Ups and downs and spiritual experience

So, in my previous post I explored how pride is an attempt to feel in ourselves the greatness that belongs to existence itself. It’s an attempt to usurp our sense of awe at reality, and feel awe about our own selves instead.

Once you realise this, you’ll experience awe. And you’ll understand for a moment that awe just happens, there’s no need to cling to a sense of self as some kind of false centre of the experience.

But that realisation will be short-lived. Almost immediately you’ll start clinging to the experience of awe as if you can store it up inside you and make it your own.

You want your own sense of self to be the object of your awe.

The moment you bring yourself into it, the awe starts to fade. This happens because your sense of self is not a real thing, it’s just an impression. Treating an impression as if it were real is delusional, and delusion is not something that inspires awe.

Bye bye, awe.

So now you’re back, stuck in your sense of self again, and whatever you do at this point is probably going to exacerbate the delusion.

You’ll most likely feel some kind of bad feeling, because you’re coming down off the awe. You might feel hollow or empty or just miserable.

You might leap head-first into some kind of distraction, hoping to escape the unpleasant feelings that come from being deluded about yourself once more.

It might be a bad distraction that offers short-term relief but makes you feel even worse about yourself later. Or it might be a constructive distraction that leads you into a project with some real benefits for yourself or others.

But whether you find a way to feel good about yourself, or end up feeling bad about yourself, either way you are stuck playing the old game of up and down with your own self-centred emotions.

I used to go through this cycle a lot when I was younger. I would read a book, delve into the wisdom of mystics from various traditions, and for a brief time it would all make sense. I would feel as if the barrier between self and reality had fallen away, and all that remained was an experience of awe.

Then the “I” would creep back in. I’d start to wonder how I could capture, define, control this experience. I’d look for a way to remain in that state of mind permanently.

It didn’t work.

I guess you could say there was no stability to the insights I was having. I only achieved them briefly, thanks to great mental effort. It wasn’t sustainable.

I’ve only just understood what was wrong: even though the experience of awe is wonderful, it is still an experience, still a thought, still an impression. So long as we cling to experiences, thoughts, or impressions we are denying the complete truth.

Saint John of the Cross described the dark night of the soul as precisely an antidote to this kind of spiritual greed. God wants us to love him for himself, not for the good feelings that come from loving God. So at some point the saint passes through a purifying process in which there is no support and no comfort from the usual sources.

Likewise, Buddhist and nondualist sources attest that bliss cannot be the final goal, because the experience of bliss still implies a subject-object division. If you cannot pass beyond bliss, then it’s as if you stand forever at the door, refusing to enter.

So the awe I’ve always pursued is, finally, an obstacle and a hindrance to finding the truth. But I had to pursue it, had to recognise it as the summit of experience, before understanding that an experience is still not enough.

What matters is the source of all “experience”.  The thoughts and impressions that make up our entire reality – where do they come from? So long as we are attached to one experience – however elevated and spiritual it might seem – we cannot go beyond experience. That’s why Christ says we must lose our life in order to save it, why the Buddhist teacher Lin Chi said to kill the Buddha if you meet him, and why the Zhuangzi is just so damn elusive:

It’s easy to walk without leaving footprints; it’s hard to walk without touching the ground. Deceit is easy when you work for men, but hard when you work for Heaven. You’ve heard of flying with wings, but you have never heard of flying without wings. You’ve heard of understanding by means of knowledge, but you have never heard of the understanding that comes from not knowing. Look into the closed room, the empty chamber where light is born. Fortune and blessings gather where there is stillness. But if you do not keep still – that is called galloping where you sit.

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When you grapple with a problem

In the previous post on sickness and pride I suggested that we should view our frustration with the common cold as pointing to the deeper problem of our pride, or the illusion of a self that is in control.

This false sense of control and the often accompanying sense of frustration is everywhere in life. But it is usually at its worst when we face obstacles and challenges, when we are struggling and feel like life is not unfolding as we’d like it to.

That’s why suffering has special value in religious traditions – when things are going well for us our pride and illusion of self are unassailable. It takes inevitable suffering and disappointment to reveal the sharp edges of these faults.

So we can treat all problems as we may treat the cold: recognise the struggle, the sense of control, and the frustration as illusory. The impression of a self at the center of these feelings is just an impression, not an actual self, so our suffering and struggle can become perfect reminders that we are in the grip of delusion and pride.

A moment of change occurs, in which we see through the illusion, if only briefly.

With this change comes the recognition that it was not brought about through “my” efforts, because the me who feels responsible for those efforts has temporarily vanished.

When it vanishes, so do the problems and the struggles that hitherto seemed so distressing.

