Wu Wei Haiku

don’t debate dolts
they’ll remain half-wits
after you’re spent

flex in wind
and rebound in calm
all in time

glide to dive
the hawk’s fearsome show?
gravity’s work

wise farmers
wait to do watering
eyes to clouds

mute traders
get extra carrots
for silence

5 Profound Pieces of Kung Fu Panda Wisdom (That May Seem Dumb)

5.) Po’s Wu Wei: In his fight against Tai Lung at the end of the first film, Po takes a hard hit from his Snow Leopard nemesis, and through ripples of undulating flab returns a devastating strike that sends Tai Lung flying. While I wouldn’t recommend one try it at home as demonstrated in animated form, the idea of not resisting, but rather redirecting forces is an old school approach. It also reflects the ancient Taoist wisdom of wu wei, effortless action.

 

4.) “But I realized having you in Po’s life doesn’t mean less for me. It means more for Po.”  In the third movie, there’s a scene in which Mr. Ping (Po’s avian dad by adoption) explains to Po’s panda dad, Li, how he came to grips with Li’s presence (which at first made Mr. Ping insecure and envious.) The lesson is to be careful in assigning a situation zero-sum status (one person’s gain requires another’s loss) without having reason to believe it reflects the reality of the situation.

 

3.) “There is just news. There is no good or bad.” This bit reflects an old Taoist story about a farmer and his neighbor. One day the neighbor sees the farmer has a beautiful new horse. The farmer tells the neighbor that it’s a wild horse that the farmer found at the back of his property. The neighbor says, “That’s good news.” The farmer says, “Good news? Bad news? Who’s to say?” The next day when the neighbor stops by the farmer tells him how his son got a broken arm trying to break in the wild horse. “That’s bad news,” says the neighbor. “Good news? Bad news? Who’s to say?” The next day the army comes by, conscripting young men, but the farmer’s son is not forced to go to war because the young man has a broken arm. The story goes on like that.

 

2.) “If you only do what you can do, you’ll never be more than you are.” In the third movie, after Master Shifu explains to Po how he knew that Po would fail on his first day as a teacher, the Master utters this bit of wisdom. It’s a warning to avoid loitering in one’s comfort zone.

 

1.) “The secret ingredient of my secret ingredient soup….  The secret ingredient is … nothing… To make something special you just have to believe it’s special.”: For some reason, people love to get attached to trappings and secret wisdom, even to the point of losing sight of what’s important.

It reminds me of a story about Dr. Herbert Benson. Benson famously wrote a book entitled, “The Relaxation Response about the effects of relaxation on health. Back in the sixties, students of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (famously, the Beatles’ guru) asked Benson to do a study of the health effects of their teacher’s system of meditation. The Maharishi taught transcendental meditation, an approach in which students focused on mentally repeating a mantra that is “given” to them personally by the teacher. (I put the word “given” in quotes because the Maharishi actually charged a significant amount of money for these mantras.) Anyhow, after much badgering, Benson agreed to do the study. One has to realize that, while today such a study would be considered quite respectable, in those days a study of the effect of meditation on health would have been akin to a study of voodoo.

So, Benson conducted the study and — lo and behold — he found that patients who practice meditation do have better recoveries and less ill effects. The Maharishi and his people now love Herbert Benson. They sing his praises. But Benson is interested in science and couldn’t care less whether any particular guru’s system of meditation is validated. So he repeats the study with all participants using the word “one” as their mantra, and he gets the same result. Subsequently, other forms of meditation are studied, and with similar outcomes. Needless to say, the transcendentalists love affair with Dr. Benson was short-lived.

POEM: You’re Killing Me, Ms. Dickinson, or: Samurai Surgery


“If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”    – Emily Dickinson

 

It’s mean accuracy and angry power that can cleave the top off a head;
neither merely scalping the reader,
nor decapitating him.

Popping the top to blow the mind is samurai surgery.
Some lines tink against the forehead like a dull knife,
while others — with razor-sharpness — succeed only in shearing an unsightly bald spot.

The fabled Taoist butcher could cleanly slice between the bone ends,
never dulling his cleaver,
but that’s not much help for one seeking to take off the top of a head…

or is it?

