Monday, May 11, 2009

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.


Anonymous said...

I found this to be a helpful post. I hadn't thought of applying the idea of "trope" to spiritual traditions, but I think it is a useful approach. I work at a spiritual bookstore and the other day we had a speaker from one of the Chi Gong traditions. During the talk the speaker related stories of what I refer to as "miracle healings". I've never attended a talk on Chi Gong that didn't include such stories (these stories also appear in talks on Ayur Veda and any alternative healing approach I've listened to). I've never known quite what to do with these stories and, without dismissing them, I've put them on the back burner. My feeling is that Qi Gong has benefits that do not depend on healing of physical ailments and is a valuable form of meditation for many people. That's enough for me.

Your post inclines me to think of these stories as "tropes" that people expect, in some sense demand. It's part of the tradition and I think it might actually be difficult to present such a tradition without these "miracle healing stories". I mean that teachers might not know how to do it. Which I think is unfortunate because Qi Gong is such a wonderful practice.

But if the Qi Gong teachers viewed themselves as simply teachers, who were imparting a craft, this might be a workable alternative. People who teach baking do not, generally speaking, endow their teaching with stories that challenge ordinary belief. I think a similar approach to Taoism in general, Taoism as a craft, would be attractive to many people.

Thanks for your insights,


Bao Pu said...

Greetings Bill,

I occasionally visit your blog to see what you've been writing about. You have some good quality writings :-)

Today I decided to comment.

Regarding: "the idea of enlightened "Masters"" that people have these days. I would never have thought of calling it a trope, but you surely are right here.

Re: "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."

This struck me as somewhat inaccurate. I think in a single "student," who he or she decides to see as a Master does not necessarily reflect what a community values or aspires to. And I'm not so sure the so-called Master ceases being seen as a individual.

Thanks for giving the examples of Moy Lin Shin and Henry Kock. Those are helpful.

Re: "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."

This is well said. I'm not sure how familiar you are with Carl Jung, but this reminds me of his "Old Wise Man" archetype.

I agree that many people now expect literal truth from writers. I am guilty of that myself. It took me some time to really understand the role of metaphor in the ancient Daoist literature. You are probably right that we need to use less metaphorical language when discussing Daoism and other traditions. I hope that explicitly pointing out to readers that the ancients talked/wrote with much metaphor might be enough, especially when followed up with examples.

Master --> teacher teaching provisional truths. Sounds good.

Bao Pu (Scott)