Saturday, December 26, 2015

Whither Daoism?

I've often had comments from people about why I call this blog "Diary of a Daoist Hermit". First, they ask how someone who lives in a city, is married, and obviously is involved in the life of his community could call himself a "hermit". Second, they ask how someone who isn't Chinese can call himself a "Daoist". And, third, they ask why I even bother to keep the title of this blog, seeing as it "obviously" has nothing at all to do with "Daoism". I've written about this before, but sometimes repetition is a good thing, so here goes.


I started calling myself a "hermit" as a result of something that a Roman Catholic hermit said to me. I was at the time visiting him for spiritual direction, and we were talking about his vocation. He lived in a suburban house, led retreats at a local spiritual centre, drove a car, and lived what appeared to be a pretty normal life. He said that the essence of being a religious hermit isn't about being isolated from human society, it is instead about being isolated from religious institutions. He had lived in religious communities, indeed, he was the cook at a Benedictine community a few miles from the Daoist retreat centre that I spent a summer at years ago. But he had decided to go out on his own.

I have always had a hard time with religious institutions because I routinely ask "hard questions" that make others feel tremendously uncomfortable. I have tried out various religious organizations, but always found something about them that I either found repulsive or so irritating that I couldn't be a member. I have spent time with Roman Catholics, Buddhists, I even joined a Unitarian community once. But nothing "fit". Indeed, I spent so much time as a spiritual "tourist", that when I decided to simply call myself a "Daoist", I took on the name of "Cloudwalking Owl" because I had read once that a spiritual practice of some Daoists was to travel from religious community to religious community seeking wisdom. This was called "CloudWalking". (My surname is from Welsh and says that I am a member of the "Owl Clan".)

As for the "Daoist" bit, at one point in this search I came across a website that brought together practitioners and academics who were interested in religious Daoism. They had a "question and answer" part of the website where people could ask an expert. I had been a member of the Daoist Tai Chi Association and had been asked by the "big cheese", Moy Lin Shin, if I wanted to "join the

Here's a nice photo of the Fung Loy Kok in Orangeville---NOT where I was initiated. That was a tiny temple upstairs in downtown Toronto. 

Temple". It worked out that I did and this involved a ceremony in a Temple above the training hall. I thought it was like taking first communion for a Roman Catholic or "signing the book" for a Unitarian. (I eventually saw stuff I didn't like, so I left the group.) But someone had asked this
Mr. Moy, cool suit!
website about whether or not someone could be "baptized" as a Daoist. The academics said that this was totally impossible. Puzzled, I wrote in, described the ritual I'd gone through, and asked what it was if it wasn't something like a baptism. The response was that this was more like an ordination.

The main thing about this "ordination" wasn't that it gave me any sort of standing over other people, but rather that it recognized me as someone who had started on some sort of path. The other thing is that it was more than a little exclusive. I found out that very few people either in or out of China are asked to be initiated the way I was.  So, in actual fact, I do have at least a little bit of "cred" when it comes to calling myself a Daoist. It isn't that much, though. I was initiated into a minor Temple that was an offshoot of a sort of odd "reformed" version of Quanzhen Daoism (the Yuen Yuen Institute.)

Here's a nice shot of part of the Yuen-Yuen Institute---I've never been there

So why call myself a "Daoist" instead of a Catholic, Buddhist or Unitarian? Mostly, I use the title "Daoist" because I have found that I am attracted to the teachings of people like Laozi, Zhuangzi, the Celestial Master, the Masters of Huainan, and so on. Mostly, however, it is because the everyday spiritual practices that I have followed for decades---taijiquan, holding onto the One, merging with the Dao---all come from a Daoist sensibility.


Having done away with the bits about who I am, I now move onto the main thing I want to discuss in this post---what exactly is "Daoism" and what is its role in the 21rst century?

The first thing to get out of the way is any idea that what I am concerned about is Chinese, religious Daoism.  At one time I was interested in exploring the Daoism of Temples, robes, ceremonies, Gods and so forth. Not any more. I don't particularly care for most religious institutions or the people who are attracted to them. For various historical and other reasons, these things exist, but they have very little meaning for me. Moreover, I am not of Asian descent, don't speak or read Chinese, have never been to China, and since I left the Fung Loy Kok I have very little to do with anyone who is any of the above. I am a Westerner with a graduate degree in philosophy who is very much a product of the late 20th and early 21rst century.

Remove these things and there are residual elements to Daoism that I find tremendously appealing. There are books in the Daoist canon that I do not like. I don't read them. But there are others that are admittedly poetic and obscure, but seem to be based on the observations and insights from wise people who are talking about what it means to be a real human being. These include the Laozi, the Zhuangzi, the Liezi , the Taipingjing and the Nei-Yeh, amongst others.  These aren't books that were written by a religion, they are books that a religion grew up around.  In so far as I believe that Daoism has a future, I believe that it comes from people who are inspired to live their lives in accordance with the insights as revealed in these texts.


What I find appealing about Daoism is that it offers a useful set of "rules of thumb" that allow me to make sense of a fundamentally absurd state of affairs. I've codified these Daoist rules as follows. They are the foundation that I build my life around.

  • Our understanding is limited, so limited that we often don't even understand how limited. As a result, it is important to be humble in our assumptions about how the world operates.
  • It is generally a good idea to avoid unnecessary effort---more harm is done by doing too much than by doing not enough.
  • The world operates by various laws or general principles. Someone who understands these laws and principles can accomplish a great deal by working in harmony with them.
  • Conversely, people who try to do things by fighting against these laws, tend to fail.
  • A great deal of the ability that comes from working with these principles and laws comes spontaneously from within the individual who often cannot explain why he does what he or she does, or why it works.
  • Having said that, the way to develop these spontaneous abilities usually seems to come from sustained, dedicated practice.
  • While sometimes violence is necessary, it is inherently a bad thing.
  • Emptiness and passivity are of at least equal value---if not more---than substance and action.
  • What passes for convention wisdom is usually of very little value when it comes to making important life choices.

These ideas are all my own way of saying stuff that I have originally read about in books like the Zhuangzi, the Liezi, the Laozi, and so on. I use my own words because I am not interested in appealing to authority when I make statements. Just because something comes from an old book doesn't mean anything at all to me---there are lots of old books full of errant nonsense. Even if the book isn't full of nonsense, if a person cannot explain the idea using his own language and examples, odds are that he really doesn't completely understand it.

 “The purpose of a fish trap is to catch fish, and when the fish are caught the trap is forgotten. The purpose of a rabbit snare is to catch rabbits. When the rabbits are caught, the snare is forgotten. The purpose of the word is to convey ideas. When the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words? He is the one I would like to talk to.”---Zhuangzi
In my writing, I try to be like Zhuangzi and remember the ideas while forgetting the words. That's why I don't make a big deal of saying "Daoism is such and such" or "Daoists do this sort of thing" or "the wise Daoist said blah, blah, blah".

Because I don't use the word "Daoism" a lot or make a lot of quotes from Daoist scriptures, people sometimes think that the ideas that I am attempting to convey are not informed or inspired by a Daoist way of looking at the world. Well, that's too bad. The ideas and viewpoint are what matters, using old texts to support my point of view is not only besides the point, it is down-right counter productive. I grew up in a community that was lousy with Fundamentalist Christians and at a young age became heartily sick of prooftexting". That is when you quote some text from the Bible in order to support some point of view in an argument. It is simply an appeal to authority and it lets someone off the hook of having to come up with something like a logical argument or evidence to support their claims. If someone expects to find Daoist prooftexting in this blog, I would suggest that they go somewhere else for a regular dose of saccharine-sweet fortune cookie quotes.  
Zhuangzi's Butterfly Dream


OK, that's where I'm at with regard to Daoism. How about Daoism and society?

Daoism holds an odd place in Western society. Just about everyone has heard about the Dao De Jing and Zhuangzi's dream about the butterfly.  But that is generally the beginning and end of it. The only Western writer that I can think of who has really had a Daoist sensibility soak into her work is Ursula Le Guin. Mind you, that's a pretty good example to have if you are only going to have one!

