Thursday, April 30, 2015

What is the I-Ching?

I follow a series of Podcasts called the "C-Realm" which is put out by a fellow with the "stage name" of KMO.  It's difficult to say exactly what they are "about", because they range a gamut  of many different things from Peak Oil, police theory, gender politics, science fiction, hallucinogenic drugs, and so on.  The unifying element is that KMO attempts to draw psychological insights from the discussion.  I would highly recommend listening to what he and his guests have to say, as many times I have heard some very interesting ideas expressed on his show.

Recently he had a guest in discussing the Philip K. Dick novel The Man in the High Castle.  It piqued my interest, so I got my hands on a copy and read it again after many years.  The novel is widely acknowledged as being brilliant.  It
Philip K. Dick
purports to be a description of the lives of several different protagonists who live in an "alternative history" where Germany and Japan won WWII.  The Eastern half of the USA is controlled by the Reich, and the Western by Japan.  In the middle, a neutral buffer state exists that has some degree of autonomy.

The book is written in a very straight-forward, ordinary style.  But the themes of the book intertwine to create a very complex web of ideas that end up bouncing off each other like light in a hall of mirrors.

One of the themes that is explored is about what exactly makes an antique "valuable".  It seems that the Japanese occupiers of the Western sea board are absolutely "gaga" over antique Americana.  And just like Americans in our historical time line went over to Japan and spent large amounts of money to buy antique swords, so the Japanese in Dick's novel spend big on old black powder revolvers.  It turns out that there is such a demand for these antiques that there is a substantial industry devoted to creating fakes.

But, Dick asks, what is the difference between a genuine artifact---which is worth a lot of money---and a copy that is not?  One of the Japanese characters suggests that there is some inherent, spiritual quality, the "historicity" that makes all the difference.

This is interesting, because this theme parallels the whole idea of an alternative history.  The novel is purporting to be a genuine description of history, even though it is not:  the Axis lost the war.  This point jumps out because a major plot device in the book is that publication of a book titled "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy", which purports to show yet a third timeline, one in which the British Empire and American end up as winners in the war, but where the Russians have been eliminated.  A cold war ensues between the British and the Americans, one which the British ends up winning.

Where is the "historicity"?  Is it in the world where the Axis wins?  The one where the great survivors and rivals are the Americans and Russians?  Or where the British Empire outlasts them all?

Another complexity of the book comes from the discussion of the I-Ching.  As a matter of fact, I understand that Dick wrote The Man in the High Castle using the Oracle of I-Ching to make all his decisions.  And, in the novel, the author who wrote "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy" does the same thing.  Indeed, he makes the statement that the Oracle wrote the novel and he was just a conduit.  Is Dick saying the same thing about the novel he wrote?

The author cements this point home by reference to the art world.  A couple American artisans who have worked for a while creating fake antiques to sell to rich Japanese collectors decide that they want to make original, abstract, art jewelry.  It gets shown to a connoisseur, who initially rejects it.  But he later realizes that this artwork has something different from the "historicity" that he was seeking in Mickey Mouse watches and Civil War belt buckles.  Instead, it has a sort of intrinsic spirit that makes it valuable in and of itself.

Two characters have a revelations about this intrinsic spiritual nature.  A Japanese diplomat does while sitting on a park bench contemplating one of these pieces of jewlry, and walks "out of the novel" for a brief period of time to see the historical world that we live in.  Another goes to greet the author of "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy" and realizes that the Axis lost the war after all.

There are lots of other fine elements to the novel I won't go into.  For example, Dick does a great job of dissecting the various levels of "false consciousness" that manifest themselves in minds of a conquered, colonized people.  But for me, the most interesting question comes down to what is the source of inspiration that allows people to create and appreciate art?  Is art something real, like history?  Or is history itself "real"?  We all know that when the public relations and propagandists get finished with a historical event, precious little that is factually correct is left to tell the tale.

For me, I am left asking "how could one person come up with this incredibly complex and layered story?"  And, actually, did one person?  If Dick used the I-Ching to write the darn book, then we need to ask ourselves what the heck is the I-Ching, really?

