Friday, January 29, 2016

Tolstoy, Kutuzov, Sanders, and the Dao

I've been reading Tolstoy's War and Peace again. I've done this so many times that I've lost track. It must be something like a dozen times by now. I do this because it is something like a sacred text to me---every time I read it I find something new to think about. And, I find more depth to the wisdom of Tolstoy.

This time around I have been struck by Tolstoy's description of the Russian army and it's leader Kutuzov.   What I have finally become aware of is the contrast between the Marshall and the staff officers that surround him. Bye-and-large, these staff officers are of two types. Some are idealists who have grand theories about how the war should be fought. The others are careerists who are
General Kutuzov
moving heaven-and-earth to gain wealth and influence through politics. Kutuzov understands that most of these people mean well, but ultimately their value is pretty much zero. They are like flies that buzz around him and cannot be avoided.

The point that Tolstoy makes is that our understanding of warfare is fatally flawed. We tend to think of it like a game of chess that is played by "master strategists". But if it is like chess, it is a strange game where each piece has a mind of its own, there are severe time constraints, and, you cannot see the entire board. The only real power that even the most intelligent Field Marshall has is to not make catastrophically stupid mistakes. Beyond that, they are totally victims of circumstance. Any "genius" that they may manifest only appears so after a victory. The same decisions could also have resulted in defeat---and in that case would have been seen as mere folly.

What mattered far more was the will of ordinary soldiers to fight to their last drop of blood to destroy the invaders. Even more, the same could be said for all the members of Russian society. Greedy store owners gave away their stock to retreating Russian soldiers and told them to burn what was left rather than sell it to the French invaders. Wealthy aristocrats gave enormously of their personal wealth to raise new regiments of soldiers for the army and militia. Instead of selling fodder and food to French soldiers, the peasants hunted them down and killed them every chance they could. The Czar said he would retreat to Siberia and grow his own potatoes rather than sign any sort of peace treaty with Napoleon. Once a society decides that it will not capitulate, any invader is doomed.

Napoleon's soldiers, on their part, were horrified by this way of fighting a war. They were used to fighting a hard battle, doing a bit of looting, then settling down to a comfortable occupation after the peace had been signed---like had happened everywhere else in Europe (except, of course, Spain and Portugal.) When they realized the tar baby that they were stuck to, they ran as fast as they could back to Europe. Indeed, Tolstoy says that contrary to the popular opinion that winter killed off the Grand Army of Napoleon, most of the soldiers died of exhaustion because their officers couldn't get them to slow down their rate of retreat. Instead, they ran so fast that they couldn't properly forage for supplies, worked their horses to death, left hordes of stragglers, and destroyed the health of all but the strongest individual soldiers.

What is important for Tolstoy is to remember that we are all part of a grand historical process, one that manifests itself in spite of all our pet theories and careful schemes. IMHO, Tolstoy's vision of history is Daoist. The Dao manifests itself and there is nothing any individual can do other than agree to its dictates.


I see a parallel between Napoleon's invasion of Russia and our present political situation. Looking at the current American election I am struck by the huge number of "experts" who are offering many different opinions. They are like the staff officers buzzing around Kutuzov. They are either idealists with some grand idea about how the election can be won and the country revitalized. Or, they are opportunists who are trying to make money through consulting fees charged to either a candidate or a major news outlet.

The thing that they don't understand is that politics is also like that strange chess board that Tolstoy describes. Each individual in a political party has a mind of his own.  A low level worker can write something dumb in a leaflet. A candidate can get caught having sex with someone they shouldn't have. Some event in world news can overshadow a well-calibrated media event. All a political leader can do, ultimately, is try to avoid making a catastrophically stupid mistake.

I was involved in politics for years And I was often frustrated by two things.

First, I could never impress upon people that getting elected to office is primarily an issue of luck. Instead, people invariably believed that if they just worked a little harder and were a little more careful and "smart" that they would be able to get the job done. As a result, every election campaign routinely "burnt out" hordes of idealistic people who were told that if they totally killed themselves working that they would win. Of course, they lost and at that point they decided that it was too much work to be in politics and drifted away. If the party had told them the truth, they might have paced themselves a bit more, had some fun, and decided that politics was something that they should make a regular part of their life.

The second point I want to make is that people who feel that they have control over the world around them tend to become obsessed with avoiding mistakes. The problem with this was that it meant that party volunteers had all their freedom to be creative and expressive taken away.  Door knockers were told to not answer questions but stick to talking points. Politicians were schooled to avoid getting caught in a "gotcha", so they tend to become "mush mouths" incapable of answering simple questions. Any printed material became numbingly conventional advertising copy.

Both of these problems are unnecessary---because getting elected has a great deal to do with luck. They are also counter-productive because they push politicians and political parties into a mushy orthodoxy that is usually incapable of dealing with substantive problems or exciting voters.


Having written the above, I would also argue that once in a while a problem becomes so large that society "rears up" and collectively finds a solution. In the case of Napoleon, it was the sort of people's war that occurred in Russia. This isn't to say that it was inevitable that the Grand Army of Europe would be destroyed. The Czar could have signed a treaty. But probably if that had happened, there
An American Kutuzov?
would have still been popular uprisings and guerrilla warfare like that which was happening in Spain at the same time. Germany was also ripe for uprisings.

In Canada the neo-Liberal consensus under the Conservatives was overturned by the Liberals under Justin Trudeau. In England, the "new-Labour" created by Tony Blair was crushed by Jeremy Corbyn.  In the USA, it might just be that the political equivalent of General Kutuzov is Bernie Saunders.

This isn't to say that I believe Saunders is going to win the nomination---but he just might. It also isn't to say that I believe that he is some sort of political genius. What I do think, however, is that he is "genuine" or "real" in a way that most politicians do not allow themselves to be. This is an important point. It isn't that this is a quality that makes one successful in politics. But sometimes it is essential. And this is one of those times.

Tolstoy describes Kutuzov's behaviour at the battle of Borodino
By long years of military experience he knew, and with the wisdom of age understood, that it is impossible for one man to direct hundreds of thousands of others struggling with death, and he knew that the result of a battle is decided not by the orders of a commander-in-chief, nor the place where the troops are stationed, nor by the number of cannon or of slaughtered men, but by that intangible force called the spirit of the army, and he watched this force and guided it in as far as that was in his power. (Chapter  35)
I think that Bernie understands politics in the same way that General Kutuzov understood warfare. It isn't something that involves clever tactics or brilliant strategy. Instead, it is about understanding the times we live in and the spirit of an entire people. I don't believe he decided to run for the presidency because he thought he would "win", but rather because he felt it was the right thing to do. He doesn't calculate what the consequences of a specific word or action will be and as a result he acts in a genuine way that inspires people. He is who he is and he doesn't really care if people know it. He has shown that time and again in the primaries.

