Sunday, May 3, 2009

How to Become a Daoist

On discussion lists I often see questions from non-Chinese people who seem to want to "become" Daoists. Usually someone else with some sort of authority says one of two very different things. The first response usually boils down some variant of "if you want to be a Daoist, you already are one". The second comes down to "if you weren't born one, you never can". I'm not terribly happy with either one of these answers, and I hope that perplexed questioners might feel a little less confused if they read this post.

The "if you aren't born one, you can't be one" position is the easiest to dismiss and I have discussed it in previous posts. Primarily, it is the idea that a religious/philosophical lifestyle is totally bound up with one's ethnic identity. At its strongest, the idea is that no one who isn't Chinese can ever be a Daoist.

From that point there is a declining scale of rigidity. First, a non-Chinese person can be a Daoist, but he has to learn both ancient and modern Chinese, then devote decades of his life studying in a Daoist monastic setting. (That is, you don't have to be born Chinese---but at least you have to become one.)

From that position, one comes to having to at least be totally under the thumb of some rigid Chinese traditionalist. (Or, you don't have to be Chinese---but you have to be controlled by one.)

The key issue at play is a slavish concern about the "legitimacy of transmission". As far as I'm concerned, the only worthwhile thing someone seeks from a tradition like Daoism is a better way of looking at and being-in-the-world. Baldly stated, this probably doesn't seem like a lot to most people. But it does encompass a lot of things---from aesthetics through interpersonal relationships to how one treats the natural world.

Now some folks don't think of Daoism in terms of being-in-the-world, instead, they have some sort of slavish devotion to a religious tradition and a pantheon of Gods. If you look at the teachings of the Daoist scriptures---and I am not only referring to the "big three" of Zhuanzi, Laozi and Liezi---you will find a very wide and deep vein of skepticism about conventional piety. Indeed, you will find a very strong scepticism towards all conventional attitudes. The question then arises of how well we can say that these "fundamentalist Daoists" really do show any respect for their tradition. (How do you show reverence to the irreverent?)

Having said that, I also have problems with the other point of view, (i.e. "if you want to be a Daoist, you already are one"). I won't dismiss this position out of hand, because I do believe that at least this point of view does base itself on the irreverence that really is a key Daoist concept. But the problem here isn't that people are slavishly following an authority figure, but rather that the commitment is so minimal that the world "Daoism" ceases to mean much of anything at all.

The problem is that many of these people don't understand how very difficult it is to peel away the layers of conventionality in order to embrace our essential nature and become "realized men". Without a very keen eye and a steadfast spirit, it is very easy to see selfishness and greed as "spontaneity" and mere laziness as "wu wei".

Years ago I had a roomie who was one of these "natural Daoists". He was charming as the Dickens (the ladies loved him). He rather effortlessly cruised through life and managed to do quite well financially, romantically and so on simply by finding people who were willing to help him out. In the end, I got totally cheesed with him, (partially out of jealousy no doubt) because he was doing so well by being prepared to let others do all the work for him. He moved to another province and I lost all connection.

Years later, however, I met his ex-wife who informed me of how she had eventually begun to loathe him because she ended up doing all the child-rearing and housework, and had to work on the side too. I thought back to Liezi where his enlightenment came from buckling down to help his wife with her domestic chores and by being diligent as a pig farmer---. The point that the ancient author was making, I believe, was that being a follower of the Dao isn't based on being lazy and thumbing your nose at all your responsibilities, but rather that we shouldn't be slaves of convention. The two are sometimes the same, but often very different.

And who gets to decided what is real and what is merely conventional? If we reduce the distinction to some sort of formulaic text, then we fall prey to the mistake of the fundamentalist. They see the distinction as only being clear to someone who is a recognised member of some dynastic lineage and a specific ethnic identity. But life can't be reduced to a formulae. People get credentials who don't deserve them, and as they teach and appoint their own successors, the tradition becomes more and more corrupted with each succeeding generation.

But if we make things just a "free for all", people---like my old roomie---end up using "ancient Chinese wisdom" as an excuse to justify their bad habits. How is that being any less conventional than someone who's bad habits are not sloth and being a parasite but rather being self-righteous and obsessive?

Which gets me back to answering the question "How do you become a Daoist?"

I would suggest that anyone who is serious about it would not be terribly concerned by how they label themselves but rather about how they live their lives. And if you really want to live your life in a "Daoist groove", it makes sense to really study Daoism. This means study of texts, study of the lived tradition, and probably more importantly---, trying to live a life as a Daoist. This involves a lot of effort in learning Daoist-inspired disciplines such as martial arts, calligraphy, meditation, etc. If it is the case that a person can do this in a way that they begin to really merge with the Dao, then they will cease to be concerned about what anyone calls them. In other words, being a "Daoist" is about the way you live your life (which is often a lot of hard work), rather than a label you put upon yourself.

If at this point someone else calls some a "Daoist", then she might be on the way to building a lineage or tradition in her area. That is, either someone will come along and wish to become her teacher (which is what happened to me) or else someone will want to come along and be her student. Either path is fraught with peril, but if done with honesty and a good heart, it can be a step forward into a new definition of the term "Daoist", one that will create an indigenous tradition for the modern age and for people outside of the Middle Kingdom.

8 comments:

The Rambling Taoist said...

