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".

What is a Daoist Master?

One of the perennial problems that Daoist "newbies" have is the way they tend to fixate on the idea of enlightened "Masters". I've already written a bit on the subject, but since it is one that so many people tie themselves into knots over, I think it bears dealing with from a new angle.

The thing to remember about the word "Master" is that the term is a social construct. That is to say that when a student calls someone a "Master", she is saying more about the way other people view the "Master" than about he is himself. In other words, the person who is labeled a "Master" stops being important as an individual human being and instead becomes a symbol for the aspirations of the community. Literary criticism has a special term for this sort of thing: a "trope". So, in effect the idea of a "master" is a "trope" that is common in movies we watch and the books we read. In the case of pop culture, the ones that I have been most aware of are Master Po from the television series "Kung Fu", Gandalf the wizard from "Lord of the Rings",and, of course, Yoda from "Star Wars".

The particular trope of the Master, is that of a wise person---usually old---who has received ancient arcane wisdom, mastered it through long practice and in so doing, has gained miraculous powers. This is not just a modern invention. If you read through all the literatures of humanity, you will see similar figures.

Tropes do not just exist in literature. They can also manifest themselves in the life of a community, where they shape how many people view others. In my own life I have seen a similar process at work with regard to people I have personally known. For example, in the Taoist Tai Chi Association I've seen the transition with regard to Moy Lin Shin from "Mr. Moy" to "Master Moy". As this process of elevation proceeded, he started off as someone who knew a martial art and came from China to someone you began to hear some pretty interesting stories being told about, to someone that eventually got talked about with awe. Since his death (and my long dislocation with that organization) I understand that now his coat and glasses are kept in a glass case at the head office of the organisation he founded---sort of like Lenin's body on display in Red Square.

I know of another example, Henry Kock, an iconic "Hippie gardener" type who was sort of a minor celebrity in my home town. A few years before he was set to retire from his job in a university arboretum, he developed brain cancer and died. But since then I have been fascinated to see how a certain segment of the community has transformed him from a pretty nice guy who was recognized as an important supporter of organic gardening into a sort of tree-hugging saint. This has extended to the point where a book by him that was published posthumously has become a major local best-seller and for several years people have met in the downtown to sing Christmas Carols in his honour. (This commemorates an event in his dying where so many people started showing up to visit him in his hospital that all except family and close friends had to be banned admission. Those turned away gathered under his window to sing for him.) When a wake was held for him months after his death, the mourners filled our local convention centre and some people flew in from thousands of miles away.

I knew Henry and can vouch for the fact that he was a pretty decent guy---but certainly no Mahatma Gandhi or Jesus Christ. Watching all this out-pouring of grief from many people who probably didn't know him all that well, I can't help but think that a lot of this is totally "over the top" and something that he probably wouldn't have approved. Nor do I think that it is really all that justified. He was a good citizen and his job meant that he got paid to do things that benefit the community instead of destroying it. (How many folks are able to say that?) But he was---and I think that this is the reason for the post-humous hagiography---someone who really looked and acted like the trope of the wise master. He was tall, had a long bushy beard, rode around town very visibly on a bicycle, was sometimes on the radio as part of his work, did a lot of public education and was prone to making very prophetic statements about things that would find resonance with his audience. In other words, Henry was a bit of a ham who played up to people's expectations. (Just to illustrate my point, take a look at the photo of him in this blog. It was taken by a reporter for an article on the guy. How many people get their picture taken in a tree?) If he had been short, fat and bald; or had had a tendency to tell the "alternative community" things that they didn't want to hear; he wouldn't have filled the symbolic role so neatly and therefore would have been just another nice guy who died a little bit before his "three score and ten".

Religious institutions understand this process and that is why, for example, the Roman Catholic church has developed a formal process for the recognition of "Saints". The point is that the church hierarchy is trying to create and reinforce a specific type of trope that can then be used to strengthen their control over the minds of ordinary Catholics. The partisan way in which they select specific individuals for "sainthood" illustrates this point. For example, Mother Teresa---who exemplified a very specific type of conservative Christianity---is being fast-tracked for sainthood. In contrast those who support the case of Oscar Romero, who was identified with liberation theology, have found their progress stalled---even though he was clearly murdered for his religious beliefs while performing mass in a major Cathedral. The point is, that under the current leadership of the church, conservative tropes are to be promoted and liberal ones stymied.

