Monk Yun Rou (formerly Arthur Rosenfeld) has received the honor of being one of the few Westerners ordained a Monk by the Chun Yang Daoist Temple in Guangzhou, China. Monk Yun Rou has done so many wonderful things with his life including hosting the hit national public television show “Longevity Tai Chi with Arthur Rosenfeld” that reached 60M households during its three year run. His work has also been featured in Vogue, Vanity Fair, Parade, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, WebMD, Fox Business News, and a number of other websites and newspapers. In 2016, The American Heart Association profiled Yun Rou as an inspirational resource.
Monk Yun Rou also has an extensive background in martial arts and Tai Chi having completed his martial arts training in 1980 and was named Tai Chi Master of The Year at the World Congress on Qigong and Traditional Chinese Medicine in 2011. He was also the opening and closing keynote speaker at the International Tai Chi Symposium in Louisville, Kentucky.
Monk Yun Rou has an incredible educational background having attended Yale, Cornell, and the University of California.
Your new book, Turtle Planet, is about the relationship between humans and animals, including the lessons they have taught us and the harm we unfortunately inflict on them. What do you feel people most commonly misunderstand about animals and their place in society?
There is a terribly pernicious idea, advanced in the Abrahamic religious teachings that guide Western culture, that humans were fashioned in the image of God, that we are at nature’s pinnacle, and that the rest of the natural world is inferior, subservient, and here for us to plunder and destroy as we wish. This self-serving and wildly (pun intended) inaccurate view has led us to the brink of planetary apocalypse and it is high time we let it go. Regarding animals, the question is not what is their place in society, for they have their own societies and no interest in ours, but rather that they as much of a right to exist as we do and are just as entitled as we are to the natural resources upon which their survival depends. This inalienable fact, startling or even heretical to many Westerners, arises from Daoism’s non-dual view of the world. Daoism, the religion in which I am an ordained monk, sees all of nature as one vast interconnected fabric and sees us as an indivisible part of that fabric neither more or less important than any other. Being able to see the world this way, to feel the consciousness of the wasp, pangolin, sturgeon, or tortoise, is a matter of spiritual awakening and comes not because one picks one religion over another but instead from the sort of meditative practice that awakens our awareness to the true nature of reality.
Having been exposed to turtles and their sweet, simple lives from such a young age, what is the biggest lesson you have learned from them? At what point did you decide to write a book through their eyes?
A leatherback sea turtle is the size of a VW Golf and eats giant jellyfish whose sting would kill a person quickly. An alligator snapping turtle can weigh 400 pounds and bite your foot right off should you step where it lurks, hidden in the mud. A giant Asian soft-shell can pull a boat full of men right onto a sandbar and a tiny, narrow-bridge musk turtle has the hobby of biting off fingers. More, some African mud turtles can survive droughts by burrowing down into a hole in crusty ground, sleep there with no food or water for months upon end, emerge at the first sign of rain and cross tens of miles if not more so as to find a temporary pond in which to feed and breed. Even more impressively, most sea turtles are able to read the stars better than an ancient mariner and as well as a GPS satellite, allowing them to swim halfway around the world, literally crossing thousands of miles of ocean and find the precise little beach upon which they were hatched. All of this is to say that the lives of turtles, as much as I love and admire them, are neither particularly sweet nor at all simple. What drew me to them at a very young age was, in fact, the complexity of their lives—in particular the ability to dive beneath the water and engage the secret, hidden world below and then come up and be in the world we know. That occurred to me when I was just nine years old, paddling a canoe on a river in Connecticut, and caught my first turtle. Since my own nature as a seeker after truth always led me to want to know what lies below the surface of the pond of life, you might say that what first drew me to turtles as a sort of spiritual envy.
Your other book published by Mango, Mad Monk Manifesto, tackles a wide array of topics from personal development to environmental issues to social change. Was there a certain topic that was more difficult to write about compared to the others?
