Friday, December 29, 2017

Scary Monsters and Crazy, Dangerous Worlds

It's been a vacation time for me lately. Part of that has been some total sloth binge-watching Netflix. In particular, I've been immersing myself in "Marvel's Agents of Shield". For those of you who don't follow such stuff, "SHIELD" is an enormous, incredibly well-funded, secret police agency who's task is to protect the entire world's population from the dangerous "super people" who keep popping up in the alternative "Marvel universe".

Watching episode 7 of the 3rd season of the series I heard a little speech by Rosalind Price---a US intelligence leader---talking about how scary it is to live in a world with "super people".

This is a really interesting conversation because Rosalind pretty much embodies the naive fear that people routinely express about any number of issues our society has trouble dealing with. I say "naive" because she is completely oblivious to the danger that she represents to the rest of the world. She suggests that Daisy (the younger woman---who has a super power) can "bring down the plane" and "kill Rosalind", without contemplating the fact that Rosalind can kill Daisy and bring down the plane too. After all, she is a trained killer who carries a gun. Moreover, she ignores the fact that she is the head of a secret police agency that routinely kicks in people's doors, drags them out at gun point, puts them into a coma and warehouses them indefinitely, and, has no compunction at all about shooting people who refuse to comply with their orders. (Heck, that dear plane that they are flying in can also shoot rockets and drop bombs, if you really want to get into it.)

As if it isn't loony enough that it appears that something like 20% of the world's Gross Domestic Product in the Marvel universe seems to be devoted to funding secret police agencies, there is plenty of evidence that plain old, garden-variety human nastiness is still around. The big enemy of SHIELD is a group of neo-NAZIs called "Hydra" (it has the cool slogan "cut off one head and another will grow to replace it"), led by some very nasty villains who were obviously based on folks like Josef Mengele. They like to dirty their hands in stuff like recruiting and brainwashing super-villains, but the concept works even without all this "alternative universe" stuff. It's obvious that there's no sense having to invent a new, hypothetical way of being evil when you can draw on the Niagara Falls of horror known as the Holocaust.

For heaven's sake, the world doesn't need "super heroes" and "super villains" to be an insanely dangerous place, science plus politics is more than enough to come up with nuclear war, genocide, climate change, etc. Can Marvel comics come up with a scenario as nightmare-inducing as Donald Trump in control of the nuclear football? I don't think that the writers of this tv show really have thought through how insanely vicious things like hydrogen bombs and nerve gas really are, or else they'd feel a little sheepish about the "devilish devices" dreamed up by the guys at Hydra. A disk that you throw that can turn you into rock? That's really nothing compared to nerve gas---a single drop of which on the skin is deadly.


The point I'm trying to work towards is that the world is an insanely dangerous place. It always has been. It has always been the case that politics can go bad very fast. The Mongols or Vikings or British Empire can show up, and you end up dead or a slave, and, your entire society being plucked and devoured like the Christmas turkey. You don't even need outsiders. Some bad political events can happen and you end up with a long-term catastrophe like the Wars of the Roses (the real-life inspiration for the Game of Thrones series.)

Plucking the Red and White Roses in the Old Temple Gardens
(1908) by Henry Arthur Payne
Yup, a bunch of toffs pick flowers and hordes of peasants die
Public Domain Image c/o Wiki-Commons
Do I really need to mention religion? If you don't know why I would say that, do some reading on the "Thirty Years War". It killed off half the population of the German nation. It also inspired some very interesting art.

The Hanging by Jacques Callot
More public domain goodness from the Wiki Commons
If you want to talk about crazy behaviour inspired by fear of "the other", nothing really compares to terror of heretics by fundamentalists. (Something to think about in our current political climate.)


This blog post isn't meant to an attack on "Agents of Shield". I actually really enjoy the show. But the role that Marvel plays in our society is that it allows people to work through the "big issues" that face us as human beings. It is the equivalent of the myths and legends that people used to tell around the hearth when it was too dark to work. As such, it creates a common language and more emotionally neutral way of discussing issues that are terribly important to all of us---but often so fundamentally terrible that people have a hard time talking about them.

And yeah, the basic fragility of life and human society is one of those things that people fool themselves into ignoring because they find the idea too scary to contemplate. We are all somewhat like Rosalind Price---up to our eyeballs in a vicious, dangerous, nasty world yet somehow deluded into thinking that in some way it is safe and stable. It is one of those key, important truths of Daoism that this is just a fantasy. The only thing that is constant is change. The Dao is totally indifferent to the suffering of humans, it treats us like "straw dogs".

This isn't to say that we need to become indifferent to suffering, just that any kindness or compassion that exists comes about because we choose to show it to others---not because it is intrinsic to the way things are. It also should teach us that we need to savour every moment (ie: hold onto the One), because it really may be our last chance to do so.


Yeah. More blue type. Just remember that "creatives" need to eat too. We're happy to share with folks that can't afford to toss something in the tip jar. But if you can, think about doing so. If not for this blog, maybe someone else's. If you think that you gained some insight or even wisdom from my words, how about tossing me a buck? 

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

What is a Martial Art?

When someone asks me "what is a martial art?" I generally wax on about the spiritual benefits of a sustained discipline aimed at excellence:  kung fu. But in this post I want to talk specifically about the practical, self-defense element. This is a very small part of why anyone should pursue a martial art---the health and spiritual gains are far, far more important. But I do think that it is useful to think about self-defense, primarily because it is a way of understanding a little more about what life is all about. If nothing else, I'd like to try and "push back" against some of the silly notions I routinely hear expressed.


The first thing people should get rid of is the notion that self-defense oriented schools of martial arts should be about training people to become all-powerful super ninja soldiers. (Or at least, Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) champions.) This is nonsense. The real background of martial arts for self-defense is about giving weak, relatively soft, moderately wealthy people an "edge" in confrontations with lower class ruffians.

Consider the following scenario. An 18th century fop bumps into a street thug while brothel crawling in England. The thug is a lot tougher and stronger than the fop, and he carries a strong oak cudgel. All the fop has is a small-sword that looks like a toy---plus the fencing lessons his wealthy dad insisted that he take when he was a teen. The thug assumes that his greater strength and experience brawling, plus the longer reach of the cudgel gives him an edge. And it might, if he had ever taken the lessons that the fop has. 

An 18th Century Small Sword of the Sort that Fops wore
But he hasn't. He tries to hit the fop, over-extends, and the fop curls around him, moves in close, and drives his small sword into his heart, killing him. The fop used terrible technique, and if the thug had ever practiced against someone using this move, it would never have worked. But the move is totally new to the thug, and he will never have a chance to learn how to counteract it because he is dead. The fop now vomits into the gutter, runs home, changes his clothes, and tries to sleep. The next day he hires the fencing master to learn new lessons and also to teach his son---whom he now absolutely insists on taking these lessons seriously. Moreover, in conversations with friends and family, he convinces a couple others to also hire the fencing master too.


(I suppose I should put a disclaimer in here. Some people automatically think "Eastern" when the phrase "martial arts" comes up. This is nonsense. Europe and other parts of the world all have martial arts traditions of one sort or another. Sword fighting is sword fighting, stick fighting is stick fighting, etc, and once they advance beyond mere thrashing around, intense competition will create cultural systems that fine tune people's abilities to a very fine level. That's what a martial art is, whether it's fencing, boxing, or, taijiquan.)


The thing to understand about this situation is that fights are often games of "rock, paper, scissors". People talk about about winning fights as being a question of being better than the other guy. But the real way to win a fight is to pit your strengths against the other guy's weakness. In the case of the fop versus the thug, the fop had two strengths that he could pit against the thug's weaknesses. The thug was poor, so he had never been able to train with a fancy fencing coach. Moreover, he was uneducated and low class, so he'd never actually seen how fencing works or been exposed to its theory (like I'm explaining in this blog post.) The fop, on the other hand, was well aware of the fact that he was nowhere near as strong as the thug---and that in an equal, "fair" fight he was doomed. So he played rock to the thug's scissors, or, he played his strengths against the thug's weakness.

In the above clip Butch Cassidy isn't playing any specific fighting skill against the thug's inherent strength and supposed superior knife-fighting skill. But he was playing superior tactical skill against the thug. He first gained the support of the on-lookers by asking about rules and got the thug to accept the lack of them. This means that if he bested the thug he would have settled the larger political issue (ie: "who's the boss of the gang?") and wouldn't have to return to the issue because people carped that "you didn't fight fair". Then, he used a superior knowledge of what chess and martial arts call "tempo" in order to get the first punch in, which created a position of superiority and never allowed the thug to recover from it.


Now I use the terms "soft" and "rich" above in a very limited sense. I don't mean that it is a good thing in the martial arts to be "soft" (in the sense of being physically weak.) Nor do I suggest that only the super rich could learn them either. But I am saying that martial arts are very useful for people who aren't really strong to begin with---even though strength does help you if you want to get good at martial arts. And wealth is only an issue up to the point where you are wealthy enough to be able to pay for lessons and have enough leisure to practice. Really poor people---no matter how strong---often simply don't have the time to be able to practice, even if they could find someone to teach them. 