To get back to the idea of Daoist Masters, like the ones discussed in the book Seven Daoist Masters, we have to understand that these figures did not exist in exactly the way described. The author is not trying to give a journalistic or historic representation of an actual human being. Instead, he is trying to "surf" along the trope that exists in the human psyche. As such, he is accomodating the Dao of humanity. Authors know that if you tell people the unvarnished truth about Daoism that they will simply not be interested. Instead, they want to hear magical stories about men who can change gravel into gold, fly on the backs of phoenixes, and so on. So rather than be "right" and unread, the authors are willing to be interesting and read with the hope that once in a while some of the wisdom will filter through the fantasy.

As such, this process is simply yet another example of "going with the flow" of the Dao. Sages understand that people tend to look for the Master trope and find that it is a lot easier to simply give people what they expect rather than try to disabuse them of the notion. To a certain extent, all religious groups make use of these tropes in order to build and preserve their institutions. Fancy robes and rituals are often designed to reinforce the idea that the leader is some sort of supernatural "ubermensch" instead of just another guy who's learned a few more things than you. (This distance and awe sure comes in handy when you need volunteers to help fix the meditation hall roof.)

The problem is that the modern age we live in is much more prosaic than the past. This means that people have grown to expect literal truth instead of whimsy. This means that people nowadays don't automatically "suspend their disbelief" when confronted with fantasy, but instead often reject it as "not being true", or conversely, believe it literally. This means that modern cynics will often say "that's silly, no one can change gravel into gold", and be totally oblivious that this is a metaphor for personal psychological growth. Conversely, the naive individuals also miss the point of self-transformation by thinking that actual stones have turned into actual gold. The cynics thereby cut themselves off from much that could help them. The literalists make themselves vulnerable to flim flam artists who are able to use the trope to manipulate and cheat them.

Because many people have changed, I believe that there is now a need for a less metaphorical and more straight-forward way of explaining Daoism. The old days are over, and if we are going to build a Daoist tradition in the West we are going to have to change the old techniques that have sustained the tradition in China. One of these is the ideal of the "Master". Instead, I think it is much healthier to develop the ideal of the "teacher". The distinction is that a teacher (at least in the Western conception) is not an isolated individual with a monopoly on TRUTH but instead a representative of a collective process---one that teaches more provisional truths.

Just to illustrate the difference, occasionally a traditionalist will accuse me of being a fool for "teaching" even though I haven't gone through a very long and intensive period of training under a "Master" from a recognised lineage. The point is, however, that I make no pretence of being a "master" at all. Instead, I am simply someone who has had a specific life experience and has studied various things over a long period of time. Everything I write on this blog is totally provisional in that if someone writes in and gives me what seems to me a convincing argument in favour of changing my opinion, I am quite willing to do so. But that argument has to be convincing, instead of simply an appeal to authority---even if it is the authority of a "master".

And just to finish off, I would like to make the point that in fact I actually am a "Master". I have a document from a very large, powerful institution that says so. It is recognised all over the world. I studied very hard for many years to get this recognition. And the process where I received this recognition involved my wearing ceremonial robes, kneeling before a representative of the Crown, and having a hood draped over my head as a formal show of my achievement. This is an ancient ceremony that is probably about 1,000 years old. That is to say, I have a Master's degree in philosophy from the University of Guelph.

The difference between this sort of "Master's" degree and the one that comes from the trope, however, comes down to what it implies. My Masters degree signifies that I have been recognised as being a member of a community that is constantly expanding the realm of knowledge through investigation and dialogue. The Mastery of Yoda and Gandalf, in contrast, is one where a single individual purports to have all the answers all of the time.

I once heard a Zen master repeat a saying to the effect that no Zen master should ever be closer than twenty miles away from another one. She believed this was to prevent nasty arguments. In contrast, there is nothing that Masters of philosophy enjoy more than to meet with one another and engage in fruitful dialogue. I think that it would help Western Daoism to embrace the latter attitude than the former.

