Jon Thysell

Father. Engineer. Retro games. Ukuleles. Nerd.

Tag: philosophy

Taoism and the role of human institutions

Every human institution can be broken down into two parts: its inward, primary essence and its outward, secondary accouterments. Learning to distinguish between these primary and secondary things is an important skill for Taoists.

In our society, the essence of any institution is much more important than the physical trappings that surround it. Chuangtse says:

The primary things should stand at the top and secondary things stand at the bottom.

The text gives several examples of institutions and their secondary things, such as the mourning of the dead:

Weeping and mourning and the wearing of hemp clothes and hemp hemming and the gradations in the length of mourning are secondary things in the expression of sorrow.

Though reflecting the ancient Chinese culture of the text’s origin, we can make clear parallels to the modern Western institution of mourning. Here, the wearing of black clothes, the funeral, the wake, all of these things are secondary when mourning the dead: the important, primary thing is the expression of sorrow.

On the other end of the spectrum, an example can be made of the institution of marriage. On one level we have two people committing their love to a stronger relationship, and the joining of two families. On another we have the costumes, the rings, the cake, the registry, the party, the dancing, and the ceremony. Which of the two groups is more important?

The difference is the thing and its representation. Love and commitment are the primary essence of marriage; the rings, which only represent that love and commitment, are secondary accouterments. Accouterments that aren’t instinctual:

These … secondary things require the employment of the mind and conscious planning before they can be carried out.

There is a broader Taoist thread against such materialism, something I mentioned in passing when I asserted that Taoists value direct experience over formal education. While the primary things are often emotional, experiential, and culturally agnostic (like love), the secondary things are often material, learned, and culturally specific (like the exchange of rings).

The secondary things don’t come to us naturally; such traditions are passed down from generation to generation by education, often in the form of stories. Can anyone deny the influence of fairy tales and childhood stories on our expectations of wedding ceremonies? On the whole institution of marriage?

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t to say that our traditions, these seemingly unessential secondary things, are altogether bad. They don’t need to be discarded, just not put at the forefront of our minds:

The ancients had this body of the unessential knowledge, but they did not put it first…

This “unessential knowledge” helps define a culture, and is a part of all human societies. Problems only arise when those secondary things are held with higher importance than the primary essences which they represent.

We know this to be true, in mourning, love, and even telling stories: that when we follow traditions for traditions’ sake, and only “go through the motions”, we risk losing what’s really important.

A marriage without a strong sense of love and commitment won’t last, no matter how lavish and perfect the ceremony. Without true sorrow, going to a funeral and wearing black and acting somber is just that: acting.

We see this often in religious ceremony, and we all know people who only go through the motions. Remember, the moral values of a religion are more important than the details of their ceremonies; the meaning behind the teachings more important than the teachings themselves.

We need the secondary things because they’re an easy shorthand for us to express ourselves, and to teach our values to our children. They’re loose outlines and reminders of what’s really important in our lives. Taoism can’t and doesn’t require the elimination of such accouterments; it only asks that people understand that they are in fact secondary, and to not elevate their importance beyond the essential things which they represent.

An earlier draft of this article was originally published February 01, 2008 under a former pseudonym of mine. I rescued it with WXR to HTML, and I present it here revised and expanded.


Bushido in the workplace, or handling others’ mistakes

In Yamamoto Tsunetomo‘s Bushido text Hagakure, we find many examples of the behavior expected of samurai; several of which I find apply well in the workplace.

For example, when someone comes and rudely interrupts you, implicitly insisting that their business should be given priority, Tsunetomo suggests not becoming flustered:

At such times, the etiquette of a samurai is to calm himself and deal with the person in a good manner. To treat a person harshly is the way of middle class lackeys.

We all deal with minor annoyances at work, things too petty to bring to anyone’s attention. In another passage, Tsunetomo suggests letting those minor annoyances slide:

It is a fact that fish will not live where the water is too clear. But if there is duckweed or something, the fish will hide under its shadow and thrive. Thus, the lower classes will live in tranquility if certain matters are a bit overlooked or left unheard. This fact should be understood with regard to people’s conduct.

