Bill Hulet Editor

Here's the thing. A lot of important Guelph issues are really complex. And to understand them we need more than "sound bites" and knee-jerk ideology. The Guelph Back-Grounder is a place where people can read the background information that explains why things are the way they are, and, the complex issues that people have to negotiate if they want to make Guelph a better city. No anger, just the facts.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Weekend Literary Supplement: "Digging Your Own Well", Part Nineteen


A lot of people make a big deal about so-and-so being a “Master” or even a “Grand Master”. At best, this is based on allegiance to a specific school or teaching. At worst it manifests itself in the silly school-yard mentality of “my master can whip your master”. Most of this can be ultimately traced to the human predisposition towards tribalism. It's also a manifestation of the idea that “Old Tymey” things are better than “New Fangled”, and that “secret hidden teachings” have been handed down through generations of mystic teachers. Some of this is understandable as people need to have some respect for the experience of their teachers and also have to take some stuff “on faith” before they gain enough personal experience to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff. Unfortunately, far too many people take this impulse way too far and as a result folks---both teachers and students---fall into the trap of “guru worship”.

Guru worship is a really bad idea. For students, it dramatically diminishes their ability to think for themselves. As a result, they stop being critical not only about what the actions of their teacher, but also of what they are learning. Beyond all the unhealthy interpersonal dynamics, this dramatically reduces one's ability to learn. Just think about how well the average high school student could learn something like math or chemistry if they lost the ability to critically evaluate what they were doing. They'd be fine at copying the work that the teacher wrote on the blackboard, but they'd be useless at applying the theory to a particular new example.

That's because they need to look at a novel application of general theory by looking at it from different points of view. “What if I?---No, that won't work because---.” The ability to think critically is like a muscle. If you stop using it in one part of your life, it atrophies in all the others. Perhaps this is why in any given class the very best students tend to be smart asses, whereas the “goody two-shoes” are usually mediocre. This is because as a student you don't really know enough to be able to tell the difference between what you think the “Master” wants you to learn and what she may actually want you to learn. The only way to tell the difference is to critically evaluate what you think you were taught and if you find a problem, take that back to her. And this process not only looks like you are questioning the value of a teaching, it always holds the possibility that that's exactly what's going on. This is a scary prospect for someone who is worshipping a guru.

Teachers who assume the rank of “worshipped guru” also suffer. This happens because almost inevitably they end up “believing their own advertising”. No matter how much you try to remind yourself that you really aren't the enlighted, groovy, saint that your students think you are, inevitably you start taking their adulation for granted. At best this means that you will stop learning from your own mistakes and the insights of others. At worst you exploit your followers and start collecting Rolls Royces and “cute young things”. So truth be told, not only should students run from teachers who call themselves “Masters”, but teachers should run from students who call them that too.


“The man makes the art, the art doesn't make the man,” sums up one part of the problem pretty well. Daoism is not about creating a specific type of person that is an immediately recognizable “known quantity”---like army basic training. Instead, it is about engaging with an alternative viewpoint of life in order to develop your best qualities as an individual. This creates a problem with people who have an idealized vision of “Mastery” because it actually encourages them to totally submerge their individuality to the absolute, grooviness of the guru they worship. That's pretty much the exact opposite of what Daoism is all about.


Sometimes people come up with lineage charts (like the pedigree charts that animal breeders use) that link teachers who were taught by other teachers, who were taught by other teachers back to the totally, ultimately grooviest teachers. For example, I have a copy of one of these things that links the guys who initiated me into a temple all the way back to Laozi and Gautama Buddha. Of course, this is total poppy-cock. Historians have pointed out that these sorts of transmission chains fall apart when you look at them in detail. There are always gaps in “transmission” from one person to another. The role they serve, in actual fact, is to raise the credibility of the guy in front of you and to stop you from thinking for yourself. After all, “what I am saying comes all the way from Laozi and the Buddha---who are you to question me?”


The only way in which being called a “Master” makes sense is the same way it is used with regard to the skilled trades or university degrees. Traditionally, a “Master” craftsman was the culmination of a process that started with an apprentice and moved through journeyman. The journeyman was someone who has passed their apprenticeship and was therefore qualified to work on a jobsite without any supervision. But they weren't qualified to teach apprentices or run their own shop. The difference comes down to how deep one's theoretical understanding of the craft had become. Part of the process involved having to create a “master work” that showed that a person understood their craft so well that they could design and craft something spectacular that is very different from anything else that had been done before. This theoretical understanding was necessary for the Master's ability to articulate and explain the craft to customers and future generations of apprentices alike.

In a similar manner, the “Master's” and “Doctorate” degrees at university were originally designated to identify people who were qualified to teach at the university level. Originally, the Master's degree was supposed to be for people who specialized in teaching and the Doctorate for those who were more research oriented. More recently, the former has become a stepping stone towards the latter---although you will still find people teaching at universities with just a Masters degree and people in Phd programs without a Master's. Again, the difference between post-graduate and baccalaureate degrees comes down to the ability of a person to produce a “Master work” (ie a thesis) and the ability to teach future generations.


To become a Master electrician or to get a Master's degree from a university there is a formal process that results in a piece of paper that has a certain value all over the world. For example, I have a Master's degree from the University of Guelph. Since Canadian public universities are considered quite good by the community of scholars, this degree is recognized all over the world. In the same way, a Master's electrician license has a certain objective value.

No similar ranking system exists for “Daoist Masters”. There is a system in China for ranking people at Daoist Temples, but the fact of the matter is that very high ranking officials are appointed by the government, and they appoint the others---which means that the Communist Party of China has the ultimate say in who is who in official Daoist circles. This situation has pretty much always been the case, as the big Temples like White Cloud or Wudang Shan were important cultural treasures and as such of importance to the government---be it Mongol, Ming, Manchu, or, Communist. Moreover, the Daoist world was split into different sects: Quanzhen, Zhengyi Dao, Maoshan, and many others.1 “Credentials” issued at one school had about as much value as a theology degree from Bob Jones University has at the Vatican.

Ultimately, the people who identify someone as a Daoist “Master” are the people who are willing to call him one. That's why some folks go to great lengths to promote themselves as “Masters”. They invent lineage charts, talk about mysterious groovy guys that have taught them and handed down mysterious “secret teachings”, wear outlandish clothing, etc. This is really campaigning for students to vote for their ascention to the position of groovy Master. Once you get a certain degree of support you can get your already existing supporters to do some or all of the campaigning for you, which makes the promotion a little less obvious. If you really hit the jackpot, you can create an entire institution with paid staff and buildings who can continue the promotion even after you are dead and gone. That's how a Temple gets built.

But for anyone who is interested in learning Daoism it all boils down to “yah pays your money, yah makes your choices.” People who like being groovy Masters don't like to admit this fact, but that is really what it's all about.

1At this point in time the Communist government has forced all different types of religious Daoists to register either as Quanzhen or Zhengyi styles. This is more than a little bit of a “procrustean bed”.


Moreover I say unto you, the Climate Emergency must be dealt with!