Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Internal Alchemy Part Six: The Collective Ethical Thought Process

One of the ways in which modern scholarship has parted ways with religious Daoism is in the attribution of books like the Dao De Jing. The traditional view is that this book of wisdom was written by one individual person, Laozi, at a specific time, when he was passing the border post of Hangu and was asked by the guard, Yin Xi, to leave some record of his wisdom.

Modern Hangu Pass---with statue of Laozi on his ox
There are two problems with this account.

First of all, it simply isn't true. Textual analysis of the book tells us that it is an amalgam of various writings that have been edited together into a larger text. Moreover, archeologists have found copies of the Dao De Jing buried in various ancient tombs and they have found that there are significant differences between copies. For example, the Ma-wang-tui version reverses the order of the chapters from the received version---the "Dao-De Jing" becomes the "De-Dao Jing". 

What this means is that the Dao-De Jing (and other books like the Zhuangzi and Liezi.) are the result of a conversation or dialogue between many different people over a long period of time. These folks had different ideas about the world around them and manifested this in changes to both the content and form of the book as it was read, copied, published, and handed on. (One of those "editorial decisions" was the order of the Dao-De Jing.) Moreover, scholars believe that these books were originally part of an oral tradition that existed for a long time before they were written down. 

People sometimes profoundly misunderstand oral traditions. They are not like like the lines that an actress memorizes and then "gives" in a play. Instead, they are more like chord progressions and tunes that a Jazz musician plays with when he gives a concert. No two recitations of epic poetry are the same in an oral tradition. Instead, the bard has developed the ability to recite at will in the poetic metre and conventions of her tradition---just like a jazz musician has learned to improvise within a specific chord progression.

Classic epic poems evolve over the lifespan of the bardic tradition. Some stories aren't that very popular with audiences, whereas others become "old standards" that people request repeatedly. Most innovations probably fail, but the odd one is such a success that it gets handed down through bardic lineages and eventually finds itself written down. Exactly the same sort of thing also happened with the gnomic sayings and teaching stories of Daoist literature. The end result are the master pieces that we know as the Laozi, Zhuangzi and Liezi.  

Again, I repeat for emphasis----the classic books of Daoism, are the result of a conversation or dialogue between many, many people over a long, long period of time. 

The second point that needs emphasis flows out of this first one. The traditional viewpoint that each of the core texts of Daoism was written by a single God-like "immortal"---Laozi, Zhuangzi and Liezi---is not only not true, but it also perverts the teaching. It does this by dramatically expanding the distance between the ordinary reader/practitioner/seeker and people who have already gained some insight or wisdom. To understand the distinction, consider the difference between an "enlightened Master" and a "teacher". The former is someone who while theoretically human, is actually so different from the ordinary that people are expected to give enormous deference to his opinions and commandments on all matters. In contrast, a "teacher" is just someone who has put the time and effort into learning a bit more than you on a specific subject that you would like to learn more about.

It is easy to understand why religious institutions would want to create the trope of the "enlightened immortal" and then project it onto their leadership. By doing so they would not only invest their leadership with a great deal of power in the internal political struggles within a given community, but they would also be able to use it protect the institution from outside interests and gain access to scarce resources from society. An "enlightened Immortal" could usually find it easier get an exemption from taxation and a yearly rice subsidy from the Emperor than a mere committee of "teachers".


It's always good to root discussions like this in some sort of practical example, so I'm going to offer a couple trivial ones from my experiences in a Daoist community.

I once went to two weekend workshop where I learned the taijiquan sabre form that I try to do on a regular basis. I arrived at the Daoist retreat centre on Friday night and left Sunday afternoon, which meant that I had to sleep overnight. Of course, the dorms were segregated by sex, but there were toilets and showers that were outside of the dorm area that you had to walk to through a lobby. (The complex was in an old barn that had been converted to a dorm/gymnasium by a previous owner.)

The first night I was there, I had to get up and use the toilet in the middle of the night. When I walked over to use it, I noticed that there was a guy sleeping under a blanket in the middle of the floor. It was the Daoist priest who ran the entire community! It turned out that he did this every night to stop the men and women on retreats from "fraternizing". (No sex please, we're Daoists---.) Being relatively young and lacking any confidence in my intuitions, I just registered the fact as an "oddity" and left it at that.

Later on, when the retreat was over, we were treated to a very large banquet where people gave little speeches afterwards. The food was good, wine was provided, and I was feeling relaxed. Then the Master got up to speak---through translation. The woman who translated from Cantonese to English wasn't a trained translator, and I suspect the result was abysmal. But the gist of the speech was that the Master was so "humble" that he slept on the floor and used a telephone book for a pillow. As I recall, at least a few others at the table with me were similarly angry at the dissonance between someone ostentatiously sleeping on the floor when a comfortable bed was available, and then giving a speech about how humble he was. I for one was annoyed by the fact that people who make a big deal about their humility aren't really being humble at all.

Here's a pretty version off the Internet
Another time there was some sort of angry dispute between the president of my local taijiquan club and this same Master. The result was that local fellow leaving the association. The Master arrived and asked the local club to get the police involved for "grand theft temple treasure". The issue in question was a framed print that had been given to this taijiquan teacher by some Chinese association. The poster was a version of the famous internal body chart that comes from White Cloud Temple in Beijing. The Master said that this was a rare and expensive esoteric document that could "harm people" if it fell into the wrong hands. (I have a better copy on the wall of my study that I purchased for $20. There are also hordes of them on Google Images---like the one on the left.) Obviously there was some dispute about exactly who the print was given to---the individual teacher or the association.

Yet because this Master was such an "exalted, wise being" our club leadership went out and asked the police to get a warrant for the arrest of the guy who was the chief instructor at the club for years and years. Someone we had eaten with, gone bowling with, and generally hung around with for a couple years. I suspect that the police had a few chuckles at our expense---but ultimately we were involved in a tremendous act of betrayal.


I have nuanced emotions towards my old Master. He initiated me into Daoism and taught me taijiquan. These have become the foundations of my life. But many people he taught found that they were incapable of having anything more to do with him. Entire clubs left his organization. Many of his most gifted students left him. He was also considered a laughing stock by some outside martial arts organizations, although I think that this is somewhat unfair. I believe that he was as much a victim of the "Master" ideal as any of the students who ended up detesting him. It is tremendously seductive to have people who want to worship at your feet. It requires enormous self-discipline to do what needs to be done to stop Guru worship, even if it means that you will find it hard to pay the rent on your studio and that you won't be able to raise enough money to support the charity you like.

But I think his example is inevitable as long as people hold onto the idea that "enlightenment" is something that happens to individuals instead of communities. Wisdom is a group process, not an individual attainment.


What do I mean by saying that "Wisdom is a group process?"

In a previous post on this subject I wrote extensively about the criminal justice system. I talked about how our system had developed group methods for avoiding vendettas or feuds through the creation of a legal system. I illustrated this by talking about two transitional methodologies:  trial by combat and trial by ordeal. I also showed how our present legal system developed methodologies for finding the truth through sifting evidence. In particular, I showed how important skillful cross-examination of witnesses can be to separate "signal from noise"---which is why "hear say" evidence is generally excluded.

These are examples that illustrate how our society is able to create better and better mechanisms for finding both truth and good solutions for conflict between individuals, and, individuals and society-as-a-whole. This process of creating collective mechanisms that work better to find the truth exist all throughout society. The rules governing managed professions like doctors and accountants and skilled trades like electricians and steam fitters are also examples. So are codes of conduct that govern things like journalism and advertising. As are the industry standards groups like the ISO organization. These organizations and sets of rules exist in order to manage our complex society in a way that allows human beings to not only live together with some semblance of civility, but also to allow folks the security that at least some element of stability and justice exists.

