World Happiness Report

The annual World Happiness Report is out.  This year Norway ranks as the happiest place on earth.  That’s strange because I always thought it was supposed to be Disneyland.

At any rate, each year the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a United Nations initiative, measures world happiness country by country based on such factors as “income, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on in times of trouble, generosity, freedom and trust, with the latter measured by the absence of corruption in business and government.”  The United Sates is now number 14.

According to SDSN, social well-being is the best gauge of a country’s progress.  John Helliwell, an economist at the University of British Columbia and lead author of the report, told the Associated Press:  “It’s the human things that matter. If the riches make it harder to have frequent and trustworthy relationship between people, is it worth it?  The material can stand in the way of the human.”

To read the World Happiness Report, go to their website.

It seems to me, though, that happiness is a difficult thing to measure.  At least on a personal level.  While happiness means generally the same thing to most folks, each of us can have a slightly different definition.  And, of course, since time immemorial, philosophers and other folk have been weighing in with their take on the meaning of happiness…

Marcus Aurelius said, “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”

And Gandhi said, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”

Both of these “definitions” correspond with the Buddhist/Taoist notion of happiness, which is not the absence of suffering, but rather the ability to find joy and tranquility in the midst of suffering.

Chuang Tzu, the Chinese philosopher from around the 4th century BCE, believed that happiness or the ultimate satisfaction in life came from doing nothing, that is, the practice of wu-wei (not-doing, non-action):

“I consider doing nothing to obtain happiness to be true happiness, but ordinary people do not understand this.  It’s said that true happiness is to be without happiness, the highest praise is to be without praise.  The world can’t make up its mind what is right and what is wrong.  And yet doing nothing can determine it.  Since supreme happiness is found in keeping the body alive, only by doing nothing can you accomplish it!

Let me try putting it this way.  Space does nothing, and thence comes its serenity; Earth does nothing, and thence comes its peace.  Through the union of these two inactions all things are transformed and brought to life.  Wonderful, mysterious, they seem to come from nowhere!  Wonderful, mysterious, they have no visible sign!  Each thing minds its business and grows from this inaction.  So I say, space and earth do nothing and there is nothing that is not done.  But who among us can attain this inaction?”

In the United States, the pursuit of happiness is one of humankind’s basic rights.  It’s guaranteed by the Constitution.  But this is not the greatest goal in life.   When we calm our mind and when what we do is in harmony, we do not need to seek happiness, for we realize that it is already all around us.

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Dashiell Hammett and the Tao of Beams Falling

Some of you may know the name Dashiell Hammett, one of the originators of the hardboiled school of detective fiction.  I am sure most all of you have heard of his most famous work, The Maltese Falcon.

Sam Spade, a private detective, gets involved with a group of murderous characters in search of a “dingus,” a black bird: The Maltese Falcon, a priceless jewel-encrusted statue, presented to the Knights Templar, along with the island of Malta, by Charles V of Spain, lost for centuries.  With this story, Hammett presented us with one of the greatest plots in mysterydom.

In Chapter 7, Spade tells Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the femme fatale of the novel, a story about a man named Flitcraft.   The man lived in Tacoma, and one day while strolling around during his lunch hour, he narrowly missed being hit by a falling beam from a construction site.  If the beam had struck him, it would have killed him.  Spade says this left Flitcraft feeling “like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.”  Chaos had entered his comfortable world, and he concluded that life was merely a matter of chance.  “What disturbed him was the discovery that in sensibly ordering his affairs he had got out of step, and not into step, with life.”  Flitcraft left his job, his wife and children, and he set out to wander aimlessly.

George Cotkin, in Existential America, remarks that “Here we have Hammett’s take on the human condition.  Men and women sleepwalk through existence, clutching at illusions and complacency.  When the natural cracks in an existential moment, the potential for freedom, for a new birth, opens up.”

Cotkin’s explanation fits because the theme of The Maltese Falcon is illusion.  I would go into that more but I would hate to give out any spoilers for those who have not read the book or seen the movie.

Years later when Mrs. Flitcraft hires Spade to find her long lost husband, the detective discovers that he has settled down once again, this time in Spokane, living a similar life to the one he left behind.  He had a new job, new family, and name,  Charles Pierce (a reference to Charles Stanley Pierce, a nineteenth century philosopher who wrote about “random occurrence”).

Spade tells Brigid, “He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”

Flitcraft’s wandering is a reaction to the capriciousness of fate.  But I think Spade is using the story to tell Brigid that regardless of whether or not she is being straight with him, in the end it will not matter, he will adjust, and he won’t play the sap for her.  In this way, Sam Spade, the iconic private detective, is like the Taoist sage who moves through life in boundless freedom, exuding wisdom, secure in the knowledge that beams falling, and not falling, is the natural order of things.

