By Janae Jean and Spencer Schluter
Taoist Monk Yun Rou (formerly Arthur Rosenfeld) was ordained a Taoist monk at the Chun Yang (Pure Yang) Taoist Temple in Guangzhou, China. His writings and teachings promote Taoist philosophy and focus on environmental conservation as well as political and social justice. He hosts the Forbidden Rice Podcast. Additionally, he produced a documentary series about the science behind acupuncture, tai chi and meditation as well as the PBS show, Longevity Tai Chi.
We spoke with him about his latest book, Mad Monk Manifesto: A Prescription for Evolution, Revolution and Global Awakening; Taoist ideas, martial arts, movement as a teacher, healthful living and more. This is an excerpt from our enlightening interview. To listen to the entire conversation, subscribe to the Conscious Community Podcast on your favorite podcatcher app. Visit www.MonkYunRou.com.
Janae: What is Taoism?
Monk Yun Rou: American people are actually more familiar with Taoism than they know they are. They know it as the “philosophy of the Jedi masters.” If you are familiar with Star Wars, you know that there is a band of rebels. They are nature-loving people in robes who live in the forest. The battle portrayed in the Star Wars franchise is very much like the battle that gave rise to Taoism in China. George Lucas presumably drew that conflict from the relationship between two major philosophies of Early China, Confucianism and Taoism.
Confucianism believes in very fixed relationships, familial piety, a great number of rituals and prescriptions for how we should live—rules that must be followed. Taoism says, “No, let’s be bacchanalian revelers in the forest and love nature. Let’s go party for six days in the woods. Then let’s step into a cave and meditate for a week or a month. Then we’ll come out and have some more wine.” Very different ideas!
The Taoist ideas are also familiar to Western people in the California surf culture. Surf culture came from Hawaii and was popularized in the ‘60s and ‘70s. When people talk about “Going with the flow; being in the groove (or the tube;) Tubular dude.” All that stuff is from Taoist thinking.
Spencer: I have a martial arts background. What I think is really interesting is how the physical movements teach hard to grasp, vague and abstract concepts.
MYR: Martial arts being the physical embodiment of philosophical ideas is probably the most important takeaway here. To understand philosophical ideas, you have to integrate them into your life. You have to try them like a recipe. You have to cook it; see how it tastes; see how you feel after eating it and whether it sustains you with good health and longevity. If you do all those things you will have a better understanding of that recipe then somebody who read it in a book. It’s just not the same.
There are a number of Taoist arts, which range from divinatory practices to ritual arts that are mostly about devotion to one deity or another in the religious Taoist pantheon. Philosophical Taoists, like me, don’t necessarily have any supernatural belief. So, we don’t pray to anyone, although we cultivate an attitude of gratitude for the sages that went before and taught us these things and left us these lessons.
The most famous and well-known of the Taoist arts is battlefield martial art we call “tai chi.” I have tai chi students who say, “This is not a martial art. I came for peace and love—and to meditate. I heard it was meditation in motion.” I say, “It’s medication in motion.” All of those things are actually true about tai chi and how it is used in our culture now. But, the truth is it’s very clearly a martial art.
Tai chi arose in the 1600s as a way of fighting, primarily on horseback, but also on foot—but always in the pitch and fever of battle. The very greatest practitioners of tai chi are absolutely the pinnacle of the Chinese martial arts pantheon. They are formidable fighters. But, the majority of people who “play” tai chi in the world are doing it for the health aspects or to better understand philosophical principles in a physical practice.
SS: One aspect of Taoism is the I-Ching. I understand that Bagua is a martial art based on the I-Ching with movements built around the I-Ching hexagrams.
MYR: Let’s talk about the I-Ching for a second; there is some confusion about what it really is. Maybe 3,000 years ago, a duke and his son were involved in some battles and they lost. The father was incarcerated. During that time, the father spent time making a list of all the things he had noticed nature could and did do. A river could flow and then turn on itself; the Earth could shake; seasons change—and on and on and on. He made a catalog of all the different things that the natural world did, and he used certain symbols as a shorthand for the descriptions. It was an exhaustive, brilliant and absolutely stunningly beautiful list. It lent coherence and clarity to the natural world in a way that nobody anywhere on planet Earth had ever done. It was a work of great genius and beauty.
The Tao Te Ching, which came about 500 years later, is a commentary on this list, but the commentary is applied to human beings. It takes a large body of information and narrows it greatly to apply it specifically to people. If you make a catalog of all the things that can happen in nature, you have essentially a lusciously specific deck of cards. Some people would use these characters [the hexagrams] in a divinatory ritual. They would take this purely philosophical work and try to make it practical and use it for fortune-telling. Originally, it was a catalog of nature. The I-Ching was a work of philosophy—not a work of fortune-telling.
JJ: How can we make a better future for our world using these Taoist principles?
MYR: Think of it this way. If you drop a stone into a pond and you watch the ripples spread from that impact and watch those ripples go all the way to the edge of the pond, this is what Mad Monk Manifesto is about. Start with that central point, that change you make in yourself, and watch the effect as it ripples outward.
For example, if one person in your family decides to become vegan and everyone gets together once each year for Thanksgiving, when everyone gets together next year that person will look fitter, healthier and happier than everybody else. At first, everybody else rolls their eyes. Now they’re looking and going, “Boy, I’d like to have her figure. Or, I’d like to have his energy. I wonder if there’s something for me there. I’d like to get off these medications or lose a few pounds.” So, they try a little bit of that for themselves—like starting by only eating chicken—a baby step. The point is we make changes on an individual basis. When enough of us do that, we can change the world!
Janae Jean serves as editor, social media manager, recipe columnist and podcaster for Conscious Community Magazine. Visit www.janaejean.com or www.perennialmusicandarts.com for details about her other projects.
Spencer Schluter is the advertising account manager, social media manager and podcaster for Conscious Community Magazine. Visit www.yggstudios.com for more about his freelance design and consulting work. He is also a master level Reiki and traditional Chinese Qigong practitioner.