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Q&A with Trevor Carolan

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Early in the summer, I talked to Professor Trevor Carolan, and asked about the psychology of literature, social activism, Cascadia/bioregionalism, and ancient Chinese divination. Dr. Carolan will soon publish his 21st book. He teaches wide-ranging and practical writing courses at UFV including Literature and Ecology, Creative Non-Fiction, and Literary Journalism. For 17 years, he has taught at UFV after previously teaching Trans-Pacific Cultural Ecology at SFU.

Eager to understand more about some of the main focus areas that Carolan has been interested in researching and writing about as a result of more than 40 years travelling and studying Asia,  I asked him if he would answer some bigger questions. Midway through summer, with the green still yellowing in the sun, he and I wandered to the centre of campus where the big ginkgo tree still flourished its succulent, fan-shaped leaves. Ginkgo biloba, believed to be the oldest of all living tree species, has long been a source of traditional medicine, Carolan noted. We sat under the tree, contemplating philosophy, the nature of human history, and our place in it.

You’ve remarked on consciousness, and the use of the I Ching, The Book of Changes. Its focus on synchronicity resembles Carl Jung’s idea of the acausal connecting principle between energies, personalities, events, and probabilities. Jung used the term “coincidence of opposites.” Does this relate to Daoism? How about your creative process as a writer?
The German colonial trading concession in China was at Shantung, where Confucius originally hailed from, and German-speaking scholars were among the first Europeans to settle deeply into what they were learning of Chinese culture and ideas. Similarly in India, adventurous British scholars also began discovering that, beyond mere mercantile interests, a vast trove of knowledge was also available including very profound ideas about the human condition. Some early English scholars began reading the wisdom of India’s holy books, and worked to translate them into English — the Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads. German scholars studied Daoist ideas from China, and in 1924 Richard Wilhelm translated the I Ching into German. Our best English version comes from an excellent rendering of this into English by Carey Baynes. The I Ching is one of the world’s oldest, most significant books, and in Asia is used to this day in helping shape matters of public policy, as well as personal lives.

Jung grew interested in the ideas of probability and possibility. I think what he understood is that the way that you consult the I Ching, for example, is in itself a deeply, psychologically concentrated exercise in self-scrutiny. We’re asking our self a specific question. We’re looking for an answer, but the answer to a lot of these things is often inherently there in the question. So he understood that there is a symbiosis between what the seeker brings to this occasion in looking for guidance, and in the answer that is going to be intuited from consulting this ancient text. I believe that’s what Jung saw in the possibilities of that type of probe.  Regarding “opposites,” this suggests duality. Instead, Daoism looks at nature and the human drama in terms of polarities, with these simply being part of a larger, unified whole. From wu chi, the great primal spaciousness or “emptiness” comes the tai chi, the Great Energy of recombinant patterns, or what some call “the ten thousand things” of the world. You see this in the practice of Tai Chi Chuan. Morning-times, we work through this meditative series of movements to return to the chi wu lun, the fundamental unity and equality of all things. My engagement as a writer comes from this same inspirational flux — basic creativity, the Muse, the Dao: all together.

I’ve been reading about classical Chinese paintings, especially from the Tang and Sung dynasties. About how instead of reproducing the world in their art, painters and poets like Wang Wei try to reproduce the sense of being in the world
The intriguing aspect about Chinese art is how much of the canvas they leave blank! They don’t try to fill it all in. They concentrate on this one particular, rare moment, here, this one image here, within a considerably larger space. They may only use 40 per cent of the space and leave the other 60 per cent blank. What an intriguing approach — to work with the emptiness versus that other idea where you have to fill in every detail, like your elementary school teacher saying you’ve gotta paint the colours right off the edge of the paper. It’s all in Lao-tzu’s little masterwork, the Dao de Ching. There’s value in both approaches, but from a philosophical or aesthetic perspective, there’s great beauty in leaving some things unresolved. It concentrates focus much more attentively on the central information that the painter is dealing with.


