The Tao Te Ching On Violence

Last night I read the thirtieth verse of the Tao Te Ching, which discusses warfare, oppression and violence. As a martial artist, these issues are close to my heart- after all, I have spent perhaps over a thousand hours learning how to protect myself from someone who wishes to hurt me, and how to hurt them in return. The thirtieth verse made me question the necessity of violence in the world and brought up some challenging and confronting questions for me, but first let me share the chapter in question.

 
Verse 30

One who would guide a leader of men in the uses of life
will warn him against the use of arms for conquest.
Weapons often turn upon the wielder.

Where armies settle,
nature offers nothing but briars and thorns.
After a great battle has been fought,
the land is cursed, the crops fail,
the earth lies stripped of its Motherhood.

After you have attained your purpose,
you must not parade your success,
you must not boast of your ability,
you must not feel proud;
you must rather regret that you had not been
able to prevent the war.

You must never think of conquering others by force.
Whatever strains with force
will soon decay.
It is not attuned to the Way.
Not being attuned to the Way,
its end comes all too soon.

 

Since I was little, I have always cherished the belief that war is unnecessary and stupid. It is not in the slightest a “sweet and noble thing to die for one’s country”; it is an appalling waste of life for something as petty as resources or wealth. I can think of fewer more stupid acts than the sacrifice of millions of lives (not to mention the collateral damage to the ecosystems and other life forms that are harmed in the process) in order for one military leader to say to another “I was right and you were wrong”. As Lao Tzu puts it, one should never think of conquering others by force. Fighting violence with violence will inevitably lead to more violence, and I would never wish to contribute to a cycle of more pain and hatred.

Then I thought of a hypothetical situation: I am a member of a group of a dozen survivors on a desert island, in a situation like “The Lord of the Flies”. One man has naturally risen to the role of group leader (Alpha), and I have naturally assumed the role of Omega in the pack, choosing to follow at the end rather than walk at the front so that I can take care of everyone before me. Alpha becomes a cruel man over time, making decisions that are more and more ruthless, raiding other surviving tribes for resources and dominating any who would oppose him. His leadership is hurting people unnecessarily through his greed and ignorance, and even the people of our own tribe are being punished by his reign. What would a Taoist do in this situation?

The only way I could think of to protect that pack from Alpha’s ignorance and cruelty was to challenge him for dominance. To win leadership of the tribe would almost certainly require force, yet that would provoke a cycle of violence and cause pain to another living being (not to mention myself if Alpha put up a fight). Would a Taoist really seek a fight? It is not an easy question to answer. At first I thought “No. There must be another solution. Gandhi freed his people without violence, surely I can find a way to conquer hatred with love.” But such solutions take time and are not guaranteed to work- if the world had tried to win Hitler over with love, how many millions more would have died before it worked? Sometimes, when people are being hurt, force must be met with force. Some violence and suffering is necessary in life, and if it is to protect others, if it is for the greater good, then perhaps the solution does lie with the fist. Kenshin certainly believed so- he was the most notorious killer of the revolution, yet when his side was victorious, he put aside his killing blade and struggled to solve every conflict without further death.

I think the important thing is to know when it is time to be peaceful, and to know when it is time to be violent, but never to take pleasure from hurting another creature. Instead, if one’s circumstances has forced one to cause injury or to take a life, one should feel remorse that there was no alternative.

I then asked myself, “If a wise Taoist knew how to spread peace, should he make it his mission to resolve conflicts everywhere? Should he seek out fights so that he can end them for the greater good?” I do not think it is very Taoist to go around challenging all the Alpha’s so that one might impose one’s own beliefs on them, even if one did believe it would be for their own good. To answer this question, I look to one of my inspirations, the Buddhist monk Ajahn Brahm.  Although he is a bit of a celebrity and travels around the world promoting Buddhism, helping people  and contributing to the resolution of conflicts, his main role is as a teacher. Almost every Friday night of the year, he will return from wherever he is abroad (unless he’s on a spiritual retreat) in order to give a talk on the dhamma (the teachings of the Buddha) at his monastery. But more importantly, he teaches by example, sharing his own life experiences and the practical ways he has employed Buddhist-wisdom. In one of the verses of the Tao Te Ching, I think I read that “Being in touch with the Tao [i.e. being a good human being] is the greatest thing you can do for humanity [in order to lead by example]”.