The sort of guys who taught me taijiquan---Daoshi---and Shaolin monks are not, strictly speaking "soft", "wealthy" people. But they aren't hardened, poverty-stricken peasants, either. They specifically had educational opportunities and leisure time that allowed them to learn things that peasants would never have learned. Of course, not all Buddhist monks or Daoshi learn martial arts, but enough of them did in old China that ruffians would probably think twice before they attacked them. (Their general poverty also made them somewhat not worth the effort, which was probably more important.)


Years ago I used to write lots of free copy for very profitable newspapers in the belief that it was just enough to see my words in print. I know realize that I was doing a disservice to the reporters who were working hard to dig up news. I still write mostly for free, but now I usually put a note in the text reminding people that we really do need to come up with a mechanism for rewarding "creatives" for the work they do. I get a few dollars now and then, pretty much all of which ends up being spent to support other creatives that I support. And I don't mind if people who cannot afford to help out read for free. But if you do have extra money jingling in your pocket, think about making a donation or buying a book.  


Another issue that I should probably deal with comes from the relationship between the martial arts and the military. In modern times hand-to-hand fighting is pretty much irrelevant for most soldiers. Modern weapons ensure that most battles are settled long before people get close enough to throw a punch. You cannot dodge or deflect a bullet, bomb or IED.

Having said that, many people believe that ancient battles were different. If you watch a lot of movies you would be excused for thinking that a battle simply involved a lot of people fighting one-on-one from one side to another. Surely martial arts would help with that? Not really. From ancient to modern times soldiers didn't fight one-on-one, but rather as units. One popular drama that does understand this point to some extent is "Game of Thrones". (I've never seen it, but I have heard others talk about this on YouTube.) Take a look at this video that explains something called the "battle of the bastards". 

You can have all the grooviest martial moves in the planet, but if your general orders you into a cauldron and then the other guy shoots huge numbers of arrows at you, you are going to die. And, if you get stuck in the middle of a bunch of guys with big shields, heavy armor, and, spears, and you have none of these things, you are toast too. Moreover, if in the middle of all this insanity a bunch of heavy cavalry show up from nowhere and attack you in the rear while you are busy slaughtering their friends---you are toast too. (Not to mention if you manage to get into a castle and a giant arrives to smash in the doors.)

This "fantasy" tv show is probably the most accurate vision of ancient battle that I have ever seen anywhere, and it clearly illustrates that soldiers are not martial artists. Instead, they are just cogs in a giant machine who have almost no control at all about whether they live or die. All they can do is what they are told and hope for the best. So let's just discard the idea that soldiers have anything at all to do with martial arts.


In terms of taijiquan---the martial art I know a little about---the "strength" that a person with some training brings to a fight is the insight that being relaxed can be a good defense against some attacks. There is also the point that if you get in close to someone a lot of strikes (punches and kicks) become harder to land. And, if you know a little bit about how to lock someone's joints and where the balance points in the body are, you can move around people that might even be a lot stronger than you. If the other guy has never come across anyone who knows about these things, it might give you a momentary advantage in a fight---just like the fop with his small sword. Obviously, the more and better you train in these techniques, the better you will be. But you don't have to be "Yang the Invincible" to get value from the art, simply because the person you get into a fight with is probably not going to be terribly good at fighting either. 

More importantly, by thinking about the Dao and the subtle ways in which the world operates, you will gain greater insight into all the different ways in which delusion colours and distorts our understanding of the world around us---including self-defense. This will help you in ways that go far beyond the outside chance of meeting someone in a dark alley who wishes to do you harm. (More likely, it will keep you out of that dark alley in the first place.)

Monday, December 4, 2017

What does a Fake Smile Say About How we Treat Women?

Part of my life involves trying to "hold onto the One" as much as possible. This involves trying to pay careful attention to everything in both the world around me and my consciousness. If you do this, you start to notice subtleties that you would miss otherwise.

One thing that I notice that I find somewhat creepy is the "smile mask" that a some women wear. I walk along the street and sometimes this involves looking at the faces of other people. When I do this, I sometimes see that a woman notices me and instantly breaks out a fake smile. It's too fast to be a conscious choice. Nor, I suspect is it a spontaneous statement about how nice it is to see my face. Instead, I strongly suspect, it is a conditioned response. A lot of women have been trained to smile---just like Pavlov's dog was conditioned to salivate whenever he rang a bell.

I suspect that there are two cultural factors at work here. First, being a part of the service economy, being friendly and out-going has ceased to be a personality quirk and instead become a condition of employment. A smile isn't a genuine expression of happiness anymore, it's a necessary activity at your place of employment.

The second element is the socialization process that a lot of girls and young women are subjected to. This is so much of a thing that I found a blog post devoted to this issue. It starts by talking about the author's personal experience of being a woman:
It’s early, and I’m only half awake as I walk down the street to the bus stop. I walk past a group of people going the opposite direction; a man comes towards me to say, “Hey, why aren’t you smiling?” It takes a while before I realize what just happened. I keep walking as I hear him mutter something less nice about me. I feel violated, as if my feelings have been taken ransom. Whatever emotion I have or choose to show is suddenly not mine but for the rest of the world to consider and qualify. What would happen if I chose to smile at the request of that stranger? Would he take my response as a signal for him to try his advances at me? Does my refusal to comply mean I'm the stuck-up bitch he claims I am?
From the blog "Culturacolectiva",
by Maria Suarez

Am I making too big a deal about this? I don't know. I like people who smile and are nice to me just as much as the next guy. But I also like people who are "real" and let me know exactly what they are thinking about things. And I have also met a lot of people who have learned (or maybe a more accurate way of saying it would be "have been trained") to pay so much attention to what other people think of them that they find it impossible to express any emotions that they feel are negative. Can these women who involuntarily smile when I look into their eyes tell a man what they really feel? Or have they internalized a way of relating to men so deeply that they simply can no longer do so?


Time to use blue font and put out my begging bowl.

I suspect that most people think that mendicant monks beg for food only because they are hungry. But that isn't really true. Monks beg because it is something that forces them to put themselves in the position of being at the lowest rung of human society. It forces them to understand what it is like to be totally at the mercy of others. Being a monk is an extremely high-status thing in most Eastern countries, which means that forcing them to beg and having lay people decide what goes into the bowl "inverts" the relationship. It helps both sides of the equation realize that monks are just human beings like everyone else. A Western Zen master, Bernie Glassman, goes to the point of having "street retreats" where he forces middle-class students hand over everything that identifies them, put on rough old clothes, and, force them to beg for food on the streets of American cities---posing as homeless people. He feels that this does a better job of "blowing up" their preconceived notions than a day of intense Zen meditation.

It's the same thing when a creative person puts out an "ask" for support on a Patreon account. You stop being an independent thinker who is above all that stuff and put yourself in the position of being a "money grubber" just like any other human being in a capitalist society. It also puts the reader in the situation of realizing that the piece they are reading isn't something that comes from a "groovy intellectual", but instead arrives from a specific person who has many of the same problems that you do---including how to pay the rent. Nowadays part of that distance is the idea that"all content on the Web should be free".

So if you can, think about making even a token contribution---a dollar a month on Patreon helps. Buy a book. Share the link with friends if you think it is good. And if you really can't afford anything, that's fine too. The monk blesses the person who wants to fill the bowl but cannot offer a copper more than the person who gives a token amount out of their extreme excess. 


I've heard that there is something called a "repressed memory" that keeps people from being able to remember traumatic experiences. I don't know how that would work, but I can attest to there being a totally different situation where you cannot escape a memory---it haunts you day and night---but it is so painful that it is impossible to express to another human being. What happens to people who have to present a pleasant, happy visage to other people that it has become the "default" and they have to force themselves to express their true emotions? 

In Japan a new medical condition has been identified which they call "Smile Mask Syndrome" (SMS). A psychologist first noticed this when she found students who were still smiling and wearing their "happy face" when relating especially painful experiences. Our facial expressions and body language are so important to our ability to communicate with others, it must really screw up our self-image and inter-personal relationships if you have been trained to smile and be happy looking when you are crying inside. Indeed, SMS seems to be associated with depression and physical illness.

I'm kinda lucky in my job because it's the sort of work that is diametrically opposed to this sort of thing. I have to yell at people, look furious, and threaten people with physical arrest. The "happy face" management style just doesn't work when you end up calling the cops and having someone put into handcuffs. (Although that sort of work also takes its toll---I've felt pretty awful some nights after having to deal with a "problem patron".) But truth be told, I'd much rather risk getting my lights punched out than ending up with a permanent "happy face" glued over my real one. 