I think this is the secret to the Daoist concept of wu wei – acting without acting:

The way never acts, yet nothing is left undone.
Should lords and princes be able to hold fast to it,
The myriad creatures will be transformed of their own accord.
After they are transformed, should desire raise its head,
I shall press it down with the weight of the nameless uncarved block.
The nameless uncarved block
Is but freedom from desire,
And if I cease to desire and remain still,
The empire will be at peace of its own accord.

Acting without acting is another way of saying that the illusion of a self who is in control becomes transparent.

The illusion of a self who is in control is like thinking that you can manipulate the weather with your thoughts. If you really believed that, your life would be full of pointless struggle and frustration, illusory successes and inevitable failures.

But then there’s the paradox once more: that whether you believe it or not is also something not under the control of an illusory self.

Nonetheless, this insight can unfold throughout your life. Maybe it happens suddenly for some. For me it is unfolding slowly, one area of life at a time as I seem to remember or realise that it is applicable in this aspect of life or in that struggle also.

Reversion in Buddhism?

My PhD reading on Wang Bi the third century AD Neo-Daoist philosopher revealed the scholarly view that in his elevation of wu or “emptiness/non-being” as metaphysically and spiritually preeminent, Wang Bi prepared the way for the eventual popularity of Mahayana Buddhism in China.

In other words, Wang Bi’s metaphysical interpretation of wu gave Chinese thinkers an entry-point for the Buddhist concept of Sunyata or “emptiness”.

Reversion

So I am surprised to find in a description of Sunyata allusions to something that in a Daoist context is called ‘reversion’:

Calmness and extinction are the opposite of rising and falling. They are another way to express that there is no rising and falling. Rising and falling are the common characteristics of worldly existence. All phenomena are always in the cycle of rising and falling. However, most people concentrate on living (rising). They think that the universe and life are the reality of a continuous existence.

Buddhism on the other hand, promotes the value of a continuous cessation (falling). This cessation does not imply that it ceases to exist altogether. Instead, it is just a state in the continuous process of phenomena. In this material world, or what we may call this “state of existence”, everything eventually ceases to exist. Cessation is definitely the home of all existences. Since cessation is the calm state of existence and the eventual refuge of all phenomena, it is also the foundation for all activities and functions.

The Amitabha Buddha who was, and is, revered and praised by Buddhists around the world, radiates indefinite light and life from this “state of cessation”. This state is a continuous process of calmness. It will be the eventual refuge for us all. If we think carefully about the definitions of calmness and extinction, then we can deduce that they are the true natural end-points of rising and falling. The true nature of the cycle of rising and falling is calmness and extinction. Because of this nature, all chaos and conflicts in the state of rising and falling will eventually cease. This is attainable by the realisation of prajna.

I have often seen references to impermanence in the context of Sunyata, and of course if Sunyata underlies the rising and falling of existences, then Sunyata is metaphysically prior. But I have never before seen rising and falling depicted as a cycle with human values attributed to either end of the cycle. Yet as we see above, the text describes our (incorrect) tendency to focus on the ‘rising’ part of the cycle when in fact ‘falling’ is identified as the ‘home’ and ‘foundation’ of existences, activities, and functions, such that Amitabha is depicted as radiating light and life from the “state of cessation”.

This sounds strikingly similar to the Daoist principle of reversion that Edward Slingerland has elucidated so well in his discussion of wu-wei in the Laozi (Daodejing), and which I quoted previously in my Easter Vigil Notes:

Throughout the text we are presented with dyads of metaphorically “lower” and “higher” terms: soft/hard; weak/strong; empty/full. As Benjamin Schwartz notes, the “lower” (by conventional standards) term inevitably enjoys a higher true status in Laozi’s scheme than the ostensibly “higher” term; water, as he puts it, is “in a profounder sense stronger than stone” (Schwartz 1986: 203). Such is the Way the world works: that which is conventionally “high”(e.g., strong) inevitably reverts to the low (weakness), and thus true strength thus lies in holding to “weakness.” One is able to endure by holding fast to the “roots” (to “Nothing” and the negative qualities associated with it) and not getting dragged “up” into the realm of doing and regarding.

[…]

The Way itself is thus described in terms of “lower” qualities that actually encompass their opposites (“empty yet full”), and the best advice is to emulate the Way and hold fast to the conventionally lower element of the dyad. Once one is able to accomplish this, both sides of the dyad will be obtained.

It would be intriguing and encouraging indeed if the Buddhist interpretation quoted earlier is representative of Mahayana more generally. I’ve not come across it before, though most of what I have read has been far more preoccupied with maintaining the peculiar integrity of the Buddhist concept of Sunyata, and advancing ’emptiness’ against the more compelling evidence of our senses.

