Friday, February 26, 2010

Environmental Vow: Part Six

The Emotional Response


The preceding description of the crisis that we face is not primarily meant to convince the sorts of folks who would be interested in reading this essay that an environmental problem exists. That shouldn't be necessary because any intelligent, sensitive, well-read person who has been reading the newspaper, listening to the news, or, conversing with friends already knows that something is very deeply wrong. Instead, it is meant to be a recapitulation of commonly-known facts plus some logical inferences aimed at inducing a specific emotional response. I want you to take a moment and observe the sorts of feelings that you are experiencing as a result of reading the above. I suspect that you are pretty depressed. More to the point, I would suggest that after years of learning about global warming the feelings of most sensitive, engaged people has passed beyond mere depression and gone into the realm of despair. To be blunt, a large and increasing number of people simply cannot see any hope for the future and have no reason to believe that anything that they can do will avert catastrophe.

This is the same process that happens when a person is repeatedly confronted by beggars. One destitute person is someone we can help---scores or more are simply beyond our resources. And if it becomes clear that even that one has psychiatric or substance abuse problems beyond our ability to help, then even helping her becomes impossible. In this situation it is just an exercise in self-flagellation to spend any more than the minimum energy contemplating the situation. Avoiding painful thoughts is a normal and healthy response to a hopeless situation. If people don't do it they run the risk of becoming incapacitated by the horrors of human existence. They would become like soldiers who suffer from battle fatigue.

Feeling despair is not “just” a mental state. It is an actual feeling of pain. And sane people turn away from pain and follow strategies designed to avoid feeling it again. Just like the child who learns not to touch the hot stove, many people have learned to avoid paying any attention to the news casts, television documentries and lectures that tell them how bad things are in the world. Even worse, these people have taught themselves the trick of not thinking a lot of things through to their ultimate conclusion. What does, for example, a young parent of today honestly think the world is going to be like for her children? This creates real problems for the earth, however, because it means that large numbers of people who could potentially be doing a great deal to make things better are instead following strategies aimed at lessening their personal pain instead of working to solve the collective problem.

Unfortunately, some environmental activists simply do not seem to understand this human mechanism. Instead, they see society's innaction as being primarily because of ignorance about the state of the earth. For them, the way to mobilize the public is simply to explain how bad things are and how quickly they will soon be getting worse. Unfortunately, for people who are in the grips of despair, this usually has the opposite effect and encourages people to divert their attention even more.

Another misread of the situation is to think that the general public is apathetic. This fuels anger on the part of activists, who simply cannot understand how ordinary people can be so immoral as to continue to support “business as usual”. This anger sometimes manifests itself in the form of sabotage, but more often just bitter rhetoric. Unfortunately, however, this also just serves to alienate the public from the issue. If contemplating the future is so depressing that people choose to turn away and look at something else, violent words and violent action are not going to do anything more than reinforce that avoidance strategy.

Many people do realize how debilitating bad news can be. This is why there have been so many books and magazines devoted to “telling the good news”. Usually this consists of reporting the heroic efforts that one individual or small group of people are making to live in harmony with nature. But this is not helpful because these sorts of news stories are not much more than trying to create a false sense of cheerfulness----whistling past the grave-yard. Global warming is not an individual problem but rather a collective one. That means that if a small group of people do even an extra-ordinary amount to reduce their footprint the result is totally irrelevent as long as others are not stopped from ramping up their attempts to increase theirs. For example, if a large group of people totally swear off the automobile in favour of the bicycle, all this means is that the price of gasoline will go down fractionally---which will allow others to burn even more of it in their SUVs. This “Tragedy of the Commons” means that there simply cannot be private solutions to this sort of public problem. If you point this out to the people who are trying to follow the “good news”approach, they will often agree but then ask “what else do you suggest?” There may not be any easy answer to that question (this essay is an attempt), but false bravado is a very poor response to despair.

