I'm a high school teacher at a private school in New Jersey. During the 2019/20 school year, I've taken a year off to pursue my love of Chinese history and language by living in Beijing. I"m studying Mandarin at Beijing Language and Culture University. I'm also studying Tai Chi Chuan with a master at White Cloud Monastery which is the center of the Longmen Branch of Quanzhen Daoism in China today.
This is another lesson from Master Meng. It’s based on a lecture he gave at a 2018 seminar on Daoism in New York City.
This is based on my notes from the translation of Master Meng’s lecture.
明理 Mingli- Understanding the Truth.
Here is a story about understanding the True nature of things.
If a dog is sitting chewing on a bone and a Cow ambles by, the dog will leave his bone and chase the cow. Cow says “Why are you chasing me?” Dog replies, “You want to take my bone.” Cow responds “no, of course not, I’m a cow!” But Dog insists and they go back and forth in this way. To a human, this argument seems funny or ludicrous. Because we know that Cow would never want to eat Dog’s bone.
If Dog and Cow can reach a higher state of consciousness, then they would find it unnecessary to continue such an unnecessary argument. If only one of them was to achieve a higher state of consciousness, Cow, then the situation would play out very differently. When Dog barked at Cow, Cow would be uninterested in arguing with Dog. Cow would ignore Dog’s barking and not take that aggression in to his heart.
People are the same when we argue with others. We think we’re being rational in proposing a good argument. But when we reach a higher state, we’ll stop arguing with people. It will become meaningless to try and win an argument.
This is an important part of the process of training the heart. First, we have to understand all things. Second will be the process of naturally forgetting. When you train your heart in this way, then you can go far. If you don’t, then you will only be able to see what is right in front of you. You will be incapable of making a deep change to your heart/mind.
The pre-condition to this process is to forget all of our burdens. This is a difficult process but an essential one.
Here is another story that illustrates the importance of understanding the true nature of all things and uncovering the relationship which can exist:
In the formless world, everything is in harmony. But between lions and humans there is conflict. However, is it possible that humans and lions to become friendly? A lion brought up by a biologist in Africa developed a close relationship. Eventually, the biologist understood that the lion had to be released in to the wild. Over the course of three months, the lion was reintroduced to the wild and joined a pack of lions. Two years later, the biologist went back to the area. The lion smelled her and came to the clearing where the two hugged.
When we are connected spiritually to Nature and all things, then we are not in conflict. If we want to follow the Dao, then our focus should be on the spiritual world. Then we’ll be in harmony.
I’m hoping to bring Master Meng back to the United States in the summer of 2022. He will teach a four day seminar on Laozi or Tao Te Ching. If you’re interested, please email me at:
Each day we get up and face a complex world. When we were young, our life consisted of new challenges every day. One of the first was learning to walk, after that in quick succession came opening doors, speaking, reading, tying shoes, climbing stairs, etc. Gradually, we expanded our world until we no longer faced many challenges. Sure, high school, college, work, moving to new cities, children, all presented challenges to us. However, over time, there were fewer and fewer to greet us as we walked out the door. Then we reached a point where we became adept at avoiding challenges. Routines were set and life became comfortable. Challenges may have become unwanted inconvenience at some point. Several years ago I realized with disgust that my habit was to drive to the local grocery store instead of venturing out on the five minute walk!
But what is life where one isn’t challenged? For many people a safe life consists of backing away from uncomfortable situations inch by inch. It doesn’t seem like much each time we do so, but gradually, our world begins to shrink. We decide for example, that heated car seats are a necessity. Or that we can’t do without air conditioning on hot days. But often we can we just don’t want to. And as we build up an ever growing list of required creature comforts, designed to reduce or eliminate any challenges, the world in which we can move becomes smaller and smaller. Not only do we eliminate travel to entire countries because of the absence of our perceived needs, but even activities in our local area become too great of a challenge. Eventually, our own world is reduced to the house/apartment and few friends whom we met when the world was a larger place.
Recently, I was walking my dog on a beach in North Carolina when a rain storm swept over us. The rental house was a half mile away so I decided to just keep on walking. It was a warm July morning with no danger of going into hypothermia. Within minutes both the dog and I were soaked. And you know what? I didn’t melt! I realized then that at 58 years old, I had spent years avoiding getting caught in a rainstorm just because it might be a bit uncomfortable. But nothing bad happened other than a few wet clothes and some squishy shoes.
The rainstorm helped me realize an important lesson which is hammered home every time we venture out into nature. Things happen out in the woods, on empty beaches, in the desert which are out of our control. I believe that we can begin to expand our world again by taking on the micro-challenges which appear in nature. Taking on and overcoming these challenges frees us from depending on “things.” It’s the need for material objects which effectively creates a barrier between us and a healthy relationship with challenges. Think of the turtle. Some might say that the turtle carries everything he/she needs at all times and so they have no challenges. I’d like to flip that thinking: the turtle accepts what they’ve been given and aren’t bothered by life’s challenges. Rain, shine, hot or cold, they accept and keep on going. Nature is forever changing, forever throwing new things to deal with which requires a certain amount of nimbleness in our thinking when heading outside. Inside we have more control. We can control the temperature, what we see, the light(or lack thereof), animals, bugs and other people. We can mitigate our allergies to pollen. This is certainly a safe area. We’ve come a long way from the time when our ancestors huddled around a fire to keep the predators away and stave off the cold.
More and more scientific studies have come out in support of going outdoors. From the Harvard Medical Journal to a recent study by East Anglia University who’s findings were published in a 2018 Science Daily article, scientists are discovering what most of us already knew; that going out into nature is essential to living a healthy life. None of these studies mention them by name but I believe a key element is the nature of the challenges we face when outdoors.
So here are a few micro-challenges I’d like to put forth for people to consider. As a way to open up the world a bit more. I won’t be suggesting you climb Everest. That would constitute a major challenge for most people. These are the small actions which, hopefully, will offer proof that expanding your worldview and overcoming obstacles is still possible. This list is not complete and feel free to add your own challenges. Please remember that there is a certain amount of risk in any challenge. So don’t engage in those which will put your health in danger.
1. Walk in a rainstorm even after you’re soaking wet.
2. Get up early and watch the sunrise
3. Lie in the grass or in an open space where no lights are around and look at the stars
4. Let a mosquito bite you. Or, don’t swat at the sound of a mosquito near you ears.
5. Let bugs crawl on you while you’re sitting quietly in the woods(Be sure they’re not poisonous!). I’m thinking of non-biting ants. for example.
6. Sit outside in the dark. Just listen to the sounds and allow your eyes to adjust. Then walk around a bit to see if you can navigate walking in the woods without relying on a flashlight or headlamp.
7. If you eat three healthy meals a day, skip a meal while walking in the woods (If you suffer from any eating disorder or diabetes, I don’t recommend trying this one).
8. Walk in a stream or river with your shoes on until they’re soaked. Then continue walking.
9. In the course of your day, run errands via walking rather than drive your car. If you live too far away from stores, then drive somewhere closer and walk from there.
10 . Carry a plastic garbage bag, and using gloves, pick up all of the trash in an area of a park or nature preserve.
So there they are. Ten challenges which cover: fear of the dark, getting wet, hunger, bugs, getting up early, etc. No Mount Everests here but a few challenges which should be very doable for even the average person. I’ve found that the aftermath of taking on micro-challenges puts a bit more confidence in my step. So while you’re dealing with the isolation and frustrations associated with this pandemic, try a challenge which might make a difference for your mental growth. But don’t stop there. Tick off another one or create some of your own. Challenging oneself can become addictive and quickly you’ll see the world opening up. You’ll learn to lean in to discomfort. Finding new ways to enlarge the world will require more of an effort as a result. Keep your eyes open for challenges and take them on.
