Saturday, December 26, 2009

Milestones in the Practice of Taijiquan

People who practice the Japanese martial arts have a ranking system that gives them some sort of feel for their progress in learning the system. Taijiquan is different. Most practitioners are not interested in learning how we compare to other people but how what we are now compared to how we once were.

The loss of muscle definition:

When I took my first taijiquan class I was probably in the best “shape” I'd ever been in my life. I had just finished a very intensive self-imposed exercise regime in an unsuccessful attempt to qualify for a career in the armed forces. I had built myself up to the point where I could run three miles every day, could do seventy-five “marine style” push-ups (you bounce up off the floor and clap your hands together in mid-air) at a time, was doing regular laps in a swimming pool, etc. I have never been an athlete, but for once I had some of the attributes including significant muscle “definition” on my arms.

When I began taijiquan I focused on my arms because even though I though I was in pretty good shape I found some of what looked like some “easy” exercises maddeningly difficult. In particular, I found it very hard to do one that involved simply holding my hands up and rotating them and my fore-arm back and forth 180 degrees back and forth on the the axis that extends from my elbow to the tip of my middle finger. So I set myself a goal of doing this one for fifteen minutes a day---even if I had to do it in fifteen one minute increments. Eventually I was able to do the whole time at one go but in doing so I noticed a very significant change. I had lost all the muscle definition in my arms!

This experience puzzled me for years until I heard that there are two different types of muscle fibers: “long-twitch” and “short-twitch”. Reading up on these two different types of muscles, it became clear that “long-twitch” muscles are the ones we use for taijiquan whereas “short-twitch” ones are those used by weight lifters. The transition from one type to another may explain the difference in look. Moreover, this decline in definition explains the reason why people often suggest that men who practice taijiquan develop a “feminine” look. They lose their muscle definition which smooths-out the lines on their body---not because of the woman's thin layer of fat that they naturally carry under the skin, but because the skeletal muscles on the man are less well-defined. I believe that it is also partly the basis of the claims that someone who practices internal alchemy is able to reverse the process of aging and develop some of the physical attributes of a baby.

The Beginners Plateau:

The second real milestone was the fact that after some very significant physical changes in my body while I was first learning the gross movements of the open hand set, I stopped seeing any results from continued practice. I had “learned” the set, and now all I seemed to be doing was going through the motions. Being an obstinate sort of person, I stuck with my practice even though it seemed to be going nowhere. Whenever possible I tried to augment my practice by doing things like learning weapons forms, push hands, tumbling, more and more warm-up exercises, meditation, and even some sorts of odd variants in practice such as doing the set on the side of steep hills, backwards or in “mirror image”.

This “dry spell” went on for years and years until I decided to actually give up doing taijiquan as a New Years resolution. When I stopped, however, I found that I started getting migraine headaches again. I had had these on and off for years before I started my regular practice but they almost completely disappeared when I began to regularly do taijiquan and I'd forgotten about them. But with the prospect of their return, I went back to regular practice. This brought back a saying that had been common in the club where I learned the art: “the only people who stick with taijiquan are the sick ones”.

Eventually I realized that the practice of taijiquan is not about constant dramatic improvement, but more about living a specific type of life. The school of Soto Zen suggests that the meditation is itself enlightenment. In the same way, the goal of taijiquan is itself taijiquan. And once I began to chip away at the goal-oriented attitude that I had brought to the art, I began to realize that there were subtle changes taking place in me that I had been too obtuse to notice. Eventually I realized that taijiquan is not just about changing the body, but it is also about changing the mind. And part of that change is learning to be much more sensitive to the nuances of being a human being. Once I came to this realization, I could see that I had been making progress all along.

Strange Body Sounds:

There came a time in my practice when I started to get weird sounds in various parts of my body. For example, for about a month or two I noticed that I when I flexed my chest it created very loud “crunching” sounds. They were very noticeable to those around me and sounded like someone breaking a bundle of dry sticks over their knee. Eventually it went away. For another period of time my hip started making an odd “clunk” whenever I did a “separation kick” or a “snake creeps down”. Eventually that too went away. And twice I had a very odd feeling at the very base of my spine that felt and sounded like something in my tail-bone was breaking loose.

I believe that the traditional Daoist terms for what was happening is “tendon changing” and “marrow washing”. In modern medical language, I theorize that what was happening was that by specific exercises I was reversing the effects of an unhealthy lifestyle.

My family has a disposition towards a stooped posture which Daoists have traditionally identified as “the scholar's hump”. In my case the title is well-deserved as it was made worse by years of sitting at a desk (this was before computers.) My brother actually has the condition worse that I ever did, and he probably gets it from his work repairing sewing machines. The loud “cracking” sound, therefore, was the loosening up of long-tight muscles and tendons in my chest.

With regard to my hips, I noticed that as my exercise progressed I was changing the way I worked. I used my back less and less to do things like pick up heavy objects and instead used my legs. Moreover, I found that when doing things like breaking concrete with a sledge-hammer I used my legs and the weight of the hammer instead of my upper body. I started paying more attention to the way people use their bodies and noticed that most people have lost a large amount of flexibility in their hips which they compensated for by using their backs. This means that all the accident prevention instruction that people receive at work (i.e. life with your legs, not your back) is pretty much useless unless they also start working on opening up their hips. The conclusion I came to was that from lack of use my hips had lost a great deal of mobility. The “clunking” was the ball and socket joint working beyond the limited area of movement I had previously used.

Finally, I have been told that the snapping sound in my tail-bone (or “coccyx”) was two segments that had been fused together snapping apart. My quick searches on the Internet would seem to indicate that this might not be totally correct. Contrary to old opinions, it appears that for most people the tail-bone doesn't actually fuse together. Nor does it seem to be a useless appendage. Instead it serves a very useful purpose in anchoring a wide variety of muscles in our abdomens and legs. It is also supposed to be very important to the process of sitting and squatting, which means that it too is important to opening up the hips. Whether or not some of the segments in my coccyx had fused, the process of doing taijiquan had loosened it up and the result was a lot more mobility.

Moments of Grace:

Several times in my life I have experienced what could only be called incidents of “grace” in my taijiquan. By this, I mean that spontaneously I have been able to do things that seemed totally remarkable and seem to validate the “wild history” that people talk about kung-fu masters. For example, once I was clowning around in my school with a practice sabre in my hands. I noticed a poster on the wall of the club for an organization that I don't like so I stabbed it with the tip of my sabre, tore it off the bulletin board, tossed it in the air and sliced it into two pieces in mid air as it floated down---all this with a totally blunt aluminum sabre. Another time I was demonstrating “live” push hands with another fellow for a visitor to the club. At one point I spontaneously grabbed onto the other fellow's arms and executed a back roll. He tumbled over on top of me and he ended up on his back with me sitting on his chest with both his arms pinned.

The important thing to understand was that these maneuvers were totally spontaneous---if my life depended on it I couldn't recreate them. It was if taijiquan was doing me rather than I was doing taijiquan. I don't like the word or idea of “master”, but I think that this is the sort of thing that lies at the root of the notion. I suspect that someone like Yang the Invincible was able to manifest this sort of state very often, which would explain the extra-ordinary feats attributed to him. Moreover, I have met people from other traditions who have said that they have had similar experiences.

Dropping the Chest and Finding the Bubbling Well Springs:

The latest milestone is finally being able to achieve something that I was told in the first year of practice---over 30 years ago. I have always been told that my weight should be on the entire sole of my foot instead of concentrated on the heel or ball. No matter how much I tried to figure out how to do this, it always seemed beyond my ability. A year or so ago I started saying a rosary while doing walking meditation most mornings. (Primarily, I was using reverse breathing techniques in order to cure constipation.) It did this, but I also noticed other significant mental and physical advantages, so I have stuck with the practice.

As almost a side benefit, I noticed that in doing so I made a significant change in my posture while doing the taijiquan set. I was in a totally vertical posture, but because of the concentrated experience in reverse breathing, I'd gotten into the habit of sinking my rib cage at the same time. This allowed me to drop my buttocks while being totally vertical, which in turn allowed me to put all my weight onto the entire sole of my foot. I had finally found out how to access the “bubbling wellsprings” in my feet! This has totally changed my practice and allows me a whole new level of control and balance in my form.

These milestones are my own personal ones. I could have mentioned others, but they were the ones that came to mind as I was writing this essay. I suspect that others could have written a different set because they have had different experiences. But I have heard other people who practice either taijiquan or other forms of kung-fu say similar things.