BOOK REVIEW: The Path by Michael Puett

The Path: A New Way to Think About EverythingThe Path: A New Way to Think About Everything by Michael Puett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This book is organizationally and conceptually similar to a book by Edward Slingerland that I reviewed recently entitled “Trying Not to Try.” I’ll first discuss how the books are alike before differentiating them as I believe they are both worth reading. First, both books essentially look at how the ideas of ancient Chinese philosophers—both Confucian and Taoist—can be put into practice to improve one’s life in the modern world. Second, the heart of each work consists of chapters devoted to the thinking of one particular philosopher and how the ideas of said philosopher compare and contrast to those of the others.

That said, both books create their own space in a way that justifies each’s existence. While Slingerland focuses heavily on the notion of wu-wei (effortless action) and de (the charisma of effortless action,) Puett and Gross-Loh consider a broader swath of human activity. That may make it sound like this book is more rambling and unfocused, but there is a central theme that cuts across the chapters. That theme rejects the simple and straightforward ideas given credence by modern Western society (as well as by the Chinese Mohists–i.e. followers of Mozi.) It suggests that the self is not a fixed entity but rather a collection of patterns. One needs to accept that these are just ruts that can be negated and to behave accordingly if one hopes to achieve an enjoyable life in a world that can be capricious and chaotic.

The first couple chapters of the book look at the problems of the modern world and how ideas from traditional societies—such as the China of past centuries—differed. With that context set, each but the last chapter examines an aspect of the human condition from the perspective of a particular Chinese philosopher.

Chapter three offers Confucius’s ideas about rituals and how they can be used to cultivate virtuous behavior. Chapter four presents the ideas of Mencius with regards how to live life in a world that is capricious and arbitrary.

The fifth chapters shifts from Confucianism to Taoism as it explores Laozi’s ideas about how one can influence others not by brute force but by moving in accordance with “the Way,” and how eliminating illusory distinctions is the key to developing this soft power.

The sixth chapter focuses not on the ideas of a particular author but a particular work, “The Inward Training.” This manual describes how one can increase one’s vitality (readers maybe familiar with the idea of “chi” or “qi,” as in “tai chi” or “qi gong”) by a mystical approach that cultivates the divine within one.

Chapter seven is about Zhuangzi’s ideas about accepting that our world is constantly in flux and to battle this fact is as futile as it is exhausting. The ideas discussed echo the aforementioned concept of “wu-wei” as well as modern concepts of positive psychology such as Czikszentmihalyi’s Flow and ecstasis.

The penultimate chapter returns to a Confucian philosopher, one by the name of Xunzi, who believed that humans create the patterns we live under and it’s up to us to get past said patterns and not to accept them as a given. The last chapter circles back around to propose how the ideas presented throughout the book might allow us to remake the modern world in a happier form.

The book has no graphics, but does have a small section of resources and readings.

I found this book to be enjoyable and informative. The authors use modern stories and cases to make these ideas understandable and relevant to the reader as well as to supplement stories of ancient history. The book provides food for thought and—as I said—it creates its own niche. I’d recommend it for readers interested in how ancient Chinese wisdom can relate to present-day living.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Taoist Yoga & Chi Kung by Eric Yudelove

Taoist Yoga and Chi Kung- For good health,better sex,and longer life.Taoist Yoga and Chi Kung- For good health,better sex,and longer life. by Eric Yudelove
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This book was originally released under the title: “100 Days to Better Health, Good Sex & Long Life.” It offers a 14 week qi gong practice that proposes to improve health, sex life, and longevity. It’s presented as a step-by-step explanation of the practice aimed at those who intend to carry out the practice—as opposed to those who are looking for a more general explanation or overview.

The book offers a systematic presentation of the 14 week / 100 day practice. It’s divided into two parts. The first is a short explanation of Taoist concepts as they pertain to health building practices, and particular emphasis is given to the concepts of chi (energy / breath), jing (body), and shen (mind.) That emphasis is valuable as each of the chapters (i.e. the description of each week’s practice) is outlined according to these three concepts. So, each week there is a new breath practice, new bodily practices, and a new meditation or visualization practice. That said, these practices build on each other—i.e. starting with very basic activities and either adding to them or shifting to more complex variations.