It was December of 1988 and I was on my way to South Africa. Getting there was a bit more complicated back then requiring a six hour flight to Switzerland, then an 18 hour flight outside of every African nation’s airspace. Why was my flight so convoluted? The answer lay in a system of laws based on race.
South Africa’s government was based on a system called Apartheid. Created by the Nationalist Party in 1948, this system institutionalized all of the worst elements of racial injustice found in the Jim Crow laws of many U.S. southern states from the 1890’s to the 1960’s. Apartheid laws included such restrictions as: the banning of interracial marriages, a pass book system which restricted the movements of non-whites, “homelands” were allocated to all blacks depending on their tribal origins, when living outside of these homelands, Blacks were required to live in “Townships.” Since there weren’t many jobs in these homelands, most Black-Africans lived in townships for most of the year. I visited one township, Alexandria, during my three-week visit to South Africa. It was my first time (at 25) seeing what abject poverty looked like. Over one million people lived in Alexandria. I only saw two multi-story buildings in the entire city of tin shacks and dirt roads. One was a large building which housed workers brought in to mine gold from the Great Reef strike near Johannesburg. Another was a hospital. There may have been more smaller hospitals, I don’ know. But this was the only one I could see. While I had studied South Africa in college and on my own for years, that visit to Alexandria was essentially an entire book on Apartheid which took me several years to understand.
While South Africa, and its Apartheid system, had been in the news for years by the time of my visit in 1988, I remember wanting to see for myself what it looked like. If one studies history at all, you find that there are at least two standard vantage points from which to learn about a particular time and place. The first is a view from the top floor so to speak. This involves gathering data, statistics about residential movements for example, or birth rates, death rates, income earned, etc. The other view is from the first floor. This is when the historian walks around at the street level with his/her subject matter. Personal interviews, photographs, diaries, these are the evidence which bring you face to face with history up close and personal. I had read plenty of articles and books about South Africa and it’s system of racial oppression. When family friends provided a chance for me to stay with their relatives in Johannesburg and Cape Town, I jumped at the opportunity. This was a chance to digest history in a different way. Up to that point, my only experience brushing up to historical events was in history books or newspaper articles. This trip to South Africa was an entirely different matter entirely.
During my three weeks living with locals and traveling around the country(sometimes hitchhiking), there were several encounters which stayed with me even though what happened there is now three decades in my rear view mirror.
The most astonishing interaction on this trip occurred in the most unlikely of places. During my second week in country, I stayed for several nights at a game preserve north of Johannesburg in the Magaliesburg Mountains. On that long flight flight from Zurich to Jo’burg, I had struck up conversation with a college age South African who shared my love of adventure and rock climbing. By the end of our flight, he’d invited me to explore the climbing near his grandfather’s game preserve. I’d happily agreed to meet him the following week.
One week later I arrived at the game preserve ready to climb in the African outback! I climbed there for two days in remote canyons next to beautiful streams and waterfalls where we were even challenged by a pack of loud( and quite scary) baboons. However, the memory of those climbing days have largely faded for me. The dinner I had with my friend’s grandfather on the second night has not. After our first full day of climbing, we were invited to sit at the head table during a relatively formal “Braai” or barbecue. I sat next to the grandfather and my friend took the place on his other side. Sitting at that table, I remember feeling like I was in an Indiana Jones movie. Staying at a beautiful lodge in exotic settings where I had already swam across a river, stared down screaming baboons and scaled ancient cliffs I almost expected Harrison Ford to sit down next to me! And the food was amazing. But then something happened which forever changed the way I saw the world.
As we finished the meal, Grandpa said to me, ” You Americans all think Apartheid is bad but it really isn’t!” I had no idea where he was going with this but it turned out to be both cringeworthy and enlightening at the same time. Looking at a middle aged male waiter, who was Black (all of them were), Grandpa said, “Boy! Come over here!” Upon arrival, Grandpa began to prove his case to me.
” Boy, how long have you worked for me?” His response dripped with respect and subservience, ” Oh, twenty-five years sir!” “Are you happy?” “Oh, very happy sir!”
“See, There you are!” Grandpa looked at me, a smirk of vindication on his face.
“Boy! Come over here!” Grandpa yelled to another waiter who must have been in his sixties.
“Boy, how long have you worked for me?” “Oh, 35 years sir!” Again, “Are you happy here?” “Oh, very happy sir!” “See,” Grandpa said with a self-satisfied look on his face, ” You Americans don’t know that Blacks are very happy here!” My friend looked away. His embarrassment was evident even with his back turned.
It’s interesting to look back on this event as my 58th birthday approaches this month. That one exchange over dinner between an older man, trying vainly to justify the system of racial oppression under which he lived and prospered, and myself did more to educate me on racism, oppression and Apartheid than any book ever could. Even if I’d read this story in a book it wouldn’t have impacted my life the way those five minutes at a barbecue in the South African brush did.
When this first happened, my heart went towards my friend and the embarrassment he evinced for his grandfather. I also felt for the two men who were the waiters. It was clear to me, even then, the incongruity of calling middle aged men “Boy.” I imagined how demeaned they felt knowing that, to their employer, they were similar to children. I can’t really understand the indignities (as well as the constant threat of violence and unjust imprisonment) those two men had to endure over the course of their life. However, I got the smallest glimpse of what it was like on that evening.
Although decades have passed, that evening never strays too far from my thoughts. As I hit milestones like my 40th high school reunion, the person who’s most compelling in this story is grandpa. Did he really believe his point had been made? Did he go to sleep satisfied knowing that I was so much the wiser as a result of his dog and pony show? In my heart, I believe there was some knowledge of the truth hidden way down deep in his mind, eating away at his sub-conscious. If it was apparent even to a twenty-five year old from Wisconsin that the economic and social dynamics at play that night precluded any chance of an honest response by the employees, then surely the old man must have known the charade he was orchestrating. I believe the truth revealed that night was that racism laid bare makes no sense. I didn’t hate that man for his racism, I felt pity for him. To me it was a tragedy he was spending the last part of his life desperately seeking approval from some foreign youth less than half his age. A tragedy that he was spending the final third of his life seeking ways to justify a system which no longer made sense. “What’s done in darkness always comes to light.” Seems like an appropriately relevant quote here. And sure enough, within five years of my trip, Apartheid did end. However, that evening barbecue in the South African wilderness will always remain in the top ten evenings of my life because it’s hard to forget the first time one sees the face of racism sitting next to you at dinner.
This is a story from imperial China that speaks to the importance or having good character.
Many years ago, during the Ming Dynasty, there was a young man who was an extremely gifted gardener. All around his village he grew the most beautiful patches of flowers and plants. Even in soil where nothing grew, he could work some magic and by Spring time, wonderful explosions of color would rise out of the ground. Just as important, this boy had been raised by his parents to be virtuous and truthful. News of his skill with horticulture spread outside the village and even to the provincial capital of his state.
Soon after the young man had gained some recognition, news arrived in the village that the man in charge of the Emperor’s gardens had passed away. The emperor sent out a call for all of the best gardeners to present themselves at the capital so they could be tested for their skill. On the date listed in the announcement, over one hundred candidates assembled in the imperial courtyard. One of those candidates was that young man from the small village. He represented the hopes and dreams not only of his family, but of the entire province, since an appointment to the Emperor’s court would bring great honor to everyone associated with the person chosen.
