December 6, 2007 at 7:08 am #26527
Daoism in China
by Wang Yi’e
China Intercontinental Press
Daoism (or Taoism) is one of the most ancient philosophical and religious doctrines in China. Institutionally, it is about two thousand years old, but out of institution, it is as old as Egyptian and Mesopotamian traditions and older than the Greek and Roman ones. Daoism developed through a natural course of events from the practices of life of the common people. So it is naturalistic and simplistic in its outlook, which reflects the profound human aspirations in a balance of pragmatism and spiritualism. Daoism has incorporated all the essential elements of traditional cultures of China deep-rooted in its soil patterning localised socio-psychological traits. That is why it is said, If you want to know China you must know Daoism.
Wang Yi’e informs us that Daoism was officially established as a religion through the unification of the Five Bushels Sect and the Supreme Peace Sect in the period of the Han Dynasty in the second century AD. Earlier it represented some cultural practices indigenous to China, stretching back more than ten millennia before the birth of Jesus Christ. The early Daoist spiritualism ensued from animism and totemism. Later spiritual thoughts developed and matured with the introduction of agriculture and feudal system of governance, which gave rise to polytheism. Daoism is still a polytheistic religion endorsing the existence of many gods and goddesses along with deep mysticism, although it has several divisions varying in beliefs and customs.
In its historical development, Daoism has come in contact with Buddhism and Confucianism, with whom it has largely integrated. It is curious that the three great traditions did not come to confront each other in the Huntington sense of a ‘clash of civilisations’. Rather they embraced each other with open mind and got intermingled in the most amicable way. Such kinds of integration without bloodshed are rare in world history. Many Chinese now read ‘the Daode Jing’ of Daoism, ‘the Heart Sutra’ of Buddhism and ‘the Filial Classic’ of Confucianism together. The triangle of Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism now form the mainstream of Chinese life; in a true sense they form the ideological pillars of China. Three great sages of the first millennium BCLaozi, Buddha and Confuciushave found a common niche in the Chinese mind with the highest order of veneration. The tripartite relationship is beautifully depicted in an old saying: A Chinese wears a Confucian crown, a Daoist robe and a pair of Buddhist sandals.
To understand Daoism, one has to know what ‘Dao’ is. Literally ‘Dao’ (or ‘Tao’) means ‘the way’the way the universe exists and functions. Dao is the root and essence of all existence. It permeates everything and every timeit is permanent and infinite. (Notice, with this definition, Dao bears a similarity with the Western idea of ‘God’ and the Hindu idea of ‘Ishwar’). The ultimate goal of a human being is to establish unity with this Dao. Dao is nature’s way expressed in effortless action comparable with the flow of water in the river. That is why Daoism suggests effortless and simple life in the lap of nature. Any kind of intervention with nature must be avoided. The more we intervene with environmental nature the more it becomes polluted; just look around for evidenceair pollution, water pollution and ozone layer depletion. Again, with the intervention of human nature, the mind is distorted and the body diseased. Daoism believes in action but without any effort. For a Daoist monk, acquiring knowledge is acquiring it without any effort at all. Understanding of Dao will come from a direct observation of nature, rather than scholastic theological studies. According to Daoism, the life of human beings comes from the harmonious co-existence of ‘shen’ (spirit) and ‘qi’ (energy). And hence people must live in harmony in society and natural environment. A Daoist will live in meditational tranquillity and refrain from violating the peace of nature.
The ancient Daoists wanted to be immortal, to be uplifted to the status of gods, by cultivating Dao. For this they exploited both external and internal ways. The two-way mystic search is called ‘Dan Dao’ which subsumes ‘Wai Dan’ and ‘Nei Dan’. Externally, the Daoists attempted to prepare ‘elixir’ and internally, they improved the condition of their body and mind. Though they failed in meeting immortality, it inspired people to attain good health, physically and mentally. The human search for immortality is not over. One day men will find the desired elixir and become gods themselves. With the tremendous development of medical science, they will solve the puzzle of life and death, thereby stopping the process of ageing. Breakthroughs in genetics and pharmacy may lead us to the shores of immortality, in the far future.
The frantic search of the Daoists for elixir had some direct contributions to medical science, chemistry and metallurgy. The elixir-hunters developed alchemy just like the medieval Muslims who wanted to transform all metals into gold. In the process they developed herbals and other ways of treatment, for example, acupuncture. ‘Qi gong’, the Daoist way to keep in good health by deep breathing exercises, is widely practised today all over the world. The technique bears a similarity with the Indian breathing practice of ‘Pranayam’. The Daoists had their own ‘Kamasutra’ of various sexual techniques aimed at nourishing life through the promotion of internal actions of ‘yin’ and ‘yang’. They also discovered gunpowder while experimenting with different substances in search of elixir. What a paradoxical accident! The destructive gunpowder is the outcome of the search for ways of defying death.
Daoists aspire to peace and happiness. They seek personal as well as societal peace. Whenever they gather in temples, they pray for the wellbeing of mankind and for world peace. According to Daoism, if one has to be happy, he/she should have lack of effort, lack of desire and lack of partiality. One has to act naturally (‘wuwei’) rather than in a contrived way. Daoism discourages killing, stealing, immorality, bragging and drug addiction. People are advised to perform more benefactions, as it is said longevity is the reward for virtues and death is the punishment for crimes. Daoism ensures equal status for men and women in temples and families. They eat together, work together, exercise together and worship together. Unlike all other established religions, male domination is absent from Daoism.
Daoists believe in many gods and goddesses, like polytheistic Indians. All of their deities live on mountains as the Greek deities used to live on Olympus and the Hindu pantheon on Kailash. However, the Daoist deities do not like to concentrate on one mountain; they are rather dispersed on many mountains. Some important mountains are Mount Tai, Mount Heng, Mount Hua, Mount Song, Mount Mao, Mount Qingcheng and Mount Wudang. The famous Azure Cloud Temple is located on Mount Tai and Emerald Cloud Temple on Lotus Peak. The naming of Daoist temples is full of aesthetics. Feel the beauty of other namesWhite Cloud Temple, Eternal Spring Temple, Eternal Happiness Temple, Supreme Clarity Temple, Supreme Harmony Temple, Temple of Ecstasy, Temple of Emptiness, Temple of Original Sublimity and Temple of Accumulated Blessings.
Daoism is the root of Chinese culture and its study is an excellent way to penetrate the depths of Chinese civilisation. Daoism has contributed significantly to the compendium of human knowledge in medicine, biology, chemistry, physics, literature, music, art, culture, architecture, sculpture, philosophy, mathematics, geography, geology and astronomy. Daoist practices are an integral part of world cultural heritageinvaluable wealth of human antiquity.
Daoism in China helps us enrich our knowledge of some ancient beliefs of immense anthropological value. Familiarising the readers with Daoist rituals, culture, canons, organisations, architecture and mythology, it offers them a Daoist sense of transcendentalism.December 11, 2007 at 3:11 pm #26528
Thanks for posting this. I am soon to begin selling Livia Kohn’s Daoism in China on my website. It feels like Livia is a better scholar with possibly a deeper view, but each writer inevitably brings focus to unique aspects of the subject.
michaelDecember 12, 2007 at 8:25 pm #26530
I like her text their very well written, I like her book she wrote God of the Dao!
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