The sections on breath and mind are fairly straight forward and mostly involve one practice each per week. Those practices become quite complex over the course of the book, but it’s one practice per week. This is in contrast to the middle section that has three or four subsections of activities per week. The middle section on Jing, or body, includes subsections on making sounds, self-massage, “sexual kung fu” (exercises intended to tone the reproductive system and prevent chi “leakage”), and the movement exercises that one might most closely associate with qi gong (chi kung.)

The book has many graphics in the form of line drawings used to clarify anatomy or how one is to visualize the practices. There is a glossary to help explain both Chinese terms and terminology in English that is specific to qi gong. There is also a two page bibliography that includes many works by one of Yudelove’s teachers, Mantak Chia, but also including works by individuals from other lineages and systems.

I have practiced through week eight. One may find the parts of the practice vary in their usefulness, but there doesn’t seem to be any harmful practices and there are many from which one will benefit. I’d recommend the book if one is looking for practices—as opposed to background. The explanations are systematic and the overall practice is well-organized. It’s not the kind of book that is much of a pleasure to read for reading’s sake. Much of the book is lists and bullet points of step-by-step explanation.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Trying Not to Try by Edward Slingerland

Trying Not to Try: The Art of Effortlessness and the Power of SpontaneityTrying Not to Try: The Art of Effortlessness and the Power of Spontaneity by Edward Slingerland
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This book’s paradoxical title is perfect for its paradoxical subject matter, which is famously expressed in such quotes as, “When nothing is done, nothing is left undone” [ver. 48 of the Tao Te Ching.]  Slingerland lays down the ancient Chinese wisdom of wu-wei and de, but provides something novel by putting it in the context of the positive psychology and neuroscience of today. Wu-wei literally means “no doing,” but can be more meaningfully defined as “effortless action.” De (pronounced “duh”) is a charisma seen in people who have mastered the effortlessness and spontaneity of wu-wei.

While the book is built around the varied approaches of four Chinese philosophers—two Confucians (i.e. Confucius and Mencius) and two Taoists (i.e. Laozi and Zhuangzi)—the author relates this philosophy to the present-day thinking found in Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s conception of Flow, and the neuroscience of the subconscious.

The book consists of eight chapters. The introduction and the first two chapters outline the concepts of wu-wei and de using both Chinese and Western stories and examples to help clarify these arcane ideas and put them in the context of the social and spiritual spheres. Chapter 1 offers an extensive discussion of the operation of the brain as it relates to the discussion of effortlessness and spontaneity.

Chapters three through six make up the core of the book, and present the approach and thinking of Confucius, Laozi, Mencius, and Zhuangzi, respectively. This “boy-girl-boy-girl” Confucian-Taoist organization offers the reader sound insight into the varied approaches and allows one to see the evolution of thinking. Confucius gets the first cut, but his approach to effortlessness and spontaneity involves a great deal of effort and planning. It might seem that Laozi’s approach–which does away with effort and planning–might be more apropos, but it’s hard to imagine anything of benefit actually being spawned by such a loosy-goosy approach. The more nuanced approaches of Mencius and Zhuangzi offer additional insight, but do not eliminate the paradox. It’s this paradox that’s the subject of chapter seven.

The final chapter examines what the reader can take away–given that the paradox of wu-wei seems inescapable. The author proposes that, paradox or not, there is value in pursuit of effortlessness and spontaneity, and progress can be made by understanding and accepting said paradox.

The book has no graphics, but is annotated and has a bibliography–as well as an appendix table that summarizes the various approaches to wu-wei.

I enjoyed this book and found it fascinating. It’s highly readable, having humor and a wide range of examples from ancient myths to pop culture. The book offers a great value-added by considering the relevance of modern science and psychology to this ancient concept. I’d highly recommend this for individuals interested in Chinese / Eastern philosophy, as well as anyone hoping to bring a little more effortlessness and spontaneity into his or her life.