As if to emphasize the point, he even suggests lenient sentencing for criminals:

At the time of a deliberation of criminals, Nakano Kazuma proposed making the punishment one degree lighter than what would be appropriate. This is a treasury of wisdom that only he was the possessor of.

By sparing the worse sentence, a person is given the chance to redeem themselves. Later Tsunetomo says:

When intimate friends, allies, or people who are indebted to you have done some wrong, you should secretly reprimand them and intervene between them and society in a good manner.

You should erase a person’s bad reputation and praise him as a matchless ally and one man in a thousand. If you will thus reprimand a person in private and with good understanding, his blemish will heal and he will become good. If you praise a person, people’s hearts will change and an ill reputation will go away of itself.

I find this concept very useful, and in practice it comes up fairly often, especially in cross-team collaborative work. Every team has its ups and downs, times when some work harder than others. And there’s always a time when somebody, for whatever reason, just isn’t pulling their weight. What Tsunetomo is saying is, the way to correct that behavior is to give feedback in private, and give praise in public. Give the individual the chance to get back into alignment with the rest of the team, without damaging their reputation.

In cross-team endeavors, I remember this as “don’t air your dirty laundry”.  It doesn’t benefit anyone to complain about your team, or specific members of your team, to the other teams you’re working with. Deal with the problem internally, and always give others the impression that the team is doing just fine. A negative team image is not going encourage anyone to do their best work.

Similar advice is given to job seekers as “don’t complain about your last boss.” A potential employer will think twice about hiring someone so willing to throw others under the bus.

Of course, all of this is easy to follow if you yourself always pull your own weight. It’s even easier if, as a leader, you step back regularly and let the group take its victories. People, especially within your team, will recognize who did what, and if everyone follows the same philosophy, it’s only natural that you too will be recognized for your contributions, both within and outside of your team.

A samurai doesn’t let others’ self-importance fluster him, lets others’ small mistakes slide, gives leniency when the mistakes are large, and uses public praise with private reprimand to  straighten out those under him. So too can we use this as a model for how we handle others’ mistakes in the workplace.

An earlier draft of this article was originally published January 29, 2008 under a former pseudonym of mine. I rescued it with WXR to HTML, and I present it here revised and expanded.


The Taoist knack for living

A Taoist constantly strives to achieve the state where they can do the best thing in the best way at the best time, without conscious effort.

From Diary of a Daoist Hermit:

As Graham characterizes him, Zhuangzi (Chaungtse) believed that human beings are at their best when “heaven” lives through them, or, when people “merge with the Dao”. This is not some sort of cosmic daze, but rather when people develop an appropriate form of intuitive spontaneity that allows them to do the right thing in the right way at the right time—without having to think about it. He uses the analogy of a skilled tradesman who has developed the “knack” of his craft and suggests that a sage has a similar “knack” for living.

He calls it “the knack” or “intuitive spontaneity”, I sometimes call it “skilled unawareness”, but they’re all one and the same. How impressive it is to watch experts in every field, so “in tune” with their expertise that their actions seem to flow effortlessly. It’s a phenomenon much akin to a professional athlete’s “muscle memory”, and how it unconsciously guides their physical movements.

Taoism demonstrates this “knack” in the text Chuangtse:

A good craftsman draws lines and circles without the help of compasses and squares. His fingers are so sensitively attuned to his material that he does not depend on the direction of his mind.

And in Taoism, as suggested by the opening quote, a sage is one who applies such skill to the art of living.

In order to achieve this state of being, Taoism suggests experience over education. The 48th chapter of the Taoist text Tao Te Ching starts:

The student of knowledge (aims at) learning day by day;
The student of Tao (aims at) losing day by day.

The Tao can be inadequately defined as the “way of the universe”. Loosely put, the Taoist abandons education and wrote learning for experiencing the universe first-hand. Then, seeing the results of their actions, they develop a deep wisdom of how the world works, which, with time and practice, blossoms into “the knack” of the sages. Just as an athlete practices and practices their sport until their body moves the right way instinctively, the Taoist sage experiences the universe again and again until their own instincts guide them to do the right thing, no matter the situation.