Is this because he is an especially brilliant or good man? No. I think he is both good and smart. But more importantly, I think that he is old and wise. I think some things are just invisible to people when they are still filled with youthful vitality. When you get old, however, and you start being thankful for the odd day when you really feel energetic, you begin to observe life a little more objectively and see settled patterns to the way things operate. Tolstoy mentions this in his novel by showing how old and tired Kutuzov is.

I mentioned that I have read War and Peace many times and each time I do so I see something new. When I was young and vigorous I would never have noticed Tolstoy's point about the way cleverness and activity can be overcome by authenticity and patience---the way Napoleon was beaten by Kutuzov. But when I am tired and can do nothing more than observe the world around me, I can look back on my past political activities. This gives me the distance to integrate my lifetime of experience and see things that I believe are invisible to others. This doesn't mean that I don't believe that young people should still be clever and hard-working. That is what we all should do when young. (Kutuzov was very energetic in his youth.) But our leaders need to be more than that. America needs a wise, authentic person right now.  It might have finally found one.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Ugly Canadian

I just got back from my annual Yule visit to St. Louis, where I visit with my dear, sweet, beloved Significant Other, Misha.


I often find myself going through periods of intense thought about a specific issue over a period of time. When this happens, the key point seem to be reflected in many of the events and discussions I live through. In this trip, these thoughts have even invaded my dreams. In this particular case, I've been intensely focused on my relationship to the "Other".  By the "Other", I mean to say the fact that each and every person I meet is profoundly different from me and sees the world very differently.

One of the events that caught my eye about this was a "long read" opinion piece that I read in bed one lazy morning off my smart phone. Titled "The White Man Pathology: Inside the Fandom of Sanders and Trump", I started off thinking that the essay was interesting and insightful, but ended up thinking it was silly and facile. Written by a Canadian from Toronto, it describes his travel from groovy, multicultural Toronto, to the blighted, racist hinterland of Iowa where he interacted with racist rednecks in a bar and goofy conservatives and liberals at campaign rallies. 

What set my teeth on edge was the fact that I found in the piece some very unsettling resonances with the way I see the USA. Primarily, my experience in the 'states is to see what seems to be to me a profoundly racist society that treats working class people of all races very badly, and, which seems to consist of nothing except crumbling inner cities surrounded by obscenely car-dependent suburbs---which are designed to separate the upper classes from having to have anything at all to do with the rest of the population. This sets my teeth on edge and I find myself routinely contrasting this state of affairs with my hip, environmentally-friendly, "walkable" downtown community in Guelph, Ontario.

I don't keep this to myself, and I have developed a tendency to make pompous, self-righteous comments about the difference between my country and the USA. I say my country is better---which is bad enough---but I also tend to suggest that the reason why it is better is because it's people are more socially and politically engaged. I opine, for example, that Canadians fought to preserve their unions instead of sitting idly by and letting them be dismantled. I have also said that people have to sometimes beat up scabs and sabotage workplaces in order to keep their union rights, which horrifies my American friends who think that any sort of violence is abhorrent. 


When I go through one of these "awakening" moments in my life, I find my consciousness sometimes splitting into different parts. That is, I find myself manifesting a specific type of behaviour, but at the same time a part of my consciousness is passively watching the train wreck while it happens. This recently happened at a dinner party where I got into a discussion with a friend who had significantly different opinions about politics. We were talking about "anarchism" and "democracy", and he took the tack of saying that the only thing we could talk about were his strict definitions of these terms. Since "anarchism" is defined on-line as "belief in the abolition of all government and the organization of society on a voluntary, cooperative basis without recourse to force or compulsion", he decided that there really was no such thing as what people call "anarchism". Instead, what they are talking about is just various different types of democratic societies or hopelessly utopian ideas that just degenerate into dictatorships or authoritarian regimes of one form or another. As for "democracy", since it is defined as "majority rule", it is very simple to understand and not really worth discussing either.

For me this was like waving a red flag in front of a bull. You see, I've put a lot of my life into thinking about, creating, and lobbying for both grassroots (ie. somewhat anarchist in nature) organizations and democratic decision-making systems. My finger-prints are on the decision-making system of both the Green Party of Canada and Ontario. So what I wanted to do was get this fellow to admit that there are different types of democracies and anarchisms---which are all approximations of an ideal.  Yet he was adamant in refusing to budge from a strict dictionary definition of each term, which meant that there really was no such thing in the world at all. Indeed, when I asked him what the USA is, if not a democracy, he said it was instead a "republic".

(Since the Google definition of "republic" is "a state in which supreme power is held by the people and their elected representatives, and which has an elected or nominated president rather than a monarch", I suppose I could have turned tables on him and said "how can you say that the supreme power is held by "the people" and not the elites. But that is a game that I didn't want to play.)

I could see that my dear sweet wife and one of her friends were appalled by the way this was spinning away from polite small talk into obnoxious argument, but I was helpless to stop myself from getting all pissy about it. After people left (on good terms I hope), Misha and I had a significant conversation about what had happened.


Misha tells me that like many big white men, I am oblivious to the privileges that I have had in life. Thinking about this exchange, I suspect that one of them is the feeling that I have a "right" to my own opinions and the ability to express them whenever I please. Women generally do not labour under this illusion because they have tended to be tasked with "social production" in our society. That is to say, that women tend to be the people who are responsible for holding families and communities together. They do this by smoothing ruffled feathers and performing the rituals (like the dinner party I mention above) that hold friends and communities together. I admit it too, that I went to her to discuss what had happened and she helped me work through the issues at hand. (Even though, I suspect that at least some of the time when she does this she'd rather use the time to do something else---even if only have some "alone" time to relax.)

One thing she says to me is "try to understand your audience". This is a very new and scary idea for me, as I have been trained to only focus on the ideas. In its bluntest terms, this means that if I think that I can show 1 +1 = 2, I should be appalled when someone says it equals 5. What Misha is saying, is that I should be willing to accept that for some people all they see is 5, and I should be trying to figure out why they see 5 instead of 2. This is not how people at university philosophy departments are trained to think, if only because it is difficult enough to figure out what 1 + 1 equals without having to find out why some people see 5.

And yet, she is obviously right.

