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.