Ursula Le Guin
Her books make references to Daoism in various ways. In her novel City of Illusions, the Dao De Jing is a significant plot device as it is something of a holy text that is universally revered. Another novel, Lathe of Heaven, takes its title from a quote from Zhuangzi "To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven." It deals with a man who's dreams come true and his therapist who attempts to use this power to change the world---with disastrous consequences. Another novel, Always Coming Home, attempts to envision a Daoist Utopia, as understood by the Dao De Jing, set in California in the far distant future.

Other than Le Guin, I am hard pressed to think of any voices at all in contemporary Western society that express a Daoist viewpoint. But I do think that this is changing. Just as Buddhism took a long time coming and was first spread by academics and monks, so I think that there is a lot of interest in Daoism too. But it will take a long time to come because people will reject what they do not understand, and I think that what people will expect to see will be fancy priests in funny robes. And, to be honest, until that sort of thing arrives, I don't think anyone will be willing to accept it. And sad to say, almost all of those fancy dress Daoists will probably be confidence tricksters out to separate money and other things from the "rubes". Eventually the dust will settle, perhaps in a hundred years or so, and something worthwhile will remain.

In the meantime, I personally think that those "rules of thumb" I posted above could do a lot of good in our society. We have a lot of problems in our culture with a sort of aggressive, macho, belligerent, self-importance. We assume that we know a lot more than what we really do and we create a lot of problems by bustling around doing far too much when we would be much better served humbly waiting to see what will happen on its own accord. We could also use with a lot more reverence to the natural world. This blog is my attempt to subtly influence the world by letting people see how it looks to someone informed by the Daoist sensibility. Maybe it will help at least a few people to be a little more in harmony with the Dao. If so, it will have served its purpose.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Fear and the Government

My dear and beloved wife turned me onto a minor pleasure this year, Kathy Reichs. For those of you who don't know about her, she is a forensic anthropologist who works in Montreal for the police, teaches anthropology in the US, and writes a series of wildly popular crime novels. Also, she is the inspiration for, and one of the producers of, a long-running television show by the name of Bones

Kathy Reichs
(I suspect that part of the reason why both Misha and I like her novels is because many of them are set in Montreal. We spent our honey moon there, and we both have very fond memories of that trip.)

They are quite formulaic and sometimes creaky, but they do have a few good features. First, the science is all "bang on". Secondly, the main protagonist, Temperance Brennan, is an intelligent, spunky, strong woman. She isn't a saint, but she represents an ideal that I think a lot of men and women should try to emulate. (Incidentally, the television show, which I am also a fan of, keeps this element. The "Tempe" of the show is quirky, strong, brilliant, much, much larger than life---but contains elements of some scientists and academics I have known. It is also worth watching, IMHO.)

I just finished reading Reichs' book Devil Bones when the following passage jumped out and bit me on the nose.

"Americans have become a nation afraid."
"A shooter on a rampage in a school cafeteria. A hijacked plane toppling a high-rise building. A bomb in a train or rental van. A postal delivery carrying anthrax. The power to kill is out there for anyone willing to use it. All it takes is access to the Internet or a friendly gun shop."
Ryan let me go on. [Ryan is Brennan's Canadian lover.]
"We fear terrorists, snipers, hurricanes, epidemics. And the worst part is we've lost faith in the government's ability to protect us. We feel powerless and that causes constant anxiety, makes us fear things we don't understand."

 Reichs is an anthropologist. Her work centres on the scientific study of bones, but she must have still spent a lot of time studying cultures and how they work. I also suspect that her experience of living and working half of her life in Francophone Quebec has given her a feel for Canadian sensibilities in a way that is beyond that of most Americans. This passage, I believe, comes straight from her heart. And, I agree whole-heartedly.


Canada recently had what I believe will turn out to have been an absolutely pivotal election. The previous government of Stephen Harper had attempted to recreate Canada into a carbon-copy of "red state" America. He had had remarkable success in using tactics imported from the USA (he actually hired consultants from the Republican party) to win power through electoral "skull duggery" for nine years. But the last election changed all that. The Liberals under Justin Trudeau managed to win a majority government through promising "real change" and by working with what he calls the "politics of sunshine".

Canada's New Prime Minister

Just some of the things that Trudeau promised were:
  • to legalize marihuana
  • reform the voting system
  • deal with climate change
  • create a cabinet with 50% women
  • bring in 25 thousand Syrian refugees
He also ran on a campaign promising to run a deficit in order to invest in things like public transit, cut taxes on the middle class, raise taxes on the "1%", and so on. It looks like he really means to do all the things he promised, too. 

What happened in the election was that the same people who voted Conservative voted for them again. But the Millennials and the First Nations voted en masse---for the first time. This pushed voter turnout to an astounding 70%! And, they all voted for the "politics of sunshine".


I'm not trying to brag about Canadian politics. But I feel somewhat like I've been liberated from a prison camp. The last nine years of Conservative government have been a total horror for me (and many others) as I have seen my government work to sabotage international agreements to limit CO2 emissions, whip up a frenzy of hatred and fear towards immigrants, muzzle scientists, ramp up the idiotic "war on drugs", and subvert democracy in order to retain power.

And after this new government was elected I can see a huge change in our society as our collective "better nature" has been freed up. Just to give you an idea. In the USA Obama has pledged to take just 10,000 Syrian refugees and more than half of the state governors have opposed it. (Texas has even gone to the point of threatening the removal of government funds if any charity works to help refugees settle in their state.) In Canada, the provincial governments each pledged to take so many refugees---the sum of which was much more than 25,000. In my town a local business man has pledged to personally sponsor 50 families---that is take on personal financial responsibility for 50 entire families for several years in order to make sure that they do not become a burden on the state. (Just to put things into perspective, the Canadian pledge is the same per capita as if USA were accepting a quarter million refugees.)

What is behind this change?

Well, it is very important to "drill down" to what happened in the last election. As I said before, polling shows that the same people who voted Conservative in the past did so again. The difference is that a great number of people voted in 2015 that haven't voted in the past.

 (The Wikipedia page hasn't been updated yet, so I added that amateurish-looking last green line and black dot to show the last election. The trend is obvious.)

This is something that really needs to be emphasized, because the vast majority of people simply do not "get it". A small change in voter turnout can have a huge impact on the shape and direction of the government. And governments have a HUGE influence in the way our societies operate. A five percent change in the vote can make the difference between a majority government and opposition---especially when there is vote splitting because there are more than two parties. The Conservatives never had a majority of Canadians supporting them, but the people that did voted for them through thick and thin. In a situation where only 60% of the voters bothered to cast a ballot, and the opposition is split into three parties---NDP, Liberal and Green---Harper was able to form a majority government with the support of 37% of 62% of the voting public. This comes out to forming a government with the support of only 23% of the public.

Most people don't understand how incredibly important this sort of math is democratic elections, but just because your eyes glaze over when you try to think about it, doesn't mean that it won't have a huge impact on your life. This is one of the reasons why Trudeau vows that this last election will be the last one using the antiquated "First Past the Post" system---it simply wastes far too many  people's votes and creates fake majorities with only a small fraction of voter's support.


Beyond the issues involving voting systems, there is another problem in our body politic that our societies have to work through. There is this thing called "the neo-liberal consensus", which was a reaction against many of the ideas that were current in my childhood. It is a belief that we should give up on any attempt to create a better world through politics and instead fall back on the free market, traditional authority, and, dramatically limit our hopes for a more egalitarian future. Many neo-liberals could be said to be people who looked at Utopian experiments like the Hippie movement, Communism, the welfare state and so forth---and decided that these "cures" for social ills was worse than the disease. Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Tony Blair, and Stephen Harper were all leaders who thought that the world had "gone to Hell in a hand-basket" and wanted to go back to the "good old days" before the "loonie Left" with their "nanny state" screwed everything up.