Monday, November 30, 2009

This Time De, Not Dao

People who are interested in such things usually spend a lot more time thinking about the term "Dao" than they do "De". But it is still very important, so much so that one of the oldest versions of the Laozi that has been found actually bears the title "De Dao Jing" instead of the more common one.

Like most important philosophical or spiritual words, "De" seems to have a lot of different associations and connotations. People like me who have not spent their entire lives learning ancient Chinese and all the nuances associated with specific characters have to get by with translations and what little scholarly reading we can find time for. To illustrate the sort of thinking that I do about such things, take a look at the following translation of chapter 38 of the Laozi. It is the first chapter of the "De" portion of the text and the one that most specifically deals with the concept. (The translator, Victor Mair, has used the word "integrity" to translate "de", so everywhere you see the first word, you know the original text has the second.)

The person of superior integrity does not insist upon his integrity;
For this reason, he has integrity.
The person of inferior integrity never loses sight of his integrity;
For this reason, he lacks integrity. (1)

The person of superior integrity takes no action,
nor has he a purpose in acting.
The person of superior humaneness takes action,
but has no purpose in acting.
The person of superior righteousness takes action,
and has a purpose for acting.
The person of superior etiquette takes action,
but others do not respond to him;
Whereupon he rolls up his sleeves and coerces them.(2)


When the Way is lost, afterwards comes integrity.
When integrity is lost, afterwards comes humaneness.
When humaneness is lost, afterwards comes righteousness.
When righteousness is lost, afterwards comes etiquette.(3)


Etiquette is the attenuation of trustworthiness, and the source of disorder.(4)

Foreknowledge is but the blossomy ornament of the Way,
and the source of ignorance.(5)

For this reason,

The great man resides in substance, not in attenuation.(6)

He resides in fruitful reality, not in blossomy ornament.(7)


He rejects the one and adopts the other.

(Chapt 38, Victor H. Mair trans.)

Before we get to discussing "de", I think it is important to point out a couple other things first.

Scholars tell us that like the Christian Bible, the Dao De Jing wasn't written by a single writer. Instead it is a collection of sayings from an oral tradition that were brought together and edited into the form we have today. With this in mind, it is very useful to look at a translation and try to parse out the different parts that were brought together. In a scholarly translation like Victor Mair's, clues are left in the text---in the way the stanzas are laid out---so the reader can work out them out.

With that in mind, I've labelled what I am assuming are different "voices" in this chapter from "1" to "7". I've also changed the colour to pink of what I am assuming are "transitional words" that editors have inserted to give the illusion that the chapter is a complete entity instead of a collection. Finally, I've changed the words to green that I think make up a conclusion that the editor inserted.

I've done this to remind myself that because this is a collection of oral sayings instead of the creation of one mind. This means that I shouldn't assume that each one of these stanzas is informed by the same way of looking at the world. Indeed, when I do make the effort, I think I can see a subtle difference.

Another thing I find useful to do is to try and step back from the decisions that the translator has made and substitute the original word so I can just see them in their context without the connotations that the English word brings. Let's do this for the first three stanzas.

The person of superior de does not insist upon his de;
For this reason, he has de.
The person of inferior de never loses sight of his de;
For this reason, he lacks de. (1)

This stanza is arguing that "de" is something that is involved in one's awareness of self. If one is self-conscious about their "de", they lack it. This could be referring to someone who is following a course of action more because of how he wants to be perceived by his neighbours than by whether or not he thinks the action is the "right thing to do". It could also be referring to someone's internal self-image and how that constrains their behaviour. (My Daoist teacher once said that one of the biggest problems people have in life is their self-image that says things like "Oh, I couldn't do that!") Finally, it could be referring to the idea that the act of thinking about some things makes it difficult to do them. (There is a teaching story I read once about a centipede who lost the ability to walk when someone asked him just exactly how he was able to control so many legs. Once the started thinking about it, he found he could no longer do it.)

The person of superior de takes no action,
nor has he a purpose in acting.
The person of superior humaneness takes action,
but has no purpose in acting.
The person of superior righteousness takes action,
and has a purpose for acting.
The person of superior etiquette takes action,
but others do not respond to him;
Whereupon he rolls up his sleeves and coerces them.(2)

This stanza seems to be making a different statement. The person in the first line is following the path of Wu Wei, or non-action. But please note that this statement is not some variant of the medical "first, do no harm". That is to say, that there are a great many cases where more harm is done through thoughtless action than would have resulted from letting things follow their natural course. Instead, this stanza seems to be saying that the superior man is acting without purpose at all. I suppose that this could be read---if it was seen in isolation from what follows---as saying that the sage is supposed to spontaneously sleepwalk through life.

I believe, however, that what the author really means is that the superior man of "de" has no motive when he acts. He just does what seems "right" or "natural" as it looks to him at that time. This could mean several different things. It could mean that he has no "ulterior motives", by which I mean that he is being forthright and honest in his dealings instead of following some selfish hidden agenda. It could also mean that he doesn't believe that "the ends justify the means", no matter how good the ends might be. It could also mean that he tends to act instinctively and "in the now", sort of the way people work when they practice "process art". The emphasis is still, however, that when a man with de acts in a "right" or "natural" way, he has a tendency towards doing nothing at all rather than getting busy. (And don't forget that even the process of not acting is still a conscious act.)

The next line of the stanza puts the word "humaneness" in the place where "de" was in the previous one. I suspect that the word that Mair has translated as "humaneness" is the Confucian term "ren". This word is about as important to the "Ru Jia" (Confucians) as "Dao" is to Daoists. If this is the case, then the author is trying separate Daoists from Confucians by saying that both are disinterested members of society---but one is engaged and the other is not.

The distinction is not just conceptual, however, for the author is clearly trying to suggest that "de" is superior to "ren". He does this by placing the former ahead of the latter in a series of declining value. The next step is righteousness, which is specifically mentioned as not being disinterested in nature. This could be the sort of "tough love" of Puritanism or mere hypocrisy based on ulterior motives. The final line about "etiquette" is, I suspect, a jab at the sort of person who's ethical framework is not much more than the conventional forms of social behaviour and who will not shrink from imposing his will by force if someone refuses to abide by the "norms". (Think of the boss who is all "noblesse oblige" as long as his underlings are properly deferential---but fires anyone who has the gall to talk back to him.)

The suggestion might be that once someone commits herself to acting---"ren" instead of "de"---she starts on the slipperly slope that ends in not much more than convention and force.

This slippery slope argument is also the basis of the next stanza.

When the Way is lost, afterwards comes de.
When de is lost, afterwards comes humaneness.
When humaneness is lost, afterwards comes righteousness.
When righteousness is lost, afterwards comes etiquette.(3)

But note that there is a new element involved here. The Dao (or "Way") is being placed ahead of "de". In fact, a progressive decline is suggested Dao>"de">"ren">righteousness>etiquette. So instead of "de" being the attribute of a life lived in tune with the Dao, it is a degenerated form of existence that comes when one has lost the Dao yet is still above the lowly Confucians, who are in turn above the more plebian sort of humanity. This seems to be at odds with much of the rest of the book, which would rest on the idea that a person's ability to manifest "de" is a result of living in harmony with the Dao. Indeed, the title of book is usually translated as something along the lines of the "The Way and its Power Classic" (i.e. Dao De Jing.)

Now let's look at a list of possible translations for "de" that I found at the Wikipedia.

1. Rise, go up, climb, ascend. [升; 登.]
2. Morals, morality, virtue, personal conduct, moral integrity, honor. [道德, 品行, 节操.]
3. Denoting a wise/enlightened person with moral character. [指有道德的贤明之人.]
4. Kindness, favor, grace, graciousness. [恩惠, 恩德.]
5. Grateful, gratefulness, thankful, indebted. [感恩, 感激.]
6. Benevolent rule, good government, good instruction. [德政, 善教.]
7. Objective regulations/rules. [客观规律.]
8. Quality, nature, basic character, characteristics, attribute. [性质; 属性.]
9. Intention, purpose, heart, mind. For example: "Be of one heart and mind". [心意. 如:一心一德.]
10. In Five Phases theory, a reference to seasonally productive energy/air. [五行说指四李的旺气.]
11. First growth, initial stage, beginning of something. [始生; 事物的开始.]
12. A phoenix-head pattern/decoration. [凤凰头上的花纹.]
13. Blessings, good fortune, happiness, resulting from benevolent actions. [福, 善庆的事.]
14. Used for zhí "straight, just". [通 "直 (zhí)".]
15. Used for zhí "to plant, grow, establish". Plant a tree. [通 "植 (zhí)". 立木.]
16. Used for "get, obtain, result in". [通 "得".]
17. A national name. An abbreviation for the Republic of Germany during World War II. [国名. 第二次世界大战结束前的德意志联邦的简称.]
18. A star name. [星名.]
19. A river name. Another name for the Yellow River. [水名. 黄河之别名.]
20. A surname. [姓.]