Adjusting is not the same as complacency, or “settling.”  Lao Tzu says that the sage avoids complacency, and yet does not try to make things happen.  The sage allows things to happen by themselves, and “helps the people find their own nature, while refraining from action.”

Life is series of happenings.  When we resist what happens, we open the door to problems.  So then, all this to say, let things flow naturally and go with that flow.

Dashiell Hammett was not the best writer of detective stories, but perhaps the most influential.  His innovation was to take murder out of the drawing room and put it back on the streets where it belonged.  He became about as successful a writer as one could be.  Then, with the years of money and success in Hollywood were behind him, he refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee and went to jail.  He was 57 years old and emerged from imprisonment, according to his partner Lillian Hellman, “a thin man thinner, a sick man sicker.”  But he had survived.  He adjusted to beams falling.

By the way, TCM is showing The Maltese Falcon today at 6:15pm EST (3:15 PST).  This superb version directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet, is extremely faithful to Hammett’s novel.  I consider it the first film noir and probably the best detective movie ever made.

If you miss this viewing, it might show up on TCM On Demand.

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Women Don’t Shoot

Friday night I watched “Michael Moore in Trumpland.”  The title is a bit deceptive.  It has very little to do with Trump, and a lot to do with feminism.  It’s funny, educational, moving, and it is a spirited discussion of the struggles of Hillary Clinton, through which, it touches upon the struggle of all women and extols their power.

trumplandMichael Moore’s film is a record of a one-man show he performed in October at the Murphy Theatre in Wilmington, Ohio.  Over the course of sixty minutes, Moore spends a considerable amount of time going over the attacks, the abuse Hillary Clinton has endured over the years, most all of it, of course, coming from men.  I remember how she was humiliated for heading the Task Force on National Health Care Reform in the 1990s.  But I had forgotten how nasty it was, and perhaps dulled to how nasty it has been ever since.

In 1994, at a rally in support of the health care campaign, as the First Lady spoke, protestors held up signs that read “Heil Hillary” and nearly booed her down.  For the first time, the Secret Service was successful in persuading Hillary Clinton to wear a bulletproof vest.

It is obvious that Michael Moore likes Hillary, he admires her because she has character, that is, good character, one thing many voters doubted.  She took all the abuse heaped on her, never complained (at least not in pubic) and kept moving forward.

About halfway through the performance, Moore looks into the camera and says,

hillary-clinton-019bMy hope, my optimism for this . . .  Hillary, if you’re watching this right now (I have a feeling that someone is going to slip you a tape of this), I just want to tell you something, I know you’ve been waiting . . . but you’re not alone, a whole  bunch of the rest of us have been waiting for that one glorious moment when the other gender, the majority gender, has a chance to run this world, have some real power and kick some righteous ass.”

We men have been in charge far too long, and as a result, our world is out of balance.  We need to adjust the axis in favor of gender equality.

Now, it’s amazing how certain things fall in place . . . Just Friday morning I was reading these words by Barbara E. Reed: “The Tao Te Ching uses feminine imagery and traditional views of female roles to counter destructive male behavior.” *

Tao is a complex principle.  Tao means “road or “path”.  Philosophically, it is the “Way”, and for now, let us just say that it is about the way of living.  The classic Chinese text, Tao Te Ching, can be translated as “The Way and its Virtue.”

According to one scholar, the origins of the Tao Te Ching were “ideas from anonymous people (not intellectuals) of the 6th – 4th centuries BCE, probably including local elders (“lao-tsu”), possibly including women . . .” He mentions also that the early layers of the teachings emphasized “natural simplicity, harmony, ‘feminine’ behaviors”.  **

I am intrigued by the notion that women may have influenced the formation of these teachings.  The doctrine of Taoism has always showed a preference for feminine “behaviors”, and at times, it seems the Tao Te Ching is saying that the feminine is the purest form of life.

In ancient China, women were largely illiterate and subjugated.  Yet, there were periods in China’s history when Buddhist and Taoists movements welcomed women as both practitioners and leaders, and there were teachings (“Inner Alchemy”) specifically for women.

One modern woman, Ursula K. Le Guin, an American author known for her works in the genres of fantasy and science fiction, published a translation of the Tao Te Ching in 1998.  In an interview some years later, she said,

Lao Tzu feminized mysteries in a different way from anybody else.  These are not “feminine mysteries,” but he makes mystery itself a woman.  This is profound, this goes deep.  And the most mystical passages in the book are the most feminine.  This is something women need, I think, and long for, often without knowing it.  That’s undoubtedly one reason why all my life I’ve found the Tao de Ching so refreshing and empowering.”

