Sunday, March 29, 2009

Do it your Wei

The idea of non-action that we have been looking at in my last posts is a central doctrine of Taoist philosophy and has a particular name: Wu Wei. You can read an excellent overview at Wikipedia here.

"Wu Wei" means natural action - as planets revolve around the sun, they "do" this revolving, but without "doing" it; or as trees grow, they "do", but without "doing"…
Wu may be translated as not have or without; Wei may be translated as do, act, serve as, govern or effort. The literal meaning of Wu Wei is "without action" and is often included in the paradox wei wu wei: "action without action" or "effortless doing".

In Non-action and the Great Harmony we saw how the more an action is selfish and self-seeking the less power it has and that an action that is spontaneous, unselfish and is done for its own sake without anticipating an interested result, such an action is more in accord with the Tao, the Universe, God and cooperates directly in the Great Harmony. In the Wikipedia overview this idea is expressed in this way:

Taoist philosophy recognizes that the Universe already works harmoniously according to its own ways; as a person exerts their will against or upon the world they disrupt the harmony that already exists. This is not to say that a person should not exert agency and will. Rather, it is how one acts in relation to the natural processes already extant. The how, the Tao of intention and motivation, that is key.

That is key indeed. It is easier said than done. But we can only try. Just trying is a big step in the right direction. And the very fact that you and I have now read about Wu Wei and are now consciously aware of it has set in motion forces that we do not understand and which will have ‘distant consequences’.
As I was scratching my head for an anecdote or story to illustrate the power of Wu Wei, I think I hit on a perfect one (spontaneously, you might say). It comes from ‘The Overlook Martial Arts Reader – Classic writings on philosophy and technique’ edited by Randy F. Nelson. The particular story is called … well I will tell you after, not to spoil the punch.

The author of the story, Terry Dobson, was on a train rattling through the suburbs of Tokyo. In the car were a few houswives with children, old folks going shopping. Suddenly the quiet was shattered by a big, drunken, dirty laborer getting on the train. The man was angry and violent and swung at a woman and her child who scrambled for safety. Dobson was young, fit and highly trained in Aikido. He relates how his teacher, Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido had told him many times: “Aikido is the art of reconciliation. Whoever has the mind to fight has broken his connection to the universe. If you try to dominate people, you are already defeated.” Dobson tried hard to follow the precepts. But here was a golden, legitimate opportunity to save the innocent by destroying the guilty. He stood up.

Seeing me stand up, the drunk recognized a chance to focus his rage. “Aha!” he roared. “A foreigner! You need a lesson in Japanese manners!”
I held on lightly to the commuter strap overhead and gave him a slow look of disgust and dismissal. I planned to take this turkey apart, but he had to make the first move. I wanted him mad, so I pursed my lips and blew him an insolent kiss.
“All right!” he hollered. “You’re gonna get a lesson.” He gathered himself for a rush at me.
A split second before he could move, sombody shouted “Hey!” It was earsplitting. I remember the strangely joyous, lilting quality of it – as though you and a friend had been searching diligently for something and he had suddenly stumbled upon it. “Hey!”
I wheeled to my left; the drunk spun to his right. We both stared down at a little Japanese. He must have been well into his seventies, this tiny gentleman, sitting there immaculate in his kimono. He took no notice of me, but beamed delightedly at the laborer, as though he had a most important, most welcome secret to share.
“C’mere,” the old man said in an easy vernacular, beckoning to the drunk. “C’mere and talk with me.” He waved his hand lightly.
The big man followed, as if on a string. He planted his feet belligerently in front of the old gentleman, and roared above the clacking wheels. “Why the hell should I talk to you?” The drunk now had his back to me. If his elbow moved so much as a millimeter, I’d drop him in his socks.
The old man continued to beam at the laborer. “Wat’cha been drinkin’?” he asked, his eyes sparkling with interest. “I’ve been drinking sake,” the laborer bellowed back, “and it’s none of your business!” Flecks of spittle spattered the old man.
“Oh, that’s wonderful,” the old man said, “absolutely wonderful! You see, I love sake too. Every night me and my wife (she’s 76, you know), we warm up a little bottle of sake and take it out into the garden, and we sit on an old wooden bench. We watch the sun go down, and we look to see how our persimmon tree is doing. My great-grandfather planted that tree, and we worry about whether it will recover from those ice storms we had last winter. Our tree has done better than I expected, though, especially when you consider the poor quality of the soil. It is gratifying to watch when we take our sake and go out to enjoy the evening – even when it rains!” He looked up at the laborer, eyes twinkling.
As he struggled to follow the old man’s conversation, the drunk’s face began to soften. His fists slowly unclenched. “Yeah,” he said. “I love persimmons too….” His voice trailed off.
“Yes, “ said the old man, smiling, “and I’m sure you have a wonderful wife.”
“No,” replied the laborer. “My wife died.” Very gently, swaying with the motion of the train, the big man began to sob. “I don’t got no wife, I don’t got no home, I don’t got no job. I’m so ashamed of myself.” Tears rolled down his cheeks; a spasm of despair rippled through his body.
Now it was my turn. Standing there in my well-scrubbed youthful innocence, my make-this-world-safe-for-democracy righteousness, I suddenly felt dirtier than he was.
Then the train arrived at my stop. As the doors opened, I heard the old man cluck sympathetically. “My, my,” he said, “that is a difficult predicament, indeed. Sit down here and tell me about it.”
I turned my head for one last look. The laborer was sprawled on the seat, his head in the old man’s lap. The old man was softly stroking the filthy, matted hair.
As the train pulled away, I sat down on a bench. What I had wanted to do with muscle had been accomplished with kind words. I had just seen aikido tried in combat and the essence of it was love. I would have to practice the art with an entirely different spirit. It would be a long time before I could speak about the resolution of conflict.