Indeed, absent the ‘necessary/contingent’ distinction presented in Christian-Hellenic philosophy, I’m not sure I could ever have grasped ’emptiness’ appropriately either. Buddhism has the handicap of having originated in opposition to a religious metaphysics that had – as far as I understand it – overplayed the idea of a divine, imperishable substratum of being. So we end up with quite challenging attempts to explain ’emptiness’ as things kinda sorta both existing and not existing, which I find very unsatisfying.

Much better, in my admittedly eccentric opinion, to explain Buddhism as the realisation of the contingency of all creation, without the corresponding necessity of a creator. And yet I think the creator is there, in the very modest positive depictions of Sunyata. Buddhism is like an apophatic theology written by someone deeply traumatised by an excessive cataphatic upbringing.  Imagine someone raised in the context of an overly superficial evangelical protestantism where God is essentially depicted as an immortal superhero, subsequently having an experience of “divine darkness” a la Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite in, of course, an entirely pre-Christian and non-Judaic context:

The divine darkness is the inaccessible light in which God is said to dwell. And since He is invisible by reason of the abundant outpouring of supernatural light, it follows that whosoever is counted worthy to know and see God, by the very fact that he neither sees nor knows Him, attains to that which is above sight and knowledge, and at the same time perceives that God is beyond all things both sensible and intelligible, saying with the Prophet, “Thy knowledge is become wonderful to me; it is high, and I cannot reach to it.” In like manner, St Paul, we are told, knew God, when he knew Him to be above all knowledge and understanding; wherefore he says that His ways are unsearchable and His judgments inscrutable, His gifts unspeakable, and His peace passing all understanding; as one who had found Him who is above all things, and whom he had perceived to be above knowledge, and separate from all things, being the Creator of all.

Beatitudes

Yesterday a friend more or less demanded that I offer some kind of Daoist reflection on the contents of the Beatitudes, based on Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth.

The scandal of the Cross is harder for many to bear than the thunder of Sinai had been for the Israelites. In fact, the Israelites were quite right when they said they would die if God should speak with them (Ex 20:19). Without a “dying,” without the demise of what is simply our own, there is no communion with God and no redemption. Our meditation on the Baptism has already demonstrated this for us—Baptism cannot be reduced to a mere ritual.

Obviously the crucifixion and the person of Christ give a focal point and an historical finality that is lacking in Daoism. But the psychological premise is by no means foreign: to emulate the Dao, we must empty ourselves of all our selfish interests and desires. As Laozi 49 states: “The Sage has no heart of his own; He uses the heart of the people as his heart.”

“Dying” underlies the principle of inversion at the heart of the Beatitudes.

The Beatitudes, spoken with the community of Jesus’ disciples in view, are paradoxes—the standards of the world are turned upside down as soon as things are seen in the right perspective, which is to say, in terms of God’s values, so different from those of the world. It is precisely those who are poor in worldly terms, those thought of as lost souls, who are the truly fortunate ones, the blessed, who have every reason to rejoice and exult in the midst of their sufferings. The Beatitudes are promises resplendent with the new image of the world and of man inaugurated by Jesus, his “transformation of values.”

[…]

The paradoxes that Jesus presents in the Beatitudes express the believer’s true situation in the world in similar terms to those repeatedly used by Paul to describe his experience of living and suffering as an Apostle: “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Cor 6:8–10). “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor 4:8–9). What the Beatitudes in Luke’s Gospel present as a consolation and a promise, Paul presents as the lived experience of the apostle. He considers that he has been made “last of all,” a man under a death sentence, a spectacle to the world, homeless, calumniated, despised (cf. 1 Cor 4:9–13). And yet he experiences a boundless joy.

These paradoxes are likewise present in the Laozi, professing the inversion of worldly values in accordance with the Dao. Consider verse 8:

The highest good is like water. The goodness of water lies in benefiting the myriad things without contention, while locating itself in places that common people scorn. Therefore it is almost exactly like the Dao.

The image of water is a common symbol or metaphor of the Dao, but the paradox of “reversion” goes deeper:

The crooked will be whole;
The bent will be straight;
The empty will be full;
The exhausted will be renewed;
The few will win out;
The many will be thrown into confusion.
Therefore the sage holds to oneness
And in this way serves as the shepherd of the world.
He has no regard for himself, and so is illustrious;
He does not show himself, and so is bright;
He does not brag, and so is given merit;
He does not boast, and so his name endures.
It is only because he does not contend that no one in the world is able to contend with him.
When the ancients said, “The crooked will be whole,” these were not idle words. Truly they return us to wholeness.

