Thursday, October 13, 2016
So, returning to my suggested list of alternative virtues that I offered earlier, it seems to me that most of them seem to be covered by Lao-Tzu's three treasures. For example, I asked about honesty. Well, that's one of the synonyms for simplicity. How about kindness? Compassion's got it covered. Moderation? Simplicity expresses it. Generosity? Both simplicity and compassion cover it. And so on.
So one might conclude that Lao-Tzu's three treasures of simplicity, patience, and compassion do provide a very good list of virtues that one may practice. When I look at my own behavior in light of these three treasures, I realize how they've long served as beacons for me, and I believe them to be excellent virtues to acquire or practice. My first reaction, when looking in the mirror, is to examine myself to see which one I fall most short on, and thus need the most work on. Patience is the one that usually calls for my extra effort. (Ask my wife.)
I also think that these three treasures can be a good bench mark upon which to evaluate society, for how rich or poor it is. When I consider the behavior of people, I have no doubt that a very generous proportion of them do exhibit these qualities. A great many people live simply—in the sense of being honest, sincere, humble, etc. Many people are patient—in the sense of being tolerant, restrained, diligent, etc. And a lot of people practice compassion—in the sense of being kind, considerate, lenient, etc. Maybe even most people often exhibit these virtues. (I often think that humanity has survived as well as it has, by dint of many of its members acting virtuously.)
Be that as it may, these three treasures do not get promoted very well at all by society's political leaders, popular figureheads, and the media. What is broadcast in our culture and modeled for us is, in fact, often quite the opposite:
Simplicity? Instead, we are bombarded by messages that promote unrestrained greed, arrogance and pride, insincerity, muddled thinking. These immoral behaviors contribute directly to injustice and poverty.
Patience? Instead, we are encouraged to be intolerant, to be aggressive and pushy. We are told we don't have to wait—we demand fast food, convenience stores, fast internet. Don't wait to earn what you want to buy; get it on credit and become swamped by debt.
Compassion? Hardly. We're encouraged not to care about the stranger, to be judgmental, to discount the humanity of some peoples, to shut out others and not care. Instead of reaching out to refugees and the poor, our politicians urge us to build walls—so barriers get erected, rather than charity practiced.
The reality of this lack of virtue in the public arena argues that society, rather than possessing Lao-Tzu's moral treasures, is rather poor. But it's not the case that most people in society are not virtuous. In their ordinary lives people do help each other and work towards building a healthy society. It's too bad that the public domain is so flooded with messages by the media and public figures to the contrary. It's too bad that society does not model a life of Lao-Tzu's three treasures for its members. But we do have an abundance ancient wisdom in the form of teachings like those of Lao-Tzu—as well as from Jesus, the Buddha, Muhammad, and others—to help us chart our individual moral course through a minefield of misdeeds.
Tuesday, October 4, 2016
I was given a Zen calendar last winter by a friend. Each day is a tear-off sheet that offers a quote from a wise teacher—many of them from the Zen Buddhist tradition, but many of them also are sayings from a wide variety of teachers of other traditions. The offering from a July sheet was a quote attributed to Lao-Tzu: “I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, and compassion. These three are your greatest treasures.”
Lao-Tzu has for many years been an inspiration for me. He was not a Zen Buddhist, but preceded Zen wisdom teachers by a few centuries. He was a Chinese Taoist sage. He gave us an abundant set of pithy messages in the classic book Tao Te Ching. His enigmatic and succinct verses have given me much food for thought over the years, as I chew on a passage, and often find that his concise message, initially enigmatic, eventually speaks volumes to me. I think that was precisely Lao-Tzu's intent.
I will take it on faith that the above quote is an accurate one. (I'm a bit skeptical, because Lao-Tzu never claimed to teach, as I recall. Similar to Socrates, he simply offered his ideas to people who could then mull them over and use them to teach themselves.) Assuming that it's a valid quotation, what did he mean by listing these particular three teachings: simplicity, patience, and compassion? I am aware that when we read English translations of an ancient master's writings from an other culture, many of those English words do not really capture the essence of the original word. But let me assume that these English translations from Chinese—simplicity, patience, and compassion—are accurate translations.
What do these three words describe? I think they express virtues. My dictionary describes virtues as “behavior showing high moral standards; a quality considered morally good or desirable in a person.” OK, so simplicity, patience, and compassion appear to be pretty good examples of virtues. But surely there are many more kinds of virtues that a person may exhibit, than just these three. How about, for example, honesty, kindness, courage, moderation, generosity, and dependability, to name just a few?
Did Lao-Tzu contend that his three treasures covered all the moral bases? He did call them the three “greatest treasures,” so maybe they are just his three greatest hits—if you strive to exhibit them, then maybe you've accomplished 90% of what it means to be a good person?
Whenever I ponder questions like these, I like to turn to a good dictionary for clarification. So here's what my Oxford American Dictionary tells me about Lao-Tzu's three treasures.
- Simplicity: the quality or condition of being easy to understand or to do; the quality of being plain or natural. Some synonyms: lucidity, clarity, unpretentious, restrained, honest, sincere, humble.
- Patience: the capacity to accept or tolerate delay and suffering without getting upset or angry; staying cool. Some synonyms: calmness, composure, equanimity, restraint, tolerance, perseverance, diligence.