There were two areas I knew would be touchy, controversial, and not so easy for me to engage. The first is the one I mention above, namely the often-subconscious religious prejudice from which so many of us suffer that leads us to see the world as our playground or toilet. In order to survive change, which is the only constant, religions must adapt and evolve in the face of an ever-deepening understanding of who and what we are. Some of that deepening comes from the accumulation of spiritual experience and wisdom and some of it comes from the fruits of scientific inquiry. It is increasingly widely understood and accepted that consciousness is everywhere. Any religion that denies this and leads us trash our home is imperiling the survival of all human beings, regardless of their particular religious tradition.
The second area that was difficult for me was the subject of so-called enlightened self-interest. I find this a particularly noxious concept, and one that is an emblem of American anti-culture. Specifically, it refers to the fact that myriad offerings in the Self Help category appeal to our basest instincts when trying to motivate us to change. Daoism’s so-called Three Treasures, compassion, frugality, and humility, are not much in step with that anti-culture. Compassion is less valued than narcissism in many circles, frugality stands at odds with the consumerism that is the lifeblood of our economy, and humility is seen as a weakness in a society that prizes and rewards loudmouths and braggarts. I find it very sad that so many teachers, books, videos, and websites try to convince us to do the right thing not because it is the right thing, but because we will get something out of it. Treat that tire-seller well, these teachings say, and it will come back to you in the form of a better price on some tires some day. Be generous because maybe you will have to depend upon someone else’s generosity some day. Appealing to our basest instincts by lowering the bar for what it means to be a good person, such messages sell us all short in a way I find heartbreaking.
With the upcoming election, the Black Lives Matters movement, and protests constantly breaking out all over the country, social change is an even more prevalent topic now than ever before. Is there a certain lesson or quote from your book that you feel people should hear in this time of division?
What we are seeing is not so much division as unity expressing its qualities. It would be division if all African Americans left these shores for another, or all caucasians abandoned their homes for some island somewhere. We’re not doing that. We’re staying together and figuring out how to make a more just and equitable world. The symbol of Daoism is the taijitu, otherwise known as the yin/yang symbol ubiquitous in eastern cultures and very popular here in the US, too, especially amongst surfers and martial artists. The symbol connotes a movie, not a still picture, a process, not a state of being. That process is change, and it happens through the harmonious interplay of opposing forces. Those forces, represented by the white “fish” with a black eye and the black “fish” with a white eye offer an especially apt metaphor for the racial strife engulfing the nation these days, reminding us not only of the process of change but that each of us has a bit of the other in her.
Downtrodden minorities all over the world have suffered at the hands of a culture of entitlement and privilege. It is high time we set the wheel of remuneration to spinning, and high time we all (and I include myself) unflinchingly examine even our most stubborn and occult biases. It’s a job for each and every one of us and one that we must engage now, without hesitation. At the same time, we must all accept that after the pendulum has swung back to center, wrongs have been righted and injustices addressed, both tribalism and nationalism cannot stand. Identity politics is necessary now because of how extremely out of balance the world is, but once that balance is restored, borders must be dissolved and differences based upon appearance or culture must evanesce. We must come to see ourselves as belonging to only one tribe; sentient being. There is no other long-term prescription for human enlightenment and survival. As the saying goes, “It’s not about you!”
Environmental conservation is a recurring theme in both Turtle Planet and Mad Monk Manifesto, what advice do you have for people who want to help preserve the earth but do not know where to start? What are some everyday changes people can make to help reverse some of the damage we have done to our beautiful planet?
Many years ago I worked as a field biologist in the Chaco Boreal Region of Paraguay. The Chaco is a thorn jungle found in Paraguay, Argentina, Bolivia, and Brasil. It is a harsh and beautiful place, amazingly biologically diverse and rich in indigenous culture, too. I spent my time studying the mammals and birds and reptiles of the vast area and came to chafe at its physical harshness but worship its natural beauty. 20 years after my work there, I returned for a visit. I hired a Cessna and flew from the Paraguayan capital of Asuncion out to the research station where I had worked. Eager and aloft at 5000 feet, I kept waiting for the Chaco to come into view, but nowhere I looked, from horizon to horizon, did I see anything growing taller than my knee. Gone were the scented palo santo trees, gone were the pristine waterways, the swamps teeming with life, the always-active array of birds and snakes and wild peccaries. Gone were the jaguars and the tortoises. All that magnificent jungle was gone, replaced by one enormous cattle farm, cows raising dust clouds and trampling and eating everything, simply so that Americans could enjoy cheap hamburgers.