(At this point a digression may be in order for my American friends. Prime Minister Trudeau is head of the "Liberal" party, which is meant in the American common understanding of being in favour of fairness, equality and being nice to people through government action. The "liberalism" of "neo-liberalism" refers to the old, 19th century meaning of being in favour of free trade and unfettered Free Market capitalism. At that time "Conservative" meant being in favour of preserving old communitarian traditions that in many cases helped the poor, or, "Noblesse Oblige". This is why many progressive measures to help the poor and lower classes were actually promoted by the Conservatives in "days of yore" whereas the policies that forced people into William Blake's "Satanic Mills" were supported by Liberals.  Confusing? I won't bother trying to explain weirdness like "Red Tories" or why the colours associated with political parties in the USA is the opposite of everywhere else in the world---.)

Of course, the problem was that most of the things the "loony Left" did were attempts to deal with significant issues that the neo-conservatives simply didn't want to admit existed. So Stephen Harper called "so-called climate change a Socialist plot to take away your money", and completely ignored it. Margaret Thatcher said that "there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families", and stripped away many of the social security programs in Great Britain. Others said similar things and took the same actions. The problem is, however, that climate change is real and needs to be dealt with. And not every person in our complex, competitive society has the tools for dealing with it, and, not every family has the wherewithal to help its members that have these problems. Indeed, some people have no families and others have significant problems because of what their families did to them in their childhood.

H. L. Mencken

     "For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong."  H. L. Mencken

The problem with the neo-liberal consensus is that it is one of those "clear, simple, and wrong" answers that Mencken was talking about.

Unfortunately, an entire generation of politicians and voters have grown up in this way of looking at things and it has become "common sense" and it's assumptions as ubiquitous and invisible as water is to fish and air is to us. Moreover, since social programs tend to work better for some people than others, there are a lot of people in this world who see neo-liberalism as something that works very well. If you are someone who has been able to get a good job or have a prosperous business, then the free market is usually a very good thing and taxes and regulation are at best a nuisance and at worst downright evil.


Societies and democracies operate on the basis of a consensus. That is, there is a general way of looking at the world that almost everyone takes for granted and just describes as "common sense".  In my own case, I am one of those odd exceptions who has never actually embraced the "common sense" worldview. I take no pride in this as it is something that has made my life difficult and it wasn't anything that I freely chose. Indeed, at risk of a digression, I think it might be interesting to point out an actual event in my teenage years that show how little of our worldview comes from free choice.

I grew up in a profoundly conservative part of rural Canada. One day I was helping my brother and our drover load some hogs onto a truck to take to slaughter. After the work was done and the paperwork was being filled out, my brother and the drover got into a conversation about how great the free enterprise system is. I was sitting on a bale of straw listening to this when one of them mentioned the "invisible hand". At that point, I heard a voice say---as clear as if someone was standing next to me speaking---"the invisible hand is rapped around their testicles and it is squeezing hard!"

I suppose many religious people might think that this was the voice of God speaking to me. (At least if they could get over the idea that God might be a Marxist.)  But in my case I just thought "what the---", and left it in the big ???? that was filled with similarly strange experiences. But add these sorts of experiences together, and it has always been pretty hard for me to embrace the viewpoint that most of my fellow human beings have. I simply do not seem to live in the same world that they do.


I raised the example from my childhood because it is important to avoid the pitfall of blaming people for the consensus that they espouse. Bye-and-large, they really have no control or responsibility for the idiotic ideas that they hold. Ideas flow through society like they have a life of their own. There are individuals who seem to use their wealth and power to spread certain ideas---like the Koch brothers. But it is very difficult to tell how much they are agents of a specific worldview, or simply two particularly powerful individuals who have become tools of that worldview---just like my brother and the drover all those years ago.

The Koch Bros, master manipulators? Or tools of a faulty meme?

What I am talking about is the idea of memes. In his book, The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins proposed that with the creation of human society evolution had moved beyond biology and began to work within human culture. And using an analogy with biology, he proposed that just as genes are the basic building blocks of plants and animals, so what he called "memes" were the basic building blocks of culture. In the context of this essay, the idea of "neo-liberalism" is a collection of memes that have managed to out-compete other collections---such as Communism or Absolute Monarchy---and developed a consensus in our society.

What I am suggesting in this essay, therefore, is that the neo-liberal consensus is failing, and the election of Justin Trudeau is evidence of that new consensus. One of the more memorable pieces of evidence for this idea is the way he responded to questions about why it was that he made the effort to create a cabinet with 50% women:  "Because it's 2015". The point isn't that this is a good idea, or that it fits into Liberal values, but rather that women's equality is simply part of the Canadian consensus and it's long overdue that our government reflect this part of Canadian society. 


OK, this has been a long walk away from Kathy Reichs and her quote about fear. The point I want to make is that the amount of fear that our society feels is just like any other meme. It isn't something that we rationally choose. Instead, it is part of the general consensus we feel about the world around us. And it has often surprised me how fearful people have been about terrorism and indifferent they are about climate change. Moreover, if you read any history or government statistics, it is obvious that the odds of getting killed in a terrorist attack are infinitesimally small compared to other dangers---such as auto accidents. The difference, as near as I can tell, comes down to two things.

First, of all, the neo-liberal consensus has isolated people. Remember that quote from Margaret Thatcher about there not being such a thing as "society"? Well, if there isn't, then we are all on our own. Imagine if the people of Great Britain had felt that they were all isolated individuals when their country stood alone against Nazi Germany? How would they have felt when a bomb fell out of the sky and destroyed their home? They would have been paralysed with fear. Even the sight of seeing one land on someone else's home would have had the same effect. But instead of telling people that they had to "suck it up" and figure things out for themselves, people like Winston Churchill let them know that everyone in society---from the King to the street sweeper---were in it together. And this wasn't just a propaganda line. For example, the daughters of the King trained and worked as volunteers in the services. Our present Queen trained as an auto mechanic and worked in a motor pool! Does anyone in the "neo-liberal consensus" believe that everyone pitches in and does their share today in a similar way?

Here's a picture of Princess Elizabeth---future Queen---changing a truck tire.

Secondly, the neo-liberal consensus reduces all human interaction to the level of financial transactions. I often hear people who seem to think that the only possible reason why anyone would do anything is because they are after money. For example, how often have you met someone who says that "all politicians care about is money"? Actually, I'd suggest that very few are involved in politics for money. There are certainly a lot more lucrative things a person can do.  Most elected officials could actually make larger salaries if they had stayed in the private sector. It is certainly true that because it costs so much money to run an election, politicians often spend far too much time fundraising. But the money isn't for them, it's for their campaigns. Instead, most politicians run for election to promote a world-view (or consensus) that they believe in. It might be dangerous nonsense---such as the tripe the Koch brothers spew---but it is still something that they believe in whole-heartedly. 

If people feel isolated and lack the ability to understand why it is that people do what they do, then they are going to feel confused and scared whenever something unexpected happens. And if their leaders are similarly confused and scared, they are not going to be able to help the average voter get over that fear and do something constructive. That is why I find it so important that our new Prime Minister emphasizes the "sunny ways" that he talked about during the election. He is building a new consensus, one that will lead us out of the neo-liberal morass and help us unify and mobilize to deal with the real problems that our present society faces.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Internal Alchemy Part Six: The Collective Ethical Thought Process

One of the ways in which modern scholarship has parted ways with religious Daoism is in the attribution of books like the Dao De Jing. The traditional view is that this book of wisdom was written by one individual person, Laozi, at a specific time, when he was passing the border post of Hangu and was asked by the guard, Yin Xi, to leave some record of his wisdom.

Modern Hangu Pass---with statue of Laozi on his ox
There are two problems with this account.

First of all, it simply isn't true. Textual analysis of the book tells us that it is an amalgam of various writings that have been edited together into a larger text. Moreover, archeologists have found copies of the Dao De Jing buried in various ancient tombs and they have found that there are significant differences between copies. For example, the Ma-wang-tui version reverses the order of the chapters from the received version---the "Dao-De Jing" becomes the "De-Dao Jing". 

What this means is that the Dao-De Jing (and other books like the Zhuangzi and Liezi.) are the result of a conversation or dialogue between many different people over a long period of time. These folks had different ideas about the world around them and manifested this in changes to both the content and form of the book as it was read, copied, published, and handed on. (One of those "editorial decisions" was the order of the Dao-De Jing.) Moreover, scholars believe that these books were originally part of an oral tradition that existed for a long time before they were written down. 

