being pushed off the stage.

Please note that this is not a prescription for conformity, as sometimes conforming with the "status quo" is not an appropriate behaviour at all. Sometimes the appropriate transformation is to become a rebel who doesn't kow-tow ("knock head"), but rather who "knocks heads together". But even then, the man who can easily transform himself from one behaviour to another will be the most effective type of rebel.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Evil We Do

One of the things I've been doing this summer has been working through a new translation of the Taiping Jing by Barbara Hendrischke. (This is taking some time, as I purchased an inexpensive e-book edition which, unfortunately, can only be read on-line from my computer.) This book should be of interest to all Daoists because it is a foundational text for religious Daoism and was the rallying document for the the yellow turban revolt.

There are quite a few interesting things I've seen in this book, but one that really sticks with me is the way the author, (ie: the "Celestial Master"), deals with the problem of evil. As a Daoist, he refuses to see it as being caused by some sort of outside, antagonistic force. He would reject the Christian notion that there is some sort of Satanic tempter sitting on our left shoulder suggesting bad things. Neither does he suggest that people choose to do bad things based on simple self interest. Instead, he has what I would suggest is a quite sophisticated moral theory that understands a person's moral behaviour in a social, historical context.

That is to say, he warns his followers to not judge people too harshly for their behaviour because the good and evil they do flow out of the decisions that their ancestors made before them. Evil consists in living in disharmony with the Dao. And a family or entire society can progressively work itself out of sync with the Dao through generations of bad small decisions. This means that when a child is raised in a family or a society they end up being dominated by the reasoning, social institutions, cultural artifacts, etc, that surround her. With the wrong background, it is hard for any individual to really know how to act in accordance with the Dao in any given situation.

This is not to say that people are "let off the hook", though. Even if it is very difficult to know the ultimate "right thing to do", we are still confronted with a myriad of small decisions to either do right or wrong. It is the aggregation of these small choices that decide the flow of history. So even the Emperor himself is, to a large degree, a prisoner of history. If he inherits a realm that has been poisoned by generations of bad choices, even with the best of intent his judgment will inevitably be clouded and his options limited. Similarly, if someone comes to power in a happy time and benefits from the clear-thinking of previous generations, we should be careful to understand that a great deal of his "virtue" comes from the luck of the draw.

This moral theory has a lot of similarities to that of the Hindu/Buddhist idea of Karma, but with the distinction that it is not a metaphysical process (i.e. retribution based on rebirth), but rather a sociological one (i.e. a progressive unfolding of human culture.) But it does have the idea that one's moral choices do not exist in some sort of eternal vacuum, which is the basis of both Christianity and modern political theory, but instead in a constantly flowing society. The upshot for both Buddhism and Daoism is that making moral choices is not simply one of choosing between discrete and equally "live" options (i.e. between "good" and "evil"), but instead involves a dimension of psychological introspection and growth.

In the Taiping Jing this process of seeking growing discernment is called "holding onto the One". The mechanics of this process aren't clearly described, but from the context it seems clear (at least in the translation---which looks pretty good) that this is where all the different techniques of "internal alchemy" come into play. What a different world we would inhabit if morality was connected to self-awareness instead being considered two very different things---as much of the West seems to believe.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Uncarved Block

One of those key Daoist concepts that take a lifetime to understand is that of "pu". Usually, this is translated as "the uncarved block". The reference is to a piece of wood that has not yet been shaped by some craftsman into some image. Unlike other religions or philosophies that seek to mold the believer into some form or another, the ideal in Daoism is for a person to find him or herself in their innate, spontaneous reality.

Of course, it is a lot more difficult to do than to say. For example, no one comes to a specific place in their life without having had a wide range of influences already impressed upon them. Where do those old impressions leave off and where does the original nature begin? We can try to discern our original nature, but this doesn't just happen without some effort. How can one tell the difference between a process that is stripping away outside influences from one that is imposing a new one?

Indeed, the whole metaphor of the block of wood suggests something that is outside of the viewer. In actual fact, though, since the block is ourselves it means that whether or not one wants to be an uncarved block might come about because of a specific type of carving. Would someone who had not been exposed to Daoism really care about whether or not they are "carved" or "uncarved"?

