This fabulous new book takes you inside the experience of ordinary Chinese folk as they seek to re-grow their spirituality after the challenges of communist suppression. The battle between traditional spiritual beliefs and modern economic-scientific belief is a universal theme that Westerners also face. Here it is lived through Chinese eyes by perhaps the most astute China watcher today – who is himself a practicing Taoist and qigong lover. Full book review below.
Fall Schedule of Tao Events in Asheville, N.C.
• Sept. 23: Sat. 7:30 pm. Fall Equinox White Dragon Ceremony (free): LET GO
Breathing & Bone Rooting – prevent or heal chronic illness and clear ancestral issues
• Dec. 23: Sat. 7:30 pm. Winter Solstice Black Dragon Ceremony (free) GO WITHIN
Note: Healing Tao USA Forum has restored 20 years of archived posts, now easily searched. Stay in the flow of “the know”: https://healingtaousa.com/forum-h
Dear Lovers of the Deep Truth of Your Way,
People often ask me, “What is the best book on Taoism I should read?”Mostly I tell them NOT to read books. Tao is hard to put into words. Time is better spent practicing movement qigong and inner alchemy sitting meditation, starting with the simple Inner Smile. That if they don’t have a teacher, read my free ebook on my homepage (Way of the Inner Smile: Tao Path to Peace and Self-Acceptance). In short, I tell them Tao is about “reading” your own inner nature, by attuning to the Qi flow that underies all biology, psychology, and spiritual awakening.
Of course, there are a few excellent books “about” Taoism that offer insights. Daoist Body Cultivation by Livia Kohn (Ed., with a chapter on sexual energy cultivation by me). The Taoist Body by Kristofer Schipper describes ritual alchemy principles beautifully.
Installments of my forthcoming 5-part online training, Primordial Tai Chi: Way of Enlightened Self-Love will soon start coming out. They will clarify Tao Cosmological Qigong and help Westerners grasp how Qi = Love. Both “divine love” and “Original Breath/Yuan Qi” are highest cultural values.
Meanwhile, I tell folks to read my website FAQs, peruse old Chi Flows Naturally newsletters, and my Articles Page for information that is not in any books.
But now it’s 2017. Awareness of Taoism/Daoism has grown in the West, both amongst adepts and scholars. And 2017 looks to be like a bumper crop with TWO truly “must read” books that raise the bar of excellence in different ways. One is coming out in November 2017: Dream Trippers: Global Daoism and the Predicament of Modern Spirituality, by David Palmer and Elijah Siegler (U. Chicago Press).
It uses my China Dream Trips (which the authors attended numerous times) as a springboard to compare views of Western Taoists with Chinese Daoists in religious garb/temples, as well as hidden Wandering Taoists. I’ve read an advance copy. The authors are brilliant – and ruthless – in exposing the reality and superficialities of a wide range of modern seekers of the Way, East and West. To be reviewed later this year.
The other “best in class” book of 2017: The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, by Ian Johnson (Pantheon, 455 pp). Why is it a “must read”? See my full review below.
Also, don’t forgeNTSNt to read my energetic take, based on inner alchemy, of what really happened during the Great Solar Eclipse of Aug. 21.
Feel Free to Contact Me – I love hearing from you!
There are many reasons The Souls of China is a “must read” for serious seekers of the Way. It fills a major gap in in the knowledge base of most Western Taoists: what is the attitude about religion in China amongst the ordinary folk, including those who practice Dao /Tao today? (Note: I use Dao, favored by scholars and mainland Chinese, and Tao, favored by the Western public, interchangeably in this review. They are pronounced the same).
The majority of Western seekers of eastern religion will never make it to China. Even if they do, they still must read this book. I’ve been to China 20 times, read hundreds of books and articles on Taoism, and was amazed at how much I learned. Ian Johnson speaks fluent Chinese and spent the better part of a decade roaming the countryside and living amongst different religious groups. He relentlessly unearths and brings to life the spark of deep spiritual fervor that never died, despite the communists concerted attempt to suppress religion as the “opiate of the masses’ (Karl Marx’s famous phrase). By now, they realize the best they can do is manage this deep impulse to explore the divine so that it doesn’t derail the Party, and in some cases profit from it.