Despair is something that existed long before the threat of global warming. It has existed as long as human beings have had any sort of consciousness of the future, the world around them, and, their place within it. When a human being thinks about her death her rational mind collides with the instinct for self-preservation and the result is anxiety. Indeed this feeling was the inspiration and key theme of the oldest piece of literature that still exists: the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Beyond the issue of personal death, many people have felt enormous anxiety about the people they love: children going off to war, to the sea, to emigrate and so on. Men worried about their wives dying in childbirth. Entire families starved to death in winter, villages were pillaged by the Vikings, rampaging soldiers destroyed entire countries. At one time it was common on sea voyages for half the sailors to die of scurvy. In many ways these people faced dangers as awful, on a microscopic scale, as any we face on a macro scale through climate change.

What sustained these people? What kept them from suffering from debilitating battle fatigue and giving up? Why did they continue to have children, go to sea, march off to war, and so on? If you read the books that they wrote about themselves two answers immediately come forth: faith and honour. These two concepts motivated people in a way that most modern people cannot even begin to understand, let alone emulate. And, it is my opinion that part of the reason why society has not developed anything like a concerted approach to our environmental crisis is because it has no sort of similar unifying cultural force left that would similarly push people towards dealing with the challenges we face as a species. There are very good reasons why these two terms have become debased currency in people's minds. But, I suggest, doing away with them without creating any sort of substitute has sapped our civilization of a great deal of its vitality and has made us incapable of dealing with this most critical of problems. I believe that a key part of any substantive program to deal with global warming---and all the other environmental problems---will be to find some sort of meaningful substitute for these ideals. Not only will it motivate people to overcome their despair, it will also help overcome the instinctual resistence that people feel when their “sacred cows” are threatened.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Different Types of Religion

People often express real surprise that when I say that I see a role for religion in our society. To be honest, I often find myself thinking the same thing. But having said that, I can see some worth, in principle, of something even if I myself often find it intensely distasteful in practice.

As I see it, there isn't one single thing that can be described as "religion". Instead, it seems to me that there is a very amorphous, trans-cultural phenomenon that manifests several very different, and often mutually exclusive, tendencies.

One line of tension occurs around the issue of whether one wants to accept people the way they already are versus whether or not they need, for want of a better term, "improvement". Consider, for example, the differences between Buddhism and Fundamentalist Christianity.

In Buddhism, the key issue is whether or not a specific person gains a specific type of wisdom known as "enlightenment". This insight is not granted as any special dispensation by a god, but instead is the result of specific, impersonal laws that govern the entire universe. Everyone is at least potentially able to gain this insight. There are a myriad of different systems for achieving this state, but ultimately everything boils down to a training regime aimed at dramatically changing the mental state of the individual believer. As a result of this emphasis, I would call religions like Buddhism "Wisdom Religions".

In Christianity, however, the issue is one of whether or not one accepts the "atonement" offered by Jesus.

"Atonement" has existed in a lot of different cultures who saw the concept in slightly different ways with a common outcome. In some societies the wrong-doing of an entire community was "transferred" in some way onto one particular being (sometimes an animal, sometimes a human being) which then suffered the consequences of that sin for everyone else (often a painful death). Another way of looking at it is to suggest that the sins of an entire group of people have amassed a "sin deficit" with the Gods. This deficit is paid, not be taxing each and every individual but by using up the entire life of one person. Yet another way of looking at it is to see the Gods as being annoyed with human behaviour, which means that they need to be "bought off" with a bribe. For example, supposedly the Gods of the Mediterranean area (Jehova, Zeus, etc) like the smell of blood and burning meat, so sacrifices were offered in order to get the "powers that be" to "look the other way" when the community screwed-up mightily (which, of course, was all the time.)

This atonement idea is very old and has manifested itself in many different cultures. In Iron Age Europe, for example, people used to murder individuals and bury their bodies in peat bogs as human sacrifices.
(Presumably the Northern Europeans thought of these bogs as portals to the Godly realm.) China also has a history of both animal and human sacrifice, but being a practical people, very early on they decided to cut out the "middle-man" and simply pay off their gods with money. This resulted in the creation of "Hell Banknotes" which have existed in China as long as currency. The idea is that you burn them in a fire and the smoke goes to the other world and pays off the Gods. You can buy these bills at most Chinese import stores.