Exactly the same sort of thing should exist in both morality and spirituality. And as I have pointed out, the inspirational texts of Daoism (and every other religion, truth be told) are the result of a collective process. So it would be hardly surprising to assert that the wisdom tradition of Daoism
should similarly be governed by a collective process.


What would that look like? Well, for one thing, there shouldn't be any attempt to censor people who say or write things that some high and mighty "Master" doesn't like. Moreover, there needs to be a change in the teachings so that a collaborative approach to wisdom is encouraged instead of focusing exclusively on the ideal of the individual "enlightened Immortal". I think that probably the most important thing would be the creation of rules of discourse that would specify exactly how discussion between members of a tradition should progress, and, how the group could make decisions that govern everyone. I won't suggest what these rules would look like, mainly because this is enough for one blog post.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Mencius and Success

I've been busy with other things for the past month, so I've been a bit negligent with my Blog. I hope that this doesn't turn people away, but then this site was never about regular posting in the first place.


I've gotten to Chapter VI in David Hinton's translation of the Mencius and in the second passage of "Duke Wen of T'Eng, Book Two" the following paragraph jumped up and bit me on the nose.
"As for the man who can be called great;  He dwells in the most boundless dwelling-place of all beneath Heaven, places himself at the center of all beneath Heaven, and practices the great Way of all beneath Heaven. If he succeeds in these ambitions, he and the people enjoy the rewards together. If he fails, he follows the Way alone. Wealth and renown never mean much to him, poverty and obscurity never sway him, and imposing force never awes him."
My wife was visiting when I read these words and I've been meditating on them ever since. As the same time that she was here, an old friend (we shared a house for seven years) came to visit. He's been married to a Thai woman for several years and has been spending his summers here to work and the rest of the year in Phuket.  But now he's 65 years old and entitled to a pension and retirement, which means that I will probably never see him again.

We both wanted to see him off because my wife really likes him. After he was gone, I asked her what it was about him that she likes so much. She said that it was his attitude of "totally not giving a damn". He certainly has always lived his own life. Oddly enough, he was a very good academic who was recognized as an expert in conventional arms verification. I can remember him being paid to come and take part in a conference by Foreign Affairs in Ottawa. He routinely got invites for NATO conferences. But he made his money at the time by working for a furniture moving company---amongst other things.

He also did two stretches of time in prison for marihuana cultivation. And became a very good self-taught lawyer who was able to convince a judge to let him out early because his sentence was "cruel and unusual". (It certainly helped that he had two guards from the prison act as character references.)

He pursued this legal hobby to the point where he tried to change various laws due to constitutional challenges. I believe he argued seven times before the Supreme Court---which is pretty impressive for someone who had no legal training at all.

He did many other things besides, but I hope that this gives something of the flavour of the man. In all of this he kept his charm and had a wicked sense of humour.


My sweet lovely Misha and I had a discussion about this fellow. What exactly is he?  We decided that he is an example of the "uncarved block". He didn't allow society to define him and his life, instead he stayed who he was all through the process. I think that he is like the fellow Mencius is describing. Someone who is trying to make the world a better place, but who is at the same time so free from attachment that he doesn't suffer when he ends his life never having been able to accomplish big things. He has his freedom to sustain him until he is sustained no more.

Good bye good friend.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Internal Alchemy Part Five: Interior Life and Social Context

(Warning! This post has content that includes graphic images of human misbehaviour!)


In previous posts about Internal Alchemy I showed how important it is for people who follow a spiritual path to develop a strong ethical compass. And in the last post, I showed how Buddhism has traditionally attempted to inculcate one in its followers. Unfortunately, I also showed how it, and other religions, have failed to created an adequate mechanism to get practitioners to overcome a bias towards passivity and conventionality in that ethical compass. I also suggested that the reason why religions fail to produce ethically-advanced individuals is because they are afraid that chaos would result if people were encouraged to think for themselves.

This last issue is not trivial. There has been a lot of misery associated with spiritual innovation. One need only contemplate the escapades of the group known as ISIS to see how badly things can go wrong when religious people escape ecclesiastic control.

Yet One Example of Religious Innovation by ISIS
In fact, a great deal of horrific human history has been created by spiritual innovation among large groups of people. So it isn't enough to just "Let every flower bloom"---there also has to be some way of differentiating between good and bad ideas.

An absolutely key element is the need for some sort of formalized structure. To understand this point, it might be useful to consider two of the intermediate steps in the creation of the modern European justice system:  trial by combat and trial by ordeal.

Trial by Combat and Ordeal
Until the popularity of "Game of Thrones", I suspect that many people didn't realize that at one time there were several ways of settling disputes besides judge and jury. The most well-known one was trial by combat. This involved actual fights between people over a dispute where there was neither a witness nor a confession.

Not Fiction, an Actual Trial by Combat

Less well known were the trials by "ordeal". These were mechanisms to settle legal disputes where one or both of the parties were not warriors and who therefore didn't have recourse to trial by combat. But in some cases, the sovereign brought in ordeal as a mechanism to discourage trial by combat. The ordeal could sometimes be absolutely horrific---such as asking people to grab a red hot iron bar or pull a stone out of boiling water. The idea was that if the burns inflicted became infected, the person was guilty, whereas if they healed cleanly they were innocent. Other ordeals were a lot less awful---these included seeing if someone choked while eating the Host or who could hold their hand up longest in front of the Cross. (This reminds me of the test on the television show "Survivor" where people were tested to see who could keep their hand on a post the longest.)

Trial by Ordeal of the Red Hot Iron Bar

This system of setting disputes and criminal cases seems absolutely bizarre to modern people. Why would anyone support such an absurd system? The thing to remember is that there were few other options---and some of them were far worse.

Prior to the establishment of any sort of legal system, people had the option of either ignoring any sort of harm done to them or taking the law into their own hands. If they opted for the first, then they ran the risk of being identified as "easy pickings" for any individual or group that wanted to abuse them. This meant that in most cases, individuals and groups tended to retaliate. And because the important issue for long term survival is not revenge, but rather deterrence, the retaliation tended to be disproportionate or "massive". You can't allow someone to think that the punishment for getting caught is just "the price of doing business." Because the retaliation tended to be disproportionate to the original insult, this invited an even more massive tit-for-tat response. The result could be an escalating vendetta or feud that could cause massive misery for all and sundry.

If you want to understand the situation, consider the sort of spectacular violence that occurred between gangs of bootleggers during prohibition. If someone stole from a gang, there was no option of going to the police. Moreover, the gang cannot really afford to have hired protection for every stage of their enterprise. So, instead, they create "examples" of anyone who is foolish enough to try to cause them problems. And because the price for being humiliated was so high, retaliatory responses also called for a response---which then escalated into an on-going feud or vendetta. This sort of thing creates a very horrible problem for society.
St.Valentines Day Massacre: Dispute Without a Mechanism for Settling

The value of trial by combat or ordeal is that it allows the authorities to settle disputes cleanly and finally. To use a modern hypothetical example from Mexico, if the leader of Los Zetas accuses the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel of hijacking a shipment of illegal drugs, they currently have no other mechanism for settling disputes than a war. This will kill lots of innocent bystanders and weaken both organizations to the point where one or both might be vulnerable to being taken over by a third group, such as the Gulf Cartel. So it's actually in the best interests of everyone to have the dispute settled cleanly and quickly by an all-powerful third party---no matter what the outcome. This is because in many cases, it is better for a clan to lose the case---without appearing weak---than to win after a protracted war. This means that if there were a powerful sovereign who was able to introduce trial by combat or a trial by ordeal, it would be in the best interests for all the cartels to adopt them and abide by the results.

Of course, the important issue is that trial by combat or ordeal have bugger all to do with "justice". But in many societies a nebulous concept like justice isn't very important compared to the necessity of keeping the peace. And, truth be told, our present civil and criminal systems really don't have much to do about justice either. If they did, there would be no "too big to fail", "too big to jail", "SLAPP" lawsuits or prosecutors pressuring innocent people to plead guilty. In actual fact, I suspect that many poor people would be objectively be better off if their criminal or civil cases could be settled by combat or ordeal than by a legal system that is so driven by money.