Friday, November 17, 2017

Hard and Easy Paths to Realization

A long time ago I had a conversation with a Zen priest. It was when I was still much more engaged in "cloud-walking" (ie: finding out spiritual people from various traditions to see what I can learn from them) than I am today. Someone mentioned him to me, and it turned out that he worked as a sculpture technician in the fine-arts building right next to library where I work. So there was no excuse not to seek him out.

He was a gruff old man who was very close to retirement. He'd gone to Korea as a soldier during the war and ended up staying on in one of the Temples. I mentioned that I was interested in Zen and he did his best to discourage me. Transcendental meditation was, he opined, a much easier way to find some wisdom in life. He said that there was a temple in Toronto, but I had to be "hard core" or they'd simply throw me out the front door. This is a fairly standard trope from Zen---it's not supposed to be an easy way to gain realization.


Teachers have tended to create easier forms of gaining wisdom "for the masses". These include things like reciting mantras

and performing devotional rituals.

These are very standard moves across all religions. Christianity emphasizes devotional practices, but it also has most of the others too. For example, there is a tradition of chanting in Eastern Orthodoxy that is focused on repeating the mantra "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a poor sinner". (The Eastern Church usually says that this is nothing like Eastern chanting, but that's nonsense.)

People practicing a specific posture in a Hatha Yoga class
Photo by"Trollderella", c/o the Wikicommons
Mention "yoga" to most people, and they will probably think of something like the above picture. This is what is known as hatha yoga, which has recently become something of a fad. (I will speak of it no more.) But the actual word "yoga" means something like the word "kung fu", a diligent practice that is used to gain insight and knowledge. It has a slightly different emphasis, though. "Yoga" comes from the same root word as "yoke", so the emphasis is on committing yourself to a certain practice or path. (Sanskrit and European languages come from the same source, so there are similarities like this for certain words.) "Kung fu", in contrast, emphasizes the individual's hard work leading to personal excellence or realization.

Indian spiritual teachers have codified the different spiritual "tactics", or "yogas", or "kung fus" one can follow in pursuit of spiritual insight and named them accordingly. Chanting correlates with Japa Yoga, devotional practices correlate with Bhakti Yoga, the route of good works (think Gandhi) is called Karma Yoga, ritual is covered by Tantra Yoga. I'd suggest that Zen is most like Jnana Yoga, or, "the path of knowledge".


The path of knowledge exists in opposition to the path of devotion or ritual. It's about actually knowing the truth instead of having faith or being a loving person. This is an important point, and one I rarely see spelled out in any detail.

Personally, I've always been consumed by wanting to know things. This isn't just a question of curiosity. More importantly---for me at least---it's a strong ethical commitment to the idea that we shouldn't make decisions without finding out the truth that underlies the situation. This has made me the "odd man out" for most of my life because I tend to get absolutely furious with people who are quite happy to "fudge the facts" or even lie in order to get their way. This recently came home to me in an argument I had with some folks about a Canadian academic who has been spreading a bald-faced lie about an abstruse part of Canadian governance in order to whip right-wing Americans into a frenzy. The result has been that this guy seems to have made a fortune on social media and public speaking engagements convincing people that Canada is on the verge of being taken over by radical Muslims.

My argument is that this sort of behaviour should be grounds for dismissing this guy from his tenured university position and revoking his Phd---along the lines of taking away a doctor's license for malpractice. The response by most people has been to suggest that I have a screw loose and I simply don't understand the importance of freedom of speech, and, tenure. What I'd argue is that yes, I do understand the importance of free speech, but these folks don't understand how much damage fake news can have on the lives of innocent people. A small percentage of people actually believe this stuff when they hear it and believe that they need to take action. The result are terrorist attacks on Muslims, like the recent one in Quebec City that killed six and wounded nineteen others.


I raised the above example not because I want to rehash the issues of "fake news" and the tremendous resurgence of Fascist demagoguery our society is currently going through, but simply because I wanted to point out a strange way in which my mental processes are different from almost everyone else. That is, I do not blame the person who picks up a gun and shoots others nearly as much as I blame the person who bombarded the shooter with propaganda about the perfidy of the victims in order to raise money or promote a political agenda. At least the shooter has the courage of his convictions. But the propagandist may not---and I suspect often doesn't---really believe what he is saying, but just does so to take advantage of the gullible.

In effect, I am making the same point that the Gospels make in Matthew 7:15, "Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves." 

Later on, Christ also makes a very strong statement in a similar vein. When asked "Who is the greatest in Heaven's domain?", he replies that saying that it is the people who are like little children. But then he goes on to say that
"Those who entrap one of these little trusting souls would be better off to have millstones hung around their necks and be drowned in the deepest part of the sea!" (Matthew 18:1-6, Scholar's Version of the Gospels)

If this wasn't strong enough, Jesus goes on to curse the people who try to fool the gullible.

"Dam the world for the traps it sets! Even though it's inevitable for traps to be set, nevertheless, damn the person who sets such traps." (Matthew 18:7) 

Looking at these quotes from the Gospels has got me thinking. I've never wanted to put a millstone around the neck of one of these Alt-right propaganda types---but I have contemplated tying ropes attached to cement blocks around their necks and tossing them through holes cut in the ice covering Lake Ontario. (I was actually startled to realize that Jesus's level of rage is comparable to my own. Wow!)

The point I'm trying to make is that the sort of deep, crazy anger that I (and presumably Jesus, too---I can't get over that) have against the "Grima Wormtongues" of politics and social media is actually quite rare. In fact, I've found that most people not only can't understand why I get so upset about this stuff, they are often genuinely concerned about me and the "crazy ideas" that I hold. I suspect that part of the reason is that people simply cannot see the incredible damage this sort of thing can cause. I suppose that ultimately, it's like a good chess player who can see how awful a play is because he looks several moves ahead. The bad player simply doesn't understand what all the fuss is about. In the same way, for example, I get crazy angry about what is going to happen to other people in the future because of climate change, whereas the folks who can't see this just think I am flipping out about absolutely nothing.


So what has this got to do with Zen Buddhism and Bhakti yoga?

Well, the path of knowledge really is too difficult for most people to follow. It involves a constant struggle to fight against your preconceived notions and to stare totally honestly into the face of reality and accept what you see---no matter what. In Zen the mythical story of Bodhidharma staring at the wall of cave for years in order to deepen his understanding illustrates the awful effort that you have to put into tearing away all your illusions.

Bodhidharma staring at the wall
I got the picture from a site without attribution,
But it said it was from the middle ages, so I'm assuming it's public domain.
This sort of horrible, painful effort is common in most religions. Christ on his cross, Daoist stories about students being boiled alive by their masters, even Gandalf's fight with the Balrog from Lord of the Rings, are all metaphors for the enormous struggle that has to be fought in the pursuit of wisdom. But where the path of wisdom parts from others is that the people who follow it often do not encourage their followers to embark on the same journey---they suggest something easier. That's what my neighbour the Zen priest was doing. He was trying to discourage interest in Zen and suggested something easier: transcendental meditation.

Even transcendental meditation is too hard for many people, though. That is why religions instead turn towards the paths of faith and devotion. "Faith" is the idea that we simply have to have hope that it all makes sense in one way or another. If life is a terrible horror for most people, have faith that there is a life after death and everyone gets their just rewards there. Or if that doesn't work, have faith that there is a great God in the sky who's great intelligence is so beyond us, that he sees a way in which it all does make sense. If faith doesn't work for you, there's always devotion. You school yourself to love god or the church or the rituals so much that everything else becomes of secondary importance. The point of faith and devotion is to stop even trying to make sense of things, because it just hurts too much to make the effort.

I can understand this. Most people don't have the time or inclination to put their entire life into the process of gaining wisdom. I put in ten years studying philosophy. I've spent enormous amounts of time meditating, meeting with spiritual teachers, going on retreats, reading sacred and philosophical texts, studying martial arts, etc. Most folks would rather have a career, raise a family, travel, etc. For them the path of knowledge is simply not a "live option".
A proud young man came to Socrates asking for wisdom. He walked up to him and said, “O great Socrates, I come to you for wisdom.” Socrates, recognizing a pompous fool when he saw one, led him down to the sea and took him chest deep into the water. Then he asked him, “What did you say you wanted?” “Wisdom, O great Socrates,” said the young man.
Socrates put his strong hands on the man’s shoulders and pushed him under. Thirty seconds later Socrates let him up. “What do you want?” he asked again. “Wisdom,” the young man sputtered, “O great and wise Socrates.” Socrates pushed him under again. Thirty seconds, thirty-five, forty – then Socrates let him up. The man was gasping. “What do you want, young man?”
Between heavy breaths the fellow wheezed, “Wisdom! O wise and wonderful…” Socrates jammed him under again – forty seconds passed then fifty – then he let him up. “What do you want?” “Air!” the young man yelled. “I need air!”  “When you want wisdom as much as you have just wanted air, then you will begin to find wisdom.” 
(Quote from a blog that I don't endorse, but this is a widely used apocryphal story and this version is just as good as any other for the purposes of this post.)