Christianity is an outgrowth of this atonement type of religion in that Jesus assumed all the sins of the entire human race, was tortured to death, and, as a result, members of the Christian community have their "sins washed away in the blood of the lamb".

On the face of it, this is a totally absurd idea in that it assumes that a person's misdeeds are something like a financial debt that can be paid off by another person. (I once had a fellow tell me that if Hitler accepted Jesus Christ on his death bed he would go straight to Heaven. In contrast, a man who lived like a complete Saint all his life but did not "accept Jesus" would go straight to Hell.) Obviously, most people do not see crime and punishment in these terms, or else we would settle all criminal cases through the payment of fines. Billionaires like Bill Gates would literally be able to get away with murder! If this idea is offensive to most people---why would we accept the idea that Christ on the cross as somehow making other people's behaviour "OK"?

But that is only if we look at it from a purely personal point of view.

More than anything else, atonement religions are about building a sense of community. The New Testament has a great many things in it, but one of the stronger threads talks about what the group of believers should be like. (Traditionally the translation is as "the Kingdom of God", but the Jesus Seminar chose to translate the term as "God's Imperial Domain" which I like a lot better because the "Kingdom of God" emphasizes the rulership of God whereas when I think of "God's Imperial Domain" I think more of the duties of citizenship.) This is the focus of several parables, such as the one that compares God's Imperial Domain to a mustard seed that grows into a tree and the other that says it is like yeast hidden in dough.

The important idea is that the small, insignificant, and humble becomes an important force in society---like a weed seed growing into a large tree or yeast making bread grow. The same sort of thing comes out of the "Sermon on the Mount". Consider the following:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they who mourn,
for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek,
for they shall inherit the earth.

Christ is saying that the weak, powerless, insignificant are actually the real "players" in society. They are the ones who have the ear of God and who are on the "fast track to success".

This has tremendous implications for someone who wants to build a community. Before anything else, it means that a Christian church is not an elitist institution. It can open its doors to any and all who seek to enter. Moreover, because all the real "heavy lifting" of the religion is done by Jesus---through atonement---it means that the expectations for anyone joining are very minimal. Contrast this with a Buddhist Sangha, where the expectation is that the individual is psychologically prepared to submit to a very stringent set of monastic rules and undergo a very disciplined life of meditation. The Christian message is bound to attract more "bums in the pews" than the Buddhist one.

The second thing about an atonement religion is that it sets the members of that particular group at odds with "the Other". All atonement religions are, almost by definition, "chosen people". This is because they have entered into a contract with the powers that be through buying into the act of atonement. This is different from a wisdom religion, in that even though it has a stringent "entry price", the group itself doesn't believe that it is entitled to have any sort of privileged role in society. Buddhists seek wisdom, but are willing to accept that there are other paths to that same wisdom. Christians, instead, believe that Christ's atonement is the only way to achieve salvation. Wisdom religions, therefore, are cosmopolitan whereas salvation religions are parochial.

This stuff about "atonement" might seem a little hard to believe, but it is actually very powerful stuff for many people. The reason why is the same as why so many movies have violence in them. That is to say, when you see the depiction of violence (e.g. explosions, gun battles, fist-fights, etc) your nervous system kicks into action, your adrenal system kicks in, and you go into a heightened state of arousal (e.g. "fight or flight".) In an atonenment religion when the tribe dragged a human sacrifice to the altar and killed them in front of everyone, everyone felt a vicarious thrill as they participated in the act---even if as just spectators. The same sort of thing still has power in todays society as was witnessed when Mel Gibson produced a movie about the torture and execution of Jesus Christ. In a sense, the atonement religion makes sense because the heightened adrenal reaction is a type of "altered state of consciousness" which many people will crave.

There are, of course, other ways of creating a group venue for this sort of heightened awareness. A religious group can have an orgy. Or it can give its members hallucingenic drugs. Or it can have something far less drastic---like holding a series of exercises in bonding---like church dinners, musical events, work "bees", charity drives, etc. But either way, the point is that some sort of collective experience takes place where people's emotions are channelled in a way that allows the individual to bond with the group.