People sometimes profoundly misunderstand oral traditions. They are not like like the lines that an actress memorizes and then "gives" in a play. Instead, they are more like chord progressions and tunes that a Jazz musician plays with when he gives a concert. No two recitations of epic poetry are the same in an oral tradition. Instead, the bard has developed the ability to recite at will in the poetic metre and conventions of her tradition---just like a jazz musician has learned to improvise within a specific chord progression.

Classic epic poems evolve over the lifespan of the bardic tradition. Some stories aren't that very popular with audiences, whereas others become "old standards" that people request repeatedly. Most innovations probably fail, but the odd one is such a success that it gets handed down through bardic lineages and eventually finds itself written down. Exactly the same sort of thing also happened with the gnomic sayings and teaching stories of Daoist literature. The end result are the master pieces that we know as the Laozi, Zhuangzi and Liezi.  

Again, I repeat for emphasis----the classic books of Daoism, are the result of a conversation or dialogue between many, many people over a long, long period of time. 

The second point that needs emphasis flows out of this first one. The traditional viewpoint that each of the core texts of Daoism was written by a single God-like "immortal"---Laozi, Zhuangzi and Liezi---is not only not true, but it also perverts the teaching. It does this by dramatically expanding the distance between the ordinary reader/practitioner/seeker and people who have already gained some insight or wisdom. To understand the distinction, consider the difference between an "enlightened Master" and a "teacher". The former is someone who while theoretically human, is actually so different from the ordinary that people are expected to give enormous deference to his opinions and commandments on all matters. In contrast, a "teacher" is just someone who has put the time and effort into learning a bit more than you on a specific subject that you would like to learn more about.

It is easy to understand why religious institutions would want to create the trope of the "enlightened immortal" and then project it onto their leadership. By doing so they would not only invest their leadership with a great deal of power in the internal political struggles within a given community, but they would also be able to use it protect the institution from outside interests and gain access to scarce resources from society. An "enlightened Immortal" could usually find it easier get an exemption from taxation and a yearly rice subsidy from the Emperor than a mere committee of "teachers".


It's always good to root discussions like this in some sort of practical example, so I'm going to offer a couple trivial ones from my experiences in a Daoist community.

I once went to two weekend workshop where I learned the taijiquan sabre form that I try to do on a regular basis. I arrived at the Daoist retreat centre on Friday night and left Sunday afternoon, which meant that I had to sleep overnight. Of course, the dorms were segregated by sex, but there were toilets and showers that were outside of the dorm area that you had to walk to through a lobby. (The complex was in an old barn that had been converted to a dorm/gymnasium by a previous owner.)

The first night I was there, I had to get up and use the toilet in the middle of the night. When I walked over to use it, I noticed that there was a guy sleeping under a blanket in the middle of the floor. It was the Daoist priest who ran the entire community! It turned out that he did this every night to stop the men and women on retreats from "fraternizing". (No sex please, we're Daoists---.) Being relatively young and lacking any confidence in my intuitions, I just registered the fact as an "oddity" and left it at that.

Later on, when the retreat was over, we were treated to a very large banquet where people gave little speeches afterwards. The food was good, wine was provided, and I was feeling relaxed. Then the Master got up to speak---through translation. The woman who translated from Cantonese to English wasn't a trained translator, and I suspect the result was abysmal. But the gist of the speech was that the Master was so "humble" that he slept on the floor and used a telephone book for a pillow. As I recall, at least a few others at the table with me were similarly angry at the dissonance between someone ostentatiously sleeping on the floor when a comfortable bed was available, and then giving a speech about how humble he was. I for one was annoyed by the fact that people who make a big deal about their humility aren't really being humble at all.

Here's a pretty version off the Internet
Another time there was some sort of angry dispute between the president of my local taijiquan club and this same Master. The result was that local fellow leaving the association. The Master arrived and asked the local club to get the police involved for "grand theft temple treasure". The issue in question was a framed print that had been given to this taijiquan teacher by some Chinese association. The poster was a version of the famous internal body chart that comes from White Cloud Temple in Beijing. The Master said that this was a rare and expensive esoteric document that could "harm people" if it fell into the wrong hands. (I have a better copy on the wall of my study that I purchased for $20. There are also hordes of them on Google Images---like the one on the left.) Obviously there was some dispute about exactly who the print was given to---the individual teacher or the association.

Yet because this Master was such an "exalted, wise being" our club leadership went out and asked the police to get a warrant for the arrest of the guy who was the chief instructor at the club for years and years. Someone we had eaten with, gone bowling with, and generally hung around with for a couple years. I suspect that the police had a few chuckles at our expense---but ultimately we were involved in a tremendous act of betrayal.


I have nuanced emotions towards my old Master. He initiated me into Daoism and taught me taijiquan. These have become the foundations of my life. But many people he taught found that they were incapable of having anything more to do with him. Entire clubs left his organization. Many of his most gifted students left him. He was also considered a laughing stock by some outside martial arts organizations, although I think that this is somewhat unfair. I believe that he was as much a victim of the "Master" ideal as any of the students who ended up detesting him. It is tremendously seductive to have people who want to worship at your feet. It requires enormous self-discipline to do what needs to be done to stop Guru worship, even if it means that you will find it hard to pay the rent on your studio and that you won't be able to raise enough money to support the charity you like.

But I think his example is inevitable as long as people hold onto the idea that "enlightenment" is something that happens to individuals instead of communities. Wisdom is a group process, not an individual attainment.


What do I mean by saying that "Wisdom is a group process?"

In a previous post on this subject I wrote extensively about the criminal justice system. I talked about how our system had developed group methods for avoiding vendettas or feuds through the creation of a legal system. I illustrated this by talking about two transitional methodologies:  trial by combat and trial by ordeal. I also showed how our present legal system developed methodologies for finding the truth through sifting evidence. In particular, I showed how important skillful cross-examination of witnesses can be to separate "signal from noise"---which is why "hear say" evidence is generally excluded.

These are examples that illustrate how our society is able to create better and better mechanisms for finding both truth and good solutions for conflict between individuals, and, individuals and society-as-a-whole. This process of creating collective mechanisms that work better to find the truth exist all throughout society. The rules governing managed professions like doctors and accountants and skilled trades like electricians and steam fitters are also examples. So are codes of conduct that govern things like journalism and advertising. As are the industry standards groups like the ISO organization. These organizations and sets of rules exist in order to manage our complex society in a way that allows human beings to not only live together with some semblance of civility, but also to allow folks the security that at least some element of stability and justice exists.

Exactly the same sort of thing should exist in both morality and spirituality. And as I have pointed out, the inspirational texts of Daoism (and every other religion, truth be told) are the result of a collective process. So it would be hardly surprising to assert that the wisdom tradition of Daoism
should similarly be governed by a collective process.


What would that look like? Well, for one thing, there shouldn't be any attempt to censor people who say or write things that some high and mighty "Master" doesn't like. Moreover, there needs to be a change in the teachings so that a collaborative approach to wisdom is encouraged instead of focusing exclusively on the ideal of the individual "enlightened Immortal". I think that probably the most important thing would be the creation of rules of discourse that would specify exactly how discussion between members of a tradition should progress, and, how the group could make decisions that govern everyone. I won't suggest what these rules would look like, mainly because this is enough for one blog post.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Mencius and Success

I've been busy with other things for the past month, so I've been a bit negligent with my Blog. I hope that this doesn't turn people away, but then this site was never about regular posting in the first place.


