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.

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