In my own case, because of my loopy childhood, a part of me has always been seeking a sense of "belonging". I remember when I started going to the Unitarian Church that I was profoundly moved by the way people honestly welcomed me into the congregation. After I joined the congregation, however, it eventually became clear to me that I have precious little in common with the other members of the community, which sent me back to being a hermit.

People are social animals. And the only way that our society is able to make progress is if people join together in groups to work together. And the only way I've seen to get people to do this is if we use emotional attachment to do so. And this, in a nutshell, is what I see organized religions doing. The problem comes when the content of the religion is counter-productive: people get brought together to build a community devoted to doing profoundly stupid things. I suppose what I would like to see is some sort of religion that was able to bring together people the way an atonement religion does but then went on to teach them how to better themselves like a wisdom religion does.

This has become a long, rambling post. I've already put too much time into it, so I think I'll just post it. This is supposed to be a diary, so I hope readers won't mind if some of the posts are not much more than thinking out loud.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Environmental Vow: Part Five

Economic Growth

A second “sacred cow” that sabotages real environmental debate is the way that environmental destruction turns on the hinge of economic growth. As I mentioned above, our economy grows through the human activities that involve a financial transaction, and these almost invariably involve some sort of stress on the earth. It should be obvious, therefore, that if we are going to substantively deal with the environmental crisis we should be seriously questioning the current imperative that our society has towards unlimited exponential economic growth. Yet when we look at the discourse in both radical environmental circles and the mainstream society we see almost the same level of denial as that associated with population issues. Why? Surely there is no direct biological urge for economic growth.

There are a lot of reasons for this, which I will try to briefly identify. First of all, our economy is such a complex, interdependent edifice that it is hard to conceive of substantially modifying it without causing the whole system to collapse. And yet its continued growth is the only ultimate security that we can offer to the billions of people who are dependent on it. Finally, for many of our society's leaders the economy has taken on the traditional role that used to be filled by religious faith and the chivalric code. That is to say, their place in the economy fills an existential void for some of our world's most influencial people.

Fantasies have been written about what might happen if a person with a modern education and a modicum of technical know-how were transported back in time to a simpler age. Take, for example, Mark Twain's classic A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. The hero of that tale, Hank Morgan, is able to create a modern (at least by 19th century terms) industrial society pretty much purely from the knowledge he carries in his head. What this sort of techno-rugged individualism misses, however, is how many of the key pieces of our modern world rest upon other elements---take away any one part and all the rest becomes impossible to sustain. If Hank Morgan were to miracurously appear in Dark Age England, for example, he would know how to do a great many things but would quickly find out that there wasn't enough iron available to realize any of his dreams. And if he tried to expand iron production, he'd quickly realize that there simply wasn't enough coal around to fuel the furnaces. And if he wanted to dig more coal, he'd find that there weren't enough roads (let alone railways) available to transport it to his furnaces. He'd have problems finding enough skilled and literate workers, or enough agricultural surplus to feed them, or enough copper, tin, lime, and all the other things needed to create Twain's Dark Age Utopia. If it was impossible to create the 19th century economy out of thin air, think about how hard it would be to create a 21st century one! It requires very complex machinery, electronics, robots, exotic metals, very highly skilled labour, etc-----take any one of these out of the equation and nothing else would work.

Equally important to a modern economy are the complex web of government regulations and business relationships that manage this huge globe-spanning machine. These include things like “just in time delivery”, the internet, fractional reserve banking systems, complex webs of international insurance, currency traders, futures markets, our legal system and so on. Add to this the fact that the international market consists of many smaller national and regional markets, all of which are in competition and very quick to take advantage of any weakness in another in order to gain market share. Indeed, everything is so complex that you will often hear politicians and business people refer to the fable of “The Goose Who Laid the Golden Egg” and suggest that we should leave things to manage themselves. Indeed, our economic system is so complex that no one really knows how to control the thing without running the risk of having the whole thing grind to a halt. This means that an equally apropos fable is that of the woman who took a ride on a tiger and found that it was impossible to safely dismount. In this light, knowledgible people view anyone who talks about the need to rein-in economic growth as being little short of insane.

