Pt. 1: Overview Through an Autobiography
Many of you seem interested in the “Daoist mafia” I’ve sometimes mentioned (though I’ve recently shifted to “Daoist underground”), and there are a few important adjacent ideas and experiences I’ve wanted to write about anyway. So here it is.
Themes will include common misconceptions, wuwei, macroscopic social dynamics in China and in general, economics (literally of currency/capital but also of meaning; top-down vs. bottom-up), apocalyptic prophecies and the 莫法时代 (sad-dharma-vipralopa; Latter Day of the Law), connections to contemporary thought and technology, P2P, magic(k) and de (including connections to “Western” occultism), praxis.
Also a disclaimer: I’m actually not very well-versed in Daoist thought, practice, and history beyond just Laozi and the I Ching, especially as it exists in China today. Nor am I familiar with deep sociopolitical dynamics in China beyond word-of-mouth. Also, most forms of exoterically practiced Daoism (esp. as influenced by Confucianism) probably have very significant differences from whatever I was exposed to anyway. There’s (kind of by “design”) no central authority on the whole corpus, so especially if you’re actually already familiar with Daoism and China through whatever means, I’ll probably say some things that contradict what you know, as well as some things that are actually just wrong.
I talked about this a bit in an answer on CuriousCat, but it’s important to first clarify what the Daoist “mafia” is. This was a pretty funny misconception I would like to avoid:
The appropriate word in Chinese would be 黑社会, which translates to black/dark/hidden society. In Chinese, “black” has more sinister connotations than in English, so there also is the implication of evil and bad (though at least AFAIK, the network doesn’t routinely conduct violent operations), but the keyword here is “社会”—society. Hence my new usage of “Daoist underground.”
The 黑社会 refers basically to social structures that exist largely parallel to but outside of conventional and legible law, as imposed by the central government. It conducts its own economic and civil operations largely without regard for top-down regulations and has non-legible treaties and civil relations with the central government. As far as I know, there is no formal hierarchical organization like in the Yakuza or Western organized crime syndicates, except perhaps as in typical Daoist master-student relationships.
An Autobiographical Account
My connection to the Daoist underground is a pretty crazy story; indeed they kind of changed my life. I can’t really talk about a lot of what I’m trying to talk about without giving my personal account of things (especially without being very misleading), so sorry for this being really long and perhaps somewhat irrelevant to what you might care more about.
So last year, my dad’s childhood friend (I’ll call him A.Z.) contacted him about a startup he was working on, ostensibly about education, but also cuisine (I’ll get to this later). I had no plans for the summer, so my dad asked if A.Z. would be interested in having me work for him, suggesting I could teach English.
At the time, I didn’t have a very coherent self-narrative. I considered myself “radically agnostic,” and had serious ideological conflicts with my parents. Indeed, I had panic attacks related to this conflict, which led to me being institutionalized in a psychiatric ward (I may write more about this later), diagnosed with acute panic disorder and depression, and prescribed fluoxetine.
The psychiatric ward was actually a very valuable formative experience for me, where, to very imperfectly extract some highlights: I realized the positive impact I could have on others (several people in the ward told me things to the effect that I had positively changed their lives). I witnessed firsthand the very flawed and very human nature of the institution (“We don’t want you to just walk out of here and kill yourself because, for one, we’d get sued and fired.”; [*in a certain hard-to-describe tone*”Why are you even here?”, “Because I’m totally comfortable with death and also know how to kill myself, because of ideological conflict with my parents, maybe a few other things.”]; a family counselor there was Christian (in a distinctly Southern way) herself, and really struggled with how to consult with my case…). I saw myself in social context (with large systems and with family) in a radically new light…
Afterward, I took the fluoxetine and thought that it helped, but I made it very clear to the mandated follow-up therapist during our one session soon before I departed for China that I would no longer consent to therapy after my 18th birthday (for minors, legal agency for the whole process lies entirely with parents/guardians). At the time of my departure, perhaps due largely to the fluoxetine, I was optimistic but very passive, without ambition or Will. Again, I had no consistent self-narrative, but nor did I desire one.