Now, isn’t that quite a story? What makes it particularly appropriate, is that we see the motivation of the protagonists. The young man, Dobson, is acting with an interested motive in mind (the legitimate use of his aikido skill) even though he invokes the safety of the other passengers. The old man is not: he may have the goal of defusing the situation in mind, but his action is a spontaneous one, coming directly from the heart, without guile, generous and in perfect accord with the Great Harmony. And as such it succeeds to perfection. Effortlessly. This is Wu Wei.
What I also like about this story is that the old man’s action succeeds to perfection not only with the drunk. It transforms the young man also, and will have far-reaching good effects through him and his teaching. So far-reaching, it is even reaching to me and you at this moment, decades later. Such is the power of Wu Wei.
(The story is called The Soft Answer)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Thank you Henrik

Henrik has now published my guest post Sincerity – Wisdom of the Ancients on his awesome Positivity Blog. So a big thank you to Henrik for liking my post and a big welcome to all his readers who are now linking here and discovering Healing Philosophy at this very moment.
Welcome aboard and I hope you find something helpful or inspiring here. (I would also love to know what it was…)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

How to become a Work of Art - Step One

In my last post The Art of Becoming Art, we discovered a great truth: that the practitioner of a ‘way’, or ‘Do’ in Japanese, transforms it into an art form, and then, the art form transforms the practitioner into a work of art.
Yes, yes, you say, that is all very well and good, a capital idea, very noble, but what the heck does it mean? How can I, who do not practice Judo or Karate-do, put this powerful insight into practice in my daily life, right now?
Well, it is funny you should ask that because I am about to tell you what I think it means and how I plan to put it into use right now.
I intend to stop worrying about the future and the tasks at hand - the outcome. I intend to concentrate on ‘travelling well’ rather than ‘arriving’. ‘Travelling well’ to me means putting the most important things first: health and personal fulfillment, something that I am guilty of neglecting. (As I have told you elsewhere, the reason I know something about philosophy is because I need it!) Health and personal fulfillment will be my watchwords, and the rest will have to take a number.

Step One
We do not have to practice Judo etc. to have a ‘way’. Any task worth doing can be undertaken in a spirit of practicing a way, that is, we can do it by ‘concentrating on the flawless execution of the task’ rather than ‘watching or wishing for the desired outcome'. But we can also apply that attitude as a global philosophy: whenever we worry about the future, about what needs to be done, about what is lacking, we are concentrating on outcomes instead of concentrating on doing what lies to hand. If we spend a lot of time reliving the past, we are not concentrating on the task that lies to hand.

Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment. Buddha

If you are like me, you sometimes feel overwhelmed, oppressed even, by ‘things that need to be done’. My basement is half-painted. The snow has melted and the major garden projects are calling. The pergola is half-finished. My big re-filing project remains unbegun. A dozen tasks, big and small, vie for my free time. And guess what? I have decided to stop worrying about them. To quote John-Roger and Peter McWilliams, authors of the ‘Life 101’ books:

Whenever he thought about it, he felt terrible. And so, at last, he came to a fateful decision. He decided not to think about it.

Meanwhile, the important things like health and personal fulfillment get put on the back-burner ‘until such and such a project gets finished’. The philosophy of living in the present, of travelling well, can be summed up by this quote from Goethe:

Things which matter most should never be at the mercy of things which matter least.

When we look back at our lives one day in old age (not that long from now) it is unlikely that we will wish we had spent more time working. It is unlikely that we will wish we had spent more time worrying about money, the kitchen renovations, the pergola. What we will wish we had spent more time doing is something that each person must answer for himself. Indeed it is a very important question. But no one can go far wrong if he puts health and personal fulfillment at the top of his list.
Yes, I will still do ‘the things that need to be done’. After I have been to the gym. When I get back from the Chinese painting course. Yes, finances and financial goals are important. But not as important as health and a good conscience.

This is the way I intend to apply the idea of the Japanese way to my everyday life. But if and when I become ‘transformed into a work of art’, how I will apply it then? Then, it probably won't even occur to me to think about it.
If you enjoyed this post and think it might help others, please share, Digg or Stumble it with the SHARE button (mouse over for options). Thanks!
Photo: Tao (Way) by Samantha Leo

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Art of Becoming Art

I am presently reading an enlightening book entitled The Way of the Warrior-Trader by Dr. Richard D. McCall and what he has to say on the Japanese ‘Way’ or ‘Do’ has a direct bearing on what we have recently seen in my posts on Non-action:

The Japanese word for Way is Do (pronounced ‘dough’), and refers to “a life path, occupation, or discipline that results in the refinement of the follower’s spirit, character, and inner composure.” In other words, it means that regardless of the task, discipline, or behaviour that is undertaken, it is literally transformed by the practitioner into an art form. Then, reciprocally, the art form transforms the practitioner into a work of art as well. (…)
You must first understand that before you can elevate your personal performance in any area, your performance must first be viewed as an art form, and that the pure objective of practicing this art is the refinement of your inner spirit and discipline and ultimately the unconditional enjoyment and appreciation of having done it as well as is currently possible. This pulls you away from the distraction of watching or wishing for the desired outcome … and puts your attention fully on the flawless execution of the act itself …

How well he puts it! I have practiced Karate and I am very familiar with the Way of the samurai but McCall’s phrase ‘the art form transforms the practitioner into a work of art as well’ hit me like an epiphany. A quote from Sogyal Rinpoche instantly came to mind:

To embody the transcendent is why we are here.

The outcome of our actions is not the point! Our actions are the point! If our performance was as perfect as training, talent, insight and unattachment to the outcome could make it, then the outcome is of no importance – it was beyond our control. What matters is that our performance was excellent and sincere. In this way we transcend all obstacles.
So our actions must become an art form, embodying our abilities, our talents, our qualities and taken to a higher, transcendent level by our benevolent, disinterested motives and our unattachment to the outcome.
“Let not the fruits of action be thy motive.” When you have one eye on the destination, you have only one eye left for the path. Buddha summed it up in one phrase:

It is better to travel well than to arrive.

Image from Wikimedia: Depiction of Nasu no Yoichi, legendary archer of the Battle of Yashima 1184. From a hanging scroll, Watanabe Museum, Tottori Prefecture, Japan

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Non-action and the Great Harmony

We have seen in The Power of Non-action that non-action refers to an action that is not motivated by selfish desires but is inspired by universal truths and values. We also saw that the more an action is ego-less, the more power it has and the more support it receives from the powers that be. In No action is lost we lifted the cover on the significance and the power of all our thoughts, all our words and all our actions however secret because we are all interconnected as beings of consciousness. Our thoughts, words, and actions have an impact in the world and for the future in ways and degrees beyond our power to comprehend. The anonymous commentator of Tao Te King – Livre du Tao et de sa Vertu (Éditions Dervy) sums up these themes in this unforgettable and revealing passage (my translation from the French):

Without a doubt none of our actions is lost. It would be vain to regret our long and apparently useless labours, our false manoeuvres, the dead ends into which we have stumbled. All these efforts, all these attempts are integrated into the universal life where they have their usefulness and distant consequences – but the arc that they describe to bring us back to the Center is all the wider the more our intention was self-seeking. Inversely, the work that is realised in the serenity of detachment shortens, for he that accomplishes it as for all that it touches, the path of return to the Tao, and cooperates in a direct and immediate way in the Great Harmony.

