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264th Meeting - Tuesday July 19th 2005

Daoism in the 20th century: From Local Traditions to Global Networks

A talk by David Palmer and Elijah Siegler

Richard Nelson-Jones, Louis Gabaude, Stephane Spano, Prasit Roekphisot, Bulgan Fuichbet, Michael Bauwens, Moera Saule, Guy Cardinal, Patrick McGowan, Thomas Ohlson, Simone Buys, John Butt, Peter Holmshaw, Ian White, Eric Lynn, Brock Wilson, Oliver Benjamin, Silapakit Teckandikum, Hathairat Munart. An audience of 19. 

A summary of their talk prepared by David Palmer and Elijah Siegler
Introduction: Tao Garden (given by Elijah Siegler)

30 minutes outside Chiang Mai, near the village of Doi Saket, is a health spa called Tao Garden. It offers massage, herbal treatments. Also classes for Daoist practices: six healing sounds, microcosmic orbit, “Taoist yoga,” etc. Many people there say they follow the Dao, practice Daoism, etc. and use terms such as qi, yin yang etc.

What has Daoism to do with spa treatment? How is Tao Garden a center of global Daoism? First, what is Daoism?

Historical Introduction to Daoism (given by David Palmer)

Daoism is known as the indigenous religion of China; it is also increasingly considered to be a world religion. But unlike most other world religions, it does not present itself as having a clear founding date, founder, doctrine, and institution. Many different types of people, with little in common with each other, have claimed an affiliation to “Daoism” over the centuries.

The Spiritual Ancestor of All Daoists: Laozi

But one thing all “Daoists” share is a reference to Laozi, the author of the Daodejing or Book of the Way and its Virtue, which is the best known Daoist classic. Little is known of Laozi as a historical personage or even if he truly existed. He is said to have lived in the 6th century BC, around the same time as the Buddha. He was a court archivist and is said to have been a teacher Confucius. He wandered off to the West on the back of buffalo. When he reached the Western Gate of the Chinese realm, Yin Xi, the guardian of the gate, entreated him to transmit his wisdom; he thus composed 5000 verses on bamboo sticks; preserved as the Daodejing. Laozi then disappeared in the Mountains of the West.

The Daodejing is a text about the “Dao”, which means “way”, the ultimate source and law of the cosmos; and talks about the operation of the Dao and how to live in harmony with it; how to return to its source; selflessness, spontaneity; non-interfering action; water metaphor.

There are at least four types of people who, in Chinese history, have claimed a spiritual affiliation with Laozi and/or the Daodejing. Indeed, Laozi didn’t found a sect or a religion; he had no following; but many types of people have claimed an affiliation to him; have been inspired by him; or have had revelations from him as a supreme god. The ideas, traditions, and practices of these people circulated and gradually came to be known as “Daoism”.

a)      Seekers after immortality. Concerned with cultivation of the body; healing sickness; prolonging life; refining and sublimating the human body until it would transcend life and death. Concern with reversing the flow of bodily decay, bringing it back to its source in Dao; to manifest the operation of Dao. Pharmaceutical herbs; diet; stretching exercises (daoyin); breathing exercises; visualization and meditation exercises; external alchemy – concoct the elixir of immortality; internal alchemy – body as alchemical furnace. This has led to a substantial body of knowledge and traditions about the body, how to maintain and nurture it.

b)      Sectarian masters & followers. Some immortality-seekers acquired healing and other magical powers; were seen as having attained immortality or in direct communication with Immortals; they acquired large numbers of followers; formed a community. The first organized groups of Daoists. Sects had all the elements of what we would call a religion: scriptures; a pantheon of divinities; a ritual organization; etc. Also often had apocalyptic doctrines. Zhang Daoling claimed to have revelation from Laozi and founded the Heavenly Masters sect, which evolved into the first organized Daoist institution.

c)      Ritual specialists. Original sectarian communities did not last, but their ritual knowledge continued to be transmitted. Became major ritual specialists of local cults. Organization of local cults. Ritual specialists accumulated a large body of tradition on rituals and the pantheon of divinities, which combined Daoist gods and local gods.

d)      Literati. People of gentry classes who enjoyed dabbling in Daoist philosophy and poetry, as well as medicine and immortality, scholars and officials attracted by romantic ideals of detachment from this world; produced many works of philosophy, poetry, novels on Daoist themes.

Daoist monasticism

Combines all four previous forms. Main Daoist sect in China today: Quanzhen (Complete Perfection, Complete Authenticity), founded in 12th century by borrowing institutional structure of Buddhist monasticism. Allowed a setting for seeking immortality while serving communities as ritual specialists.

The crisis of Daoism at the beginning of the 20th century

Situation at end of 19th cent.: Quanzhen monastics; sectarian groups; ritual specialists; unorganized networks of immortality seekers and body cultivators. No centralized institution; often little in common between these groups except that they claimed connection to Dao. Revolution of 1911; end of Chinese imperial system; introduction of Western concepts of “religion”, “superstition”. Debates among intellectuals: What was Daoism? A religion? A philosophy? Superstition?