The second thing to understand about economic growth is the way so many of our personal and public institutions depend on it for their well-being. Take, for example, the concept of “retirement”. People realize that in ages past almost no one was allowed to spend a significant amount of time at the end of their lives without having to work. Since almost no one lived long enough to care, it didn't much matter. But with the increase in life expectency there also came a dramatic increase in the speed with which the economy grew on a year-by-year basis. This meant that, as a general rule, money invested in new enterprises could be guaranteed to increase exponentially in value (again, the “miracle of compound interest”.) Of course some businesses did well, and others failed. But if you were reasonably lucky and prudent enough to not put all your eggs in one basket, anyone with a bit of money to invest stood a good chance of seeing their investments grow. This meant that a little money “put away for a rainy day” became a lot of money at the end of a person's life.

Consider the following hypothetical numbers. A man starts work at the age of twenty and retires at age sixty. He puts away fifty dollars per week for his retirement. According to the following interest rates, he receives a different amount at age sixty.

At 5% he receives $330,000
at 4% he receives $257,000
at 3% he receives $202,000
at 2% he receives $160,000
at 1% he receives $128,000
at 0% he receives $104,000

Beyond the individual level, this sort of assured economic growth allowed institutions like companies and governments the ability to create pension funds. And with these, the concept of retirement became a real possibility for larger and larger segments of the population---at the same time that modern sanitation and medicine were allowing more people to get to old age before dying. Remove exponential economic growth from the equation and there is no dramatic increase in wealth over a person's working life; and without that the concept of retirement disappears for most people. No wonder ending economic growth is a scary prospect.

This problem goes beyond just the old-age pension, though. Every social program that the modern state provides is paid for by taxation. And there are real limits beyond which taxation becomes confiscation, which forces businesses and individuals change their behaviour in ways to avoid paying it (that is, they either go out of business or leave for somewhere else.) This means that if a government wants to bring in new programs it has to either cut existing ones first (which almost never happens) or expand the tax base to fund it. And with exponential growth and an increasing population the tax base continues to grow on its own as new businesses come into being, the number of tax payers grows, and, the income of citizens increases. This process has continued for generations and is what has slowly built up the welfare state as more and more services have been added onto the role of government---which before the industrial revolution traditionally consisted of little more than national defence and a criminal justice system.

Economic growth also has a tremendous impact on the politics of a nation. One of the classic lines for politicians in liberal democracies has been “a rising tide lifts all boats”. What this cliche really refers to is the way economic growth has tended to end class warfare in modern democracies. That is to say, in a world where there is only a set amount of money to go around, the rich can only be rich if they take money away from the poor. This breeds a politics where the poor and rich resent each other and engage in constant battle (think of all those peasant revolts in medieval Europe.) But if the economy keeps growing faster than the population does, then that means that it is possible to convince the poor to accept the continued existence of the rich as long as they believe that the entire population is doing better every year than the one before. The other cliche about this state of affairs is that most people don't care about what percentage of a pie they get as long as their particular piece keeps getting bigger. In a no-growth economy the rich simply have to feed on the poor and class warfare begins all over again. And in a nation suffering from class warfare, it is much harder to make the compromises that are necessary to sustain a liberal democracy. In effect, an end to economic growth threatens the continued existence of democracy.

Ending growth has a particular dread for Third World nations. The standard prescription for ending poverty is that the nation has to “develop”. And what is development other than really fast economic growth? Ecologists have repeatedly asked the question about how the world is going to end climate change if India and China's citizens all end up owning automobiles and using air conditioners the way North Americans do. Yet the question always gets thrown back into their faces “Do you expect these people to voluntarily live in poverty forever?” It has been the stated goal of every “right minded” person---Left, Right, Communist, Capitalist, Religious, Atheist, whatever---that someday “development” will be able to raise the poorer nations of the world to the level of the “West”. Indeed, this dream has eaten up the sweat and blood of enormous numbers of idealistic people. It must seem monstrous indeed that when we are finally reaching the point where it seems possible that significant sectors of the Third World will actually become “developed” that we need to stop the process in its tracks because of environmental concerns.