There is no sense at all opening your mouth if you are not interested in having another person understand what you are saying. This is an important issue. The Dao De Jing says
When a superior person hears Tao,
He diligently practices it.
When a middling person hears Tao,
He hears it, he doesn't hear it.
When the inferior person hears Tao, he roars.
If Tao were not laughed at,
It would not be Tao.
Therefore, established sayings have it this way:
"The illuminating Tao appears dark,
The advancing Tao appears retreating,
The level Tao appears knotty.
High te appears like a valley,
Great whiteness appears spotted,
Expansive te appears insufficient,
Well-established te appears weak,
The genuine in substance appears hollow.
Great square has no corners,
Great vessel is late in completion,
Great voice has hardly any sound,
Great image is formless,
Tao is hidden and without name."
Yet it is Tao  alone,
That is good in lending help and fulfilling all.  
(Chapter 41, Ellen Chen trans.) 

Looking at this chapter, what I see is that there second stanza says that it is hard to see the truth (ie: Dao) because it often isn't what you think it will be. I think that if I were just seeing the surface of this issue, I'd leave it at that and say that my friend (and he is a friend) was misunderstanding the Dao.

But don't stop there. Consider the following third stanza too. There is De, but there is also high De. It is true that there are facts---1 +1 = 2. But high De consists in understanding that everything we say and do is an approximation. It is a simplification of complex terms and contexts. 1(x-y) + 1(z/q), so it may be true that in most cases, or at least most of the cases that I have experienced, the answer is 2. But in some people's lives, the answer really does appear to be 5 and it would be dishonest to simply accept that it is 2. And just because someone cannot articulate their reasoning doesn't mean that they don't honestly believe it. (False acceptance is no acceptance at all.)

Is a discussion supposed to be a pissing match where people try to brow beat the other into shutting up? Or is it an attempt to really understand the other guy?

I think that it is possible to understand the fourth stanza as referring to this idea. There is a small petty truth. 1 + 1 = 2. But the Great square/vessel/voice/image is not concerned about just one thing. It is also involved in the personal complexities of the people in front of you. It also concerns itself with the context. Is a dinner party a philosophy seminar? Is Canada the same as the USA?  Am I the same person as the fellow I was arguing with? We all bring different things from to the table. But the point is that we are at a table. We are attempting to be friends and negotiate the delusional world that we inhabit.

That's what the last stanza is all about:  "---it is Tao alone, That is good in lending help and fulfilling all."


Remember to embrace the Void. I forgot to do so on my trip to St. Louis. I hope that I will do a better job in the future. 

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

How Much Practice is Kung Fu?

In the Netflix series "Marco Polo" there is a scene where the blind Daoshi "Hundred Eyes" explains kungfu to the series namesake. It is interesting in that it is one of the few depictions of a Daoshi that I have ever seen in the movies, but also because he explains a much more sophisticated description of the Daoist principle of kungfu than I have seen anywhere else.

I will warn readers, however, that I think that Hundred Eyes isn't entirely right. He talks about "supreme skill from hard work" and "practice, preparation, endless repetition, until your mind is weary and your bones ache---until you are too tired to sweat, too wasted to breathe", "that is the Way, the only way, one acquires kungfu". This description is very common, but I would take issue with it, because I am of the opinion that the kungfu comes from effort and sometimes extreme physical effort is a strategy for avoiding the much more important mental effort that is really key to kungfu.


Many years ago I recall coming across a quote from the taijiquan master Cheng Man-ch'ing where he said that he didn't believe in a lot of practice. He was happy to only put in about 20 minutes a day.
Cheng Man-ch'ing
This is absolute, total heresy in most martial arts circles. but I think that there is a grain of truth in it that bears emphasis.

The first thing to understand that Man-ch'ing is a bit of an odd duck in martial arts circles. He was a polymath who was considered a master in poetry, painting, calligraphy, and Chinese medicine---as well at taijiquan. This is a very high order of kungfu indeed. If his mastery was the result of the "endless repitition" and work until he forgot to sweat or breathe, he probably wouldn't have had the time to become a Master at five different arts.

How can someone be both a polymath and a master?


Of course, part of the answer comes down to how you define "master". I know that a lot of folks have an exalted vision of the wise master who can make mountains tremble with the glance of his eye. But IMHO, that is a silly trope that comes from watching too many silly movies like "Star Wars". A better definition would be to say that a "master" is someone who has assimilated a certain type of knowledge to the point where they able to have real ability in its application plus insight into it's theoretical aspects, which she can then pass on to future generations. The insight is important, as for example in the difference between a "journeyman" craftsman versus a "master".

A problem comes from the fact that there is rarely a totally unambiguous certificate of "mastery" that allows one to be universally recognized in your field. My Master's degree from the University of Guelph is considered sufficient qualifications to teach at a university level almost everywhere in the world, for example. But were the standards at the school to decline sufficiently, the degrees awarded would decline in value. And because of the glut of university Doctorates on the market, in actual fact there are no universities that I know of that would hire a Master to teach.

When you get into something that isn't as closely regulated as Canadian universities, things get much more ambiguous. In martial arts and spiritual traditions, a "master" is pretty much someone that other people choose to call a "master". Personally, I'd like to get rid of the term altogether and just use "teacher". But that isn't a discussion I want to spend much time on here. For the sake of this post, I am content to restrict the term to simply "someone who attained a certain level of proficiency in a discipline".

With that in mind, the question is "how can you develop a kungfu in five subjects at the same time if the only way to get kungfu is through brutal, hard, long-term, training?"


To answer, let me me draw reader's attention to an interesting article I came across---"Why Skills Plateau"---by way of a medical blog I follow, the "Incidental Economist".  The article is about doctors and other medical professionals, but it starts with a survey of the literature on learning, which piqued my interest enough that I chased down the original article it was based one, "The Traditional View of Skill Acquisition and Professional Development: History and Some Recent Criticisms", by  K. Anders Ericsson. (It's behind a paywall, so unless you have access to a major academic library---as I do---it will be a pain to get a copy to read. The "Incidental Economist" does a pretty good job summarizing the important points.)

The key points that I saw in this paper are as follows:

  1. Learning suffers from a plateau effect where people learn very quickly up to a certain skill level. At that point, they cease to give their practice their total, undivided attention and then start performing the task "robotically". At this point skill acquisition ceases.
  2. Individuals who go on to become "experts" in their field find some way to avoid this plateauing effect. These strategies are what separate "masters" from other practitioners. 
  3. These strategies boil down to avoiding the transition from conscious learning to robotic behaviour. They included: creating a specific feedback system to be able to accurately measure improvement, creating theoretical strategies for constant improvement, acquiring mental short cuts that allow one to accurately predict behaviour instead of just reacting, and, adapting your practice habits to make maximum use of limited mental and physical abilities.