I've gotten to Chapter VI in David Hinton's translation of the Mencius and in the second passage of "Duke Wen of T'Eng, Book Two" the following paragraph jumped up and bit me on the nose.
"As for the man who can be called great;  He dwells in the most boundless dwelling-place of all beneath Heaven, places himself at the center of all beneath Heaven, and practices the great Way of all beneath Heaven. If he succeeds in these ambitions, he and the people enjoy the rewards together. If he fails, he follows the Way alone. Wealth and renown never mean much to him, poverty and obscurity never sway him, and imposing force never awes him."
My wife was visiting when I read these words and I've been meditating on them ever since. As the same time that she was here, an old friend (we shared a house for seven years) came to visit. He's been married to a Thai woman for several years and has been spending his summers here to work and the rest of the year in Phuket.  But now he's 65 years old and entitled to a pension and retirement, which means that I will probably never see him again.

We both wanted to see him off because my wife really likes him. After he was gone, I asked her what it was about him that she likes so much. She said that it was his attitude of "totally not giving a damn". He certainly has always lived his own life. Oddly enough, he was a very good academic who was recognized as an expert in conventional arms verification. I can remember him being paid to come and take part in a conference by Foreign Affairs in Ottawa. He routinely got invites for NATO conferences. But he made his money at the time by working for a furniture moving company---amongst other things.

He also did two stretches of time in prison for marihuana cultivation. And became a very good self-taught lawyer who was able to convince a judge to let him out early because his sentence was "cruel and unusual". (It certainly helped that he had two guards from the prison act as character references.)

He pursued this legal hobby to the point where he tried to change various laws due to constitutional challenges. I believe he argued seven times before the Supreme Court---which is pretty impressive for someone who had no legal training at all.

He did many other things besides, but I hope that this gives something of the flavour of the man. In all of this he kept his charm and had a wicked sense of humour.


My sweet lovely Misha and I had a discussion about this fellow. What exactly is he?  We decided that he is an example of the "uncarved block". He didn't allow society to define him and his life, instead he stayed who he was all through the process. I think that he is like the fellow Mencius is describing. Someone who is trying to make the world a better place, but who is at the same time so free from attachment that he doesn't suffer when he ends his life never having been able to accomplish big things. He has his freedom to sustain him until he is sustained no more.

Good bye good friend.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Internal Alchemy Part Five: Interior Life and Social Context

(Warning! This post has content that includes graphic images of human misbehaviour!)


In previous posts about Internal Alchemy I showed how important it is for people who follow a spiritual path to develop a strong ethical compass. And in the last post, I showed how Buddhism has traditionally attempted to inculcate one in its followers. Unfortunately, I also showed how it, and other religions, have failed to created an adequate mechanism to get practitioners to overcome a bias towards passivity and conventionality in that ethical compass. I also suggested that the reason why religions fail to produce ethically-advanced individuals is because they are afraid that chaos would result if people were encouraged to think for themselves.

This last issue is not trivial. There has been a lot of misery associated with spiritual innovation. One need only contemplate the escapades of the group known as ISIS to see how badly things can go wrong when religious people escape ecclesiastic control.

Yet One Example of Religious Innovation by ISIS
In fact, a great deal of horrific human history has been created by spiritual innovation among large groups of people. So it isn't enough to just "Let every flower bloom"---there also has to be some way of differentiating between good and bad ideas.

An absolutely key element is the need for some sort of formalized structure. To understand this point, it might be useful to consider two of the intermediate steps in the creation of the modern European justice system:  trial by combat and trial by ordeal.

Trial by Combat and Ordeal
Until the popularity of "Game of Thrones", I suspect that many people didn't realize that at one time there were several ways of settling disputes besides judge and jury. The most well-known one was trial by combat. This involved actual fights between people over a dispute where there was neither a witness nor a confession.

Not Fiction, an Actual Trial by Combat

Less well known were the trials by "ordeal". These were mechanisms to settle legal disputes where one or both of the parties were not warriors and who therefore didn't have recourse to trial by combat. But in some cases, the sovereign brought in ordeal as a mechanism to discourage trial by combat. The ordeal could sometimes be absolutely horrific---such as asking people to grab a red hot iron bar or pull a stone out of boiling water. The idea was that if the burns inflicted became infected, the person was guilty, whereas if they healed cleanly they were innocent. Other ordeals were a lot less awful---these included seeing if someone choked while eating the Host or who could hold their hand up longest in front of the Cross. (This reminds me of the test on the television show "Survivor" where people were tested to see who could keep their hand on a post the longest.)

Trial by Ordeal of the Red Hot Iron Bar

This system of setting disputes and criminal cases seems absolutely bizarre to modern people. Why would anyone support such an absurd system? The thing to remember is that there were few other options---and some of them were far worse.

Prior to the establishment of any sort of legal system, people had the option of either ignoring any sort of harm done to them or taking the law into their own hands. If they opted for the first, then they ran the risk of being identified as "easy pickings" for any individual or group that wanted to abuse them. This meant that in most cases, individuals and groups tended to retaliate. And because the important issue for long term survival is not revenge, but rather deterrence, the retaliation tended to be disproportionate or "massive". You can't allow someone to think that the punishment for getting caught is just "the price of doing business." Because the retaliation tended to be disproportionate to the original insult, this invited an even more massive tit-for-tat response. The result could be an escalating vendetta or feud that could cause massive misery for all and sundry.

If you want to understand the situation, consider the sort of spectacular violence that occurred between gangs of bootleggers during prohibition. If someone stole from a gang, there was no option of going to the police. Moreover, the gang cannot really afford to have hired protection for every stage of their enterprise. So, instead, they create "examples" of anyone who is foolish enough to try to cause them problems. And because the price for being humiliated was so high, retaliatory responses also called for a response---which then escalated into an on-going feud or vendetta. This sort of thing creates a very horrible problem for society.
St.Valentines Day Massacre: Dispute Without a Mechanism for Settling

The value of trial by combat or ordeal is that it allows the authorities to settle disputes cleanly and finally. To use a modern hypothetical example from Mexico, if the leader of Los Zetas accuses the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel of hijacking a shipment of illegal drugs, they currently have no other mechanism for settling disputes than a war. This will kill lots of innocent bystanders and weaken both organizations to the point where one or both might be vulnerable to being taken over by a third group, such as the Gulf Cartel. So it's actually in the best interests of everyone to have the dispute settled cleanly and quickly by an all-powerful third party---no matter what the outcome. This is because in many cases, it is better for a clan to lose the case---without appearing weak---than to win after a protracted war. This means that if there were a powerful sovereign who was able to introduce trial by combat or a trial by ordeal, it would be in the best interests for all the cartels to adopt them and abide by the results.

Of course, the important issue is that trial by combat or ordeal have bugger all to do with "justice". But in many societies a nebulous concept like justice isn't very important compared to the necessity of keeping the peace. And, truth be told, our present civil and criminal systems really don't have much to do about justice either. If they did, there would be no "too big to fail", "too big to jail", "SLAPP" lawsuits or prosecutors pressuring innocent people to plead guilty. In actual fact, I suspect that many poor people would be objectively be better off if their criminal or civil cases could be settled by combat or ordeal than by a legal system that is so driven by money.

Hearsay Evidence
I've pursued this digression into the criminal justice system in some detail because I wanted to make a point about how important society at large is to "spiritual" ideas like "guilty" and "innocent". Trials are dispute settling-mechanisms that are so ingrained into our collective psyches that many people labour under the assumption that when someone has been found guilty in a court trial, that means that they have been proved guilty---when in fact nothing of the sort has happened. Our prisons have many innocent people, and anything like an objective look at the system shows this.

I also wanted to use the example of trials before a judge and jury to introduce another important idea: rationality comes from culture.

Generally, people have a naive belief that we are all atomic individuals who use their minds to make decisions about the world around them. But the fact is that our culture controls both the content and structure of our thought processes. I think the best way of explaining this comes from the way people are allowed to present evidence during court proceedings, as expressed in the pop culture.

Take the example of "hearsay". Generally speaking, what is inadmissible as hearsay in a court turns on the issue of whether or not the person giving the evidence is available to be cross-examined. This is because people are notorious in their ability to confuse and ball-up information when it is transmitted from person to person. Consider the game of "telephone".