It needs to be stated that beyond the materialistic concerns that are mentioned above, there is also a spiritual one. Expansion of the Welfare State and Development are not simply political and economic issues, they also idealistic visions that have sustained generations of people. In essence, they embody the general notion of “progress” and the incremental improvement of human kind. And in the absence of any sort of other spiritual narrative, “Progress” is something that gives life meaning and unifies the vision of countless people who have rejected religion. Suggest to these folks that nature sets firm limits beyond which the material culture of the human race simply cannot expand, and you have made impossible what motivates their efforts and fuels their sense of self-worth. I suspect that this is why so many traditional “Leftists” and “Progressives” have such a visceral antagonism towards Green political activists. On an inarticulate and intuitive level they understand that the idea that economic growth must be limited is some sort of existential threat to that specific set of values that they have built their lives around.

On the right side of the political spectrum a similar gut-renching antagonism exists with regard to the suggestion that there need to be limits on the economy. But I think that it is different from those mentioned above. Whereas people on the Left find themselves obsessed by the concept of “equality” or “economic justice”; the Right, I believe, is more concerned about “freedom” and “liberty”. Probably the most extreme expression of this worldview comes from the pseudo-philosophy of Ayn Rand. Her novels, which seem to be most popular with young males, seem to fill the same sort of role as adolescent “ripping yarns” literature. Rand's novels are, in effect, a sort of “Horatio Hornblower” books for young Conservatives because they fill their readers with visions of excitement and adventure of a sort that people rarely experience in the real world. Unfortunately, a small segment of the readership fails to grow out of this phase and continue to support Libertarian politics for the rest of their lives.

Beyond these fantasies for the immature, there does seem to be an element of the Capitalist vision that appeals to many people's deep-seated need for adventure. At least in the fantasy life of a lot of the supporters of an unfettered free market, I think that business competition fills the primeval wish to compete and conquer that used to be satisfied by hunting and tribal warfare. A case can certainly be made, for example, that the loudest proponents of capitalism tend to be very competitive people who spend very little effort being concerned about the plight of those who get in their way. As such, they could be said to be something like a “warrior class”.

For those people who seem most successful at business, the marketplace often seems to create a sort of existential “reason to be” that is much like the creative impulse that inspires artists. That is to say, the best elements of capitalism are about creating new products and wealth. And the process of doing so gives purpose and meaning to the lives of so engaged. In fact, I suspect that this is why so many “captains of industry” work so hard. Indeed, they simply cannot be in it “for the money” or else they would slacken off and enjoy themselves once they have made their pile. Yet if you look at people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, it almost seems as if the money itself is irrelevent. (Which would explain why they and so many other super-rich individuals give so much of it away.) I think that it is this sort of pseudo-spiritual engagement that many people have with the economy that explains why so many people seem to be so deeply threatened by the environmental movement. Contemplating an end to economic growth is not simply an end to some people making money, it is much more like doing away with their purpose in life. And, of course, the money that these people have gives them enormous influence in society.

Of course, most people are not left-wing activists out to create a egalitarian utopia. Nor are they rightwing disciples of Ayn Rand out to make the world safe for Nietzchian supermen. Most aren't even people who get their zest for life from business. But unfortunately, a very large fraction---if not the majority---of our society's leaders are. Many of our social activists, trade union leaders, the people who run our charitable institutions, politicians, and so on, really do have a vision of constantly expanding welfare state. And some of our most rabidly pro-business activists and politicians really do believe that there is something inherently evil in any attempt to limit the freedom of business. And finally, a lot (if not most) of our most successful business people really do get a great deal of personal satisfaction from working to make their businesses grow. And put these three groups together and you have defined just about the entire leadership of humanity. As a group, our leaders have an enormous personal investment in the concept of unfettered economic growth. In light of this emotional attachment to the present system, I simply cannot see how they can be counted on to deal with climate change before it is too late---especially as the last doubling cycle before catastrophie will initiate events that will arrive with what seems supernatural speed.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Inward Training: the Nei-Yeh

I've spent the last couple weeks diving into some of the new scholarship on Daoism. What's really exciting for me is that a body of research is being created for Daoism that is similar to what already exists for Christianity. That is to say that books are now being published that explain the classic texts of Daoism through what is called "Higher Criticism". This is the process whereby scholars use modern methods to try and find out who wrote the text, what influenced it, and what effect it has had on other texts and society at large.