Let's look at these three issues from the point of view of a taijiquan student.

The first part of training is learning how to do the slow form, which is where the vast majority of people end their practice. It is very difficult to learn the gross movements and remember their order. This requires a level of concentration and practice that the vast majority of people decide is beyond their interest, so they quit. The vast majority of people who do learn the form usually stop trying to learn much more and are satisfied to practice the set sporatically and robotically like a form of exercise---like doing sit-ups and push-ups. These people never become "Yang the unbeatable".

There is a tiny subsection of students, however, who stick with the practice because they find themselves with significant health problems and taijiquan turns out to be a very useful way of dealing with them. This is so common that the school I trained in had a saying "only sick people stick with taiji". Our leader, Moy Lin Shin, the story went, was deathly ill as a child and his parents were told that his only hope of survival was to be taken in by a group of Daoshis. Cheng Man-ch'ing was very sick with what might have been tuberculousis. I had migraine headaches that only went away with taijiquan and come back if I go too long without practice.  People who have illnesses that have been cured by taijiquan have a very strong inducement to stick with the practice that ordinary citizens do not.

There is a second element to sickness. If you have taijiquan and you use it to cure yourself of an illness, I would suggest that you also have a specific type of personality. I routinely try to "fix" health problems through behavioural change, with some very good results. For example, I had a period where I suffered from very bad knee pain and after experimentation found out that hamstring stretches pretty much eliminated them over night. Similarly, I found that my shoulder pain could be dealt with by switching to a split keyboard and ergonomic mouse on my computer plus some chest stretching exercises added to my workout routine. My observation of other people tells me that the overwhelming majority of people would not only never have the discipline to do such things, they lack the intellectual curiosity to investigate problems, or, even the belief that it is possible to do such things. I suspect that Moy and Cheng also had this "scientific" attitude towards their personal health issues. (Indeed, I see that attitude as being intrinsic to both "kung fu" and "Daoism" in general.)

In terms of the article by Ericsson, I would say that the people who are sick and have the attitude of trying to fix their illness through thoughtful physical experimentation are people who have two different parts of the items in the third part of my synopsis:   "creating a specific feedback system to be able to accurately measure improvement", and, "creating theoretical strategies for constant improvement". The feedback are the health benefits. (I can certainly say that getting rid of migraine headaches is a tremendous inducement to further practice!) The theoretical strategy for constant improvement, is the idea of experimentation to find ways of improving your health. A third element that will flow out of trying to find ways to fix ailments, is the generalized idea that I tell all the people I have tried to teach taijiquan---that you have to dissect your body with your consciousness and feel what is happening within it as you do the set.


One thing that caused me problems when I practiced taijiquan occurred when I went to classes and tried to keep up with other students. The teachers would often have long, long marathon training sessions where we were supposed to do set after set after set, or do warm up exercises for long periods of time. I would usually be on the verge of mental collapse very early on in these sessions and as a result felt that the taiji I was doing was absolute crap. No one else felt this way, so I assumed that I was just horribly out of shape or something. It wasn't that I couldn't keep up with others. I'm actually in excellent shape for a man my age with significant wind for hard labour. The problem was extreme mental fatique.

I used to have the same problem at university where I seemed to see huge numbers of complexities around subjects that all the other students were oblivious to. One horrific exam in a classical text course so freaked me out with the general nature of the question led to me submitting a final exam written in symbolic logic because it was the only way I could compress my answer into a form that was less than a ten thousand page essay.

I mention this because one thing that jumped out in the essay on expert learning was the idea that in some types of learning people should only practice for a period of time that is not mentally tiring.  I summarized this point above by saying "adapting your practice habits to make maximum use of limited mental and physical abilities". This is because once one becomes tired, it is no longer possible to give a sufficient level of concentration to the subject. At this time a student begins to practice robotically, and opportunities for real learning cease. This is where I take issue with the definition of kungfu that Hundred Eyes uses in "Marco Polo". If you are going to practice to the point where you "forget to breath and sweat", odds are that your ability to concentrate on what you are trying to learn are long gone and in actual fact you are just going through the motions.


One last thing that I wanted to bring from Ericsson's paper involves pattern recognition (" acquiring mental short cuts that allow one to accurately predict behaviour instead of just reacting".) He discusses chess mastery and how people acquire it. People who start off learning chess usually get to a point where they try to "work through" all the different implications of a specific move. Given the way the human brain works, this only works up to a point. To really get good at chess, a person needs
A Knight Fork
to think in generalized terms. On the most basic beginner level, for example, this involves looking for things like "forks". These are situations where a piece can threaten more than one piece at a time. This means that the opposing player loses a piece because he will only be able to protect one piece at a time when his turn comes around.

In the figure I've supplied, once the knight moves to the green square he threatens the king. This means that black king will have to move, which will allow the knight to take  the queen without loss---a significant gain.

Chess masters spend several hours every day analyzing games by other masters and in the process begin to recognize patterns in play that are beyond non-masters' ability to understand. In the process, they also gain the ability to "see" games mentally in a way that is beyond ordinary people's ability. If I read the paper correctly (please correct me in the comments section if I am wrong) the ability to play many games at a time or to play blindfolded is not a specific skill that some masters can do, it is a by-product of the process involved in becoming a master in the first place. These two skills seem exceptional to non-masters because their minds do not approach playing chess the same way that masters do.

I mention this because many folks have the assumption that a taiji master is able to neutralize attacks because he is faster than any other attacker. I once saw a video of a capoeira master who was playing a training game with his students. It involved a small purse of money being placed in a way that the two people sparring had to grab it while keeping their opponent from doing it first. This guy always got the purse, even though he was old and looked quite frail. He did it by being able to strategically block his opponent even though both of them were in constant motion. (I tried to find it on YouTube, but unfortunately I couldn't.)

Another example of this comes from hockey. Wayne Gretzky is famous for saying that a good player goes where the puck is, a great player goes where it's going to be.  It isn't about how fast you skate, it's about where you skate towards.

