Saturday, April 24, 2010

Faith and the Dao

I've devoted a significant amount of my adult life (actually most of it) to working actively to try and prevent things like global warming. Recently I've had to accept that not only is it too late to prevent climate change, it seems clear that the majority of citizens will not take it seriously until we are in the midst of a catastrophe. This means that it is almost impossible for the government to take serious action because if they do, they will replaced in office by some glib moron who is happy to pander to people's wilful ignorance.

The problem confronting me is the extinction of plant and animal species that I believe are remarkably beautiful and have every right to continue to exist for millennia to come. It is also the needless suffering and pain that will be inflicted on billions of people because of drought, flooding, starvation and disease. Contemplating the reality that faces the immediate future of humanity puts me in the same sort of place that used to confront people who were described as having a "crisis of faith".

I've always had a hard time with the notion of "faith". Ultimately, no matter how it was described to me, it seemed to boil down to believing in something that you have a very strong reason to think isn't true. People come up with all sorts of arguments to say why we should do this, but it strikes me that the "leap of faith" in practical terms comes down to people who enjoy something else more than they respect the truth.

The Christians I've met seemed to have faith based predominately on sheer stupidity. Most of them seemed to just have never thought about the issues that would undermine their belief system. But underlying that ignorance I suspect there was for many a deep layer of wilful blindness. They simply had too much of a stake in the Church experience to put any effort into something that would undermine it.

The Buddhists I've met were somewhat different. But it struck me that their faith in things like karma and the illusoriness of life turned out to justify an even more comfortable existence than the Christians. At least Christianity preaches charity and a great many Christians of all stripes do get out and do good work. In contrast, most Buddhists reduce their entire charitable engagement with the world to the single act of teaching meditation. This makes sense in that if you believe that there is nothing but mind, then training the mind is all that is necessary. The result, though, is that most Buddhists tend to not do much of anything at all to make the world a better place. (Of course, this also means that they also don't tend to do anything to make the world a worse place, either. That is no mean feat when you consider the insanity that organized Christianity foists upon the planet.)

Neither one of these types of faith make a lot of sense to me, which puts me at a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to my sense of equanimity. I don't want to walk around obsessing about how the world is going to hell in a hand-basket. But neither do I want to shut off my reasoning facility in order to believe the comforting lie that somehow it is either just an illusion or that at the very end Jesus Christ will make it "all better" through some sort of massive bending of the laws of nature.

The only solution that I've come up with is a Daoist one. I just have to accept that even though it might look like people have the ability to change their behaviour and save the planet, the actual fact is that they can't. People are part of the Dao, and the way the Dao of the Earth is working itself out, people need to create an environmental catastrophe that will shock human civilization into making significant changes. It is sad that in the process many beautiful and wonderful species like monarch butterflies and Siberian tigers will go extinct. It is also sad that millions will drown and starve as Bangladesh subsides under the ocean. But "Heaven and Earth are not kind, they treat people like straw-dogs". The dinosaurs are dead and gone, incinerated by an asteroid. And the peoples of Akkadia and Sumer too are long gone, their people butchered by invading armies.

The source of my sad emotions is the delusion that human consciousness and rationality somehow trumps the machinations of forces that have existed from time immemorial.


misha said...

I have felt like I am in mourning for the planet for years. My frustration with the general population's wilful refusal to face reality has contributed to my mental dysfunction. How much help can I get from a doctor that chooses not to recycle, and opts for the hour commute in an SUV? I can't be inured to the current suffering nor distracted from the here and now by GOD.

Managing my sorrow at the condition of the planet is difficult at best and mind-numbingly depressing at worst. I know too well what despair is due to this.

I think of faith as belief in something without evidence. My mom has faith in God. I have seen no evidence of God - neither has she. She has faith - I do not.

I require evidence for a belief to take hold in me. I have seriously looked at many religions - wanting a "Faith". I have found it in Daoism, but it is a faith in change as fact, in knowing you don't know, in the here and now, and in science/nature. I have no god. I don't worship, but am reverent about our planet.

Taoism teaches me that having come down from the trees, we must consciously live harmoniously within nature and that all we should do is just that. Consciously, because we have evolved away from living harmoniously in nature unaware that we were doing so at the time.

I don't think I am delusional. I doubt you are, as well. I know we can't fight natural forces. But I feel obligated to do what I can to live as harmoniously as I can; Daoism helps me do that. So does reading your blog.