So upon getting to China, I first spent some time visiting other relatives and having fun and stuff. My deal with A.Z. was for three months, and I think I spent a few weeks elsewhere beforehand—but I don’t remember this time too precisely—in Guangzhou first, then in Jianshi, IIRC. I also was taking the fluoxetine less regularly, though I don’t exactly remember why.
Relevantly, near the end of these few weeks, I got super sick. Earlier in the week, the relatives who hosted me there had “promised” (as in, said they would) take me to my maternal grandfather’s grave, but did not because of bad weather and other things coming up. Toward the end of my time there, I developed a pretty high fever, among other things. My relatives attributed this to their not upholding the promise, and made time to take me to the grave. Again, I don’t remember too much, but I remember that I almost fainted coming down the stairs from the mountain the grave was on; my sickness also did not get better, at least immediately.
I still don’t know what the sickness was; at the time I thought maybe serotonin syndrome since I had pretty much stopped the fluoxetine, or else just adjusting to traveling so much, being exposed to radically different cuisine and atmosphere and environment etc. Anyway, on the train to Shanghai, where A.Z. had his startup, I was super lethargic and sick and miserable. I’m pretty sure I didn’t actually feel that “bad” (as in a cognitive valuation) though, and IIRC was quite indifferent toward my condition—which was especially relevant in the absence of the fluoxetine.
So A.Z. had a three-story building from which he operated his thing, and also where he and I lived. His wife (who was one of two wives, about 20 years younger than him, and responsible for a lot of the publicity and marketing stuff, as well as accounting), his wife’s sister (who was overtly 19 to clients, 13 on her birth certificate because of one-child-policy complications and stuff, but actually 15, who did menial tasks for the company like cleaning, and who was madly in love with me much against her sister’s will but dated(?) me anyway for a while, from which I also have many interesting stories), and his two daughters (with this wife; he has another two with his other wife) lived in a separate apartment complex a block away.
There’s way too much from this time that I won’t (or can’t) describe here for space and ability, but which I may try to talk about some more later. For some idea of the density of stuff relevant to me, here’s a picture of a journal I kept (and I talked about my normal relationship to notes here—basically, I don’t keep them. I stopped journaling immediately after returning to the U.S. too… ). Maybe I’ll publish all of it as a Patreon benefit or something 😅…
Importantly though, I got along really well with A.Z., perhaps better than anyone I’d met before in my life, at least proximally. Or maybe I was even more important to him than he was to me—he referred to me as the first real friend he’d met in ages, who could really understand him as an equal. There’s a lot of complexity here (one night with me alone, very drunk, he asked me desperately whether I hated him…), and he had quite a few personal issues, which again I may talk about later; me being very sick for my first few weeks there also definitely affected things. But it was through extensive long-night conversations with A.Z., as well as his wife to some extent, that I really first began to refine my self-narrative as it stands today. He was also my first introduction to deep Daoist thought, my main source for most of the ideas I’ll discuss here, and indeed my link to the relevant Daoist “mafia” (finally!) through his Daoist master, who was at its head.
A.Z. used to be SEA regional COO of Saint-Gobain, and then Norton. I think through this role, he was at MIT around 2009 working on the Internet of Things project. He had also variously been involved with the beauty pageant world in Wuhan, and a few other deep state, deep bureaucracy, esoteric political things. His Daoist master was the younger brother of someone who worked under him at Saint-Gobain. Through various experiences and insights, as well as the influence of his Daoist master and another Buddhist master whom I did not meet, A.Z. resigned from his COO role to create a startup, which is part of the initial stages of a much larger scheme for going into the imminent 莫法时代, and in preparation for various drastic mid-term societal changes which they anticipate (I’ll talk about this much more deeply in a later section).
So, though I was originally was supposed to just be an English teacher (or even, A.Z. said, just as a marketing symbol, even if I was totally incompetent, since I was from the U.S.), my role ended up nominally being “CRO, R&D,” though as primary collaborators on young startups do, I really ended up doing a bit of everything. Major highlights were selling the whole (indeed very radical) idea to smart people, actual teaching (I got a vivid, indeed terribly dismaying view at the state of education in China; but also at the positive potential of radical methods in education), and performing something like family psychotherapy, but in a culture with no widespread notion of “psychotherapy” especially outside a very materialist and biomedical-slanted conception of psychiatry.