I have used the I-Ching myself, although not very often.  I last consulted the Oracle when I was contemplating whether or not I was going to sue Walmart on behalf of a multi-faith group.  At issue was a 600 acre Jesuit retreat centre that was being used by all sorts of different religious groups and which Walmart wanted to build a "super centre" right next to.  I was afraid that if this commercial plaza damaged the experience of the retreats for the Jesuits they would sell out to developers who would build suburban sprawl on this prime parcel of land.

The image that I got was hexagram 48, or "The Well".  The Wilhelm/Baynes book on the I-Ching makes the following judgement about this hexagram.

48, "The Well"
The Well. The town may be changed, but the well cannot be changed.  It neither decreases nor increases.  They come and go and draw from the well.  If one gets down almost to the water and the rope does not go all the way, or the jug breaks, it brings misfortune. 
At the time, I saw this as being a very clear indication that the retreat centre was an important resource for the community.  If it was damaged, it would be a calamity.  So I decided to take the risk of personally suing a huge multinational even though if I lost I could have lost everything I owned.  In the end, it worked out very well.  We settled out of court and in addition to a significant financial payout to the retreat centre, we got a binding, legal agreement that absolutely nothing that happens at the big box mall would be either seen or heard from any part at all on the Jesuit property.

Did I decide to sue Walmart?  Or did the Oracle?  Did Dick write The Man in the High Castle?  Or did the Oracle?  What is artistic creativity, anyway?

Another one of the ideas that KMO has exposed me to is the idea of "the singularity".  This is the idea that computer intelligence will eventually get to the point where it is able to design better and better artificial intelligences, faster and faster, so that machines will in a very short space of time become so much more intelligent than humans that they will be incomprehensible. It appears that for a fraction of the techno elite who live in places like Silicon Valley, the belief in the inevitability of this event parallels the belief in the rapture and the Second Coming of Christ by fundamentalist Christians.

I find this hard to believe because human beings simply do not know enough about what "human intelligence" really is to be able to create any sort of copy of it.  How was Dick able to create such an amazingly complex novel?  And why did he think that the I-Ching was so important in its creation?  Similarly, why did I take such a crazy risk in suing Walmart?  And why did the I-Ching seem to offer me such sage advice in favour of doing so?  Until we can explain what is going on in the heads of human beings when they do such wildly creative and complex things, I don't see how we could even begin to program machines to do anything similar.


Oh, one final announcement to make.  The Ebook version of my book, Walking the Talk, isn't selling.  So I've decided to offer it as a free download.  Just go to anyone of a dozen sites that carry it, and feel free.  I wrote the thing to be read and never expected to make any money on it.  I put a fee on to help the businesses that distribute it for me.  But they seem to be fine with distributing it for free, so help yourself!   Just click on the button on the upper right corner of the website to find it on SmashWords.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Mencius and "Qi"

Last month I tried to expose readers to Mencius by showing how he introduced the concept of Kung Fu (or diligent effort aimed at self-transformation) through the historical examples of people who had cultivated the trait of fearlessness.  He did as an analogy to introduce his ideas about how someone could similarly "still the mind".

His analogy has two interesting elements that bear thinking about.

First of all, he shows that there are different ways of achieving fearlessness. So, a careful read would suggest that he is implying that there are similarly different ways in which a person can still the mind.

Secondly, he sets up a hierarchy of ways in which one can lose fear.  These range from the "juvenile delinquent" approach of Po-kung Yu, who massively retaliated at any sign of "disrespect";  through Meng Shih-she who based his fearlessness on a type of resignation that he ultimately had no control over success or failure;  to Master Tseng who based his courage on total submission to an ethical system that allowed him to rest in the knowledge that he was "doing the right thing".  The implication from the analogy is that there are similarly better and worse ways to still the mind.

Next Mencius mentions something else that is equally interesting, "Meng Shih-she nurtured qi, but that's still nothing like Master Tseng nurturing essentials".