In my own case, I can remember an example from having to arrest someone at work. Since I am not a police officer, my legal options are very limited. I did three things. I saw this guy pan-handling. (Which I usually don't mind much and just tell the person to leave. But in this case he was very aggressive and a female student told me she felt very threatened.) So I told him that he had to come down to the entrance with me and talk to the police. At that point, he bolted and ran for the entrance. (If he was arrested by the police, he would get a warning plus banishment from the building. That means if he gets caught again, he would get charged with trespassing---which involves a fine and possible jail sentence. But if he could get out of the building without meeting the police, he would be free to come back another day without any risk.)

When he bolted for the door, I ran after him and yelled loudly at the person manning the desk to call the police. This meant that everyone who was present realized that something was going on, and I quickly had 100 witnesses to whatever transpired. This effectively tied the hands of the person. (This fellow was a "jail bird" and knows what his rights are better than a lawyer.) If he hit me in front of witnesses, he would be in big trouble. If he said I hit him, I had witnesses to counter act his story. I cannot grab or hit anyone I arrest, so I just made sure that I stood in front of the guy and blocked his exit. He tried to get up close to me, which is dangerous, because that would allow him to "sucker punch" me. So I held my arm outstretched at full length and used just two fingers to keep him at arm's length. This allowed me to say that I didn't grab him, while protecting me from him hitting me.

He was stymied, looked around at all the witnesses, and ended up staying put until the police arrived. There was no sort of "force" or crazy "Buddha Palm" powers involved, but I used the patterns of the event to maneuver him into a place where he was neutralized. I am not a master of taijiquan, but I have done enough push hands to instinctively understand the dynamics of distance and the importance of never "leaving the front door open". IMHO, this is a tiny bit of what it means to be a taijiquan "master". And it isn't fantastic powers, but rather more like "skating where the puck will be" instead of just chasing it.

This pattern recognition is something that comes from repetition, so Hundred Eyes is right about the need to do hard work. But it is also comes from concentrated thinking about issues (what the chess master does), so endless hours of robot forms practice is probably not going to help. Push hands and open sparring are probably very useful. But I also suspect that doing the form using intense concentration thinking about how to use the moves in actual situations is very important too. And you cannot do that for more than short periods of time (less than an hour) without suffering too much mental fatigue and becoming robotic.


All of this comes back to how someone, like Cheng Man-ch'ing, can be both a polymath and a master. I would suggest that if a person develops a Dao of learning that allows them to focus deeply and efficiently on the key elements of learning identified in Ericsson's article, that they would be able to apply this to whatever interests they pursue. So, in effect, one's kung fu bleeds across your spectrum of activities. Moreover, I would suggest that the everyday type of meditation that the Celestial Master recommends---"holding onto the One"---helps one learn to focus that undivided attention that is necessary to learn complex skills and extend the learning process beyond the point where the natural tendency is to plateau and become robotic. In effect, I am suggesting that it is possible to learn a "kung fu of kung fu". Once someone has achieved this skill, then everything else would become that much easier to learn.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Whither Daoism?

I've often had comments from people about why I call this blog "Diary of a Daoist Hermit". First, they ask how someone who lives in a city, is married, and obviously is involved in the life of his community could call himself a "hermit". Second, they ask how someone who isn't Chinese can call himself a "Daoist". And, third, they ask why I even bother to keep the title of this blog, seeing as it "obviously" has nothing at all to do with "Daoism". I've written about this before, but sometimes repetition is a good thing, so here goes.


I started calling myself a "hermit" as a result of something that a Roman Catholic hermit said to me. I was at the time visiting him for spiritual direction, and we were talking about his vocation. He lived in a suburban house, led retreats at a local spiritual centre, drove a car, and lived what appeared to be a pretty normal life. He said that the essence of being a religious hermit isn't about being isolated from human society, it is instead about being isolated from religious institutions. He had lived in religious communities, indeed, he was the cook at a Benedictine community a few miles from the Daoist retreat centre that I spent a summer at years ago. But he had decided to go out on his own.

I have always had a hard time with religious institutions because I routinely ask "hard questions" that make others feel tremendously uncomfortable. I have tried out various religious organizations, but always found something about them that I either found repulsive or so irritating that I couldn't be a member. I have spent time with Roman Catholics, Buddhists, I even joined a Unitarian community once. But nothing "fit". Indeed, I spent so much time as a spiritual "tourist", that when I decided to simply call myself a "Daoist", I took on the name of "Cloudwalking Owl" because I had read once that a spiritual practice of some Daoists was to travel from religious community to religious community seeking wisdom. This was called "CloudWalking". (My surname is from Welsh and says that I am a member of the "Owl Clan".)

As for the "Daoist" bit, at one point in this search I came across a website that brought together practitioners and academics who were interested in religious Daoism. They had a "question and answer" part of the website where people could ask an expert. I had been a member of the Daoist Tai Chi Association and had been asked by the "big cheese", Moy Lin Shin, if I wanted to "join the

Here's a nice photo of the Fung Loy Kok in Orangeville---NOT where I was initiated. That was a tiny temple upstairs in downtown Toronto. 

Temple". It worked out that I did and this involved a ceremony in a Temple above the training hall. I thought it was like taking first communion for a Roman Catholic or "signing the book" for a Unitarian. (I eventually saw stuff I didn't like, so I left the group.) But someone had asked this
Mr. Moy, cool suit!
website about whether or not someone could be "baptized" as a Daoist. The academics said that this was totally impossible. Puzzled, I wrote in, described the ritual I'd gone through, and asked what it was if it wasn't something like a baptism. The response was that this was more like an ordination.

The main thing about this "ordination" wasn't that it gave me any sort of standing over other people, but rather that it recognized me as someone who had started on some sort of path. The other thing is that it was more than a little exclusive. I found out that very few people either in or out of China are asked to be initiated the way I was.  So, in actual fact, I do have at least a little bit of "cred" when it comes to calling myself a Daoist. It isn't that much, though. I was initiated into a minor Temple that was an offshoot of a sort of odd "reformed" version of Quanzhen Daoism (the Yuen Yuen Institute.)

Here's a nice shot of part of the Yuen-Yuen Institute---I've never been there

So why call myself a "Daoist" instead of a Catholic, Buddhist or Unitarian? Mostly, I use the title "Daoist" because I have found that I am attracted to the teachings of people like Laozi, Zhuangzi, the Celestial Master, the Masters of Huainan, and so on. Mostly, however, it is because the everyday spiritual practices that I have followed for decades---taijiquan, holding onto the One, merging with the Dao---all come from a Daoist sensibility.


Having done away with the bits about who I am, I now move onto the main thing I want to discuss in this post---what exactly is "Daoism" and what is its role in the 21rst century?

