The Hijacking of Daoism in the West: how salesmen came to dominate the discourse of the Dao 17 October 2017

Daoism has a relatively short history in the west, with the first English language translation of the Dao De Jing (the major original text of Daoism) being done by Scottish missionary John Chalmers in 1868. Although Daoism has existed as a cultural paradigm, religion, spiritual practice, and philosophy in China for more than 2300 years, the proliferation of Daoism in the west started relatively recently.

Daoism in the west faces several critical problems in its inclusion as one of the great religions of the world in that there is a lack of accurate communication about Daoism occurring outside of its cultural brithplace in China. One of the key problems with the proliferation of Daoism in the west is its use as a means of securing a career by western spiritual seekers, some of whom have spent time studying Daoism in China.

The central idea of Daoism is that it is possible to make spiritual progress through various forms of practice such as meditation, Chinese yoga, and various forms of ceremonial rite. Much like Buddhism, Daoism has a wide variety of meditative disciplines which appeal to many seekers in the west. From early in the twentieth century, the spiritual practices of Daoism were already being considered and brought into discussion by the likes of psychologist Carl Gustav Jung and philosopher Alan Watts.

Unfortunately neither Jung or Watts were able to secure serious training with Daoist adepts, who are notoriously reclusive and who until more recently have been shy about taking on western students. This means that although both scholars attemped to make sense of Daoist concepts, neither were able to get the formal Chinese literary education, or guidance that they would have needed to be able to form a complete picture of what the practice of Daoism entails. Both Jung and Watts dismissed the Daoist religion as a collection of superstitious folk practices and believed that the benefits of Daoism were to be found in various philosophical and spiritual texts of the school.

Unfortunately, cultural development is often predicated more on word of mouth than truth, and for many years, people who are interested in Daoism in the west have been prone to believe in the half truths forwarded by Watts, Jung and similar famous academics who dabbled in Eastern philosophy. The fact of the matter is that ideas such as philosophy and religion are fairly new concepts in China, and during the early, mid, and late stage development of Daoism, there were no terms used to define separate philosophical and religious aspects of the school.  Daoism is a cultural system which is not predicated on the reductive or materialist paradigms of western modernity, it is a broad set of Chinese cultural concepts  which affect all areas of Chinese culture, from day to day life, to spirituality, to governence.

The separation of philosophical and religious ideas in Daoism came about as a result of the Chinese modernist movement of the early twentieth century, in which ideas of philosophy were imported to China from the west, and at which time many modernist Chinese thinkers, seeking to separate themselves from the China of antiquity, began to speak of Chinese thought in terms of its distinction with Chinese folk religious practices.

This separation of categories into a modern secular and ancient religious world views is a legitimate study, but must be recognized to be a product of modernity.

During Daoist antiquity, there was simply no idea of the serapation of Daoism into individual axiomatic categories.  Rather, the most predominant way of thinking about Daoism historically has been in the separation of individual schools of thought, of which thee are many. This means that ancient Daoism tended to be defined by what the practitioners of a certain sect, or order believed, rather than whether the sect was devoted to philosophy or religion.  This means that the metaphysic of Daoism have always been expressed in spiritual, rather than empirical terms.

It also means that the major function of daoist thought is always geared toward self cultivation via various forms of spiritual exercise such as meditation, abstinence, recital of religious texts and so on.  The commonality between all major Daoist schools is the academic rigour with which Daoist texts are read, analyzed, and practiced. In this sense, Daoism has many commonalities with the structure of traditional western religions such as Catholocism, which also has many orders and relies on the dedication of its academics to read, interpret, and disseminate its ideas.

Because of the hurdles involved in understanding Daoism, and more broadly, Chinese religion, Daoist ideas have yet to be accurately portrayed in popular media outside of China.