No Ability to Cross Examine in this Chain of Evidence!
In the Norman Rockwell painting above, each person in the chain of transmission has an opportunity to "degrade the signal" as it were. This means that the story can be changed from the original. These changes amplify with each link in the chain of transmission, because the odds of the story going back to the original are almost nil. The problem from a legal standpoint is that the last person in the chain doesn't have any real knowledge of the actual event being discussed, so there is no way a skillful questioner can ferret out the truth of what really happened.

This is important, as people routinely have a hard time being precise in their language and thought processes. And a lot can depend on precise language. To cite a non-legal example, at work I once got sent off to cut holes in a carpet in order to access electrical outlets in the floor. I was given a map by one of the staff members that showed the system by which all the outlets installed in the building could be located. This woman swore up and down that all the floor outlets in the building were all in exactly the same places on the floor. I went, didn't find any outlets and came back twice to double check with her because I was having no success. The first time I came back, she was adamant that the entire building was all the same. The second time she still insisted on this but after further prodding she added "except for the first floor"---which was where I was working. 

This woman wasn't trying to be a pain in the butt, but her mind is laid out such that she does this sort of thing fairly regularly. On top of that, she lacks the self-awareness necessary to have some humility about her ability to think things through and express herself clearly. As a result, every statement she makes is "absolutely right". If someone like this came into a court of law and was allowed to make statements without skillful cross-examination, she could create an enormous amount of chaos in people's lives (e.g. "I am absolutely sure that the accused is the person I saw standing over the body with a knife in his hand".)

The legal system deals with this problem in several ways. First of all, it creates an aura of fear and awe that forces most people to take the issue more seriously than they normally do with anything else. That's why judges wear robes and decorum is usually enforced in a way that rarely happens anywhere else in our society. Secondly, the laws of evidence exclude most evidence sources that cannot be subjected to cross examination. In the case of my carpet cutting exercise, a skillful cross-examiner would simply have reminded my co-worker that there are penalties for not being accurate and asked her "Are there any exceptions?" Finally, there is an appeal process if there is suspicion that there were errors in the first trial.

The important point to understand about the above is that the rule about hearsay is just one example of a collective process that is designed to force people to be better at reasoning than they would be if they were left to their own devices. And this process hasn't come about because some genius devised the system. Instead, there has been a process of trial and error over hundreds of years where some spectacularly unjust ruling was over-turned and a "legal precedent" was set that governs all future trials. These decisions have built up over time and help make decision-making at trials more and more logical and fair.

The same trial and error process has worked in other fields to create collective systems to ensure that competent thinking takes place. One simple example comes from aviation. When the B-17 bomber was first introduced prior to WWII, there was a spectacular crash that destroyed the prototype shortly after take off. When investigated, it was deemed as being caused by pilot error---even though the people at the controls were some of the best test pilots available. This raised concerns about whether the bomber was simply too complex for human beings to fly. After a careful investigation, it was decided that it wasn't, but it was too complicated for pilots to be able to consistently remember everything that they needed to remember to do before take off. (The original crash was caused because the pilot forgot to turn a switch that would remove a locking mechanism on one of the flight controls.) The solution was to create a checklist of things to do on a clipboard, which solved the problem. Only recently have the same issues been identified in medical situations and the checklist has created similar improvements.  A book titled The Checklist Manifesto has been published that shows how a simple idea like this can have tremendous results.

Of course, probably the most well-know cultural construct that improves the ability of human beings to think clearly is the scientific method. Basically, it is a cultural mechanism which helps humanity formulate hypotheses about how the universe works, and decide which are correct and which are false.

There is No Hard Division Between the Interior and Social Life
This post has been trying to point out a very controversial position that I have never seen once expressed in writings about spiritual practice, namely that there is no hard and fast division between the "internal life" of someone who practices something like Internal Alchemy or various forms of meditation; and, the social life they live as a member of a specific society. Even someone who practices as a recluse and stays away from all other human interaction still carries with him the culture that he was exposed to up until the time he decided to walk away from the "land of dust". The books you read, the stories told to you by your parents, the schooling your received---and most assuredly the rituals and teachings of the religious tradition you follow---all have a "social" impact. If you want to understand how spiritual practice like internal alchemy works, you have to allow for the impact that society has on the minds of followers. And I would argue that the morality that we need to develop hand-in-glove with spiritual practice comes from this social dimension. In a future post I will develop this and link it to the concerns I have about the need for developing a moral basis to spiritual practice.  

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Mencius: the Dao and Spin

Book Two of Mencius' "Duke Wen of T'Eng" starts with one of Mencius' followers, Ch'en Tai, asking about why the teacher won't "stoop to serve" by going to work with one of the "August Lords" to help him to become an Emperor. He quotes a common saying of the time, "Bend a foot to straighten ten". Mencius refuses to accept this suggestion and responds with two arguments, first that people shouldn't force themselves on their betters, but then another that I find more interesting:
"And besides, bend a foot to straighten ten is talking about profits. When it's a matter of turning a profit, don't people think it's fine even if they bend ten feet to straighten one?"
Mencius expands this point by relating a story that seems somewhat strange to our ears. He mentions a chariot driver named Wang Liang who got assigned to an archer named Hsi by Lord Chien. The two of them went out one day, didn't catch anything at all, and Hsi told Chien "He's the worst driver in all beneath Heaven." When Wang heard about this, he asked Hsi to go out with him again. This time, Hsi shot ten birds in one morning. This time he said "He's the finest driver in all beneath Heaven!" Mencius then said that Hsi wanted Wang to drive for him all the time, but Wang refused. He explained himself to Lord Chien in the following way,
I drove hard for him according to the precepts, and we didn't catch a single bird all day. Then I drove shamelessly for him, and in a single morning we caught ten birds.--- ---I'm not accustomed to driving for little people. I'll go now if you please.
Mencius finishes the chapter by bringing the analogy from the driver, through the saying about "bending" to "straighten".
Even though he was a mere driver, Wang was ashamed to compromise for an archer. They could have piled birds and animals up like the mountains, but he still wouldn't do it. What kind of person would bend the Way to please others? You've got it all wrong:  if you bend yourself, you'll never straighten anyone else." 

The first question that comes to mind is how someone could be "compromised" as a chariot driver for an archer. I'm not an expert on ancient Chinese mores, so I can only speculate. But lots of societies have taboos and rules about hunting. For example, we have laws in Canada about not wasting meat. We also have hunting seasons, etc. There are also a long list of birds and animals that we are forbidden to kill. We do not kill vultures, for example, because they clean up dead animals and therefore deal with unsightly messes. We also are forbidden to kill porcupines because they are one of the few animals that a lost and starving human can easily kill with a club---which means that it is everyone's interest that they be abundant and not afraid of people. We also don't "jack" deer with bright lights, use salt licks, or hunt bears at garbage dumps---because it is "unsporting". Nor do we use high powered rifles in the more settled part of the country because missed shots are a menace to innocent bystanders. I can only assume that in Mencius' time there were similar rules governing hunting. It appears to me that Hsi had no qualms about breaking them, yet Wang was appalled.

In other words, Hsi was concerned about profit, whereas Wang was concerned about the "Way", or, Dao. What is the Dao for Wang? We don't know. But I would suggest that from my reading of Mencius that he would suggest that there is an ethical/social dimension to it. A person can't just be concerned about making profits and still adhere to the Dao.


I got thinking about this because we have just had a week where the excesses of capitalism really seem to have exploded across the media. In Canada the CBC broadcast a major expose about an investment firm that has encouraged super wealthy people to "give" their money to shady corporations in the Isle of Man as a way to avoid paying taxes.

In addition, we have the spectacle of Volkswagen being caught deliberately spoofing the emissions control regulations on their vehicles and investors buying up generic drug manufacturers so they can increase the prices charged on important life-sustaining drugs by as much as 7,000 percent.

These are pretty clear-cut examples of capitalist excess. But there are other examples of "bending a foot to straighten ten". For example, the place where I work has big signs all over the place talking about how much carbon has been saved by the energy saving light bulbs that have been installed there. A friend of mine who knows about such things just about choked when he saw them. He said that the carbon savings are grotesquely over-blown. And I know for a fact that the lights, which are designed to go off at night, are switched on five nights a week by the cleaning crew as soon as the computer turns them off to save energy. As a result, I strongly suspect my friend is even more right than he thinks.