Johnson has the unique ability to gracefully “embed” himself in local life and report on the most intimate details of what is going on behind the “face” of the Chinese. Instead of a fly on the wall, Johnson is a fly on the inside of the inscrutable Chinese mask. What are their true feelings, their core spiritual values? This is not something a casual traveller to China can easily discover.
Souls is also unique in the wide scope of culture and history of China that is woven into the gripping personal narratives. It is so skillfully done you don’t even realize you just got a Masters Degree in the evolution of multiple religions under “scientific” communism. It not only covers Taoism, China’s indigenous religion, but the foreign Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam as well. As a practicing Taoist, this rounded out my viewpoint as to the commonalities and differences between Taoism and other religions.
I saw more clearly how the Chinese are playing out their version of a global drama over changing paradigms. Spiritual views across the planet are being challenged by the on(slaught of science’s “empirical materialism”. The issue is not communism vs. capitalism; it’s about spiritual belief vs. scientific belief. It’s a cosmological battle to capture the hearts (ineffable soul) and minds (sensory, survival-driven self) of ordinary citizens.
In China, the difference is that the main Taoist actor in this play and concepts like Qi has been deeply embedded in Chinese culture for millennia. Daoists in China have traditionally had a dispassionate neutral-scientific-eye that naturally observed the flow of Qi in nature. They also had an openness to accepting and incorporating change rather than battling it. That’s why there have been no religious wars in China, due to the Tao of Openness.
The vast breadth of China’s unfolding cosmological drama is combined in Souls with a flow of powerful detail that is magnificently poetic. He evokes a feeling of really “being in China”, being in their bedrooms, temples, caves, house churches, graveyards. One of my favorite characters is known by locals as the “Yin-Yang Man”, a rural fengshui and Taoist burial ceremony expert who carries on his family tradition going back many generations. He has a troupe of singers who know all the traditional Taoist ritual songs to calm the living and assist the dead. An eerie midnight scene of re-burying an ancestor in a different corner of a family plot reminds us that feng shui was originally a graveyard art. The change of burial direction brings in a different element (quality of Qi) to improve the destiny of the living.
2009 Tao Confernce inside the Communist Holy of Great Holy Halls. Rachel Sun, my translator, in foreground.
I first met Ian Johnson at an international conference of over 1000 Taoists in Beijing’s Peoples Great Hall (where the Communist Party holds its congress) in 2009. We quickly became friends. I presented a paper that overlaps one theme of his book: Daoist Qi Science vs. Western Science: Which is More Real? (https://healingtaousa.com/articles/daoist-qi-science-vswestern-science/)
In the 1990s Johnson helped run a charity to rebuild Daoist temples. In 2001 he won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the suppression of Falun Gong, a movement combining simple Daoist qigong movements and an unorthodox Buddhist fundamentalism. Johnson has reported from China for the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and is considered by many to be the most saavy Western reporter in China today. (I list links to a couple of his interesting aricles on Taoism in China in a section below on his favorite books on Tao).
The Souls of China is his major lifetime work, and in its genre is unlikely to be surpassed by anyone. Souls is very different from an academic exploration of the multiple religions trying to rebirth themselves in the modern age of science and communism. It’s really about the soul of China itself, struggling to re-discover its moral compass after a half century+ of being bombarded by slogans and materialistic propaganda.
Anyone who has done business in China knows that this crisis in ethics is very real. It’s OK to screw people and get ahead. The result of China’s current spiritual struggle will shape its national identity. Like attracts like; a nation of corrupt screw-thy-neighbors will end up getting screwed. Anti-corruption campaigns have begun, but the jury is still out. The outcome of China’s quest for spiritual integrity will ultimately determine its destiny as a rising superpower.
My Interview with Ian Johnson in Asheville
Ian Johnson passed through my hometown Asheville, N.C. this summer, and we had lunch to discuss what is clearly his magnum opus. I asked him to which religion he felt closest, of the five covered in Souls.