People like Alan Watts and Carl Jung unwittingly set the ground for the development of a second, third, and fourth generation of western people interested in Daoism, may of whom would go on to further muddy the waters with misinformation based on personal prejudice. From the late 1970s, it has become common place for Western people to go to China in order to learn about spirituality and arts and culture.   It has become especially popular to learn about the Chinese martial arts and an entire industry of China educated martial arts teachers has cropped up in the Americas and Europe.

Alongside martial arts training, many of these people also studied some form of Daoistic health practice with their martial arts teachers, many of whom were involved in Daoism, or similar religions such as I Kuan Tao. These health practices tend to gravitate around a modern Chinese practice called Qi Gong, or The Art of Breathing, which although based on medieval Daoist and Buddhist ideas, is essentially a modern health cultivation practice popularized in no small part by the Mainland Chinese government under Mao ZeDong. Typically, upon returning from China, these teachers use the name of Daoism in order to brand their lessons and published instructional materials.

Although it is perhaps unfit to directly name teachers who engage in this, it is valuable to point out that in America today, there are at least ten major teachers of these arts who lived in China for a brief time during the 1970s and 80s, studied some aspects of Daoism and returned home as respected cultural teachers, with thousands of students who trust that what is being transmitted by them is genuine Chinese Daoism.

This corporatization of Daoism would not be a crisis if it was not for the already very tenuous and often outright incorrect understanding of Daoism perpetuated by early researchers on the subject. Buddhism in its various instantiations has fared quite well in the western world and is understood by the vast majority of people to be an Eastern religious system with a modern secular component, and that there are many ways of understanding and practicing Buddhism.

Daoism on the other hand is usually misrepresented in the western discourse as first and foremost a philosophical endeavour and secondly, as a pseudo-religion of credulous peasants, run by nebulous witch doctors hungry for material gain. In light of the long and illustrious history of Daoist religious practices, Daoist folk sciences such as medicine and alchemy, and the intersection of Daoism with the Chinese dynastic system, it is pitiable that such an important cultual facet of China is so poorly represented here.

Although it is perhaps unrealistic to expect people not to use their training to sell a product (which the author of this article must bashfully admit he himself engages in), there needs to be a revitalization of ideas surroudning Daoism in the west which can create room for new narratives expressed by academic experts in the field, religious and lay practitioners, and most importantly, the living Daoist clergy and secular experts in modern China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

Without the inclusion of real Daoist voices, it is ompletely possible that one of the world’s most beautiful and important cultural practices will remain only partially uncovered outside of its birthplace, and that the great wisdom and benefit of Daoist thought will always remain an inaccessible mystery to people outside of the inenr sanctum of the places where true Daoism is still practiced.

Thankfully, there are a handfull of highly dedicated practitioners, clergy people, and academics in the west who have been taking measures to propagate accurate infomation about Daoism and hopefully with ongoing contributions by the likes of Michael Saso, Fabrizio Perdagio, and others who have lived and worked with Daoist religious representatives in China, we are beginning to see a small shift in the discourse surrounding Daoism in the west.

An ever present danger to this though is that there is also the possibility of a reverse current in Daoist thought which precludes the incredible contributions to Daoism made by people who were not involved in religious orders.   The history of Daoism is diverse and complex, with people on all levels of Chinese society making additions to the cannon, not just philosophers and not just religious clanspeople.

Daoism is a vast, profound, and interesting school of thought, which while largely misunderstood outside of China, is well worth spending the time to research and properly understand.

About Robert James Coons

Robert James Coons is a Canadian born world traveler and tea merchant. He was lucky enough to be schooled in the Daoist practice of Internal Alchemy by his teacher Yang Hai, a student of Cao Zhenyang of the white cloud temple, Beijing. He has publisehd numerous articles on Daoism, self help, and tea, as well as the book Internal Elixir Cultivation, the Nature of Daoist Meditation, available at Tambuli Media. Robert and his wife Lin currently run a tea shop in Burlington Ontario and enjoy playing with their cat and dog.

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