After waiting for some time, the emperor appeared up on a dias and greeted all of the candidates. He then instructed his servants to bring out a gift to every person in the courtyard. The gift was a large pot filled with dark beautiful soil. The emperor then explained that this was to be the interview for each candidate. He said, “Each of your pots has been filled with the best soil in all of China. And mixed in with this soil are the seeds of beautiful flowers and plants from my own gardens.” He continued saying, ” In one month’s time, you will return to this courtyard, with your pot to be judged on your skills as a gardener. The person who passes this interview will be my next imperial gardener.”
The young man returned home so excited he felt his heart pounding the entire way. When he arrived with the pot he set to work immediately. He used all of his skills and knowledge to make sure the seeds were properly watered, that they received just the right amount of sunlight. He even added special nutrients into the water which had always worked in the past to enhance the growth of plants. Every day he took care of the seeds and soil to the very best of his ability with all of the knowledge he had accumulated over the years.
Two weeks later and the young man began to develop some doubts. Nothing was growing in the pot! He said, ” Maybe these seeds need more sunlight.” So he set the pot out in the sun for an extra hour every day. When that didn’t work, he revised the fertilizer combination added to the soil in the first two weeks. Still, nothing grew, so the the young man increased the amount of water added to the pot. Nothing. As the month came to an end, more and more of the villagers began to cast doubts on the young man’s ability. He began to hear whispers that maybe he wasn’t as good of a gardener as people thought. This gossip hurt, and led to doubts creeping into the young man’s thoughts.
When he expressed these doubts to his parents, they said, “The most important thing is to try your hardest and do everything with integrity.” At the end of the month, not one plant had grown in the young man’s pot. He was so embarrassed but his parents pushed him to still go to the Emperor’s courtyard and face his failure head on.
On the appointed date, the young man filed in to the imperial courtyard with all of the other candidates. It was even worse than he thought: every other pot was filled with the most beautiful collection of flowers. Brilliant yellows and pinks and white flowers rose out of 99 flower pots. But not his. The emperor personally stood in front of every candidate’s pot to examine their work. When he came to the young man with the empty pot, the Emperor remained very still, seemingly lost in thought. The young man quickly apologized to the emperor for his ineptitude as a gardener.
Rather than a scowl, the boy was surprised to see the Emperor begin to smile. The Emperor said, “Don’t apologize, you are my new imperial gardener! All of these other candidates failed the interview. None of them knew that the seeds I placed in each pot had been boiled in scalding hot water. They were never going to grow! You were the only one with the integrity to appear today having seemingly failed at my task. For that, you demonstrated more character than any of these other people.”
The boy served as the imperial gardener for 50 years and the imperial gardens flourished under his care.
I am a religious person. I believe in the deities of Daoism, a Chinese religion which has existed as an organized religion since approximately 200 CE. More and more, I’ve read people’s testimonies on social media making the case for atheism, or at the least, attacking religion and people who describe themselves as religious. I’ve been thinking about the rising popularity of this belief in non-belief. Certainly, there are some reasons for people to turn their backs on organized religion in recent years. Probably the biggest factor in the current trend can be traced to the seemingly endless parade of sex scandals committed by priests in the Catholic Church and that institution’s culpability in covering up said scandals.
Another factor has been the rise of large scale evangelical organizations across the United States and the active role these groups have played in our nation’s political process. Increasingly conservative, and willing to overlook the very un-Christian actions and words of our president, the “Christian Right” have raised the ire of people who dislike the hypocrisy which comes with pairing Jesus and Donald Trump in the same breath.
A third influence on the rise of non-belief is the prevalence of technological tools, both hard and soft, such as the iphone and social media. While I don’t have anything original to say about people’s dependence on their phones and social media in a general sense, I do believe that these modern things move us further away from the eternal. To follow religion is to accept the importance of something universal while living in a world where the trivial is magnified to become all-important.
By the way, throughout this post, I’ll be defining terms in the interest of clear communication. Sometimes a discussion can go sideways because people are debating a topic without clearly defined terms and parameters. I’ll define a god as any being or group of beings, or substance which exists at a higher level than humans. By exists at a higher level, I mean possesses a clearer understanding of reality and the world than would be possible by anyone who is entirely human(a nod to Jesus who Christians believe is both human and divine).
As I mentioned in the first sentence, I am a religious person. I believe in divine powers. I believe that there are forces at work both beyond my control and understanding. I hope to lay out why someone would want to be religious and why doubt in higher powers doesn’t guarantee someone has a clearer understanding of reality.
Let me make it clear that I’m college educated with a Master’s Degree in History. I’ve been teaching various history classes at private high schools since 1986. I feel this is a necessary point to make because one of the common assertions by those who champion atheism or agnosticism is that people who are religious aren’t very intelligent. While often not stated directly, there is often the hanging implication that someone who believes in deities is thinking irrationally. And you know what? That argument is correct. I am thinking irrationally when it comes to religion! But this is where the Atheists’ argument begins to break down. Because the arguments opposing the existence of deities is based on a paradigm created in the exciting times of 16th-18th century Europe.
The triumph of reason over religious beliefs has its origins in the European Scientific Revolution. Men like Galileo, Kepler and Newton developed proof that the universe followed universal laws which could be divined through a series of constructed scientific experiments. Johannes Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion are one example which proved that the movement of planets could be known and predicted by the human brain. Then came the European Enlightenment, where various philosophers such as Voltaire and David Hume laid the ground for today’s Atheism by criticizing religion as superstitious beliefs. It was these philosophers and others who argued that everything in the world could be knowable by the human brain. It was during this time that great intellectuals took on the task of organizing all of the information known in the world into one enormous collection known as “Encyclopedie.” By engaging in this massive project, finished in 1772, Denis Diderot and the community of intellectuals around him hoped to, “change the common way of thinking.” It was this kind of hubris which characterized the Enlightenment and also paved the way eventually for people to deny the need for God or religion.
I would propose that the case for non-belief is based on two components which, taken together, closely resemble a religion: a. human reason is the basis for understanding all things in the world. And all phenomena can be explained through this same reason via scientific experimentation and collection of data over extended periods of time. b. Human senses provide the parameters for what is, and what is not.
It is my belief that worshipping a deity and the religion surrounding that being are an important part of leading a good life. I have friends and relatives who maintain that this kind of path can also be found (and is easier to practice) without religion. I’d like to challenge that assertion. To deny religion, and the existence of any higher beings/powers is to place human reason at the center. This bases our world view on the twin pillars of scientific discoveries and the Enlightenment reasoning. Both of these movements derive from humans. The flaw in this is two fold. First, all humans are limited in perspective and time on this earth. As a result, any morality developed only based on human reason are limited to a particular time and place in history. For example, William T. Sedgewick, an MIT professor and leading expert on issues related to public health in the late 1800’s to 1921 opposed giving women the vote because, “We must not forget pregnancy and lactation, both of which are a great strain on a mother’s vitality, . . . . Any further strain, like the responsibilities of the suffrage, is bound to be harmful to both mother and child.” This was based on the reasoning of the time that each person’s body had a finite amount of energy and women needed to channel most of that supply towards reproduction functions.
I do believe that people can lead a moral life without following a particular religion, but the method for both paths is the same. In my mind, being a moral person means letting go of the ego. This is the first, and most important requirement for people of faith. It means accepting subservience to another higher power. It means that the answer to any question is sometimes beyond our understanding. I’ve heard people in the past question God’s existence because “How could God let something like this happen”(Feel free to insert the historical calamity of your choice)? But that line of questioning, based on Enlightenment logic, assumes everything should be knowable to the rational mind. In Islam, when people make plans together, they will finish by saying, Inshallah, “If Allah Wills It.” Here is an acceptance that if things work out, then it was meant to happen, if they didn’t, then that’s also for the best. But this seems contrary to the philosophy of those rejecting religion. They seem to be saying, ” I am totally in control” or” I understand all of the forces which are affecting me.” And also that judgements based on “good” and “bad” can be determined in the immediate aftermath of events.
