Trees, Taoism, and Bigots

Recently I saw a certain member of a religious group refer to non-religious people as a social burden. I won’t name names, but the man says he’s Catholic. He belongs to a league of similar followers. Figure it out yourself.

Anyway, this culty creep’s opinion is actually very revealing. He states people who are not religious – and his form of religion – are a burden. He’s pretty damn close to the Nazi idea of “useless eater,” which tells me he’s not just awful, he’s probably afraid of demographic changes towards the non-religious in America. He wants to classify people not like him as a burden, as “not useful.”

Well, not useful to him, because a lot of religious organizations are just about turning people into tools so the bigwigs end up in power. Calling someone “useless” or a “burden” says outright that people should be “useful” to others, like a tool. It also is close enough to saying “non-useful” people should be eliminated.

This reminds me of Taoist tales of trees, and why “usefulness” is highly overrated. In Taoist lore I’ve encountered multiple tales of trees that are relevant to how people view each other. Let’s go into the two I’m familiar with, both of which I encountered in some form in the Chuang Tzu but have heard other variants.

First up is the tale of a carpenter and his apprentice. Seeing a tree, the carpenter comments how absolutely useless the tree is to he, the carpenter, so twisted and knotted and so on he couldn’t do anything with it. After they returned home, the spirit of the tree came to the carpenter and notes that it grew to be so old just because it was useless. The carpenter told his apprentice the experience.

I love this story because it notes that being useful means people may not just use you but use you up – but being useless may mean you live long.

The second tale involves a weird tree which is also useless due to it’s wood (sometimes it has giant useless leaves or huge but foul and inedible nuts). However one of the characters notes that the tree is actually quite useful – you plant it and you get lots of shade. Other stories may include parts of the tree – the weird leaves make great umbrellas, or the nut shells are big enough to use as a small boat.

I like this story because it notes that sometimes just leaving something alone may let you enjoy it as well. The tree is “useful” because you don’t try to use it.

These are great stories because they make you ask what is the use of usefulness? If it kills you off, what good is it? If just being is good, you’re valued but not used. We’d all be better off appreciating whats there (and less likely to destroy it).

I’m all for social cohesion and social responsibility. But turning people into tools, trying to constantly rank who’s “useful” means no cohesion, no responsibility, and eventually no society. We need to appreciate uselessness.

It also disarms people like the aforementioned bigots. It reminds us when someone starts talking how “useless” people are, how they’re “a burden” they’re not caring about people. They want us to be their tools.

Also, they’re assholes.


Building The Ecosystem

When I returned to my spiritual practices after a too-long break, I found it was hard to put things in their proper “place.” I’d be interrupted in my practice, distracted, and interrupted by things that were irrelevant. Nothing like deciding to get back to really deep spiritual activity then getting incredibly pissed about things like getting your chore schedule in order.

Reflecting on past experiences and interests, I came to the realization that a lot of spiritual practices (theistic, non-theistic, humorous, etc.) involve a mental ecosystem. Meditations, magic, correspondences, and so on align with your job, ethics, and perhaps even furniture placement (hello feng shui?). Your spiritual work of whatever kind really makes progress when your life ties together.

In my own work, which is informed by a mix of Taoism and syncretic practices, I took the following activities:

  • I read a few passages from one of my copies of the Tao Te Ching each night. The TTC is a philosophical document, and it led me to think about my life and my activities.
  • I read about one of the Hexagrams of the I Ching each night from some of the books in my library. The I Ching is deeply tied to many Chinese philosophies, and many commentaries and interpretations add even more thought. It’s mix of the cosmic and the human help me think bigger.
  • I continue my usual devotional/religious work around chosen gods, but think about how I embody them and why they matter to me. Where do I fit into the big picture and all these organic processes?
  • I ask questions about my media consumption and relaxation. Ironically it seems the answer is “I probably need more.”

In about a month I’ve found my viewpoints changing. My spiritual activities aren’t alien to my life or vice versa, but the two are more connected. I’m getting a “bigger picture” sense of what I’m doing. It’s also nothing self-aggrandizing, it’s more everyday things like how I lead at work or what I eat (chocolate,pizza, burritos – the signs I’m stressed).

And it’s all some reading, contemplation, and regular activities that help tie my life together into the bigger picture. It’s honestly nothing special, it’s probably something most anyone does to one extent or another. It’s just conscious on my part, with my fascination of using myself as a kind of laboratory.

I’ll doubtlessly write more on this. But if you’re finding your spiritual work and life don’t line up, consider how you can align yourself a little more. Some reading, regular thought about issues, some schedules, might help you connect the dots.

Nothing major here. Just a few observations from someone else on the path.


The Mournful Monk

Mystics like myself face some deep questions when it comes to the use of violence. This is understandable as we’re people who take a connected view of reality. When you start severing connections, you have some things to deal with.

Violence is a blunt instrument, and history – and oft experience – teaches us it’s limits. Scorched earth, mourning families, and societies falling into punitive revenge as a method of “justice.” We also know the personal effects, from coping with loss to people who become addicted to the high of anger and revenge. It’s easy to see why many a philosopher and mystic has said “hey, people, let’s lay off all the killing.”

At the same time, like it or not, violence can be the answer. There are times it’s the best tool, or the only tool left, to deal with some pretty horrible situations. Whatever the fallout, sometimes it seems not using force is the worse option. Violence may not solve problems, but it can sure as hell delay them, decrease them, or give you time for better solutions.

This area has often troubled me, but something that helped me make sense of it comes from Buddhist tale.

The story has different forms, but essentially it takes place in “older times” where a Buddhist monk is on a boat crossing a river with various passengers. A man (sometimes a madman) begins threatening people with a knife, obviously going to kill people. The monk cracks the man over the head with an oar, killing him. When the surprised people interrogate the monk, he simply and sadly notes that the now-dead man would have created a lot of bad karma, and he was being merciful.

It’s one of those koan-like tales, with stunning contrasts make you think. Is it more merciful to use violence at times? You may actually prevent someone from leaving a horrific legacy (karma). It’s violence for the sake of compassion.

As I think of this tale further, the monk did not posture or brag or even accept praise. His action was part of his practice, albeit an extreme part – he reduced suffering and potential suffering in the world. He did not take on a career of vigilantism or seek vengeance on the allies or friends or neighbors of the man he killed. Violence was a tool, not his personality – he kept being a monk.

Violence that prevented worse and that was done in a way that didn’t corrupt the committer nor those around him.

This further reminds me of Taoist teachings that recommend against glorifying violence, displays of weaponry, and taking a cautious, mournful approach (and some would argue, more covert means). Violence may be needed, but you can avoid the trap of getting really into it. Violence can be addictive, and it can become all of your personality, as we’ve oft seen in history, from people to countries.

This story and these thoughts have helped me understand violence in context of a more mystical view. It may be necessary, but should never be the goal. It should be something that you use to prevent worse, not glorified. Finally, make sure it doesn’t change who you are into something worse by doing it for what you hope are the right reasons. It’s an approach that takes a more connected approach to the world and our hard questions.

I admit in the world at this time it may seem naive. But having seen how people will fight for what they care about, and how violence corrupts those who do not care, it’s something to think about. It also means you may act in ways violence-inclined people can’t comprehend – the monk’s target never saw him coming, after all.