I find this interesting because most people I meet who talk about qi describe in terms that are analogous to impersonal physical forces.  The common parlance is to call it a "force"---something like electricity---that flows through the body.  Yet here is Mencius suggesting that one can develop qi not through specialized physical activity, like heng-ha exercises, or, involved mental gymnastics, such as sitting and forgetting. Instead, he mentions the important point as being Meng Shih-she's Stoic acceptance of his fate.

This is probably a dividing line between Confucianism and Daoism, at least as manifested in modern sensibilities.  People like Mencius were humanists.  Their
The Eight Daoist Immortals
interests were primarily centred on the lived human experience rather than metaphysical speculation.  Moreover, they were concerned about human society instead of focusing on the Gods and exploits of realized men.

I say "as manifested in modern sensibilities" because the Laozi is, after all, a book that is profoundly interested in the affairs of ordinary people. It has been read as an explicit book of statecraft for rulers, although from the beginning it has also been seen as something with useful general advice for all people.

Mencius goes on to make some other comments.  "Meng Shih-she nurtured qi, but that's nothing like Master Tseng nurturing essentials."  Here's another case where knowing the original Chinese would be useful.  What exactly is the word that Hinton is translating as "essentials"?  And what could we think that Mencius is meaning by it?  I suspect that knowing the original word itself wouldn't offer much help, as the book is very old and words fall out of use or if still common, find their meaning changes over the centuries.  At the very least, it appears that Mencius is suggesting that a sort of Stoic acceptance of fate is inferior to an active engagement with a moral system, what he identifies as Confucian "honour".

The modern psycho-physical understanding of qi also posits other things of value:  jing and shen.  I looked up these three items through Google and found the point I was trying make very well made for me.  In the Wikipedia article, these are identified as the "three treasures" of Chinese Medicine, but it goes on to call them the "sanbao".  It goes on to acknowledge the the term "three treasures" actually comes from the Laozi, and referred---just like in Mencius---to ethical/behaviour norms instead of psycho-physical forces (ie:  benevolence, frugality, and, humility.)  Indeed, during the same Google search I found another definition that dispensed with the distinction between Chinese medicine and Daoism altogether, and instead asserted that the Daoist sanbao are qi, jing and shen.  I am not surprised, I often meet Daoist practitioners who see the spiritual path as nothing more than a collection of New Age practices aimed at becoming some sort of groovy super being.

This is why I'm making the effort to write this blog post.  It is exceptionally easy for people to see spiritual practice simply as a mechanism for pursuing some sort of mental or physical state.  When we do taijiquan, yoga, or any form of meditation it is very similar to indulging in intoxicating drugs---only usually without any sort of obviously nasty side effects.  Do too much taijiquan and you run the risk of feeling really good and having excellent physical health.  Spend too much time meditating and you become peaceful and generally get along well with everyone around you.

What's wrong with that?

Well, the problem is that people who focus just on the good vibes are like the "lotus eaters" from Homer's Odyssey.  For those of you unaware of the story, these were people who lived on a blessed land where all their physical needs were provided by the fruit of a tree, called the "lotus".  It had a mild narcotic effect, however, that rendered everyone who eat the fruit passive and totally lacking in ambition to do anything except lay about eating the fruit.  Odysseus has a couple crewmen who eat some of the fruit and he has to bodily drag them back onto the ship and chained to their benches until the effect wore off.

I would suggest that the physco-physical fixation that many modern Daoists follow in their practice makes them into modern "Lotus Easters".  As a result, they do not engage with the society around them and offer service to the humanity according to the Confucian ideal.  I would suggest that part of this results from, or has resulted in, the subtle change in the meaning of key Daoist terms---such as qi and sanbao.  That is why I would suggest that it can be useful to read the ancient texts---such as the Mencius and Laozi, in order to try to understand the subtleties of our spiritual path.  Daoism is not only not incompatible with trying to make the world a better place, there are lots of examples from Chinese history where Daoists actually worked as social activists trying to help the poor and oppressed.