Sunday, July 3, 2016

A Request for Some Feed Back: Daoism As A Practical Philosophy

It's been a while since I posted something on this blog. Instead, I've been working on a new book, which I've tentatively titled "Daoism as a Practical Philosophy". It's not a diary about my life, like this blog, but more of an introduction to the key elements of Daoism.

I'm not just writing for my own edification, as I will soon be retiring and I think it would be nice if I could augment my pension through a little extra income. To that end, I won't just be offering it for free like my other writing projects. I'm new to publishing, however, so I thought it might be a good idea to ask my readers what they think. I'm going to give a sample of the book plus a couple questions. I'd like responses, either in the comments on the blog or through direct email to "". 

My first question is "Do you think it would be a better idea to self-publish an ebook through SmashWords and an on-demand publisher like Lulu, or, should I try to find a press that would print and sell it for me?  If anyone reading this is associated with publishing and would like to talk to me about this, I would be open to any inquiries. 

My second question is "If you do think that I should self-publish as an  e-book, what do you think would be an fair price?" I'm not interested in giving it away for free, as I think that the subject is a lot more popular than my earlier book about environmental issues. But I really don't have a clue about what people think is a fair price anymore. 

So here's some of the work I've been doing already. It should give people an idea about what the book is about. 


Practical Philosophy

In modern times “philosophy” has become a purely academic pursuit. Professors at universities write papers for each other where they discuss very abstract concepts. I'm not going to say that this is a totally worthless pursuit, as some of the ideas that they develop end up becoming extremely important for science, literature, politics, and so on. Human society cannot evolve without creating new ways of thinking about the world, and to do this someone has to create new ways of looking at the world.

But philosophy used to also be about how ordinary people learned how to live a life of meaning and purpose. In the late Roman Empire there were schools of philosophy that helped people learn how to live better lives. The most famous were Stoicism, Cynicism, and Skepticism. Each of these were systemic ways of looking at and living in the world. They allowed followers to find meaning and coherence in turbulent times. Unfortunately, they were suppressed by the Christian church once it became the official---and exclusive---religion of the Roman Empire. Philosophy continued in academic settings, but it was never again allowed to escape into the lives of ordinary citizens.

At roughly the same time, philosophy also arose in India and China. India's most famous examples are Yoga and Buddhism. In China, some examples were Confucianism, Moism, Daoism, and Legalism. In India its practical philosophies became overlaid by religious thinking to the point where for most people their original teachings pretty much disappeared. In China this also happened to Daoism. Confucianism did the same as Western philosophy and disappeared into something of an Ivory Tower---but because China lacked universities, this tended to instead be the Imperial bureaucracy. Moism (a socialist/utilitarian/scientific worldview) was effectively exterminated after its followers lost a literal war with Legalism (at totalitarian worldview based on rigid rule of law.) Legalism's success at founding the first Chinese Empire proved a Pyrrhic victory, because it's extremely harsh treatment of ordinary people resulted in rebellions that quickly destroyed that dynasty and it's governing philosophy.

(Of course, this is all a grotesque over-simplification, but people have to start somewhere and this book is not an academic, historical treatise.)

OK. There was this thing in the past. Why should anyone care today?

When I was a child one of my teachers used to write sayings on the blackboard every morning. One that stuck out in my mind was “Be a live wire and you won't get stepped on!”. At the time, I thought that it meant that people shouldn't be afraid of standing up for their rights, asserting their interests, or, showing off their abilities. It struck me as an advertisement in favour of the value of being “pushy”. As a child, I thought that this was a bit odd, as my family had always taught me that that was being rude.

Why did that teacher write it on the black board?

Totally unconsciously, she was promoting a “practical philosophy”. In particular, she was promoting a sort of optimistic, liberal, 20th century view of “individual progress”. Contrast that with this similar piece of folk wisdom:  “The nail that sticks out shall be hammered down.” That is a Japanese proverb that seems to suggest that it is dangerous to be a “live wire”. Not only will being “live” not keep you from being “stepped on”---it will positively ensure that you will be.

Which one is right?

Well, that's an important question. One that requires the right answer because depending on how you choose, you will live your life in a particular way and suffer the consequences. The practical philosophies that I mentioned above---Greek, Indian, and, Chinese---are all coherent collections of ideas about how you should live your life. They all suggest that it is better to follow a internally consistent series of maxims instead of simply bouncing through life following whatever random ideas your culture (eg my elementary school teacher) chooses to insert into your consciousness. This book is an attempt to expose the reader to one of those schools of practical philosophy:  Daoism. My hope is that some of you will see the great wisdom that I have found that it brought to my life, and how it helps me navigate the day-to-day problems that I face.