I started thinking about this point because I was trying to understand why it is that I get so profoundly upset when someone tries to meddle with my writing. Normally this isn't an issue, because I work at a menial job and most of my writing is unpaid. But once in a while I get involved in a collective activity and then I often butt heads with someone who takes issue with the way I look at the world and express myself.

Usually these people are flabbergasted that I would take such issue to being told to change the way I write. And, on the face of it, it does seem unreasonable. But I am an unreasonable person and I get very upset and usually just walk away from the enterprise.

Why I do this has been somewhat of a mystery until today. It occurred to me, however, that the way I write has a great deal with the way I think. And if I start trying to censor the way I write, I will inevitably start to censor the way I think. Actually, I have no problem with trying to change the way I think. After all, that seems to me to be the purpose of meditation. But I do have a huge problem with other people trying to change the way I think, and especially if they are trying to change the way I think to make it conform to what I believe is a second-rate, merely conventional view of reality.

At the time of the ancient Daoists, China was filled with people who were trying to change the way people write. Indeed, that was the basis of the old bureaucratic exam system. People were tested for high government office on the basis of how well they could mimic the official Confucian essays. Indeed, Daoist stories are filled with characters who failed at the examinations yet went on to become Realized Men. The point of the Confucian examination system, you see, was to carve people's blocks with the knife of formal education. How one writes shows how well the personality has been carved.

So long to all that. I may spend the rest of my working life moving furniture and loading photocopiers. But at least I will not have some other person telling me how my thoughts should be organized!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Gods We Hold Dear

I recently read a snippet of something in the popular press where Carl Jung was quoted as saying that as one ages one should spend more of their time reading fairy tales, myths and legends. This makes sense to me as I tend to find this sort of reading increasingly appealing. (Indeed, I've been working my way through Grimm's Fairy Tales recently.) I don't really completely understand the appeal, though. The only theory that makes sense to me is that after a lifetime of experience people cease to surprise and instead end up as examples of a limited number of archetypes. (I find myself classifying people that way---such and such person reminds me of so-and-so from my youth, and so forth.) If you see people are following a limited number of patterns, perhaps it makes more sense to accept this and revel in the formal interactions afforded. Civilizations seem to be like this---as they age they become more stylized and formal.

So, to cut a long story short, I agree with Jung but would like to add some other observations through a particularly unfocused and rambling post.

Years ago I had a meditation teacher who said that he had gone to meet some exiled Tibetan monks who were staying in a friend's summer cottage. When he drove up to the place he was surprised to see a bunch of fellows in monkish robes sitting at a picnic table drinking beer and reading comic books. They explained to him that the beer reminded them of Tibetan tea and the comic books were like the stories of the Tibetan gods and goddesses.

At the time I found this very hard to believe. But I eventually got some Tibetan-style tea. Surprise, surprise, it is flavoured with roasted barley (it even includes the odd barley-corn that has popped like popcorn.) The strong barley flavour does remind one of the old-fashioned Canadian beer (which traditionally had very little corn in it---unlike American beer.)

While reading more mythology I have also come to understand the point about comic books too.

I started thinking about this after trying to analyze why it was that I was so interested in watching the movie "Ironman". Many of my friends simply cannot understand why someone like me would waste their time watching "junk" movies like this. I found it hard to justify myself until I came across that quotation from Jung and I thought back to that anecdote involving those Tibetan monks. Then it occurred to me that the comic book superheros are not just "like" the ancient Gods and Goddesses of Olympus and the Jade Emperor's court---they are those ancient Gods and they fill exactly the same role in our society.

What could that be?

As I see it, I do not think it is possible for people---especially intelligent ones---to live in a world without archetype and metaphor. If I might be a little obscurely recursive here and use a story from the modern gods and goddesses to illustrate the need for gods and goddesses, I hearken back to an episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation: "Darmok".