The idea of reversion is personified in verse 20 of the Laozi:

The multitude are loud and boisterous
As if feasting at the tailao offering
Or climbing terraces in the Spring.
I am instead tranquil and make no display,
Like an infant that has not yet learned to smile,
Drifting as though with no home to return to.
The multitude all have more than they need.
I alone am in want.
I have the mind of a fool—how blank!
The common people are bright,
I alone am dull.
The common people are clever,
I alone am muddled.
Vast! Like the ocean.
Endless! As if never stopping.
The multitude all have a purpose.
I alone am ignorant and uncouth.
My desires alone are different from those of others
Because I value being fed by the Mother.

The connection between the “way of heaven” and the attitude of the sage is reinforced time and time again:

Heaven is eternal, the Earth everlasting.
How come they to be so? It is because they do not foster their own lives;
That is why they live so long.
Therefore the Sage
Puts himself in the background; but is always to the fore.
Remains outside; but is always there.
Is it not just because he does not strive for any personal end
That all his personal ends are fulfilled?

What can we make of this? I think it it plausible on finding a pre-Christian depiction of a mysterious ontological entity that creates, sustains, and guides all of creation (the ten-thousand things), and does so in a distinctively humble way, that the authors of this depiction were “inspired” in Christian terms, or to put it more plainly, were in fact aware albeit dimly of the source of all existence (that which men call God), and in a context that quite uniquely among pre-Christian religions focuses not on sovereignty, deity, and grandeur, but on the subtlety and obscurity of this seemingly ephemeral “Way”.  Wang Bi writes that such is its emptiness, if we say it exists then where is its form? If we say it doesn’t exist, then how do we explain its creation, the forms it gives rise to? Yet despite the obvious obscurity and paradox, as Laozi writes:

My words are very easy to understand and very easy to put into practice. Yet no one under heaven understands them; no one puts them into practice. But my words have an ancestry, my deeds have a lord; and it is precisely because men do not understand this that they are unable to understand me.
Few then understand me, but it is upon this very fact my value depends. It is indeed in this sense that “the Sage wears hair-cloth on top, but carries jade underneath his dress.”

In a Christian context various religions are seen as reflecting to varying degrees the truths of natural theology, and potentially even pre-figuring deeper aspects of revealed theology, such as the notion of a God who is sacrificed or killed and returns to life.  What makes Daoism unique is that its elements are both more subtle than natural theology, clearly apophatic, yet avoiding a deistic view of supreme being that otherwise tends to plunge religions into the worship of more spurious particulars of their conception of God.

Or perhaps to be more fair, it is very easy to distinguish between the philosophical Daoism of Laozi, and the folk-religion Daoism that venerates him amongst a colorful pantheon that bears no resemblance to Christianity whatsoever. In other religions, these elements tend to be more closely intertwined such that the personal or the deistic (Buddha, Vishnu, Krishna, etc) are bound up in the theology and the mysticism.

For better or worse, I find that the impersonal apophatic language of certain Daoist texts and their themes provides a different perspective on the highly personal and often cataphatic language and themes of Christianity, where even the word “God” can be so heavily loaded with meanings, allusions and human projections that the ontological magnitude and significance, not to mention the “foreignness” of the supreme being is forgotten.

Desire and the Dao

It appears that many Westerners become interested in Daoism because it is not overtly moralistic. To me, Daoist themes offer a spiritual method that outwardly corresponds to a moral system, yet does so according to its own internal logic. In other words, a Daoist’s conduct ought to correspond to the moral order, but not because he is trying to make his conduct correspond to the moral order.

Western morality is often depicted as moralistic, depending on fear of rule-breaking and in many cases supported by a divine-command metaethic.  If you break the rules, God will condemn you; you are a bad person because you broke the rules; humanity is pathetic and miserable because collectively we broke some long-forgotten rule.

This is not the definitive or most satisfying interpretation from the Western tradition, in fact it appears to be the simplest, lowest-common-denominator interpretation.  I find Daoism refreshing because it is as far away as one might get from a moralistic position while still recognising an objective metaphysical and metaethical reality.

That which was the beginning of all things under heaven
We may speak of as the “mother” of all things.
He who apprehends the mother
Thereby knows the sons.
And he who has known the sons,
Will hold all the tighter to the mother,
And to the end of his days suffer no harm;
“Block the passages, shut the doors,
And till the end your strength shall not fail.
Open up the passages, increase your doings,
And till your last day no help shall come to you.”
As good sight means seeing what is very small
So strength means holding on to what is weak.
He who having used the outer-light can return to the innerlight
Is thereby preserved from all harm.
This is called resorting to the always-so.

Daodejing 52

Wang Bi, the 3rd Century AD Neo-Daoist commentator identifies explains “Block the passages, shut the doors” in terms of desire, specifically the desires for things that pull us away from the “mother” or “root” and toward the “sons” or “branches”.

In other words, desire for things takes us away from the Dao and we cannot help but deteriorate morally, spiritually, and even physically as a result.