Hearsay Evidence
I've pursued this digression into the criminal justice system in some detail because I wanted to make a point about how important society at large is to "spiritual" ideas like "guilty" and "innocent". Trials are dispute settling-mechanisms that are so ingrained into our collective psyches that many people labour under the assumption that when someone has been found guilty in a court trial, that means that they have been proved guilty---when in fact nothing of the sort has happened. Our prisons have many innocent people, and anything like an objective look at the system shows this.

I also wanted to use the example of trials before a judge and jury to introduce another important idea: rationality comes from culture.

Generally, people have a naive belief that we are all atomic individuals who use their minds to make decisions about the world around them. But the fact is that our culture controls both the content and structure of our thought processes. I think the best way of explaining this comes from the way people are allowed to present evidence during court proceedings, as expressed in the pop culture.

Take the example of "hearsay". Generally speaking, what is inadmissible as hearsay in a court turns on the issue of whether or not the person giving the evidence is available to be cross-examined. This is because people are notorious in their ability to confuse and ball-up information when it is transmitted from person to person. Consider the game of "telephone".

No Ability to Cross Examine in this Chain of Evidence!
In the Norman Rockwell painting above, each person in the chain of transmission has an opportunity to "degrade the signal" as it were. This means that the story can be changed from the original. These changes amplify with each link in the chain of transmission, because the odds of the story going back to the original are almost nil. The problem from a legal standpoint is that the last person in the chain doesn't have any real knowledge of the actual event being discussed, so there is no way a skillful questioner can ferret out the truth of what really happened.

This is important, as people routinely have a hard time being precise in their language and thought processes. And a lot can depend on precise language. To cite a non-legal example, at work I once got sent off to cut holes in a carpet in order to access electrical outlets in the floor. I was given a map by one of the staff members that showed the system by which all the outlets installed in the building could be located. This woman swore up and down that all the floor outlets in the building were all in exactly the same places on the floor. I went, didn't find any outlets and came back twice to double check with her because I was having no success. The first time I came back, she was adamant that the entire building was all the same. The second time she still insisted on this but after further prodding she added "except for the first floor"---which was where I was working. 

This woman wasn't trying to be a pain in the butt, but her mind is laid out such that she does this sort of thing fairly regularly. On top of that, she lacks the self-awareness necessary to have some humility about her ability to think things through and express herself clearly. As a result, every statement she makes is "absolutely right". If someone like this came into a court of law and was allowed to make statements without skillful cross-examination, she could create an enormous amount of chaos in people's lives (e.g. "I am absolutely sure that the accused is the person I saw standing over the body with a knife in his hand".)

The legal system deals with this problem in several ways. First of all, it creates an aura of fear and awe that forces most people to take the issue more seriously than they normally do with anything else. That's why judges wear robes and decorum is usually enforced in a way that rarely happens anywhere else in our society. Secondly, the laws of evidence exclude most evidence sources that cannot be subjected to cross examination. In the case of my carpet cutting exercise, a skillful cross-examiner would simply have reminded my co-worker that there are penalties for not being accurate and asked her "Are there any exceptions?" Finally, there is an appeal process if there is suspicion that there were errors in the first trial.

The important point to understand about the above is that the rule about hearsay is just one example of a collective process that is designed to force people to be better at reasoning than they would be if they were left to their own devices. And this process hasn't come about because some genius devised the system. Instead, there has been a process of trial and error over hundreds of years where some spectacularly unjust ruling was over-turned and a "legal precedent" was set that governs all future trials. These decisions have built up over time and help make decision-making at trials more and more logical and fair.

The same trial and error process has worked in other fields to create collective systems to ensure that competent thinking takes place. One simple example comes from aviation. When the B-17 bomber was first introduced prior to WWII, there was a spectacular crash that destroyed the prototype shortly after take off. When investigated, it was deemed as being caused by pilot error---even though the people at the controls were some of the best test pilots available. This raised concerns about whether the bomber was simply too complex for human beings to fly. After a careful investigation, it was decided that it wasn't, but it was too complicated for pilots to be able to consistently remember everything that they needed to remember to do before take off. (The original crash was caused because the pilot forgot to turn a switch that would remove a locking mechanism on one of the flight controls.) The solution was to create a checklist of things to do on a clipboard, which solved the problem. Only recently have the same issues been identified in medical situations and the checklist has created similar improvements.  A book titled The Checklist Manifesto has been published that shows how a simple idea like this can have tremendous results.

Of course, probably the most well-know cultural construct that improves the ability of human beings to think clearly is the scientific method. Basically, it is a cultural mechanism which helps humanity formulate hypotheses about how the universe works, and decide which are correct and which are false.

There is No Hard Division Between the Interior and Social Life
This post has been trying to point out a very controversial position that I have never seen once expressed in writings about spiritual practice, namely that there is no hard and fast division between the "internal life" of someone who practices something like Internal Alchemy or various forms of meditation; and, the social life they live as a member of a specific society. Even someone who practices as a recluse and stays away from all other human interaction still carries with him the culture that he was exposed to up until the time he decided to walk away from the "land of dust". The books you read, the stories told to you by your parents, the schooling your received---and most assuredly the rituals and teachings of the religious tradition you follow---all have a "social" impact. If you want to understand how spiritual practice like internal alchemy works, you have to allow for the impact that society has on the minds of followers. And I would argue that the morality that we need to develop hand-in-glove with spiritual practice comes from this social dimension. In a future post I will develop this and link it to the concerns I have about the need for developing a moral basis to spiritual practice.  

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Mencius: the Dao and Spin

Book Two of Mencius' "Duke Wen of T'Eng" starts with one of Mencius' followers, Ch'en Tai, asking about why the teacher won't "stoop to serve" by going to work with one of the "August Lords" to help him to become an Emperor. He quotes a common saying of the time, "Bend a foot to straighten ten". Mencius refuses to accept this suggestion and responds with two arguments, first that people shouldn't force themselves on their betters, but then another that I find more interesting:
"And besides, bend a foot to straighten ten is talking about profits. When it's a matter of turning a profit, don't people think it's fine even if they bend ten feet to straighten one?"
Mencius expands this point by relating a story that seems somewhat strange to our ears. He mentions a chariot driver named Wang Liang who got assigned to an archer named Hsi by Lord Chien. The two of them went out one day, didn't catch anything at all, and Hsi told Chien "He's the worst driver in all beneath Heaven." When Wang heard about this, he asked Hsi to go out with him again. This time, Hsi shot ten birds in one morning. This time he said "He's the finest driver in all beneath Heaven!" Mencius then said that Hsi wanted Wang to drive for him all the time, but Wang refused. He explained himself to Lord Chien in the following way,
I drove hard for him according to the precepts, and we didn't catch a single bird all day. Then I drove shamelessly for him, and in a single morning we caught ten birds.--- ---I'm not accustomed to driving for little people. I'll go now if you please.
Mencius finishes the chapter by bringing the analogy from the driver, through the saying about "bending" to "straighten".
Even though he was a mere driver, Wang was ashamed to compromise for an archer. They could have piled birds and animals up like the mountains, but he still wouldn't do it. What kind of person would bend the Way to please others? You've got it all wrong:  if you bend yourself, you'll never straighten anyone else." 