The first book I read was titled "Taoism: the Enduring Tradition" by Russell Kirkland. Unfortunately, like a lot of academic tomes on obscure subjects, the book is pricey ($120 for hard cover) and new enough (published 2004) that I didn't find it in my local academic library. But luckily an electronic version exists----both as kindle and mobi-pocketbook---so I downloaded it to read in my Iliad.

Kirkland gives a good overview of Daoism, one that goes a long way towards dispelling the Western myth of separation between what people routinely used to call "philosophical" and "religious" Daoism. Beyond being a leading researcher, Kirkland is an excellent writer who never leaves me dozing off because of ponderous academic prose. Moreover, as a modern scholar who is really engaged with his work, he is able to give an educated non-expert an overview that will help me go further afield in my studies. Even though there wasn't a lot new to me in the text, there were a couple things that I really found interesting in the book.

The first point was more of a validation than an actual insight. Kirkland makes the point that because Daoism doesn't have the sort of foundational figure or institutional hierarchy of the religions that Westerners are familiar with, there is a special problem of deciding just whom exactly is a "Daoist". Christians are people who follow Christ, as revealed in the Bible. But if you read the Daoist canon you will find a vast number of books that give a great deal of contradictory advice about a great many things. (For example, Quanzhen Daoists suggest that celibacy is a requirement whereas the Celestial Master, in the Taiping Jing, recommends that whenever possible men marry two wives because sex is fun, healthy and brings large families.)

If doctrine has never been a unifying factor, neither has organization. While the modern Chinese government has chosen to lump all Daoist sects into two different branches, Quanzhen and Orthodox, history tells that the religion has adapted itself to changes in society by creating new branches and lineages that fit the needs of a specific time and place.

Instead of looking for doctrinal or organizational unity, therefore, Kirkland suggests that we look at Daoism in terms of asking who it was that self-identified as a "Daoist" both today and throughout Chinese history and find out what they have in common. When this is done, the unifying characteristic found is interest in self-cultivation.

While Kirkland has little less than contempt for the "Tao of Pooh" types, it does mean that using this definition I suspect that he would show a little more acceptance to my humble vocation. In a fairly long end note to his first chapter, he specifically talks about Westerners---like myself---who self-identify as "Daoists".

There may also be individuals in Birmingham and Boston who self-identify as Taoists. But very few of them were born to parents who self-identified as Taoists. Very few of them have ever even spoken with someone who had Taoists among their ancestors. Very few of them are capable of communicating with such a person---virtually all of whom speak Chinese as their native tongue. Very few of them are capable of reading what such people from age to age, have written to express or explain their beliefs and practices---virtually all such texts are written in Chinese, mostly classical. Very few of them have ever made any personal investment in trying to find out what such people have ever said or done in their practice of Taoism, e.g. by going to live in a long-established community where self-identifying Taoists have practiced together for generations, within their traditional social and cultural setting. To the extent that any individual in Boston or Birmingham meets such criteria, he or she might well be considered "a Taoist". And we may also reasonably extend consideration to individuals who meet some, but not all, such criteria; an Englishman who goes to China, enters a traditional Taoist community, and adjusts his own life to their teachings and practices might arguably be included as "a Taoist," as might a person of Chinese ancestry born in the worldwide diaspora, who may not be fluent in Chinese, and may have been inculcated with cultural traditions that have no connection with Taoism, but who makes efforts to learn the traditions of Taoism that flourished in traditional China, some of which are still flourishing in China today. (footnote number 15 for Chapter 1, "Understanding Taoism")

I suppose a truly realized man wouldn't care much about what people like Kirkland think. But I make no claims to sagehood, and I do meet the odd person who simply dismisses out of hand any idea that a non-Chinese person who has never been to China and doesn't even know the language could have any association with Daoism.