I think we can ignore meanings seventeen to twenty. (I doubt that the "old ones" were thinking about Nazi Germany.) But as you can see if you think about meanings one to sixteen, a translator has a lot to choose from when he thinking about a English word that will have all the relevant resonances. Indeed, Mair says in his introduction to his translation that it took him two months of very intense thought before he settled on the word "integrity".

If you look at the possible translations, it strikes me that they break down into three different complexes: goodness (3-6), wisdom (3, 6, 7, 14), and power (1, 10, 11, 13, 15, 16.) From my own limited understanding, it seems to me that the problem that Mair and other translators face is that there is no word in English that encapsulates at the same time the three concepts of goodness, wisdom and power. And the reason why no English word does so is because the common wisdom of our society is that these are totally unrelated---if not mutually exclusive---concepts.

Indeed, for our civilization "de" is a rather revolutionary idea. Most people conceive of goodness in terms of weakness. Think of all the images in popular culture of the weak priest or minister, or soft woman, who is "goodness" incarnate. Their only real strength is their ability to sacrifice themselves for their ideal. And there are only two ways that good "triumphs". The first is through its ability to convert some sort of hard, strong man to support it (think of the classic Western "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" where the good man survives because a strong man murders the villain.) The second is through some sort of heroic sacrifice that results in divine intervention (think of the clergyman who sacrifices himself to the Martians in a futile attempt at peace-making in the 1950's movie "War of the Worlds" which leads to their death from disease---a "divine" intervention if there ever was one.)

In the same way, wisdom is usually considered to be separate from goodness and strength. Again, if you look at popular depictions of wise people, they are usually described as old and feeble types who need young, strong types to be able to achieve their ends. (Even powerful Gandalf from "Lord of the Rings" needed the support of the youthful hobbits in order to achieve his ends.)

The idea that a type of real power can be associated with both goodness and wisdom is really a rare idea in Western civilization. Usually our archetypal figures of power have some sort of character flaw that renders them foolish in one way or another. (Think of King Arthur and Sir Lancelot, for example, they never seem to get over their silly infatuation with Guinevere---even though the result is a ruinous war and the destruction of the kingdom.)

The oriental, Daoist-inspired, archetypes are different from the Western ones. The wise, good man or woman is also very potent. The Shaolin-monk or priest from Wudang-shan may be old and wise, with good in his heart---but he is also able to fight and, when necessary, make the tough decisions. The nun (such as Ng Mui) may have a heart of gold, but God help any man who thinks he can take advantage of her because she can fight too! And, of course, there are many different types of power. Martial arts are but one example, the powerful tactics and strategies that the Daoist advisor Zhuge Liang used in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms are another example. But they do use the same principles as expressed in the Laozi and manifested as "de".

So this far too long post ultimately has a conclusion. That is, that the ideal of "de" is different from Western ones.

But more importantly, this post is an attempt to show how scholarly thought is also a type of Daoist meditation technique. I wanted to work through this for at least one post because it is a traditional form of Daoist internal yoga, but one that Westerners know almost nothing about and probably wouldn't recognize if they fell over it.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Mustard Seed of Happiness----

Most people nowadays suffer from the delusion that it is possible to find happiness in the externalities of life. It isn't surprising that this is the case, because our culture pretty much rams this idea down our throats from an early age. Not only is it enshrined in the US Constitution and constantly dinned into our ears through advertising, but I find that people increasingly police each other in order to ensure that each of us has a "positive attitude".

I was reminded of this the other day at work when a co-worker made a comment about my countenance. I had been reading a newspaper article about a researcher who was saying that a very high percentage of men leave their wives when they suffer significant health problems. I don't know if this is truly a problem or just some more hype created by the media. But I'm not sure that I ever want to be the sort of person who isn't visibly disturbed by reading this sort of thing.

Several days before I'd been listening to two of my co-workers talking about some issues that one of them had been facing. The one fellow had been off work for a couple months because he had had two major arteries in his heart almost totally block by plaque. He didn't have a heart attack, but it was almost a miracle he didn't. Thanks to the Canadian health care system, though, he had both blockages fixed and he is back at work now. But in the interim, it was discovered that his wife has breast cancer. So not only was this guy stuck at home and forced to do nothing in order to recuperate from the insertion of two stents, but now he had to watch his wife undergo surgery, help with her post-operation recovery, and, wait to see what the tests will say about the lump that was removed.

What was really interesting about this was the response of two of his co-workers. One said "I bet you're glad you got the plasma screen tv!" The other said "rent movies, lots of comedies". In effect, the solution of life's problems is to keep yourself distracted.

I'm not about to say that there is no sense in trying to cheer oneself up with entertainment. I myself have been a little "down" lately and last night I made my own attempts at distraction with a Patrick O'Brian novel and a glass of red wine. But I do think that our society is really misguided in its attempt to convince people that some sort of physical "happiness" can be the baseline without the odd tragic fluke intruding once in a while. When I look around me I see so much evidence of real tragedy that I cannot think that the odd person I know who really does seem to be immune from bad things is simply the result of my own ignorance of their true condition rather than some objective reality.

I've been contrasting our society's response to human tragedy with one that comes from the literature of Buddhism.

The Buddha was once taken to see a woman who had lost her mind in grief from the death of a small child. She would not even allow anyone to bury it, and she continued to carry the body around. The Buddha told her the following "I will make a magical elixir that will bring your child back to life. But in order to make it, I need you to give me an essential ingredient. Bring to me one mustard seed from a home where no one has ever died." The woman ran off and went from home to home looking for this seed. But everywhere she went she got the same reply "You cannot get it here, many people have died in this house." Eventually, this exposure to the reality of death wore away her grief and brought her back to her senses. She reconciled herself and allowed the child to be buried.

As I see it, the people of our civilization are like that woman running from house to house seeking a mustard seed that could return her child to life. But unlike her, most of us never really twig into the fact that there is no home where things are all sweet and rosy. I suspect that a big part of this comes from the fact that unlike the home-owners in the story, no one tells us "no, this too is a house with sorrow". And I think this gets back to what was happening at work. The co-worker who was trying to jolly me out of my pensive mood, and the others that were suggesting that the other fellow distract himself with movies, were suggesting that the way to deal with sorrow is through denial.

This isn't to say that the problem of suffering is answered simply by refusing to be in denial. In Buddhism the acknowledgement that death is universal is simply part of the first of the Four Noble Truths. And understanding those truths is not enlightenment itself, that only comes from following the Eightfold Path. But having said that, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a first step. And this step will never be taken until people admit that life is, on the whole, more of a veil of tears than a cornucopia of joy.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Kung Fu and Brain Plasticity

One of the reasons that I have devoted so much of my life to the study Daoism is because I think of it as a rare and endangered part of our cultural heritage. I first saw this issue articulated by a Bill Moyer's clip on television where he showed a young Shaolin monk training in a open hand routine. Moyer's said that this was "the cultural equivalent of a giant sequoia tree". The point he was making was that our ancient cultures have things that can only exist by the lifetime work of individuals assimilating the knowledge that has been gained in previous generations. And just like species of plants and animals, once this intergenerational transmission of information ends, the result is permanent extinction.

I heard an interview on the CBC the other day that has also stuck with me and got me thinking that our civilisation might soon be more willing to put energy into this process of cultural preservation. Unfortunately, I forget the name of the person being interviewed (I was doing stretches at the time), but the point he was making was that our society has laboured under an inappropriate metaphor when it comes to understanding the way our brains operate. The metaphor is that of a machine.

The problem with that image is that machines are static and unchanging---except by outside interference. And this metaphor has framed our discussion about what it means to be a human being. People talk about our personality and who we are as being the result of either our genetics, or our past history, or some combination of the both. Left out of the discussion, however, is any idea of how a human being is self-created by the individual decisions that she makes moment by moment, day by day.