Was Japan influenced by some of those same ideas later on?
Assuredly it was. Emperors in Japan would hear reports of what was going on in China from merchant traders and so on, different possibilities. Periodically they’d send a wise monk or delegation over to China with gifts so that they could bring back news of what was happening. One of the things they wanted to learn about was the new idea of Buddhism, which had come from the Himalayas. Sometimes, such ideas would take root and find favour. Then, after another shift, Confucianism or Shinto, the way of the spirits, would surge again. Within this evolutionary dynamic, a necessary co-existence of ideas would unfold to one degree or another.  

So Confucianism came before Buddhism?
During the Axial Period in human history, at around 450 to 400 B.C., a tremendous intellectual efflorescence took place in China, India, Greece. Think of the Golden Age of Athens where you’ve simultaneously got great thinkers, leaders, philosophers, tragedians, writers — Socrates, Plato, the lot. At roughly that same moment in China, they’ve got Confucius, there’s Lao Tzu, the venerable Daoist master; there’s Sun Tzu, the military tactician, then Mencius. Meanwhile, in the Himalayan foothills area, there’s Gautama Siddhartha, a prince of the Shakya people, who becomes known as the Buddha, working out his path of self-realization. All these great individual traditions are unfolding more or less simultaneously. As Buddhism begins to flourish, it travels north to the Chinese world, and slowly begins a long interweave with Daoism and Confucianism. So in China, when you talk about Chinese religion, they typically say san jiao gui yi, or “three-in-one” tradition. You visit temples or shrines to any or all of them as appropriate.  

Was it your Tai Chi master, Ng Ching Por who taught you about this?
Yes, he was Daoist, from the Southern Mountain tradition. In his daily life, he followed Confucian propriety regarding appropriate social conduct. Confucius, of course, is concerned about how to behave righteously within your family, within society, your community, within your nation. It’s the path of conduct. Master Kung, as Chinese people know him, teaches that we’re to behave benevolently and respectfully, and this extends from our own roles to those of the emperor who is responsible to the Jade Emperor for his heavenly mandate, the tian ming.  It’s at the spine of Chinese civilization and The Analects, or Lun Yu, is a beautiful compendium of his teaching. Traditionally this path of conduct marries with Daoism, the old Indigenous and shamanic wisdom of the Chinese people — their observation of the cosmos, the heavens, the passing of the seasons and how they influence things. Daoism has its own pantheist gods and goddesses. If you’re a fisherman going out to sea, maybe you utter a prayer to the sea goddess, or paint a little image on your boat. That’s Indigenous lore, and it tends to unify itself in a way of learning to live in harmony with our environment — with our place. From that we get China’s system of traditional medicine, or its feng shui, the art of placement — learning where to best plant the tree, or where not to put the door to your new house. As a side-note, Alan Watts wrote very well about such Asian wisdom traditions. His books are quite accessible.

So people go to Confucian temples where they’ll have family memorials, pay respect to their grandparents and ancestors; then you can go to the Daoist Temple with its colourful deity figures. There’ll be a place to say prayers, make an offering. And we can all go to enjoy the stillness of the Buddhist temples. The great Goddess of Mercy Kuan Yin Temple on the road to Steveston is wonderful, like a holiday visit to Asia. There’s the huge religious images people revere, clouds of incense. It’s lovely to hear the monks and nuns chanting — like visiting the seminary on the mountain in Mission to hear the monks chant vespers. So, as Hakuin Zenji, the Japanese master says, “Truly, is anything missing now?”

Still, ideas will collide.
Political or religious, new social ideas — they’ll collide. But there will also be new contact. What is it Hegel says? First there’s thesis, the idea; then antithesis, the other idea; then synthesis. China is the great absorber. One of its strategies when invading hordes attacked from the Asian wilds was to holler  “…Hold on a minute, hold on a minute! Before we start all this mayhem — can we talk? We’d like to invite you for dinner.” You put on your most lavish dinner, show them your gracious hospitality, you bestow gifts, and of course you bring out your beautiful young women… Can we become in-laws?” Sometimes it works, and China is still around, still a mighty presence when many others aren’t.