Barriers to Enlightenment

I just got finished re-reading Eva Wong's translation of Seven Taoist Masters and noticed the interesting way the book deals with the psychological impediments to enlightenment.

These impediments are elements of our personality that we identify with and which keep us from seeing the "void" within our being. People will probably easily understand how fear, greed, lust, gluttony, etc, obscure the mind and get in the way of the interior life. But the book goes beyond these obvious problems and identifies other issues.

Take the example of one of the masters who finds himself beset with the following vision while sitting and forgetting.

---a young girl stood in front of him. She was dressed in rags and her arms and legs were covered with bruises. Ch'iu Ch'ang-ch'un heard her say, "Kind sir, please escort me to my uncle's home. My stepmother has beaten me and turned me out of the house. "--- ---Ch'iu Ch'ang-ch'un acted as if nothing had happened. The image of the girl disappeared and his sister-in-law appeared saying, "your elder brother died of an unknown illness, and your uncle has taken over your father's property. He has given us three days' notice to leave. My children and I have nowhere to go. Come back quickly and put things right." At the same time, Ch'iu Ch'ang-ch'un's nephews and nieces appeared, tugging at this sleeves saying, "Uncle, please come home. Our father is dead. We will all be beggars if you won't help us." Ch'iu Ch'ang-ch'un continued meditating. The images of the children and his sister-in-law disappeared. Soon after that the fog lifted. (p 145)

The obvious point is that we are blocked not only by our attachment to "negative" emotions, such as lust and greed, but also by "positive" ones like love and filial devotion.

I should point out that the author is not just talking about the mental images and hallucinations that one sometimes has while doing "sitting and forgetting". There are other significant examples. The head teacher, Wang Ch'ung-yang, goes to visit the village where he used to live and finds out what happened when he wasn't there. (Just like in the movie "Its A Wonderful Life" when the angel shows George Bailey what his town would be like if he had never lived.) Wang had defended the poor and been a significant force for good in his town, so when he left it to become a Daoist it totally fell apart. Moreover, his wife was so upset and distraught that she died of grief a year later. Yet Wang doesn't have any regrets about his decision. His detachment is complete.

These two examples hit very close to home for me. Indeed, I literally do have people from my past---like the bruised and beaten young girl---who come to my door pleading for help. Moreover, I concerned about the fate of the earth and the people who inhabit it. (Indeed, out of habit I turned on the radio to listen to Democracy Now in the middle of creating this blog entry. It took a real act of will on my part to turn it off and go back to writing.) If I had been in Wang's shoes, I would have been devastated to come back home and find my town destroyed and my significant other dead.

These elements of our minds are very subtle. They "creep up" and put you in a very difficult space. The character Ch'iu Ch'ang-ch'un goes through a period in his life when he progressively becomes more and more obsessed by the prediction of a fortune-teller that he will die of starvation. He eventually decides that he will simply starve himself to death to get it over, but a group of bandits find him and actually force food down his throat against his will in order to keep him alive. Eventually, Ch'iu decides to end it all by hanging himself with an iron chain. At that point one of the Star immortals takes on the appearance of an herb gatherer and talks him out of it:

So you wanted to die after listening to one man's words. Maybe another man's words will bring you back to your senses. Your mind is invaded by monsters, and your wisdom is clouded. Your folly has not only almost taken your life but also ruined your chances of becoming an immortal in this lifetime. Listen to what I have to say, and the monsters who have captured your mind will leave you. (pp 138-139)

And once Ch'iu Ch'ang-ch'un listens to the herb gatherer and understands, he realises the error of his way. But pay attention to what the gatherer says when Ch'iu offers his gratitude:

You need not thank me. I did not give you money or food. I only uttered a few words. It was up to you to believe them or not. You liberated yourself from the monsters of the mind by realizing that it was your folly that trapped you into your preoccupation with death.
(p 140)
The point is that the only person who can free an individual from their obsessions is themselves. The monsters of the mind are created by ourselves and can only be destroyed by ourselves. Moreover, many of the problems we face are the result of these delusions instead of objective forces beyond our control. For example, the people in Wang's village did not have to fall into chaos after he left. Nor did his wife have to indulge in her emotions to the point where she died of grief. Even in situations where the objective reality is beyond our control, our attitude is pretty much the only thing we own---the wealthy and powerful also get sick, old and die. Even random violence affects the wealthy and powerful---many powerful people died in the September 9/11 attacks. The only really wealthy people are ones who wants are less than their resources. The only really secure are those who do not fear death.