The point this author was making is that this image of the brain has been proved to be factually untrue. Our brains are plastic. That is to say that they constantly change as a result of both the events we experience and the choices we make in how we live our lives. If we decide to do a specific thing---such as learn a new language---then the actions we follow in doing so actually change the way our brain is organised.

What this means for people who pursue spiritual practices, or to use the Chinese term: "kung fu", is that they are involved in a day-to-day process of changing the way their brains are organised. And when someone chooses to pursue a specific path, such as the life of a Daoist initiate, they are following an age-old process of reorganising their brain functions to operate in a way that is significantly different from those of the general public. If there is any value in doing this sort of thing, then seeking to preserve this specific cultural "evolutionary branch" is a pretty important thing to do.

I had this issue illustrated for me recently by one of my co-workers. She is a nice person, but she has absolutely no structure at all to her intellectual life. She just flits from one interest to another as her fancy strikes her. (The internet can be an addictive drug for people who are like this.) Indeed, she can see absolutely no reason why anyone would seek this sort of structure if they don't have to. But she complains about an inability to sleep and I asked her what her problem is. She said that "her mind just keeps buzzing with different thoughts". I would suggest that she the endless flitting around following one interest to another for so long has led to that "buzzing" phenomenon.

In contrast, I usually sleep like a log. But I do spend a great many hours every day in one form of practice or another---saying my rosary, doing taijiquan, introspective contemplation, and wrestling with ideas (like I am doing right now.) Part of this process is constantly forcing myself to get some sort of control over the chaotic elements of my consciousness so they follow the path that I have chosen to follow. As I have said before, the "watercourse way" of Daoism does follow the principle of Wu-wei, but it only does so if one follows the hard work (e.g. "kung fu") of internal alchemy (e.g "neidan".)

Monday, October 19, 2009

Karen Armstrong's The Case for God

I just finished reading Karen Armstrong's latest book, The Case for God. Like everything else that I've read by her, I liked it a lot. She is obviously well read and passionately interested in religion. She is not an academic, but she isn't afraid of using big words or difficult concepts. More importantly, she isn't tied to a denomination---like many religious writers---which means that she can follow her ideas where they lead without fear of suffering professionally from her candour. (I think that this effectively muzzles a great many religious leaders who fear retribution from both church hierarchy and the people in the pews.)

Armstrong's basic thesis is that modern religious concepts have been badly damaged by apologists for religion who tried to use the authority of modern science to justify belief in God. As a result, the traditional tendency to emphasise the ineffability and transcendence of God was lost. Once God stopped being beyond our ability to comprehend, people started to emphasise the necessity of belief in specific creeds, which in turn led the way to Biblical literalism and all the intolerance that flows from that.

Armstrong believes that this is a form of idolatry in that once one accepts the notion that people can have clear and distinct ideas about what God is, then it becomes almost inevitable that these ideas become not much more thatn what believer's project upon him. This is the point where God stops being outside of human history and begins to look (at least to Americans) like a sort of cosmic "commander in chief" with a paid-up membership in the Republican party and who is a regular listener to Rush Limbaugh. (And, of course, in Saudi Arabia he keeps his wife in a veil and supports Osama Bin Laudin---.)

I'm don't think that Armstrong actually "makes her case", but I'm not sure that this would bother her. One of her key points is that religious "truths" don't actually get settled by discursive argument. Instead, she repeatedly asserts that whatever wisdom does come from religion is a result of regular personal practice---either individually or as part of a community. Moreover, she believes that the truths imparted are cannot be universally understood (like scientific truths) but instead are intelligible only to specific people using a specific shared language and who are tied into a particular relationship with each other. (This is not so much an epistemological claim---that is talking about the nature of knowledge---but more a recognition of the practical limits or our ability to communicate difficult ideas.)

Two ideas that she keeps returning to in her text are those of "bricolage" and "midrash". The first comes from architecture and refers to a process where one restricts one's materials to a specific set in order to expand one's creativity. In the same way, Armstrong believes that religions grow through the process of re-interpreting and reformulating their specific core myths. The Jewish process of creative interpretations of scripture that inspired Armstrong to use the bricolage analogy comes from the practice of creating a "midrash" to re-explain the value of ancient texts in a new historical context.

She ends the book by referring to the so-called "New Atheists" and suggests that they are trapped in the same nasty circle as the fundamentalists they despise because both have limited their definition of "God" to a idolatrist projection and "religion" to the empty positing of creedal formulas instead of ritual, spiritual practice and good works. Unless society is able to step out of this rut and rediscover the ideal of God as being manifest in our ignorance and how we live our lives, we are doomed to have to choose between these two fruitless options.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

"Guided Meditation", Hypnosis, and, Sitting and Forgetting

I sometimes go to "meditation" sessions organised by various religious groups and I am often appalled by the confused ideas people have about "meditation". One of the things that especially bugs me is what goes by the name "guided meditation".

For those of you who have not heard of this, it consists of people sitting and relaxing while a group leader narrates some sort of scenario to the people sitting and relaxing. Sometimes it involves getting people to visualise breathing in "white energy" and breathing out "black energy". At other times it involves visualising a walk with Jesus. The last time I was at one of these things, it was suggested that we feel some "loving energy" go from our hearts into the earth---in order to heal it. (There was an environmental theme to the church service that week.)

Several things disturb me about this activity.

First of all, it is based on a world-view that seems to accept the existence of a dangerous type of self-delusion. That is, that our personal emotional states have some direct impact on the physical world around us. The problem with this idea is that it is manifestly false. Contrary to the New Testament, faith cannot directly move a physical mountain. Nor can it fix a flat tire or a broken leg. And it most certainly is not going to end global climate change!

What it can do is get an individual or a group of people to work on a specific task that might seem beyond their ability. Faith can inspire a nation to work together and then they can move mountains. The evidence for this is all around us---from the pyramids of Giza and Central America to the cathedrals of Europe.

The problem is when people confuse these two things and substitute the former for the latter. It is one thing to share a vision of a better world and let that inspire an individual or community to work at some great goal. It is another altogether to suggest that having the vision is some sort of action in and of itself. The Notre Dame cathedral was built, in a sense, by faith. But it was also build by the hard work of hundreds of masons working over generations.

And this raises another of the problems with guided meditations. They usually suggest that people develop their faith without bothering to explain what exactly people are supposed to have faith in. This means that pretty much the entire edifice of Eastern religious wisdom gets left behind in favour of some sort of vague "positive think" spirituality that has more in common with Amway than the Dao or eightfold path.

Most of the time this boils down to some sort of vacuous version of "love conquers all". This invariably means that all people have to do is experience a specific type of emotion as much of the time as possible, and avoid anything that might be "negative", that the world will spontaneously become a better place. The practical result is a person who refuses to do any of the heavy lifting required for social transformation---which invariably involves nasty stuff like debate and struggle.

At worst, this sort of things results in some sort of guru worship or some other form of abuse of the self by the person behind the calm voice offering instruction.

This raises the last thing that really disturbs me about this practise: it seems to be not a heck of a lot different than hypnosis.

The popular notion about hypnosis is that some sort of mysterious power allows someone to "put" someone else into a "trance" that then allows the hypnotist to force them to do things that they would never have been able to do otherwise. My understanding is that this is a completely false picture. Instead, what seems to happen is that the "hypnosis experience" is a sort of social role that individuals can enter into and which allows them to loosen up the conventions that restrict the way people allow themselves to act.

When a stage hypnotist, therefore, gets someone to cluck like a chicken, he is not putting a person into a trance and getting him to actually become a chicken. Instead, he is convincing the person that he is now "hypnotised" and a "hypnotised" person clucks like a chicken when he is told that he is now a chicken. He is not entering a complex and new state of poultry-hood, however, he is just having the social convention of "act like a grown-up" removed and replaced by the social convention that now says "it's OK to pretend now, like you did when you were a child".

In the same way, when a hypnotist tells someone to "release a blocked memory", they are telling the subject that "it's OK to fantasise now". (Hence all the horrible stories of people convicted of ritual Satanic abuse---even when no physical evidence exists to support the victim statements.)

This is not to say that hypnosis is a bogus phenomenon. It actually exists, and it has significant value in some situations. The problem comes from people who come to it with a naive psychological world view that assumes that each of us is some sort of Cartesian individual mind totally isolated from everyone else in the world. Instead, a more nuanced approach is to understand that each of us lives in a cultural context where the way we think, talk and experience the world around us is mediated by the set of rules that we learned when we were very young and are still learning every moment of our lives. People get "hung up" by the way their cultural complexes influence their internal life. The ability to enter into the "hypnotic subculture" often allows people a way of "rebooting" their lives by letting them find a culturally safe way of redefining who they are.