I can remember when I was "cloudwalking" with Roman Catholics that this decision to pursue knowledge instead of faith was always an unbridgeable crevasse that separated me from them. They simply couldn't understand my commitment to knowledge, and for a long time I couldn't understand their insistence on faith. The other day I woke up with an insight simply about how much different my life would have been if I hadn't had that bizarre obsession with wisdom that Socrates talks about in the above story.

Wisdom is a funny thing. My experience is that it always comes at the price of suffering. Even if it isn't the result of having a particularly painful experience, I have found that deep realization often comes from a period of something very like depression. What happens is that for days I feel deeply introverted and unhappy with life, but then a moment comes when the clouds part and I understand some deep mystery of life that has perplexed me for a long, long time. John of the Cross called this "the dark night of the soul", Saint Ignatius called this process "desolation followed by consolation". My dear sweet wife simply calls it the alternation of Yin and Yang.

John Stuart Mill
Image c/o Wiki Commons,
a pretty smart guy.

The question of happiness and the pursuit of wisdom is something that a lot of people have thought about. It is especially relevant to Utilitarians, or, the school of philosophy that says that moral issues can be settled by creating the greatest amount of good (ie: "utility") for the greatest number of people. One of its founders, John Stuart Mill, raised the wisdom question in the following way:
 “It is indisputable that the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low, has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfied; and a highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness which he can look for, as the world is constituted, is imperfect. But he can learn to bear its imperfections, if they are at all bearable; and they will not make him envy the being who is indeed unconscious of the imperfections, but only because he feels not at all the good which those imperfections qualify. 
It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is only because they only know their own side of the question.” (Utilitarianism)
The important point here is "they only know their own side of the question". That's why realization is so mysterious. You either get it or you don't.

It's even worse than that. A few people are "fated" to seek knowledge, but most don't. When I was talking to that Zen priest all those years ago, I mentioned something about having had a wild, weird childhood that shattered any illusions I might have had about ordinary life. He instantly responded with "that's just the price of admission" and mentioned his time in the Korean war. (No specifics, but I suspect that he saw some bad craziness. My understanding is that the Canadian contingent got more than it's fair share.) This is where the issue of "fate" or "karma" kicks in. Some people are like Socrates and need knowledge the same way most people need air. Most folks just aren't like that. They are content to just rely upon faith or devotion.


I understand why people lean upon faith. A lot of very bad things happen in life and if it doesn't make any sense (and, to be honest, a lot really doesn't---life is absurd.) It can be a tremendously useful strategy to simply force yourself to assume that it all makes sense and go from there. And devotion is simply a variation in that theme. "Jesus loves me this I know, 'cause the Bible tells me so---". You can't love God unless you have faith that he exists and gives a damn about you and your petty concerns.

But if you hear a particularly scary story about climate change, or you get bummed out because of some horrible atrocity being committed against people on the other side of the planet, or watch YouTube and some horribly trained police officer kills someone, or read about some corporation fudging research to get a dangerous medicine put on the market, or,----you fill in the blank----you still have to wake up in the morning, put your boots on, and, head off to work. Lots of people just don't bother paying attention to the world around them. Lots of others don't really care all that much about what happens to other people. But there are still lots of sensitive types who get upset about this kind of stuff and they don't know how to deal with the pain. For them, faith can be a tremendously good thing because it helps them continue to be functional in a world that they experience as a never-ending horror show.

I finally get the appeal of faith. But it simply doesn't work for me. My mind just isn't designed to work that way. That's why I'm a Daoist who is committed to the path of knowledge instead of the path of faith or devotion. We need people to seek out knowledge because that is how our society moves forward. But I also suspect that we also need people who have faith to keep the the wheels moving.


Out comes the begging bowl. Believe me, I probably hate writing these "asks" more than you do reading them. But if I don't remind people that the guys who tap their fingers on the keyboards and rack their brains coming up with the ideas deserve to make some money too, we continue to support the illusion that all this stuff on the Internet just comes for "free". Not likely. And the guys who do the coding and work on the advertising, and the managers and investors that stand behind them, certainly aren't working for free. In fact, they are making astronomical profits. Do you like that? If not, then remember to support the "creatives" in the best way you can. Toss something in the tip jar, do a little subscription, buy a book, or, just tell your "friends" on social media that they might like to read this blog.  

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Courage, Language and Daoist Literature

I've recently watched two movies for "old souls":  Logan, and, Arrival.

For those of you who haven't watched the films, here's a brief synopsis---spoilers follow, if you care about such things.


A cosplayer representing the Wolverine,
photo c/o the Wiki Commons
Logan is set in the Marvel X-Men universe, and the Logan of the title is Logan Howlett:  the Wolverine. The twist is that this is a dystopian version of that universe, one in which private corporations have released a genetically engineered virus into the environment to stop any new "mutants" from occurring naturally. This allows them to use their stockpile of samples from the existing mutants to create their own altered human beings to use for experiments to create "super soldiers".

At the same time, Charles Xavier ("Professor X") has developed a debilitating form of brain disease that manifests itself in occasional seizures that affect the people around him because of his psychic abilities.  In the past one of these seizures killed off most of the remaining mutants.  This leaves only Wolverine and Caliban---who have to keep him doped-up on heavy meds to prevent future seizures---to take care of him in an isolated, abandoned metal recycling facility in Mexico.  Logan supports this crappy lifestyle by working as a limo driver for bored, rich teens in the USA.

For those of you who have never read Marvel comics (I suppose some of you still exist), the Wolverine has the ability to heal almost instantly from any wound. He is also very, very strong. The ability to heal has kept him from aging, which means that he is at least a couple of hundred years old. Through most of that time, he was used by the government in one way or another. During both world wars, for example, the Canadian government used him as a soldier. When the American government learned of his abilities, they performed experiments on him to learn how to control him, and replaced his bones (and claws) with a special super-metal called "adamantium" (which only exists in fiction.) This made him into a weapon that is impervious to almost anything. It was Charles, "Doctor X", who saved him from this life.

Unfortunately, the adamantium is also poisonous. And at the time of this movie, it is finally over-whelming Logan's innate healing ability. It is making him an old man, and, it is killing him. Logan is in constant pain, which he tries to deal with by almost constant drinking. He also limps.  And coughs, almost constantly.

A plot and drama ensued, but that's really not what I'm interested in.


I said that this is a movie for "old souls".  What I meant was that I can really identify with Logan. I am in significant pain at times, which I do self-medicate with by alcohol. I also limp. And I also cough, a lot.

One other thing that matters in the movie is the relationship between Logan and Professor X. Charles Xavier (played the incomparable Patrick Stewart), is a paraplegic and confined to a wheel chair. Underneath the gruff, macho exterior it is very obvious that The Wolverine loves this man very deeply. He works at a job he loathes to provide for him. And no matter what happens in the movie, the first thing he does is look out for Xavier's needs. When Xavier is eventually murdered by one of the super-soldiers (who looks just like a young version of Logan), he collapses emotionally. At this point, he ends up being taken care of my a young girl who was also created to be a super soldier, but who managed to escape due to help by nurses at the research facility.

The old macho guy who's always had to fight turned into a nurse maid for a beloved father figure. And who also ends up being nurtured by a young girl. Like I said, a story for old souls.

Eventually, Logan dies. And in the process the girl he's the genetic father of, and who he's saved, is crying at his side---calling him "daddy". His last words are "so this is what it feels like".  When I heard the words I knew that on one level the script was referring to dying. But my immediate response was to think that this is what it feels like to be vulnerable, to care about others to the point of  making yourself vulnerable to extreme, horrible emotional pain, and, to accept that others can feel the same way about you.

As I said, a movie for old souls.


For those of you who haven't seen Arrival, it deals with a linguistics professor who's been asked to help the government learn how to communicate with an alien species that has just arrived on the planet (called the "Heptapods"---for their seven tentacles.) Unlike most science fiction shows that gloss over the difficulty of learning the language of a totally different intelligent species, this movie bears down on that issue and comes up with an innovative answer.

Basically, the movie is based on two premises.

The first one is that learning a language involves changing the way our brains are "wired". To understand this idea, consider the fact that English only really has one word for "love", where as Greek has a great many ("eros", "agape", "philia", "storge", etc.) What this means is that when an ancient Greek philosopher was talking about "love", he could do it a lot more accurately than a modern English speaker. To understand the point, consider this sentence that an obnoxious child might make to another: "If you love pancakes so much, why don't you marry them!"  This wouldn't make any sense at all to Plato, because he wouldn't use the same word for "liking a lot in the sense of enjoying the taste" and "wanting to spend the rest of your life living with because of a deep interpersonal bond".

The argument is that the complexity and precision of your vocabulary has an impact on how we see the world around us. A better example beyond the word "love" comes from the history of chemistry. At one time people tried to explain the nature of material objects by referring to the four states of matter:  solid, liquid, gas, and, fire. This really doesn't work very well to explain a broad range of events, so we now accept that the atomic theory works much better and most folks would probably have a hard time trying to figure out how you could use the states system to understand much of anything.

