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.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Mencius: Who is More Important?

In the last chapter of the book Duke Wen of T'Eng, Volume One, Mencius interacts with a follower of Mozi:  Yi Chih. This shows the differences between Confucianism and Mozi's school that should be of interest to people today.


Before I get into this, I'll have to offer some background explanation.

The great flowering of Chinese philosophy occurred during the Warring States period. This time was roughly between 475 BC to 221 BC. It involved a collection of little states fighting between themselves until their ultimate consolidation into the short-lived Qin dynasty----which became the template for China itself.

During this time various schools of thought competed with each other to assert dominance into the culture of what ultimately became "China": Confucianism (Ru), Legalism (Fa), the followers of Mozi, and, what eventually became known as Daoism. These schools fought it out not only intellectually but also militarily. Temporarily, Legalism won out because it built the superior war machine and it was able to consolidate all the little states into the Chin dynasty, which became the geographic and administrative basis of China. It also tried---with limited success---to stamp out all the other schools (except Daoism) by executing their leading thinkers and burning their texts. But, as predicted by the Confucianists, the Legalist society of Qin proved very brittle because of its harshness and quickly fell to peasant revolts. Ultimately, Confucianism won out and become the central cultural theory for China. Mozi's doctrines just about disappeared, Legalism was discredited, and, Daoism became a respected subculture followed by a fringe of Chinese society.

Mencius is a partisan of Confucianism. Which I assume that readers will be learning about as I work through his text. But I doubt if many readers have ever heard of the thinker championed by Yi Chih:  Mozi.


Mozi started off in humble circumstances but worked his way into a position of prominence as both a philosopher and as an engineer. He not only went from state to state---like Confucius---attempting to influence leaders, he also had a group of followers who were willing to help leaders build fortifications to protect their lands. They'd do this in order to discourage war, since there is no sense invading another land if their cities have been made invulnerable to assault.

His teachings emphasized humility, simplicity, concern for all his fellow citizens, and, the creation of a society that worked for everyone. In modern terms, he is usually described as a utilitarian. This is the philosophy that says that the "right thing to do" is generally whatever creates the greatest good for the greatest number of people.


The chapter begins with Yi Chih who asking to talk with Mencius. The Confucian puts him off, pleading sickness. But he does say that he'd like to talk and that he'll do the visiting when he's better. But this doesn't seem to be genuine interest, but rather a case of "don't call us, we'll call you", because Yi Chih again tries to connect---presumably because he hasn't been contacted. Mencius says he'll see him, but then suggests that he will only do so after he "straightens out" Yi Chih. So he uses an intermediary to communicate on the subject of filial piety.

I have heard Adept Yi is a follower of Mo Tzu [sic]. In funerals, Mo Tzu's school follows the Way of simplicity. And Adept Yi apparently thinks such simplicity can transform all beneath Heaven. So how can he himself denounce it instead of treasure it? He gave his parents lavish burials, but the principle of simplicity condemns that as a tawdry way of serving them. (David Hinton trans.)
Then, Yi answered Mencius' catspaw.
According to the Confucian Way, the ancients ruled as if watching over newborn children. What can such words mean if not that our love should be the same for everyone, even if it always begins with loving our parents?
Mencius responded.
Does Adept Yi really believe we can love a neighbor's newborn child the way we love our own brother's child? The only time that's true is when the newborn is crawling around a well and about to fall in, for the child doesn't know any better. Heaven gives birth to all things:  they have a single source. But Adept Yi insists that they have two, what's why he believes such things.
Imagine people long ago who didn't bury their parents. When their parents die, they toss them into gullies. Then one day they pass by and see them there:  bodies eaten away by foxes and sucked dry by flies. They break into a sweat and can't bear to look. That sweat on their faces isn't a show for their neighbors:  it's a reflection of their deepest feelings. So when they go home and return with baskets and shovels to bury their parents, it's because burying parents truly the right thing, the Way for all worthy children and Humane people.  
Yi responded with a contrite: "I have now been taught".


Mencius clearly feels threatened or annoyed by Yi Chih, which is why he refuses to meet directly with him. But if we look at the text with an objective eye it is very hard to see the chapter as a serious response to Mozi and his followers.

He starts off by suggesting that Yi Chih is a hypocrite because he buried his own parents using elaborate rituals rather than simply as Mozi suggests is appropriate. Whether or not Yi is a hypocrite is irrelevant, because hypocrisy isn't really grounds for refuting something. Yi Chi just ignores this point and instead suggests that when Confucians talk about ideal rulers, they often use analogies to the way parents treat children. My school of Daoism includes the Classic of Filial Piety as one of its core teachings, so I have read a translation. And, if my memory serves me, the relationship between ruler and ruled is indeed an important part of filial piety. Yi is suggesting that if a ruler can see all his subjects as being his children, then the entire citizenry should as well.

But Mencius takes issue of this. He does admit that all people do feel some sort of basic feeling towards others in special cases. That is, we all feel a softness for babies. That is why almost all people feel compelled to protect young children from harm (such as a baby near an open well.) Modern evolutionary biology would suggest that this is "hard wired" into our brains due to natural selection. Since humanity evolved in small bands of related individuals, protecting all the babies we see would probably help replicate DNA that even if not directly our own offspring, would share many characteristics with our own because it is the offspring of a close relative. (This is the selfish gene hypothesis.) So in this case it might very well be that Mencius is absolutely right---this is an example of an innate ethical belief.

