Before we start I should add a caveat to this article: I am a philosopher and a Daoist. As such, I suppose, I am open to accusations of bias and a lack of objectivity. This is unavoidable. However, if one wants to know about racing horses, one does not talk to just those who gamble on horse races. I offer only my own understanding of the form and that is limited. I do not claim to have a “monopoly on the truth” or to being in the business of converting people to Daoism. Any mistakes of fact are all my own.
I am often asked, “Just what is Daoism?”
This is a natural enough question to ask, as since I “came out” as a Daoist many people have been genuinely interested. What the question really asks is, “Please can you encapsulate the concepts of Daoism into a single sentence?” The person then normally looks a little askance as I singularly fail in the attempt:
“Well,” I begin, “it’s, er…”
“Yes?” they ask, waiting on my answer, clearly forming the opinion that I can’t be a very serious Daoist without being able to enunciate at least that.
“It’s complicated…” I manage after a ruminating struggle, made all too plain on my face.
These are not particularly comforting moments in my life. I once attempted to write an answer for a work colleague and accidentally sent him a blank email with the subject, “Daoism is…”
He wrote back, “Are you trying to make a point or did you miss off the text?”
I wasn’t, but I wish I had thought to do so. I could then create an email that reads:
Subject: What is Daoism?
(THIS MESSAGE IS LEFT INTENTIONALLY BLANK)
Some people would perhaps even get it from that. It is possible a new Buddha would be created by the universal satori (enlightenment) brought about by reading my blank message. Stranger things have happened and there are documented examples of people having satori’s while gardening and doing the dishes. If it were always that easy for everyone then we would all be Buddha’s by now. Indeed one of the ideas in Daoism and Buddhism is that you already are a Buddha, but have merely forgotten it.
NOTE: Daoism is the translation into English of a Chinese word. There are two ways of doing this. The old way invented by the English, translates it as Taoism. The newer way, invented by the Chinese themselves, gives us Daoism. Both mean the same thing. That is why the city of Peking is now known as Beijing. The city didn’t change its name, the way we translated it changed. I will always use the Chinese way.
Problems with defining Daoism.
When trying to define Daoism most people first get hold of the most famous book of Daoism “The Laozi”, more commonly known as the Dao De Jing, and start reading. Some of the poetry in that great work rubs off on the reader and, like someone fumbling with a jigsaw puzzle formed of a million blank pieces, they start to catch the edge… of something. At least the DDJ makes it very plain why naming Daoism is so hard. Right on page one, line one:
The Dao that can be named is not the true Dao.
Dao means “way” and it means “way” in every possible, er, way of saying “way”. So it means, “The way (to something)”. It means, “My way (of doing things)”. It also means “The way (of life)” and “The way (the universe works)”. But, as the line suggests, it is mysterious and you cannot simply name the Dao by containing it in a word or phrase. You can point to it by observing a tree, but you cannot extract its mysterious essence by chewing on the bark. You can taste it in the air, but you cannot pick some up down the shops. You can suggest it in 10 thousand words, but you cannot write its definition in 1 sentence. It’s like the family quiz game Taboo in that you can talk about it, around it, but you can’t never simply grasp it “cleanly” using our limited language. That is not to say that language cant “evoke” the sense of it like poetry, stories (particularly stories as we shall see) or music. It’s why you nod your head to good music or dance when hoovering and no-one is watching, It is the blind spot, the blank space between the lines, you can no more nail it down than catch lightning in a bottle. It is the living meaning of the saying:
The map is not the territory.
It is all around you, in you, linking the universal heartbeat and behind your eyes. If I am starting to sound like Master Yoda from Starwars, well now you know where they got the idea of The Force from.
Reading the DDJ raises more questions than answers. The DDJ is a very old collated-series of ancient sayings, it points to no deity and has no single author. It is attributed to Master Lao, but he almost certainly never existed and what remains was already ancient when it was collected into the current form and split into the two parts. The Chinese did exhaustive research into trying to find Master Lao, but eventually gave up. Trying to force these sayings into some sort of fully sensible and coherent form is one of the major hurdles one has to come to terms with when reading the DDJ. Indeed, it has thousands of translations into English and all of them fail to capture the original perfectly. I have 20 copies in formats as diverse as podcasts, Penguin editions, master scholarly works, bowdlerised poetic rewrites and iBooks digital copies. All are different and all are, as the famous saying goes, “Fingers pointing at the moon. Concentrating on the finger means you miss the heavenly glory above”. You miss the point.