The first question that comes to mind is how someone could be "compromised" as a chariot driver for an archer. I'm not an expert on ancient Chinese mores, so I can only speculate. But lots of societies have taboos and rules about hunting. For example, we have laws in Canada about not wasting meat. We also have hunting seasons, etc. There are also a long list of birds and animals that we are forbidden to kill. We do not kill vultures, for example, because they clean up dead animals and therefore deal with unsightly messes. We also are forbidden to kill porcupines because they are one of the few animals that a lost and starving human can easily kill with a club---which means that it is everyone's interest that they be abundant and not afraid of people. We also don't "jack" deer with bright lights, use salt licks, or hunt bears at garbage dumps---because it is "unsporting". Nor do we use high powered rifles in the more settled part of the country because missed shots are a menace to innocent bystanders. I can only assume that in Mencius' time there were similar rules governing hunting. It appears to me that Hsi had no qualms about breaking them, yet Wang was appalled.

In other words, Hsi was concerned about profit, whereas Wang was concerned about the "Way", or, Dao. What is the Dao for Wang? We don't know. But I would suggest that from my reading of Mencius that he would suggest that there is an ethical/social dimension to it. A person can't just be concerned about making profits and still adhere to the Dao.


I got thinking about this because we have just had a week where the excesses of capitalism really seem to have exploded across the media. In Canada the CBC broadcast a major expose about an investment firm that has encouraged super wealthy people to "give" their money to shady corporations in the Isle of Man as a way to avoid paying taxes.

In addition, we have the spectacle of Volkswagen being caught deliberately spoofing the emissions control regulations on their vehicles and investors buying up generic drug manufacturers so they can increase the prices charged on important life-sustaining drugs by as much as 7,000 percent.

These are pretty clear-cut examples of capitalist excess. But there are other examples of "bending a foot to straighten ten". For example, the place where I work has big signs all over the place talking about how much carbon has been saved by the energy saving light bulbs that have been installed there. A friend of mine who knows about such things just about choked when he saw them. He said that the carbon savings are grotesquely over-blown. And I know for a fact that the lights, which are designed to go off at night, are switched on five nights a week by the cleaning crew as soon as the computer turns them off to save energy. As a result, I strongly suspect my friend is even more right than he thinks.

What is happening with the signs at my workplace is "spin". That's when an institution hires professionals whose job it is to read every situation in the most favourable way possible and promote that to the general public as objective fact.


When I was at university I read a paper about scientific accuracy that talked about things like parallax. This the seeming displacement of an object as seen from two different places. An example of this is when we look at the hands of a clock and see how the time seems to change if we look at it from one side of the hand, to directly over the hand, to the other side.  This diagram from Wikipedia illustrates another example.

How Parallax Works
The point that the philosopher was making was that when a scientist takes a measurement such as with a thermometer, for example, he has a choice to make. He can try to "fudge" the data to support his hypothesis by looking at viewpoint "A" or "B", or, he can look at 90 degrees to the object, and write down what the temperature really is. This is a ethical choice. In the same way, at every step of the scientific process, a researcher has opportunities to "fudge" her results to conform to her expectations. This means that scientific objectivity is ultimately a question of ethics. This ethical stance is the exact opposite of spin, which is the process of avoiding the direct view and instead selectively choosing a viewpoint that will always make a preconceived viewpoint look the best.

What this means is that the activity we call "spin" is not only not objective, it is profoundly unethical. And the people we call "spin doctors" are not only not objective, they are profoundly unethical. In other words, spin doctors are evil. The person who wrote the copy that adorns the walls of my workplace is an evil person who makes their living by committing evil acts. That is why my friend reacted with visceral disgust when he saw them. 


I don't think that Mencius would call a spin doctor "evil". I very much doubt that any Daoist I have heard of would either. "Evil" is more of a Western, Judeo-Christian concept that stems from ancient Persian ideas of there being a dualistic battle between two gods, one representing "good" and the other "evil". In contrast, the tradition of Western Philosophy tends to see what we call "evil" as being misguided behaviour that is caused by ignorance and a stunted psyche. My reading of Chinese thinking would suggest that it is much more in harmony with the philosophical tradition than the Judeo-Christian one. So while I don't really believe in the idea of "evil", I know that many of my fellows citizens do. So, at least once, I want to call spin "evil" more as a rhetorical device than anything else.

I did this because I don't think that most people really understand how damaging spin is to our society. It is a subtle poison that rots the foundations of science and democracy. That is why, like my friend who reacted to the posters on the walls of my work place, I have a strong emotion of revulsion and disgust every time I see it.

I mentioned earlier that one of the nastier things revealed this week is the way speculators have been buying up companies that produce generic drugs and then dramatically jacking up the prices they charge. Here's one of these miscreants being interviewed by Bloomberg "News".

This is probably one of the best examples of spin that I have ever come across. This corporate leech has been very carefully primed by his marketing people and he is being interviewed by the usual type of corporate reporter who was probably selected for her good looks---she certainly doesn't know how to ask tough questions in an interview! If you watch the interview Shkreli goes through the following arguments:
  1. the drug is under-priced compared to cancer drugs
  2. the cost of production is not the only cost of production
  3. the company needs money to provide "dedicated patient services"
  4. the company will ensure that no patients will be denied the drug for financial reasons
  5. market competition will create new and better drugs
Let's look at these statements one-by-one.

First, with regard to the relative pricing. Starvation never justified malnutrition. So pointing out price gouging by one drug doesn't justify it in another. Shkreli is implicitly assuming that there is some sort of objective, fair, market mechanism that is setting drug prices. But economists will point out that medical services---including life saving drugs---are what they call an "inelastic market". No one who is suffering from a terminal illness would turn down a life-saving treatment because of cost. As a result, there can never be any competitive pressure exerted to reign in excessive prices. Moreover, because of the fact that medical services are governed by professionals, most patients are totally at the mercy of doctors and can only do what they are told. This means that even if it were possible to find cheaper alternatives to a given therapy, the patient would lack the knowledge necessary to evaluate the different alternatives with any hope of being able to find the optimal one. This is why medicine is a regulated profession and doctors are sworn to the Hippocratic oath and nurses to the Nightengale pledge. (It is also why engineers in Canada wear an iron ring.) There can be no competitive market in such situations, which is why regulated professions follow ancient systems of governance based on a sense of "duty" and ritual oaths. 

Shkreli lists off a bunch of production costs that he says bumps the price well above the $1/pill cost of making the drug. He mentions distribution, "FDA costs" and other manufacturing costs. If there are extra costs associated with the product, why not itemize them and add them to that $1 figure? I would suggest that if he did so, he would have come up with a figure that was only marginally bigger than that $1/pill. So instead, his spin doctors told him to reel off these other vague items and let the listener assume that these are very significant costs that simply cannot be avoided.

Next on the line is "dedicated patient services". This is a delightfully ambiguous term. What does it mean? Probably not much more than advertising. Have you ever heard from a drug company when you were being treated for an illness? I haven't. My interactions have all been with doctors, nurses and pharmacists---which are all regulated professions that have been decoupled from private enterprise and the free market. The only "dedicated patient services" I care about come from doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals.

As for the idea that this drug company can charge whatever it wants for this drug because they will make sure that "poor folks" still get it is patronizing. First, it only refers to the specific drug in question. What about all the other drugs that Shkreli has purchased but haven't been subjected to the media spotlight? Do the protocols all cover them? Secondly, it only refers to this moment in time. Any voluntary actions by the company can be removed whenever the media spotlight is taken away. Third, how is this protocol to be enforced? Can Shkreli prove that every doctor, hospital, and insurance provider will know that this special protocol exists whenever a poor person darkens their door with this problem? Or will they just look at the price on a computer spread sheet and say "yup, that's the price---and you can't afford it"? Special deals always get lost in the shuffle when poor and disenfranchised people get involved. That's what the class system and poverty is all about. That's why we have a welfare state instead of "noblesse oblige".

Finally, here's the biggest old canard of them all to finish off. The free market will give us new wonder drugs if we just throw enough money at it. I call "bullshit" on this. First of all, contrary to the spin, most primary research is not done by private entities but rather through government facilities, universities, and, charities. That's because businesses are not in business to find out how the universe operates but rather to make money. And when a business does do research to find some sort of practical application, such as a new drug, it leans heavily on primary research done for the public good. So why do we trumpet up the last stage of the work and ignore the first part?  Spin.