So even according to a hard-nosed academic like Kirkland I do seem to have some sort of claim. After all, I have met ordained Daoists, was initiated by them, lived in a Daoist retreat centre, and have devoted decades to a somewhat disciplined attempt to learn about and live a life as a Daoist. I won't suggest that Kirkland would be too happy with me calling myself a Daoist, but since I usually introduce myself to others who ask as a "crappy Daoist who doesn't know much", I think he might be a bit more willing to let me slide in under his definition. ;-)

Beyond my trivial personal concerns, however, Kirkland is trying to make the point that is encapsulated in the title of his book. Daoism, for him, is an enduring tradition. Since there is no core text or ecclesiastic organization, the only real way to define Daoism is through the practices that individual Daoists follow. And those practices only exist as handed down through social institutions---teacher to pupil lineages, and, specific isolated religious communities. The reason why Kirkland is so supercilious about self-identified Western Daoists (i.e. the "Tao of Pooh" types) is because he rests his definition on self-identity. But not just any self-identity, self-identity within a context of lineages that connect these self-identified individuals with the past history of Daoism.

This concern about practice and cultural connection fits into the next book I read, which came from reading Kirkland: "Original Tao: Inward Training (Nei-Yeh) and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism, trans. and commentary by Harold Roth.

(My experience of fruitful study is like that. You do not ponder over and over again some weighty text---the way some people just read the Dao De Jing over and over again and progressively read more and more into their translation. Instead, one piece of scholarly information leads you another, and another, and another, like a duck following a trail of bread crumbs. And all along, you are gaining a better and better understanding of the subject at hand. Eventually, almost by happen-stance, you find that you have learned a great deal.)

According to Roth this little book, the Nei-Yeh is a key underlay for both the Dao De Jing and the Zhuangzi. I use the word "underlay" specifically because I don't want to lead people into thinking that it has been proved that the Nei-Yeh was the inspiration for these other books. Instead, Roth argues that it came from an existing contemplative tradition that either informed both the Nei-Yeh and the three books usually described as the core books of Daoism (the Laozi, Zhuagzi and Liezi), or, the Nei-Yeh was a book that was known by the authors of them. Having said that, there are so many passages that are similar to the Nei-Yeh in them, that it is pretty obvious that there is some relationship between them.

And what the Nei-Yeh is about is a type of spiritual practice that Roth identifies as what Western religion would call "apothatic mysticism" or "contemplation". This is a practice where one stills the mind by aligning the body into a specific type of bodily posture and then focusing on the breathing to the exclusion of all other mental activity. Eventually, one will become aware of the "mind behind the mind" and develop a greater sense of awareness and wisdom than you had before.

If you can be aligned and be tranquil,
Only then can you be stable.
With a stable mind at your core,
With the eyes and ears acute and clear,
And with the four limbs firm and fixed,
You can thereby make a lodging place for the vital essence.
The vital essence: it is the essence of the vital energy.
When the vital energy is guided, it [the vital essence] is
But when it is generated, there is thought,
When there is thought, there is knowledge,
But when there is knowledge, then you must stop.
Whenever the forms of the mind have excessive knowledge,
You lose your vitality. (Chapter VIII, trans. Harold Roth)

It is the practice mentioned in the Nei-Yeh that is what was the basis of the Daoist lineages and communities that have existed and still do. And it is the practice of this form of contemplation that informed the people who wrote the other books of Daoism---such as the Laozi, Zhuangzi and Liezi.  When people attempt to discuss these texts without understanding the contemplative practices that informed them, they end up moving off into all sorts of areas that take them away from that "enduring tradition that Kirkland" was talking about.  As such, they cease to be "Daoists" as he understands them.   To really get a handle on what it means to be a Daoist, therefore, a person needs to go through at least an introduction into the spiritual practice that is identified in the Nei-Yeh.  I will devote a future post to what I believe that this entails.