The same goes for the other major Daoist work in English, the Zhuangzi. Unlike Master Lao, Zhuangzi did exist (around 370 BCE), but he also only wrote part of his famous book. However, what a book! Zhuangzi’s work is a core text in the movement of scepticism and relativism. He is mostly concerned with wondering why people try so hard to split the world into dual notions, such as “Right and Wrong”, “Good and Evil”, “Smooth and Crunchy” and more importantly, “I and Thou”.
He criticises these things by telling funny stories.
In these he shows, gently, loftily, that trying to over analyse situations is almost always to commit a fundamental error. His stories tell of people who just “do” rather than think. people such as cooks, craftsmen, swimmers and butchers. People to whom reasoning is of little use in their activities, in the sense that a Cicada-catcher is attentive to his task and heedless of the doubt of “thinking too much”.
He just catches the bug.
Master Zhuangzi is poking fun at people’s perceptions in order to show them that most of the things they over-think and rationalise are actually the arms holding them back from being happy and free. Zhuangzi would probably be labelled a “free spirit” today, but his work isn’t a dreamy loose fantasy, his mind is sharper than a razor. It is chock full of epistemology (How do we know “what is true”? How do we get knowledge?) mixed with an attractive humour missing from most Western religious texts. Zhuangzi was a detached master flowing with the world and not against it.
It asks some amazing questions:
Once Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased.
He didn’t know he was Zhuangzi.
Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuangzi.
But he didn’t know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi.
Between Zhuangzi and a butterfly there must be some distinction!
This is called the Transformation of Things.
(2, tr. Burton Watson 1968:49)
It is at this point that a lot of people give up; having fumbled with the subject, but found no clear answers, they leave it safely on the shelf. Only the stubborn continue to look further into it and even those robust investigators may not like what they find. Reading into the history of Daoism brings no golden age of philosophical freedom, in fact it brings up many “types” of Daoist endeavors full of cults, crazy gods, Celestial Masters and drinking mercury to live forever.
To western eyes this part is a real turn off. In their defense they simply ignore Daoism’s history and focus on the two books mentioned above. Thus you get the “break” between Religious Daoism and the so-called Philosophical Daoism. Let me assure you that break is not really there. It has been created by philosophers with limited access to the works of the subject and taking the small parts they see as something else from all the dress up and dancing. In fact the religious practice is an expression of the Dao. The strange Celestial Master Daoism found in China today is also an expression of the Dao.
Daoism is the embodiment of the phrase, “the correct answer to free speech you find offensive is more free speech!”
For Daoism is a religion and not a simply a philosophy. That it is a hard to understand and essentially mysterious religion does not change that it contains a religious experience at the heart of it. That is a necessary part and cannot be worked around by wishful secular longing for an Eastern path that doesn’t “get weird”. Without that you won’t be able to stick at it long enough to “get it”.
So, I am going to take up the challenge of communicating “what is Daoism” in two parts. Firstly, I am going to give a brief history of Daoism. That’s the easy part. Secondly, we are going to, if not capture lightning in a bottle, at least be standing atop a hill during a thunderstorm with our fingers in the air.
Daoism: a short historical primer.
Please note: While the following is a gentle line drawn through the history of Daoism, I am not suggesting that Daoism has a linear progression in the same way as the churches of Europe. Hence, I have not written this history with many names and dates that would become “milestones” in the movement. Daoism is a very large and diverse subject and China is a very large country with space for all sort of “interpretations”. In fact Daoism encourages interpretations.