Two civilizations want to "make contact" with each other, but are having a terrible time understanding each other because the two cultures lack the set of common metaphors and archetypes that are needed to be able to understand each other. In pursuit of this, the alien engineers a situation where he and Picard (the human) have to live out the defining mythos of their civilization. After doing so, the humans and the aliens have the beginning from which to build communication from. The alien captain dies in the process but as he does so, Picard recites out loud the equivalent myth from humanity: the Story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu. In the last encounter with the aliens, the first officer of the ship refers to Picard's encounter as being a new episode that they are using to build a new part of their language around. (Just as I am using the episode to try and articulate a very complex phenomenon to you, gentle reader, hence my comment about this example being recursive.)

If this all seems a bit far-fetched, I would draw people's attention to the experience of an old flame of mine. She had grown up in India where English was her first language. Yet when she immigrated to Canada she found it very hard to understand the people around her because the culture was so very different. For example, on the way to Canada her airplane had to do a stop-over in England and the airline gave everyone free restaurant meals. When she looked at the menu she said that she didn't recognize a single item on it except the "meatballs" part of "spaghetti and meatballs". She said that when it was presented to her she didn't have a clue about how to eat the pasta, so she ate the meatballs and went away hungry. (All her co-passengers were eating expensive steaks, because the meal was free.) Later, when she arrived in Toronto she joined some church youth groups to learn the culture, but she had a very hard time figuring out all the nuances of "cool", "groovy" and "out-of-sight". (It was the sixties.) (I have had other friends from places like Russia and Israel make similar comments.)

The similarities between the stories of ancient mythology and modern comic books hasn't been missed by the people who publish comics. Ancient Gods have been recycled as comic heros---such as Thor and Heracles.

The thing that people forget about the ancient myths is that these were not religious icons so much as popular literature. We forget this because the only exposure that most of us get to them happens in school, where people are supposed to bring a certian "respect" to the process and all the ribald humour is removed. But the myths were passed on in drinking halls and around hearths by men and women who were trying to pass the time in an era without electric lighting and when the "dark nights of winter" actually were dark, cold and very boring.

And because these stories were specifically popular in nature, they were not approached with the sort of reverence that scholars bring to Mount Olympus. (Those stories are still exist, but only as scientific cadavers preserved in formalin.) The myths are great not because they were written by brilliant, god-intoxicated seers but rather because they evolved through a process of endless retelling where bits that "spoke" to ordinary people were added and other parts that were no longer relevant were sloughed off. And the minute a society starts to "revere" a story, it dies because this evolutionary process ceases. That means that the minute a myth becomes recognized as being a "myth"---thereby warranting some sort of preservation process by either academic or ecclesiastic---it ceases to be a real myth and instead starts becoming a quaint fairy story.

So if we want to look for a real modern myth it will not exist in either the University or the Church. Instead, it will reside in the cheesiest of popular culture. And I would argue that one of the most important current gods is Iron Man Why? Well the obvious answer would be that he is the lead character in a very popular movie. But that begs the question of why it is so popular. And I think that this is because he is an archetypal figure who is dealing with very important issues that modern humanity has to deal with.

For those of you who do not know the Iron Man "myth", the man in the iron mask is (at least originally) a man named Tony Stark. Mr. Stark is a brilliant technical wizard who is very rich and very good looking (a combination of Bill Gates and George Clooney.) The only fly in the ointment is that Mr. Stark makes his money building weapons of war. One day he gets captured by the enemies of the USA (originally it was the Vietcong, but in the movie it is an Islamic extremist group.) He is wounded in the heart and the only way he can stay alive is through a piece of technology that replaces his heart/keeps his heart going (depending on the version of the myth.) This "new heart" is the creation of a fellow captive, who found Stark dying and saved his life through this piece of miracle medical tech.

This fellow captive is an interesting figure. He is a man from the third world, a small-time, background figure who remarks that he once met Stark at a conference. Tony says that he doesn't remember him. He says this is hardly surprising as Tony was very drunk. He said that he was amazed that someone so intoxicated could give such a brilliant lecture. Obviously, this is a man who is just as smart as Stark, but one who has never had his opportunities. Indeed, not only is he a "nobody", but it comes out that his entire family has been killed in the war that led to his imprisonment.