The second reason why I disagree with Atheism logic is because it’s a way of thinking based on materialism. This world we live in and the observable universe is all there is. However, just like our minds are limited by individual perspective and time, so are our senses. My teacher, Master Meng, explains that the Dao exists outside of the five senses. He remembers conversations with scientists where they express doubt about the existence of beings outside of these senses and responds to them that cats can see many more colors at night than we can, dogs are able to distinguish many more smells and sounds than is possible with our noses and ears. So why, he asks, is it probable that with our limited senses, we are able to definitively say what exists or doesn’t exist? He explains that Dao exists in the fourth dimension, a realm outside of the normal world. In Daoism, the only way to come in contact with the Dao is by letting go of oneself, usually through intense meditative practices. But this can also happen through the practice of religious rituals.
My point with this is, in a sense, atheists are right given what they accept as true. God or gods can’t exist based on the parameters they’ve constructed derived from Enlightenment thinking. But this materialist understanding is created from a belief every bit as irrational as religion: that our seeing of the world is accurate. So if you accept, as a religious person does, that there are things outside of our 3-D five senses’ perception of the world, then you’re much more open to living a life based not on material things with yourself at the center.
Attacks on religion often rely on the various sins of religious leaders and/or their followers. But these criticisms are based on biased thinking. Some of the worst atrocities in the history of mankind were perpetrated by leaders and people who denied the importance of following religion: Hitler, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, Mao and the Cultural Revolution, Stalin in Russia even the Terror of the French Revolution. In fact, the Terror was directly inspired by Enlightenment thinkers such as Rousseau. I believe, as a veteran historian, that the fault lies not with strict secularism or devotion to a religion, but an inability to see that the human practitioners of any religion are fallible and prone to make mistakes. Accepting that I don’t have a monopoly on the truth just because I’m religious is an essential part of my faith. This is borne out multiple times throughout my day. The simplest example is when I get angry at the car stopped in front of me only to realize they were waiting for pedestrians to cross the road! Every time I become irritated with someone or a situation, I think that maybe I don’t understand the whole picture. And invariably, armed with that approach, I gain greater clarity of the world around me!
If you’re paying attention, it may have become clear to you the key word in all of this: Acceptance. Accepting that we don’t have all of the answers, that control is an illusion we create to keep the monsters in our closet at bay. My experience with religion is that it’s forced me to confront my demons, not put up temporary barriers. As one of my teachers early on told me while explaining meditation techniques, “When you see the darkness inside, above all else, remember to love yourself!” At its best, religion is the very essence of what humanity is all about. Following Daoism has certainly taught me to work towards becoming a better path. Finally, there is this quote from Robert Jastrow, NASA scientist in the 1950’s-60’s who once said,
“For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance, he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”
As always, I welcome thoughts or insights which I may have missed ignored.
My Daoist teacher, Master Meng, recently offered a beautiful metaphor for what it means to be a master of something. At the time, we were talking about people who understood Daoism. In retrospect, I think his analysis can be applied to any endeavor. In describing the various ways one can understand something, Master Meng used the example of making furniture. He said, ” If one looks at the making of furniture, there are people who know the theory and history of furniture making. They understand all of the different styles of furniture and how craftsmen made iconic styles throughout history. But many of these people can’t actually make furniture. They understand the theory. Then there are furniture builders who don’t know the history of furniture, but they have the skill and implicit understanding to make great furniture. Each of these two groups understands a part of the world of furniture. But there is a third group. This group of people both understands the history of furniture and all of it’s incarnations and are experts at making furniture as well. This third group has the deepest understanding of furniture. ” Master Meng argued that the second type of people, the furniture makers, could develop a deep understanding of Daoism as well as those who possessed knowledge of furniture theory and the ability to make furniture themselves. But true understanding of Daoism would escape those who traveled only down the path of theory and knowledge.
Becoming a master is an all-encompassing endeavor. It requires one’s complete attention. The path of a master is not for those who admire Leonardo Da Vinci, or Thomas Jefferson. These men who are often described as, “Renaissance People,” represent the Western ideal of excellence in many areas. Jefferson was an architect, diplomat, philosopher, farmer, politician, educator, etc. DaVinci was a painter, architect, inventor, anatomist. In the western world of Europe and America, the highest compliment one can be paid is by referring to them as a “Renaissance Person.” But this term is antithetical to the path of a master. Wikipedia uses the term “clever” when defining this phrase. And the Encyclopedia Britannica traces the origin of “Renaissance Man” back to Leon Battista Alberti who, in the 15th Century said, ” A man can do all things if he will.” From this developed the western obsession with two ideas: that the pursuit of all knowledge would lead to the evolution of humans, and to be well-rounded in one’s activities was the highest path for humans to cultivate. But what if those two ideas are based on erroneous thinking?
During my first two years at Davidson College, I enrolled in a two year “Humanities” class which taught myself and my classmates about the greatest achievements in science, literature, history, architecture and art from the beginning of civilization to the present. Since I took this class in 1980-82, nobody batted an eye that Humanities didn’t make any reference to the great achievements of the non-western world. I never learned about the invention of gunpowder in China, or that mathematicians in India developed the concept of zero way before westerners. It took me into my early thirties to find out that China actually developed a movable type printing press about five hundred years before Gutenberg! But back to my point. During the twentieth century, Davidson College wasn’t alone in creating courses which hoped to cultivate well-balanced individuals who possessed knowledge in many areas. As one professor cynically noted, the Humanities course created people, “who could sound intelligent at cocktail parties.” And he was right, I learned how to sound erudite at parties! Upon finishing the two year course, I and my classmates were conversant in the Western cultural lexicon. We could reference Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and the ancient story of Gilgamesh. We understood the Greek antecedents to Renaissance architecture and the schism which developed between Protestants and Catholics in the 1500’s.
Looking back almost forty years, I still have fond memories of Humanities class. It really did guide me towards becoming a thoughtful person. But in some ways, almost nothing we read during those two years explained what it took to become a master.
The people I’ve met who were masters achieved this through an intense mono-focus, not by striving in many areas. They possessed a depth of seeing rather than a wide breadth. My judo sensei of thirteen years was two time Olympic coach, Yoshisada Yonezuka. I remember hearing a story from his time as Olympic coach which illustrates mastery. One day, while the U.S. team was training under his guidance, Yone became dissatisfied with their effort. He lined the entire team up and beat each one of them in a judo match. He was approximately 50 years old! Yone breathed judo every day. His approach was just practice judo and work towards improvement. His lessons were simple. While there are over 60 types of throws in judo, Yone repeatedly said, “Just master one or two throws rather than become mediocre at ten.” Yone was definitely not a Renaissance Man. He actually looked down on gathering more hobbies. He once said to me, ” Why would you want to be just good at many activities? The goal should always be to work towards excellence at one thing.”
The more I think about Yone’s comments, the more I’ve come to believe that the western fondness for amassing achievements in many areas is really a greediness of the soul. In my own life I’ve developed skills in several disciplines including: tennis, rock climbing, tai chi, judo, photography, scuba diving. Looking back on all of these activities, I can see they were often borne out of a spiritual restlessness or greed. Or maybe an unwillingness to fully commit to just one thing.