From a meditative point of view, however, the point of spiritual practice is not to sculpt our cultural conditioning into different forms. Instead, the job is to cut through it altogether in order to connect with the Truth. (Or at, least, get to a closer approximation of it.) This cultural conditioning is what the man who practices "sitting and forgetting" is supposed to be "forgetting". It is the Maya that the Hindu Yogi and the Buddhist nun are supposed to be cutting through. The realized man does not become so by having someone else insert some sort of vacuous statement about the need for "universal love", or "positive think", or "mind over matter" into his consciousness. He becomes enlightened by entering into the void that exists when we strip away all that social conditioning and see the world (and his being) as it truly is.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Traditional Chinese Medicine

I sometimes hear from people who assume that because I am a Daoist that I am a fan of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). I suspect that the hidden assumption is that TCM must be grounded in Daoism, so anyone who studies the Dao should have some affinity to it. While I will admit that I haven't done a lot of study of TCM, but that doesn't mean that I don't have a negative opinion about it.

The first thing that I think people should understand is that not everything that comes from Chinese culture is "Daoist". Both Roman Catholicism and Western medicine have their origins in Europe, yet we would never assume that Roman Catholicism would have anything to do with Western medicine, or vice-versa, would we?

More importantly, I think we need to understand that TCM comes from a pre-scientific tradition. That means that none of it has fallen under the careful, collective scrutiny that our Western medicine has. Some parts of it probably works, but most of it is probably about as effective as medieval European medicine was. Lest people take issue with this, I would direct their attention to the following URLs.

The first, "Be Wary of Acupuncture, Qigong and Traditional Chinese Medicine", comes from the excellent medical website known as "quackwatch" and gives a very good overview of TCM. The next two come from the excellent publication known as the "Skeptical Inquirer", and are titled "Traditional Medicine and Pseudo-Science in China" , and a second part article in another issue. At least from these three essays, it seems that there are very good reasons to suspect that a large amount of TCM is worthless or worse.

Some folks might be scandalized to hear someone who calls himself a Daoist---and a religious Daoist at that---being so dismissive of this sort of thing. I would argue, however, that this is because so many people have fallen for the fallacious idea that the age of an idea gives it merit. "Ancient Chinese wisdom" is probably the phrase that comes to mind. But the fact of the matter is that this appeal to age is not much more than an old-fashioned appeal to authority. And Daoists have always been notorious for deflating appeals to authority.

The other thing to remember is that contrary to what people might think, Daoism is not really that ancient. Confucianism---which really is a faith that revers the old---existed long before Daoism. And its real claim to fame (i.e. as "the school of Ru", or "rujia"----which is the better way of describing Confucians---is based upon their knowledge of ancient esoterica, most notably the rites and rituals of the Zhou and Shang.) In fact the rujia existed before there was, by definition, any sort of "Ancient Chinese Wisdom" simply because it was only later, after the ascendency of the Chin empire, that the word "China" came to describe the area and civilization complex.

And if we are going to be totally honest, China is not even the oldest civilisation on Earth. That honour goes to Europe, which can trace its written history back to the Egyptians and Sumerians---both of which have literature that exists to this day because our scholars have learned how to read both some types of cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs. People who might balk at this assertion have to realise that "China" has gone through as many dramatic changes as Europe has. The geography has changed back and forth (hence the debate about whether or not Tibet is part of "China".) Its written language has changed so much that modern Chinese readers have about as much hope of understanding Zhuangzi in the original text as I had in reading "Beowulf" when I was at university.

In the face of this extensive history, "Daoism" only stretches back a small way. For example, tradition gives the dates for Laozi in the 6th century BC---about four hundred years after the founding of the Zhou dynasty and over a thousand after the founding of the Shang. Moreover, the founder of the Celestial Master movement, Zhang Daoling, was extant in the second century of the present era---which makes the religion slightly younger than Christianity and only slightly older than Islam.

Moreover, the Immortal most associated with the development of internal alchemy, Zhang Sanfeng, and the legendary creator of taijiquan, is said to have been born as either as early as 960 or as late as 1279 AD. By definition, this makes him not an "ancient", but rather a "medieval". In effect, the founder of neidan was a contemporary of Saint Boniface, Thomas Aquinas or someone who lived between them.

In contrast, if we were to look at the roots of "traditional Western Medicine" (if such a thing existed), we would probably go back to people like Hippocrates (460-370 BC), who coined the oath that Western doctors take to this day. We should also include rationalists like Socrates (469-399 BC) and Aristotle (384-322 BC), who are often called the inventors of the scientific method. So if age is the only criteria to use for accepting something, then "Ancient European wisdom" has as much right to our allegiance as "Ancient Chinese wisdom". And given the choice, I'll opt for double-blind studies over the Yellow Emperor's Classic.

The thing to remember is that Daoism is not about preserving tradition. Instead, it is about finding the truth.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Living in a Dream

A while back I wrote a post about the "episodic" nature of human existence. This was an attempt to explain one of those prosaic things with very profound implications that comes to a person as a result of internal alchemy. That is, in case you can't be bothered to read the original post, that our experience of self-consciousness doesn't exist in a continuous stream but rather in isolated bits connected by our memories. As the Buddhists would say, we have no real experience of an ego, just individual moments when various sense experiences come together and become self-referential. (This is the doctrine of "anatta".)

To build on this point, however, it is important to understand that the illusion of self comes from the ability of memory to tie together these transitory self-referential experiences and suggest that they are bound together like the beads on a rosary.

The complexity resides in the fact that memory itself is a phenomenon that simply cannot be trusted to give us an accurate description of the past.

Most people have the naive idea that our memories exist like some sort of video tape recorder that records our experiences and stores them somewhere where they can be retrieved more-or-less the same way we had them in the first place. This is not true at all, however. Indeed, it turns out that memories can be constructed through suggestion.

Take for example the famous case of the Swiss psychologist Piaget. He had a very vivid memory of an attempted kidnapping where unknown attackers were fought off by his nanny.

"I can still see, most clearly, the following scene, in which I believed until I was about fifteen. I was sitting in my pram, which my nurse was pushing in the Champs Elysees, when a man tried to kidnap me. I was held in by the strap fastened round me while my nurse bravely tried to stand between me and the thief. She received various scratches and I can still see vaguely those on her face. Then a crowd gathered, a policeman with a cloak and a white baton came up, and the man took to his heels. I can still see the whole scene, and can even place it near the tube station."

It turns out, however, that Piaget's memory was totally false. Years after the fact his nanny spontaneously confessed that for some reason she had made the entire episode up. Piaget could only surmise that his vivid recollection could only be the result of the many times he had heard her repeat the story to others.

A lot of sad stories exist about how our naive understanding of memory has resulted in terrible persecution of innocent people. Take a look at this very informative essay by an expert in field to see how easy it is for a "therapist" to convince people that they have memories about things that simply did not take place. This might be just an interesting piece of information if it did not also come with the knowledge that a great many people have been wrongfully accused and convicted of crimes they never committed. See this modern example. Pick away a bit more at this thought and consider the following: a great many people are convicted by eye-witness testimony at criminal trials. But as the above links show, memory can be very easily manipulated by police and others simply by the way they conduct their interviews with people. Lest people still believe that they know what they see, take a look at the video at this link.

If it is possible to have totally false memories planted in our minds simply because someone else strongly suggests that they did in fact happen, and that even when we are distracted we can miss a great deal, then we should be really careful when we consider our own self-image. Is our perception of what happened to us in the past an accurate record of what really happened? Or is it some sort of conditioned reflex that comes from the culture we inhabit?

I know in my case I sometimes have to watch myself with my memory because I have extremely vivid dreams. The issue is that these dreams seem so real that I begin to think of them as events that really have happened to me. For example, I have a very strong memory of going fishing once when I was a child and seeing a tanker truck emptying its load into a crystal clear stream with fish in it. It seems like a memory, yet I cannot for the life of me remember a time, place or opportunity where I could have possibly seen this thing happen. (I grew up on a dreary farm and my childhood consisted of work and very little else.)

There are several very famous stories in Daoist literature about dreams, perhaps the greatest being Zhuangzi's inability to tell if he were a philosopher dreaming he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was a philosopher. I suspect that most people see this as an amusing story, but I suspect that if we really did think about the relationship between dreams and our consciousness we'd be really, deeply disturbed. Most of us go through our lives without having this point deeply affect us. But the mindfulness that comes from neidan practice points out the ultimate hallucinatory experience of being alive.