Once Ch'iu gets that little glimpse of satori, things change.

Ch'iu Ch'ang-ch'un looked around him and saw everything in a new light. The forest was dancing in the sunlight, and the air was pure and fragrant. It was as if a fog had lifted and an unlimited view was now laid out before him. (p 140)
He is not a totally realized man by this point. But this experience is a taste of what it can be like to embrace the void within and merge with the Dao without. These sorts of experiences are valuable in that they give you strength to carry on, but they can dull with time and become forgotten.

Another character, Sun Pu-erh, goes through a stage where she becomes "stuck" in her practice. Paradoxically, this occurrs because she is so intelligent that she quickly masters an introductory practice and assumes that this is all she has to learn. She only gets over this folly through the help of her husband, Ma Yu, whom she finds initially surpassing her in attainment. He points out that it is because he is so much less intelligent than her, that he has simply assumed that he has much more to learn, so he kept seeking out more knowldge after he has gained a level similar to the one she is at.

Ch'iu Ch'ang-ch'un understands the problem of backsliding and the stalled practice, however, so he designs a practice to totally rid himself of delusions. Whenever he notices a delusion intruding into his consciousness, he rolls a large bolder up a nearby hill and rolls it back down into the valley below. This practice---so similar to the myth of Sisyphus---is specifically difficult and pointless, as such it is perfect for training the mind. As such, it serves as a pretty good metaphor for just about every active form of meditation practice I can think of---such as chanting, reptitive ritual kowtowing, etc.

One point that the book also points out, however, is that each individual has to find a practice that works for him. Ch'iu rolls is stone up and down the hill. In contrast, however, Liu Ch'ang-sheng, finds himself suffering from lust. The way he gets around this problem is not by trying to force these thoughts out of his mind, however, but rather by investigating and learning all he can about it.

He gets this insight from an anecdote that is related to him by another Daoist. It seems that a master tested his students to see if they could control their lusts and only one student passed. When the master asks him why he passed whereas everyone else failed, the student says that before he became a Daoist he was someone who used to spend all his free time in brothels and eventually damaged his health by chasing sing-song girls. Eventually, he came to the point where he was totally disgusted by the situation he found himself in (or, as Alcoholics Anonymous would say, "he hit bottom"). Liu doesn't go to the brothel in order to have sex until he too "hits bottom", but the practice of being around prostitutes all the time takes away all illusions and pretentions. He would eventually hear what prositutes really think about their clients, no doubt he would also see ones die from botched abortions, see the poorer ones sell their children into slavery, and so on. This sort of thing eventually weans most people of any obsessive interest in sex---which was the whole point.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

How to Become a Daoist

On discussion lists I often see questions from non-Chinese people who seem to want to "become" Daoists. Usually someone else with some sort of authority says one of two very different things. The first response usually boils down some variant of "if you want to be a Daoist, you already are one". The second comes down to "if you weren't born one, you never can". I'm not terribly happy with either one of these answers, and I hope that perplexed questioners might feel a little less confused if they read this post.

The "if you aren't born one, you can't be one" position is the easiest to dismiss and I have discussed it in previous posts. Primarily, it is the idea that a religious/philosophical lifestyle is totally bound up with one's ethnic identity. At its strongest, the idea is that no one who isn't Chinese can ever be a Daoist.

From that point there is a declining scale of rigidity. First, a non-Chinese person can be a Daoist, but he has to learn both ancient and modern Chinese, then devote decades of his life studying in a Daoist monastic setting. (That is, you don't have to be born Chinese---but at least you have to become one.)

From that position, one comes to having to at least be totally under the thumb of some rigid Chinese traditionalist. (Or, you don't have to be Chinese---but you have to be controlled by one.)