As my birth day moves farther and farther away from the present, I’ve developed an increasing appreciation for those people who have become masters. In a sense, these are people who have cut off a bit, or a lot, of their humanity. To pursue one activity so whole-heartedly is to ignore some of the basic elements of life common to most humans. Whether it’s the severing of most/all human relationships, refusing to accumulate wealth or property, or avoiding recognition, masters have cut off a part of “normalcy” and cauterized the wound with an intense focus on their one activity.
During my thirty years of rock climbing, I had many partners in the mountains and on the cliffs. One of them, Rich Romano, to me possessed the qualities of a master. While Rich wasn’t necessarily putting up the very hardest ascents, during the 1980’s, he was always in the same conversation with those who were the best. And he eschewed the spotlight, preferring to climb on remote crags away from crowds of people. Rich put up hundreds, if not a thousand climbs at the Shawangunks in New York State. I climbed with him for ten years. The way he climbed was always a mystery to me. While much shorter, he could ascend sections of rock which I failed to climb. One time, after he had ascended a 15 foot 5.12 roof crack(an expert level rating) I asked Rich for the best technique to use so I could also taste success. He told me that his unusual technique on this climb was derived from watching a Daddy-Long-Legs move across a ceiling. Rich admitted this happened in a public bathroom while standing at a urinal! Needless to say, I failed in my attempts to employ the same technique!
This story, to my mind, illustrates one key quality possessed by anyone who has become a master. They see the world largely through the prism of their chosen pursuit. The entire world becomes a place where they can learn more and more about rock climbing or judo, etc. This is why people such as Rich or Yone are so special. Most of us can’t see the world with their depth. Only varying degrees of breadth. But they have a deeper communication with the world, a deeper understanding which brings them in contact with the universal or the eternal. The Tao Te Ching says,
“Without stirring out of the house, one can know everything in the world; Without looking out the window, one can see Tao of Heaven. The further one travels, the less one knows.”(Chapter 47).
My grandfather was probably the first time I came in contact with mastery. He was a stamp collector of the highest caliber. His collection of Newfoundland stamps and letters won gold medals at competitions all over the world. In fact, Grandpa’s collection had even beaten the Queen of England’s collection on one occasion. He was always to be found in his library inspecting some new stamp or pouring over documents related to the collection. An engineer by training and a Colonel in army during World War II, Grandpa was a person who loved details. Stamp collecting for him had begun when he was a young boy suffering from debilitating illnesses who was often house bound.
In both China and Japan, appreciation of mastery is embedded in the culture. Having taught the history of both countries and visited China thirteen times, I’ve constantly seen people there who’s goal is mastery. Being a well-rounded person, is something to strive for in the U.S. But in China many people have a different approach. I love going to parks in China. You can tell a lot about the nation’s culture by what people do in these peaceful areas of cities. In China, there are certainly people walking, laughing and strolling, but there are also numerous areas where people demonstrate immense focus. Walking through the Temple of Heaven Park in Beijing, I see people practicing sword dances, pushups, gymnastics, whips, taichi chuan, qigong, music, etc. The people I know who practice taichi and qigong at this location practice for hours every day. They all practice in a very particular area of the Park because the energy is particularly good there. The Push-Up Gang, as I call them, are a group of men who do push-ups and pull-ups every day for hours. In China, therre’s a high value placed on achieving not just excellence, but mastery.
In a sense, there’s a simplicity one achieves while following the path towards mastery. One has eliminated many of the things which could serve as distractions. In my experience practicing Daoism and working with my teacher, Master Meng I’ve found that the mind becomes clearer because one doesn’t have so many options to consider. There’s just the one way to proceed. Maybe the push to become well-rounded offers up too many pathways to go down. All those options fosters that very cleverness which is mentioned in the Wikipedia entry for Renaissance Man. In Daoism, cleverness is not a compliment, it’s the insertion of human reasoning into a situation and thus moving further away from the natural way. My interest in people who are masters and mastery itself is because it’s the closest humans can get to a true understanding of the world.
One of my favorite stories from the great Daoist text, The Chuangtze is Butcher Ding. A king comes to Butcher Ding because people have reported that when Butcher Ding cuts meat off of a carcass, it falls off as if by magic. The king asks Ding why this is so? He responds that his knife is thin enough to move into the space between the meat and bones. Ding continues saying that when he hits a tight spot, he moves more slowly and eventually is able to pass his knife through space until the meat falls off. Butcher Ding tells the king that a bad butcher will hack at meat and dull his blade so that it needs sharpening within one month, a good butcher will carve meat and only sharpen his blade once a year. Because he follows the natural way (the Dao), his knife never meets with any resistance when carving. As a result, Butcher Ding reveals that he hasn’t sharpened his knife in several years! In this telling, Butcher Ding is the very embodiment of the Dao because he takes his knife along the natural way to slice meat and avoids resistance. This is mastery in its essence. Butcher Ding is that person Master Meng referred to at the beginning of this article who understands both theory and the actions.
I know that for most people, mastery isn’t an aspirational goal. But it’s good to have it out there as an option. And beginning on the path towards well-roundedness doesn’t mean one can’t switch paths. For the last ten years I’ve been gradually shedding myself of the accumulated knowledge summarized in that two year Humanities course at Davidson College. Confucius even talks about this path when he says, ” At 15 I set my mind to learning.” But later in his life, Confucius spoke of a different goal, “At 50 I knew the will of Heaven. At 60, nothing I heard upset me.” So gathering up knowledge as a young person aspires to become learned is fine, but later in life, this pursuit is dropped in favor of developing a deeper understanding. That’s why, to me, reaching towards mastery, even if I never reach that level, is a noble pursuit more intriguing than becoming good at several things. For my money, DaVinci isn’t the archetype to imitate, it’s someone like judo sensei, Yoshisada Yonezuka, or rock climber Rich Romano, or stamp collector Robert Pratt or Daoist, Master Meng Zhiling.
While there are many lies/illusions which become common tropes in Hollywood films, maybe the most damaging is the myth of how one becomes a master. The basic storyline narrative moves like this: young ingenue is an outcast who has no friends or suffers personal loss. Befriended by a seemingly crazy/irritable/ old person, youngster eventually becomes their student, works and practices hard(under a time crunch to create more tension) and develops mastery under the tutelage of this hidden expert. Finally, hero demonstrates mastery in some very public fashion; often in a competition of some kind. To my mind, the pinnacle of this genre is The Karate Kid. I first saw the movie when it came out in 1984. I totally bought in to film’s mythology. It contains all of the elements listed above. And the master is the now famous, Mr. Miyagi( this film is so famous that “Miyaged” has become a verb). A hotel repairman who is a karate expert (and also bonsai master) in his spare time, Mr. Miyagi trains a clearly un-athletic actor in the space of one month to become a tournament champion overcoming much more experienced (and more athletic looking) opponents in the process. That this is a fairy tale is fine, but over the last 35 years it’s misrepresentation of the process fostered certain expectations of how long, and what it takes to become a master.
Karate Kid propagated the idea that there’s a simple recipe for mastery: a pound of physical hardship, a cup of personal crisis, another cup of excellent but eccentric teacher and finally, a huge dose of sugar coated ending complete with a first place medal. And all of this has to take place in a very short time frame-maybe a month, at most, one year. On the CW’s The Arrow, that protagonist becomes the best archer in the world in 5 years ( he doesn’t even practice that much!). In Netflix’s recent, Iron Fist, Danny Rand becomes a warrior of legend in 6 years. All of these sell the dream that the process of becoming a master takes no more than a few years of hard work and quite often, only a matter of months. But in fact, my experience is that becoming a master takes decades to achieve. Maybe even then it won’t happen unless a number of key elements fall in to place.