“My natural affinity is with Daoists”, Ian replied. He shared more detail to his description in Souls of a inner alchemy seminar he attended with Wang Li Ping. “Wang.clearly has high achievement. But he is terribly disorganized as a teacher, which was challenging. The two students of Wang who wrote his famous biography, “Opening the Dragon’s Gate”, were at the seminar. They told me they plan to re-write the book, to make it less magical, more about spiritual science. They regretted making Dao cultivation seem overly mystical. That it’s really more about systematic practice.”
Souls has a very lovely description of one of Wang Li Ping’s Daoist meditations to expand one’s Third Eye to embrace the space beyond the body, one layer at a time. It is detailed enough that someone with experience in meditation could practice it from this book. But this is just one of many jewels strewn casually throughout The Souls of China. Daoism gets the most coverage in this book, which is appropriate, as it is the only religion indigenous to China.
It is the tapestry of the daily lives of ordinary Chinese folk (laobaixing) seeking deeper meaning, woven together with the broad strokes of Chinese history and culture that makes Souls so unusual. Most seekers of Taoist wisdom form their impressions of China from ancient texts like the Tao Te Ching and the I Ching. It is difficult to connect these classics to the reality of modern Chinese spiritual life. This creates a lot of armchair spiritual-romantic Tao philosophers with little ground in the realities of China.
The Souls of China brings to life the spiritual threads of local life that have survived the brutal suppression and limitations placed upon religion in the last 65 years of communist rule. The stories are filled with small joys and tragedies. He quotes local poems and proverbs that have been part of the backbone of the common will to endure hardship for millennia.
Ian Johnson’s Souls of China vs. Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth
In a way Souls is an interesting bookend to The Good Earth, a classic novel on peasant life in the 1920’s written by Pearl Buck, the daughter of a Christian missionary. This book was my introduction to China at age 12. Some historians feel it was influential in getting the US to back China with an airlift in the 1040’s. A family struggles in the novel to hold onto their land in the face of devastating floods of Mother Nature. 100 years later, the struggle is to hold onto the “earth” of China’s very soul, amidst a flood of political and scientific change coming from Human Nature. The same humble and deep spiritual will to endure hardship is present in both.
Johnson spends extra time sharing Chinese religious beliefs through three families he lived with. The Ni family in Beijing makes an annual pilgrimage to a Buddhist temple of Our Lady of the Azure Clouds. The Li family in Shanxi practices a form of folk-based Daoism, led by the Yin-Yang Man. A group of Protestant Christians in a house church in Chengdu is led by a charismatic preacher willing to openly confront the secret police and government.
He also shows that even communist leaders have a spiritual side. Souls reveals the fascinating details of how the current President Xi of China, as a young cadre working in a remote area, helped a Buddhist temple get government support to re-build. As the temple grew, the economy of the entire town flourished around it. Did Xi secretly study Buddhism? Not exactly. But he developed a lifelong friendship with the head abbot, and had deep conversations with him.
Ian Johnson has an unusual skill set. He is part poetic wordsmith, part historian, part cultural interpreter, part adventurer who loves off-the-beaten path, and is part just spiritually curious for his own advancement. These are melded into a vibrant unity by a story-teller and ethnographer with the persistence to dig deep beneath the surface to get to the true essence of the lives of ordinary spiritual seekers in China. The depth of respect he shows for every person portrayed in Souls is a humbling spiritual accomplishment in itself.
Get Ian Johnson’s amazingly rich immersion in China’s modern spiritual life for a mere $15. (hardcover, half-price on Amazon) – it is truly a bargain. Reading The Souls of China is an experience, not mere information “about” China. It offers invaluable new ground for any serious seeker of the Way.
There was a lot of hoopla about the Great Solar Eclipse on Aug. 21.
I love eclipses, but for a different reason than the novelty or spectacle of it.
Eclipses for me are about opening a radically new space of Creative Freedom.
Much of the commentary focuses on how amazing it is that the sun and moon match each other so perfectly, given their huge difference in size and distance. That is quite amazing.
But that is not the important thing about eclipses. What actually affects us is alignment of the gravitational centers of the sun, moon, and earth.
Eclipses are regular “re-calibration” and re-alignment of the sun, moon, and earth centers of gravity.