Thus I think that practicing the martial arts is a good thing, so long as one does so with the hope that one will never need to use them. In many ways, this is closely aligned with the philosophy of “wu-wei“, or “the way of nothingness/least resistance“. Shihan Dan, who has drawn much influence from the Way and its Virtue, is indeed a wise man.

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Tao Te Ching: Verse 29

Today’s verse centres around the themes of living naturally, and letting go of control. I found it inspiring and humbling. Today, I strive to let go of my ideas of what I should do, and to do what is natural for me. This is very difficult because I have a lifetime of conditioning to overcome, but I seek to understand my true nature and to express it at the right time, in the right way.

 

Verse 29 [original]

Do you think you can take over the universe and improve it?
I do not believe it can be done.

Everything under heaven is a sacred vessel and cannot be controlled.
Trying to control leads to ruin.
Trying to grasp, we lose.

Allow your life to unfold naturally.
Know that it too is a vessel of perfection.
Just as you breathe in and breathe out,
there is a time for being ahead
and a time for being behind;
a time for being in motion
and a time for being at rest;
a time for being vigorous
and a time for being exhausted;
a time for being safe
and a time for being in danger.

To the sage
all of life is a movement toward perfection,
so what need has he
for the excessive, the extravagant, or the extreme?

 

Verse 29 [my interpretation]

Do you think you could do a better job of running the universe?
It is absurd to think so.
The Tao is perfectly able to govern the nature of 10 000 things.

Everything that comes from the Tao is perfect as it is.
Trying to control or change something against its nature
leads only to disaster.
Like holding water in cupped hands,
the tighter you grasp it, the more it eludes you.
Know your nature and accept it.

Just as you breathe in and out,
there is a time for both yin and yang;
for doing and for doing nothing;
for resisting and for yielding;
for being energetic and for being peaceful.

Following our intrinsic nature is a path of endless perfection.
Why then would anyone wish to hoard the superfluous?

Adventures in cycling

I have always been quite conscientious of the ecological footprint I leave when I travel. I usually prefer catching public transport to uni or work, and I have more often started walking to the train station and local facilities. But there are some places that are a little too far to comfortably walk (45 minutes?) yet seem too short to drive to. And to reach these places, it has long been my ambition to ride a bike.

I’ve procrastinated for years, but I finally decided to make a concerted effort into trying my foot at cycling. My brother has a helmet he doesn’t use, I discovered two bikes in the shed that I hadn’t ridden since primary school (aside from that one misadventure where I rode to a playground and split my leg open), and I put a shout out on facebook for any spare bike locks the universe had. Having obtained the necessities, I got up early to prepare for uni, allocating a little extra time to wipe off the dusty, grimy bicycle so that it might carry me to the train station. Sadly, psyching myself up for days, I discovered the tyres were flat and would not safely carry me five metres.

After I drove home that afternoon, I found a bike pump and managed to inflate and re-align the tires successfully, which was an adventure in itself. Climbing onto the seat, I wobbled around the paved bricks in our back yard for a few moments, when I quickly discovered that I had great difficulty turning. I could balance and go straight well enough, but unless the turn was very slow, I’d very nearly topple the bike trying. I decided I would get some extra practice and rode around the tiny back yard for a good twenty minutes until I felt more comfortable.

Finally the moment was upon me where I would test my skills on the road. I decided to cycle to my local library (perhaps a seven minute walk away) to return an audio book, and maybe if I was feeling up for it, a ride down to a local electronics store to replace the battery in my car key. Packing my messenger bag with water, the book and my keys, I left my first aid kit at home deliberately deciding I wouldn’t need it. And so, in my jeans and a tee shirt, I set off.

It was exhilarating. I felt so triumphant, so independent, so free! It was scary trying to pull into light traffic, but I picked a sizable break in the stream of cars and trusted they would give me enough room. I was determined that I would consider myself an equally important vehicle on the road, worthy of adequate space and right of way. Everything went fine, though the first time a car overtook me without really changing lanes was both terrifying and exhilarating. I felt so grown-up!

