Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Rick's Take on Daoism

I wrote the following several years ago. While I might express things a bit differently now, I stand by it.

Guide to Practical Daoism
By Rick Matz

A lot of people seem look to Daoism for a justification for their “doing what they want.” That’s probably not what Daoism is about at all. Daoism has everything to do with order. "The way things work."

Philosophy isn’t about idle speculation over a cup of tea. It has to do with real life. These ideas aren’t airy concepts, but are rooted in our lives. The Daoist isn’t blown about by the random forces of life. He makes choices, with a clear idea of the consequences. He understands the order in nature, especially human nature. Order, choice, and responsibility for those choices.

There is much talk in Daoism about Yin and Yang, and that they must be kept in balance. It’s a dynamic balance, however. The world is forever changing, and today’s formula for putting our lives in balance doesn’t necessarily apply to tomorrow. There is no magic bullet. Once you “get it,” that doesn’t mean that you’ll always have green lights, or, that you won’t have to rotate your tires. “Getting it” doesn’t mean you can kick back and goof off because everything is going to to your way from now on. The Taoist is constantly observing and adjusting.

“Your way.” That’s the flaw in thinking. That’s an erroneous idea people have about religions and philosophies. Some people feel that a religion or philosophy should adapt to whatever it is that the individual wants to do. This is backwards. To be an effective philosophy, a person should manage their life according the the precepts of that philosophy. We may each be the center of our own universe, but we are not the center of THE universe.

Daoism is an alternative scientific method. It is a scientific method that is meant to deal with the whole of things, and not just their physics. Nature, as well as human nature is included as well. It must be included, because human nature colors every aspect of our lives. A science of how to prepare strategies to live our lives.

A Daoist does everything with a purpose. Even their stillness and quietness is purposeful.

Basically, Daoism deals with ends and means. We are asked to look to nature when considering these ends and means. What is meant by 'nature'? How things grow and wither. Cause and effect. Succession. And, as the Dao De Ching teaches, "reversion".

The Four Seasons gently succeed each other. A rapid change is a storm, and is often violent and destructive. But, extremes tend to balance out over time.

The I Ching, which is supposed to be an oracle, really has little to do with divination/fortune telling. It can be a very sophisticated system of analysis and evaluation.

When considering a question, a hexagram is thrown. This hexagram has to be considered line by line. Starting at the bottom line, how does this Yin, Yang, moving Yin, or moving Yang line apply to the problem? After all six lines are considered, they have to be taken in pairs. How do the Earth, Man, and Heaven pairs reflect on the question? Then the upper and lower trigrams have to be compared and reconciled to the problem. Finally, the whole hexagram itself.

By the time this exercise has been completed, it doesn’t matter what the book says, the analyst has turned the problem over and over again. If there are moving lines, this can be repeated with the resultant hexagram. The book is just a strawman for the analyst to use as a starting point in the evaluation.

Finally the hexagrams should be considered with respect to the four seasons - what is the nature of how things change?

By the time the analyst has completed all of this, he thoroughly understands the problem, and answers should start suggesting themselves.

The ends we wish to attain should be tempered by the advice we receive from nature as well. What is high will become low. What is new, ages. You can desire to attain anything you want, but be aware of the consequences.

It’s OK to choose to “live large.” It’s OK, but there are costs and obligations. Do you want these obligations? The Daoist doesn’t just look at the first order effects; he looks at the second and third order effects as well.

In the classic, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the help Liu Pei entreats the Taoist Wizard Chuku Liang (Zhuge Liang) three times to join his group, and advise him. Why is ZL reluctant? He was content to live a quiet life on his farm. He really had to consider what he was about to embark upon. He had to be convinced of Liu PEI’s sincerity, and there was also a psychological strategy involved, as there always is - every time ZL said ‘no’ he became more important in LP’s eyes.

The Tao Te Ching, the Inner Chapters of Chuang Tzu, and the I Ching are not the only Daoist texts. There are many other famous and important ones we tend to overlook - The Art of War, and the other strategy books of that genre are all deeply rooted in Daoism.