In fact, private research is a tremendous drag on scientific progress. There has been a real change at universities over the past few decades where private money has infiltrated science labs. Where once scientists routinely collaborated informally and people used to be able to wander into each other's labs to see what was going on, now doors are locked and people are secretive about experiments that could have practical implications. Even worse, because of the pernicious influence of big money, a lot of scientific results have been twisted as companies do things like publish only positive results and bury any studies that suggest that there might be problems. In drug research this is a tremendous problem. Just do a quick Google search of "buried drug studies" and lots of interesting stuff will come up, here's one that looked especially interesting. So far from empowering research into new drugs, the free market leeches off public research and damages scientific progress by reducing collegiality and reducing the reliability of published data.


Canada is currently in the midst of a federal election right now, so there is a tsunami of spin washing across the country. Of course, the lame-stream media is full of it. But what I find especially distressing are the people I know who are just as excessive in their use of spin in their expressions of partisanship. Loyalty can be a wonderful thing. I know my dear and lovely wife is totally loyal to me---as I am to her---and it fills me with a warm glow. But people shouldn't give their loyalty to frail institutions like political parties. Instead, like Wang and Mencius, we should be loyal to the Dao. It is true that for life to continue we all have to make compromises, but we need to make them grudgingly and only if they cannot be avoided. We shouldn't embrace them as a "career path". So when someone asks us to "bend a foot to straighten ten", remember that, as Mencius says, we usually end up bending ten to straighten one. True leadership inspires, it doesn't seduce.   

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Internal Alchemy, Part Four

In my last post on this subject I tried to deal with the utility of what I have been called "internal alchemy". I showed that from my experience doing grad work that science and scholarship are incapable of working with such phenomenon. And while I showed that this sort of thing can be of tremendous practical importance to people like painters, hockey players, fighter pilots, and so on, it doesn't seem to have much utility when it comes to helping people live an upright, moral life. You can be an enlightened Buddhist master, for example, and still be an ethical moron who willingly supports the most oppressive regimes and who exploits his students.

This point hasn't been lost on the Buddhist tradition, which is why many teachers put a big emphasis on the concept of "compassion". The idea is that you don't just learn how your mind operates, but you also put a lot of work into building up your sense of compassion for all other sentient beings. Indeed, my first meditation teacher told me that "smart guys like you need to REALLY work on compassion because you can get so angry at the stupidity you see all around you". Sage advice indeed.

One example of how Buddhists have tried to inculcate a sense of compassion in their followers is through reciting the Metta Sutta. This is a procedure where you work through a long list of people in your life and wish them the best in great detail. You start with the folks you like, move on to the people who are kinda annoying, then the people you dislike, and finally deal with vile, evil fiends. So you start with your wife or mom, go to the guy at work who talks too much, to the fellow who lied about you to the boss, to Hitler. The idea is that you create a conditioned response so you respond immediately to all people with compassion without having to think. This is exactly the same thing as when you do martial arts moves over and over again to the point where when the situation arises, you do them without thinking.

Here's an example from the YouTube of the sort of Metta practice that Buddhist teachers have routinely used to instill a sense of compassion in their followers.

I've chosen a specifically cheesy version because there is a soft, sloppy, sentimental quality to the way most people think about compassion. But consider the example of the use of the Metta that was expressed to me by a monk from the far East. He was on a pilgrimage in India with another monk and they were attacked by bandits. The thieves were poor enough that they considered almost everything was worth stealing. Not only did they steal from the two monks, they also beat the crap out of them. All they left the monks was their underwear. The monk said that his buddy immediately started reciting the Metta Sutta when this horrible ordeal started.

This is the result of a lifetime of internal alchemy. Compassion is something that you can teach people, but it requires sustained effort over a long time. In other words, it is a kung fu.


There is a complexity to compassion however. You need to learn what is and is not something to get upset or compassionate about. It is easy to see the simple problem when a gang of criminals rob you. But there are types of crime that are totally invisible unless you have the information needed and the intelligence to "make the connection". There are also a great many responses that one can have to any given situation. It is one thing to recite the Metta Sutta when you are the passive recipient of violence, it is another thing altogether to find a way to act on the basis of the urgings of your compassionate heart. And once you accept that compassion is more than just passively responding to whatever conventional morality dictates as being "bad", then there has to be some sort of process for deciding when and how one needs to respond.


The gravest crisis that the human race has ever faced is in front of us right now. Climate change is something that could potentially lead to suffering and death on a scale that dwarfs anything else that has ever confronted humanity. Unfortunately there is a very large fraction of the human population who simply cannot make the intellectual leap to see climate change as being a moral issue. In other words, a lot of the people who can see this first image and think "that's evil"

Why is this an image of evil that requires a compassionate response? 
But this is one of prosperity and has nothing at all to do with compassion? 
see the second one and think "good paying jobs". Because others (like myself) can see the connection between burning fossil fuels and things like droughts, wild fires, hurricanes and typhoons, famine and flooding, we don't see much difference between the two scenes. Both are "all about" insane human decisions leading to a great deal of suffering. So it isn't just enough to be compassionate, it is also important to have the intelligence to be able to see suffering in all its forms---not just the ones that have been neatly identified by conventional teachings.


The problem is even deeper than this. Feeling compassionate towards others is something passive. Ethics isn't just about feeling one way or another when confronted by a situation. It should also be about people's actions. It isn't just about not doing bad, it is also about actually doing things to prevent, end, and, redress it. It isn't enough to just follow the rule "thou shalt not kill", it is also about "thou shalt actively protect the defenseless".

People run afoul of this when they contemplate folks like Nelson Mandela. The facile version of his story is to talk about a man who was willing to spend decades in prison to protest Apartheid and refused to be vengeful when he ended up President of South Africa. What a deeper discussion needs to identify is the reason why he was sent to prison in the first place. As head of the military wing of the African National Congress, "Umkhonto we Sizwe", (or, "Spear of the Nation"),

Yup, this guy was a terrorist. 
Mandela was committed to a campaign of violent sabotage (or what is often called "terrorism" by many people) aimed at the South African state. At the time of Mandela's first state visit to the United States, he was on the "no fly list" because he was listed as a terrorist. The university where I work once contemplated giving him an honorary doctorate, but our Board of Governors refused for the same reason. "Terrorism" is a tremendously misused word, but the fact of the matter is that according to the definition used by most current government officials and large swathes of the body politic, Nelson Mandela---secular saint---was a terrorist.

Of course, IMHO, the fact is that he was a soldier who was trying his best to free his people. And in South Africa non-violence resistance had been tried for decades without any success (after all Gandhi invented it there.) So the Afrikaans population left the blacks no other option but to take up the gun. It could be argued that given the context, this was the ethical thing to do---although a great many people with conventional religiosity would cringe at the idea. Mandela was a man of great compassion and insight, but the way he manifested this was by organizing training camps outside of South Africa to teach demolition and sabotage, and, to send teams into the country to destroy key industrial targets. His compassion was neither conventional nor passive.


So, being ethical isn't just about being conventional or passive. And there is another element that needs to be addressed. The reason why religious systems don't want to be unconventional or pro-active in their ethics is because once you encourage people to do this, you will get various people espousing and acting upon all sorts of different visions of "right" and "wrong". This would create chaos. To some extent, people have to sing from the same song book or else you don't have a choir anymore.