The first thing to get out of the way is any idea that what I am concerned about is Chinese, religious Daoism.  At one time I was interested in exploring the Daoism of Temples, robes, ceremonies, Gods and so forth. Not any more. I don't particularly care for most religious institutions or the people who are attracted to them. For various historical and other reasons, these things exist, but they have very little meaning for me. Moreover, I am not of Asian descent, don't speak or read Chinese, have never been to China, and since I left the Fung Loy Kok I have very little to do with anyone who is any of the above. I am a Westerner with a graduate degree in philosophy who is very much a product of the late 20th and early 21rst century.

Remove these things and there are residual elements to Daoism that I find tremendously appealing. There are books in the Daoist canon that I do not like. I don't read them. But there are others that are admittedly poetic and obscure, but seem to be based on the observations and insights from wise people who are talking about what it means to be a real human being. These include the Laozi, the Zhuangzi, the Liezi , the Taipingjing and the Nei-Yeh, amongst others.  These aren't books that were written by a religion, they are books that a religion grew up around.  In so far as I believe that Daoism has a future, I believe that it comes from people who are inspired to live their lives in accordance with the insights as revealed in these texts.


What I find appealing about Daoism is that it offers a useful set of "rules of thumb" that allow me to make sense of a fundamentally absurd state of affairs. I've codified these Daoist rules as follows. They are the foundation that I build my life around.

  • Our understanding is limited, so limited that we often don't even understand how limited. As a result, it is important to be humble in our assumptions about how the world operates.
  • It is generally a good idea to avoid unnecessary effort---more harm is done by doing too much than by doing not enough.
  • The world operates by various laws or general principles. Someone who understands these laws and principles can accomplish a great deal by working in harmony with them.
  • Conversely, people who try to do things by fighting against these laws, tend to fail.
  • A great deal of the ability that comes from working with these principles and laws comes spontaneously from within the individual who often cannot explain why he does what he or she does, or why it works.
  • Having said that, the way to develop these spontaneous abilities usually seems to come from sustained, dedicated practice.
  • While sometimes violence is necessary, it is inherently a bad thing.
  • Emptiness and passivity are of at least equal value---if not more---than substance and action.
  • What passes for convention wisdom is usually of very little value when it comes to making important life choices.

These ideas are all my own way of saying stuff that I have originally read about in books like the Zhuangzi, the Liezi, the Laozi, and so on. I use my own words because I am not interested in appealing to authority when I make statements. Just because something comes from an old book doesn't mean anything at all to me---there are lots of old books full of errant nonsense. Even if the book isn't full of nonsense, if a person cannot explain the idea using his own language and examples, odds are that he really doesn't completely understand it.

 “The purpose of a fish trap is to catch fish, and when the fish are caught the trap is forgotten. The purpose of a rabbit snare is to catch rabbits. When the rabbits are caught, the snare is forgotten. The purpose of the word is to convey ideas. When the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words? He is the one I would like to talk to.”---Zhuangzi
In my writing, I try to be like Zhuangzi and remember the ideas while forgetting the words. That's why I don't make a big deal of saying "Daoism is such and such" or "Daoists do this sort of thing" or "the wise Daoist said blah, blah, blah".

Because I don't use the word "Daoism" a lot or make a lot of quotes from Daoist scriptures, people sometimes think that the ideas that I am attempting to convey are not informed or inspired by a Daoist way of looking at the world. Well, that's too bad. The ideas and viewpoint are what matters, using old texts to support my point of view is not only besides the point, it is down-right counter productive. I grew up in a community that was lousy with Fundamentalist Christians and at a young age became heartily sick of prooftexting". That is when you quote some text from the Bible in order to support some point of view in an argument. It is simply an appeal to authority and it lets someone off the hook of having to come up with something like a logical argument or evidence to support their claims. If someone expects to find Daoist prooftexting in this blog, I would suggest that they go somewhere else for a regular dose of saccharine-sweet fortune cookie quotes.  
Zhuangzi's Butterfly Dream


OK, that's where I'm at with regard to Daoism. How about Daoism and society?

Daoism holds an odd place in Western society. Just about everyone has heard about the Dao De Jing and Zhuangzi's dream about the butterfly.  But that is generally the beginning and end of it. The only Western writer that I can think of who has really had a Daoist sensibility soak into her work is Ursula Le Guin. Mind you, that's a pretty good example to have if you are only going to have one!

Ursula Le Guin
Her books make references to Daoism in various ways. In her novel City of Illusions, the Dao De Jing is a significant plot device as it is something of a holy text that is universally revered. Another novel, Lathe of Heaven, takes its title from a quote from Zhuangzi "To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven." It deals with a man who's dreams come true and his therapist who attempts to use this power to change the world---with disastrous consequences. Another novel, Always Coming Home, attempts to envision a Daoist Utopia, as understood by the Dao De Jing, set in California in the far distant future.

Other than Le Guin, I am hard pressed to think of any voices at all in contemporary Western society that express a Daoist viewpoint. But I do think that this is changing. Just as Buddhism took a long time coming and was first spread by academics and monks, so I think that there is a lot of interest in Daoism too. But it will take a long time to come because people will reject what they do not understand, and I think that what people will expect to see will be fancy priests in funny robes. And, to be honest, until that sort of thing arrives, I don't think anyone will be willing to accept it. And sad to say, almost all of those fancy dress Daoists will probably be confidence tricksters out to separate money and other things from the "rubes". Eventually the dust will settle, perhaps in a hundred years or so, and something worthwhile will remain.

In the meantime, I personally think that those "rules of thumb" I posted above could do a lot of good in our society. We have a lot of problems in our culture with a sort of aggressive, macho, belligerent, self-importance. We assume that we know a lot more than what we really do and we create a lot of problems by bustling around doing far too much when we would be much better served humbly waiting to see what will happen on its own accord. We could also use with a lot more reverence to the natural world. This blog is my attempt to subtly influence the world by letting people see how it looks to someone informed by the Daoist sensibility. Maybe it will help at least a few people to be a little more in harmony with the Dao. If so, it will have served its purpose.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Fear and the Government

My dear and beloved wife turned me onto a minor pleasure this year, Kathy Reichs. For those of you who don't know about her, she is a forensic anthropologist who works in Montreal for the police, teaches anthropology in the US, and writes a series of wildly popular crime novels. Also, she is the inspiration for, and one of the producers of, a long-running television show by the name of Bones

Kathy Reichs
(I suspect that part of the reason why both Misha and I like her novels is because many of them are set in Montreal. We spent our honey moon there, and we both have very fond memories of that trip.)