These two men are being held captive and ordered---on pain of death---to build new and terrible weapons for the enemies of the USA. Trapped, Stark decides to trick his captors by building a weapon that he will use to escape. This is how he builds his first suit of high-tech armor that he uses to escape. In the process, however, his friend---the one who built him a new heart---dies while buying Tony enough time to bring his plan to fruition.

After he escapes, Stark is a changed man. He has seen the carnage of war in front of his very face, knows what his weapons do to flesh and bone, and gains a new appreciation of personal responsibility because he owes his very life to the sacrifice of another man. This leads him to give up his life as an innocent playboy technical wiz, and instead become the "Invincible" Iron Man.

I put the word "Invincible" in scare quotes because Tony Stark is actually an incredibly vulnerable man. He is always one heart malfunction away from death, and in his world he is often thwarted by a low battery or a villain who has figured out how to use this Achilles heel against him. Moreover, Stark is vulnerable. Over many issues of the comic he has battled alcoholism---at one point he actually gives up his suit to another man and becomes a hopeless drunk. (This is referenced in the movie through his constant tippling. I suspect it will be a theme in the inevitable sequel.)

Both of these are important metaphors. Stark's problems are the same as those of the modern, Western world. Our weak hearts keep us from feeling the pain and misery that our actions inflict on others. This comes about because we are, quite literally, drunk with power.

So when you start to appreciate what is really going on in this story, it begins to look just like a story from the Germanic legends or the Mahabharata. A wealthy, foolish wizard is captured by his king's enemies and forced to create evil weapons of war. A good, yet poor wizard who is captured with him saves his live and gives him a new heart. Together they build a new body for the foolish wizard to use for his escape. But the good wizard sacrifices his life to save him. And afterwards the foolish wizard must learn to live with the consequences of having a new heart and a new body---both of which no longer belong to him but to the memory of the dead good wizard.

And for my part I think that this is a very important story for modern people. Insofar as we participate in the modern world of wonders, we are like those wizards. (At least anyone who is technically literate enough to be reading this blog.) And we have to constantly remind ourselves to not become drunk with the power that comes from this wizardry. We need to strengthen our hearts and rebuild our bodies (both physical and mental) in order to use this power for the betterment of the world around us. We do this not only in order because it is what we must but also because we have an obligation to the memory of all those others who are not able to fight on their own behalf. The privileges of wealth and education---the trappings of Tony Stark---only have value if we use them to become defenders of all the people in the past and present who have not been the recipients of such largess.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Name Change

I've changed the name of my blog to Diary of a Daoist Hermit. Primarily, this is because it was recently pointed out to me that I am more accurately described as a Hermit than a Recluse. The difference is that a Hermit exists outside of an ecclesiastic organization, but he still interacts with people. A Recluse, on the other hand, is someone who renounces any interaction with people and tends to live in the wilderness, isolated from all other people.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Hedonism of Old Age

I just recently turned 49 and at the same time I have been thinking a lot about what it means to get past middle-age.

A big part of what it means to get to this age is a sense of exhaustion. Our bodies get older and aren't as resilient, but I don't think that this is the issue at hand. Certainly in my case I am probably in better shape than I have ever been since my teenage years. (All those Daoist gymnastics, don't you know.) Instead, I think that it is more a question of all the commitments that I have made in my life are eating up my time. I mentioned this to a co-worker who is my age and she said that this resonated completely with her. Indeed, she said that she had broken down just that day into tears just thinking about how little time she has in the day.

Most of us lead busy lives and our careers, interests, homes, families, etc, each take little bites out of our existence. None of them seem huge in themselves, but add together enough mouse nibbles and you get a tiger bite. Added to this is one of those mysterious aspects of aging that everyone mentions: the way the passage of time speeds up. When I think back to how long summer seemed when I was a child and compare it to the way years seem to race by now, it almost seems like a objective, physical phenomenon.

This issue emerged out of the background and entered the foreground last night. I got home from work and even contemplating the fact that I had seven days of vacation ahead of me didn't do much to move me our of my amorphous funk. Oddly enough, what did help was to sit down and watch an escapist movie. When I asked myself why, I thought of a couple things I had read by Leo Tolstoy.