The Four Seasons change, but who can say when Spring becomes Summer (ignoring the Solstice)? The changes are gradual, and there is a lesson there. A sudden change is a storm, and is often violent and destructive (however, Yin contains within it, the seed of Yang - the destruction of a forest fire brings along with it the conditions for new growth). This Winter was like the previous Winters, but it was also a unique instance. We can look to the past for lessons, but we must live each unique moment.

Each season must be experienced in turn. Without Winter, there would be no Spring.

What is meant by the Three Essentials: Earth, Man, and Heaven? Here’s an example:

You are in a situation in a bar that might turn ugly.

First, Earth. Is the place brightly lit, or is it dark? Is it crowded, and tightly packed, or is it pretty open? Is the floor covered with peanut shells, or would you have good footing? Further - in the sense of prepositioning, are you seated where you can see the exits? Are you in the main traffic area, or out of the way, where no on can see you?

Man - is your assailant drunk or high (remember, a drunk can sober up quickly sometimes)? Does he seem fit? Does he have friends around? Do you? What is your condition?

Heaven - mostly psychology. Is he showing off for friends? Did he break up with a girl friend? What’s the reason?

The Earth concept above is about positioning. Actually, the Taoist takes it a step further, and considers the pre-positioning aspect; do I even want to go into that place in the first place? The Taoist plays the percentages.

You can apply the concepts of the Three Essentials to everyday life. The Taoist is forever positioning, and pre-positioning; doing things that give them the greatest number of options, and the greatest leverage.

This is about order; but order without rigidity. Think guidelines, and flexible bounds. If order leads to rigidity, that is a trap; a trap to be avoided. Planning is essential, but so is the understanding that no amount of planning is perfect or complete. There will always be unforeseen and unforeseeable circumstances, and one must be flexible enough to allow for that. While the Taoist may play the percentages, that doesn’t mean the calculated risk or gambit is ruled out.

There is a famous episode in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, where ZL has occupied a city, and has only a very small force with him. He is surprised to learn that an opponent is nearby with a huge army, and is headed his way. What ZL does, is to throw open the city gates, and make certain he is seen on the city walls, relaxing and playing his lute. The opposing general sees this, and is shaken. ZL is always thoroughly prepared. This must be a trap, he thinks. He takes his army and leaves the scene immediately.

A Daoist finds freedom in order, as Mozart was able to express freedom in the established 'sense' or forms of music he wrote. An 'order' without sense is of as much use as chaos. It might even be more harmful. . Randomness is entropy, hence death. Daoism is about life.

Spontaneity only makes sense in the context of order. To be spontaneous is to step outside of order. To have nothing to step outside of, is chaos. The Taoist uses order, but is not confined by it; and, because he is not confined by it, he has the ability to be spontaneous.

The Daoist seeks to understand the first principles, and extrapolate them to accommodate any situation. The Daoist prefers simplicity to complexity, because it is easier to manage. If the Daoist must choose complexity, it is with both eyes open, and understanding that the greater the complexity, the farther reaching the unintended consequences. The Daoist prefers relaxation, because unnecessary tension is inefficient and wasteful. The Daoist believes in preparation, because to be prepared is both efficient and gives one the ability to handle affairs when they are small; before they get out of hand.

The Daoist looks for the greatest leverage and options. This is true in the questions he asks and how he approaches them. When considering a career, a Daoist might ask themselves: "where do I want to live? What sort of lifestyle do I want to have? What would it take to support that?" Of course there is a most telling question as well - "Why do I want this?"

We all find ourselves running faster and faster to keep up. A very good book on time is - 'The Art of Time' by Jean-Louis Servan-Schreiber. It is mercifully a slim book. You can easily read easily in an afternoon, between all of your obligations. In it, he touches the secret of time management - you have time for what you love. You have to love everything that you do, and that is exactly what a Daoist does. You don’t have the time to do everything, so you must choose wisely.