I’d like to explore the concept of mastery over the next two blog entries. In this entry I’ll present three stories which provide rich illustration of what mastery is and isn’t. In the next entry, I’ll delve into my own definition of mastery with some further insights from the people and experiences I’ve had living in China.
Story one is a mythical one and begins in a small village of China four hundred years ago where a young man decided he wanted to become a sword master. His parents were farmers and so was everyone else in the village. The young man asked everyone if they knew where he could find a master swordsman but of course no one knew such a person. Then one day, a traveler walked through town looking for some food. The young man asked his question to the visitor who said that there was such a person living far from the village( about 100 miles) in a different valley. With this new knowledge in hand, the young man made plans to travel to the master’s house. He walked for several days, enduring hunger and bad weather in the process. Eventually, he arrived at the given location only to find a ramshackle house. Out in the fields was an older farmer planting rice. The young man knew in his heart that this man was the sword master. After bowing before the farmer and expressing his desire to learn the way of the sword, the boy asked if he could live in the farmhouse and study. The master said yes and told the boy to clean up the kitchen immediately. By the day’s end, everything in the kitchen had been put a way and cleaned. The next morning at 6:00 am, the young man was awakened and told to chop the nearby pile of wood. The next day it was pulling weeds in the fields. The day after that it was patching holes in the house walls. And every day after, the master had some household task for the young man to complete. After one year of this, the boy was frustrated. In the space of one year he had learned nothing about swordsmanship and merely become a servant for the farmer. So he went to the master to express his frustration and ask when he would begin the process of becoming a sword master. The master responded that his training would begin the very next day.
The following day started with more mundane tasks to complete around the house. The young man was washing the morning dishes when all of a sudden he was hit in the head by a rock. Rubbing the sore spot, he looked around to see the master quietly leaving the kitchen. From that day on, the young man was hit by various rocks, pieces of wood, even the occasional plate! They always came from outside of his field of vision and when he least expected it. He had to be on guard constantly, never knowing where the next attack would come from. This went on for two years. Every night the boy would tend to his bruises. While he didn’t understand what was happening, he trusted that the master knew what he was doing. By the beginning of his fourth year at the master’s house, the young man realized that he was sometimes able to avoid the master’s thrown objects. He could now “feel” when an object was coming at him and avoid it. Finally, by the middle of the fourth year, the master was never able to hit the young man.
On the first day of seventh month of the fourth year, the master woke the young man and said it was now time to practice with swords.
The second example of mastery also demonstrates what it takes to become the student of a master. This is the true story of a young man I know from France who wanted to study Daoist internal cultivation arts with a master in rural China. It shows what happens when the student doesn’t have the patience to wait until the master says it is time to begin formal study.
Just finding a master was not so easy. Jean was fluent in Mandarin and a highly educated young man. He also had a strong understanding of Daoism. After engaging in a long search to find this master, Jean went out into the countryside of China where the old man lived. The master lived in a run down temple very far from any large city so it was a difficult journey for Jean to arrive there. Finally, he made it to the home of the master. Jean was very happy and even more pleased when the master agreed to teach him. The next day, Jean accompanied his new master out in to the fields and worked a long day farming crops. At night his hands were bloody from broken blisters and his entire body hurt. The next day was the same thing all over again. Jean struggled every day with the physical hardships of his new life. And his teacher didn’t show any willingness to teach him about Daoist cultivation techniques. Even worse, was the psychological hardships. A woman lived at the temple who cooked for Jean and the master. And every day she complained to Jean that his mere presence(officially, foreigners were not allowed to live in temples) was a danger to the master. She often asked Jean why he wanted to stay in the temple and told him it would be better for her and the master if he left. After about three weeks of this, exhausted and mentally stressed, Jean left the temple believing that he had failed.
I thought that was the end of the story and told Jean that he had put in a good effort. He let me finish and then explained that his experience at the temple was a failure on two counts! Surprised, I asked why. Apparently, the entire experience, including the woman complaining about his presence, was set up to test Jean’s resolve. He had failed his first test before even beginning to study with the master. Jean was left to wonder what could have been if he had only shown more perseverence and commitment to the teacher.
Accepting suffering and physical hardship is common enough in Chinese culture that they have a term for it. To accept the suffering and pain that life brings you and to endure is called, “eating bitterness.” This is an essential part of following a master/becoming a master yourself.
Along my own road to follow a master, I’ve encountered “eating bitterness.” What it really means is withdrawing one’s own ego with the understanding that this is the beginning of a long process. The key is to put one’s trust completely in in the hands of one’s master. The problem is this philosophy is in direct opposition with a fundamental characteristic of American culture which is, to quote Socrates, ” Question Authority.” I’ve seen this quality appear so often where a master gives direction and the western student challenges their thought process. Some of you might say that an unquestioning attitude is antithetical to the American way of doing things and I would say that therein may be the reason why we don’t value mastery as a nation. We value fame and fortune.
The Hollywood version of ascension to mastery trope is so problematic because there’s no mention of real sacrifice in The Karate Kid. The term is tossed around, but not with any true understanding of what it takes. Real mastery comes not just from hard work or from physical pain, but from accepting that the life towards mastery is filled with “bitterness” or suffering. Failure basically. The longer one holds on to the idea that they know better than their master, the longer the process will take.
Witness the path of Master Meng Zhiling. Recognized within the Chinese Daoist community as a practitioner deeply skilled in internal cultivation techniques, he now resides in Beijing holding the positions of Vice President of the Chinese Taoist Association and Head of the Taoist College at White Cloud Temple. However, elevation to this position did not come easily. He left his family, in his early twenties and has never gone back. Wanting to pursue life in a Buddhist monastery at first, Master Meng traveled to the famous Shao LIn temple where he applied to enter. His application was refused, many times. He rented a hotel room near by and pressed his case to the Buddhist monks over the course of one month but with no success. Traveling to another Buddhist temple, Master Meng was again repeatedly rejected. Finally, a female Buddhist nun accepted him as her student at a remote monastery.
However even that was short-lived. One morning after he had settled in, the nun informed Master Meng she had had a dream the previous night where it was revealed that he was actually a Daoist. Again, he had to leave a temple. The nun directed Master Meng to a small Daoist temple near by so he dutifully went there and began studying with the resident priest. However, he realized within a few weeks that the monk possessed a shallow understanding of Dao. So Master went on the road again where he finally found a Daoist temple and teacher which were right for him.
After two years at that temple and several others, Master Meng decided he would go into the mountains because it was there that the highest Daoist practitioners lived as hermits. But Master Meng knew that to live in the mountains and cultivate Dao required a clear method. Otherwise he was just living and not cultivating. So he spent the next five years traveling all over China in an effort to find the proper cultivation method. On his travels, Master Meng met many people who were, or claimed to be Daoists. He decided to treat them all as if they were masters. Because often times high level practitioners will hide their abilities so Master Meng kowtowed to every person on his path. After 5 years of traveling around, Master Meng found the proper method. Only then did he journey into the mountains. He lived there for over five years. He made his own cave house by digging into the wall of a hill and grew his own vegetables and he meditated for hours every day. When Master Meng emerged from the mountains, he was recognized as a master by leaders in the Chinese Taoist Association.