And in the case of that woman in the classroom, a Daoist would probably have written “Be like water”. That is, find effective “work arounds” for problems instead of either fighting against them or just doing what everyone else does.


The Different Frames Used to Study Daoism

One of the problems I often see when looking at Daoism is the “frame” that people use to look at it. That is to say, people approach it from a specific viewpoint based on their particular interest or area of expertise. Unfortunately, these folks often have zero appreciatioin of people who come to the subject from a different point of view. The result is often like the parable of the blind men and the elephant:  everyone touches a very different part and comes up with very different ideas about the beast.

For example, people with personal experience as with an individual sect sometimes make very definitive statements about Daoism in general. This is because they don't know anything about other sects (and there are a great many), or, the consensus amongst the scholarly community about its history and literature.

Also, some academics who focus on the culture of Daoism believe that only someone who is fluent in Chinese and who has spent a long time assimilating into traditional Chinese culture can have any affinity to Daoism. Moreover, long study in Daoist Temples under Chinese Daoist masters is essential. Anyone who studies books in translation and follows specific disciplines is merely fooling themselves if they believe that they are really “Daoists”. The problem with this point of view is that it would seem to suggest that there is no objective “trans-cultural” core of Daoist philosophy or value in things like Daoist meditation techniques. It has mere aesthetic interest, but no more ultimate value than an ethnic cuisine or style of dress.

Other folks seem to see Daoism as primarily a mechanism for personal expression. One example of this are the folks who take it upon themselves to write “versions” of the Dao De Jing without educating themselves about the meaning of the original text. Another example are the guys who teach taijiquan as a “artistic dance” without trying to understand it as a martial art and holistic exercise system.

I don't really have much of a problem with any of these approaches as long as they aren't assumed to be the only one that has any legitimacy. Unfortunately, too many folks tend to assume that whoever isn't with them is---by definition---against them. I can see some merit in each of those frames. But in my own case I am approaching Daoism through the frame of philosophy. That is to say, I am looking for the ideas in the entire tradition that have merit and how I can apply them to my everyday life.


Hard Versus Soft, or, Keeping Your Spirit “Whole”

At one point in my taijiquan training I was taught how to take a punch. What I had to do was stand in a particular stance and another student hit me as hard as he could on the chest. If I flinched or tightened up the result was a horrible bruise that would last for weeks. But I learned that if I kept totally relaxed the force of the punch would flow through my rib cage, into my spine, and through my legs and feet into the floor. This isn't a metaphor. I could feel the force flow like an electric current through my body---leaving me totally unharmed.

The soft overcame the hard.

This wasn't the result of some occult power. It was just that the inherent resilience of my bodily structure is enough to avoid injury as long as I don't “freeze” it by tensing my muscles. It's exactly the same principle that a high school chemistry teacher shows when he dips a rubber ball in liquid nitrogen and the shatters it like glass by trying to bounce it off the floor.

Zhuangzi relates that Confucius was once watching a huge cataract:  “No tortoise, alligator, fish or turtle could swim there.” Yet he was surprised to see an old man swimming in the middle of the rapids. Thinking that he had fallen in, Confucius sent his disciples out along the river to try to save him. After a while, this fellow came out of the water on his own, which amazed the sage.
Confucious followed after the man and inquired of him, saying, 

“I thought you were a ghost, but when I looked more closely I saw that you are a man. May I ask if you have a special way for treading the water?
“No, I have no special way. I began with what was innate, grew up with my nature, and completed my destiny. I enter the very centre of the whirlpools and emerge as a companion of the torrent. I follow along with the way of the water and do not impose myself on it. That's how I do my treading.”
“What do you mean by 'began with what was innate, grew up with your nature, and completed your destiny'?” asked Confucious.
“I was born among these hills and feel secure among them---that's what's innate. I grew up in the water and feel secure in it---that's my nature. I do not know why I am like this, yet that's how I am---that's my destiny.”
(Zhuangzi, “Outer Chapters”, “Understanding Life”, Section Eight, Victor Mair trans.)
Instead of fighting against the current, the old man flowed with it. When the current pushed him away from his destination, he let himself go with it. When it pushed him towards it, he added a few strokes. Before long, he arrived where he wanted to go.

Being soft is not the same thing as being weak. Instead, it about being “non-resisting”.