Daoism started as a shamanistic collection of cults and religious practices in ancient China (around 1000 BC). It mingled with the folk religion of nature worship and a few principles stuck. These are such ideas as personal transformation, which is the commonality in all Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism. This principle first took the form of talismans, mysticism and external alchemy that was basically trying to find ways to produce potions and become immortal. That proved popular and many cults and sects were merrily trying all sorts of poisonous brews to become one with the gods in heaven. Around this time (4th Century BC) some written works appeared that would later become the most recognisable Daoist thoughts such as the DDJ and the Zhuangzi, while a man called Zhang Daoling codifyed Daoism into a religion with a canon and gods after a spectral visitation from Lao Tze. Eventually this transformed into the idea of internal alchemy (3rd century onwards). No longer searching for elixirs, the Daoists searched inside themselves through such practices as meditation, sexual magic and living in caves. This practice gave us the notion of “chi energy”.
Daoist priests, philosophies and practices were in the heart of the Chinese culture and even with the arrival of Buddhism it remained a driving influence in China even for hundreds of years. There were even Daoist states in China back then.
China’s history is one of various rulers and philosophies rising and falling and while all this was happening another great master was born whose influence on the Chinese is still felt today. He was called Master Kong, who is better known in the west as Confucius. His teachings were seemingly at odds with Daoism, but nothing could be further from the truth and all three practices spiralled around and through each other, in and out of the corridors of power for the next few hundred years. They influenced each other immensely as shown in this classic painting:
Song painting in the Litang style illustrating the theme “Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism are one”.
It depicts “Taoist Lu Xiujing (left), official Tao Hongjing (right) and buddhist monk Huiyuan (center, founder of Pure Land Buddhism) by the Tiger stream. The stream borders a zone infested by tigers that they just crossed without fear, engrossed as they were in their discussion. Realising what they just did, they laugh together, hence the name of the picture,Three laughing men by the Tiger stream.” Source: WIKIPEDIA
Also worth noting is that religions were not split by class in China with Daoism being the stuff of the country folk. Emperors were Daoist, Daoist priests were at court performing ceremonies to keep the country in harmony while farmers followed the paths of Confucian thought and family structure. Over these years Daoism gave rise to many of the things we take as Chinese, such as Tai Chi, the Ying Yang symbol and speaking like Master Yoda. Chan Buddhism (heavily influenced by Daoism) was practiced in such places as the famous Song monastry of Shaolin, but after much persecution moved on to Japan, and became Zen Buddhism.
One of the ways of “getting” Daoism is to “get” Zen Buddhism as they have heavily influenced each other.
Eventually, Daoism and Confucianism met with the unstoppable force of Maoism and were both sublimed and crushed in equal measure. The Maoist revolutionaries knew that they could never totally eradicate Daoism as it contains a large amount of “folk” belief that resides in the cultural psyche and so they selected a particular form of it and put the governmental stamp on it.
That is an incredibly short version of the history of Daoism. What I hope it highlights is that Daoism is a little strange for a religion:
- It has had gods and deities at some times and not at others.
- It has been an immortality cult for while and contained shamanistic magic at others.
- It has “borrowed” from Buddhism, but also given back to the middle path.
- It has had celibate priests in the heart of empire and yet has had sexual magic practiced in the mountains.
- It has two main books translated into English, but neither author knew about the other, neither would label themselves as Daoist and at least one of them is legendary.
I can appreciate the problems in trying to understand such a changing and seemingly constantly moving target! Western intellectuals have worked hard for hundreds of years to try to bring the wisdom in Daoism under their command. The traditional method of doing so is the finding of commonalities amongst the various beliefs. After all, no matter how many strange and diverse Christian sects exist; they all believe in Jesus as the Saviour; that is what makes them Christian. It is what gives them their religious comfort. Daoism is eventually just as comforting, but given the five contradicting points above this is not an easy exercise.
The trick is to realise that these actions are an attempt to “express” the Dao, but there is no “true way”, indeed anyone claiming to have one is always false. For this reason, Daoism has at its heart the understanding that everything is relative.
Relation to Buddhism.
Another method, and one expounded by such philosophers as Alan Watts, was to not only draw a line between the various “Daoisms” of antiquity, but to highlight by reference to the religion it most heavily influenced; Zen.
One of the main ways in teaching Zen is through the master ignoring his students. Often the master will reject a new applicant outright and in such a forthright way that the student will give up there and then. “I have nothing to teach you,” the master will say. The pupil will, if he is earnest, persevere with the master and many stories and legends abound regarding this strange situation and how various adherents have dealt with it. The most famous story is told of the Indian Zen Master Bodhidharma, who rejected a pupil again and again until finally the pupil cut off his arm and demanded an audience. The great master agreed to meet with the pupil and took him under his wing.
