And on the other hand...

Click here for The Yin Side where the other half of me holds forth!

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Chicken and Egging It On

Another post for Rambling Taoists but you can read it here first, with illustrations.

I've been asked to shed some perspective on Taoism's deep roots in the Chinese mindset or worldview, because of my conviction that to really grasp the concepts in the philosophy and religion (something the Chinese don't distinguish the way we do), a minimal grounding in Chinese history, culture, art, language, and even current events, is useful, if not essential. Visiting China, witnessing change, even over two or three decades in a culture with 5,000 years of continuity, has helped me too. But since that is really a luxury, one I have been fortunate to indulge, sharing my experiences is all I can do.  Perhaps my reminiscences and musings will stimulate an interest to dig deeper, as those of Blofeld or Peck or Rand, all the old Chinese hands, have done for me.

As I think of this, I do wonder if it is Taoism that has helped me understand the Chinese, or is it the other way around?  (Assuming I actually understand either.) But looking back over my more than 45 years of sinophilia, even before I grappled with the notions of tao long outside a college class on comparative religion, I think it is China that has helped.  But it is a western sort of prejudice to try to figure out which came first,  General Tso's chicken or the thousand-year egg.  (In that case, definitely the egg.)

So how to discuss China's 5,000 years of history (quite unified in the Chinese view) to shed light for readers of this and the other blog?  Slowly, slowly, as my Chinese painting instructor would say.

Two examples of tao in culture, mundane not exotic, one as recent as this week, one ancient, came to my mind as I engaged in my early morning contemplation, (not meditation), a period between sleep and wakefulness, where things I have been thinking about seem to have a spontaneous clarity. The illustrations are Hong Kong politics and shoulder poles.  These are ways the Chinese live tao, not just talk about it.

Hong Kong Politics. If you have been watching, you know that the the third Chief Executive of Hong Kong, since the 1997 Handover of the colony from the British to the Chinese, was recently "elected" by a committee of twelve hundred delegates representing the HK Special Administrative Region of more than seven million people.  The victory of C.Y.  Leung was a surprise really, because the heir- apparent, the horse-faced Henry Tang, due to scandals worthy of U.S. presidential primary campaigns, lost his front-running status because of sexual and economic indiscretions. Whatever. Since 1997, the leader (usually a well-connected businessman) has always been someone expected to kowtow to the Central Committee, under the guise of a Basic Law that was negotiated through the late '80s by Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiao Ping.  (Deng Xiao Ping was the PRC's head of state and party who succeeded Mao Zedong, and who is held responsible for China's not-too-long march to unparalleled economic revival since. He is remembered for his famous statement, very un-Maoist, "To get rich is glorious.")  Another curious slogan was used to prepare the way to the Handover: "One Country, Two Systems."  This was to assure that Hong Kong might continue as the world's best example of a free market economy under the protection of a Central Communist regime.  There was a thought that ultimately, by now, universal suffrage would be granted to the democracy-craving people of Hong Kong, (they didn't have any of it under the Brits, either) but the Committee of 1,200 suggests that that is far from ever happening (...maybe 2017).

"One Country, Two Systems." How very Chinese. The unity of tao (The One Party), expressed through socialist yin and capitalist yang.  And encompassing the wuxing (five "elements" of several other "separate autonomous" regions like Inner Mongolia, Tibet, Xinjiang (China's largely Islamic northwest) and...dare we anticipate?...the "renegade province" of Taiwan.  Because there is a pretty obvious trend to develop Shanghai as the new Hong Kong, I found amusing a sign on a Chinese freeway, apparently for an insurance company, illustrating the two cities, which seem to share a harbor, despite the fact that Shanghai is on the East Coast of China, and Hong Kong is in the South China Sea.  If you didn't know the two skylines, you would assume it was one big metropolis.  Needless to say, Shanghai somewhat overshadows Hong Kong. Shanghai is HUGE.
Hong Kong-Shanghai Waterfront?
Shoulder poles.  My husband worked as a hod carrier one college summer, so I asked him this morning, "Did any of you guys ever use shoulder poles?"  They didn't, because moving stuff around in the west is usually in a wheelbarrow or cart, pushed or pulled, or carried in two hands, the way I carry grocery bags.  But I see shoulder poles, biandan, an ancient tool, still used all the time in China. The shoulder pole puts the carrier in a slightly different position: you are moving things, balanced front to back (not side to side like a milkmaid's yoke) using forward momentum and easily negotiating a path (unlike the milkmaid's yoke). It is not pushing or pulling, it is flowing.  I have seen people using the pole to move buckets of pig slop in the country, sacks of live frogs on Hong Kong streets, bricks and cement on construction sites, and more suitcases than you could handle two-handed, and more efficiently than wheelies. The little woodcarrier with his bundles of sticks on either end of a shoulder pole is a common element in Chinese landscape painting. The person, the body, becomes the center point in a taiji, yang to the front, yin to the back, propelled forward by the essentially circular movement of the feet (qi).
Been doing this for centuries.
He carried luggage up 250 stairs.
Both of these examples, to me, illustrate the principles of yin and yang, the notion that things can be both on and off, that dynamic moving states of on-ing-ness and off-ing-ness (really, the whole point of the I Ching) are what distinguishes the Chinese way from the western.  We talk a lot of tao; do we actually experience it in an unconscious, everyday way as illustrated by Hong Kong politics or shoulder poles?