I once heard a short talk by a native medicine man where he made a distinction between religious systems that are based on revelation versus ones that are based on inspiration. The Abrahamic religions are revelatory in nature because they are based on specific, historical events where God supposedly communicated an set of ideas to a specific, historical person. Moses went up on a mountain to get the ten commandments, Jesus spoke to the twelve disciples, and, the angel Gabriel commanded Mohammed to "recite!" In contrast, inspirational religions are based on the personal experience of individual practitioners, as interpreted through a theological matrix. The Zen Buddhist sits and meditates, and has experiences that are explained to him by the Master. Similarly, the person following a medicine man goes on a spirit quest or ingests some hallucinogenic drug which provides experiences that are explained by the traditions of the tribe.

Religions that are revealed are inherently authoritarian. There is a set of teachings that are totally non-negotiable. It's either their way or the highway. In contrast, when you go on a vision quest and see your spirit animal or have a vision, that is your way. It belongs to you and you get to have a lot of leeway in how it is interpreted. Inspirational religions are inherently anarchic. This means that any sort of authority you may have in this system comes from your ability to inspire others, instead of access to the power of a large institution.

Religions that are revealed, therefore, have no problem at all creating a consensus in society. They have access to force. If someone tries to undermine the consensus that holds society together, they can do things like order people to shun them, take away access to jobs, or, torture them to death in a public spectacle.
The Traditional Consensus-Building Method in Christianity
Native American societies are inherently anarchic anyway, so it really doesn't cause them any problems if their religious practices are inspirational. In contrast, Chinese society has always been a bit of a powder-keg, which means that central authority has had great concerns about the inspirational element that lies at the core of both Buddhism and Daoism. Indeed, very large revolutions by religious groups are part of Chinese history. Two examples would come to mind from anyone even slightly versed in it: the Daoist-inspired Yellow Turban Rebellion, and, the pseudo-Christian Taiping Rebellion. This problem from Chinese history is why the present government has responded so vigorously to stamp out the Falun Gong movement. It is why Daoists, Buddhists, etc, have only been allowed to operate as religious practitioners and institutions if they are licensed and regulated by the state. This control by the state is the way Chinese society has traditionally created religious consensus in Chinese society even though the two dominant religions---Buddhism and Daoism---are inherently inspirational and anarchic in nature.


So how does someone who practices Neidan, or "Internal Alchemy", develop a moral compass that allows them to be part of a society while at the same time developing a sophisticated morality? I believe that the answer lies in what I describe as "practical philosophy". I will attempt to explain what I mean by this in my next post on this subject, as I think this post is already quite long enough.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Mencius: Who is More Important?

In the last chapter of the book Duke Wen of T'Eng, Volume One, Mencius interacts with a follower of Mozi:  Yi Chih. This shows the differences between Confucianism and Mozi's school that should be of interest to people today.


Before I get into this, I'll have to offer some background explanation.

The great flowering of Chinese philosophy occurred during the Warring States period. This time was roughly between 475 BC to 221 BC. It involved a collection of little states fighting between themselves until their ultimate consolidation into the short-lived Qin dynasty----which became the template for China itself.

During this time various schools of thought competed with each other to assert dominance into the culture of what ultimately became "China": Confucianism (Ru), Legalism (Fa), the followers of Mozi, and, what eventually became known as Daoism. These schools fought it out not only intellectually but also militarily. Temporarily, Legalism won out because it built the superior war machine and it was able to consolidate all the little states into the Chin dynasty, which became the geographic and administrative basis of China. It also tried---with limited success---to stamp out all the other schools (except Daoism) by executing their leading thinkers and burning their texts. But, as predicted by the Confucianists, the Legalist society of Qin proved very brittle because of its harshness and quickly fell to peasant revolts. Ultimately, Confucianism won out and become the central cultural theory for China. Mozi's doctrines just about disappeared, Legalism was discredited, and, Daoism became a respected subculture followed by a fringe of Chinese society.

Mencius is a partisan of Confucianism. Which I assume that readers will be learning about as I work through his text. But I doubt if many readers have ever heard of the thinker championed by Yi Chih:  Mozi.


Mozi started off in humble circumstances but worked his way into a position of prominence as both a philosopher and as an engineer. He not only went from state to state---like Confucius---attempting to influence leaders, he also had a group of followers who were willing to help leaders build fortifications to protect their lands. They'd do this in order to discourage war, since there is no sense invading another land if their cities have been made invulnerable to assault.

His teachings emphasized humility, simplicity, concern for all his fellow citizens, and, the creation of a society that worked for everyone. In modern terms, he is usually described as a utilitarian. This is the philosophy that says that the "right thing to do" is generally whatever creates the greatest good for the greatest number of people.


The chapter begins with Yi Chih who asking to talk with Mencius. The Confucian puts him off, pleading sickness. But he does say that he'd like to talk and that he'll do the visiting when he's better. But this doesn't seem to be genuine interest, but rather a case of "don't call us, we'll call you", because Yi Chih again tries to connect---presumably because he hasn't been contacted. Mencius says he'll see him, but then suggests that he will only do so after he "straightens out" Yi Chih. So he uses an intermediary to communicate on the subject of filial piety.

I have heard Adept Yi is a follower of Mo Tzu [sic]. In funerals, Mo Tzu's school follows the Way of simplicity. And Adept Yi apparently thinks such simplicity can transform all beneath Heaven. So how can he himself denounce it instead of treasure it? He gave his parents lavish burials, but the principle of simplicity condemns that as a tawdry way of serving them. (David Hinton trans.)
Then, Yi answered Mencius' catspaw.
According to the Confucian Way, the ancients ruled as if watching over newborn children. What can such words mean if not that our love should be the same for everyone, even if it always begins with loving our parents?
Mencius responded.
Does Adept Yi really believe we can love a neighbor's newborn child the way we love our own brother's child? The only time that's true is when the newborn is crawling around a well and about to fall in, for the child doesn't know any better. Heaven gives birth to all things:  they have a single source. But Adept Yi insists that they have two, what's why he believes such things.
Imagine people long ago who didn't bury their parents. When their parents die, they toss them into gullies. Then one day they pass by and see them there:  bodies eaten away by foxes and sucked dry by flies. They break into a sweat and can't bear to look. That sweat on their faces isn't a show for their neighbors:  it's a reflection of their deepest feelings. So when they go home and return with baskets and shovels to bury their parents, it's because burying parents truly the right thing, the Way for all worthy children and Humane people.  
Yi responded with a contrite: "I have now been taught".


Mencius clearly feels threatened or annoyed by Yi Chih, which is why he refuses to meet directly with him. But if we look at the text with an objective eye it is very hard to see the chapter as a serious response to Mozi and his followers.

He starts off by suggesting that Yi Chih is a hypocrite because he buried his own parents using elaborate rituals rather than simply as Mozi suggests is appropriate. Whether or not Yi is a hypocrite is irrelevant, because hypocrisy isn't really grounds for refuting something. Yi Chi just ignores this point and instead suggests that when Confucians talk about ideal rulers, they often use analogies to the way parents treat children. My school of Daoism includes the Classic of Filial Piety as one of its core teachings, so I have read a translation. And, if my memory serves me, the relationship between ruler and ruled is indeed an important part of filial piety. Yi is suggesting that if a ruler can see all his subjects as being his children, then the entire citizenry should as well.

But Mencius takes issue of this. He does admit that all people do feel some sort of basic feeling towards others in special cases. That is, we all feel a softness for babies. That is why almost all people feel compelled to protect young children from harm (such as a baby near an open well.) Modern evolutionary biology would suggest that this is "hard wired" into our brains due to natural selection. Since humanity evolved in small bands of related individuals, protecting all the babies we see would probably help replicate DNA that even if not directly our own offspring, would share many characteristics with our own because it is the offspring of a close relative. (This is the selfish gene hypothesis.) So in this case it might very well be that Mencius is absolutely right---this is an example of an innate ethical belief.