Jim714 said...

This is a thoughtful, contemplative post. I remember when the extinction of the Yangtze River Dolphin was announced a few years ago, I had a similar response. I mourned the loss of that species. In some ways, I still do.

Yet there are other contemplations which offer insight and balance; over 90% of the species who have ever lived on earth are now gone. No doubt humanity will one day disappear as well (I tend to think that human beings will not be a long enduring species, not like, say, turtles). This also is the Tao, the Way of the World

I wrote a memorial Tanka for the Yangtze River Dolphin and I thought I would share it here:

In Memoriam: The Yangtze River Dolphin

November sunset --
Quickly does the evening fall
Upon the village.
The Yangtze River still flows
Past the fossils on the shore

Best wishes,


The Cloudwalking Owl said...

Mish and Jim:

Thanks for the kind words from kindred spirits. On rereading my post I strikes me that I sound harsh towards Christians and Buddhists. Please see my comments as general statements about most of the Christians and Buddhists I have met rather than ultimate statements about the traditions and all believers. I have no illusions about the problems that exist with Daoism and Daoists too---.

While I am deeply saddened by the time we are going through, I ultimately see value in humanity. I see human beings as being a very wonderful outgrowth of the Dao. In a sense, we are the universe made self-conscious, which has got to be something wonderful. I tend to see the present age as an adolescence where we are asserting out sense of independence. Just like teenager children, we say hurtful things to our parents, experiment with risky behaviour, and have no sense of time.

It might be, as Jim suggests, we will not last nearly as long as the turtle clan, but if so, I hope that self awareness doesn't disappear along with us. It might be that before we die off we will create a new life-form based on artifial intelligence that will continue the experiment. In the interim, I don't think that our current ecological problems will endanger the human race or even our culture. But it will make many species extinct and hurt a lot of people.

As I said before, the Dao is not kind. But my readers are, and I thank you for that. Maybe after humanity's adolescence is over that will become one of our defining characteristics. :-)

Zenarchist said...

Not to nitpick, but I'm not sure that your statement that "most Buddhists reduce their entire charitable engagement with the world to the single act of teaching meditation" works, even as a general observation. Both historically and in contemporary times, Buddhism has played an active role in charity that goes beyond simply teaching meditation and embraces care for the community.

Offhand, I can think of several examples of this; in the news recently there is the immediate and largely spontaneous behavior of Tibetan monks following the earthquake in Qinghai. But there are also numerous formal organizations, such as the Buddhist-inspired Sarvodaya movement in Sri Lanka, the Taiwanese Tzu Chi Organization, and of course the signatories to the Buddhist Declaration on Climate Change.

As far as faith goes, I don't see my own faith in terms of expressing belief in propositions (i.e. God exists or does not exist, there is particular kind of afterlife, etc) but rather a kind of openness and acceptance of the unfolding situation. Out of this openness, an appropriate response arises. In spite of the ecological predicament we find ourselves in, there is still dignity and meaning and beauty in the world.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


The problem with generalizations is that they are just that, generalizations. I know that there are organizations out there. I am also aware that individual people have developed definitions of "faith" that are based on attempts to wrestle with the world as it really is.

Having said that, I base my observations on what I actually see before me, not on the books I read. I have had a lot of interactions with Christians of many denominations and while they do charitable acts, their understanding of "faith" seems to be based on not much more than whistling in the graveyard. (I do not say this lightly, I wish it were not the case.)

As for Buddhism, I have also spent time talking to and engaging with my local Buddhist community. I have never ever seen any attempt at social engagement of the sort that your links indicate. I mentioned this to a Zen priest I used to correspond with over the internet and he said that alas all too often that North American Buddhism is the "Middle-class way".

I don't know enough about Buddhsim around the world (which is a hugely complex phenomenon) to be able to disagree with you. Maybe you're right. But I would suggest that a couple examples would not really have much to say about such a huge issue. I do know that I have met people from the Third World who have said that the Christian orders who do charitable work are very highly regarded because their work is often seen as something unique to Christianity.

Either way, I'm quite content to restrict my comments to North American Buddhism where I think I do have a better foundation to make observations. I really was more interested in making comments about where I am at than others. I only brought in Christianity and Buddhism because I very seriously pursued both of these options for a while but ultimately rejected them for the reasons offered. My comments about both faiths certainly were apropos of what I found in my own personal search.