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!