View all my reviews

DAILY PHOTO: Thian Hock Keng

Confucius; Taken on October 29, 2016 in Singapore

Confucius; Taken on October 29, 2016 in Singapore

img_3549img_3548

This Chinese temple sits in the heart of Singapore’s Chinatown. It’s said to be the oldest Hokkien or Hoklo temple (i.e. Han Chinese) in Singapore. It’s a temple related to Han Chinese culture generally, rather than to a particular sect or religion. While the main deity is Mazu (a.k.a. Ma Cho Po,) a maritime goddess from Chinese folklore that is sometimes associated with Taoism, there is also a Confucian shrine as well as homages to several Buddhist Bodhisattvas (a Bodhisattva is one who has achieved enlightenment but sticks around to help others out of compassion.)

BOOK REVIEW: The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton

The Way of Chuang TzuThe Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page [It’s a Kindle Monthly Deal for December 2013.]

The Way of Chuang Tzu is Thomas Merton’s take on Chuang Tzu’s lessons of Taoism. One might ask why a person should learn about Taoism from a Trappist monk any more than one would learn the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi from a Zen monk. Maybe you should and maybe you shouldn’t, but I think Merton did a remarkable job in putting this book together and that there’s a lot to be learned from it. Some may find a fresh fusion in Merton’s approach to Chuang Tzu.

What I like most about this version of Chuang Tzu’s teachings is that Merton doesn’t foul it up with a bunch of analysis. Because the lessons are short and—admittedly, in some cases—arcane, there’s a temptation to write in a bunch of explanation and analysis—both to hit a page quota and to prove how smart the translator is. Ironically, some don’t seem to see the irony of rambling on in explication of Taoism—a philosophy that advocates simplicity and rebukes the wordy for their arrogance. Merton doesn’t fall into this trap. He offers a few pages of introduction as context for the reader, and then moves straight into 62 lessons of Chuang Tzu.

I’d say the introduction is useful, particularly for individuals without a great deal of background in Taoism. In it, Merton gives insight into potentially confusing topics like wu-wei (actionlessness), the yin/yang dichotomy, and the divergence of Taoists from Confucian scholars on the four-fold Ju philosophy of virtue. However, the intro can also be skipped if you do know a about Chinese philosophy, and don’t care to read a commentary on Taoism inflected with Trappist worldview. (Taoists may want to skip the intro if they’re prone to becoming infuriated by an outsider proposing that their life philosophy took a wrong turn along the way. Merton suggests that one shouldn’t confuse Chuang Tzu’s Taoism with what the system has become, the implication being that it was a sound philosophy and became voodoo hokum in modern times.) Merton does inevitably project some of his own worldview as a Christian monk into Chuang Tzu’s teachings. Some might find this to make for a refreshing commentary on it, and others may find it a bit off the mark on occasion.

Merton’s poetic background serves him well here as many of the lessons are in poetic form—partially or totally. Translating poetry is one of the most difficult linguistic tasks imaginable. Merton has the added challenge of never having read the original. He doesn’t read any Chinese languages. He did, however, consult four different translations in three different languages (English, French, and German.) This, of course, means that besides Merton being in the text, there’s a further seepage of Western framing into these Eastern teachings. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether this is a good or bad thing, and arguments could be made either way.

One of the strengths of Chuang Tzu’s lessons is his use of the narrative form. That is, the Taoist sage liked to use stories to impart his wisdom, like the wheelwright who insults the Emperor but then ends up teaching him a valued lesson. One of my favorites is the story about the Prince of Chu sending out high-ranking emissaries to appoint Chuang Tzu to a ministerial post. Chuang Tzu explains why he is turning down the offer by way of an allegory about a turtle.

Chuang Tzu also uses dialogue to get his point across in a way that is easy to follow and clear. A prime example of this is the discussion between Chuang Tzu and Hui Tzu about the happiness of fishes, which has an almost Socratic ring to it. The combination of story and dialogue makes Chuang Tzu’s lessons sometimes easier to follow than the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu. Lao Tzu tends to be more arcane by way of his use of short, declarative statements that are more vague and abstract (that could be a good thing, but given vast loss of cultural context it might be confusing as well.)

I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in Taoism. I enjoyed the Merton’s sparse approach, and think that he does a good job conveying Chuang Tzu’s lessons.

View all my reviews