This story only makes sense to Western eyes in that we know that one must strive to understand and that one must show commitment and diligence. Actually there is a secret here:
The Master truly had nothing to teach.
Zen is about coming to your own realisation. It takes a lot of time and work and the master will help you, although not in a way you might appreciate. Should he accept you as a student then don’t expect to receive anything that could be construed as an “answer” to Zen. That is, don’t presume that Zen has esoteric knowledge and concerned only with moving through stages of learning. In fact, the most similar western experience to Zen training is probably Army Drill School. The army takes in “normal” people and turns them into killers; people with the will to kill. This is not easy. They do this by working you physically until you drop, regimenting your life and stripping you of your identity until you can be mentally reprogrammed. Zen is similar to this, but instead of forming you into a killing machine the Zen master strips you of your illusions, pares your personality down to its core and then makes you look at yourself. He does this by forcing you to answer impossible riddles, making you work in the fields, attend very very long ceremonies and hitting you with a stick if you are not meditating properly (or even if you are). This effort can take a lifetime, but finally you break the distinction between body and mind, between self and universe and wake up. You realise that the personality you hold so dear, that special “me” you think is yourself, it is a blank sheet of paper with no writing on it. It is not there at all. You are not apart from this Universe at all.
Zen is a form of psychoanalysis!
Daoism is similar to that, just without a Japanese guy hitting you around the head with a stick. In Daoism you have to hit yourself. Daoism is therefore like many religions from the East in that they all believe that you can transform yourself through training. This training involves mastering meditation and learning to live in the “now”. This means not allowing your mind to float into dreams of the future nor reminiscences of the past.
To the Daoist , the future doesn’t exist, the past doesn’t exist, there is only the present.
There is no set way to do this, no definite doctrine to follow and no master to teach you. There is only yourself, the books, other Daoists and a number of self then universal realisations on the road to understanding. Be they sudden or slow, they will come to you.
Where is Daoism Practiced?
There are many Daoist mountains in China, but one of the most famous is a mountain called Wudang Shan.
It is famous for being the birth place of internal Kung Fu styles such as Tai Chi. Walking up it is quite an experience. There are 20 thousand steps up Wudang before getting to the top and it is an exhausting journey.
The endless stone steps tower above you, winding upwards seemingly into the heavens. Along the way there are many temples and the steps often lead you through the courtyards. Each of these temples has an increasingly strained mystic name which each subsequent temple tries very hard to trump.
So the harmony temple may be followed by the grand harmony temple, the majestic temple of great tranquillity and so on ad nausea, all the way up the steps. This naming convention seemed to me at the time to be a cute cultural translation and something quite un-purposely funny, but actually it had a definite point; the idea that you are rising to heaven and every time you think you have made it: you haven’t and there is more to go. Along the way you meet many people on the same journey. You see rich and poor alike. The rich are carried up in palanquins, totally breaking the point, and this is most discouraging. More encouraging, but not perhaps comforting, are the groups of little old Chinese ladies you meet that even at the tender ages of what looks to be 150 can hop up the steps like a herd of mountain goats.
After hours of climbing you arrive at a large temple and then upwards still more until you finally come to the top, which is above the clouds. You are here at the pinnacle of China’s attempts to reach heaven. Here sits a large golden temple and some very old Daoist priests.
Here is a film about my trip up that mountain:
After an age you have to walk back down and find some hot water for your strained leg muscles. For me, and I didn’t know this at the time, I was not the same guy walking down. My trip into the clouds had prompted me to leave something behind and to gain the courage to be what I wanted.
Experiences like that are something of a slow burn for most of us. It took another two months before I felt a change in myself and what I believed. I suppose that was simply how long it took me to “check” my beliefs inside. Most of the time people simply remember that they believe something, but they don’t check. Many religious practices are geared towards sustaining belief so you don’t have to check it.
So, what exactly are the beliefs of a Daoist?
Many philosophers and religious teachers, not to mention a lot of Western Intelle