The first was a parable that he had come across somewhere. It involved a man who was walking across the steppes when he was set upon by a pack of wolves. There were no trees in sight and the only refuge he could find was to jump over a cliff and hang by a small tree that was growing out of the rocks. He looked beneathe his feet and saw that at the base of the cliff a tiger was staring up at him. (The Siberian tiger lives in Russia.) As he looked at the sapling he was hanging from, he noticed that mice were gnawing away at the roots holding it to the rocks. In the midst of the predicament, the man noticed that a beehive above him was leaking honey down the rocks in front of his face. He reached out and touched it with his tongue. Nothing he had ever tasted was so sweet!

Another vignette comes from War and Peace where some cavalry men are riding off to battle. One of them has never been in a fight before and he is obsessed with it and especially concerned that he will prove himself to be a coward. Another one is an experienced veteran who has learned a very important trick of ignoring the future and focusing on the here-and-now. The only thing in his mind are the beautiful flowers on the apple trees that they are riding through.

It strikes me when I think about these venues that young people labour under an illusion of immortality. They have yet to end up hanging from that sapling on the cliff. I say "labour" for a reason. Because with that sense of immortality comes a sense of profound obligation. They have to "do the right thing" (if they are altruistic) or "get theirs while they can" (if more selfish.) But when a person gets to a certain age and gains a little wisdom it gets harder and harder to think about the big picture. Instead, the things that really seem to matter are the smell of the apple blossoms, the sweetness of honey and a cheesy Hollywood action flick.

That is why I think that old age is about developing a certain hedonism---.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

One of the Problems With Christianity

I had a visit today from an old friend who has gone mad and descended into the very depths of destitution. In respect of her privacy, I won't go into any details, but she is completely incapable of taking care of herself and our much vaunted "social safety net" is totally inadequate for her needs.

It got me thinking about and contrasting the messages of Christianity and Daoism. When I was young I went to Sunday School and we were taught a song who's lyrics went

God sees the little sparrow fall,
It meets his tender view,
If God so loves the little birds,
I know he loves me too.

When I grew older I spent a lot of time studying the Christian message and I went to the trouble of looking up the New Testament passage that this song refers too. Actually, the passage in question is more than a little weird.

"What do Sparrows cost? A dime a dozen? Yet not one of them is overlooked by God. In fact, even the hairs on your head have been counted. Don't be so timid: You're worth more than a flock of sparrows." (Luke 6-7, The Complete Gospels, Annotated Scholars Version.)

It is odd because Jesus is asserting that because God is looking out for these birds, people shouldn't be worried about him looking out for them. But the birds in question are trussed up in a market to be taken home, killed, cooked and eaten. This is hardly something that I particularly find reassuring, let alone something to make into a kitschy song and teach to children!

In spite of this fact, the vast majority of Christians have the belief that in some sense or another God is looking out for each and every human being. I had this come home to me when I was asked to sit in a panel discussion at a school after the 9/11 attacks on the US. One of the other participants was a Catholic priest who assured the children that even though it might not seem that there was a loving God looking out for them, there really is a purpose that will be revealed eventually.

I thought about that when I saw my friend. What possible purpose could a "loving God" use to justify scrambling my friend's thoughts into a porridge of paranoia? And as if that wasn't enough, to then consign her to grinding, absolute poverty? If I met such a God I would give him a real talking to, that's for sure.

Ultimately, this is why I gave up on the Christian enterprise. It seemed to be based on a vision of God that ultimately made him into the sort of person who would lower your property values if he bought the house next door.

I think that Laozi is far more accurate when he says that

"Heaven-and-Earth is not sentimental,
It treats all things as straw-dogs."
(Chapter 5, Dr. John C.H. Wu, trans.)

This isn't to say that I gain any consolation from this point of view. I wish I could believe that there was some sort of smiling God in the Clouds that was looking out for my friends and I. But my experience would indicate that we are the only force of compassion that really exists in the universe.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Vows and Precepts

I came across a site on the Web that lists a set of "Daoist Precepts" that are drawn from a poem titled "The Song of Ch'an Dao Chia". They aren't bad in a "pop-psychology" sort of way, but I don't think that they are traditional in any sense or even terribly perceptive. But they did get me thinking once again about Vows and Precepts in general.