The second idea that the movie is based upon is that it is possible to create a totally non-sequential language. Western languages like English are based on the sounds that our spoken language makes. We start out sounding out the letters that make up the words, and then connect a certain sequence with specific words. But some other written langues don't work like that. Chinese, for example, is not "sounded out" from letters. Instead individual characters represent specific ideas. It is true that some characters are composed of different simpler characters and added together, but these too are representative of ideas instead of sounds. Having said that, however, Chinese characters are written sequentially one after another.

But Arrival posits that the aliens don't have a sequential sentence structure, but a holistic one.
A heptapod "sentence"
taken under "fair use" copyright rules from the Internet
As you can see, the writing looks like a coffee ring stain. But the different "splotches" aren't random, but convey a specific meaning. The issue that the movie hinges on is that there is no beginning or end to a circle, so the only way to really understand it is to just grasp the meaning all at once.

This is an important issue, because it talks about the limits of ordinary human consciousness. As this was explained to me when I was at university, Professor Amstutz (my old teacher) explained that studies have shown that there appears to be a limit to how much a person can grasp holistically. He explained this using an example from English common law. A pub used to have a cup with a bunch of wooden matches in it that people could use to light their pipes or cigars. They added a sign that said "take some home with you, if you like". An individual---what we would now call a "street person"---took advantage of this to take a lot of matches that he then used to sell for a half-penny a piece on the street to people who wanted to light a pipe or cigar, but didn't have any matches on them at the time. The pub owner called a bobby to stop this person from doing this, but the individual in question told the magistrate that the sign said he could do it.

The judge did some research in the literature and found out that when people look at a random pile of objects, on average, the most a person can count at a glance (ie:  without having to consciously mentally separate into different groupings and add together) are seven. So the judge ruled that under English Common Law "some" (as in "take some home with you") means seven or less.

This is important to the movie Arrival because it suggests that this isn't an intrinsic property of the human brain, but instead the result of how our language has "wired" it. In other words, the judge identified an issue of "software" instead of "hardware". If our brains simply have to work sequentially for more than seven items, then we will never be able to learn the heptapod language. But if this is instead an artifact of our language, it might be possible to learn the language---but in doing so it might radically change the way we perceive the world around us.

The people who made the movie didn't stop at the circle sentences. Towards the end, the heroine says that she understands their language and asks them to tell her more. So they present her with what I can only surmise is their equivalent of a book. (Actually, this image is only the same sentence repeated over an over again---but assume that the coffee rings are all different and you get the notion.)
Heptapod Book,
Fair Use Copyright, blah, blah, blah.

The important thing to understand is that the sentences aren't in any order---they are thrown all over and the reader has to understand them all holistically---just like the sentences.


The movie is filled with flashbacks, but ones that aren't identified or labeled. At some point, the linguist (Louise) had a child, who died of an incurable illness. She also had a husband that she dearly loved, but left her. At first, I assumed that she had had all of this heart-break before the arrival of the aliens. But as the movie progresses and she learns the language, you begin to realize that this is the future. The man she falls in love with and marries is her colleague working with the aliens, and, the child is their soon-to-be conceived daughter. Learning the alien language has rewired her brain to the point where she no longer experiences her life sequentially, but rather as a holistic unity. (Presumably she started having dreams and memories before she met the aliens because the process reveals that causality works backwards in time as well as forward---how about that for an alien concept?)

This would be a really, really scary prospect for most people. Would you marry someone and have a child with them if you really knew in your guts---from direct experience---that both would end in extreme heart-break? Louise believes that she has the choice of not choosing to marry and conceive, but she does anyway because she doesn't want to lose the experience of having a man and child that she loves dearly. And you also see in the flashbacks that knowing how it will all end means that she never misses an opportunity to be as "real" and "there" as she possibly can for these two people. She really does savour every sweet drop from the cup of life---even though she knows that at the end there will be nothing but bitter dregs.


How does any of this fit into Daoism?

What is it we do when we read books of wisdom and meditate? We are trying to deepen and expand our theoretical understanding of the world around us. We are fighting against the illusions that bind us to the here and now. We start out in life like the Wolverine---believing that we can live forever and if we get hurt, healing will come fast. But learning from others teaches us that this isn't the case, we do get old and die. Not only this, but the people we love die too. And that hurts, a lot.

Daoism offers to help people with this problem through many different mechanisms.

For one thing, it offers us stories that help us understand the most practical, best way to navigate life. Consider the story from both Zhuangzi and Liezi where Confucius meets an elderly man who has learned to swim across raging cataracts by only swimming a few strokes when the river is pushing him where he wants to go and not fighting when it pulls him away. This is how one survives in a chaotic, violent world according to Daoist wisdom.

It also helps us by offering us practices like "holding onto the One" that teach us to not get too caught up in the moment-by-moment activity around us. Instead, we learn to remind ourselves that we need to always try to understand the Dao (or "One") and how it is operating both in the processes that govern our mental activity and the world around us. If we are able to do this, for example, sometimes we are able to remember that the other person we are dealing with may be being grumpy towards us not because they hate us, but rather because they may be sick, be worried about a loved one, etc. We might also remember that giving that person a smile, or asking a personal question that shows you care, etc, may totally transform their interaction towards you into something more useful and pleasant.

It also helps us by reminding us to remember "the big picture" when we feel especially sad, angry, or, perplexed. When Zhangzi's wife dies, for example, he is very sad. But when he realizes that she herself has ceased to feel any pain at all, and has instead merely returned to the undifferentiated Dao that she emerged from when she was born, he can realize that he is really sad for himself because he knows he will miss her. And at that point, he realizes that he can choose to dwell on missing her, or, simply move on in life and find something or someone else to love. Much pain is caused by delusion, and the cure for delusion is a better understanding of how things really are.


In a very real sense, studying Daoism is like when Louise starts having those memories of her child. I am not the old man swimming in the cataract or Zhuangzi banging on a pot and singing after the death of his wife. But those events are the memories of men who have died long, long, ago in a distant land. And by integrating their insights and experiences into my life, I am just like Louise having memories of the death of a child she hasn't had yet. I know that I too will find myself beset by awful, painful problems---just like swimming the cataract. And I too will find myself deeply hurt by the pain or even death of a loved one.

We aren't heptapods who experience our personal lives holistically. But we are eusocial animals who live our lives mediated by culture. And culture does exist holistically, and we can experience it as such. Zhuangzi and Confucius are long dead---and yet they are still alive every time we wrestle with the ideas that they have passed onto us through their writings and the traditions that they founded.

I got thinking about this because I was worried about whether my wife was entering into a psychotic episode. She is going through a stressful time right now as she has decided to sell her house and apply to be an immigrant to Canada. But in the interim, she is in St. Louis and I am living and working a thousand miles away. There is almost nothing I can do to make her life better right other than offer some words of encouragement. And when she enters into an episode, she simply disappears off my radar. She has no support network (she does live in the USA, of course), so all I can do is accept that she's "gone away" for a month or two, and just wait for her to come back.

At times like this all I can do is remember how much I love her and remember that I wouldn't trade the good times in exchange for not having the bad. I also try to remember that, like Zhuangzi and his wife, we are all part of a larger process and that ultimately we come from and end up in the same place. I also try to hold onto the One and do what helps me cope with my feelings of helplessness and sadness. Writing this blog is one of those things. 


I put out my begging bowl and ask for support from people not just because I want money. I'm also trying to remind people that nothing comes for free in life, and we need to support others when they do something of value for the community. Many of us don't have enough money to be able to shoot off a few bucks to people writing obscure blogs on the Internet---no matter how much they enjoy them. I get that. But I also understand that lots of people who do have money would rather spend it on things like trips overseas, video games, eating out, etc.

For them I'd offer this piece of my life history. I used to do a lot of free lance writing for newspapers. There came a time when papers just got cheaper and cheaper towards people like me. That was because they knew that we see writing as a vocation and more than anything else just want to see our ideas in print. The result was no one wanted to pay me anything for what I wrote.

I accepted this as something that was happening and couldn't be avoided. Then I realized that reporters---with families to support and mortgages to pay---were being replaced by the free copy that people like me were giving the papers. And at the same time, purveyors of "junk bonds" were looting the newspapers that I was getting published in. The money was there, but I was just helping guys like Ken Thomson and Conrad Black get rich. At that point I stopped writing for the paper press.

Since then, I've been blogging. But you know what? The same problem exists on the Internet. People have gotten used to paying nothing for content, and writers everywhere are expected to work for nothing at all. As a result, the content being provided is being twisted into "click bait" and "dumbed down" so writers can pump out quantity instead of quality. This is because that's what the advertisers want. The only mechanism I can think of to push back against this problem is through getting people to pay for what they like to read through "tip jars" and Patreon subscriptions. That's why I always put these ads in my blog posts---it's so I don't go back to the bad old days of taking the food out of the mouths of people with families and mortgages.