Alignment is what shifts consciousness. Gravity – both physical and spiritual – is what connects the core of our being to others beings. Taoists would also define as natural beings the sun, moon,and earth. Nature is ALIVE, not dead chucks of matter or burning gas. When these natural beings align, they affect human beings living within their gravitational field.
In the higher Tao inner alchemy formulas, I’ve developed an “internal eclipse” meditation. In alchemy, we charge up energetic spheres, a.k.a. “pearls” and “chi balls” INSIDE our personal Energy Body.
If these spheres are attuned to the frequency of the moon and sun and earth, you can create an internal eclipse by aligning these charged up spheres within your core channel.
So I did this “eclipse meditation” during the Aug. 21 outer eclipse. This created a very deep harmonic resonance (called “gan ying”). In effect, it allowed me to “eat” the solar eclipse, energetically.
What did it “taste” like? What is the result of internally amplifying the gravitational alignment between sun, moon, and earth?
Most viewers focus on the sun-moon alignment in the sky above. They are watching from their eyes/head. They are looking up, not inward. They are completely unaware of the participation of the earth’s center of gravity in this eclipse drama.
Vesica Pisces: during this eclipse the Sun and Earth energy field embraced the moon in the center, opening up a neutral space “inside” the moon. When we humans consciously align our personal Energy Body with the eclipse process, it clear our own inner psychic space.
When I watched from my whole Energy Body, I saw that what was really happening was the Moon wss being embraced by the gravitational centers of the Sun and Earth. Like a father and mother embracing their child, the Moon Child was positioned at a special energetic mid-point between its parents. In sacred geometry, this embrace by two opposite forces opening up a third space is called a vesica piscis.
Gurdjieff used to call the moon the “daughter of the earth”. He noted that its job was to sweep our planet of its psychic negativity, so we could awaken every day to live with a reasonable degree of “freshness”.
This matches the Taoist notion of the moon possessing metal/magnetic qualities. The Chinese don’t see a “man on the moon”. They see a rabbit in the moon, symbolic of an alchemist doing transformational work within its lunar cauldron.
What happens during an eclipse is that a “post-natal void” is created by the triple alignment of sun-moon-earth. Things go dark, but we’re still in the daytime / manifest mode. Birds and animals go a little crazy as their navigational magnetic field is neutralized. The matrix is temporarily erased, there is no fixed grid for us human animals to navigate either.
This means the eclipse clears our psyche of its normal programming, including its past traumas and emotional negativity. If we are open to it, we can create a brand new reality – without any of our normal resistance – during the peak of the eclipse. That’s why astrologers associate eclipses with technological breakthroughs.
In this Aug. 21 eclipse, since it’s main path was across the USA, I felt it was clearing space in our national consciousness to so Americans could make some kind of quantum creative leap. A leap that would be radiated by us to the rest of the planet.
Cosmic process purified the moon between the fiery sun and watery’s earth centers of gravity. This is basic water & fire Taoist alchemy: couple polarities to create a higher level of neutrality, which then converts into something brand new.
What will creatively emerge? It’s too soon to say for the national or planetary collective. During the eclipse I focused on some cutting edge green technology projects that I am working on, that are close to fruition.
Stay tuned, and I hope to be making announcements when these manifest.
Here’s the most interesting image (a composite, time-lapse photo) that I’ve seen taken during the Aug. 21 eclipse.
Explanation: What was happening in the sky during last week’s total solar eclipse? This featured little-planet, all-sky, double time-lapse, digitally-fused composite captured celestial action during both night and day from a single location. In this 360×180 panorama, north and south are at the image bottom and top, while east and west are at the left and right edges,respectively.
During four hours the night before the eclipse, star trails were captured circling the north celestial pole (bottom) as the Earth spun. During the day of the total eclipse, the Sun was captured every fifteen minutes from sunrise to sunset (top), sometimes in partial eclipse. All of these images were then digitally merged onto a single image taken exactly during the total solar eclipse.
Equinox White Dragon Ceremony Sept. 23 – PLEASE RSVP
Dear Lovers of The Spiraling Dragon Force of Nature,
The season of GOLD, aka “metal”, is again upon us.
If you are in the Asheville area, I invite you to attend the Healing Tao USA Equinox ceremony at my home (free event).