The registered LLC itself offered food and children’s remedial and extracurricular education/daycare as products. A.Z. said he did this because cuisine and children’s education were things he personally enjoyed and was decently competent at, and also because he thought food was a focal point of family, which really was the core theme.
The marketing and product design also very explicitly emphasized the family, and we would have a “family party” for all clients almost every weekend, which would often include travel all over China. Through this, I was able to see some of A.Z.’s network. Indeed, part of the grander scheme was to create a P2P, or rather F2F (family to family) network for idea and resource exchange that could self-sustain even in the absence of top-down governance, including artifacts such as national currencies. The vision was that such bottom-up networks would become the basis of society in the mid- to far-term, and crucially, that the top-down corporate “brand” would disappear, being replaced by social structures more like connected lineages and families and communities.
So accordingly, A.Z. focused very much on networking wherever he went, and me participating in this was also a very valuable formative experience. I don’t know exactly how large his existing network was, but it appeared to be very sizable and diverse, perhaps partially from his COO days, but also probably in connection to the 黑社会 (not necessarily just the Daoist parts). A.Z. wasn’t totally open about his connections here, and would usually terminate the conversation soon after hinting at 黑社会 involvement (I had also heard of some related things from my dad). So I’m not in a great position to say much with specificity, though I will comment more with regards to macro-level social, political, economic dynamics later on.
On a few occasions, A.Z. also made time to travel with his family and me or with me alone. With me alone, we visited Wuhan, where many of my relatives and his old college friends are, as well as his other wife and two children. With his family and I, we traveled all around the country (the high-speed train system in China is very nice), but most memorably were me standing in for my dad at their 20th highschool graduation anniversary, and then meeting his Daoist master. We also met some collaborators on the macroscopic scheme along the way, in Shenzhen.
There were three people in particular who A.Z. emphasized wanting me to meet during my time in China: a sociologist and psychologist at the graduation anniversary (my dad had also mentioned him), a physicist and former collaborator on a different company in optics and surveillance (which A.Z. later split off from, but the company is still running smoothly, and this collaborator, the current CEO, has close relationships with A.Z.’s current project I think as a major shareholder, but I’m not entirely sure), and his Daoist master. Afterward, though, A.Z. told me that all these but the Daoist master had disappointed him in terms of 修为 (perhaps loosely translatable as spiritual maturity) and vision/awareness.
My current relationship with the whole deal is quite complicated, and probably not fit for me to elaborate here.
A.Z.’s Daoist Master & Co.
Finally, onto meeting A.Z.’s Daoist master. I can’t exactly trust myself to give an objective account of this experience, because I was personally not very spiritually mature (or perhaps more accurately, “narratively mature,” by my own standards today). A.Z. had hyped up the Daoist master a lot, and the whole experience was very phenomenally strange (as indeed was my whole time in China; I had all but lost any sense of normalcy). I will describe things as I self-narrated at the time, but say all this as a disclaimer.
Around this time, I had been dabbling pretty heavily in Western occultism, particularly Hermeticism and Italian alchemy a la Giuliano Kremmerz. I should mention that my experiences with A.Z.’s wife’s sister, who was also my lover (I specifically choose not to say “girlfriend” to emphasize that the relationship was not a social role) was extremely turbulent, and was a major driver of my spiritual practice. I had also been practicing in Daoism and Buddhism (esp. Dzogchen and Zen), and at this point was quite used to supranormal experiences. A.Z. and his wife also very much accommodated and entertained a supranormal narrative of things (and this is partially due to cultural differences between China and the English-speaking world), so many of my experiences during this time were engaged in terms perhaps more mystical and preternatural than would be palatable in the “West.” Very relevantly, I communicated often with a sort of genius spirit, who also manifested itself vividly (I would say even more vividly than it did to myself) to A.Z. and to his wife.