And non-resisting is not about just deciding to be non-resistant. Tensing up before the fist hits you is not a voluntary response---it is instinctive. So being “soft” requires more than just a conscious decision, it requires a revolution in your being. Zhuangzi talks about this at length. He has Liezi (a master of the Dao) ask another sage (Director Yin) about what is required.
“The ultimate man can walk under water without drowning, can tread upon fire without feeling hot, and can soar above the myriad things without fear. May I ask how he achieves this?”
“It's because he guards the purity of his vital breath,” said Director Yin, “it's not a demonstration of his expertise or daring.
He goes on to give a revealing example.
“If a drunk falls from a carriage, even if it is going very fast, he will not die. His bones and joints are the same as those of other people, but the injuries he receives are different. It's because his spirit is whole. He was not aware of getting into the carriage, nor was he aware of falling out of it. Life and death, alarm and fear do not enter his breast. Therefore, he confronts things without apprehension. If someone who has gotten his wholeness from wine is like this, how much more so would one be who gets his wholeness from heaven! The sage hides within his heavenly qualities, thus nothing can harm him...”
(Zhuangzi, “Understanding Life”, Part Two, Mair trans)

Yet another example comes from a boatman.

Yen YƱan inquired of Confucius,saying,
”When I was crossing the gulf of Goblet Deep, the ferryman handled the boat like a spirit. I asked him about it, saying, 'Can handling a boat be learned?' 'Yes', said he, 'good swimmers can learn quickly. As for divers, they can handle a boat right away without ever having seen one.' I asked him why this was so, but he didn't tell me. I venture to ask what you think he meant.”
“A good swimmer can learn quickly because he forgets about the water,” said Confucius. “As for a diver being able to handle a boat right away without ever having seen one, it's because he regards the watery depths as if they were a mound and the capsizing of a boat as if it were the rolling back of a carriage. Capsizing and rolling back could unfold a myriad times before him without affecting his heart, so he is relaxed wherever he goes.”
Confucius then goes on and gives another example that stresses the importance of keeping your “spirit whole”

“He who competes for a piece of tile displays all of his skill;  he competes for a belt buckle gets nervous;  he who competes for gold gets flustered. His skill is still the same, but there is something that distracts him and causes him to focus on externals. Whoever focuses on externals will be clumsy inside.”
(Zhuangzi, “Understanding Life”, Part Three, Mair trans)
The archer who is competing for a prize is not afraid of drowning or getting nasty bruises. But his mind is distracted from the act of shooting his bow by considering what he would do with his prize. This is the point of the following apocryphal story:
A martial arts student went to his teacher and said earnestly, “I am devoted to studying your martial system. How long will it take me to master it.”
The teacher’s reply was casual, “Ten years.” Impatiently, the student answered, “But I want to master it faster than that. I will work very hard. I will practice everyday, ten or more hours a day if I have to. How long will it take then?”
The teacher thought for a moment, “20 years.”

Being “soft” instead of “hard” is a relatively easy concept to understand. But how one becomes truly “soft” is not. “Hardness” involves separating yourself from the universe (or Dao) around you. That punching exercise that I introduced this section was not called “taking a punch” in my school, but rather “exchanging energy”. It was not considered a skill that was to be developed to protect you in a fight, but a way of helping one another to develop a deeper understanding of the Dao.


So I'd like some help here on my book.  Should I try to sell it to a publisher? Or should I self-publish? And if I do self-publish, what do you think would be a fair price for an e-book?  Make a comment on the blog or email me at .  


Isabeau Vollhardt said...

I can definitely recommend -- I looked at several other e-book publishers before I chose them (can't remember if I looked at Lulu or not). They've got extensive tutorials on how to format your document, guidelines on pricing, options on how much of the book is available as a free sample, you can create free coupons at any time (they last for 1 month) and use them for reviewer copies and such. Their royalty structure is fair and you retain rights to your work to subsequently publish elsewhere. They also have guidelines for your cover art. When I uploaded the first time, I had a problem where their site wouldn't read the coding at the start of my document (because I had converted it from WordPerfect to MS Word). They were extremely helpful in changing that formatting so that I could successfully upload. I'm going to be epub'ing my 4th book with them sometime in the next couple months.

CrisisOfFaith said...

I would also recommend publishing it yourself.

You could use a service like combined with Lulu for physical printing. But actually run a similar print-on-demand service for their e-books. You have the full global reach of their platform, and you can offer a physical book.

As for the actual book, I'd like to offer you something to think about: give the book 'an angle'. Daoism is a difficult subject and even more so to make practical, so try not to produce something that is too academic, or abstract.

Take "The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari" for instance: it was written in such an accessible way that complete strangers were discussing it around me in airports as I waited for flights around the world. His angle: one man's life transformation, and if not completely understood by every one it was easily digested because it was a narrative describing a life enriching transformation.

Good luck.