To put it in a Christian context, keeping the Ten Commandments is important, but underlying the Ten Commandments is a deeper reality of human desire. That’s why in the New Testament Jesus lifts the bar dramatically by stating that being angry with someone or looking lustfully at someone is tantamount to murder or adultery in one’s heart.

If we are only interested in not breaking the rules, then this internalisation of moral laws sets the bar impossibly high. But if we look at it in terms of actually wanting to be close to God, then it becomes clear that a “rules” mentality is insufficient, and that we must look at the deeper question of desire.

A serious athlete doesn’t regard his coach’s comments and instructions as punishments or arbitrary rules, but as valuable advice and correction. He understands that the coach is there to help him advance and achieve a greater performance.

I think that in the spiritual life moralism must likewise give way to the understanding that our interior orientation is vital to our relationship with God, and that the things which detract from our relationship are the seeds of what we know of as vices and eventually the breach of moral laws.

In Daoist terms, desire pulls us from the way, it depletes our virtue (de), and robs us of the profound peace that is ours in the Dao. Put simply, the cultivation of desire is obviously an inferior and self-defeating path.

 

Good Friday notes

One of the aspects of Chinese philosophy that appeals to me is the apparent intuitive grasp of theological themes made explicit centuries later in the events that form the heart of the Christian faith.  The Good Friday reading from Isaiah is likewise presented as a presaging of the messiah’s death and resurrection. This aspect of Chinese philosophy has not been well explored, though it appears in at least one book: Christ the Eternal Tao, written by a Russian Orthodox monk who was into Buddhism and Daoism before his conversion.

Personally, I appreciate being able to read these early Chinese texts as an intuitive attempt to depict the way of heaven, the Logos, without the more human, biographical aspects of biblical narrative and anthropomorphic interpretations of the divine.  Perhaps as an apophatic (negative) expression of theology, emphasising the darkness and mystery of God:

It is the law of heaven to make fullness empty and to make full what is modest; when the sun is at its zenith, it must, according to the law of heaven, turn toward its setting, and at its nadir it rises toward a new dawn. In obedience to the same law, the moon when it is full begins to wane, and when empty of light it waxes again. This heavenly law works itself out in the fates of men also. It is the law of earth to alter the full and to contribute to the modest. High mountains are worn down by the waters, and the valleys are filled up. It is the law of fate to undermine what is full and to prosper the modest. And men also hate fullness and love the modest.

– Yi Jing 15

The Yi Jing is an ancient book of wisdom and divination, dating anywhere from the 10th to the 4th centuries BC with commentaries added within the following few centuries.

The same theme emerges prominently in various passages of the Dao De Jing, a Daoist text dating to at least the 4th century BC:

Nothing under heaven is softer or more yielding than water; but when it attacks things hard and resistant there is not one of them that can prevail. For they can find no way of altering it.

That the yielding conquers the resistant and the soft conquers the hard is a fact known by all men, yet utilized by none.

Yet it is in reference to this that the Sage said “Only he who has accepted the dirt of the country can be lord of its soil shrines; only he who takes upon himself the evils of the country can become a king among those what dwell under heaven.” Straight words seem crooked.

– Dao De Jing 78

 

Finally, the first reading on Good Friday came from the Book of Isaiah, the 8th century BC Hebrew Prophet:

See, my servant will prosper, he shall be lifted up, exalted, rise to great heights.

As the crowd were appalled on seeing him – so disfigured did he look that he seemed no longer human – so will the crowds be astonished at him, and kings stand speechless before him; for they shall see something never told and witness something never heard before…

Without beauty, without majesty (we saw him), no looks to attract our eyes; a thing despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering, a man to make people screen their faces; he was despised and we took no account of him…

…we thought of him as someone punished, struck by God, and brought low. Yet he was pierced through for our faults, crushed for our sins. On him lies a punishment that brings us peace, and through his wounds we are healed…

The Lord has been pleased to crush him with suffering. If he offers his life in atonement, he shall see his heirs, he shall have a long life and through him what the Lord wishes will be done.

– Isaiah 52-53

 

 

 

The true men of old

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For a second time, Ian’s comments have prompted me to clarify my personal response to eugenics, beyond the ethical critique and into a domain that I have not reflected on in this light for a long time.

In practical terms, I realised some time ago that I could not wait for science to unravel the various psychological, biological, and physical mysteries that limit and confuse us.

Nor did I think I could simply work these things out for myself.

But I knew there were people considered ‘wise’ and better still, there were writings and teachings left by wise and mysterious individuals from centuries and millennia ago. What I found in them was the near-universal understanding that our current state was one of decline from our origins. Humans had, through a variety of attributed reasons, lost their original state, their natural state, and suffered for it.