Selfish thoughts, words and actions insomuch as they are harmful to others (or ourselves) go against the Tao and receive no help or support from it. They have little power, little scope, temporary consequences. Inversely, disinterested thoughts words and actions that nurture, help and bring peace to others and to ourselves accord with the Tao and participate in its power.
Of course we can’t always be saints and we are never always selfish villains. We are always a mixture. An interplay of contradictions. Always the opposites are struggling within us for expression. That’s what makes us human. Shake-speare (De Vere) put it this way:

The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together; our virtues would be proud if our faults whipped them not, and our crimes would despair if they were not cherished by our virtues.

Which will predominate in us? The faults of our lower selves or the virtues of our higher selves? As human beings, we have the power to reason and to choose and we make our choices every day, thousands of times, moment by moment. And that is the eternal game of life.
Photo by Lucia Pizarro Coma

Friday, March 13, 2009

No action is for nothing

Following up my post The Power of Non-action, where we saw that the less an action is selfish, the more power it has, here is another quote from the commentary of Tao Te King – Livre du Tao et de sa Vertu (Éditions Dervy). This quote, which I find delivers its message with a great poetic power, underscores the far-reaching effects of all our actions, even selfish ones. All the more reason to beware. (Translated from the French by me.) As you read it, remember the importance of sincerity.

What I do in secret, me, a tiny being lost in the world, I imagine does not affect anyone else; that what I do stays between me and me; that I can bury it, if I wish, in the silence of an abolished past. Not at all. The past is not inert. The past is a life that continues into the present. The past is a blade whose tip is the present, and the tip of the blade, thrust forward by the momentum of what has been, penetrates into the future to determine what shall be.
Every being, at every moment, acts in a way that saves him or loses him. Thus, every being, at every moment, acts in a way that saves or loses his circle, his family, his profession, his city, the civilisation around him, to a degree that none can know precisely and which is all the more worrisome to a good conscience.
If one thing is certain today, it is the universal solidarity of things and beings in all domains and in all ways. R. P. Sertillanges, Voix françaises, 24 January 1941

We find the same ideas expressed in this quote, from the same book, except the author goes further than mere actions and includes words and even thoughts as having an impact on the outside world:

Nothing is limited in nature; all worlds penetrate each other and all beings are interconnected: each of our words goes much further than the walls of the room where we pronounce them but which seems however to stop them; each of our thoughts, even secret, can be the cause of many things which will forever remain unknown to us. Dr. Marc Haven, Chiromancie dans ‘La Paix Universelle’, No. du 15 juillet 1906

As I was thinking about and writing this post, I stumbled upon (my, my isn’t that a coincidence?) this interesting video Consciousness drives the universe. The video makes the case for a holographic universe, which would explain the interconnectedness of everything.
I remember reading about the split personality of light, how when scientists looked for particles they found particles and when they looked for waves they found waves. What they saw depended on what they were looking for. Do we create reality? This video draws some far-reaching conclusions from there, but I throw it out for your own judgment. One thing I feel: what the scientists are discovering, the sages already knew a long time ago.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Power of Non-action

Non-action? Non-action! What new-age rubbish is this? you say. We have to act! We have to take action! Well, yes and no. By non-action, I don’t mean sitting around on your butt all day. Non-action refers to the intent, the origin and the attachment to the action.
Henrik over at the awesome Positivity Blog has a great little post One timeless tip that can make your life a whole lot easier which begins with a quote from the Bhagavad Gita:

To action alone hast thou a right and never at all to its fruits; let not the fruits of action be thy motive; neither let there be in thee any attachment to inaction.

Henrik goes on to expose the benefits (less stress, less effort, better effort and more enjoyment) of letting go of trying to control the results of your actions and just focusing on enjoying the process. This is very true and reminds me of a story (yes, I have a story for everything):

A man went to see a famous martial arts master and asked him how long it would take to become a black belt.
“Ten years” said the master.
“What if I train very hard seven days a week, night and day, month after month, how long then?”
“Twenty years” came the reply.
“Twenty years! Why ten years more? Why so long?”
“With one eye on the destination, you have only one eye left for the path.”