The ceremony starts at Saturday, Sept. 23, at 7:30 pm. The exact equinox is Sept. 22, Friday 4 pm EDT. But it’s a big slow moving celestial event. Sat. is more convenient.
Good to wear an item of white colored clothing if possible, it generates a more intense frequency of metal Qi. Driving directions will be sent to those who RSVP. Just hit reply to this newsletter.
Think about your INTENT for this metal cycle: what do you want to LET GO of in your life? Everyone has some kind of “resistance” to something. This ceremony will you let go of it.
These Dragon ceremony can accelerate your innate power to manifest whatever truly serves your soul. I feel they were essential in manifesting my perfect current partner and child.
Was manifesting them a coincidence, or the result of a series of powerful rituals, done with powerful groups of people, at powerful moments in time and in a sacred space? The answer to me is clear: rituals with focused intent help us concentrate Qi, which evokes a response from the larger Qi field.
If you are NOT able to attend in person, please remember to create your own ceremony at home.
Ian Johnson’s Top Taoism Book List & article links
My Healing Tao USA forum just had its huge archives activated on my new website. These were posted by the 20 million+ visitors in the last 20 years.
I mention this because it was so easy to type in “Ian Johnson” and get all the posts about him pulled up instantly. Here are my top choices:
Nov. 10, 2010
note: The NYT author Ian Johnson gives a reasonably good list of books. I would have included Daoist Body Cultivation and Internal Alchemy (both edited by Livia Kohn), and a few others, but that’s me. – Michael
Where to Begin: Five Best Books about Daoism
November 8, 2010 in Books, Where to Begin by The China Beat
By Ian Johnson
With all the attention to Confucius and Confucianism, it is easy to forget how important other philosophical and religious traditions have been in shaping China’s past and influencing its present. Ian Johnson helps rectify this imbalance of coverage with “The Rise of the Tao,” a long essay in the latest issue of the New York Times Sunday Magazine that highlights the significance of the Daoist revival and introduces readers to an abbess who is part of this resurgence of belief. As the very first journalist China Beat ever interviewed for the site (and someone who took part in a China Beat-sponsored dialogue at UC Irvine on covering the PRC and Germany during a tour to promote his latest book, A Mosque in Munich), we turn to him now for suggestions of five things he’s read—by academic or non-academic authors—that have helped him think about Daoism:
There’s been an explosion of Daoist studies in recent years as we realize how China’s only (if you exclude Confucianism) indigenous religion underpins so much of the culture and politics of the past 2,000 years.
The problem in this field, as in many others, is there’s been the usual deep specialization but not too many efforts to synthesize and make the fruits of academic research available to a wide public. This is compounded by the fact that many academics use different terminology for the same phenomena—if they can’t agree on the terms, how can outsiders understand it? Thus people talk about “popular religion,” “folk religion” or “common religion” for the broad swath of beliefs that form the Massif Central of Chinese religion, out of which Daoism, Buddhism and other systems arose. But which term is better? No one can agree. Maybe this is normal for a still-young field but it’s sometimes frustrating.
But don’t be discouraged, arguments are the spice of (academic) life and the field has produced many interesting books. Before I offer them, let me dispense with two really obvious kinds of books: the key philosophical works and the one-volume intros.
Everyone knows about the Daodejing and the Zhuangzi, so I’ll let you explore which version of these texts you prefer. Burton Watson does a great version of each and Red Pine (more on him below) does a super version of the DDJ. If you want more on the basic philosophy, the slam dunk must-read is Disputers of the Tao by A.C. Graham, one of the finest works on ancient Chinese philosophy.
I’m also going to get this list down to five books by forgoing one-volume intros. These are invaluable but are a bit too easy to include. The two best ones here are Daoism and Chinese Culture by Livia Kohn, the grande dame of Daoist studies, and James Miller’s Daoism: A Beginner’s Guide (aka Daoism: A Short Introduction). Both books give reliable overviews from early philosophy to the development of organized religion and modern practices.