Take for example the Zhuangzi’s depiction of the ‘true men of old’:

What is meant by ‘the True Man?’ The True men of old did not reject (the views of) the few; they did not seek to accomplish (their ends) like heroes (before others); they did not lay plans to attain those ends. Being such, though they might make mistakes, they had no occasion for repentance; though they might succeed, they had no self-complacency. Being such, they could ascend the loftiest heights without fear; they could pass through water without being made wet by it; they could go into fire without being burnt; so it was that by their knowledge they ascended to and reached the Tâo.

The True men of old did not dream when they slept, had no anxiety when they awoke, and did not care that their food should be pleasant. Their breathing came deep and silently. The breathing of the true man comes (even) from his heels, while men generally breathe (only) from their throats. When men are defeated in argument, their words come from their gullets as if they were vomiting. Where lusts and desires are deep, the springs of the Heavenly are shallow.

The True men of old knew nothing of the love of life or of the hatred of death. Entrance into life occasioned them no joy; the exit from it awakened no resistance. Composedly they went and came. They did not forget what their beginning bad been, and they did not inquire into what their end would be. They accepted (their life) and rejoiced in it; they forgot (all fear of death), and returned (to their state before life). Thus there was in them what is called the want of any mind to resist the Tâo, and of all attempts by means of the Human to assist the Heavenly. Such were they who are called the True men.

3. Being such, their minds were free from all thought; their demeanour was still and unmoved; their foreheads beamed simplicity. Whatever coldness came from them was like that of autumn; whatever warmth came from them was like that of spring. Their joy and anger assimilated to what we see in the four seasons. They did in regard to all things what was suitable, and no one could know how far their action would go. Therefore the sagely man might, in his conduct of war, destroy a state without losing the hearts of the people; his benefits and favours might extend to a myriad generations without his being a lover of men. Hence he who tries to share his joys with others is not a sagely man; he who manifests affection is not benevolent; he who observes times and seasons (to regulate his conduct) is not a man of wisdom; he to whom profit and injury are not the same is not a superior man; he who acts for the sake of the name of doing so, and loses his (proper) self is not the (right) scholar; and he who throws away his person in a way which is not the true (way) cannot command the service of others.

[…]

4. The True men of old presented the aspect of judging others aright, but without being partisans; of feeling their own insufficiency, but being without flattery or cringing. Their peculiarities were natural to them, but they were not obstinately attached to them; their humility was evident, but there was nothing of unreality or display about it. Their placidity and satisfaction had the appearance of joy; their every movement seemed to be a necessity to them. Their accumulated attractiveness drew men’s looks to them; their blandness fixed men’s attachment to their virtue. They seemed to accommodate themselves to the (manners of their age), but with a certain severity; their haughty indifference was beyond its control. Unceasing seemed their endeavours to keep (their mouths) shut; when they looked down, they had forgotten what they wished to say.

These religious and philosophical texts unanimously point toward the reestablishment of this unusual state, a state of being that is achievable, yet difficult. It depends on spiritual discipline, and a certain understanding of metaphysics – the nature of existence and our place in it:

7. This is the Tâo;– there is in It emotion and sincerity, but It does nothing and has no bodily form. It may be handed down (by the teacher), but may not be received (by his scholars). It may be apprehended (by the mind), but It cannot be seen. It has Its root and ground (of existence) in Itself. Before there were heaven and earth, from of old, there It was, securely existing. From It came the mysterious existences of spirits, from It the mysterious existence of God. It produced heaven; It produced earth. It was before the Thâi-kî, and yet could not be considered high; It was below all space, and yet could not be considered deep. It was produced before heaven and earth, and yet could not be considered to have existed long; It was older than the highest antiquity, and yet could not be considered old.

After years of reading this kind of stuff in its varied religious contexts, I still find the Chinese Daoist and Confucian traditions most appealing. At the same time, I no longer put much stock in the standard sources of civilisational hope and comfort as before. Technology is great, exciting, and full of promise. But it is also an amplifier of our deeper faults and should be viewed in light of the more profound, restorative path illumined by our ancestors.

As a society we are very good at pursuing what we desire. We are very bad at determining what we should and should not find desirous in the first place. We muddle through life, measuring our failure and success by superficial and shifting social standards. In rare moments we become aware of something deeper, more solid, more real than our own selves. I think our lives ought to focus on that deeper reality, despite all the distractions, social expectations and pressures of life that draw us away. If we could grasp hold of that deeper reality and never let it go, then I think we would know what to do in the rest of our lives.

In this respect, I share C.S. Lewis’ dismay at the prospect of a weak and ungrounded humanity modifying itself – or more realistically, some humans modifying others – under the sway of a poorly-examined technological imperative and an emotivism without true ethical boundaries.