Mencius refuses to go beyond this limited sense of connection however, and argues once one gets beyond the specific feelings people have towards young children, it is "human nature" to place relatives ahead of others. This is what Western philosophy would call "ethical intuitionism", or, the idea that some moral insights can be understood intuitively without any recourse to either logic or evidence. Please note, however, that Mencius is not limiting the scope of ethical intuition, instead he is saying that the intuitions are different from what Yi is suggesting. He believes that people's intuitions tell them to at the same time universally protect babies and also discriminate against others in order to help out their own relatives.

While it might be that the selfish gene hypothesis might suggest that this is the case in some limited cases, Mencius would not have posited it this way because he lived long before the science of genetics.  Moreover, he pushes this theory past the point where the replication of DNA is involved. He suggests that Chinese burial customs are intuitively obvious to all human beings, which is totally unsupported by the facts.  He says that the vast majority of people would be horrified to see their parents' bodies reduced to a skeleton in a ditch, so they would immediately rush out to rebury them, and, that this response is a result of something innate in the human psyche---if not the universe itself.

I would disagree with this position and posit that the feelings that Mencius is referring to are culturally conditioned. It is simply the case that there are cultures that see things very differently and which consider it right and proper to work a loved one's body back into the ecosystem as soon as possible.  For example, consider the examples of Tibetan "sky burial".  Here's a YouTube video that clearly shows people who do not share Mencius' moral intuitions. (Warning, this isn't for the faint of heart):


Moving beyond the specific case of lavish funerals to the general case of putting the children of others on par with your own, one of the strongest practical arguments against Confucianism over the ages has been that it has fostered nepotism and corruption as generation after generation of officials "pulled strings" to help their relatives into offices that they were unfit to hold.

I have seen at my workplace what happens when nepotism is allowed to happen. I remember a coworker's wife worked in human resources and pulled strings to get their son hired into the cleaning crew. He has some sort of "issue", and he managed to make the life of the women who worked with him a living Hell. They all transferred to other buildings or quit, and the building became a dumping ground for staff members that foremen didn't want working for them. The result was that the building became little more than a pig-sty. The fellow in question eventually got transferred to a small building where he wouldn't have to interact with any other cleaners. Even that didn't work as he ended up in a fist fight with his foreman. That was the last straw and he was fired.

Imagine what harm he could have done if he was more than just a janitor and was in a position of some authority. Yet this has happened as a "matter of course" throughout Chinese history because of the influence of the Confucian virtue of "filial piety".

In contrast to this "innate human nature", other societies have fought against this tendency.  Legalism is one way of doing this. Rules are created and penalties are assigned against those that break them. Where I work there are supposed to be specific mechanisms at work to avoid hiring unfit employees. These are often followed, but a lot of management is quite sloppy about following these guidelines and bad things happen.

Other societies go a little bit farther and try to create an ideal of civic responsibility. The ancient Spartans are probably the best example of this. Young people were put through very, very, very harsh training that not only made them great soldiers but also people who genuinely put the good of the community ahead of their only personal interests.

This extended to the point where mothers put the good of their army ahead of the well-being of their children. This started right from birth where Spartans accentuated natural selection by formally inspecting all their children and killing any that seemed to harbor any type of physical imperfection. The movie "300" is very good as showing this ethos.

The selection didn't end here. From an early age boys were put through a very intensive and all-encompassing system of education known as the "Agoge". The goal of this process was to ensure that the boys grew up into super soldiers who primary loyalty was to the state instead of their family. Again, "300" does a good job of explaining this process:

This attitude was expected to over-ride the natural human emotions that people feel towards children and spouses. Consider the example of the Spartan woman who famously told her son going off to battle "Come home with your shield or on it"---which is to say, "Don't throw away your heavy shield and run. Fight even if it means you end up being killed and carried home on your shield as a corpse".

My last clip from "300" dramatizes this attitude in a conversation between King Leonidas and his wife.

The thing to remember about Sparta is that it was an actual human society and lived and prospered following these rules. It's existence totally puts the lie to the argument that it is "only human nature" to put the needs of your family ahead of everyone else.


When I started this essay I originally put the word "philosophy" in "scare quotes" to show that I don't really think of Chinese "philosophy" as being the same thing as Western. There are several reasons for doing this, but in this particular case, I was motivated by the fact Mencius is using such incredibly lame reasoning in this chapter. He is pretty much taking as "intuitively obvious" anything that he believes to be true. That is no refutation of Mozi. And no reasonable person would listen to his arguments and simply agree that he has "been schooled".

Eventually I decided against this, as even if his arguments are often weak, he still has some useful insights that bear thinking about. What I found interesting was the reference to Mozi, someone that I think should have a bigger profile. (Perhaps at some future date I will write some posts devoted to him.) Moreover, in discussions about Confucianism I have often come across the example of the child by the well. I was surprised to realize that it comes from one of the weakest chapters in the Confucian corpus.

These are neither stirring insights nor deep wisdom. But if someone is interested in Daoism they should gain some background knowledge about other schools of thought that were extant at the same time that books like the Dao De Jing and Zhuangzi were written. I hope that this post will serve that important if plodding service.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Internal Alchemy, Part Three

I ended my last post on this subject by suggesting that Neidan, or Internal Alchemy, is kungfu, but aimed at a specific end. Obviously, learning taijiquan is about health and self-defense. Other kungfus, like learning how to echo locate if you are blind, or, shoot very efficiently if you are a fighter pilot, have obvious utility too. But how could learning how to see the world in terms of parallel lines, or being able to lucidly dream, or any of the other things I babbled on about be worth doing?


In and of themselves, the value of some of these exercises is somewhat limited. Seeing parallel lines in buildings and complex wave patterns in a streams is not going to make a huge difference in most people's lives. It is the case, however, that seeing parallel lines is the basis of understanding modern perspective drawing---which is very important to artists. (In The Story of the Stone, which is a classic 18th century Chinese novel, one of the characters bumps into a Western-style painting which has been imported from Russia. At first she thinks she is seeing a real human being, then realizes what it is and is totally gobsmacked by the power of this technique.) Wave patterns are also very important in physics.

What I find interesting about these exercises is the way it teaches a person that they can actively control the way that they perceive the world around them. We don't experience a "given", but rather a mediated experience which we can change if not totally at will, at least through sustained effort. This idea is a tremendous change from the naive realism that most people accept without thought.

Equally important, other exercises can be used to develop a discipline aimed at creating a specific type of personality. Once we learn how our minds work through dissecting our minds with our minds, then we can start sculpting them to act in specific ways---just like we do with our bodies through taijiquan. For example, I have found that the best way I can stop my mind from becoming "scattered" is through a regular process of writing. So every day I try to spend at least an hour writing. (I also try to do taijiquan every day to stop my body from deteriorating.)


Because they are all based upon introspection, which is inherently subjective, these sorts of interests are by definition not of any interest to scientists or academics. This is because there are no physical phenomena to identify and quantify. Not only this, but the related experiences are not experienced by the general public, which means that a researcher cannot even do randomized survey tests and quantify self-reported experiences in order to make generalizations from the greater human population.

Charles Tart
In fact, the problem of how to make this sort of thing of interest to scientists became the subject of a Master's thesis I attempted to write while at grad school. I was interested in expanding on the theories of the para-psychologist Charles Tart, who briefly described what he called "state-specific science". This was the idea that the scientific community could "set aside" the need for "objectivity" and instead look for patterns and laws governing the self-described experiences of people who were doing things like entering altered states of consciousness.

Unfortunately, in the process of researching this subject I came to the conclusion that unless someone else has actually done some of the things that I mentioned in the previous blog posts, they will not have the slightest idea what I am talking about. And if they have no personal experience, then the odds are very great that they will be indifferent to, if not in contempt of the ideas being discussed. This isn't to say that the professors I was working with were prejudiced against me, but rather that they were incapable of helping me with my thesis. I eventually pulled the plug on that subject and did an undefended thesis on the role of cultural conditioning in religious experience.