How true. Most of the time, as Henrik points out, we have one eye on the destination and this makes the process more difficult than it need be. But there is more, much more, to the power of non-action.
I came across Henrik's quote from the Bhagavad Gita myself many years ago in the Dervy Edition (French) of the Tao Te Ching, Tao Te King - Livre du Tao et de sa Vertu. In the extensive commentary there is a section on the theme of non-action as found in the Tao Te Ching.

To master action, we must keep our independence with regard to it. Now, we are only free with regard to a thing when we have contracted no debt toward it and we expect nothing from it. The Sage “produces without appropriating to himself, works without expecting anything, accomplishes works of merit without becoming attached to them, and precisely because he doesn’t become attached to them, they endure… because he does not pursue selfish goals, he realises to perfection everything he undertakes.”

The power of non-action is in subordinating our constant selfish desires which produce only grasping, fearful, temporary actions to actions that come from, shall we say, our higher selves.

For as long as man claims the I and Mine, his works will be as nothing. When all love for the I and Mine is dead, then the works of the Lord will be accomplished. Kabir, Poems VI

The effort to possess, forces man to identify himself with the objects of his possession. What he possesses is a part of him, to such a degree that if something is taken away from him or if he loses it, he feels as if a part of himself has been taken away. This is truly slavery; man may imagine that he possesses things, in reality they possess him. Van der Leeuw

The point is that the more an action is selfish, the less power it has. The more an action is good for everyone, good for the community, universally good, the more it will have the support of the universe, the Tao, God. The more, in other words, it will be non-action, the spontaneous work of the Spirit. (So I must be resigned to not getting what I want? Not at all. As Confucius said: He who wishes to secure the good of others has already secured his own). And if you think this is an idea only to be found in Chinese philosophy, look more closely, you will find parallels in all philosophies and religions.

That thou mayest have pleasure in everything, seek pleasure in nothing.
That thou mayest know everything, seek to know nothing.
That thou mayest possess all things, seek to possess nothing.
That thou mayest be everything, seek to be nothing. Saint John of the Cross

Thy lot or portion of life is seeking after thee; therefore be at rest from seeking after it.
Caliph Ali

So lift up your thoughts, lift up your motives, enlighten yourself with the knowledge to be found in this very blog, and you will harness the power of non-action. (Or not, if you know what I mean).
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Photo from Wikimedia: Krishna displays his Vishvarupa (Universal Form) to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra

Monday, March 9, 2009

How to install a social bookmark button on your blog posts

Today I finally added an ‘AddThis’ social bookmark button to my blog posts. It was so easy - it took me all of 3 minutes - I can’t believe I haven’t done it sooner. As always, knowledge is power. Also luck. So many blog tip sites make it look so complicated you don’t even dare try it.

First, fortunately for me, I use the AddThis button – the #1 bookmarking and sharing service – which helps because it includes all the others and you don’t have a gazillion icons at the bottom of your post. When you choose your button on the AddThis site and click to get your code you are taken to the code page where you find the simplest instructions on how to install a button on your posts. So simple I will repeat them here:

Blog post button

To include the button beneath each post,

1 - Select Layout > Edit HTML
2 - Check the Expand Widget Templates checkbox
3 - Copy and paste the code snippet below into the template, right after the (div class='post-footer') tag
4 - Click Save Template

Of course you should always save your template before making any changes to it in case you make a mistake. But if I can do it, you can do it. The result is the nice little bookmark at the bottom of this post (mouse over it to see a list to choose from).

So shipmates, I know you have all been chafing at the bit in frustration at not being able to print, e mail, share and otherwise redistribute all my little nuggets of insight. Well now, thanks to AddThis, those dark days are over…

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Sports terrorism - the two extremes of the human spirit