The recent decision in the UK to allow alteration of the human germline means that children created with transplanted mitochondrial DNA from a third person (in addition to biological mother and father) will pass this genetic modification down through their own future offspring.

The logic of this change to the legislation is the same as that which I witnessed in a professional capacity as an ethicist during the stem-cell and then cloning debates in Australia.

It suggests to me that there are no limits to what biotechnological innovations our legislatures will approve, so long as a sufficiently compelling technological and emotive case can be made. In a few short years the Australian parliament went from condemning all forms of human cloning (as a line that could not be crossed) to endorsing ‘therapeutic cloning’ for the exact same reasons they had originally endorsed the destruction of embryos for the purposes of stem cell research. This is not even a case of our legislators holding ethical beliefs with which I disagree, but of a parliament that can’t even hold to its own stated ethical conclusions for more than a few years.

Freedom from desire

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An interesting theme in my current studies is the boundary between self and other, and how this boundary shifts as a consequence of different theories of free will.

For example, a simple theory of free will might hold that one acts voluntarily except when one’s actions are the result of physical coercion or ignorance.  Non-coerced actions can be considered the product of free will.

But a more complex theory of free will would recognise that sometimes we act in ways that are difficult to own as fully voluntary, such as eating dessert when you’ve sworn you want to lose weight.  No one has physically coerced you to eat the dessert, yet in the broader context of your wishes, intentions, and subsequent regrets, it doesn’t seem quite right to say that eating the dessert is representative of your free will.

Accordingly some have suggested that we are not free when we act in accordance with our lower appetites.  In the same vein, others have said that ‘free’ actions are those which arise from truly rational considerations. To exercise free will is to act in accordance with rational desire; anything less is a kind of slavery.

But in accepting this more nuanced view of the will, we implicitly redraw the boundary between self and other; the coercive forces we face are no longer external, physical agents but internal appetites and desires.  What is the ‘self’ that is the subject of these appetites, the self that might somehow will instead to follow reason?

This internalisation of the self is not a necessary outcome of a more complex view of free will, but it does make such a perspective easier to adopt.  We start viewing ourselves a little like a homunculus positioned somewhere back behind our eyes, controlling our body and attempting to reason and make choices while assailed by powerful appetites and desires.

The internalised self may be a promising line of inquiry for when I start examining Chinese philosophical texts on the topic of free will. Take, for example, this extract from the QingJing Jing or ‘Classic of Purity and Rest’, a Daoist text developed supposedly in response to the emerging Buddhist theme of ’emptiness’ typified by the Heart Sutra.

Now the spirit of man loves Purity, but his mind disturbs it. The mind of man loves stillness, but his desires draw it away. If he could always send his desires away, his mind would of itself become still. Let his mind be made clean, and his spirit will of itself become pure.

As a matter of course the six desires won’t arise, and the three poisons will be taken away and disappear.

The reason why men are not able to attain to this, is because their minds have not been cleansed, and their desires have not been sent away.

If one is able to send the desires away, when he then looks in at his mind, it is no longer his; when he looks out at his body, it is no longer his; and when he looks farther off at external things, they are things which he has nothing to do with.

Sending the desires away may imply a similarly internalised view of the will, such that one is able to control or manipulate mental faculties as though they were external objects.

The end point in this Daoist context is achieving a state of purity and stillness concomitant with the Dao itself:

In that condition of rest independently of place how can any desire arise? And when no desire any longer arises, there is the True stillness and rest.

That True (stillness) becomes (a) constant quality, and responds to external things (without error); yea, that True and Constant quality holds possession of the nature.

[…]

He who has this absolute purity enters gradually into the (inspiration of the) True Dao. And having entered thereinto, he is styled Possessor of the Dao.

 

It is intriguing that the Daoist text portrays desires as an intrinsically disturbing force that should be ‘put away’.  This presents another opportunity for fruitful comparison with Stoicism, where such desires are viewed as the product of our assent to false beliefs.  This is, in turn, reminiscent of the Buddhist assertion that the unsatisfactory nature of existence can be traced back to ignorant desire.

If we put aside desires, our mind and spirit will revert to their natural purity and stillness, bringing us back to the influence of the Dao.  This is consistent with Wang Bi’s much earlier commentary on the Dao De Jing, the heart of the Daoist Canon, in which he depicts the goal of the sage as embracing ’emptiness’ through renunciation of private interests and desires.

I think this critical attitude toward desire is a crucial part of serious religious practice universally.  We should not be surprised to find it emerging in the context of Daoism, Buddhism, and even Stoicism, as part of a broader attempt to discover the root of humanity’s failing and misery, and the path towards a renovation of the human spirit.

The Dao of Parenting

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A fence in a Japanese Buddhist temple. Nothing Daoist about it!