In effect, I'm trying to help people realize that if you want to have a better Internet---free from fake news, alt-right propaganda, and other crap---you are going to have to get used to paying for it. If you refuse to pay for anything that isn't behind a paywall, you are "doing your bit" to ensure that the Internet becomes a plaything for wealthy corporations and not a meeting place for intellectuals and artists.

So, the question becomes "what do you want?"

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Feelings, Politics, Social Conflict, and, Confucian Ritual

In my last post I mentioned the importance of way modern society no longer gives many people any emotional feeling of "connection" and how neo-Fascists have exploited this to build support for noxious agendas. I thought I'd expand a bit on this issue in this post.


To understand this issue, I think it's important to understand that people reading this post are going to come to it from different perspectives and it's important for all of us to understand this point. All people are not "created equal", and every individual person's particular life experience simply cannot be used to extrapolate to how every other person experiences the world. And this lack of a universal experience is absolutely key to what I want to talk about in this post.

In my own case, I have what is called an "anxiety disorder".  This came about as a result of a chaotic, violent, childhood in a dysfunctional family. What this means is that during the time when my brain was growing, outside stresses caused it to develop in one of the several potential ways the genes I inherited from my parents allowed. In other words, I might have been an "out-going", adventurous, trusting person, but because of the environment I was raised in, I instead developed into a person who is always looking for potential danger.

The way to think about this issue is to think of each person at birth being dealt a set of playing cards for a "turn-based" game like Eucre or Bridge. Those are the genes that they are given by their parents. But when it's time for your body to physically develop (or "express" those genes), it's as if your body has to decide which particular card it wants to play. Friendly, out-going, and, adventurous could be the ten of diamonds, whereas, stand-offish, introverted, and, cautious could be the ace of spades. Each of these behaviours have pluses and minuses in different given contexts. For example, in a time of prosperity where there are lots of opportunities---out-going, risk-takers have an advantage. In a time of chaos and declining prospects, in contrast---people who are cautious and avoid risks are better off.

Consider these two rabbits. Each of them has the same genetic inheritance for colouration. But because each was raised in different circumstances---namely average temperature---they developed different coloured fur. I don't know anything at all about Himalayan rabbits, but one could think of an environment where a totally white coat would be better camouflage than one with black high lites---and vice-versa. It's the same thing when we talk about people's disposition. And the average temperature would affect how much snow there in on the ground where one is hiding from things like eagles and weasels. In exactly the same way, children reared in warm, loving homes by supportive parents have brain wiring that is substantively different from those that were raised in homes where they spent a great deal of time legitimately scared for their safety.

Two Himilayan rabbits, raised at different temperatures.
Original photo from Genetics: A Conceptual Approach
from an article in Nature
Used under copy-rite "fair dealing" provision


These different ways of experiencing the world can manifest themselves in different ways of living. For example, when most of my friends were heading out and taking risks like going overseas on development projects, starting up small NGOs, applying for grants, etc, I was looking for a secure job with benefits and a pension. That's why I got my job at the University---which is just about the only place in my town that has never laid anyone off and still has a gold-plated, defined-benefit pension with a built-in cost-of-living adjustment. As I approach retirement age, most of my friends have expressed some degree of envy to the retirement benefits that I will enjoy as compared to their situations. (To be fair to myself---many of them have received very large inheritances when their middle-class parents died---I don't expect to inherit a dime.) 

How I experience the world has a huge impact on the political worldview that I find appealing. I suspect that this is why I am increasingly attracted to Confucianism. It specifically posits a world that consists of paternalistic, reciprocal relationships between different parts of society. It says that people should look out for one another instead of competing. Bosses should keep people on, even if there really isn't enough work to justify their retention---because it's the benevolent thing to do.  Workers
Robert Frost,
photo by Walter Albertin
Library of Congress,
c/o Wiki Commons
should be diligent and not expect too much pay because they need to take into account the interests of the owners and managers of the company. The government should assume that it needs to intervene in the lives of ordinary people, because it has a similar obligation towards its citizens that a parent has to each of its children. A perfectly Confucian world would give everyone of its citizens the feeling that they are home, as in the sense of Robert Frost's statement "‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in."  (If you haven't read Frost's poem The Death of the Hired Hand, I would recommend you do. It perfectly encapsulates many of the emotions that I am discussing in this post.)

In contrast to my anxiety-disorder fueled neo-Confucianism, I recently was listening to someone espousing a form of Libertarianism that suggested that we should rely upon competition to solve major social problems---such as racism. In effect, he suggested that there should be no laws against discrimination against people based on race or gender because this interferes with the constitutional right of "freedom of assembly".  How this works, according to him, is that any business that doesn't hire blacks or women would be out-competed by other companies that do, either because the first one would be artificially limiting its talent pool, or, because consumers would organize boycotts against it. I won't go into why I think that this is a naive suggestion, other than by suggesting that there are historical reasons why social change has never arrived by these means, which is why governments have intervened in situations like this.


What I'm interested in is what sort of psychology is involved in a person espousing Libertarianism versus Confucianism.  Who's it going to be, Ayn Rand?  Or Confucius?

Ayn Rand, the apostle
of Libertarianism
photo c/o Wiki Commons
Confucius, the original
proponent of the "Nanny
State", c/o Wiki Commons 

I suppose I'm suggesting an expansion of the saying by Tom Wolfe that "If a conservative is a liberal who's been mugged, a liberal is a conservative who's been arrested". That is to say, our politics is informed by our life experience. Moreover, I'm going one step further and suggesting that our early childhood---to some extent---"hardwires" us to have a tendency towards one type of politics versus another.

This isn't to say that people are doomed to either be timid Confucians or adventurous Libertarians. I've done some very risky things---suing Walmart comes to mind---but in those instances I was pursuing social goals instead of personal ones. I was willing to risk losing my house, my pension, and, my entire life savings in order to help preserve my community. This is Confucian risk taking, not Libertarian. It is very different from, for example, someone who hops into an airplane and goes up to the far North in search of employment and ends up making big bucks in the tar sands. Or, who borrows a lot of money to start a business.


Up until this point, I've made it sound like I'm something of a damaged individual because I support Confucianism. Actually, I don't think that this is fair, but rather an artifact of our society's language. (Another big issue for Confucius was the "rectification of language", but that's a topic for another post.) I identified myself as having an "anxiety disorder", which is quite true. I have had all the classic symptoms of PTSD---reoccurring nightmares, disassociation, flashbacks, etc---but I'm also high-functioning and it has never really caused major problems in my day-to-day life. But in this post I'm trying to work through how this issue may have affected my political worldview.

Having admitted this, I want to suggest that our society "loads the language" against the Confucianist worldview. In the language I used above, I described a person from a non-dysfunction family as being "friendly, out-going, and, adventurous". These are all positive attributes. But all of them can be part of a personality that is shallow, self-centred, and, egotistical. Being friendly and out-going can be shallow and insincere---nothing more than the old "would you like a cherry pie with your Big Mac?" script. And being "adventurous" can be nothing more than running away from the obligations that would hold someone in a specific place.

Years ago I lived in an old townhouse with a student from Shanghai. We had a neighbour named Lena, who was in her eighties and had (as near as we could tell) no friends or family. Her flat stank like sewage, and was over-run with cockroaches (I looked at her recycling container once---it was literally covered with the things.) The only time we ever saw her was twice a day when she went out to buy a local and national newspaper. The last we saw of her was a police officer breaking in her door in order to get her into an ambulance and off to the hospital. My student boarder was with me when this happened. He said to me "this would never happen in China". You could tell he was absolutely disgusted with Canadian society. (I suspect that this sort of scenario is much more common in China now than it was back then---progress?)

Would someone from a future era or different society identify Libertarians as suffering from "freedom poisoning", or, being a "borderline psycho-path", because of their indifference to the problems of the people around them?  How would people who really, really, really care about their communities or the natural environment feel about people who set out on "adventures" without considering the consequences for the community or natural environment? Would they be disgusted by people who unleash huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere for unnecessary jet airplane trips? Would they think anyone who put the ideal of "freedom" ahead of the real, concrete problems facing other people as being somewhat sick in the head?


One last point. Confucianism is more than just a philosophic theory, it is a practical way of living your life. To this end, it prescribes a practice that helps you integrate it's insights into your day-to-day living. It puts forward benevolence as an ideal, but the way it suggests that a person can really learn to manifest this behaviour is through study and ritual. As for study, I'd suggest that the sort of self-analysis I've done in this blog post would fit that framework. But as for ritual, I'm a little hard-pressed to come up with an example. I recently listened to a podcast that helped explain why this is. It comes from a Western apologist for Confucianism by the name of Michael Puett. In it, he argues that what Confucian ritual does is train a person to understand the importance of inter-personal habits and patterns of interaction, and sculpt them to be able to create harmonious interactions. Unfortunately, translations of Confucian texts---like the Analects---have tended to edit out the descriptions of ritual because Western scholars have tended to think of them as irrelevant. As a result, I've never had much chance (as a non-Chinese reader) to expose myself to Confucian ritual.