They are quite formulaic and sometimes creaky, but they do have a few good features. First, the science is all "bang on". Secondly, the main protagonist, Temperance Brennan, is an intelligent, spunky, strong woman. She isn't a saint, but she represents an ideal that I think a lot of men and women should try to emulate. (Incidentally, the television show, which I am also a fan of, keeps this element. The "Tempe" of the show is quirky, strong, brilliant, much, much larger than life---but contains elements of some scientists and academics I have known. It is also worth watching, IMHO.)

I just finished reading Reichs' book Devil Bones when the following passage jumped out and bit me on the nose.

"Americans have become a nation afraid."
"A shooter on a rampage in a school cafeteria. A hijacked plane toppling a high-rise building. A bomb in a train or rental van. A postal delivery carrying anthrax. The power to kill is out there for anyone willing to use it. All it takes is access to the Internet or a friendly gun shop."
Ryan let me go on. [Ryan is Brennan's Canadian lover.]
"We fear terrorists, snipers, hurricanes, epidemics. And the worst part is we've lost faith in the government's ability to protect us. We feel powerless and that causes constant anxiety, makes us fear things we don't understand."

 Reichs is an anthropologist. Her work centres on the scientific study of bones, but she must have still spent a lot of time studying cultures and how they work. I also suspect that her experience of living and working half of her life in Francophone Quebec has given her a feel for Canadian sensibilities in a way that is beyond that of most Americans. This passage, I believe, comes straight from her heart. And, I agree whole-heartedly.


Canada recently had what I believe will turn out to have been an absolutely pivotal election. The previous government of Stephen Harper had attempted to recreate Canada into a carbon-copy of "red state" America. He had had remarkable success in using tactics imported from the USA (he actually hired consultants from the Republican party) to win power through electoral "skull duggery" for nine years. But the last election changed all that. The Liberals under Justin Trudeau managed to win a majority government through promising "real change" and by working with what he calls the "politics of sunshine".

Canada's New Prime Minister

Just some of the things that Trudeau promised were:
  • to legalize marihuana
  • reform the voting system
  • deal with climate change
  • create a cabinet with 50% women
  • bring in 25 thousand Syrian refugees
He also ran on a campaign promising to run a deficit in order to invest in things like public transit, cut taxes on the middle class, raise taxes on the "1%", and so on. It looks like he really means to do all the things he promised, too. 

What happened in the election was that the same people who voted Conservative voted for them again. But the Millennials and the First Nations voted en masse---for the first time. This pushed voter turnout to an astounding 70%! And, they all voted for the "politics of sunshine".


I'm not trying to brag about Canadian politics. But I feel somewhat like I've been liberated from a prison camp. The last nine years of Conservative government have been a total horror for me (and many others) as I have seen my government work to sabotage international agreements to limit CO2 emissions, whip up a frenzy of hatred and fear towards immigrants, muzzle scientists, ramp up the idiotic "war on drugs", and subvert democracy in order to retain power.

And after this new government was elected I can see a huge change in our society as our collective "better nature" has been freed up. Just to give you an idea. In the USA Obama has pledged to take just 10,000 Syrian refugees and more than half of the state governors have opposed it. (Texas has even gone to the point of threatening the removal of government funds if any charity works to help refugees settle in their state.) In Canada, the provincial governments each pledged to take so many refugees---the sum of which was much more than 25,000. In my town a local business man has pledged to personally sponsor 50 families---that is take on personal financial responsibility for 50 entire families for several years in order to make sure that they do not become a burden on the state. (Just to put things into perspective, the Canadian pledge is the same per capita as if USA were accepting a quarter million refugees.)

What is behind this change?

Well, it is very important to "drill down" to what happened in the last election. As I said before, polling shows that the same people who voted Conservative in the past did so again. The difference is that a great number of people voted in 2015 that haven't voted in the past.

 (The Wikipedia page hasn't been updated yet, so I added that amateurish-looking last green line and black dot to show the last election. The trend is obvious.)

This is something that really needs to be emphasized, because the vast majority of people simply do not "get it". A small change in voter turnout can have a huge impact on the shape and direction of the government. And governments have a HUGE influence in the way our societies operate. A five percent change in the vote can make the difference between a majority government and opposition---especially when there is vote splitting because there are more than two parties. The Conservatives never had a majority of Canadians supporting them, but the people that did voted for them through thick and thin. In a situation where only 60% of the voters bothered to cast a ballot, and the opposition is split into three parties---NDP, Liberal and Green---Harper was able to form a majority government with the support of 37% of 62% of the voting public. This comes out to forming a government with the support of only 23% of the public.

Most people don't understand how incredibly important this sort of math is democratic elections, but just because your eyes glaze over when you try to think about it, doesn't mean that it won't have a huge impact on your life. This is one of the reasons why Trudeau vows that this last election will be the last one using the antiquated "First Past the Post" system---it simply wastes far too many  people's votes and creates fake majorities with only a small fraction of voter's support.


Beyond the issues involving voting systems, there is another problem in our body politic that our societies have to work through. There is this thing called "the neo-liberal consensus", which was a reaction against many of the ideas that were current in my childhood. It is a belief that we should give up on any attempt to create a better world through politics and instead fall back on the free market, traditional authority, and, dramatically limit our hopes for a more egalitarian future. Many neo-liberals could be said to be people who looked at Utopian experiments like the Hippie movement, Communism, the welfare state and so forth---and decided that these "cures" for social ills was worse than the disease. Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Tony Blair, and Stephen Harper were all leaders who thought that the world had "gone to Hell in a hand-basket" and wanted to go back to the "good old days" before the "loonie Left" with their "nanny state" screwed everything up.

(At this point a digression may be in order for my American friends. Prime Minister Trudeau is head of the "Liberal" party, which is meant in the American common understanding of being in favour of fairness, equality and being nice to people through government action. The "liberalism" of "neo-liberalism" refers to the old, 19th century meaning of being in favour of free trade and unfettered Free Market capitalism. At that time "Conservative" meant being in favour of preserving old communitarian traditions that in many cases helped the poor, or, "Noblesse Oblige". This is why many progressive measures to help the poor and lower classes were actually promoted by the Conservatives in "days of yore" whereas the policies that forced people into William Blake's "Satanic Mills" were supported by Liberals.  Confusing? I won't bother trying to explain weirdness like "Red Tories" or why the colours associated with political parties in the USA is the opposite of everywhere else in the world---.)