Science is a collective effort and proceeds through the creation of a consensus. This may contradict the Hollywood notion of the lone researcher pursuing his studies in an isolated castle or garage, but the fact of the matter is that if you cannot get colleagues to understand what you are talking about, your articles will not get published, which makes them fundamentally worthless.

Thus ended my decade long foray into the world of academic philosophy.


Of course, I really didn't do any of this stuff in order to become a university professor. What I was looking for was something called "enlightenment" or "wisdom". Many people would consider this something that you pursue through religion. I had had some vague idea that you could also get it through philosophy, but through my university studies I realized that the professors not only didn't share my interest, they were totally indifferent to the idea of pursuing "wisdom".

I had this insight reinforced years after the fact when I attended the wake of someone who had actually been a reader on my failed attempt at a formal thesis.

I won't mention his name, but he was really a "golden boy" in academic philosophy. He published many books, gained tenure at a very early age, and, was an exceptional lecturer. He was funny and engaging as a lecturer. But he was in many ways an appallingly weird, neurotic, little man. He had this awful mental "tic" of being unwilling to talk about anything that was remotely serious on a personal level without instantly making some sort of witty joke to shut down the conversation. He was also infuriatingly rude to working class women. (I used to have lunch with him in local diners once in a while. I started avoiding him because of his disgustingly sexist remarks to waitresses.)

At his wake I was struck by the fact that all his colleagues, who spoke of him with genuine affection, kept talking about what a great "scholar" he was. It became very clear to me that what these professors were "about" had absolutely nothing at all to do with the search for wisdom, truth, and, insight. Instead, it really was about doing good research, publishing solid papers, and so on. I think that there is a difference.

Wisdom is partially based on knowledge, but it is also based on insight---which is at heart a creative thing. Insight is about knowing to do the right thing at the right time. This leads to a second point, in that wisdom isn't just about learning something new, it is more importantly about changing who you are. It is about developing holistically as an ethical, artistic, and, emotional being. Wise people need not be geniuses---but they are not insensitive goofs.


When it became obvious that academic philosophy was not for me, I became interested in religion. Most religions have a body of individuals known as "mystics"---people who seem to be interested in the same mental practices that I was. If it is impossible to study subjective mental states through science and philosophy, then perhaps the way to go would be to join a religious order. The problem with that, however, is that these groups are enmeshed in religions.


I was raised in a pretty non-religious home. My family were nominally Baptists. That meant that us children got sent to Sunday school---but I suspect that that was more about the parents having a few hours to themselves rather than anything else. The one time I can remember that the minister came to visit, my dad crawled out the window of his study and hid in the barn until he'd left. My mother tells me that from a very early age I would argue with Sunday school teachers about the Bible. Supposedly, I insisted that many things in it made absolutely no sense and couldn't possibly be true. I don't think mom or dad considered this terrible behaviour, though, and at a relatively early age I didn't have to go to church any more.

As a result, when I became interested in religious experiences and mystical practices, I did so without any understanding of what actually happens within religious institutions.


The Christianity of Liberals
I spent a lot of time reading the scholarship of Christianity. This included people like Karen Armstrong, Marcus Borg, Dominic Crossan, and so on. I was totally fascinated by their vision, which was based on the Sermon on the Mount. These are the ideals of pacifism, radical concern for the poor, etc, that tend to see Jesus as a "commie hippie". Intellectually, I think that a very strong case can be made to say that this actually is the message of the New Testament. But the problem is that the church isn't really a product of the Gospels. Instead, it was created by historical and political processes and actualized in the traditions and institutions of the existing church. Perhaps if I hadn't been so naive, I would have "twigged" onto the fact that many of these liberal theologians and scholars, like Armstrong and Crossan, had tried to be members of religious orders but had had such a terrible time that they left. Indeed, most of these people have only the most tenuous connection with the institutional church. In years past I have no doubt that most of them would have been burnt at the stake as heretics. Even though their books are best sellers and they routinely fill huge halls on their speaking tours---they are at best marginal figures and totally unrepresentative of real "Christianity".

Counter-balanced against liberal Christians of the sort I was attracted to are a much stronger and better organized group of Christian Fundamentalists that Chris Hedges has described in his book American Fascists and which he describes in this CBC interview:

And below out-and-out Fascists, there is a much larger group of Christians who's understanding comes down to not much more than a belief in whatever conservative viewpoint they grew up with and a bullying attitude towards anyone that sees things differently. A short clip from "Family Guy" encapsulates this sort of person quite well. I certainly have met lots of "Jesus people" who are just the same.


This isn't just a Christian phenomenon, or even limited to the Abrahamic religions.

Chogyam Trungpa
Richard Baker
There have been a fair number of "exposes" published recently about problems within Buddhist groups. Many of them focus on the sexual escapades of Buddhist teachers, some of the most flagrant examples have been Chogyam Trungpa  and Richard Baker, both of which used their positions as "gurus" to live excessive lifestyles and sexually exploit their students. There have also been other stories about problems in other Buddhist organizations. It seems that there are just as many problems in institutional Buddhism as in Christianity.

Unfortunately, there is also a much much bigger worm in the apple of Zen Buddhism that needs to be addressed. The Soto Zen priest and academic historian, Brian Victoria, has published two books---Zen at War, and, Zen War Stories---detailing complicity between Japanese Zen and the Imperial Japanese Empire. This is very tough stuff to read. The organizations that governed Japanese Zen tried to take over and control the local Zen institutions in China and Korea. They also created a theology called "Imperial Way Zen" that justified the Imperial Japanese Empire so Buddhists could feel happy fighting for the Emperor. At no point did "enlightened Zen Masters" attempt to oppose the vicious, colonial oppression, brutal wars of aggression, or, Orwellian state. So much for the teachings of the Compassionate Buddha!

Zen at War
Zen War Stories
 The really disconcerting thing about these revelations comes down to two points. As most people understand Buddhism, the key goal is "enlightenment". At some time in the ancient past, a specific person, "the Buddha", pursued a specific spiritual process and became "enlightened". This was such a good experience that it changed him profoundly. Moreover, it is something that everyone can, at least potentially, also replicate in their own lives. Indeed, in some traditions---such as the Tibetan and Zen, which Trungpa and Baker come from---teachers are given specific "credentials" as having become enlightened, just like the historical Buddha. This gives them tremendous legitimacy and authority in the eyes of their followers. It is this authority that allows leaders like Trungpa and Baker the ability to so abuse their followers.

This is a significant difference between Buddhism and Roman Catholicism. It might be that for many people the pope, the local priest and everyone in between has enormous authority that they can use to abuse parishioners. But the fact of the matter is that there is absolutely nothing in Catholic theology, law, or, tradition that says that they cannot abuse their authority. Medieval painters and poets---like Dante---routinely filled Hell with Popes, Bishops, and, priests. In contrast, Buddhism creates transmission charts to show that Zen and Tibetan Masters have unbroken connections to ancient masters. They are supposed to literally be "supermen". If so, how can a "superman" be a boob that can't keep his hands off his female followers, has a thing for expensive cars, and, is willing to support a bloodthirsty Fascist regime?

The second thing that I found really unnerving about this controversy was the response from the Buddhist community in North America. Some teachers did think that this was a big deal, but far, far too many just dismissed Victoria's books as a question of "cultural relativism".  Even recognized masters seemed incapable of understanding the profound question that these revelations raise about the nature of both "enlightenment" and "lineage transmission". What value is there in "enlightenment" if it can't help you make proper ethical decisions or even understand the question in the first place?


Once I started finding out about the problems with Buddhist clergy, I started asking myself what the actual goal of Buddhist meditation could be. It seems to have nothing to do with ethical insight, as it seems that even people with real progress in Zen could end up being ethical morons. At this point I started to really question a lot of assumptions that I had had about the nature of religion and religious experience. In my next post on Neidan, I'll share some of my conclusions.