Now the similar Bushido precept of “treating matters of great concern lightly” suggests the alternative approach, as a student of knowledge. Bushido promotes a lifetime of endless study, devouring new knowledge day by day. In following Bushido, one plans ahead for as many obstacles as possible, in order that when the time comes, one can treat those obstacles lightly and meet them head on. This is much in the way of governments who prepare response plans for emergencies that may never come. It’s all about preparation for the unknown.

Whichever the path though, the end goal is the same: to be able to handle anything that comes your way.

Oddly enough, both paths acknowledge a strange side-effect of achieving this state of being: one often appears to be an idiot. For Taoists, this is because non-sages often see a sage’s behavior as opposite of how things are “supposed” to be done. This is poetically obscured in chapter 45 of Tao Te Ching:

The highest perfection is like imperfection

In Bushido, this appearance of idiocy happens because even a sufficiently prepared follower is encouraged to believe that their skills are never sufficient. In recognizing the limits of their knowledge, followers of Bushido consider themselves to be idiots. The Bushido text Hagakure says:

In the highest level a man has the look of knowing nothing.

I believe that this concept of “the knack” can be found beyond eastern thought. When I first wrote this article, I spent hours pouring over my books and notes on Existentialism. I’m sure with enough time, I’d find a Existentialist parallel to “the knack”.

In the meantime, I present two options: Taoism with its path of constant experiences, or Bushido with its path of continual study. Both help us better respond to the world around us, and enable us to, in the words of the opening quote, do the right thing in the right way at the right time.

Call it skilled unawareness, intuitive spontaneity, treating matters of great concern lightly, or simply “the knack”. My question is, which path appeals most to you?

An earlier draft of this article was originally published January 26, 2008 under a former pseudonym of mine. I rescued it with WXR to HTML, and I present it here revised and expanded.


Taoism suggests experience over education

The following passage from the Chuangtse is one of my favorites:

A boat may be hidden in a creek, or concealed in a bog, which is generally considered safe. But at midnight a strong man may come and carry it away on his back. Those dull of understanding do not perceive that however you conceal small things in larger ones, there will always be a chance of losing them. But if you entrust that which belongs to the universe to the whole universe, from it there will be no escape. For this is the great law of things.

The Chuangtse is a key Taoist text, and a literal reading of this passage provides a level of understanding that coincides with the larger Taoist thread against materialism and the cleverness that a materialistic society values.

There is however, a deeper level of understanding present, one concerning the nature of knowledge and understanding itself. First, a problem is proposed:

Those dull of understanding do not perceive that however you conceal small things in larger ones, there will always be a chance of losing them.

Beyond just material objects, this also applies to knowledge and in particular knowledge that affects how we should act. Almost all belief systems proscribe a set of behavioral rules or suggestions for their adherents to follow. These suggestions provide the practical application of a belief system’s ethical and moral values.

As a species we’re addicted to telling stories and so ancient sages figured out pretty quickly that stories are powerful methods for teaching and spreading knowledge. In belief systems the world over, we have innumerable instances of stories meant to teach us how we’re supposed to behave. In the words of the above passage, we have knowledge (small things) encoded (concealed) within stories (large things).

So what’s the problem?

Cultures change. Language changes. Stories become translated and reinterpreted. Sometimes the author just wasn’t clear enough to begin with. When we depend on stories to protect our knowledge, we risk losing the original knowledge within the details of the stories themselves. When the stories are brought in and out of context with other stories in a belief system, we risk further degradation of the original signal.

Like a man with a strong back, belief systems can hijack behavioral suggestions by bogging us down with the details of the stories that contain them.

Most belief systems are founded on the principle that their behavioral suggestions flow from their particular conception of the nature of the universe. Christian behavioral suggestions for example, flow from God because Christians conceive of the universe as the creation of God.

Such a conception however, can lead to an education problem. Even without the benefit of stories, the more knowledge a belief system has, the more it is necessary for a system of education to spread that knowledge. Encoding that knowledge in stories may make the teaching easier, but there’s still a lot to learn.

It’s really a problem of derivation. If the end goal is knowing how to behave properly for the right reasons, the question becomes: How many of the stories do I need to know in order to act right? For most belief systems, that means learning a whole lot of stories.