Daoist attempts to do what is achievable, and doesn’t expend energy on what is not.

The Daoist and technology? The Daoist is happy to use technology, where it is appropriate, but doesn’t allow the technology to become a crutch. We know how easily it is to become addicted to one’s email, or to surfing the internet. The Daoist will happily use any tool at hand, but will not become dependent upon it.

Wu Wei - Doing nothing. Action through Inaction. More like doing nothing which is of no use. There is also the idea from Sun Tzu - the highest victory is to defeat the opponents plans before they are formed. In the Dao De Ching it is to solve problems while they are small and manageable. I think “Doing Nothing” is more a metaphor - doing the right things early, to apply the greatest leverage.

Of course “Doing nothing” can be applied literally as well. How many times is it better to let an event run its course, and resolve itself, rather than be engaged? Willfully doing nothing is a choice as well, together with responsibilities.

I had an episode at home recently which serves as a counter example. We decided to do some landscaping at the spur of the moment. What we had in mind turned out to be a much bigger job that we first thought. Because it wasn’t planned, I found that there was a lot of extra shuffling around that needed to be done.

If I had planned, I would have realized the enormity of the job I was taking on. I would have planned the steps that needed to be done, and the job would have gone much smoother, with less effort, in less time.

The Daoist can lead a life that can seem effortless because it is well ordered. He can appear to be spontaneous because he has a solid framework in which to live.

De - Virtue. The virtue of something is what it is, and what it does. The Daoist sees things and people for what they are, and doesn’t attribute to them any extra good (or bad) features. A person of virtue is simply himself, without affectation. This is counter to those who thinkDTaoism or Zen is being eccentric. (Or worse yet, those who adopt either to 'be' eccentric.) There is nothing eccentric about being one’s authentic self. To be without affectation is to be the “uncarved block.”

Sunday, June 24, 2007

2nd Anniversary of Cook Ding's Kitchen

The 25th of June is the second anniversary of Cook Ding's Kitchen. I will be busy at work all week, and working late, so I wanted to make a post for the occasion, tonight.

Daoism is many things, but pretty much everyone would agree that the Daoist studies nature, and tries to take away some lessons from the working of nature. Nature works efficiently, and so the Daoist comes to admire skill; especially skillful living.

The story of Cook Ding, from Zhang Zi (Chuang Tzu) is to me, all about skill in one's daily living. The story that started this blog is below. Enjoy.

Prince Huei's cook was cutting up a bullock. Every blow of his hand, every heave of his shoulders, every tread of his foot, every thrust of his knee, every whshh of rent flesh, every clink of the chopper, was in perfect rhythm — like the dance of the Mulberry Grove, like the harmonious chords of Ching Shou.

"Well done!" cried the Prince. "Yours is skill indeed!"

"Sire," replied the cook laying down his chopper, "I have always devoted myself to Tao, which is higher than mere skill. When I first began to cut up bullocks, I saw before me whole bullocks. After three years' practice, I saw no more whole animals. And now I work with my mind and not with my eye. My mind works along without the control of the senses. Falling back upon eternal principles, I glide through such great joints or cavities as there may be, according to the natural constitution of the animal. I do not even touch the convolutions of muscle and tendon, still less attempt to cut through large bones.

"A good cook changes his chopper once a year — because he cuts. An ordinary cook, one a month — because he hacks. But I have had this chopper nineteen years, and although I have cut up many thousand bullocks, its edge is as if fresh from the whetstone. For at the joints there are always interstices, and the edge of a chopper being without thickness, it remains only to insert that which is without thickness into such an interstice. Indeed there is plenty of room for the blade to move about. It is thus that I have kept my chopper for nineteen years as though fresh from the whetstone.

"Nevertheless, when I come upon a knotty part which is difficult to tackle, I am all caution. Fixing my eye on it, I stay my hand, and gently apply my blade, until with a hwah the part yields like earth crumbling to the ground. Then I take out my chopper and stand up, and look around, and pause with an air of triumph. Then wiping my chopper, I put it carefully away."