I pulled into the library and locked up my bike, a novel and delightful activity. When I got inside, I couldn’t contain my joy and shared  my success with the librarian, who humoured me kindly. I borrowed a new audiobook (which is amazing, by the way- “The Family Frying Pan” by Bryce Courtenay) and picked up a reserve Bethwyn had made on my card without informing me, then packed my messenger bag and hit the road again! High off my success, I cycled the long way to Jaycar, uphill and through traffic (though I may have taken a short-cut or two across the pavement rather than waiting for traffic lights). It was exhausting, and my butt definitely hurt by the end of it- I think bike shorts are definitely in order if I ever plan to cycle more than ten minutes-, but I made it! I got the battery changed and triumphantly rode home, now confident in my ability to navigate traffic.

Rather belatedly I realised I probably should have stretched or warmed up before trying a new intensive exercise. Although I was a little sore the next day, it was mainly my butt that hurt from the unyielding seat. One thing I’ve been a bit worried about is a car that yelled out “FOOTPATH!” to me as they drove past, clearly agitated at the inconvenience I was causing them. I felt guilty at first, but since then I’ve become more comfortable with my place on the road. I’m really proud of myself for doing something for the environment and consciously lowering my carbon-output to nearly 0 (excepting the increased levels of CO2 from breathing slightly harder). I know it’s an inconvenience to massive cars, but the world needs people who show more acceptance and support of ideas that ultimately cause more good than harm; I think the benefits of cycling outweight the two-second delay in having to overtake someone.

So that was my first (and so far only) adventure on the bike! I’ve since bought flashing tail lights and head lights, and a new bike lock (whoa, I had no idea how expensive they would be), and I’m excited to start cycling to the train station every day to get to work. Maybe some day I’ll ride to uni, or even to Bethwyn’s house! That’s the dream~

Peace everyone! May your travels be light!

ERC Camp 1, July 2012

Eddie Rice Camps for Kids WA is an organisation that hosts camps and activities of varying lengths for children aged 7-16 who come from some kind of disadvantaged background (e.g. learning disabilities, financial problems, domestic abuse). I’ve been on one or two camps before, and helped out with a bunch of one-day activities, but I’ve sort of drifted away from them. Something about putting myself out of my comfort zone to help take care of other younger human beings usually fills me with anxiety, but this July I was feeling pretty okay about the idea. Simply put, the camp went as it always does, and the end result was an amazing experience for almost all the kids, and almost all the leaders.

I experienced the usual problems with the leaders before camp, not knowing anyone and being quite introverted and shy. I didn’t go out of my way to talk to many people, and I didn’t really trust anyone with letting them know the real me. When the kids arrived though, all of that didn’t matter in the slightest- there was no time or energy to spare on maintaining facades and acting cool; you woke early to be with the kids, you slept late to reflect on the day, and any time in between was spent desperately getting as much sleep as possible. Pretty much everyone really stepped up to do their share (particularly because there were 3 kids for every 2 leaders) and we bonded by necessity. And I experienced the usual problems after camp when the kids went home; after spending four days with 7-10-year-old children, everyone let loose and started swearing and teasing and being generally mean because they finally could. In the past I’ve felt betrayed by this sudden outburst of unkindness, like everyone was just pretending to be nice and that they were now revealing their true natures, but I’ve since realised that it’s an important part of camp and quite natural, even healthy. Having been detoxed, the leaders needed to release the toxins somehow and get it all out. Being highly sensitive to bullying, I just let the group run its course and withdrew until they were done and went back to their normal selves.

As for the kids, it was the last day of camp that was really special. On the first day, no one really knows or trusts each other, and everyone wants to see what they can get away with in terms of pushing boundaries and having fun. By the last day, most people are really good friends and almost everyone knows everyone else well enough to play with them, if not call them by name. There were no exceptionally bad kids, though a few did provide a bit of a challenge by running off, not joining group activities, acting hurt to get attention, blatantly breaking camp rules by swearing or climbing on things, and soiling themselves (which I didn’t find out about until after camp- the leaders apparently did a great job of being discreet). In terms of special moments, I got Bella to smile at me by telling her her name meant “beautiful”, and was invited to be part of her girls-only, no-leader secret group. Although it was a little perverse, Tyson finally stopped ignoring/disobeying me and actually called me “Uncle” to show that he considered me cool enough to be part of his family. I couldn’t stop grinning when 8-year-old Alex was explaining to me the rules of “Don’t Panic” and kept saying “Fwee” instead of “three”. I’m grateful that Shannae liked me enough to write me a warm fuzzy, even though all we did was play footsies under the table on the last night of camp- apparently, I make more of an impression than I realised. Oh, and Kiesha asked me if I had a girlfriend, twice. When Morgan put on that tie I knotted for him, he blossomed into the most amazingly confident MC I’ve ever seen in a kid, and no one can run with as much speed or agility as George. Seriously, I played chasey with him just once and it took me nearly a minute to catch him.