I can only guess why Hollywood hasn’t gotten the journey towards master status right. A big part has to do with impatience. In America we often think in the short term. Just one personal example. For the last 19 years I’ve been practicing the Japanese martial art of Judo. About ten years ago I earned my first degree black belt. I was so pleased until my sensei told me what the Japanese term for first degree black belt means. Shodan actually means, “beginner.” The term indicates that with the rank of Shodan the individual is now able to learn the real way of Judo. Everything before this has been to get one ready to learn. This is why I’m always a bit concerned when somebody overly celebrates upon earning Shodan status. Also of concern is the number of people who drift away from judo after earning their first degree black belt. Why leave when you’ve just begun the real journey? If Master Meng had spent five years searching for a proper method and then quit, he never would have become a master. To reach this level means abandoning the importance of time. This is antithetical to the prevailing thinking in Hollywood where “time is money.” As a result, the world of almost every Hollywood movie stresses the importance of time.
This ends Part 1 of the topic. I’ll introduce a definition of mastery in the next blog entry and talk about other masters I’ve met over the years. Please feel free to comment or offer thoughts.
What is wisdom? From my experience wisdom is a glimpse of the eternal. An idea, philosophy, religion, piece of art, speech, that touches most people on a deep level. To put it another way, it’s something or some idea or concept which people across time and space recognize as a higher truth. Wisdom is also not necessarily something that catches on and spreads quickly. After his address at Gettysburg, Lincoln considered the speech a failure and later wrote of being depressed on the train ride back to DC. Van Gogh wasn’t alive when his first piece of art was finally purchased. Even Confucius expressed frustration that no prince or nobleman had appreciated his ideas enough to offer him a position at court. But I think it’s fair to say that almost everyone would now testify to the brilliance of Van Gogh’s artistic vision, the deep insights into ways of governing and moral living found in Confucius’ Analects and the bold vision for the United States found in a short speech by Lincoln.
So how do we know what wisdom is when it hits us in the face? I’ve come to believe that wisdom is to be found in the everyday events of our lives. The Tao Te Ching says, ” You can understand the world without ever leaving your room,” or, ” You can see the entire world in a single blade of grass.” In other words, wisdom is always right in front of us but we don’t acknowledge it, or can’t see it. My favorite illustration of this point is an example from about three years ago. I was talking with a friend of mine at school. We were conversing about the weather and I had just expressed irritation at the constant complaining by people that every day was either too hot or too cold, wet or dry, windy or calm. Pete responded, ” You know Dave, every year my wife complains in the summer that it’s too hot and in the winter that it’s too cold. I told her, ‘For the last 60 years of your life it’s been hot in summer and cold in winter, why are you complaining about something which has always been this way?'”
For me, Pete’s response beautifully illustrates what wisdom is: obvious knowledge which transcends time. My point is that wisdom doesn’t naturally come from the most well educated, the wealthiest, the brightest or the most famous. Our bookstores today are filled with the writings of famous or wealthy or physically talented people offering ideas about how to organize our closets or meditate better or any number of self-help ideas. But Pete’s insight cut right to the heart of our culture of complaining. Why complain about something which is forever? And many would say, ” Well of course, what your friend said is true. Everyone knows that!” To my point-everyone knows what weather comes along with summer and winter but they still complain. Wisdom would preach acceptance of the natural rhythm instead of complaining.
I believe that many people are often searching for wisdom in the wrong places which leads problems. It’s easy to identify people and places which are not sources of wisdom. Talk Radio is one example. I once met famous Fox commentator Laura Ingraham and she taught me a great deal about people who are supposed experts on TV. My school had invited Ingraham and several other people who made their living commenting on the news to a discussion of the 1996 presidential election. Ms. Ingraham was nice enough to meet with the History Department and share conversation after the event. The meeting was one of the most fascinating evenings I’ve ever had. It was on that cool October evening that Laura Ingraham taught me what our culture of talking heads and news wars was really about. That night, Laura Ingraham destroyed my belief that the most logical and well explained argument would win the day. She understood better than I that the future of news was not about being reasonable and thoughtful, it was about winning. During our discussion , I realized that Ms. Ingraham didn’t care at all about finding wisdom, she was just interested in whatever it took to win the day and move on to the next battle. It was an incredible lesson and one that has stayed with me for 25 years.
On a somewhat related note, do you know how long the lead story stays a lead story on the Yahoo news website? Ten minutes. This’s based on my own informal observation of the website, please feel free to gather your own empirical evidence about Yahoo or any other news agency online. How can we expect to find a broader perspective on the world by looking at things which only have an existence of ten minutes? Or gain deeper insights from a person or people ( Laura Ingraham is only one specific example of the type of person who tells us what to think on the news. She’s not an aberration, just a well known example) whose interests have little to do with anything more permanent than social media followers for the next hour or two.
Why do people listen to talking heads on the news, or the angry self-righteous voices on talk radio? I think it’s because those venues offer easy answers which focus on the external problems. This goes back to my definition of wisdom. Real wisdom lies, I believe, in improving ourselves. Through a slow and determined process whereby we look at our own failings and try to make changes. The surface level response to this is to improve ourselves externally: more beautiful or handsome, more awards, more medals, better shape, more followers on Facebook or Twitter. The constant search for external validation, which has also been one of my weaknesses, brings to mind a story told by a teacher I met several years ago in China. He said, “People search all over the world for treasure when they already have a diamond inside their heart.” I know some of you have taken breaks from social media and this is a good stab at problem, but the answer requires deeper reflection.
Inscribed somewhere on the Delphic Oracle in ancient Greece was the maxim, “Know Thyself.” Of course we’ve heard this before. It’s nothing new. But I believe relying on others to tell us our opinions is because of a lack of self knowledge. To obtain self knowledge requires a willingness to be alone with just yourself. I believe this is the real basis for developing wisdom. An entire library of books won’t be able to give you self-knowledge. That will only come when you can sit quietly and hear that “lone voice crying in the wilderness” as found in the book of Isaiah in the Bible. When we know ourselves, it’s not so easy to lose our psychological balance. We can’t be rocked because there is a core understanding of what we know to be true. I believe it’s when we either forget or don’t know ourselves that we become vulnerable to those talking heads whose job depends on getting us to accept their voice as the reasonable one.
Where to begin this process? Another friend of mine suggested that we need to get rid of the noise in our lives which prevents us from thinking about God. He challenged me to see what “noise” I could eliminate in my daily life which would open up space for God to make Their presence known. While many of you may not be Christians, I think the message is essential whether you believe in Jesus or Buddha or Allah or Krishna or nature, etc. To begin the journey towards wisdom, one has to make room for something else in life than the temporary or the superficial. Whether it’s Bill Maher or Rachel Maddow or Sean Hannity, none of those people, and the hundreds of commentators like them, have an interest which goes much deeper than being right. So try finding something to turn off in your day. For me it was sports radio on my daily commute in to work. I can say with a great deal of confidence that action helped me find a much better balance in my life.
A good friend(Al) recently visited me in Beijing. He stayed for seven days and fell in love with the city and its people. Al is an astute observer of life and picked up on several differences between America and China. One night, we met with another American who’s lived in Beijing for two decades to share dinner and conversation. This second friend, Jeremiah, listened to Al’s and my observations about what we saw in Beijing and offered a quote he had heard about travelers in China. I think this is a wonderful insight into how people develop perspective/wisdom over time. He said, “If you live in Beijing for a week you can write a book, after a month you’ll be able to write an article, and by the time you’ve lived here for a year, you won’t write anything.”
Well, I’ve visited Beijing twelve times in the last twelve years. I’m currently in the midst of a five month stay here. So in honor of my friend’s quote, I’m limiting myself to a short collection of observations about China’s capital. Of course, my observations are based on partial understanding of what my eyes and ears are picking up. Be that as it may, I feel comfortable making some observations which you might contest, but may broaden your understanding of China. If you disagree, or care to offer a different perspective, please do so in comments.