From my humble perspective, the best way to become a Taoist is to change one's consciousness. If a person (like your former roomie) merely attaches a label to their life but doesn't change their way of interacting with the world, then they have accomplished nothing and the label won't change who they truly are.

A change in consciousness comes about by seeing the world as connected, not separate. Just that one element will cause a person to behave and think differently from that point forward.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

Doesn't your solution beg the question of how exactly one "changes one's consciousness"? As well, isn't that also based upon a deeper question of how one decides that undergoing this change is something worth doing?

My ex-roomie would probably have said that he did see the world as being totally connected and that only someone who was disconnected would suggest that he would need to change it.

What I'm trying to suggest is that one's mental stance, etc, doesn't change just because you want it to; and moreover, wanting to change it sort of assumes that you've already gone through some sort of significant change already.

The Rambling Taoist said...

I suppose it does beg that question, doesn't it? :)

My guess is that most people seek change because there is "something missing" in their life. They seem out of balance or disconnected from something they can't put their finger on. So, they search for clues.

Your ex-roomie might say precisely that, but an enlightened person would point out that his actions belied his words. A connected person would reflect on how his/her life impacts others -- Manipulating others to do your work does not reflect connection but selfishness. Such a person doesn't view themselves as merely one spoke on the wheel, but as the hub that every spoke intersects with. In essence, it's a worldview where such people see themselves as a sort of God.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

Don't forget that Laozi specifically says that the hollow hub is what makes a wheel useful. (I'm sure that's the way my old roomie would have seen it.)

My experience is that, as you suggested, the essential thing is to change your consciousness. But the way to change it is not through an act of will, but rather through long, careful practice (neidan, ritual, meditation, etc.) That's why I think it isn't enough to just make a public declaration about Daoism, it is also important to live the life and do the hard work.

As for pointing things out. There are a lot of stories in various religious traditions about the necessity of what the Buddhists call "skillful means" in teaching. A teacher cannot really force a student to understand, he can only hope to wait for the right opportunity and hope that he can come up with a sufficiently skillful way of explaining something so that the student may gain a little bit of insight---if not then, maybe years later.

Anonymous said...

"My experience is that, as you suggested, the essential thing is to change your consciousness. But the way to change it is not through an act of will, but rather through long, careful practice (neidan, ritual, meditation, etc.) That's why I think it isn't enough to just make a public declaration about Daoism, it is also important to live the life and do the hard work."

Well, that's the rub, now isn't it?

In my experience traditional institutions are ones that have preserved the most effective practices. This doesn't mean you have to be Chinese or be "controlled by one"---but there is something to be said for tradition. It doesn't mean you have to give yourself over to dogma.

It doesn't even mean you have to "belong" to an kind of religious institution. But to be quite frank the only practice most Western "Daoists" take up is spouting fluffy fortune cookie wisdom and bragging about how free from convention they are. Generally speaking, I encounter more Daoists who err on that side of things.

Authentic Daoist institutions are springing up in the West, one just has to know where to look. One that immediately comes to mind is the Daoist Foundation.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

Yes, I have been following the Daoist Foundation since it was founded (and Louis Komjathy since before.) I've purchased several translations from him and just finished reading an article by him in the latest issue of the Journal of Daoist Studies.

Having said that, I was also interested in "Orthodox Daoism in America", subscribed to "The Frost Bell" and even tried to correspond with Liu Ming. But eventually I learned a little more and it seems that it wasn't quite so "orthodox" as it tried to claim. ;-)

I don't want to suggest that Mr. Komjathy is not to be trusted, but I am leery of people who use connection to lineages and ancient teachings in order to build up their authority in the eyes of others. I've been through this myself and seen it cause problems with the North American Buddhist community too.

I had hoped that any project he was involved with would forego the temptation to try and recreate the Chinese experience in North America and instead try to create something that is more informed by the best elements of Western civilization.

IMHO, any sort of authentic spiritual practice needs to be grounded on lived experience instead of slavish devotion to authority figures. It is true that a lot of self-described "Daoists" are simply using the term to justify self-indulgence. But just as often, people who embrace "orthodoxy" (in any tradition) are seeking some sort of "spiritual drill sargeant" to tell them what to think and do. I don't see either path as being terribly useful.

This isn't to say that I have manifested any great insight on the subject. It's just that I have walked both of these other paths and eventually figured out what dead ends they are.

Bao Pu said...

Hi Bill,

Re: "the problem here isn't that people are slavishly following an authority figure, but rather that the commitment is so minimal that the world "Daoism" ceases to mean much of anything at all."

This is a good point imo. As is this: "being a follower of the Dao isn't based on being lazy and thumbing your nose at all your responsibilities, but rather that we shouldn't be slaves of convention." One can still follow many of society's conventions without having any commitment to them. Daoism was/is also about social harmony, and that requires a certain amount of conformity.

Re: "f you really want to live your life in a "Daoist groove", it makes sense to really study Daoism. This means study of texts, study of the lived tradition, and probably more importantly---, trying to live a life as a Daoist."

For some I presume, there is the difficulty with reconciling the perspectives and values of the ancient writings with the modern living traditions. It requires some work to adopt the Daodejing's perspectives and values while living in a large metropolis. Many of the simple solutions just don't work in the large populations we have now. At least that's something that seems to me to be the case.

Anonymous said...

Taoism is 100 percent life changing!