- Compassion: the sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings of others (accompanied by the urge to help them). Some synonyms: gentleness, mercy, understanding, concern, kindness, charity, benevolence.
After that bit if dictionary research, it seems to me that Lao-Tzu's three treasures sure cover a lot of moral ground—and I would bet that even if the three English words aren't exact translations for the three Chinese words he used, surely some of those synonyms must capture his meaning.
More of Lao-Tzu's treasures next time...
Saturday, October 1, 2016
Tuesday, September 27, 2016
So that's the first story (cones and rods in the eyes) about the similarity between humans and dogs. The second relationship between people and our canine friends is another physiological similarity that can be considered maybe to be a little disturbing.
Researchers have noted over the last few decades that the sperm count of males—both dog and human—have been decreasing. Specifically, sperm motility—the ability of sperm to swim in a straight line—has diminished. If sperm can't swim energetically and directly toward the female egg, fertility suffers. In addition, traces of PCBs and phthalates are being found in both dog and human semen. These artificial chemicals have been linked to birth defects. Whether or not they contribute to decreased sperm activity has yet to be determined.
A comprehensive evaluation of human sperm viability has so far not been carefully and consistently measured, due to the fact that the issue is so complex for humans. Dogs are simpler, so recent studies spanning a 26-year period at Nottingham University in the UK have meticulously measured the decrease in dog fertility. It is significant.
So what is the cause of the carefully documented canine reduction in fertility? No smoking sperm gun has as yet been discovered, but the likely contributors—in light of the measured PCBs and phthalates—points to the presence of toxins and chemicals in dogs' environments as the likely causes.
Dogs are our best friends. We share much of the same living space, and we are exposed to the same chemicals they are. Thus our canine buddies may be in the same sinking fertility boat that we are. Human male fertility has been measured and is definitely on the decline, although it has yet to be adequately quantified. So it raises the question: Are we—humans and dogs—headed together towards a fertility problem? Stay tuned.
In summarizing this pair of dog duet posts: The mammalian eyes of dogs and humans—although both have evolved from those tiny mammals scurrying in the dark to avoid dinosaurs—still retain the rods and cones of those long ago times—though in different proportions. We also share a declining sperm quality. In interesting ways “man's best friend” seems to be headed down a similar evolutionary path with us. Maybe we're closer than we think; maybe more than just good buddies.
Sunday, September 25, 2016
Thursday, September 22, 2016
I recently read two reports (sort of a duet) about a couple of current circumstances of dogs, that say something about both the qualities of canines as well as the closeness of humans and dogs—in ways that go well beyond the typical owner-pet relationship. I would argue that the old saw—that a dog is man's best friend—has a lot of truth to it. But these two reports go well beyond just the friendship concept. They tell us that there are deeper similarities; that in some ways humans and dogs share a couple of fascinating and relevant physiological qualities. Maybe we're more than best friends. Maybe we're even some kind of distant relative?
The first report described the fact that dogs are color-blind—far more than humans, but still in a physiologically similar way. Yet dogs are not really color blind; it's more that they cannot perceive the rich panoply of colors that we humans enjoy. How so? The eyes of both humans and dogs (as well as most animals) contain two kinds of light sensory receptors: cones and rods. Cones have evolved to provide visual acuity and also to respond to color, but they need rather bright light conditions to do so. Rods evolved to provide vision at low light levels and to detect motion; they do not respond to color. While human eyes contain a high proportion of cones (we see color), dogs' eyes have far fewer. Thus we see sharply, as well as perceive all the vivid hues of the artist's palette. Dogs—with more rods—have poor visual acuity but can see better than we do at night; especially being able to note motion, as their prey try to run away.
All mammals evolved to have both rods and cones in their eyes. Back when mammals were new to Earth's animal kingdom (100-200 million years ago), they were just little critters who were dominated by the much larger and more successful dinosaurs. Mammals were forced to skitter around mostly in the dark, to avoid being eaten or stepped on by the reigning dinosaurs. Needing to see well under low light levels, mammal eyes evolved lots of rods.
Think about what you see, when nighttime comes on. You can't see color—only shades of gray. There's not enough light to trigger your eye's cones, so the rods—being “color-blind”—take over. For various reasons, dog's eyes, unlike ours, have a preponderance of rods. Maybe their wolf ancestors continued their hunting activities at night. Humans, on the other hand, evolved to have a lot of cones in our eyes. We needed them—along with our ape cousins—to locate tasty and colorful fruit in our daytime foraging. Dogs mostly needed to see moving animals to chase in the dark. To compensate for their inability to distinguish colors, dogs evolved an exquisite sense of smell. With that wonderful nose they could better sniff out their food.
[As an interesting aside to dogs' and humans' eye differences, when a human is photographed with a flash, a phenomenon called “red-eye” is often observed. It is due to the light of the camera's flash being reflected off blood vessels at the back of the eye. Dogs' eyes have something called a “tapetum,” which is a mirror-like structure at the back of their eyes. When a dog is photographed with a flash, the light reflects off the tapetum and appears blue. We get red-eye, they get blue-eye.]
More on dogs and humans next time...