What is happening with the signs at my workplace is "spin". That's when an institution hires professionals whose job it is to read every situation in the most favourable way possible and promote that to the general public as objective fact.


When I was at university I read a paper about scientific accuracy that talked about things like parallax. This the seeming displacement of an object as seen from two different places. An example of this is when we look at the hands of a clock and see how the time seems to change if we look at it from one side of the hand, to directly over the hand, to the other side.  This diagram from Wikipedia illustrates another example.

How Parallax Works
The point that the philosopher was making was that when a scientist takes a measurement such as with a thermometer, for example, he has a choice to make. He can try to "fudge" the data to support his hypothesis by looking at viewpoint "A" or "B", or, he can look at 90 degrees to the object, and write down what the temperature really is. This is a ethical choice. In the same way, at every step of the scientific process, a researcher has opportunities to "fudge" her results to conform to her expectations. This means that scientific objectivity is ultimately a question of ethics. This ethical stance is the exact opposite of spin, which is the process of avoiding the direct view and instead selectively choosing a viewpoint that will always make a preconceived viewpoint look the best.

What this means is that the activity we call "spin" is not only not objective, it is profoundly unethical. And the people we call "spin doctors" are not only not objective, they are profoundly unethical. In other words, spin doctors are evil. The person who wrote the copy that adorns the walls of my workplace is an evil person who makes their living by committing evil acts. That is why my friend reacted with visceral disgust when he saw them. 


I don't think that Mencius would call a spin doctor "evil". I very much doubt that any Daoist I have heard of would either. "Evil" is more of a Western, Judeo-Christian concept that stems from ancient Persian ideas of there being a dualistic battle between two gods, one representing "good" and the other "evil". In contrast, the tradition of Western Philosophy tends to see what we call "evil" as being misguided behaviour that is caused by ignorance and a stunted psyche. My reading of Chinese thinking would suggest that it is much more in harmony with the philosophical tradition than the Judeo-Christian one. So while I don't really believe in the idea of "evil", I know that many of my fellows citizens do. So, at least once, I want to call spin "evil" more as a rhetorical device than anything else.

I did this because I don't think that most people really understand how damaging spin is to our society. It is a subtle poison that rots the foundations of science and democracy. That is why, like my friend who reacted to the posters on the walls of my work place, I have a strong emotion of revulsion and disgust every time I see it.

I mentioned earlier that one of the nastier things revealed this week is the way speculators have been buying up companies that produce generic drugs and then dramatically jacking up the prices they charge. Here's one of these miscreants being interviewed by Bloomberg "News".

This is probably one of the best examples of spin that I have ever come across. This corporate leech has been very carefully primed by his marketing people and he is being interviewed by the usual type of corporate reporter who was probably selected for her good looks---she certainly doesn't know how to ask tough questions in an interview! If you watch the interview Shkreli goes through the following arguments:
  1. the drug is under-priced compared to cancer drugs
  2. the cost of production is not the only cost of production
  3. the company needs money to provide "dedicated patient services"
  4. the company will ensure that no patients will be denied the drug for financial reasons
  5. market competition will create new and better drugs
Let's look at these statements one-by-one.

First, with regard to the relative pricing. Starvation never justified malnutrition. So pointing out price gouging by one drug doesn't justify it in another. Shkreli is implicitly assuming that there is some sort of objective, fair, market mechanism that is setting drug prices. But economists will point out that medical services---including life saving drugs---are what they call an "inelastic market". No one who is suffering from a terminal illness would turn down a life-saving treatment because of cost. As a result, there can never be any competitive pressure exerted to reign in excessive prices. Moreover, because of the fact that medical services are governed by professionals, most patients are totally at the mercy of doctors and can only do what they are told. This means that even if it were possible to find cheaper alternatives to a given therapy, the patient would lack the knowledge necessary to evaluate the different alternatives with any hope of being able to find the optimal one. This is why medicine is a regulated profession and doctors are sworn to the Hippocratic oath and nurses to the Nightengale pledge. (It is also why engineers in Canada wear an iron ring.) There can be no competitive market in such situations, which is why regulated professions follow ancient systems of governance based on a sense of "duty" and ritual oaths. 

Shkreli lists off a bunch of production costs that he says bumps the price well above the $1/pill cost of making the drug. He mentions distribution, "FDA costs" and other manufacturing costs. If there are extra costs associated with the product, why not itemize them and add them to that $1 figure? I would suggest that if he did so, he would have come up with a figure that was only marginally bigger than that $1/pill. So instead, his spin doctors told him to reel off these other vague items and let the listener assume that these are very significant costs that simply cannot be avoided.

Next on the line is "dedicated patient services". This is a delightfully ambiguous term. What does it mean? Probably not much more than advertising. Have you ever heard from a drug company when you were being treated for an illness? I haven't. My interactions have all been with doctors, nurses and pharmacists---which are all regulated professions that have been decoupled from private enterprise and the free market. The only "dedicated patient services" I care about come from doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals.

As for the idea that this drug company can charge whatever it wants for this drug because they will make sure that "poor folks" still get it is patronizing. First, it only refers to the specific drug in question. What about all the other drugs that Shkreli has purchased but haven't been subjected to the media spotlight? Do the protocols all cover them? Secondly, it only refers to this moment in time. Any voluntary actions by the company can be removed whenever the media spotlight is taken away. Third, how is this protocol to be enforced? Can Shkreli prove that every doctor, hospital, and insurance provider will know that this special protocol exists whenever a poor person darkens their door with this problem? Or will they just look at the price on a computer spread sheet and say "yup, that's the price---and you can't afford it"? Special deals always get lost in the shuffle when poor and disenfranchised people get involved. That's what the class system and poverty is all about. That's why we have a welfare state instead of "noblesse oblige".

Finally, here's the biggest old canard of them all to finish off. The free market will give us new wonder drugs if we just throw enough money at it. I call "bullshit" on this. First of all, contrary to the spin, most primary research is not done by private entities but rather through government facilities, universities, and, charities. That's because businesses are not in business to find out how the universe operates but rather to make money. And when a business does do research to find some sort of practical application, such as a new drug, it leans heavily on primary research done for the public good. So why do we trumpet up the last stage of the work and ignore the first part?  Spin.

In fact, private research is a tremendous drag on scientific progress. There has been a real change at universities over the past few decades where private money has infiltrated science labs. Where once scientists routinely collaborated informally and people used to be able to wander into each other's labs to see what was going on, now doors are locked and people are secretive about experiments that could have practical implications. Even worse, because of the pernicious influence of big money, a lot of scientific results have been twisted as companies do things like publish only positive results and bury any studies that suggest that there might be problems. In drug research this is a tremendous problem. Just do a quick Google search of "buried drug studies" and lots of interesting stuff will come up, here's one that looked especially interesting. So far from empowering research into new drugs, the free market leeches off public research and damages scientific progress by reducing collegiality and reducing the reliability of published data.


Canada is currently in the midst of a federal election right now, so there is a tsunami of spin washing across the country. Of course, the lame-stream media is full of it. But what I find especially distressing are the people I know who are just as excessive in their use of spin in their expressions of partisanship. Loyalty can be a wonderful thing. I know my dear and lovely wife is totally loyal to me---as I am to her---and it fills me with a warm glow. But people shouldn't give their loyalty to frail institutions like political parties. Instead, like Wang and Mencius, we should be loyal to the Dao. It is true that for life to continue we all have to make compromises, but we need to make them grudgingly and only if they cannot be avoided. We shouldn't embrace them as a "career path". So when someone asks us to "bend a foot to straighten ten", remember that, as Mencius says, we usually end up bending ten to straighten one. True leadership inspires, it doesn't seduce.   

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Internal Alchemy, Part Four

In my last post on this subject I tried to deal with the utility of what I have been called "internal alchemy". I showed that from my experience doing grad work that science and scholarship are incapable of working with such phenomenon. And while I showed that this sort of thing can be of tremendous practical importance to people like painters, hockey players, fighter pilots, and so on, it doesn't seem to have much utility when it comes to helping people live an upright, moral life. You can be an enlightened Buddhist master, for example, and still be an ethical moron who willingly supports the most oppressive regimes and who exploits his students.