Vows are public declarations that a person takes when they find themselves inspired to follow a specific religious path. The important point is their public nature because they, to a large extent, remove a person from mainstream society and put them into a special category with different rights and responsibilities than ordinary citizens. In the case of Western monasticism, for example, the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience set monks and nuns apart for ordinary people and gives them the the ability to live in communities.

"Poverty" allows them to pool their resources by living communally, which---to a certain extent---frees them from the more onerous parts of having to earn a living. "Chastity" frees monks and nuns from the entanglements that come from sex and reproduction, which again frees the members from significant financial burdens. "Obedience" creates the framework that allows individuals to live together with---at least in theory---minimal friction. The greater society views these three vows as so onerous that no-one begrudges allowing monastics exemption from some of the more intrusive demands of mainstream society: military service, taxation, and---to some extent---some of the random brutality of existence (I'm talking about what used to be called "respecting people of vows".)

When I was younger I often thought that these three vows should be changed to "Self-Reliance", "Birth Control" and "Responsibility". But as I got a little more experience, I realized that any group that really tried to live according to these principles would blow itself to pieces. "Self-Reliance" would result in individuals trying to horde resources for their old age. "Birth Control" would result in endless battles with and over sexual partners. And, "Responsibility" would create division in communities as individuals fought over what each believed was "the right thing to do".

Hermits like me don't have to worry about such things. To a certain extent we get to make our own rules but in exchange the ones we adopt have no almost no influence on how other people treat us. But the vows we adopt can still define our relationship with the outside world to a certain extent. In my own case I've decided to take vows to never own an automobile or fly in an airplane.

Not owning an automobile has freed up a lot of income, which means that I have a lot more freedom to take time off work than most people. It also means that I have more money to put into charity and hermitage renovation. Paradoxically, I think that it also has freed up a lot of my time. This comes about because it means that I simply "do without" a lot of things that eat up huge amounts of my family and friends time. If I cannot walk, ride my bike, get a ride or take public transit---I simply don't go.

I haven't taken my vows to get any sort of special benefits like people in monastic orders. And for the most part they are based on ecological considerations. But I hope that when people see that it is possible to live a very pleasant life without an automobile and that it is possible to be an intelligent, cultured man without having traveled by airplane---that it might get some folks thinking about their own lifestyle.


I realize that there is no real hard and fast difference between a vow and precept, but I like to think that the former is rule or regulation whereas the last is more of a generalized principle. So whereas I have made a rule to not own a car or fly in an airplane, I have some more general principles that I try to live my life by.

The first of these is to avoid being Puritanical in my outlook. I could easily slip into a "holier than thou" way of looking at the world because I think a lot of what people around me do is insane, delusional, feckless and irresponsible. But instead of allowing myself to indulge in self-righteous fantasies, I have gotten into the habit of whenever I see someone doing something I don't approve of, I immediately do a mental inventory of my life in order to find the similar things that I am doing. For example, I once passed an wino and it immediately occurred to me that I am as addicted to junk food like potato chips as he is to alcohol. The only difference is that my addiction is less damaging. My experience would indicate that it is pretty hard to be self-righteous when someone adopts this mental habit.

Another precept that I try to remember was given to me by a friend. He said "it's OK to screw up". What he meant was not that we shouldn't try to be better people, but rather to accept the idea that we all make mistakes and that we should have as much forgiveness for ourselves as we do for others. Another way of looking at it comes from a music teacher I had when I was quite young. He said "if you don't blow a few bad notes, you aren't trying hard enough". Which means that people who never make mistakes also never take risks or push the boundaries---which dramatically limits their lives.

I also try to make sure that I don't become addicted to discipline. If I allowed myself I could probably become someone who was quite rigid in my routines---meditated every single day, always ate very healthy food, exercised religiously, etc. I certainly know a few people like that. But I'm not sure that even if I meditated for hours every day I would be a much better person. I might be a bit more peaceful, but I suspect that this serenity would be at the price of losing a certain degree of insight I get from allowing my impulses to follow more of a "random walk" through life.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Just what are Daoists up to?