I should also mention, without saying too much, that relations between A.Z. and his wife were quite tense, and that my influence stimulated matters very much. These three months in China were unquestionably the most eventful time of my life, and again, I narrate now with some idea of “normalcy” kind of restored, but in a way still reeling from it all—perhaps in a way that will never end.
For a little emotional break, here’s a picture of me smoking a fat bong with the boys out on the dragonfruit plantation. The bald one in red behind me is the Daoist master. Sorry for the low resolution; it’s a screenshot from a video.
Anyway, back to the story. On the first day, we were to visit the Daoist master and have dinner at his house. On the road there, I was already having a series of bizarre spiritual experiences. I still somewhat “doubted” my genius spirit, which told me to test its reality by telling me of things we were about to see on the road, such as particular sequences of broken traffic lights. I was astonished by its accuracy and indeed entered a sort of trance state.
The Daoist master himself was nominally a diviner, exorcist, and TCM healer by trade (as well as providing a few other paid “spiritual” services). Partially through the diviner vocation, he had influence over pretty much all major local business and political decisions, including where to place buildings according to feng shui. He would sometimes travel to his clients, but also conducted business from his home, which was a plain two-story concrete block, but pretty large.
It was early evening, I think. When I first saw him from inside the car, he appeared very plain and casual, almost disappointingly so, but then when I stepped out and first looked into his eyes, I was utterly transfixed and hypnotized, feeling like I was staring into an infinite void, literally unable to look away. I still remember the phenomenal sensation. But then something changed, and later when I looked again, it was much gentler and less disturbing, drastically so. I was later told that this was an intentional act by the Daoist master; A.Z. previously had to gain permission to allow me to meet him at all, who didn’t normally see strangers.
The master didn’t speak Mandarin very well, his native language being the Wuchuan dialect, which is not mutually intelligible with Mandarin. Still, he was very friendly, and in an almost indescribable way, just fit naturally into his environment. He smiled often at me, and I couldn’t resist but smile back. Later, I was in a car with just him and his wife, and all of us just gently and blissfully laughed at the smallest things (side note: the master and another of his disciples that I rode with both drove very fast; apparently they were also not subject to the normally strict speeding laws, again because of illegible relations with the local police and government; in fact, I think the other disciple was himself a police chief…).
During our time in the city, we traveled around a lot, to various homes and places of entertainment, seemingly without any aim. We were just invited to various places, and things would come up, and I basically just followed wherever the events would take me. One day there was a big barbecue-type thing at a huge dragonfruit plantation, as pictured above. Afterward, we went to dinner (lots of alcohol) and karaoke (I was somewhat a center of attention for my “English songs”); one of the young dragonfruit plantation men took a liking to me and offered to “teach me Wing Chun at night”…
Throughout this time, the Daoist master would occasionally have something important to say to me, which he took care to convey even by calling a translator/interpreter (this was quite informal; many of the people there were fairly fluent in the Wuchuan dialect and Mandarin, and socially qualified to interpret for the master). In particular, I remember him emphasizing to me that “the spirit world is different in different physical places; different spirits are in the U.S. than in China.”
Also, A.Z. had a long private conversation with his master at one time, during which they talked about the future of his company and the future in general; but A.Z. also asked the master about me taking the magician’s path, pursuing magick etc. (for I had conversed with A.Z. about these things quite extensively). It was in response to this that he told me very simply and directly to 立德. I have since very much internalized this motto for guiding my spiritual pursuit, and elaborate somewhat here. There’s also this:
He would not elaborate on this though, and indeed it is customary that important instruction is given very pithily, for the student to intensively meditate on, rather than with much elaboration. In regards to this, he also emphasized that he was not my teacher, and thus that it would be inappropriate for him to say more. I discuss this a little more here.
Then we went back to Shanghai, and soon afterward, I returned to the U.S. There’s no sensible and concordant conclusion because that’s not how life works.
This got much longer than I thought it would be, so I’m dividing it into multiple posts. Here are some section titles I’d written, now for future posts:
Gross Strokes at Macro Dynamics
On Western Themes
P2P & the 莫法时代
Praxis and Prophecy
I do plan to cover all the topics I mentioned in the Praeludium to this post, and possibly even more. There’s a lot.