Daoism in the West

Daoism is rich storehouse of Chinese culture, but in “retreat” after the Tang dynasty. (It became a religion of priests without a congregation).

Religious Daoism as superstition comes from the Confucian literati. They informed Protestant missionaries. The view that that contemporary Daoism was backwards and a degeneration of pure philosophical Daoism. Example: James Legge (1815-1897) a Scottish Congregationalist missionary, the leading scholar of Chinese religion from the late 1870s until the end of the century. Works still influential today.

Many translations of Daodejing by poets who know no Chinese. Daodejing popular because of its brevity, its lack of proper names, and especially its multiplicity of possible meanings.

Most textbooks and reference works still begin their entries on Daoism by noting the distinction between religious and philosophical Daoism. A famous example: From Huston Smith, The Religions of Man, 1958:

When the [philosophical] concept was translated to make contact with the average villager and institutionalized around this translation it would be rendered in cruder and eventually perverted terms. To pass from the lofty heights of the Tao Te Ching to the priestcraft of Popular Taoism is like passing from a crystal mountain spring to the thick, fetid waters of a stagnant canal . . . [at times becoming] little more than a funeral racket.

(Little published before 1978 has much value)

 Another subject was physical practice and alchemy. The ideas advanced by scholars such as Henri Maspero, Joseph Needham, and Robert Van Gulik about Daoist conceptions health, longevity, immortality, and transcendence appealed to the West’s growing need for body-centered spirituality.

This was the intellectual preparation. The other half of the equation was the Chinese immigrants themselves. Who were they? They knew the Daodejing, Calligraphy, taiji chuan and other forms of exercise, called Taoist yoga (later called qigong).

But they were not Daoists but literati—nostalgic for their lost world.

The late 1960s: immigration reform; spiritual hunger in the west

Later, full blown Daoist masters (on the guru model). Much deeper into body centered practice- internal alchemy. Also a time when sexual practice - kundalini, Tantra, general books on sex (Joy of Sex) became popular.

By the late 1970s and 1980s, a plethora of “Tao of” books… “Tao” Centers.

With the New Age, Daoism became a vehicle for feminist and ecological thought.

But what was happening in China at the same time…?

Qigong in PRC (DP)

By the time the Communist Party of China (CCP) took power in 1949, the Quanzhen monastic order had attained recognition as an official religion and could thus enjoy a limited degree of religious freedom. All the other traditions I have described as claiming a link to Daoism – the body cultivation, sectarian groups, and ritual specialists were to be discarded as “feudal superstition”. At the same time, however, some CCP officials took an interest in longevity and body cultivation techniques for their health benefits. They undertook a project of secularizing the techniques under the new category of qigong. These practices thus moved from the popular religious and Daoist milieu into the hospitals and sanatoria of the new state in the 1950’s.

Qigong was banned in the Cultural Revolution, but in defiance of official condemnations a new model of mass practice in public parks was popularized in Beijing in the 1970’s. By the end of the 70’s, with the Cultural Revolution concluded, senior government officials encouraged the propagation of qigong. Thousands of masters, many of whom had Daoist backgrounds, came out of obscurity and started teaching their methods under the name of qigong. However, the religious roots could not be completely eliminated. Some popular methods induced trance states in which practitioners had visions of deities and Daoist immortals. Many qigong methods were steeped in Daoist or Buddhist cosmology and symbolism. Many qigong masters were seen as having miraculous healing powers through their ability to project vital energy or qi to other people. Some, including several of China’s most powerful political leaders as well as its most influential scientists, believed that this qi was the key to a new worldwide scientific revolution. Enthusiasm for qigong reached its peak at the end of the 1980’s – around 100 million people were practicing qigong. Through qigong, many people became interested in Daoism.

By the mid 1990’s, however, for a number of reasons the political support for qigong declined, some scientists began to wage a heated polemic against the “pseudo-science” and “superstition” of many qigong practices, and the general climate became unfavorable to qigong in China. Most of the famous qigong masters emigrated to the United States, Australia, Canada, France, and other Western countries, where they could find a more welcoming environment in the New Age and alternative medicine worlds.

Daoist Identity (ES)

Who would become a Daoist? American Daoist identity provides both a loose set of values and practices and a grounded feeling of history and tradition. Thus Daoist identity is both fluid and grounded at the same time.

Individually tailored, body-centered spirituality. Mix-and-match practices.

All this is present at Tao Garden here in Chiang Mai…

Conclusion: Tao Garden (DP)

Tao Garden founded by Mantak Chia, a Thai-born Chinese who learned Daoist body techniques from a master in Hong Kong and developed them into “Universal Tao” system that is designed to be compatible with Western sensibilities. This is the most widespread form of Daoist body cultivation in the West. Tao Garden attracts students from around the world. Although cut off from the Chinese world. But now, Chia’s chief American disciple takes Westerners on pilgrimage to Chinese Daoist sites. Tao Garden also invites Quanzhen monk from Mainland China to teach. Daoism has become globalized, and the center of this is here in Chiang Mai.

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