Over the summer I read The Masks of God by Joseph Campbell and wrote a post about how much I enjoyed the experience. What I didn't say there, however, was how unsatisfying I found his concluding remarks. Campbell was a firm believer in the maxim that "the East is East and the West is West, and never the twain shall meet". At the core of this belief was his thought that the Eastern faiths of Hinduism, Buddhism and Daoism were ultimately life denying. Instead he posited that the emergent Western ideal of romantic love and the heroic individual---as exemplified in the Holy Grail legend---was a evolutionary step forward.

I've been spending a lot of time thinking about this point of view since then and have come to the conclusion that Campbell was wrong. To understand why, though, I had to do some serious thinking about human consciousness, and how the Daoists understand it. To that end, I've been reading A.C.Graham's tremendous survey of ancient Chinese philosophy, Disputers of the Dao. The chapter on Zhuangzi is apropos. As Graham characterizes him, Zhuangzi believed that human beings are at their best when "heaven" lives through them, or, when people "merge with the Dao". This is not some sort of cosmic daze, but rather when people develop an appropriate form of intuitive spontaneity that allows them to do the right thing in the right way at the right time---without having to think about it. He uses the analogy of a skilled tradesman who has developed the "knack" of his craft and suggests that a sage has a similar "knack" for living.

For Zhuangzi, this "knack" only comes about when a person is able to cut away their attachment to the ordinary world and totally identify with the world around them (i.e. the "cosmic Dao".) At this point the sage simply cannot be harmed because he can no longer distinguish between himself and his surroundings. As long as he lives, he can flow with his surroundings. When he dies, he merely returns to the source.

As practical spirituality, Daoist internal alchemy has developed practices aimed at stripping away the distinction between the individual and his surroundings. The core practice of "sitting and forgetting" is aimed at quieting the "internal dialogue" that constantly reminds us that we are individuals instead of just knots of sensory experience. The study of martial arts and other kung-fu allow us to develop and explore the spontaneous action that only comes from mastery of a subject. And on a lyrical level the literature of Daoism is full of stories about adepts who were forced to go through tremendous ordeals in order to burnt out the egoistic impurities of their soul.

Where Campbell goes wrong, however, is to think that these egoistic impulses that the Daoist seeks to leave behind are what it means to be who we are. Instead, they are the junk and slag that are left over from our abusive childhoods, deranged culture and destructive instincts. For example, any freedom that I may gain will not come from giving into the anger that is the result of being beaten as a child but rather in going beyond it. That would only be the acting out of old karma---to use the Indian term. Instead, if I can clear away all this sewage from the spring in my soul, I will be able to drink deeply from the Dao's life-giving water.

The key question that people like Campbell get confused about is freedom. As I have mentioned before, true freedom is not the right to sit on a couch, watch television and eat potato chips. But I had never really been able to get my handle on what it is before I came across a quote from Cicero: "Freedom is participation in power". This is a very important saying for political activists (I came across it because it was quoted by Ralph Nader), but it also has relevance for spiritual folks. The goal of burning off the spiritual impurities in Old Lao's furnace is not to become some sort shadow of a human being, but rather to become the most free person possible. This comes about because by doing so we are learning how to directly participate in the central power of the universe.

This is what it means to "merge with the Dao".

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Taijiquan, Mediation and Breathing

A lot of people are quite confused about the role of breathing in the Neidan practices. (I know that I was for a long, long time.) That is because there are a lot of contradictory things said about the practice by people who have only partial truths. My understanding has been won by a couple decades of practice, and is always open to revision, but once one begins to understand how all the contradictions begin to fit together into a whole, there is a very good chance that you are beginning to really understand the concept. (Much like the parable of the blind men and the elephant.) In order to help others learn faster than I have, I thought I'd share my understanding.

First, the questions that plagued me as a student and the answers I have found---.

All teachers and all books say that same thing: "Keep your back straight!" The problem with this is that the back is a very complex thing that is far from straight. The spine is an very complex "S Curve" that curves back and forth all through its length, so it can never, strictly speaking, be perfectly straight. Eventually, I just discarded this concept as something that is a short-form for something that is a lot more complex.

