daoism’s quest for relevance

Photograph taken during the liturgy at the Templo da Transparência Sublime, Rio de Janeiro, December 2009.

In a Wall Street Journal blog today, Christopher Carothers asks, “Is Daoism is losing its way?” He writes:

Today, Buddhism is regaining its traditional place as the largest religion in Chinese society. Islam is expanding through the growth of Muslim families in the Hui and Uyghur minority ethnic groups. Protestantism and Catholicism are winning new converts all over China and shaking off the old label of “foreign religion.” Daoism, on the other hand, seems to be standing still.

Worse still, he argues, Daoism is often ridiculed by other religions, as was the case in the recent incident in Singapore, in which a Christian pastor was forced to apologize for his anti-Daoist remarks. Singapore has strict rules concerning public speech about religion, so one can only imagine what anti-Daoist sentiments are being expressed in countries without such restrictions on free speech.

Carothers offers a reason for this reported decline, quoting unnamed researchers who say “the main reasons for Daoism’s troubles are its poor social networking and the lack of available information about its teachings.” This reason deserves further explanation. It’s certainly true that Daoism is a lineage-based tradition which prizes knowledge and training that are passed on orally from teacher to student. This gives it a certain disadvantage compared to proselytising and more “democratic” traditions like protestant Christianity, where individual believers work out their own spirituality through the medium of a cheaply-distributed Bible. In a globalized world Daoism also has a disadvantage compared to transnational religions such as Buddhism, which has well-established global networks and a long history of cross-cultural adaptation.

The deeper reason, however, for Daoism’s apparent decline lies in the modern concept of religion. Under the influence of Western thinkers, Chinese intellectuals in the twentieth century adopted a view of religion as a distinct body of beliefs, practices and institutions that could be formally separated from other cultural practices. The modern Chinese term for religion, zongjiao, is in fact borrowed from a 19th century Japanese word that was expressly created for conveying this modern Western concept. This concept of religion as a portable body of teachings that are disconnected from broader cultural habits was particularly useful for Christian missionaries who wanted Chinese people to convert to their new “religion” without having to forego their cultural identity as Chinese people. It was equally useful for the Chinese republican and communist modernizers who wished to delineate religion as a distinct area of culture, and wean Chinese people off it.

The problem for Daoism, however, is that since the Ming dynasty it has been so closely woven into the fabric of popular Chinese religious practices that it is very difficult to think of it as a “religion” that can be clearly detached from Chinese culture and society. Under the modern Western understanding of religion, Daoism falls into a grey area encompassing spirit mediums, ancestor worship, local folk traditions, Taiji quan, Qigong as well as an elite monastic and priestly core.

So if Daoism is on the decline, the reasons do not solely lie with Daoism itself. They are partly to do with the way our modern culture has framed religion in a way that benefits portable traditions like Christianity and Buddhism, and disadvantages more culturally-embedded religions like Daoism.

However, there is some reason to hope that Daoism will not be forgotten. As sociological studies have shown, the post-modern quest for spirituality is constituted in part by a rejection of the modern way of construing religion as a distinct area of supernatural belief and communal ritual practice. Post-modern spirituality is eclectic, holistic, and this-worldly. In this regard, Daoism has a strong chance of being able to reinvent itself.

In December last year I conducted interviews at two Daoist temples in Brazil that were staffed entirely by converts. When asked what was so attractive about Daoism, interviewees overwhelmingly replied that they were motived by Daoism’s reverence for life, its this-worldly spirituality, and its emphasis on harmony between humanity and the natural world. Health, life and nature are key features of the 21st century zeitgeist. For this reason, Daoism has the possibility of becoming a significant global spirituality. As it declines in Singapore, it is being reinvented in Sao Paulo.

  6 comments for “daoism’s quest for relevance

  1. 28 June 2010 at 22:14

    Thank you for the article, James; Daoism is doing fine, 9,000 people a day visit Wudangshan, all the Daoist mtns and associations in China just had a big meeting in Beijing, Friendship hotel, and elected new leaders. The problem is with foreign scholars who have no experience inside China, or do not speak Chinese, or are agnostic/atheist, thereby cutting themselves off from the experience of Laozi and Zhuangzi as inner cultivation, and all the other popular forms of Daoist practice in China. Daoism is a form of “xiiuyang” ???not “xinyang” ???a western style “belief” system.

  2. 28 June 2010 at 22:30

    Hi Michael. Thanks for your reply. I do agree that the fact that Daoism emphasizes cultivation over belief makes it harder for people to quantify / categorize in the Western religious framework.

  3. Christopher Carothers
    5 July 2010 at 03:49

    Thanks for the article, James. I agree with what you say about Daoism and wish I had more space to flesh things out in a blog post.

    Best,

    Chris

  4. 8 August 2010 at 19:00

    I remember when I was trying to explain Daoism to a friend from India that she said “Oh Daoism is a cultural thing—like Hinduism”. She was raised a Catholic, but growing up in Bombay she picked up on the different ways of understanding religion right away.

    I think it might be that people emphasize the cultural stuff early on when all religions bump into different cultures. Think back to the way Christian missionaries used to conflate being a “Christian” with being a “middle-class British person”. In Canada part of that result was the whole residential school fiasco which was largely propagated by Christian groups who conflated being Christian with being part of the dominant culture.

    With regard to the people in Brazil, it strikes me that Daoism is probably going to become relatively popular in the West in the same way Buddhism has (although it probably will never be as popular as Buddhism, simply because it is more of an esoteric religion.) And I think it will go through the same processes of assimilation that Western Buddhism has.

    People forget how long before there was a “Tao of Pooh”, there were all sorts of poorly-understood versions of “beat” Zen in North America. When people started getting serious about their practice, there were slavish attempts to copy Zen Temples in various places. Monks shaved their heads, took to wearing robes and lots of beautiful wood was polished as people tried to transplant Kyoto to Toronto, New York and San Fransisco

    Once all the scandals about Masters abusing their power came to light, then moves were made to accommodate Buddhism to the realities of Western culture. Orders ceased following authoritarian Japanese and Chinese models, and voting became just as important in Buddhist congregations as Inkas and lineage charts. I think probably the same things will happen with regard to Daoism.

    And part of that Ying/Yang, Thesis/Antithesis process will be debates about how essential various cultural elements are to the actual heart of the tradition.

  5. 3 December 2010 at 09:34

    Daoist monk Zhou Xuan-Yun is sharing the martial arts of Wudang mountain through his DVD series:
    http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=wudang+zhou&x=0&y=0

  6. 24 December 2010 at 02:47

    Thank you for the article, James; Daoism is doing fine, 9,000 people a day visit Wudangshan, all the Daoist mtns and associations in China just had a big meeting in Beijing, Friendship hotel, and elected new leaders. The problem is with foreign scholars who have no experience inside China, or do not speak Chinese, or are agnostic/atheist, thereby cutting themselves off from the experience of Laozi and Zhuangzi as inner cultivation, and all the other popular forms of Daoist practice in China. Daoism is a form of “xiiuyang” ???not “xinyang” ???a western style “belief” system.

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