"Bravo!" cried the Prince. "From the words of this cook I have learned how to take care of my life."

ZhuangZi (Lin YuTang)

Friday, June 22, 2007


When my oldest daughter was a senior in high school, I ended up with homework from one of her classes. They were studying Hamlet in English. When they got to the part where Polonius was giving his son Laertes advice before going off into the world, the teacher had the idea that the students' parents should write letters to them, giving them advice as they too were about to go out into the world.

What follows is what I wrote. I added a few things, but it is essentially the same letter that I wrote to my daughter.

Never lose sight of what's important in life: Your family and friends, your health. Everything else is just icing on the cake. Even if the world is falling apart around you, keep a calm mind, take a deep breath, think clearly, and move forward.

Money isn't everything. It's more important to enjoy what you're doing, and the people with whom you work, after you've attained your basic needs. Live within your means. Save money. Don't be a slave to the things you own. When you get a job that offers you a 401k plan, put as much into it as you possibly can, as soon as you are able. That initial funding will have the greatest contribution to your comfort and lifestyle when you want to retire.

You can't play it safe all the time. Sometimes you have to take risks. When you take a risk however, be prepared to lose what you set at stake.

Don't be afraid to make mistakes. That's how you learn. Take responsibility for your errors, pick up the pieces, learn the lesson, and move on. Don't dwell on the past. It's tough enough to make a future for yourself without carrying along any extra baggage.

Say less than you need to. Action speaks louder than words. This is especially true when you are around kids. You'll be better known to people through your actions, rather than what you say. More accurately: by how well what you do and what you say you'll do square up with one another.

Little things, which require such little effort makes a huge difference to other people. Do those little things for other people.

We create most of our own problems. It's usually in the way we want to look at things, and how we choose to understand them. When you have a problem, study how you think about that problem. This little exercise won't make the problem go away, but you'll understand it much better, and stand a greater chance of finding a way to solve it.

No one can predict the future with certainty. Keep your options open, so when the unexpected happens, you’ll still come out on top.

Keep an open mind. The first report of any event is usually not very accurate. You don't always have the final piece of information. Anyone who retells a story will do so with his own bias. Hope and desire cloud observation. How good is your data?

Don’t be in an unnatural rush to draw conclusions. Having a deadline is one thing, but otherwise don’t be in a hurry. Turn the situation around and slice it from as many angles as you can. Set it aside and return to it. You may not find an answer, but you might find something more powerful – understanding.

Consider your conclusions to be tentative, until further information becomes available. When you have to make decisions, do so with the best information you have available to you at the time, and have no regrets.

It’s ok to change your mind.

Many times we are swept up by events over which we have no control or influence. The best thing we can do is to look at the options we have within our grasp, formulate the best Plan B we can, and just grind it out.

When you're making your plans, don't forget that others are making plans too. Imagine yourself in the other guy’s shoes. What would he be doing? What would be in his best interests? Imagine all of your assumptions be flipped around.

You can only do the work. You can't guarantee outcomes. Sometimes the outcomes will surprise you. This is especially true when dealing with people.

Sometimes the best strategy you can take is to simply stand aside and let events unfold on their own.

You make the life you live.

Discipline is remembering what you want.

Understand the difference between a mystery and a puzzle. A puzzle can be solved. A mystery can only be framed. We waste a lot of time and energy trying to come up with answers to questions, and solutions to problems, that simply can’t be solved; they can only be framed. Be also aware that sometimes things change, and what was once unsolvable may no longer be so.

"Speed" is quite often an illusion.

The Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

I read a book once on time management. It was a slim little book full of little tips and tricks on how to get organized, and get things done. At the end of the book, the author says that all the little tips and tricks are well and good, but have you ever noticed that if there is anything that you truly love to do, you find the time? The key is to do the things you love, and only those things. The problem is that life seems to constantly be finding things you don't especially like for you to do. If I understand this author correctly, you have to find a way to love even those things you don't especially like to do.