The key issue at play is a slavish concern about the "legitimacy of transmission". As far as I'm concerned, the only worthwhile thing someone seeks from a tradition like Daoism is a better way of looking at and being-in-the-world. Baldly stated, this probably doesn't seem like a lot to most people. But it does encompass a lot of things---from aesthetics through interpersonal relationships to how one treats the natural world.

Now some folks don't think of Daoism in terms of being-in-the-world, instead, they have some sort of slavish devotion to a religious tradition and a pantheon of Gods. If you look at the teachings of the Daoist scriptures---and I am not only referring to the "big three" of Zhuanzi, Laozi and Liezi---you will find a very wide and deep vein of skepticism about conventional piety. Indeed, you will find a very strong scepticism towards all conventional attitudes. The question then arises of how well we can say that these "fundamentalist Daoists" really do show any respect for their tradition. (How do you show reverence to the irreverent?)

Having said that, I also have problems with the other point of view, (i.e. "if you want to be a Daoist, you already are one"). I won't dismiss this position out of hand, because I do believe that at least this point of view does base itself on the irreverence that really is a key Daoist concept. But the problem here isn't that people are slavishly following an authority figure, but rather that the commitment is so minimal that the world "Daoism" ceases to mean much of anything at all.

The problem is that many of these people don't understand how very difficult it is to peel away the layers of conventionality in order to embrace our essential nature and become "realized men". Without a very keen eye and a steadfast spirit, it is very easy to see selfishness and greed as "spontaneity" and mere laziness as "wu wei".

Years ago I had a roomie who was one of these "natural Daoists". He was charming as the Dickens (the ladies loved him). He rather effortlessly cruised through life and managed to do quite well financially, romantically and so on simply by finding people who were willing to help him out. In the end, I got totally cheesed with him, (partially out of jealousy no doubt) because he was doing so well by being prepared to let others do all the work for him. He moved to another province and I lost all connection.

Years later, however, I met his ex-wife who informed me of how she had eventually begun to loathe him because she ended up doing all the child-rearing and housework, and had to work on the side too. I thought back to Liezi where his enlightenment came from buckling down to help his wife with her domestic chores and by being diligent as a pig farmer---. The point that the ancient author was making, I believe, was that being a follower of the Dao isn't based on being lazy and thumbing your nose at all your responsibilities, but rather that we shouldn't be slaves of convention. The two are sometimes the same, but often very different.

And who gets to decided what is real and what is merely conventional? If we reduce the distinction to some sort of formulaic text, then we fall prey to the mistake of the fundamentalist. They see the distinction as only being clear to someone who is a recognised member of some dynastic lineage and a specific ethnic identity. But life can't be reduced to a formulae. People get credentials who don't deserve them, and as they teach and appoint their own successors, the tradition becomes more and more corrupted with each succeeding generation.

But if we make things just a "free for all", people---like my old roomie---end up using "ancient Chinese wisdom" as an excuse to justify their bad habits. How is that being any less conventional than someone who's bad habits are not sloth and being a parasite but rather being self-righteous and obsessive?

Which gets me back to answering the question "How do you become a Daoist?"

I would suggest that anyone who is serious about it would not be terribly concerned by how they label themselves but rather about how they live their lives. And if you really want to live your life in a "Daoist groove", it makes sense to really study Daoism. This means study of texts, study of the lived tradition, and probably more importantly---, trying to live a life as a Daoist. This involves a lot of effort in learning Daoist-inspired disciplines such as martial arts, calligraphy, meditation, etc. If it is the case that a person can do this in a way that they begin to really merge with the Dao, then they will cease to be concerned about what anyone calls them. In other words, being a "Daoist" is about the way you live your life (which is often a lot of hard work), rather than a label you put upon yourself.

If at this point someone else calls some a "Daoist", then she might be on the way to building a lineage or tradition in her area. That is, either someone will come along and wish to become her teacher (which is what happened to me) or else someone will want to come along and be her student. Either path is fraught with peril, but if done with honesty and a good heart, it can be a step forward into a new definition of the term "Daoist", one that will create an indigenous tradition for the modern age and for people outside of the Middle Kingdom.