This point hasn't been lost on the Buddhist tradition, which is why many teachers put a big emphasis on the concept of "compassion". The idea is that you don't just learn how your mind operates, but you also put a lot of work into building up your sense of compassion for all other sentient beings. Indeed, my first meditation teacher told me that "smart guys like you need to REALLY work on compassion because you can get so angry at the stupidity you see all around you". Sage advice indeed.

One example of how Buddhists have tried to inculcate a sense of compassion in their followers is through reciting the Metta Sutta. This is a procedure where you work through a long list of people in your life and wish them the best in great detail. You start with the folks you like, move on to the people who are kinda annoying, then the people you dislike, and finally deal with vile, evil fiends. So you start with your wife or mom, go to the guy at work who talks too much, to the fellow who lied about you to the boss, to Hitler. The idea is that you create a conditioned response so you respond immediately to all people with compassion without having to think. This is exactly the same thing as when you do martial arts moves over and over again to the point where when the situation arises, you do them without thinking.

Here's an example from the YouTube of the sort of Metta practice that Buddhist teachers have routinely used to instill a sense of compassion in their followers.

I've chosen a specifically cheesy version because there is a soft, sloppy, sentimental quality to the way most people think about compassion. But consider the example of the use of the Metta that was expressed to me by a monk from the far East. He was on a pilgrimage in India with another monk and they were attacked by bandits. The thieves were poor enough that they considered almost everything was worth stealing. Not only did they steal from the two monks, they also beat the crap out of them. All they left the monks was their underwear. The monk said that his buddy immediately started reciting the Metta Sutta when this horrible ordeal started.

This is the result of a lifetime of internal alchemy. Compassion is something that you can teach people, but it requires sustained effort over a long time. In other words, it is a kung fu.


There is a complexity to compassion however. You need to learn what is and is not something to get upset or compassionate about. It is easy to see the simple problem when a gang of criminals rob you. But there are types of crime that are totally invisible unless you have the information needed and the intelligence to "make the connection". There are also a great many responses that one can have to any given situation. It is one thing to recite the Metta Sutta when you are the passive recipient of violence, it is another thing altogether to find a way to act on the basis of the urgings of your compassionate heart. And once you accept that compassion is more than just passively responding to whatever conventional morality dictates as being "bad", then there has to be some sort of process for deciding when and how one needs to respond.


The gravest crisis that the human race has ever faced is in front of us right now. Climate change is something that could potentially lead to suffering and death on a scale that dwarfs anything else that has ever confronted humanity. Unfortunately there is a very large fraction of the human population who simply cannot make the intellectual leap to see climate change as being a moral issue. In other words, a lot of the people who can see this first image and think "that's evil"

Why is this an image of evil that requires a compassionate response? 
But this is one of prosperity and has nothing at all to do with compassion? 
see the second one and think "good paying jobs". Because others (like myself) can see the connection between burning fossil fuels and things like droughts, wild fires, hurricanes and typhoons, famine and flooding, we don't see much difference between the two scenes. Both are "all about" insane human decisions leading to a great deal of suffering. So it isn't just enough to be compassionate, it is also important to have the intelligence to be able to see suffering in all its forms---not just the ones that have been neatly identified by conventional teachings.


The problem is even deeper than this. Feeling compassionate towards others is something passive. Ethics isn't just about feeling one way or another when confronted by a situation. It should also be about people's actions. It isn't just about not doing bad, it is also about actually doing things to prevent, end, and, redress it. It isn't enough to just follow the rule "thou shalt not kill", it is also about "thou shalt actively protect the defenseless".

People run afoul of this when they contemplate folks like Nelson Mandela. The facile version of his story is to talk about a man who was willing to spend decades in prison to protest Apartheid and refused to be vengeful when he ended up President of South Africa. What a deeper discussion needs to identify is the reason why he was sent to prison in the first place. As head of the military wing of the African National Congress, "Umkhonto we Sizwe", (or, "Spear of the Nation"),

Yup, this guy was a terrorist. 
Mandela was committed to a campaign of violent sabotage (or what is often called "terrorism" by many people) aimed at the South African state. At the time of Mandela's first state visit to the United States, he was on the "no fly list" because he was listed as a terrorist. The university where I work once contemplated giving him an honorary doctorate, but our Board of Governors refused for the same reason. "Terrorism" is a tremendously misused word, but the fact of the matter is that according to the definition used by most current government officials and large swathes of the body politic, Nelson Mandela---secular saint---was a terrorist.

Of course, IMHO, the fact is that he was a soldier who was trying his best to free his people. And in South Africa non-violence resistance had been tried for decades without any success (after all Gandhi invented it there.) So the Afrikaans population left the blacks no other option but to take up the gun. It could be argued that given the context, this was the ethical thing to do---although a great many people with conventional religiosity would cringe at the idea. Mandela was a man of great compassion and insight, but the way he manifested this was by organizing training camps outside of South Africa to teach demolition and sabotage, and, to send teams into the country to destroy key industrial targets. His compassion was neither conventional nor passive.


So, being ethical isn't just about being conventional or passive. And there is another element that needs to be addressed. The reason why religious systems don't want to be unconventional or pro-active in their ethics is because once you encourage people to do this, you will get various people espousing and acting upon all sorts of different visions of "right" and "wrong". This would create chaos. To some extent, people have to sing from the same song book or else you don't have a choir anymore.


I once heard a short talk by a native medicine man where he made a distinction between religious systems that are based on revelation versus ones that are based on inspiration. The Abrahamic religions are revelatory in nature because they are based on specific, historical events where God supposedly communicated an set of ideas to a specific, historical person. Moses went up on a mountain to get the ten commandments, Jesus spoke to the twelve disciples, and, the angel Gabriel commanded Mohammed to "recite!" In contrast, inspirational religions are based on the personal experience of individual practitioners, as interpreted through a theological matrix. The Zen Buddhist sits and meditates, and has experiences that are explained to him by the Master. Similarly, the person following a medicine man goes on a spirit quest or ingests some hallucinogenic drug which provides experiences that are explained by the traditions of the tribe.

Religions that are revealed are inherently authoritarian. There is a set of teachings that are totally non-negotiable. It's either their way or the highway. In contrast, when you go on a vision quest and see your spirit animal or have a vision, that is your way. It belongs to you and you get to have a lot of leeway in how it is interpreted. Inspirational religions are inherently anarchic. This means that any sort of authority you may have in this system comes from your ability to inspire others, instead of access to the power of a large institution.

Religions that are revealed, therefore, have no problem at all creating a consensus in society. They have access to force. If someone tries to undermine the consensus that holds society together, they can do things like order people to shun them, take away access to jobs, or, torture them to death in a public spectacle.
The Traditional Consensus-Building Method in Christianity
Native American societies are inherently anarchic anyway, so it really doesn't cause them any problems if their religious practices are inspirational. In contrast, Chinese society has always been a bit of a powder-keg, which means that central authority has had great concerns about the inspirational element that lies at the core of both Buddhism and Daoism. Indeed, very large revolutions by religious groups are part of Chinese history. Two examples would come to mind from anyone even slightly versed in it: the Daoist-inspired Yellow Turban Rebellion, and, the pseudo-Christian Taiping Rebellion. This problem from Chinese history is why the present government has responded so vigorously to stamp out the Falun Gong movement. It is why Daoists, Buddhists, etc, have only been allowed to operate as religious practitioners and institutions if they are licensed and regulated by the state. This control by the state is the way Chinese society has traditionally created religious consensus in Chinese society even though the two dominant religions---Buddhism and Daoism---are inherently inspirational and anarchic in nature.


So how does someone who practices Neidan, or "Internal Alchemy", develop a moral compass that allows them to be part of a society while at the same time developing a sophisticated morality? I believe that the answer lies in what I describe as "practical philosophy". I will attempt to explain what I mean by this in my next post on this subject, as I think this post is already quite long enough.