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Stimulus and Response: The Dao of Dialogue

Something to be offered to The Rambling Taoists, but you can read it here first.

Although this isn't the post that Trey is expecting --I have promised a couple of things on Chinese history and the difficulties of cross-cultural transmission of ideas especially in the context of Daoism-- it is something I feel must be addressed at the moment.

Someone pointed out in reply to a comment I made earlier, "Funny that the Baroness is the first to criticize a post, but rarely writes any of her own."  I won't deny that's true, and I won't deny that I am frequently critical of and frustrated by some of the interpretations and notions expressed about Dao and other things here.  (And I should know better than to get into political discussions.) But I will assert that some of those comments are posts, they are just hidden in the shady valley of the comment field.

Being the yin/female voice of the group, it is my nature to respond, and usually quickly, to the stimulus of the yang/male posts. I call it dialogue and I am sometimes disappointed, (unfulfilled?) when the response goes unacknowledged.  I do not regard Daoism as being any kind of static position (it is a celebration of change, really) and unless someone is actually "enlightened" (unlikely here), back and forth, round and round dialogue (with others as well as within our own hearts) is one way we come to a greater understanding.  If you don't want to hear other opinions, you are stuck. Occasionally, though not as often as on some forums I participate in, we get a good sustained debate going here.  Does anyone really want to hear only one side?  Eventually we may all agree, but I think that is a long way off; we are still in the post-heaven world of red dust.

I have said it all before: I am a sinophile; I do not subscribe to the western philosophical/religious Dao distinction; I find no serious worth in popular western Daoism (e.g., Wayne Dyer, the Tao of Pooh, hippie new age surfer self-help Dao);  I am interested in neidan and practice qigong; I read the literature of Daoism (the canon) which goes far beyond the Dao De Jing and Zhuangzi; I study Chinese arts and language...and yet I am still "attached" to a liberal Christian/Catholic background.  I am not afraid of temples, whether they house Guan Yin or the BVM.  (Although I have to say I don't much care for the stripped-down style of very fundamentalist meeting hall sanctuaries...give me my bells and smells!) For the most part, I eschew politics and social activism. (When confronted by a lamenting leftist liberal, I lean to the right; when challenged by a ranting right-wing conservative, I lean to the left. I am like an old tree,with deep roots but flexible and sprouting branches. But I recycle and try to live an economical, fiscally responsible life.)

Through the study of mystics, of the east and west, I find some hope of reconciling Dao and God as ways to live and die.  Perhaps these particular questions are part of Lenten fasting and discipline; must go find my Thomas Merton books. (Easter of course is the movable lunar/yin bookend to the fixed solar/yang of Christmas.)

While I'm listed here as a "scribe," I do not seem to fit the profile of a "Rambling Taoist."

Having reiterated all that, the question I have for myself, and for anyone who might respond is, do I have anything to offer to you?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Hermits and Friends

Sometimes I like to leave my little solitary retreat and venture down the hill.  All the things I like to do alone are precious:  contemplation and meditation, painting, reading and writing. (Notwithstanding some interludes with Korean drama.) I can become quite the hermit when I have the opportunity.

But down around the corner is my friend.  We make tea and conversation,  share medicine and cookies, laugh and tell stories, reminisce and make plans.

But eventually, I return to my hermitage, my solitary silent mind, to think and then not-think, to sleep, and rise again for another day.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

En Pointe

En pointe in ballet is when you are nicely poised on the tip, like a fulcrum, and that's how I feel today.  It is the Spring Equinox, the earliest since 1896, that moment when yin and yang are in balance, opposite of the Solstices, and yin is giving way to yang...spring is coming. And tomorrow is the Dark Moon. I have been feeling a little on edge and drained lately, waiting for something, and this must have been it.  I've been spending WAY too much time on Facebook and some other Tao forums, reading novels, watching Korean Drama, and have neglected my own Tao 61s.  Perhaps now is the time to change my focus. I feel...energized.