That's a hard concept to grasp. Hang on to that concept. Struggle with it. It's profound. Your mind will open.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Dao De Jing, Chapter #22: Home

I just flew back from Orlando, and boy, are my arms tired! My daughter played in a big volleyball tournament in Florida, and we just got back.

The best part of any trip is coming home.

The kitchen has been neglected, so I thought it was due for a post.

If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to an online version of the Chinese classic, the Dao De Jing. This is chapter 22. Enjoy.

Chapter 22: Home

Accept and you become whole,
Bend and you straighten,
Empty and you fill,
Decay and you renew,
Want and you acquire,
Fulfill and you become confused.

The sage accepts the world
As the world accepts the Way;
He does not display himself, so is clearly seen,
Does not justify himself, so is recognized,
Does not boast, so is credited,
Does not pride himself, so endures,
Does not contend, so none contend against him.

The ancients said, "Accept and you become whole",
Once whole, the world is as your home.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Chinese demand drives global deforestation

This is an excerpt from an article I found at Yahoo. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the full article.

Chinese demand drives global deforestation

By Tansa MusaSun Jun 10, 7:46 PM ET

From outside, Cameroon's Ngambe-Tikar forest looks like a compact, tangled mass of healthy emerald green foliage.

But tracks between the towering tropical hardwood trees open up into car park-sized clearings littered with logs as long as buses.

Forestry officers say the reserve is under attack from unscrupulous commercial loggers who work outside authorized zones and do not respect size limits in their quest for maximum financial returns.

"I lack words to describe what is going on here," says Richard Greine, head of the local forestry post, 350 km (220 miles) north of Cameroon's capital Yaounde.

"Both illegal and authorized exploiters have staged a hold-up on the forest."

From central Africa to the Amazon basin and Indonesia's islands, the world's great forests are being lost at an annual rate of at least 13 million hectares (32 million acres) -- an area the size of Greece or Nicaragua.

The timber business is worth billions of dollars annually, and experts say few industries that size are as murky as the black market in wood.

Evidence of rampant deforestation around the globe points in one direction: booming demand in China, where economic growth is fuelling a timber feeding frenzy.

In just the past decade, China has grown from importing wood products for domestic use to become the world's leading exporter of furniture, plywood and flooring.

Chinese firms might not be chopping down the trees themselves, but their insatiable appetite is driving up prices, spurring loggers to open more tracks like those torn through Ngambe-Tikar and drawing huge global investment to the companies.


In Mande village on the fringe of the Cameroon jungle, Pierre, a hunter dressed in tattered shorts and T-shirt, does not know that more than half his country's original forest cover has been cut down in his lifetime.

But he knows the local eco-system has been ravaged.

Once upon a time, wild animals would sometimes stroll right into his compound. "These days you don't see any. They don't fall into our traps anymore. You need to go very far, deep in the forest to see or catch one," he tells Reuters.

As usual, it is the poorest who pay.

In nearby Democratic Republic of Congo, the lure of timber wealth has seen loggers accused of cheating villagers with deals activists say are a "shameful relic of colonial times."

A two-year investigation by Greenpeace accused companies, mostly from Germany, Portugal, Belgium, Singapore and the United States, of illegally acquiring titles to about 15 million hectares (37 million acres) of Congolese rainforest after a 2002 moratorium.

In return for small gifts such as farm tools, bags of salt and cases of beer, the firms won logging rights worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, the probe found.

The biggest target of the loggers is Afromosia, or African teak, which can sell for hundreds of dollars a cubic meter.

Locals in one village, Lamoko, Greenpeace says, gave away thousands of hectares for presents worth only about $20,000.

Depressingly similar accusations mar the logging industry in Brazil, home to most of the Amazon basin -- the planet's largest remaining tropical rainforest.


About a fifth of Brazil's Amazon has already been destroyed, and Chinese demand for commodities such as iron ore, bauxite and especially soy, has been a big factor in pushing the country's agricultural frontier further north.

Most illegal logging is done by Brazilians, either poor migrants from the dry northeast or cattle ranchers and soy farmers coming in from the south.