This is something that everyone needs, and that everyone has.  Feminine energy (yin) is not separate from masculine energy (yang).  The feminine and the masculine give rise to each other; they are interdependent and universal.  Water and the earth symbolize feminine energy.  The feminine is soft, yielding, receptive, fluid, creative, intuitive, transformative, and nurturing.

The masculine is associated with activity, creativity, hardness, logic, and control.

tai-ji-symbol3As we seen in the tai ji symbol, yin and yang are enfolded within one another.  Every person has yin and yang energies.  For instance, I’d say Hillary Clinton has some significant yang energy, while her former opponent has too much.

In chapter 42, the Tao Te Ching says, “All things carry yin and embrace yang. They achieve harmony by balancing these energies.”  The best way of living is living in harmony with nature and each other, and the more we can harmonize the feminine and masculine within ourselves, the more effectively we can check compulsive and extreme behavior, the more we can counteract negative forces within the mind and even the body.

Gentleness is another quality of feminine energy, and in the film, Michael Moore points out that women are mostly non-violent.

“Women generally don’t shoot you,” he says.  “Unless you deserve it.”

– – – – – – – – – –

* Barbara E. Reed, “Taoism”, Women in World Religions, Ed. Arvind Sharma,  SUNY Press, 1987 162

** Russell Kirkland, Taoism: The Enduring Tradition, Psychology Press, 2004

Hillary Clinton photo: Wellesley College Archives

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Without Falsehood: Divining the Election with I Ching

Most people think of the I Ching as a method of fortune telling.  It’s known as The Oracle.  I don’t believe in divination, fortune telling, soothsaying – but I’ve found that if you use the I Ching as a philosophical text, as a book of wisdom, instead of divinations you discover illustrations or models of different ways of life, signposts to different directions.

I Ching consists of 64 gua or hexagrams, each one a combination of six broken or unbroken lines.  The text is made up of commentaries by Confucius and others on the Judgments, or decision, and the image (symbol) formed by the lines.

For a lark, the other afternoon I thought I would divine the election.  Usually, when I “consult” I Ching all I do is simply pick up a translation and read whatever is on the page I opened.  Occasionally, I used to meditate on a thought and then throw the sticks or coins.  It’s rarely a formal question that I have in my mind, but for this exercise, the question was “Who will win the 2016 Presidential election and what will it mean for the future of the United States?”  I tossed 3 coins six times and the lines corresponded to this hexagram:

wu-wang2Wu WangWithout Falsehood

Above:  Heaven, the creative, active

Below:  Thunder, movement, perilousness

Alfred Huang translates Wu Wang as Without Falsehood and says that it “literally means untruthful.”  John Blofeld translates it as Integrity, Richard John Lynn (translating Wang Bi’s interpretation) as No Errancy, and John Cleary (in The Buddhist I Ching) as No Error.

Huang writes, “This gua displays the wisdom of holding to the truth – that is, no matter how situations change, truthfulness never changes.  The ancient Chinese did not have a personal God; they submitted to the will of Heaven and resigned themselves to their fate.  They believed that to live and act in harmony with the will of Heaven was the nature and duty of humanity.”

The way of Heaven means the way of nature, and ideally, to be in harmony with the way of nature.

Falsehood seems an apt hexagram for this election.  We are sure that all politicians lie and according to Politico, this year voters must choose between a presidential candidate who lies every three minutes and 15 seconds, or one who lies every 12 minutes.

Yet, Wu Wang represents more than truthfulness.  Another definition is “a person’s prestige.”

The Judgment:  Without Falsehood.  Sublimely prosperous and smooth.  Favorable to be steadfast and upright.  If one’s intention is not truthful, there is trouble.  Unfavorable to go anywhere.

The Image:  Under the sky, thunder rolls; from it all things are accompanied by truthfulness and receive their integrity.  The ancient rulers, in accordance with this, nurtured myriad beings.

Here is Chih-hsu Ou-I’s interpretation (The Buddhist I Ching):

Judgment:  Freedom from error is very successful, beneficial for the upright.  Denial of what is correct is mistaken, so it will not be beneficial to go anywhere.

Commentary:  In politics, a government that restores well-being accords with the way of heaven and if free from error.  In Buddhism, a teaching that restores the true way is the same as the orthodox teachings and is free from error.  In contemplating mind, on returning to original essence, truth is found and confusion is ended, so one is free from error.  All of these are very successful, and beneficial for the upright.