A terrorist attack against a cricket team? Can such things be? I suppose I must admit they can. ‘The assault, just ahead of a match, was one of the worst terrorist attacks on a sports team since Palestinian militants killed 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics’. Read the rest of the Fox News article here. Attacking Olympic athletes, attacking cricket players has something of an eerie crazy nightmare parallel universe quality to it. This is a form of terrorism that almost imposes pity, for the victims certainly but also, in another way, for the perpetrators.
I found a lead to an article that sums up my feelings on the subject at one of my regular ports of call Inca Kola News where the noble Otto has posted Simon Barnes' article The terrorists waging a jihad against joy. Simon Barnes is the award-winning chief sports writer for the Times and his article is at once a tribute to the best qualities of the human spirit as exemplified in sportsmen and women and a denunciation of the worst qualities to be found in that same human spirit as exemplified by terrorists.
For example, in Barnes’ article we read of the cowardice of the terrorists: ‘brave souls prepared to risk a battle against men with cricket bats while armed only with rifles and rocket launchers…’ How this contrasts with the bravery of the cricketers as we read in this article at Yahoo News:

Players recounted their ordeal after getting home early Wednesday.
"We were just hearing bullet after bullet thump into the bus. We were hearing gunshots, a few explosions and you could see bullets sometimes hitting a seat," Kumar Sangakkara said.
Jayawardene, the team captain, said it "was just a constant barrage of bullets. We don't know which direction it was coming from. It was just all over."
The team didn't panic, even when the bullets began finding their mark, coach Trevor Bayliss said.
"Everything was very calm and very quiet, and every now and then someone would say, 'I'm hit,' and then someone else said, 'So am I,' and someone else said, 'I'm hit as well,'" Bayliss said.

In the aftermath of this attack Barnes wonders 'if big-time sport will become a worldwide target. If so, sport as we know it will be changed for ever. Big sporting events as we know them will no longer be feasible. What, then, will the world lose?'

Barnes mentions one big sporting event that could have been a prime target for terrorists, and was not: the Beijing Olympics. For those who are receptive, I think the message the Tibetans sent to the Chinese went something like this:

We could have ruined your Olympics. But we don’t believe in terrorism. We believe in the joy of sport and the beauty of the human spirit. We believe in love. Because…

Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love; this is the eternal rule. Buddha

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Healing Philosophy Links : Best of the Web

One of the most important functions of this blog, besides inflicting my empowering insight on you, is to provide links to other sites and blogs dealing with philosophy, spirituality, and self-development. I have built up quite a collection since I began Healing Philosophy and it occurred to me to gather these links together in a post so that they may be found by people doing a search. And of course, they will discover this blog in the process, which may just be what they are looking for.
I will add comments on each link eventually and update it periodically.
For now, here they are, the very best links that I have found in my travels so far:

General philosophy

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Assembled Philosophers
Squashed Philosophers
Philosophy and Literature: Nietzsche, Shakespeare, etc
One little angel
The Big View
Theoi Greek Mythology


Access to Insight
Buddhist Myths, Parables & Essays
Buddhist Stories
Dharma Bliss
Dharma Net
Essentials of Buddhism
Free Buddhist Audio
H. H. The Dalai Lama – Tibetan Buddhist Internet Radio
Sacred Texts Archive - Buddhism
The Gold Scales - Buddhism


Sacred Sites of China
Sacred Texts Archive - Taoism
Taoism Information Page
Taoism Initiation Page
The Gold Scales - Taoism
The Golden Elixir:Taoism and Chinese Alchemy
True Tao


Daily Zen
Dharma for the Zen Student
Sacred Texts Archive - Zen
The Gold Scales - Zen
The Zen Site
Zen Habits
Zen Koans
Zen Stories

Hinduism, Yoga

Aryuveda and Yoga Blog
Swami Krishnananda

Online Texts
Sacred Texts Archive
The Chinese Classics
The Gold Scales
The Great Books

Self-development, musings etc.

Hank Whittemore’s Shakespeare Blog
If you’re going through hell, keep going
Inner Excellence
Mark’s Daily Apple
Pick the Brain
The Half-Dipper
The Positivity Blog
The Rambling Taoist
The Useless Tree
Psychology Today
Wander Like a Cloud


A Passage through August
Haiku – An Introduction

Japanese Culture

Edo, Japan – A Virtual Tour
Japanese Folktales
Riley Lee – Sound of Bamboo
The Art of Ogata Gekko
The Japanese Garden
The Tale of Genji
The Woodblock Prints of Ando Hiroshige

Chinese Culture

Sacred Sites of China
National Palace Museum (Taiwan)

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Philosophy - an essential luxury good

I read an interesting article Is philosophy a luxury good? at the Economist’s Free Exchange blog. The author notes that according to Maslow (of heirarchy of needs pyramid fame) ‘you can only ponder the state of your soul when your most basic physical and material needs have been met’. In a downturn students tend to choose programs with more practical job prospects, and universities and governements tend to cut back on the humanities.