All things considered, all the problems during the first few days pale in comparison to the joy and wonders that manifest by the last day. On my very first camp when we were packing our bags and getting ready to board the bus home, someone exclaimed “Stupid fake family, stupid fake friends!” Something indescribable happens when you’re stuck with fourteen other people for five days with a common goal, and you bond with them in incredible ways- it makes life back home seem so insignificant compared to the joy and magic of being on camp. It’s been described as “the Eddie world” versus “the real world”, but I learned last night that the Eddie world is simply one facet of the real world. It exists in every day life, and it can be accessed if you look for it- camp magic is always with you, and you should never give up forget that there is a place where children can be safe and happy every day, because you made it so. The other important thing I learned is that it’s not entirely my responsibility to look after the kids and make sure everyone stays entertained- although I’m an older leader, it doesn’t make me in charge. I got pretty anxious on the third day because I felt like I wasn’t doing enough. Essentially, I learned the important lesson that there’s a whole flock of geese who are there to take care of the kids, and if I needed to hit the ground to rest and heal, I could do it and they’d accept me back as soon as I was ready. In essence, I needed to trust that it wasn’t all up to me, and that was really hard. In the end, I was given the honorary title of “the Crocodile”, a reference to Neverland (the camp theme), quietly working in the background and balancing everyone out with my quiet honesty. Also, as a random aside, I got up half an hour early every day to practice taiji and meditate, and it was really amazing watching the sun rise in those dark and early hours of the day.

And that was camp! Can’t wait to see Bethwyn and maybe get up early for more taiji and yoga tomorrow!

The energy of people

I’ve been thinking lately that the world is based on energy. All things require energy to move, from the burning sun to the tiniest cell. But more specifically, I think people have different energy levels, and it affects the environment around them.

I remember a time in primary school when I was about 11-years-old. After lunch a few members of my class and I went for choir rehearsals and had a good time singing and socialising. When we got back to the classroom, we continued chatting and laughing and being kids as kids do. Little did we do, Mrs Mountford had achieved a legendary level of quiet concentration in the classroom before our arrival- all the students had been perfectly silent, writing in their books and absorbing knowledge. Our return disrupted this erudite quietude, and within a few moments everyone was chatting without a care in the world.

I think this is a good example of energy, and how variable it can be. People who achieve low states of energy, for example by lying on a couch watching TV might be sluggish and slow to respond to things. A person who has sprinted fifty metres would probably feel vibrant and awake. Someone who is good at meditating might feel their body relax and their mind sharpen. I don’t know how many different “types” of energy there are, but I suspect there are a lot more than “energetic” and “not energetic”.

 

Another example I’ve been pondering over is that instinct that drives young men to fight. In a group combat fitness class, it is typical to get “psyched up” by having music with a pounding bass and an instructor who yells at you to push harder, move faster, keep up the intensity. It is easy to see how this might translate to a large protest, where everyone is bristling with anticipation and energy, just waiting for the impetus that will transform it into a riot. And then, when everyone is trashing cars and beating up each other, morals can be suspended as one loses oneself to the energy of the group.

 

I think it is much easier to get psyched up than it is to wind down. As a society, I think we tend towards carrying stress and anxiety quite easily, but find it hard to relax and hold onto peace. I have to say, as a young, testosterone-fuelled man, I love fighting. When there’s a fight about to happen, a grin breaks out in my heart (if not on my face), my blood pounds and I hope to God that someone tries to hit me so that I can get involved. Fortunately, above this hot blood is a cool head, which cherishes protecting my health and upholding peace.

 

I don’t really know where I’m going with this. Just some thoughts on environmental and social energy and how they interact with one’s own self.