As a result, it's hard to come up with an example that I can put on a blog post, but one example does come to me from a delightful Japanese television show that I recently binge-watched on Netflix:  the Samurai Gourmet.

This is a strange show to describe to others, so I'm going to let the YouTube clip above at least introduce readers to it's bizarre quality. One particular episode involved a flashback to when the retired "salary-man" (who is the hero of this show) was starting out. As a young man, he had wanted to quit his job and go do something else---which would have been career suicide for him. He hands in his letter of resignation to his boss, who instead of accepting it takes him out to his favourite restaurant. 

When they are there, the boss suggests that the young man take a good, careful look at the people working there. He points out the tremendous attention to detail that everyone is manifesting in every aspect of their work---from the chef to the busboys. Indeed, the owner spends some time training a young person in how to carefully clear and clean a table so not a spot of dirt is left from one customer to the other. The boss then tells the young man something to the effect that it isn't important what a person does to make a living, it's the attitude that they bring to the job that makes her a success or a failure. Moreover, the implication is that a "success" or "failure" comes from within---a person can be a tremendous success in a failing business, or, a complete failure even if they are making a ton of money.

The point I want to raise isn't the wisdom of the specific message, but rather how it is conveyed. The boss took his underling out for a special meal to make the point. This is actually a very common thing in both Japanese and Chinese society, where meals are an integral part of the relationship between managers and employees. In effect, this is a ritual that is used to get people to stop and reassess exactly what they are doing in their work culture and to build a sense of "community" that transcends a mere economic activity. Moreover, it is important to realize that the boss wasn't just trying to convince his young employee about how he should approach the job---he was also illustrating how much the boss considered it his duty to do everything he could to help the new guy adapt to the "salary-man" culture that he had just been accepted into. This is the two-way sense of social obligation and community that is the essence of Confucianism.

If this sounds a bit far-fetched, consider how common communal meals are in other cultures to build a sense of solidarity. In the early Christian church communion literally was a real meal---the body and blood of Christ were not just a sip of wine or a cracker, they were literally a big meal where even the poorest person could get a full belly. Sikhs still do something like this at their temples. They have a communal meal, called "langar" where absolutely anyone---regardless of race, religion, or, anything else---can have a free, vegetarian meal. The Sikhs in my town---even in far away Canada---serve it even here. And many were the times I ate together with the other members of the taijiquan school where I was initiated into Daoism.


OK. Time for the begging bowl. If you like what I write, consider supporting me through either a regular "dollar a month" contribution through Patreon or a one-time donation. Just to let you know I practice what I preach, here's list of the people I regularly support:  "the C-Realm Vault Podcast", "Canadaland", and, "Guelph Politico". I've also given one-time donations to "The Professional Left Podcast", "The C-Realm", and, "The Number One Janitor". I've also bought podcast downloads from "Hardcore History". I've spent far, far more money supporting other creative people on the Internet than I've ever made. I just wanted to suggest that this is what needs to be the new normal. If you can afford to help people create content, you really should consider it "just part of the gig". I do.   

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Mencius: Filial Piety and the Rise of Neo-Fascism

In Chapter VII of David Hinton's translation of Mencius, the sage is quoted as saying
Imagine all beneath Heaven turning to you with great delight. Now imagine seeing that happen and knowing it means nothing more than a wisp of straw: only Shun was capable of that.
He knew that if you don't realize [sic] your parents you aren't a person, and that if you don't lead your parents to share your wisdom you aren't a child. He fulfilled the Way of serving parents completely until Blind Purblind, his depraved father, finally rejoiced in virtue. Once his father rejoiced in virtue, all beneath Heaven was transformed. One his father rejoiced in virtue, the model for fathers and sons was set for all beneath Heaven. Such is the greatness of honoring parents.
Mencius, Chapter VII, section 28, David Hinton trans. 

There are two elements to this quote, and I find it hard to connect them. The first is indifference to fame, which I understand can be enormously hard. I certainly find it very hard to be personally uninterested in it---even though I have tried mightily my whole life to live that way. I've always worked at menial jobs, and routinely tried to "do the right thing", even if that means sabotaging whatever sort of career I might have been able to garner. And without some sort of fame, most careers are impossible (think about how much more popular this blog would be if I was a famous person.)

For example, I was once organizing a slate of candidates for local Council elections and I had a fairly good shot at getting elected in Ward One. But two other people who also had a good shot at winning a seat were running in Ward Two. Since there was only one slot open for their "flavour" of politics, the odds were that if they both ran they would split the vote and neither would get elected. Since neither one of them were willing to back out, I approached one and told her to run in my ward and I'd not run. Both of them ran and won, and the woman ended up becoming a very successful Mayor of my city. It was the right thing to do, but it meant that I never got elected to public office and instead have supported myself moving furniture and being treated like a moron by management. Objectively, I can see that this is irrelevant, but emotionally, it annoys me. I am not like Shun---fame is still far more than a "wisp of straw" to me.


The next bit deals with what is routinely called "filial piety", or, "xiào".  People might find it weird that I would write a post about filial piety for a blog about Daoism. Most Westerners who have been exposed to Daoism tend to have this idea that it's followers have nothing but contempt for stuffy Confucian nonsense. Actually, this is a profound misunderstanding. The Temple that I was initiated into (part of the Dragon Gate Sect of Quanzhen Daoism) has three core texts that they suggest people should study. They consist of the Daoist Jade Emperor Mind Seal Classic, the Buddhist Diamond Sutra, and, the Confucian Classic of Filial Piety.  (More about these in future blog posts.)


Filial Piety is a very complex subject to understand, and I don't want to overwhelm readers with their first introduction to the concept, so I'll just raise a few aspects that most people probably haven't thought about just so they can start getting prepared to think about it in depth. 

Most people think of filial piety exclusively with regard to family: "Honour your father and mother". But it is important to understand that Confucianism bases its morality not exclusively on reason, but rather emotion. So to understand filial piety you don't suggest an argument in favour of pursuing this as an ethical standard, you put forward an example that illustrates the innate human tendency that it is based upon. And this is the point that Mencius refers to when he says "if you don't realize [sic] your parents you aren't a person". That is to say, if you don't feel some sort of emotional connection to your parents, your lack of emotions disqualifies you as a member of the human race.

Perhaps a psychopath has no feelings one way or the other about family, which would mean that they aren't a "person" according to Mencius. But the feelings that arise around family are not always positive. Indeed, the language associated with filial devotion always sounds really strange to me---(and I suspect a lot of other people too.) It also sounds odd to me when Christians recite the Lord's Prayer and say "Our Father who art in Heaven---". It's even worse when union leaders talk about members as being "brothers" and "sisters". That is because my father died when I was a child after a long, horrible illness; I also spent a very important part of my childhood being beaten by my older brother; and, my mother had an out-of-control, crazily emotional streak that terrorized me as a child. "Family" has a very strong emotional connection for me---but it is negative, not positive. So I am a "person" according to Mencius, but not one that is terribly "filial".

But it is important to remember that for Confucians like Mencius filial devotion is not just one directional. Parents have an obligation towards their children that is just as important as the child's obligation to their parents. And if the parent fails in that obligation, the child has as much of a duty to instruct the parent as the parent has to instruct the child:
"if you don't lead your parents to share your wisdom you aren't a child. He fulfilled the Way of serving parents completely until Blind Purblind, his depraved father, finally rejoiced in virtue"
Think about this passage. Mencius is putting forward Shun as a paragon of filial piety because he patiently taught one of his parents the difference between right and wrong.


So what exactly is xiào? It doesn't seem to be the stereotypical ideal of children "shutting up and doing what they are told". Right now I'm reading a new translation of the Xiaojing by Henry Rosemount, jr, and Roger T. Ames that translates it as "family reverence" because the scholars believed that the English word "piety" carries too many resonances with self-righteous, unfeeling, religious fanaticism. Instead, they believe xiào refers more about the feelings of someone who is in a genuinely warm, reciprocal relationship based on real emotion. It's unfortunate that so many people---like me---have had such bad experiences with our families that the emotions we feel are negative, but to my way of thinking that means that we still long for that connection, not that it doesn't (or shouldn't) exist. I see this as evidence for the basic value of Confucian family reverence, not evidence against it.

This longing for a sense of "family reverence" might begin in the family, but for Confucians it is not supposed to end there. The entire culture of a nation is supposed to function like a family for Confucians. The leader of any grouping---such as the Emperor---is supposed to exist in a dynamic with his subjects much like that of a family. Leaders are supposed to actually care about what happens to their followers, and the followers are supposed to not only be able to engage with leaders when they are acting improperly, they are actually obligated to do so in some circumstances.  Shun was expected to gently reprimand his father, "Blind Purblind". In the same way, the court officials of the Emperor were expected to disagree with the Emperor and try to change his opinion when they believed he was acting improperly.