But cutting back on humanities could be a false economy. Studying subjects like philosophy does impact critical thinking and communication skills. Intellectually diverse societies often are the very ones that tend to thrive. Amar Bhide argues that India did itself a great economic disservice by producing too many engineers. Also, law professor Anthony T. Kronman argues that economic and social upheaval only highlights the need to re-examine moral issues. But “the need for my older view of the humanities is, if anything, more urgent today,” he added, referring to the widespread indictment of greed, irresponsibility and fraud that led to the financial meltdown. In his view this is the time to re-examine “what we care about and what we value,” a problem the humanities “are extremely well-equipped to address.”

I’m with him. Of course, with someone who is hungry it is difficult to discuss anything more than the next meal. But in modern-day society hunger is not a problem, basic needs are not a problem. Philosophy is a luxury good that everyone can afford. Philosophy matters. I find it impossible to think of a time and a place where philosophy would not matter. Certainly it matters today more than ever, in the new era of responsibility.
Image from Wikimedia: Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Sunday, March 1, 2009

A Vision for America

As we stand at this crossroads of history, the eyes of all people in all nations are once again upon us, watching to see what we do with this moment, waiting for us to lead.

Among the eyes of all people of all nations watching President Obama’s first address to Congress were my eyes. And they saw an inspiring, charismatic leader, leading. Of course, he is a product of the times. He not only has ‘the Mandate of Heaven’, he has the mandate of an angry American people who want action and a more enlightened and effective government.

Those qualities that have made America the greatest force of progress and prosperity in human history we still possess in ample measure. What is required now is for this country to pull together, confront boldly the challenges we face, and take responsibility for our future once more… Now, if we're honest with ourselves, we'll admit that for too long we have not always met these responsibilities, as a government or as a people. I say this not to lay blame or to look backwards, but because it is only by understanding how we arrived at this moment that we'll be able to lift ourselves out of this predicament… The fact is, our economy did not fall into decline overnight. Nor did all of our problems begin when the housing market collapsed or the stock market sank.

My italics. Straight talk, honest words, sincerity! Compare Obama’s words with this from the I Ching 41st hexagram: ‘What matters here is to understand the time and not to try to cover up poverty with empty pretence’. Only when you recognize and accept the truth of a situation can you hope to correct it.

Now, I understand that when the last administration asked this Congress to provide assistance for struggling banks, Democrats and Republicans alike were infuriated by the mismanagement and the results that followed. So were the American taxpayers; so was I.
So I know how unpopular it is to be seen as helping banks right now, especially when everyone is suffering in part from their bad decisions. I promise you: I get it.
But I also know that, in a time of crisis, we cannot afford to govern out of anger or yield to the politics of the moment.

Ah yes, anger; we know about the evils of anger on this blog, but what about the politics of the moment? I am put in mind of a quote by Joseph Campbell: ‘Economics and politics are the governing powers of life today, and that’s why everything is screwy’. The governing powers of life should be universal truths, spiritual values. Of course there is need of economic discipline. But is the present method of 4-year terms of office propitious to a wise, consistent, impartial, enlightened approach to public finance? Someone said that a nation is too important to be run by politicians (maybe it was me). I don’t know the answer, but a kind of politically independent ‘Supreme Court’ of Economic Planning might be worth considering.

It is time to put in place tough, new commonsense rules of the road so that our financial market rewards drive and innovation and punishes shortcuts and abuse…

Yes, the way of the swamp plant will not be tolerated any more. A pity that we had to look over the brink into the abyss of financial meltdown to admit the problem and to gather the political resolve to do something about it. Still, we are there now. Every crisis brings its opportunity. Perhaps this recognition of the swamp plants in the system will be the positive development out of this financial crisis, the tipping point that allows us to weed out the problem. Whenever I have a personal Waterloo, I always try to look at what the lesson is and I even tell myself ‘This was a cheap lesson’. In other words, the lesson, though expensive, will allow me to avoid even costlier mistakes in the future.