Mencius refuses to go beyond this limited sense of connection however, and argues once one gets beyond the specific feelings people have towards young children, it is "human nature" to place relatives ahead of others. This is what Western philosophy would call "ethical intuitionism", or, the idea that some moral insights can be understood intuitively without any recourse to either logic or evidence. Please note, however, that Mencius is not limiting the scope of ethical intuition, instead he is saying that the intuitions are different from what Yi is suggesting. He believes that people's intuitions tell them to at the same time universally protect babies and also discriminate against others in order to help out their own relatives.

While it might be that the selfish gene hypothesis might suggest that this is the case in some limited cases, Mencius would not have posited it this way because he lived long before the science of genetics.  Moreover, he pushes this theory past the point where the replication of DNA is involved. He suggests that Chinese burial customs are intuitively obvious to all human beings, which is totally unsupported by the facts.  He says that the vast majority of people would be horrified to see their parents' bodies reduced to a skeleton in a ditch, so they would immediately rush out to rebury them, and, that this response is a result of something innate in the human psyche---if not the universe itself.

I would disagree with this position and posit that the feelings that Mencius is referring to are culturally conditioned. It is simply the case that there are cultures that see things very differently and which consider it right and proper to work a loved one's body back into the ecosystem as soon as possible.  For example, consider the examples of Tibetan "sky burial".  Here's a YouTube video that clearly shows people who do not share Mencius' moral intuitions. (Warning, this isn't for the faint of heart):


Moving beyond the specific case of lavish funerals to the general case of putting the children of others on par with your own, one of the strongest practical arguments against Confucianism over the ages has been that it has fostered nepotism and corruption as generation after generation of officials "pulled strings" to help their relatives into offices that they were unfit to hold.

I have seen at my workplace what happens when nepotism is allowed to happen. I remember a coworker's wife worked in human resources and pulled strings to get their son hired into the cleaning crew. He has some sort of "issue", and he managed to make the life of the women who worked with him a living Hell. They all transferred to other buildings or quit, and the building became a dumping ground for staff members that foremen didn't want working for them. The result was that the building became little more than a pig-sty. The fellow in question eventually got transferred to a small building where he wouldn't have to interact with any other cleaners. Even that didn't work as he ended up in a fist fight with his foreman. That was the last straw and he was fired.

Imagine what harm he could have done if he was more than just a janitor and was in a position of some authority. Yet this has happened as a "matter of course" throughout Chinese history because of the influence of the Confucian virtue of "filial piety".

In contrast to this "innate human nature", other societies have fought against this tendency.  Legalism is one way of doing this. Rules are created and penalties are assigned against those that break them. Where I work there are supposed to be specific mechanisms at work to avoid hiring unfit employees. These are often followed, but a lot of management is quite sloppy about following these guidelines and bad things happen.

Other societies go a little bit farther and try to create an ideal of civic responsibility. The ancient Spartans are probably the best example of this. Young people were put through very, very, very harsh training that not only made them great soldiers but also people who genuinely put the good of the community ahead of their only personal interests.

This extended to the point where mothers put the good of their army ahead of the well-being of their children. This started right from birth where Spartans accentuated natural selection by formally inspecting all their children and killing any that seemed to harbor any type of physical imperfection. The movie "300" is very good as showing this ethos.

The selection didn't end here. From an early age boys were put through a very intensive and all-encompassing system of education known as the "Agoge". The goal of this process was to ensure that the boys grew up into super soldiers who primary loyalty was to the state instead of their family. Again, "300" does a good job of explaining this process:

This attitude was expected to over-ride the natural human emotions that people feel towards children and spouses. Consider the example of the Spartan woman who famously told her son going off to battle "Come home with your shield or on it"---which is to say, "Don't throw away your heavy shield and run. Fight even if it means you end up being killed and carried home on your shield as a corpse".

My last clip from "300" dramatizes this attitude in a conversation between King Leonidas and his wife.

The thing to remember about Sparta is that it was an actual human society and lived and prospered following these rules. It's existence totally puts the lie to the argument that it is "only human nature" to put the needs of your family ahead of everyone else.


When I started this essay I originally put the word "philosophy" in "scare quotes" to show that I don't really think of Chinese "philosophy" as being the same thing as Western. There are several reasons for doing this, but in this particular case, I was motivated by the fact Mencius is using such incredibly lame reasoning in this chapter. He is pretty much taking as "intuitively obvious" anything that he believes to be true. That is no refutation of Mozi. And no reasonable person would listen to his arguments and simply agree that he has "been schooled".

Eventually I decided against this, as even if his arguments are often weak, he still has some useful insights that bear thinking about. What I found interesting was the reference to Mozi, someone that I think should have a bigger profile. (Perhaps at some future date I will write some posts devoted to him.) Moreover, in discussions about Confucianism I have often come across the example of the child by the well. I was surprised to realize that it comes from one of the weakest chapters in the Confucian corpus.

These are neither stirring insights nor deep wisdom. But if someone is interested in Daoism they should gain some background knowledge about other schools of thought that were extant at the same time that books like the Dao De Jing and Zhuangzi were written. I hope that this post will serve that important if plodding service.