The sight was so devastating and so unforgettable, the realization of our malignant transgressions so deeply painful, that I understood immediately I could no longer eat beef or any other farmed creature. The first and easiest and most important step for all of us to take is to go vegan. I have to confess that I say this as a person who enjoyed the taste of a good steak and well-prepared sushi. More, since I have a somewhat muscular build, seem to have a genetically high need for protein (people differ in this regard), and exercise vigorously every day, eating a plant-based diet can be inconvenient and sometimes even difficult. All the same, the world can no longer afford for human beings to eat other animals. The economics, the ecology, and the social stratification around meat-eating has simply rendered it archaic. Just like driving gas-guzzling cars, eating other animals is no longer a sustainable strategy for planet asked to support 7 billion naked apes. Of no less importance than what it is doing to the future of our planet, the sheer aggressive horror of factory farming cannot be condoned by compassionate person.
Some people think that a vegan diet means eating “rabbit food”. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the vegan diet is far more interesting, creative, rich, and nourishing than is an animal-based diet. It’s a numbers game. There are simply many more nutritious fruits and grains and greens than there are factory-farmed animals available for us to eat. More and more restaurants, including fast-food chains, are offering vegan choices and vegan cookbooks are proliferating along with local, organic farms offering the ingredients we need to eat sustainably. Too, there is no longer any real debate that the vegan diet is the healthiest one in the world. Going vegan can forestall suffering, see. If you eat a plant-based diet, you opt out of the cycle of misery created by Big Agriculture and perpetuated by our feeble, profit-oriented healthcare system, which would like to see you popping pills and having procedures from now until the day you die. As a victim of all this, and having endured four heart procedures myself, I can assure you this is suffering nobody wants.
On the subject of suffering, I should say something else, which is perhaps the most compelling argument for going vegan. That something is an exhortation to compassion. If you can eat better and live longer by NOT causing intentional harm to other sentient beings, why would you not do so? In the end, doing no harm, being kind and being healthier, too, may be the best argument of all in favor of the vegan lifestyle.
You are one of few Westerners to receive the incredible honor of being ordained as a Taoist Monk by the Chun Yang Daoist Temple in Guangzhou, China, what has been the most rewarding aspect of this journey and what has been the most challenging?
You may notice that you wrote Taoism in your question whereas I have been using Daoism. Both spellings are correct and in common use, although the D rather than the T more closely approximates the correct pronounciation of the word and comes from the so-called pinyin spelling system advanced by the Chinese government for such transliteration. Daoism is a religion, a philosophy, and a worldwide community of like-minded people. It features great texts, such as Laozi’s Daodejing, said to be the second most-widely-translated book in the world after the Judeo-Christian Bible.It also features rituals, as all religions do, Something unusual about Daoism, though, is that it offers paths of practice, including meditation and physical disciplines such as tai chi and qigong, that create the kind strong and enduring body Daoists believe is the foundation of an enlightened mind.
Those paths were my doorway into Daoism’s treasure house of wisdom and knowledge, and they have engaged me for more than 40 years. The pursuit of them has been endlessly challenging, rewarding, often frustrating, and often fascinating. The Daoist community built around tai chi in particular has been incredibly important to me. My students and followers are some of my best friends, and my teachers have been very nearly as important as immediate family to me. I am grateful to Chun Yang Temple’s abbot, Master Pan, for ordaining me, but most of all I am grateful to my sifu and old friend, Master Max Yan for his transformative role in my life. He has been my mentor and dear friend for a quarter century now, and whatever meager accomplishments I have managed in Daoism I owe to him. American culture doesn’t typically offer this kind of relationship, but I am ever so thankful that traditional Chinese culture does.