I once took a very strong dose of magic mushrooms and experienced the full gamut of what we normally call "hallucinations". Two things really stood out. The first was sitting on my bed and watching my alarm clock running backwards. The second was some sort of strange "self evident" realisation that it was patently absurd to be afraid of dying. The more I think about that experience and the really powerful role that my dreams have in the way I look at the world, the more I question the self-evident facts of my personal existence. I suspect that a fully realised man might have his "common sense" so shaken by this sort of thing that he no longer experiences the world around him in a similar way to ordinary folks.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Sage is not Humane

One of the chapters of the Dao De Jing that "new age" people rarely quote is number five---the one that compares people to "straw dogs".

Heaven and Earth are not benevolent.
To them men are like straw dogs destined for sacrifice.
The Man of Calling is not benevolent.
To him men are like straw dogs destined for sacrifice.
The space between Heaven and Earth
is like a flute:
empty, and yet it does not collapse;
when moved more and more emerges from it.
But many words exhaust themselves on it.
It is better to guard the 'within'.
Richard Wilhelm trans.

I've been thinking a lot about the issues behind the first half of this chapter lately. I've been ruminating about a prediction by James Lovelock that says that by the year 2100 80% of the human race will be dead because of runaway climate change.

A while back I decided that the actual death of all these people (mainly through starvation, disease and war caused by them) is ultimately irrelevent. After all, we all die in one---mostly unpleasant---way or another. What bothered me more is the idea that we would enter into some sort of terrible dark age, which would set back human progress at best for a long time and at worst forever.

It occurred to me lately, however, that this is a real misread of humanity. It assumes that people will share and share alike until everything is gone. Reading history quickly disabused me of that notion. People are quite happy to spend resources on luxuries (like the internet) while millions of unfortunates are starving outside the walls. And the fact of the matter is that modern technological civilization is very good at killing people who do not have the same sorts of weaponry. So once the wall has been built, there will be little chance that it will ever be breached.

In addition, it seems to me that if it does become clear that climate change is now out of control due to positive feedback, that debate is going to quickly centre on methods by which mankind can directly intervene to reverse the warming effect. People are already talking about this seriously, and it appears that some methods would be inexpensive enough for middle-sized countries to attempt. (These include things like seeding the clouds with light-reflecting sulfur dust.)

Of course, any sensible person should be loathe to start monkeying-around with the global climate when we are in the midst of a crazy unconscious experiment already. But having screwed-up nature, people are going to have to start learning how to jury-rig the system to keep some of us alive. At the same time, hopefully, people will begin to appreciate what used to exist and make an equal effort to restore the natural systems wherever possible. So if Lovelock is right, and the Sahara Desert jumps over the Mediterranean and engulfs Southern Europe, whomever is still around will hopefully be planting trees in order to reverse the trend.

Having worked through the depressing first half of the DDJ's fifth chapter, I think I begin to understand the second:

The space between Heaven and Earth
is like a flute:
empty, and yet it does not collapse;
when moved more and more emerges from it.
But many words exhaust themselves on it.
It is better to guard the 'within'.

This is a statement of faith in the Dao by the enlightened sage. The Daoist doesn't labour under a sort of "Pollyanna" viewpoint---he understands that there is no God above who cares about what happens to anyone here on earth. (Looking around at the misery that surrounds us should disabuse anyone of that fantasy.) But the sage can also see that both nature and human society (e.g. the "space between Heaven and Earth"), for all their problems, don't seem to be willing to collapse. No matter what sort of catastrophes befall the Earth, people still find some way of responding with energy and creativity.

Lovelock himself seems to embody this attitude. Even though he is making the most pessimistic of predictions, he is still full of optimism and believes that when the catastrophies begin to pile up those individuals who are lucky enough to have a fighting chance of survival will be united by a real sense of purpose. The way he explains this is in reference to when he was young during the Second World War---"everyone got excited, they loved the things they could do, it was one long holiday". (Kind of a tough holiday for the Jews, Russians, etc, though.)

While I don't know if I would describe the painful demise of 80% of the human race as "one long holiday", I do understand what he is getting at. As the "Old Ones" suggest, there is no sense 'exhausting oneself with words'. It makes a lot more sense to 'guard the within'. As someone who has spend decades of my life trying to warn people about the coming era of horror, it just seems more important to guard my within and have some faith in the people around me to come up with some sort of solution when the problem becomes inavoidably obvious.

Perhaps the hardest task that confronts the internal alchemist is to give up his humanity. Yet this is a task that confronts all who leave the land of dust and walk the path that leads to realisation.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Humble Things That Help Us Grow

I've been busy for a while doing the sorts of things a hermit does in the summer and it occurred to me how important they can be for a spiritual life. In fact, this thought came while I was picking red currants off the bush that grows in my neighbour's boulevard.

My lower back was a little painful and I was a bit bored, but my cat was dancing around me (she loves it when I'm out doing yard work) and I was listening to the birds and street noise. It takes a long time to pick these tiny little berries and in this case it took me about two hours to fill a little basket. And that little basket, in turn, only created enough jelly to fit one pint jar.

Of course, this makes absolutely no economic sense. But it does teach me the lesson of patience and it reminds me about how much work goes into food. I try to remain mindful of this fact, and to that point I have a poem from Journey to the West taped up on the wall over my kitchen table:

Hoeing millet in the noon-day sun,
Sweat drips on the ground beneathe the millet.
Who understands that of the food that's in the bowl,
Every single grain was won through bitter toil?
A few days later I put up a year's supply of peach chutney. Again, there is a lot of work to do, but it centres me and puts me back in touch with nature.

Also, when I preserve my own food, it allows me to eat stuff that simply cannot be purchased in the stores and which I know full well how it is made. If I was very rich, I could buy red currant jelly and peach chutney from a very expensive food store---but for most people this stuff is simply unobtainable unless you make it yourself.

More to the point, it gives me an ability to live much more "rooted" in my local environment than other folks who eat everything from a system that removes them totally from producers and the world around them.

A naive person can look at all the work and just see meagre results. But I see the embodiment of my attempt to live a life of integrity in a specific place, at a specific time---instead of being yet another modern man who is totally cut off from the world around him.

In the last part of the book of Liezi, he leaves his master and decides to live a simple life that includes taking care of his farm and helping his wife with her housework. Once he does this and stops looking for enlightenment, he finally becomes a realized man.

People seek to gain amazing spiritual powers through heroic acts of meditation and asceticism, through arcane rituals and by seeking enlightened masters. But I think that the road to wisdom comes from learning to accept a little boredom and being happy with little things like a jar of home-made jam.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Karma, Fate and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

A while back I heard a fascinating radio documentary about how the events of our childhood influence the development of our nervous system. Basically, it suggested that our patterns of behaviour---both psychological and physiological---are shaped by the experiences that we have from infancy up until young adulthood. The science of this is pretty well established and includes both statistical studies of human beings and animal model studies with rats and monkeys.

I can attest to this fact by my own experience.

I suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and was in therapy for years to deal with it. In my case, the most obvious symptoms it manifested were wild re-occurring nightmares (which did cease after treatment.) Unfortunately, there are other, more subtle symptoms, which will probably be with me as long as I live. These include a propensity to having a volcanic temper (it may just be aging, but I think that this is also subsiding) and a significant, pervasive distrust of both other people and the future in general.

Just to give you a flavour of what it is like, it involves things like feeling very weird to sit in a strange room with my back to the door. It also involves constantly thinking that a new acquaintance is trying to "pull a fast one" one way or another. I also get the "creeps" whenever I am too physically close to another person (when I go shopping at the Farmer's Market I usually have a strong urge to run out of the place as quickly as possible.) One final thing, I never seem able to take anything in the physical world for granted: I am always afraid that when I do home renovation that the wiring will burn the house down, the pipes will leak or the building will collapse.

The people who were quoted on the radio documentary made the point that these "symptoms" shouldn't be viewed as some sort of "illness", but instead as "adaptation strategies" that may not be appropriate in our context. If someone grows up in a chaotic society where it really isn't a good idea to trust strangers---let's say Somalia---then my "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder" would help me survive. But for someone living in the "peaceable kingdom" of Canada, it means that I am constantly putting people "off" and missing opportunities that fall into my lap.