Raising a child is admittedly very frustrating, and I worry that I am not doing it right, that I am not a good influence on my child, that he might turn out like a more deficient version of me.

For example, our son loves the computer and wants to play with it constantly.  I worry that this is not a healthy pastime, that it may be inculcating an excessive reliance on the high artifice of technology, maybe even harming his neurological development.

But its not simply that computers and smartphones are attractive to him – he also sees that his parents spend an inordinate amount of time working, communicating, and playing on them.

So immediately we encounter the parental double-standard: I want him to “do as I say, not as I do”; I want him to behave contrary to the model I am providing.  If it’s unhealthy for him, isn’t it unhealthy for me? Or if it’s okay for me, shouldn’t it be okay for him as well?

I think this example reflects a deeper awareness that our lives are not as they should be.  We do not live in a paradisiacal state, yet this is what my idealism pushes me towards.  So when my son starts to throw a tantrum because I won’t let him play with the computer while I try to work on my PhD, I cannot shake the sense that something is going wrong.

Ideally he would not be throwing tantrums, but I’m not sure that the problem lies in him. He is, after all, an innocent child, and the real cause of the tantrum is that he’s presented with an enticing object (the computer) to which his parents are clearly devoted, yet he is not allowed to join in the very interesting activities of hitting buttons and moving the mouse and making the screen do interesting things.

As a parent, I wouldn’t show my child enticing food if I didn’t intend to feed it to him. Yet showing him the computer but not letting him play is akin to showing him food and not letting him eat it.  His behaviour is quite natural; is mine?

The Daoist approach – indeed much of Chinese thought in general – is preoccupied with the idea of the natural.  Natural is generally superior to the artificial, since it is in our nature as human beings that we find our virtue, our power.

From the Daoist point of view an innocent child exemplifies nature.  He is uncontrived, he does not plot and plan, he does not act according to elaborate schemes. He eats when he is hungry and (largely) sleeps when he is tired.  He doesn’t harm himself by pursuing strange and inordinate desires contrary to his nature. The child is reminiscent of the sage.

Or at least he is until he starts throwing tantrums when he doesn’t get his own way; and in this we find an example in miniature of the broader Daoist perspective on human life.

Our instinctive response to a child throwing a tantrum is to make him stop, raise our voices, tell him off, or distract him.  We would institute rules and discipline to teach the child not to play with the computer.  We would erect artificial boundaries to stop the child from doing what comes naturally: emulating his parents.

A more ‘natural’ response might be to examine the causes of his behaviour, but this would require an uncomfortable degree of self-scrutiny, since the primary cause of his behaviour is my behaviour. As the ancient Chinese text The Classic of Change puts it:

If someone is not as he should be,
He has misfortune,
And it does not further him
To undertake anything.

– Yi Jing, 25: Innocence

It is I, rather than my son, who “is not as he should be”, and all my undertakings – my efforts to impose discipline and better behaviour in him – will not improve the situation.  After all, if I am not addressing the root of the problem, I can only add to the dysfunction.  He is already responding naturally to an unnatural situation; my attempts to change his behaviour directly can only result in him responding unnaturally to an unnatural situation.

I think the better solution is to be open to rethinking our way of life right to the core.  Giving up employment has been a good first step, but our lives are still unbalanced and far from what they should be.  The Daoist ideal is to put things right, which means putting things back in accord with our underlying nature, removing the obstacles and impediments, the desires and schemes which constitute our departure from the way.

This is, however, a long and difficult process, and the raising of a child cannot be put on hold until things are perfect.  What are we to do in the meantime? How are we to act, when all our actions might betray some unwitting error or insufficiency in ourselves? Again the Yi Jing provides an answer:

The superior man
Understands the transitory
In the light of the eternity of the end.

– Yi Jing, 54: The Marrying Maiden

As the commentary explains:

Every relationship between individuals bears within it the danger that wrong turns may be taken, leading to endless misunderstandings and disagreements. Therefore it is necessary constantly to remain mindful of the end.If we permit ourselves to drift along, we come together and are parted again as the day may determine. If on the other hand a man fixes his mind on an end that endures, he will succeed in avoiding the reefs that confront the closer relationships of people.

What this signifies is that our interactions as parents with our children must be coloured and shaped by ‘the end’, which in this instance can be none other than the development of a strong and secure bond of affection.  If we lose sight of this end, we will be lost amidst worries and concerns, doubts and uncertainties.  But if instead we are always mindful of the end, though we may not know how things will ultimately turn out, we can at least be sure of the affection we have nurtured and developed.

I think this has to be the way forward: I will surely make mistakes, but so long as I am mindful of the ideal – a loving, enduring relationship with my son – I will have done at least one thing right.