First, Beijing is statistically one of the safest cities in the world. There is almost no petty crime. No muggings, no rapes, no stealing. Of course, some of you might say that this is due to the regime which controls the country and the presence of cameras everywhere. Almost every American, upon hearing I was going to live in China for a semester expressed concern that I would be watched by the government. And that is true, the government is watching me. They’re also watching the other 107,000 expats living in Beijing and the rest of the 600,000 expats living in China. They’re also watching the 1.3 billion people in China. Just like our government, the Chinese are watching the internet and public locations for potential problems. But for the most part they aren’t interested in me or anyone who’s leading quiet, ordinary lives.
But putting aside Americans’ fears of watchful governments, imagine a place where women feel safe walking down streets at night by themselves. Imagine a place where mothers don’t teach their daughters how to put keys between their fingers so they have a weapon in hand in case of an attack. Where girls haven’t been taught to cross the street because a man is walking behind them. What I’ve noticed in Beijing is that women and girls don’t feel like they have to be constantly aware of their surroundings and on the look out for potential threats. They just walk down streets going to their destinations. After the Mongols conquered most of Asia in the early 1200’s( and created a horrible devastation in the process) it was said of their empire that peace reigned. In fact, I read a quote which nicely summed up how law and order prevailed throughout the land: “It was said that a beautiful woman, carrying a bag of gold, could walk from one end of the empire to the other without being harmed.” And Beijing is that quote brought to life. Could the same be said of America? Not even close. In fact, I challenge any man who doubts me to ask young women about the precautions they have to take when walking out the door. Last year I sat down with a group of female students to talk about this very topic. We moved quickly through some of the things I’ve mentioned to their experiences taking Uber and Lift. The talked about not wanting to talk to their drivers for fear the men would think the girls were interested in them. Many of them had experienced situations where drivers commented on how pretty they looked, asked if they had boyfriends and wondered if they needed to be walked to the door. I’ve never heard a man have these same experiences.
People don’t talk about politics very much in China. I love this one. Yes, China is a one party state so it’s not like there are many competing parties to choose from. Think about the energy many Americans waste reading articles or watching talking heads explain the news which don’t accomplish much more than to raise our blood pressure. In the past, I was sometimes surprised at how people in China really didn’t care, or know, much about what was going on in America. After spending two months over here I can tell you what a relief it is to not talk about politics or to hear people talk about politics. In Daoism and related practices such as Qigong and Tai Chi, we believe that if one becomes emotionally involved in watching something or reading something, then the observer’s qi or energy is being stolen by those things. This leads to a decline in our health as qi energy is sapped from us by Fox News, political debates, ESPN, MSNBC, etc. I’m happy not to be losing my energy on the latest outrageous event.
When people retire here in China, they go to the parks. And they engage in an active life. They play Chinese Chess, they sing, dance, play a version of hacky-sack, work out, practice tai chi, etc. The fascinating thing is how people have broken out into specialized workout sub groups. Some of the more unusual ones include: the push-up guys, the gymnasts on parallel bars, the people who practice with whips, the guys pushing against trees. This is in addition to all the people doing activities which westerners might not consider so unusual including: tai chi, qigong, gongfu, singing, dancing, pushing hands. They even have competitions featuring dance groups of 30 or more people in every public space. All of them over 50 years old. Night time is especially busy. At least part of the reason for this is the government doesn’t allow Netflix, HBO, Amazon Prime or any other streaming service or social media. Would the freedom to access all of this entertainment be of benefit to people. Is it an inherent right? Possibly, but leading active lives with positive social interaction certainly seems better than our splintered society where people retreat to their devices at night ignoring the real world outside.
There is an active understanding from everyone- government and individuals alike that saving the environment is important and necessary. And the government is doing something about it. According to a World Economic Forum article published in 2018, China has already implemented plans to significantly improve China’s air quality as well as worked to develop a greener economy. The government has even raised taxes so as to offer increased financial support for environmental iniatives. Technology has been used on a massive scale to make energy saving efforts. LED lights shut off in my apartment hallway when no one is around. I have to stamp my foot to turn those lights on so as to unlock my apartment door. Escalators slow down when no one is on them. Trees are being planted everywhere. It’s actually heartening to see a government which is taking steps both small and large to save or replenish the environment. Yes, China has a pollution problem and they also have made terrible offenses against the environment in the past. As did companies in the United States during Industrial Age up to the 1960’s. When Congress passed the Clean Air Acts of 1963 and 1967 and other acts which prevented dumping of waste and protecting endangered species they were acting in the best interest of our citizenry and our nation, and so it seems is the Chinese government today.
Finally, China is quickly in the process of transitioning to a new system of exchange with WeChat. It is already possible to go through life in Beijing and other large modern Chinese cities without using paper money at all. Young people buy most items on the Chinese version of Amazon. They pay for taxis with WeChat, groceries, apartment rent, food at restaurants, vacations, everything. For me as an American it took a while to get used to just showing the bar code on my phone for WeChat which would complete my transaction. It required a different mindset.
Some might say that I’ve fallen into the trap Jeremiah was referring to in his quote. That I’ve idealized what I’m seeing in China and lost perspective. I’m certainly limited by my own individual perspective. I don’t have the ability to raise myself above the world of humans to see what is real and true. But I do believe that travel opens the door to a greater reality just a pinch. That it does allow us to see over the first hill we’ve climbed to a mountain that rises even higher. To engage in endless travel isn’t the answer, but I’ve found that travel and talking with people outside of our own little worlds helps broaden our understanding of the world. Much more than watching TV or ingesting news from whatever platform we favor. As my master says, Ants on the back of an elephant are never aware they’re on an elephant. To them, that’s their entire world. So while I haven’t become a communist, and I don’t think that the Chinese government is perfect, I do think there are some things we as Americans can learn from China, it’s people and the government. That women can walk home alone at night without fear. That’s an idea which stays with me. While the U.S. is home to a very strong government, half of our population walks through the world aware that there are predators out there. Men don’t walk through life in the same way. Just as an example, have any of you men been asked by your uber driver if they could kiss you? So, yes, maybe, in the interest of making our country a safer place for women, we should consider looking further than the elephant’s back and find better solutions.
October 5/6 I joined a Beijing Hikers group for an overnight hike on the Great Wall. We hiked from GuBeiKou pass to Jin Shan Ling. These are two beautiful sections of the Wall. I’ve probably been to the Great Wall ten times or more since 2007. My wife’s reaction still sums up the feeling I have when walking on this most famous of man made structures throughout history. As she stood on the same walkway where soldiers from the Ming army watched for any possible Mongolian armies 600 years ago, Ann so eloquently said, ” I can’t believe I’m on the f***ing Great Wall!” While I don’t repeat her words, the sentiment is with me every time I head north to another section of the Wall. By the way, trivia fact, the Chinese do not call it The Great Wall. Their term, Chang Cheng, literally means “Long Wall.” It’s only westerners who arrived in the 1800’s decided the wall was “Great.” It was quite special to camp out in a guard tower overnight with a small group all by ourselves. Usually the Wall has lots of people walking over it’s terrain, but as the afternoon turned to evening and night, we enjoyed beautiful skies, stars and a rising moon. While it was quite cold (40 degrees farenheit ) considering the day before it had been 85, I was so happy to be sleeping on history! A historian’s dream. It also gave me a chance to shoot some photos with lighting I hadn’t ever seen before on the Wall. Most of the time I’m bringing groups here and our arrival time is horrible for taking photos-usually about 11:00 am. So this was a rare opportunity. I’ve selected some of the best. Enjoy.