The kolea are beginning to change into their breeding plumage, in preparation for their annual flight to Alaska to breed.  I noticed several with the beginnings of the definition of stripe on their necks, a little plumper for feeding over the winter, and a little more vivid and alert.  They and the sun and the moon are like clocks for me, they are evidence that time does mean something, forward movement, at least in the spring, maybe retreat in the fall.

Completely not to the point of any of this, here is a little image of my quasi-penzai and mudman fisherman for those of you in regions where spring is still just an idea obscured by snow and rain and chilly grey weather.
My little landscape.
Which reminds me, I must start painting again.  Indeed this must be the moment I've been waiting for. "Spring is sprung, the grass is ris', I wonder where the flowers is," I used to chant as a child.  Sounds like the George W. Bush songbook, no?  Well, at least this child wasn't left behind, and I am grateful.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Wet and Wild Weather

The past week in Hawaii has had everyone recalling the last serious monsoon we endured, in 2006. "Was that 40 days of rain or 42?"  We liked the Biblical proportion, but 42 is a good number too, but I hope we aren't repeating the past.  I can do without mudslides, flash floods, hail (we had some this week), severe alert warnings on my TV and iPad, and less severe manifestations of too much water: the passenger-side door of TAO 61 filled up with water this week and made a mysterious sloshing sound when I would start and stop.  It seems to have abated.

And there was water all over my kitchen floor one morning, although this had nothing to do with wet weather.  It was difficult to determine whence it flowed. The water line to the fridge?  The dishwasher? The new bottled water cooler?  (The most likely culprit.) After doing what the bottled water company suggested ("We call this 'troubleshooting'," the customer service rep said), I tracked it to the water cooler, but still not sure if it is the bottle or the device.  The troubleshooting involved removing the big bottle from the cooler--how to do this?--so I just drained off the excess into teakettle, large jug and a curious bit of swag I had in the cupboard: a Camelbak bottle, a pricey thing I'd never used. (I'm not one of those people who go nowhere without a bottle of water.)

It took some tinkering and a web search to figure out the point of the technological Camelbak, which is like a leakproof automatic straw delivery system.  I showed it to the Wizard. "Look, you just bite here and suck lightly and the water just flows into your mouth."  It's a lot like a breast really, a nipple.

"Gross," he said, "besides, I hate the taste of plain water." That's an ongoing source of amusement; he always sends back the water in restaurants with a little rant: water's not good for you, while ordering an aperitif of Strega.

Of course, water is essential to you, and this universal spiritual metaphor not only sustains us but teaches.

The normally placid, stagnant even, stream past our apartment complex was raging this week.  Where frogs usually peep and croak, and ducks occasionally visit, this week was raging like the Yellow River for an imperial ceremony.  This "streaming video" was taken from the 10th floor of my building:

Through the storm, it is best just to be calm, hang on and wait for the turbulence to pass.  It surely will. These bulbuls, outside my office, were very strong and patient:

Water-however it reaches us, in a raging stream, pelting from the heavens, or from a water bottle-- keeps us alive, shapes the earth and cleanses.  I thought of this while being shampooed after an overdue haircut yesterday.  My hairdresser, an intense and enthusiastic Filipina who loves the shape of my head and is willing to do a very close crop, commented, "You hair grew so fast.  When were you here last?"

"Maybe two moons ago," I said, recalling that the storm had somehow overshadowed the full moon earlier this week. (No wonder my head was itchy.  I tend to time my haircuts--not completely on purpose, maybe instinctually--to the phases of the moon.)  I was thinking how much I sounded like a Navajo from an old Western horse opera, when she said, "So Chinese. That's why you like China!"  Then it occurred to me that there are lunar cultures and solar ones.

I asked the Wizard, my in-house walking wikipedia, if the Mayan calendar was a lunar one or a solar one, thinking that the attributes of a culture may have something to do with the calendar they use.
On the wall of my lanai; not exactly a taiji.
"It's solar," he said, "but probably the greatest cultures use both."  I want to think some more about this, to make an informed observation.  Does the calendar of a culture affect its "personality"?  Are there yin cultures and yang cultures?  Do two calendars balance the culture?

Whatever, there is still the rain.  And sometimes you must be patient by yourself under an umbrella or a palm frond.