|Modern Hangu Pass---with statue of Laozi on his ox|
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.
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|
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.