If you had to choose one, what would be your favorite quote/lesson/passage from Turtle Planet? How about for Mad Monk Manifesto?
FROM TURTLE PLANET:
“I’ve paddled to the Atlantic from the Gulf of Saint Lawrence to the North Sea, from the Cape of Good Hope to Labrador, she says dreamily. “I’ve greeted young of my kind off the beaches of Suriname and Guyana, Antigua, Barbuda, Tobago, and Gandoca and Parismina in Costa Rica. I’ve crossed to the Pacific and rested on the sands of Papua New Guinea and Gabon. Movie stars have watched me in California. I’ve been churned in the wake of a freighter off Malaysia, where once thousands of my kind gathered at the beach of Rantau Abang before the locals dug our eggs for soup, and kayakers have brushed past me in British Columbia. Once, years ago, I visited kin off the Nicobar Islands, but I never went back because I saw a ghost on a dune and beheld so many young of my kind fall to birds.”
FROM MAD MONK MANIFESTO:
Airline safety announcements counsel us to put on our own oxygen mask before assisting others. The Daoist version of putting on the mask is the process of growing healthy, calm, and clear, balancing our urges so as to grow wise, realize our potential, and become a sage. A sage is a person who deeply senses the flow of the world and moves with it not against it. Sages recognize the inherent wisdom of nature, the long-term genius of universal forces. We have gone beyond book-learning to a different kind of knowing. Quintessentially wise, we seem to do nothing, yet somehow get everything done. At any given moment, we may appear fools, maybe even idiots, and yet in the fullness of time we are revealed to be anything but. We are soft, yielding, and relaxed yet often triumph; we covet nothing, yet have all we need; we seek to control no one but ourselves yet are sought out for counsel; we consider ourselves nothing special yet are in primary and constant contact with ineffable Dao.
On a personal note, how are you nourishing your own soul and taking care of yourself during this chaotic time?
Daoists prize personal equalibrium and equanimity (they call it wuji) above almost all else. Prior to the pandemic, I kept mine through a combination of writing retreats during which I produced my fiction and non-fiction works, my own personal practice of Chinese internal martial arts, and teaching students and followers around the country and the world. Since COVID, I have moved my classes online, suspended my traveling, and moved my personal practice to the hours around dawn here in beautiful Southern Arizona, where I live. Greeting the rising sun each day with traditional Chinese battlefield weapons in my hand brings me focus, strength, and serenity, while connecting with interested people around the world keeps me feeling as if I am making a contribution to the world.
Rapid Fire Questions:
Favorite place in the world? Southwest China/Southeast Asia
Go to coffee (or tea) order? High-mountain Taiwanese oolong tea/Green Tea from Ermei Mountain
Summer or winter? Both. Change is the only constant.
Pancakes or waffles? Rice congee. Don’t do gluten.
Last book you read? Michael Pronko’s Tokyo Detective Trilogy
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Compassion, Conservation, and the Fate of the Natural World
Turtle Planet is a work of philosophical fact and fiction by ordained Daoist Monk Yun Rou. This beautifully written work of thought deeply explores the bond between humans and animals―the wisdom they teach us, the wounds they can heal, and the role we play in their destruction.
A Prescription for Evolution, Revolution, and Global Awakening
Find answers. It’s easy to get outraged by world events, frustrated by our own personal battles, and disenfranchised from government and leadership. Born of moral indignation, informed by decades of study, and seasoned by a life of devoted self-cultivation, Monk Yun Rou’s Mad Monk Manifesto has answers, personal prescriptions, and calls to social and political action in one powerful book.
Change the world by changing ourselves. Based on ancient Chinese wisdom such as Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, Mad Monk Manifesto is part tour guide to consciousness, part recipe for personal development, part prescription for environmental salvation, and part handbook for social change.