Most teachers tell us to keep a vertical back, although I have had others strongly emphasize the need to bend forward and stretch the lower back. I have come to the conclusion that the vertical back is the best posture from a martial arts point of view and as a way to practice the art. My suspicion is that the people who advise an extreme stretching posture are either doing so for a very specific health reason (perhaps to help people with very stiff lower backs) or are simply passing on this lesson in a "monkey see, monkey do" manner without understanding what it does to the body. Either way, once one has advanced in their practice where their tailbone has unfused (you'll know when it happens because it breaks with a loud "snap"), I can't see any more reason for heroic efforts on the lower back and very good ones to stop the practice.

Many taijiquan teachers suggest that people do the set while practicing what is called "reverse breathing". It is called "reverse" primarily because it is the opposite of "Buddha Breathing", which is commonly taught by meditation teachers. Some teachers suggest that "reverse breathing" is dangerous and suggest that people instead breath "naturally". Take a look at the following diagrams to understand the difference between the two and what is at issue.

Buddha Breathing (in breath)

The important issues to remember are that in Buddha breathing, the air is pushed down into the tan t'ien ("hara" in Japanese), instead of the lungs. While this happens, the front of the hips pivot downwards and the rear pivots upward (as the monks say, "the anus looks to the moon".) This is the posture that Buddhists adopt while meditating and it gives a very solid, "locked" feeling when one is sitting in a lotus posture.

In contrast, reverse breathing---as the name suggests---turns this on its head.

Reverse Breathing (in breath)

In reverse breathing the air is pushed up into the chest cavity and the tan t'ien sucks inward. The hips inward, which pushes the genitals up and the anus turns away from the moon and looks to the earth. This has a profound impact on a person's taijiquan because as the hips tuck under, one is able to sink physically downwards through the hip joint while keeping vertical. (My tajiquan teacher called this "sitting like in a chair", which meant absolutely nothing to me and left me completely flummoxed about what he meant.) The act of sucking in the tan t'ien and expanding the chest makes this quite complicated and not terribly easy movement a lot easier. The value from martial power is that as the hips roll under, very strong tendons in the back are stretched like springs, which stores power that can be unleashed at a later time. This is where the idea comes from that in taijiquan one attacks with an out-breath and retreats with an in-breath. When one understands the importance of reverse breathing in taijiquan, one eventually moves towards a pace where each move takes one long, calm breath.

The reason why people suggest that reverse breathing is dangerous is because it does seem to have bad effects if you try to force it or do it all the time. At one time I tried to do it while meditating and did try to force it. I stopped doing this when I had a blood vessel explode in my left eye while meditating. I have heard examples of practitioners who were stricken blind or who suffered from severe high-blood pressure from too much reverse-breathing. As a result, teachers who do not really know what they are doing, or have to run a lot of students through their halls in order to the pay the rent are probably better off simply saying that it is dangerous and tell people not to do it.

But life is dangerous and the greatest risk in life is to take no risks at all! The taijiquan sets that I have learned all begin and end with three slow, quiet breaths. My suspicion is that the initial three breaths are supposed to be reverse breathing in order to prepare for the taijiquan. The last three should be Buddha breathing in order to bring the body out of the habit of reverse breathing. I also think that the reason why people are supposed to study meditation once they get to a certain level in taijiquan is to learn about things like Buddha breathing and reverse breathing in order to advance their forms practice; and then to settle down into serious Buddha breathing to act as a prophylactic to prevent the practitioner from damaging herself. (There are also many good reasons for doing Buddha breathing, of course, for example, I have found it a good thing to do to keep warm on my cold walks home from work.)

Of course, the overwhelming majority of people who do taijiquan simply want some non-stressful exercise and would find all of this quite bizarre. The biggest problems arise from people with bad judgement who obsess about this sort of thing and don't use their common sense in practice. But if someone remembers to be a "light unto themselves" and to tread the path of moderation, these practices can be of value for that vanishingly small part of the population that seeks to follow the same path as I.