Of course, the problem was that most of the things the "loony Left" did were attempts to deal with significant issues that the neo-conservatives simply didn't want to admit existed. So Stephen Harper called "so-called climate change a Socialist plot to take away your money", and completely ignored it. Margaret Thatcher said that "there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families", and stripped away many of the social security programs in Great Britain. Others said similar things and took the same actions. The problem is, however, that climate change is real and needs to be dealt with. And not every person in our complex, competitive society has the tools for dealing with it, and, not every family has the wherewithal to help its members that have these problems. Indeed, some people have no families and others have significant problems because of what their families did to them in their childhood.

H. L. Mencken

     "For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong."  H. L. Mencken

The problem with the neo-liberal consensus is that it is one of those "clear, simple, and wrong" answers that Mencken was talking about.

Unfortunately, an entire generation of politicians and voters have grown up in this way of looking at things and it has become "common sense" and it's assumptions as ubiquitous and invisible as water is to fish and air is to us. Moreover, since social programs tend to work better for some people than others, there are a lot of people in this world who see neo-liberalism as something that works very well. If you are someone who has been able to get a good job or have a prosperous business, then the free market is usually a very good thing and taxes and regulation are at best a nuisance and at worst downright evil.


Societies and democracies operate on the basis of a consensus. That is, there is a general way of looking at the world that almost everyone takes for granted and just describes as "common sense".  In my own case, I am one of those odd exceptions who has never actually embraced the "common sense" worldview. I take no pride in this as it is something that has made my life difficult and it wasn't anything that I freely chose. Indeed, at risk of a digression, I think it might be interesting to point out an actual event in my teenage years that show how little of our worldview comes from free choice.

I grew up in a profoundly conservative part of rural Canada. One day I was helping my brother and our drover load some hogs onto a truck to take to slaughter. After the work was done and the paperwork was being filled out, my brother and the drover got into a conversation about how great the free enterprise system is. I was sitting on a bale of straw listening to this when one of them mentioned the "invisible hand". At that point, I heard a voice say---as clear as if someone was standing next to me speaking---"the invisible hand is rapped around their testicles and it is squeezing hard!"

I suppose many religious people might think that this was the voice of God speaking to me. (At least if they could get over the idea that God might be a Marxist.)  But in my case I just thought "what the---", and left it in the big ???? that was filled with similarly strange experiences. But add these sorts of experiences together, and it has always been pretty hard for me to embrace the viewpoint that most of my fellow human beings have. I simply do not seem to live in the same world that they do.


I raised the example from my childhood because it is important to avoid the pitfall of blaming people for the consensus that they espouse. Bye-and-large, they really have no control or responsibility for the idiotic ideas that they hold. Ideas flow through society like they have a life of their own. There are individuals who seem to use their wealth and power to spread certain ideas---like the Koch brothers. But it is very difficult to tell how much they are agents of a specific worldview, or simply two particularly powerful individuals who have become tools of that worldview---just like my brother and the drover all those years ago.

The Koch Bros, master manipulators? Or tools of a faulty meme?

What I am talking about is the idea of memes. In his book, The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins proposed that with the creation of human society evolution had moved beyond biology and began to work within human culture. And using an analogy with biology, he proposed that just as genes are the basic building blocks of plants and animals, so what he called "memes" were the basic building blocks of culture. In the context of this essay, the idea of "neo-liberalism" is a collection of memes that have managed to out-compete other collections---such as Communism or Absolute Monarchy---and developed a consensus in our society.

What I am suggesting in this essay, therefore, is that the neo-liberal consensus is failing, and the election of Justin Trudeau is evidence of that new consensus. One of the more memorable pieces of evidence for this idea is the way he responded to questions about why it was that he made the effort to create a cabinet with 50% women:  "Because it's 2015". The point isn't that this is a good idea, or that it fits into Liberal values, but rather that women's equality is simply part of the Canadian consensus and it's long overdue that our government reflect this part of Canadian society. 


OK, this has been a long walk away from Kathy Reichs and her quote about fear. The point I want to make is that the amount of fear that our society feels is just like any other meme. It isn't something that we rationally choose. Instead, it is part of the general consensus we feel about the world around us. And it has often surprised me how fearful people have been about terrorism and indifferent they are about climate change. Moreover, if you read any history or government statistics, it is obvious that the odds of getting killed in a terrorist attack are infinitesimally small compared to other dangers---such as auto accidents. The difference, as near as I can tell, comes down to two things.

First, of all, the neo-liberal consensus has isolated people. Remember that quote from Margaret Thatcher about there not being such a thing as "society"? Well, if there isn't, then we are all on our own. Imagine if the people of Great Britain had felt that they were all isolated individuals when their country stood alone against Nazi Germany? How would they have felt when a bomb fell out of the sky and destroyed their home? They would have been paralysed with fear. Even the sight of seeing one land on someone else's home would have had the same effect. But instead of telling people that they had to "suck it up" and figure things out for themselves, people like Winston Churchill let them know that everyone in society---from the King to the street sweeper---were in it together. And this wasn't just a propaganda line. For example, the daughters of the King trained and worked as volunteers in the services. Our present Queen trained as an auto mechanic and worked in a motor pool! Does anyone in the "neo-liberal consensus" believe that everyone pitches in and does their share today in a similar way?

Here's a picture of Princess Elizabeth---future Queen---changing a truck tire.

Secondly, the neo-liberal consensus reduces all human interaction to the level of financial transactions. I often hear people who seem to think that the only possible reason why anyone would do anything is because they are after money. For example, how often have you met someone who says that "all politicians care about is money"? Actually, I'd suggest that very few are involved in politics for money. There are certainly a lot more lucrative things a person can do.  Most elected officials could actually make larger salaries if they had stayed in the private sector. It is certainly true that because it costs so much money to run an election, politicians often spend far too much time fundraising. But the money isn't for them, it's for their campaigns. Instead, most politicians run for election to promote a world-view (or consensus) that they believe in. It might be dangerous nonsense---such as the tripe the Koch brothers spew---but it is still something that they believe in whole-heartedly. 

If people feel isolated and lack the ability to understand why it is that people do what they do, then they are going to feel confused and scared whenever something unexpected happens. And if their leaders are similarly confused and scared, they are not going to be able to help the average voter get over that fear and do something constructive. That is why I find it so important that our new Prime Minister emphasizes the "sunny ways" that he talked about during the election. He is building a new consensus, one that will lead us out of the neo-liberal morass and help us unify and mobilize to deal with the real problems that our present society faces.

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.