The only way this century will be another American century is if we confront at last the price of our dependence on oil and the high cost of health care, the schools that aren't preparing our children and the mountain of debt they stand to inherit. That is our responsibility… I see this document differently. I see it as a vision for America, as a blueprint for our future.

Could it be that Big Oil and Big Pharma lobbyists stood in the way of energy and health care reform? Could it be that a nation as technologically advanced as the United States could not have developed advanced biofuels 10 years ago? Could not have developed electric cars 10 or 20 years ago? Could not have been the leader in solar and clean energy use decades ago? Could not have implemented universal health care reform and efficiency? ‘Economics and politics are the governing powers of life today…’

History reminds us that, at every moment of economic upheaval and transformation, this nation has responded with bold action and big ideas… Now, none of this will come without cost, nor will it be easy. But this is America. We don't do what's easy. We do what's necessary to move this country forward.

The sleeping bear has gotten a wake up call. Whether Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big whatever-you-care-to-name like it or not, there will be changes around here, oh dearie me yes. That swamp-plant special-interest mentality has bankrupted America. Energy, health care and education reform will go forward now. How sweet it is.

Finally, because we're also suffering from a deficit of trust, I am committed to restoring a sense of honesty and accountability to our budget. That is why this budget looks ahead 10 years and accounts for spending that was left out under the old rules and, for the first time, that includes the full cost of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A deficit of trust. What a telling phrase. Such a deficit is worse than a budget deficit because it undermines the moral fabric of the nation. Sincerity is the treasure of a land.

To overcome extremism, we must also be vigilant in upholding the values our troops defend, because there is no force in the world more powerful than the example of America…Those of us gathered here tonight have been called to govern in extraordinary times. It is a tremendous burden, but also a great privilege, one that has been entrusted to few generations of Americans, for in our hands lies the ability to shape our world, for good or for ill.

For all its faults, I still feel that the United States is the closest thing to a utopia that we have on earth (perhaps with the exception of Canada!) The people are generous, hard working, tolerant and courageous. It only needs a leader and a government to harness those values, that strength and channel it in an enlightened way.

These words and these stories tell us something about the spirit of the people who sent us here. They tell us that, even in the most trying times, amid the most difficult circumstances, there is a generosity, a resilience, a decency, and a determination that perseveres, a willingness to take responsibility for our future and for posterity.

Here are echoes of the I Ching again: ‘If a time of scanty resources brings out an inner truth, one must not feel ashamed of simplicity. For simplicity is then the very thing needed to provide inner strength for further undertakings’. Churchill said the same thing: ‘We shall draw from the heart of suffering itself the means of inspiration and survival.’

Obama closes his address in a charismatic appeal to a simple, basic truth and common interest: love of country.

There are surely times in the future where we will part ways. But I also know that every American who is sitting here tonight loves this country and wants it to succeed…That must be the starting point for every debate we have in the coming months and where we return after those debates are done. That is the foundation on which the American people expect us to build common ground. And if we do, if we come together and lift this nation from the depths of this crisis, if we put our people back to work and restart the engine of our prosperity, if we confront without fear the challenges of our time and summon that enduring spirit of an America that does not quit, then some day, years from now, our children can tell their children that this was the time when we performed, in the words that are carved into this very chamber, "something worthy to be remembered."

Something worthy indeed. The stakes are high. Failure is not an option. Time to roll up the sleeves and work, sincerely, for a new vision.
Photo from Wikimedia

Ship's log - March 2009

March already? Seems like yesterday we were celebrating New Year. Reminds me of Marcus Aurelius’ advice ‘Do not act as though you have a thousand years to live’.
Last month I half-promised you a surprise. Well, it ain’t ready yet, but I’ll tell you what it is. A comic strip. I have had it in the back of my mind for a while now. I have an artistic streak in me and I know there is a wide scope in this blog for some philosophic humour. But to do the thing right I need to work on it some more. Patience my friends…This month should see the publication of my guest post on sincerity on Henrik’s awesome Positivity Blog. He has some 12,000 readers so I hope to see a lot of new faces around the blog. Join the crew on the ‘Followers’ (Shipmates) gadget below. Free grog and very little flogging.

Discover The Tale of Genji, the 11th Century classic of Japan (click image)

Discover The Tale of Genji, the 11th Century classic of Japan (click image)
Kiyomizudera Temple has a large veranda looking out over Kyoto and beyond