The subtext to your book New World Dharma is about creating a new meta-narrative for a global age. What does that mean?
For more than 45 years I’ve criss-crossed the planet, and met some remarkable teachers. One of them once told me the secret of the universe. I’ll share it with you here: Everything is Connected. We’ve had all kinds of historical dominance — Mediterranean, Roman, European, Christian, Mongol, Islamic, American, you name it — and this has brought many different flavours to life, good and ill. Look at the state of things right now: are we really getting where we want to go as a planet? Communications technology has made it a global world now. Don’t  we deserve a new, fundamental narrative for the way we live our lives together, one that’s beyond ideology, and is appropriate for our 21st century — a meta-narrative that emphasizes the interdependent nature of existence, the way in which everything is connected to everything else. That’s way overdue, isn’t it?

So then where we want to go is to be connected / cooperative?
What’s the option, more head-bashing? More exploitation of the poor, the oppressed? The teaching from the natural world — if we plan on sticking around as a species — is the recognition of interdependence. Solutions are often like the matter of health — sometimes the more interventionist, Western treatment, that’s pretty hard and invasive, works; sometimes the more intuitive Asian or Indigenous style works. We need both. Rather than stick with one idea to the bitter end, you go with what’s best for the situation. But you don’t blow up the other one. Like Deng Xiao Ping, the leader who emerged following the Maoist revolutionary period in China said, “Who cares whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches the mouse?”

We tend to resist the new. But we need some new approaches to old, unresolved problems.  Look at how police officers are telling us “The war on marijuana isn’t working…let’s legalize it and take the gangsters out of it. And if there’s going to be any money made out of it, let’s put it into our social systems and try to do something constructive with it.”  

We’ve even got police officers saying “We need to deal with this fentanyl nightmare that’s happening. Maybe we need to be prescribing heroin.” I mean, who would’ve believed this 15 years ago? Until very recently, police repression of drug use was absolutely draconian. Suddenly, you have them saying we need to think in a different way. Well, they’re the clean up squad, the ones who get called in to clean up the mess. When they start saying things which are so radically different, then probably we ought to listen to them. They’re trying to tell us something.


That’s the opposition thing again: polarity of opposites. A lot of young people are upset by the police because they just want their freedom; but freedom…in a sense it comes from a certain amount of structure, right?
Freud says this in Civilization and its Discontents: You get unbridled freedom or license to do whatever you want, and well, you know, imagine the chaos. So, he argues that in society we agree to live within systems of limits. We can’t live in a state of chaos, or with moronic people continually pursuing their own brutal appetites.

The Buddha taught a way that hopefully can help you to live in a way that is, for one thing, easier. In your book of poems Celtic Highway, in a chapter titled Old Masters it says “About suffering they were never wrong…”
Ah! That’s from W.H. Auden’s line in “Musée des Beaux Arts.” It’s based on a painting by Bruegel. I finally got to see it, study it in Brussels. He’s teaching us to look really closely at things. Anyway, he has this line, “about suffering they were never wrong,” because when you live a long time, you’ve seen a lot. That’s why we talk about wise elders. They know what it’s about.

Jung, in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, mentions Lao Tzu, and says that the archetype of the wise elder who has seen enough is eternally true.
Experience is a great teacher. You can tell a kid “Don’t touch that hot thing there that I’ve been ironing these shirts with,” or “Don’t put your finger near that electric socket.” You can tell people 47 times, yet they’ll still come up and go “What is this thing?” and they touch it — WOAH! WOAH! WOAH! You never forget it! There’s nothing like authentic experience! You put your finger in the socket — You get the shock! You’re never going to do that again.

Upside, authentic experience is one of the things that young people get from travel — from heading out in the world and doing things for themselves, versus living a fairly contained life. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but some people are more searching by nature. There may be great value in that too. It’s worked for me. I’m also reminded too though, of another wily old elder who taught me that there are wise old Zen masters living quietly in the mountains disguised as melon farmers.

That’s a good story.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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