In ancient China this could often be a very dangerous thing to do, as many Emperors were half-mad with power and were quite willing to torture and kill any scholar who had the courage to criticize an imperial policy. But that was the role that a scholar was supposed to play. Indeed, during the reign of the second Qin emperor there was an incident where a stag was brought before the Emperor. The
Prime Minister (who was the real power behind the throne) declared it to be a horse and then asked the court scholars what they thought it was. The ones who were afraid of him, agreed that it was a horse. The others, who had a greater commitment to the truth, said it was a stag. The latter group paid a heavy price for their statements, as not only they themselves, but their families too were punished for their independence.

Is this a horse? If you say it isn't, you and your family will die.
But if you say it is, your entire society may collapse.  Pressure?
1902 drawing by Frank E. Beddard, c/o Wiki Commons

I've been watching a modern Chinese drama titled "The Legend of Chu and Han", but which on Netflix Canada is called "The King's War". It is based on the collapse of the Qin dynasty and the founding of the Han.

I'm fascinated by the character Liu Bang, who became the first Han Emperor, Gaozu. This is because the show is playing around with different conceptions of what it means to be a great man. Gaozu's ability isn't so much his brilliance as a general, but rather his ren, or benevolence. He is able to attract and inspire people to want to serve him, because it is obvious that he really does want the best for everyone around him.

One scene where the director really pointed this out was where Liu was on the march with his army and he fell sick with the flu. His mistress had rolled him up in a quilt and was plying him with hot water to keep him hydrated. A Confucian scholar insisted on seeing him, even though the guards said he was too sick to see anyone. Eventually, he sneaked in to see Liu, who heard him out. After introducing himself, he started talking about how he was going to get Liu's army into some key city without a fight. Liu was not interested (because he felt awful and had heard it all before), so he showed his contempt by taking a pee in the scholar's special, groovy hat. He then make the guy leave and take his hat with him.

This peeved the scholar, but after throwing his hat away, he ran back in and then told Liu that he was really an expert at drinking wine. Instead of having the guy dragged off (which really isn't Liu Bang's style), he asks his girl friend to bring in two pitchers of wine. (Liu is a bit of a drinker.) The scholar downs one without a pause, and then suggests that Liu drink the other. Liu refuses, saying he's too sick to be drinking wine. But he says he'll hear out the scholar.

The scholar says he's friend with the Qin prefect who rules the town and can get him to surrender rather than force a fight. Liu asks why he is interested in helping him. The scholar says that he noticed that on the line of march Liu's soldiers are very careful to not trample the peasant's crops, and, that in general they are careful not to abuse ordinary people. (Not to mention that Liu has put up with some pretty strange behaviour by the scholar himself---even though he's not feeling well.) The scholar is saying that he's spent his whole life trying to find a benevolent ruler to serve, and as near as he can tell, Liu Bang is it.

In the show, "King's War", this is Liu Bang's "secret weapon"---he is able to attract people of real talent, inspire them with tremendous loyalty, and, get them to perform amazing things for him. This contrasts with his main rival, Xiang Yu, who is portrayed in what Westerners would recognize as the "heroic" model of someone like Alexander the Great. He has the strength of a Hercules, is absolutely fearless in battle, and, has the martial arts skill of Bruce Lee. But he lacks ren.

The director of the show actually underlines this point through a scene where Yu orders the execution of 5,000 captured Qin soldiers because they didn't surrender as fast as he said they needed to in order to be spared. Yu places a great emphasis on keeping his word---something that Confucianism says should always be tempered by benevolence. When Yu's uncle find out about this act he is so angry that he slashes Yu across the face with a whip and punishes him with house arrest. He informs Yu that this is a catastrophic mistake to make, because it means that he has no ren---and that there is no way he can become Emperor without it. A leader who cannot build a sense of trust in both his followers and the people that he will act benevolently towards ordinary folk is doomed to fail. It is this lack of trust that has doomed the Qin dynasty, and Yu's actions show why he failed in his competition with Liu. That is why Liu became the first Emperor of the Han dynasty and Yu ends up killing himself after losing.


So what has this got to do with modern life?

I recently read a post on FaceBook about a story in the Guardian about a movement called "the New Optimists". In a nutshell, their argument is if you use objective measurements of things like life expectancy, global poverty rates, death by violent crime, warfare, etc, people around the world have never had it so good. But at the same time, lots of people really feel awful about their lives and the future. How come?

Well, there are lots of good suggestions as potential reasons. For example, just because people on the other side of planet are doing better than ever before that doesn't mean you are. Moreover, just because things have been getting better over the past 200 years doesn't mean that it couldn't all go to Hell in a few years because of something like climate change, nuclear war, or, an economic catastrophe caused by something like a computer virus.

All of these are legitimate concerns, but I wonder if maybe part of the problem is that human beings are suffering the effects of a catastrophic decline in our generalized sense of "family reverence" as defined by Confucianism.

No, I don't mean that we all need to embrace some sort of fundamentalist nonsense like that spewed by groups like "Focus on the Family". Instead, I'm talking about the more generalized sense of emotional connection that Confucians found mostly within the family. The key point of "family reverence" isn't the family, it's the emotional sense of connection and belonging that most often found within families. (Please don't confuse the finger pointing at the moon with the moon itself!) People who cannot find this emotional connection within a family seek it in other aspects of life---for many people it is absolutely essential to their well-being and all leaders ignore it at their peril.

What is this sense of "emotional connection"? Well, like Mencius, I can't really define what it is, I can just suggest examples and ask the reader to think about whether or not I am right when I say that these seem to be indicative of an intrinsic human quality. People during war time often develop very strong interpersonal connections that they hold onto for the rest of their lives. It's also why some people have such a strong emotional connection to the university that they studied at while young. I know that in my case I had very strong emotional connection to the school and Temple where I learned Taijiquan and was initiated into Daoism. I also had a similar attachment to the Green Party where I learned the "nuts and bolts" of political activism. They were both like "families" for me. I also have very strong friendships and a significant other that also provide that sense of emotional connection for me.

I might suggest, however, that for many (if not most) people our modern society undermines and attacks this sense of emotional connection. For one thing, families and friendships are shredded when people are expected to travel all over the world in order to pursue their career paths. Even worse, the temporary nature of jobs means that people routinely get picked up and tossed into a task for a short period of time then discarded like a used wrench---which makes it impossible to develop anything like an emotional connection with co-workers. Increasingly, even that shrinking pool of people who do have permanent jobs are denied the stability of even having their own personal work-space. Instead, they are expected to just grab whatever computer is free at any given moment, or, park their laptop at whatever desk is free. These are called "back pack" offices.  (My job just transitioned from one where I had a office to being one of these "migrants", and I can attest to how much it makes me feel like I'm no longer a valued part of the workplace!)

I believe that the alt-right has been very good at manipulating the vague, inarticulate sense of emotional loss that comes from this lack of emotional connection in work, community, and, family by playing up people's sense of emotional connection to patriotism. There are lots of videos to choose from on line, but here's one that illustrates my point.

Just a few things to explain about this video. There were two times in European history where the continent faced invasion by a determined empire of the East and a heroic battle by an out-numbered force managed to save the day. The first is battle of Thermopylae where a small force of Greeks led by the Spartan king managed to hold off a huge Persian army long enough to allow an Athenian fleet to decisively defeat the Persians at Salamis. This is the battle that was popularized by Frank Miller's comic series and the movie "300". The second was the battle of Vienna.  In that battle after a long, heroic siege, the city was about to fall to the forces of the Turkish Sultan but at the last minute an attack by the Polish Winged Hussars destroyed the Turkish army and permanently removed it's threat to Western Europe. 

Please note in this video the clever way the Sabaton song has been merged with movie clips about these two battles with other clips of refugees, and the "heroes" and "villains" of the alt-right (the former are Putin, Trump, Le Pen, and, Farage), whereas the latter is Angela Merkel (who has opened the doors of Germany to refugees.) These stirring appeals to ancient glories and emotional connection to "race consciousness" is a classic type of Fascist propaganda. The rise of new Fascist parties in the Western democracies, IMHO, is because our leadership has turned its back on the Confucian ideal of ren and has instead decided that the free market will deal with all problems. This has worked to undermine and destroy the sense of emotional connection that people have with both their community and where they work. This has created an inarticulate and deep sense of longing for re-connection in the greater community among the citizens, and the neo-Fascists in the alt-right has learned how to exploit it to their gain. That is how Britain voted for the Brexit and how Donald Trump got elected President of the USA. 


Oh, one last point. I started off this crazy post with a quote from Mencius where he mentions a guy named Shun and says that he was indifferent to public acclaim because of his devotion to filial piety. I found it hard understand this point. But now I do. If you have a vague need to feel the support of a real emotional community, you will have a real hunger for acclaim. But if that need is being met by a real understanding of ren and have manifested a Sage's feeling towards the people around you, you no longer have that hunger. Not because you have transcended this human desire, but rather because you have satiated it. 


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