The government has long been criticized for deforestation and has a very public policy of stopping illegal clearing and slowing clearing rates overall. But the frontier area is very remote, and police are underfunded, disorganized and often corrupt.

Spinning the globe further west, the problem is perhaps even more acute in Indonesia.

Without drastic action, the United Nations says, 98 percent of its remaining forests will be gone by 2022, with dire consequences for local people and wildlife, including endangered rhinos, tigers and orangutans.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Tang Dynasty Poems, #23: A BOAT IN SPRING ON RUOYA LAKE

The Tang Dynasty was a Golden Age of Culture in China. Art, especially Poetry, was revered.
During the Tang Dynasty, no occasion was too small or mundane to merit a poem. I mentioned this to a friend once, who responded, "what a lovely way to live."
Thinking about yesterday's post, maybe we could learn something from them.
If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to an online version of the famous anthology, The 300 Tang Dynasty Poems.
If not poetry, maybe we should take a page from the Ming Dynasty scholar, Li Ri Hua who said:
One should clean out a room in one's home and place only a tea table and a chair in the room with some boiled water and fragrant tea. Afterwards, sit salutarily and allow one's spirit to become tranquil, light, and natural.
Qiwu Qian

Thoughtful elation has no end:
Onward I bear it to whatever come.
And my boat and I, before the evening breeze
Passing flowers, entering the lake,
Turn at nightfall toward the western valley,
Where I watch the south star over the mountain
And a mist that rises, hovering soft,
And the low moon slanting through the trees;
And I choose to put away from me every worldly matter
And only to be an old man with a fishing-pole.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Office Space

I'm just rambling here. I've observed something, and I've had some thoughts about it.

A consistant topic of conversation with people around my own age lately, has been weariness of the rat race. People have been talking about this all along, but what strikes me is that the topic seems to be in the forefront of everyone's mind all at the same time. I have probably heard more references to the movie, Office Space, in the last two weeks; than I have in the past five years.

This isn't a new phenomenon. Thoreau wrote, over 150 years ago, that the "great mass of men lead lives of quiet desparation."

We all really live in Office Space. Now what? We can make a career or lifestyle change, hoping that that, something external, can bring us happiness. That's a huge gamble. It would take a huge amount of energy to break the gravitational pull of the status quo. You have no basis to believe that whatever change you're comtemplating is going to make you any happier than you are right now.

We can also do something perhaps even more difficult, approach this from the inside, and change the way we think.
Last month in the Smithsonian magazine, there was a good article on the difference between puzzles and mysteries, and the importance of knowing the difference.

Puzzle have answers and can be solved. Mysteries have no answers and can only be framed. Sometimes, with new information or technology, a mystery can become a puzzle, but that's not the point here.

I think much of the unhappiness felt by my peers is that they feel there is a specific answer to this existential crisis regarding work; and the unhappiness only mounts because they can't figure it out. We want a cut and dried answer, and there isn't one. We feel inadequate because we can't quite get it, and this only makes it all worse.
In fact, this isnt' a puzzle at all. It's a mystery.

I don't think to simply acquiesce is necessarily what we would want to do. We must accept the reality of our situation, and understand that no amount of daydreaming is going to do anything but make us more unhappy. Who among us would seriously consider the drastic change in lifestyle that walking away would entail? We truly do want to have our cake and eat it too.

The protagonist in Office Space loved to watch reruns of the old Kung Fu tv series. Maybe there's some wisdom Master Po can provide us that will get us through today? We have to be somewhere and we have to be doing something.

"Listen for the color of the sky. Look for the sound of the hummingbird's wings. Search the air for the perfume of ice on a hot day. If you have found these things, you will know." -Master Po

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Japanese Language Study

If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to a website entitled Tim's Takamatsu.

Once there, you'll find all sorts of resources for Japanese Language Study. The owner, Tim Matheson, has written a book, Japanese Verbs: Saying What You Mean, which is available at Amazon: