Thursday, May 10, 2007

A Few Words About the Gods of Daoism

A lot of people who call themselves "Daoists" have a very hard time accepting anything that involves the ritual worship of the Daoist Gods. I can respect this point of view, but I think that it misses a great deal.

The first thing to understand is that the religious Daoist worldview is significantly different from that of the naive Westerner. The Western view is that a God is a being that is absolutely omniscient, all-powerful and eternal that live in a perfect realm far beyond the hopelessly corrupt earth. In contrast, Daoist "Xian"s, or "Immortals", are portrayed as being ordinary human beings who through diligent study and practice (i.e. "kungfu") have transcended their mortal nature to ramble the universe in freedom. Daoists do not posit that Gods are "better" or "more important" than mortals, but rather that they are part of a mobile continuum. Moreover, they do not believe that the earth is less important than "heaven", but instead is an equal. They express this by describing spiritual matters not by a term like the Western "God" but by the more inclusive "Heaven and Earth".

The second thing to remember is that Daoism is infused by the Confucian idea that society is held together by tradition and ritual. Westerners live under the illusion that it is possible to have a life totally based on freedom and rational choice, but this is impossible because it would be like trying to communicate if every individual was allowed to use their own personal meaning for each word they speak. Human beings live in a universe of symbol and the more we cut ourselves off from the symbols that unified our ancestors the harder it is to understand each other. The rituals that we use as members of a religious tradition are unifying elements that keep us together even though we may disagree on much else. When people attend a ritual some will think of it literally as paying homage to a real being. Some may simply see it as a pleasant aesthetic experience. Still others may see it as a symbolic representation of some subtle yet important element of existence. Others may simply see it as an opportunity to do some quite contemplation. The fact that the people are brought together for a ritual experience instead of a lecture means that they can come together without having their differences made obvious. This is a community building experience.

The final point I'd like to make is that people believe in the Gods to a very large extent because many practitioners have an actual experience of meeting them. That is to say, Daoism is a shamanistic religion that is based on the personal experience of its practitioners instead of relying upon a historical revelation based on some ancient text. This interaction with the Gods takes the form of visions, mystical experiences, revelatory dreams, "channelling", oracles, and other altered states of consciousness. Again, people have various interpretations of what is taking place during these experiences. Some literally believe that a "God" is communicating with them. Others may have a more modern understanding and believe that their unconscious mind is making manifest some truth that through the use of symbolic representation. Others simply "suspend judgement" about their ultimate cause and choose to follow them for purely pragmatic reasons. No matter the explanation, the phenomena itself does exist and is an important part of the Daoist faith.


Phil said...

One problem that I see with religion is that it is structured for the lowest common denominator. The hierarchical nature of religions, versus philosophies, tends to draw those who are hungry for power at the expense of those who are interested in their fellow travelers' well-being.

Symbolism in the end is meaningless.

Good article, though! ;>)

Bill Hulet said...

A lot of things are benefits or problems depending on how you look at them. What you call being "structured for the lowest common denominator" I tend to see as being "inclusive".

It is true that hierarchical religions tend to attract the power hungry, and I won't try to say that this hasn't happened in Daoism too. But there are elements to Daoism that have tended to minimize this tendency. First of all, because Daoism tends to be based on local tradition instead of a centralized ecclesiastic structure, anyone who wants to can simply walk away from any organization that they find oppressive. Secondly, there is a tradition in Daoism that no Daoist should ever criticize another Daoist. This minimizes doctrinal disputation and allows people the freedom to "do their own thing".

As to symbols being meaningless, I will simply beg to disagree and leave it at that.

The Imugi said...

I really liked this entry, I felt like you really explained the dual importance of inner, mystical/philosophical/alchemical practices *and* the more exoteric, devotional aspects. In a sense I'm something of a religious "hermit" myself, but I have no problem in principle with revering xians or bodhisattvas.

As for symbolism being meaningless, I would suggest human beings are symbolic creatures. The very fact we are writing to each, employing symbols for communication, attests to that.

Religious symbolism is simply another form of symbolism. I see phil's point in that ultimately, we cannot express the inexpressable (the Dao that can be dao'ed is not the eternal/constant Dao, after all...). But if religious expression can *direct* us to Dao without trying to define or delimit Dao, then I think it serves its purpose.

The only time I have a problem with religious symbolism is when people claim to have completely grasped the Divine (which cannot be "grasped") through such symbolism.
But I also think Daoism in particular tends to avoid many of the common pitfalls because of how it regards the Gods.