If the radio documentary is right, these secondary symptoms will stick with me because they are not something that has been done to my mind, but rather are intrinsic to the way my brain developed. Post-traumatic stress disorder is not like the wound that is caused when an axe hits a tree, it is more like what happens to a tree when it grows bent over because a heavy object is holding it down. Patch a wound in the bark, and it will eventually heal. Take away the weight holding a full-grown tree bent over, and it will never straighten up.

While contemplating my personal experience plus the evidence from scientific research, I was drawn into thinking about what all of this has to say about the ideas of karma and fate.

Most people are vaguely aware of the idea of karma. Usually folks think that it refers to the idea that when we do something bad we will be punished for it in the future. The reason we have the poor and suffering is because they did evil in a previous life.

My reading in Buddhism tells me that this is a misunderstanding of a subtle idea. As I understand it, that religion teaches that the actions of our life puts into play certain chains of causality which spread out through the universe and continue past our individual deaths. Since Buddhists do not believe that there are such things as souls or even egos, (the doctrine of anatta), they do not believe that individual people are "reincarnated" into bodies after death. Instead, chains of causality flow around the universe and continue to do so through future generations. (This idea is encapsulated in the metaphor of "Indra's Net".) In a way, what this is saying is "our deeds live long after us", and, "the sins of the fathers will afflict their children unto several generations".

"Karma", therefore, is not so much a question of people doing "good" and "evil", and therefore being sentences to "punishment" and "reward", as more of a scientific principle that each and every act carries with it a set of consequences. These consequences carry on from generation to generation, and they in turn set the stage for even more acts that in turn have consequences that set the stage for future actions. For the Buddhist, therefore, one of the points of a religious life is to try and sever the chains of negative karma. This isn't so much to make life better for the specific individual, but rather to make life better for the entire universe. As such, it fits into the Mahayana concept of the Bodhisattva---a being who will not be enlightened until all of the universe is also enlightened at the same time.

(Of course, there are a lot of contradictions in all of this. For example, how can there be a Bodhisattva in the first place if there are no souls because of anatta? My feeling is that this lack of consistency is an artifact of having to use a language that is based on a different understanding of human psychology and metaphysics.)

Daoists have been influenced by Buddhist teachings, which is why you will sometimes find a Daoist figure talking about karma and rebirth. I think, however, that it is more accurate in Daoism to talk about "fate" rather than karma.

"Fate" is a complex concept in that it holds various meanings that have to be teased out before we can understand the term. For example, some people believe that it means that a person simply cannot escape some sort of determined event no matter what he does. In a sense, therefore, my post traumatic stress disorder is something that happened to me and no matter how much I try, I can never erase its effects. Obviously there are things in life that are like this.

Another type of fate comes from accepting the specific viewpoint that we bring to the table of life. We do have some control over our long-term development, such as deciding to join the army instead of going to college. But the decisions we make are strongly coloured by the experience we had as children. So, it might be that we want to join the army because we cannot stand our parents and it is the easiest and quickest way to be free of them. By the time we gain enough insight to be able to pick and choose the best course of action, our lives are usually more than half over, many life choices have already been made, and our personality has set itself pretty firmly in one particular direction.

The idea that people are governed by their fate is alien to the spirit of the Western world. But from the perspective of Daoism, I think that it makes sense of a lot of the craziness I see around me. The Dao consists of a very large number of people---all of whom are doomed to pursue the path that fate has given them. The realized man understands this fact and ceases to judge other people because he understands that they only have a very limited ability to change the course of their behaviour.

Oddly enough, what limited freedom the realized man has comes from admitting that people (including himself) have these constraints on their freedom. The Daoist doesn't believe that freedom comes from fighting against fate, but rather by going along with it and taking advantage of the opportunities it offers instead of trying to create ones that never can be. The Daoist surfs on the crest of waves without trying to fight against them.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Morality Follows the Dao

Last week I heard an economist by the name of Jeff Rubin talking about his book, Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller. Basically, his thesis is that because of peak oil there is going to be a very significant increase in the price of energy and that this is going to reverse globalisation. People will stop eating food out of season and imported from far away. Local industry and agriculture will revive. People will get rid of their cars and start using public transit. Vacations will be spent at home instead of at exotic tourist destinations. Suburbs will decline and revert to farmland while people emigrate to the inner city where they will live in high-efficiency higher-density housing.

In effect, people will start living far more environmentally-friendly lives.

Rubins emphasised that this change will not be because of some sort of ethical change in individuals but rather because they will be adapting to economic forces. (Although he certainly seems to relish these changes as significant improvements in the way we live our lives.)

This interview got me thinking about morality. Most of my life I have been someone who has pretty much seen the world through Puritan-coloured glasses. That is to say, I have had a tendency to look at what people do in terms of consequences with an emphasis on "right versus wrong". For example, when my friends go on vacation trips overseas I tend to fixate on the huge amounts of CO2 that their jet flight sends into the atmosphere, thereby adding to global warming. (As you might imagine, this makes me the life of the party.)

Listening to Mr. Rubin, the absurdity of my viewpoint was pretty obvious. Not because there are no consequences for our behaviour---such as wasting energy---but because it is wrong to think that human beings base their behaviour on moral reasoning. Instead, as near as I can tell, for most people morality is a much more of a "epiphenomenon" that is used to justify our behaviour which is almost always based on self-interest, emotion, habit, and so forth. As such, moral reasoning is sort of like Kipling's "just so stories" that try to explain why it is we do a certain thing without really doing much more than present a plausible fiction.

Take the example of women's liberation. In my lifetime I have seen a tremendous improvement in the choices available to women. But ultimately, I don't see much evidence that this has come about from masses of people changing their opinions because of consciousness-raising. As evidence for this, I would suggest the truism that all feminists will admit to---young women who have opportunities that are beyond their grandmothers wildest dreams steadfastly refuse to allow themselves to be labelled "feminists". If life is better for today's women, it is not because they have chosen to organise and fight for their rights!

If you look at women's liberation from the point of view of economics, however, this jarring disconnect makes sense. Women gained their liberation not because it is morally just, but rather because it was economically expedient.

First of all, in the 1960's the buying power of working-class jobs declined dramatically. This meant that it was no longer possible for men to work at a lower-middle-class job and support a household---complete with a stay-at-home wife. This means that in order to keep ahead of the credit card payments, the average family now has to have two breadwinners instead of one. When women began to bring in a significant fraction of the household's wealth, they began to have more say in how that home is organised.

Luckily, this decline in purchasing power happened at the same time that a whole new "service" sector was developing in the economy. This provided the huge numbers of jobs that were needed to give the wives work. But those jobs were significantly different from those of the manufacturing sector. They tended to be social in nature instead of numerical. That is to say, in a service job the the bottom line is whether or not the customer is satisfied. In a factory, it is how many widgets get turned out in an hour.

This new economic sector change has made a big change in the way our society sees things. So-called "women's work" has been to "keep things together" for the families and community. That means that they tended to place a greater value on harmony than on being "right". Men, on the other hand, have typically believed that none of the niceties matter as long as someone "produces". The language people used to use to describe a married couple illustrates this point: he is a "good provider" and she is "happy home-maker". In a service-based economy, being a "happy home-maker" has more value than a "good provider". In a world where "getting along" is increasingly important, we are changing the way we do politics, education and just about everything else to insert that new priority into the way we do things.

As a result of this change in the workplace, not only are women gaining in influence, but so-called "feminine values" (i.e. "getting along" versus "getting things done") are becoming more and more important. This shift in values is obvious at the academic library where I work. Increasingly, students do not sit at isolated carrels doing research on their own, but rather in groups that work together on projects.

In fact, I'm told that groups of individuals now take on-line exams together---and pool their knowledge using instant messaging software while actually doing the test. I suspect that if you asked these young people whether what they are doing is cheating, many of them wouldn't think so. This is because a cheat like this is only unfair if some people can do it and others cannot, and, you believe that the action being taken hides incompetence in the person being tested. In a world where information can be accessed instantly through the Internet, what real value is there in having facts in one's memory? Most of the jobs that these young people will end up filling will be ones where an ability to work together in a group is going to be far more important than being able to retain knowledge through individual study. As such, yet another values complex, i.e. "cheating", is changing in response to our economic and social reality.

I don't want to over-state the case. The women's liberation movement no doubt had some influence on the current improved status of women. And environmental groups will be able take some credit even if the increased price of oil is what finally prods people into living more sustainable lives. But, I don't think that any morally-based social movement in and of itself is capable to rendering real change in society.