Finally, a note on spelling. In my New York Times article, the copy editors insisted on using “Taoist,” figuring it is a loan word that has already been anglicized. And in fact many of the books listed below use “Taoist” or “Taoism” because publishers think that most readers still recognize this. But an increasing number of people use the more pinyin-conform “Daoist.” I’ve decided personally to go with “Daoist” but use whichever you like best.
With these fiddly comments out of the way, here’s my list:
1) Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits by Bill Porter, aka Red Pine. This funny and lively book by the eminent translator is an eye-opener because he finds real hermits living in China’s mountains and also conveys the ideas that inspires them. Some of the hermits are Buddhists but this is a bonus because we learn how close the two religions are when practiced by real masters.
2) Taoism and the Arts of China by Stephen Little. This accompanied a path-breaking exhibition on Daoist art curated by Professor Little, which makes clear the huge influence Daoism has on the arts. The book is beautifully illustrated and really one-of-a-kind. Unfortunately it is out of print and rather pricey but most libraries should have it.
3) Taoism: The Enduring Tradition by Russell Kirkland. This slim volume by a veteran historian of Daoism grapples with many key questions that ordinary readers or students of Chinese religions will have, such as if it’s valid to speak of a difference between “religious Daoism” and “philosophical Daoism.” At times he delves perhaps a bit too deeply into the historiographical battles in the field but like Paul Cohen’s Discovering History in China, Kirkland provides an engaging and illuminating discussion of the field and its arguments.
4) Seven Taoist Masters: A Folk Novel of China by Eva Wong. My academic friends will rip me for including a book published by Shambhala and this has the publisher’s usual disregard for basic sourcing (like which version of the novel is Wong using?) but it’s a really good read and gives a lot of basic information on how one of Daoism’s two main sects, Quanzhen, was formed in the Yuan dynasty.
4a) I said I’d get this down to five and I will by including this novel as a (more serious) alternative: The Story of Han Xiangzi: The Alchemical Adventures of a Daoist Immortal by Yang Erzeng, translated by Philip Clart. This is the story of one of the Eight Immortals, Han Xiangzhi, a historical figure who became deified. Unlike Wong’s book, it’s state of the art and has a very useful introduction. The novel is longer and not as catchy as Seven Taoist Masters but is much truer to the original, containing poems, digressions, multiple narrator viewpoints and so on. It also serves another function by showing how many Ming-era novels have not been translated into English.
5) The Taoist Body by Kristofer Schipper. An ordained priest and patriarch of modern Daoist studies, Schipper’s book reflects his fieldwork in 1970s Taiwan and shows how Daoism is intertwined with local society, with priests performing rituals to help people through good and bad times. His description of a ritual—creating a space in heaven in front of the temple, summoning the gods—is excellent. This book is probably guilty of overgeneralizing about one form of Daoism but if you want to understand the religion at its grassroots level, it’s great.
Finally, as my final cop-out, let me relegate this to a post-script: For fun, I’d suggest borrowing from the library The Taoist Canon: A Historical Companion to the Daozang, edited by Kristofer Schipper and Franciscus Verellen. This is a three-volume set that gives a short synopsis of each of the 1,500 texts that make up the Daoist Canon, or Daozang, a Ming-era compendium of Daoist texts. It is a towering work of academic achievement, taking 30 years to complete and involving dozens of scholars in numerous countries. It makes it possible for the first time to get a sense of just how rich Daoist religious practice really is. The book is also a real pleasure to flip through, illustrated with fascinating prints and drawings. You’ll find all kinds of works, from alchemy and meditation, to medicine and ritual, all clearly explained by leading scholars. Obviously this is meant as a reference tool but like the OED, it’s easy to lose oneself in this rich, esoteric landscape.
Ian Johnson on the Rise of the Tao in China (an inside glimpse of temple building crazy atop Mao Shan, famous Taoist mountain in eastern China:
Moment of Empty Stillness In a Taoist Temple
Blessings on the Way of Re-discovering Our Soul,
“Who takes Heaven as his ancestor, Virtue as his home,
the Tao as his door, and who becomes change — is a
Sage.” — Chuang Tzu, Inner Chapters
“The Tao is very close, but everyone looks far away.
Life is very simple, but everyone seeks difficulty.”
— Taoist Sage Mo Tzu, 200 B.C
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