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.

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