So what about Taoism? Taoism proposes a solution to the story trap:

But if you entrust that which belongs to the universe to the whole universe, from it there will be no escape.

Don’t trust stories for their knowledge; you’re practically guaranteed to not understand them completely as the author intended. Instead, put your trust in observing and experiencing the universe directly. The ancient sages came up with some great ideas on what behavior leads to a positive society, and they didn’t get it from stories, they got it from observing how societies operate, asking questions, and performing experiments. In the end, it’s all very scientific.

Of course as human beings, even the sages like to tell stories, and as they’re generally trying to help others, they encoded their knowledge into those stories. The difference is, whereas most belief systems ultimately say: “This is the truth, believe it,” Taoists instead say: “This is what we observed to be true, but don’t take our word for it, observe the universe for yourself.”

In fact many Taoist stories actually make fun of people who insist on studying the writings of sages, rather than gaining first-hand experience themselves. Even more exult the inability of teachers to pass on their wisdom to their students, and how frustratingly we want to teach others what we’ve learned.

Taoism concludes that observation and direct experience are preferable to education. They provide their own list of observations on how people should act in order to create a positive society, but they also follow that list with the empowering offer for us to experience the world and derive the list for ourselves.

I discovered Taoism through the writings of Lin Yutang. If you’re interested in Taoism I highly recommend his The Wisdom of Laotse.

An earlier draft of this article was originally published January 23, 2008 under a former pseudonym of mine. I rescued it with WXR to HTML, and I present it here revised and expanded.


Bushido, education focused on self-reliance, and treating matters of great concern lightly

This quote, taken from Hagakure, often puzzled me when I first read the text in 2002:

After reading books and the like, it is best to burn them or throw them away.

Compiled by Tsuramoto Tashiro at the dawn of the 18th century, Hagakure is a collection of commentaries on Bushido from his conversations with the then retired samurai Yamamoto Tsunetomo.

The text covers many topics concerning the way of the warrior, many of which I identify and agree with. Particularly with regards to education, Hagakure addresses the constant need for an individual to learn:

Throughout your life advance daily, becoming more skillful than yesterday, more skillful than today. This is never-ending.

Do not rely on following the degree of understanding that you have discovered, but simply think, “This is not enough.”

After reading such lines, and many more like them, it is easy to be confused as to the meaning of the first quote. Surely, someone who promoted constant and never ending education would not advocate the burning of books!

The key to understanding this paradox, I find, is in the following quote:

Matters of great concern should be treated lightly.

which is explained as follows:

Thinking about things previously and then handling them lightly when the time comes is what this is all about. To face an event and solve it lightly is difficult if you are not resolved beforehand, and there will always be uncertainty in hitting your mark.

So then, in order to handle a given situation, we must have been previously resolved to handle that situation. To be resolved, we must know what to do before the situation ever arises.

Since there are a multitude of possible situations that we may encounter in our lives, we must then strive constantly to become more skillful and more knowledgeable in as many areas as possible.

However, skills and knowledge are most useful to us when we are free of the need to consult references. That is, in order to treat a “matter of great concern” lightly, we must be confident that we can act immediately, without the benefit of books to consult.

Taken from this perspective, the suggestion to burn books after reading them is designed to help us internalize the material and be better prepared for using the knowledge that we’ve obtained. Even if the burning is not taken literally, reading a book with the expectation that you won’t have access to it later can be a powerful motivational tool for remembering the material.

So, the suggestion is to read as if you won’t have the text with you when you need the skills and knowledge that it contains. This promotes self-reliance in knowledge, from which stems the confidence to treat matters of great concern lightly.

When we are confident in our knowledge and our skills, we can be resolved to handle anything. But remember, we must be both confident and yet unsatisfied with our current level of skills. Overconfidence breeds intellectual stagnation, which can undermine our self-reliance.

If you’re interested in learning more about Bushido you should read William Scott Wilson’s translation of Hagakure.

This article was originally published January 23, 2008 under a former pseudonym of mine. I rescued it with WXR to HTML, and I present it here with some slight modifications.