In fact, it may very well be that in many cases the movement itself---and the moral viewpoint that informs it---is caused by the clash between different elements of a society that are experiencing different realities. The individual women who led the women's movement in the sixties may well have been the first fraction of the population who found themselves being significant "breadwinners" in dual-income families and chafed against a social system that was still very popular with the women who's husbands still "brought home the bacon". (I've certainly met women who would have loved to have been at home with the kids but had to work because of financial reasons. If someone has to be at work anyway, then they'd certainly want to get paid as much as men and force the boss to keep his hands to himself---.)

When I was working my way through this idea a passage in the Dao De Jing came to mind.
When the highest type of men hear the Way, with diligence they're able to practice it;

When the average men hear the Way, some things they retain and others they lose;

When the lowest type of men hear the Way, they laugh out loud at it.

If they didn't laugh at it, it couldn't be regarded as the Way.

Chapter 41, Hendricks translation.

At first glance the passage doesn't seem very apropos. But I suspect the reason why my subconscious seems to think it is, is because it is a statement about how the ultimate reality of life---the "Dao"---has both an objective element to it, yet at the same time is seen quite differently by individuals, depending on their own particular state-of-mind. Ideas are important because they animate people and create unity of purpose. But those ideas don't have traction with most people unless they fit into the day-to-day economic reality they inhabit. Object and subjective, a sage can see the multi-dimensional reality of an issue while the average man can only make a joke.

Monday, May 11, 2009

How to Read Daoist Texts

Since I first started on the path that leads away from the land of dust, there has been an absolute explosion of books written on Daoism. This means that when someone develops an interest in the subject, there are no end of books that he or she can read. Unfortunately, they can be pretty hard to understand, so I thought it would be useful to put forward some of the insights that I think I have gained from a lifetime of reading and thinking about books.

Probably the most important thing to know about Daoist writings is that in many cases the author is doing something very different stylistically from what a modern Western essayist attempts. That is to say, what I try to do when I write is to be as clear and precise as possible in my descriptions and explanations. In contrast, in most cases Daoist and Zen writers are trying for something very different---they are trying to be evocative. That is to say, a good essayist pars down most of the ways in which his words can be understood to a very few in order to attempt to limit what the reader's understanding to precisely what the author was thinking of when he wrote them. In contrast, Daoist writers are trying to get people to think in a specifically new, much more creative, way. As such, they are attempting to expand the range of ways in which a reader can understand the words on the page---and, by implication, the way she sees the world around her. So instead of limiting the range of interpretations---like the essayist---the Daoist is often instead trying to expand the range of interpretations beyond the usual.

Let me illustrate this point with a story from the book Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. (Much of the subject of this post applies equally to Zen Buddhism as Daoism. Since there is a great deal of overlap and back-and-forth between Daoism and Zen, I'm going to ignore the distinction and use the literature of both.)

A philosopher, Tanzan, was visited by a Buddhist priest, Unsho, who was very strict about following the precepts. Tanzan was drinking wine, which is supposed to be forbidden for priests.

"Hello, brother," Tanzan greeted him. "Won't you have a drink?"

"I never drink!" exclaimed Unsho solemnly.

"One who does not drink is not even human," said Tanzan.

"Do you mean to call me inhuman just because I do not indulge in intoxicating liquids!" exclaimed Unsho in anger. "Then if I am not human, what am I?"

"A Buddha," answered Tanzan.

(Number 13, "A Buddha", "101 Zen Stories", trans. by Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps)

When I first read this story (many years ago) it seemed to turn my assumptions on their heads. Philosophers are supposed to be overly rational and incapable of understanding the spirit behind Zen. Zen masters, on the other hand, are supposed to unconventional and crackling with life. Yet in this story it is the academic, Tanzan, who seems more relaxed and "comfortable in his skin". In contrast, Unsho, seems to have totally self-identified with his position as a priest, to the point where drinking a glass of wine with a friend is not only no longer a "live option", but is totally beyond contemplation.

After thinking about the story, I came to the conclusion that the story is "about" the way we attach labels to people---like "philosopher" and "Zen Master"---and project these assumptions onto them. The idea I took away was that we need to constantly "be in the moment" and see what is in front of us instead of what we think we see.

That was when I read it the first time.

When I read the text this time, however, I noticed a lot of different things.

First of all, I notice that there is no mention that Unsho is a Zen Master. Instead, he is identified as a "priest". It may be that I was right in my initial read---years ago---to think that he supposed to be a Zen Master. But it may be that I was projecting my assumptions onto the page.

I also noticed another thing. The philosopher, Tanzan, doesn't simply offer Unsho a drink. He makes the comment that "One who does not drink is not even human". Is this an insult towards Unsho? It seems that Unsho thinks so. At that point he responds and it looks like Tanzan was testing Unsho. Unsho responds heatedly to this "slight", and Tanzan drops the coup de main of suggesting that Tanzan is not living up to his ideal of being a Buddha.

Tanzan is suggesting that Unsho's zeal in following the precepts of Buddhism is getting in the way of Unsho's ultimate goal---achieving enlightenment. The implication is that Buddhas (or to use the Daoist term "realized men") do not do things just because they are the "rules". Instead, they always have the option of doing whatever is physically possible. People who have not realized their true nature, on the other hand, find themselves bound by the rules and conventions of their past history and the world they find themselves inhabiting.

The point of the story isn't any sort of "moral" that I may be able to identify, however. The goal of the story is to get me, the reader, to think about it and all the ideas that it creates in my mind. Indeed, this sort of story is intended to be mulled over while sitting in meditation and then, perhaps, discussed with a teacher. As such, my attempt to write out my particular reaction to the story, in effect, "damages" this story for anyone who might read this blog. This is because any person who reads the story will have his mind cluttered up with my particular thoughts and these will no doubt colour his own particular attempts to wrestle with it.

Another thing that Daoist stories are trying to do is to create a set of conceptual "building blocks" that the reader can use to look at the world around him or her. For example, consider the first chapter of Zhuangzi where he talks about the enormous K'un fish and P'eng bird, the short-lived mushroom, motes of dust, and ordinary creatures. The chapter is about different scales of existence---size, duration, point of view, and so on. If Zhuangzi were writing today, no doubt whe would talk about the enormous age of the earth, the huge number of stars in our galaxy and the astronomical number of galaxies in the universe. (In fact, I suspect that he would express himself something like this Monty Python song.) The point is to not be so immersed in our own particular part of the world that we forget about how limited it really is.

I once referred to this chapter to a Roman Catholic environmentalist who was being a little down about the fate of the earth. I pointed out that the earth is less than a tiny pinprick in the universe. What happens here is of very little ultimate significance. He said he'd never thought of things in that way before. Afterwards, it occurred to me that it made sense he'd never thought of it that way. The Christian faith is based on a worldview that implies that the planet earth is the absolutely most important thing that there is. Man is made in God's image and God is so obsessed by this little blue marble that he sent his son to die on it. That is why the Church felt so threatened by Gallileo's insistence that the earth is not the centre of the universe. Whereas Christianity's stories emphasize the ultimate significance of humanity, Daoist ones tend to emphasize the ultimate insignificance of it. This releases the Daoist from his "burden of guilt" in much the same way that the doctrine of atonement seems to work for some Christians.

Another thing that Daoist texts do is give people hints of the day-to-day life of a Daoist. One thing that you will see over and over again in the literature are examples where initiates have to go through extreme hardships in order to achieve realization. Some stories talk about adepts having to be boiled in caldrons. Others talk about being dumped into pits with tigers. Others talk about masters forcing disciples to eat bowls of rotting, maggot-ridden dog feces.

The book Seven Taoist Masters furnishes several less extreme examples. One student ends up devoting himself to carrying people across a river (probably a metaphor for spreading the teaching.) Another spends his time digging caves for other recluses to meditate in (a metaphor for building institutional infrastructure?) One of the most poignant scenes for me is where the beautiful woman disciple disfigures her face with hot cooking oil to minimise her problems with men while travelling as a mendicant.

These stories are pretty important to me, as contrary to many people's opinions that being a Daoist is not much more than "walking through a woods with a smile on your face", I have gone through a great many difficulties following my path. It is really hard to follow the watercourse way, if for no other reason than it sets you apart from other human beings. The work of internal kungfu is also difficult in that you are burning out the impurities of your being, which is not an easy task. Many is the time I have thought to myself "this is just like that story where the master boils the student in his caldrun".