But whether in worldly affairs or transcendental affairs, helping oneself and helping others, it is necessary to look deep into oneself to be sure one’s mind is free from aberration and one’s words and deeds are not mistaken.  If inwardly one denies what is correct, outwardly one will make mistakes; then one should certainly not go anywhere or do anything in this way.

One way to look at it is from the conventional or relative view, which seems to me rather pessimistic, that no matter who is elected President, the country is going to be in trouble.  The notion that it is not beneficial to go anywhere would seem to indicate that the country is not going to move forward, there will be more gridlock and almost certainly, more division.  That is, as long as our leaders remain with falsehood and out of harmony with nature.

There is another aspect of this view to consider and it relates to Lincoln’s words that the American government is “of the people, by the people, for the people.”  If we want better politicians, we need to be better citizens.  Too many of us are kind of lazy especially when it comes to learning about the issues.

i_ching_coins2 “To look deep into oneself” is ultimately about truth as a personal experience.  This kind of truth does not necessarily have to do with conformity with facts.  Maybe we could call it self-truth, or integrity, becoming men and women of principle, cultivating an ethical way of life.  It is, to some extent, what we mean when we talk about finding our true nature or original essence.  It is not separate from the realm of truth, but intersects with all truth.

John Blofeld’s interpretation of the commentary on Wu Wang (Integrity):

Those who do what is right win great success . . . Those opposed to righteousness will suffer and have nowhere favorable to go; for, without integrity, what remains for them?

The I Ching is known in English as “The Book of Changes” and because we can change, those without integrity can chose to develop it, and those with integrity can discover how it is beneficial to find harmony with one’s own truth and be without falsehood.

Read more posts about the I Ching here.

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Modesty: Earth Above, Mountain Below

The I Ching is a marvelous book, one of the oldest in the world.   I have mentioned before that it’s more than book of divination; it is philosophy, and poetry.

As the English title, “Book of Changes”, implies, the subject is change.  The text and commentary accompanying the sixty-four interrelated hexagrams at the heart of the book provide insight and guidance to help us work with the changes of life.  The hexagram text is attributed to King Wen (1150 BCE) and his son Duke Chou King Wen of Zhou, and the commentary to Confucius and his disciples.  There are countless other commentaries, interpretations, and translations.

qian1Let’s take a very brief look at Hexagram 15: qian, modesty or humbleness.

Alfred Huang’s translation (The Complete I Ching) reads,

The structure of this gua [hexagram] is Earth above, Mountain below.  Normally mountains are high and the Earth is low.  What makes a mountain a mountain is its standing high above the Earth.  In this gua, the mountain stands underneath the Earth.  This image represents a state of becoming humble.

The Commentary on the Appended Phrases (in The Classic of Changes by Wang Bi) reads,

qian0The Master said: “To be diligent yet not to brag about it, to have meritorious achievement yet not to regards its virtue, this is the ultimate of magnanimity.  This speaks of someone who takes his achievements and subordinates them to others.  As for his virtue, he would have it prosper ever more, and as for his decorum, he would it ever more respectful.  Modesty as such leads to perfect respect, and this is how one preserves his position.”

Qian is how virtue provides a handle to things.

Qian provides the means by which decorum exercises its control.

In Taoism and Buddhism, modesty or humbleness is a vital quality to develop.  Tibetan Buddhists value the idea of seeing oneself as lower than others.  But this can be misunderstood as depreciating ourselves, and humility is often seen as a sign of weakness.   But it is really about seeing ourselves and others as equal.  Another word for it might be respect, seeing everyone, and everything, as our teacher.

Finally, in the commentary on the I Ching by T’ien-t’ai priest Chih-hsu Ou-i (1599-1655), translated by Thomas Cleary in The Buddhist I Ching, we find these words,

In Buddhist terms, [qian] means taking from the mountain of infinite virtues of Buddhahood to add to the earth of sentient beings, realizing that all beings have the mountain of virtues of Buddhahood within them, assessing people’s potentials and what suits them, impartially giving out the bliss of Buddhahood, not letting anyone realize nirvana alone.

For buddhas and sages, modesty is a vital trait to cultivate because it is an antidote to pride, one of the five poisons, an affliction caused by self-cherishing and attachment to the notion of “I”.  Buddhas and sages know that modesty is a dharma door that opens not only to to a remarkable and contented life but also to the sublime greatness of altruism.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Complete I Ching, Trans. Alfred Huang, Inner Traditions International, 1998

The Classic of Changes A New Translation of the I Ching, Trans. Wang Bi, Columbia University Press, 1994

Chih-hsu Ou-i, The Buddhist I Ching (Chou i ch’an chieh), Trans. Thomas Cleary, Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1987

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