The first book I read was titled "Taoism: the Enduring Tradition" by Russell Kirkland. Unfortunately, like a lot of academic tomes on obscure subjects, the book is pricey ($120 for hard cover) and new enough (published 2004) that I didn't find it in my local academic library. But luckily an electronic version exists----both as kindle and mobi-pocketbook---so I downloaded it to read in my Iliad.
Kirkland gives a good overview of Daoism, one that goes a long way towards dispelling the Western myth of separation between what people routinely used to call "philosophical" and "religious" Daoism. Beyond being a leading researcher, Kirkland is an excellent writer who never leaves me dozing off because of ponderous academic prose. Moreover, as a modern scholar who is really engaged with his work, he is able to give an educated non-expert an overview that will help me go further afield in my studies. Even though there wasn't a lot new to me in the text, there were a couple things that I really found interesting in the book.
The first point was more of a validation than an actual insight. Kirkland makes the point that because Daoism doesn't have the sort of foundational figure or institutional hierarchy of the religions that Westerners are familiar with, there is a special problem of deciding just whom exactly is a "Daoist". Christians are people who follow Christ, as revealed in the Bible. But if you read the Daoist canon you will find a vast number of books that give a great deal of contradictory advice about a great many things. (For example, Quanzhen Daoists suggest that celibacy is a requirement whereas the Celestial Master, in the Taiping Jing, recommends that whenever possible men marry two wives because sex is fun, healthy and brings large families.)
If doctrine has never been a unifying factor, neither has organization. While the modern Chinese government has chosen to lump all Daoist sects into two different branches, Quanzhen and Orthodox, history tells that the religion has adapted itself to changes in society by creating new branches and lineages that fit the needs of a specific time and place.
Instead of looking for doctrinal or organizational unity, therefore, Kirkland suggests that we look at Daoism in terms of asking who it was that self-identified as a "Daoist" both today and throughout Chinese history and find out what they have in common. When this is done, the unifying characteristic found is interest in self-cultivation.
While Kirkland has little less than contempt for the "Tao of Pooh" types, it does mean that using this definition I suspect that he would show a little more acceptance to my humble vocation. In a fairly long end note to his first chapter, he specifically talks about Westerners---like myself---who self-identify as "Daoists".
There may also be individuals in Birmingham and Boston who self-identify as Taoists. But very few of them were born to parents who self-identified as Taoists. Very few of them have ever even spoken with someone who had Taoists among their ancestors. Very few of them are capable of communicating with such a person---virtually all of whom speak Chinese as their native tongue. Very few of them are capable of reading what such people from age to age, have written to express or explain their beliefs and practices---virtually all such texts are written in Chinese, mostly classical. Very few of them have ever made any personal investment in trying to find out what such people have ever said or done in their practice of Taoism, e.g. by going to live in a long-established community where self-identifying Taoists have practiced together for generations, within their traditional social and cultural setting. To the extent that any individual in Boston or Birmingham meets such criteria, he or she might well be considered "a Taoist". And we may also reasonably extend consideration to individuals who meet some, but not all, such criteria; an Englishman who goes to China, enters a traditional Taoist community, and adjusts his own life to their teachings and practices might arguably be included as "a Taoist," as might a person of Chinese ancestry born in the worldwide diaspora, who may not be fluent in Chinese, and may have been inculcated with cultural traditions that have no connection with Taoism, but who makes efforts to learn the traditions of Taoism that flourished in traditional China, some of which are still flourishing in China today. (footnote number 15 for Chapter 1, "Understanding Taoism")
I suppose a truly realized man wouldn't care much about what people like Kirkland think. But I make no claims to sagehood, and I do meet the odd person who simply dismisses out of hand any idea that a non-Chinese person who has never been to China and doesn't even know the language could have any association with Daoism.
So even according to a hard-nosed academic like Kirkland I do seem to have some sort of claim. After all, I have met ordained Daoists, was initiated by them, lived in a Daoist retreat centre, and have devoted decades to a somewhat disciplined attempt to learn about and live a life as a Daoist. I won't suggest that Kirkland would be too happy with me calling myself a Daoist, but since I usually introduce myself to others who ask as a "crappy Daoist who doesn't know much", I think he might be a bit more willing to let me slide in under his definition. ;-)
Beyond my trivial personal concerns, however, Kirkland is trying to make the point that is encapsulated in the title of his book. Daoism, for him, is an enduring tradition. Since there is no core text or ecclesiastic organization, the only real way to define Daoism is through the practices that individual Daoists follow. And those practices only exist as handed down through social institutions---teacher to pupil lineages, and, specific isolated religious communities. The reason why Kirkland is so supercilious about self-identified Western Daoists (i.e. the "Tao of Pooh" types) is because he rests his definition on self-identity. But not just any self-identity, self-identity within a context of lineages that connect these self-identified individuals with the past history of Daoism.
This concern about practice and cultural connection fits into the next book I read, which came from reading Kirkland: "Original Tao: Inward Training (Nei-Yeh) and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism, trans. and commentary by Harold Roth.
(My experience of fruitful study is like that. You do not ponder over and over again some weighty text---the way some people just read the Dao De Jing over and over again and progressively read more and more into their translation. Instead, one piece of scholarly information leads you another, and another, and another, like a duck following a trail of bread crumbs. And all along, you are gaining a better and better understanding of the subject at hand. Eventually, almost by happen-stance, you find that you have learned a great deal.)
According to Roth this little book, the Nei-Yeh is a key underlay for both the Dao De Jing and the Zhuangzi. I use the word "underlay" specifically because I don't want to lead people into thinking that it has been proved that the Nei-Yeh was the inspiration for these other books. Instead, Roth argues that it came from an existing contemplative tradition that either informed both the Nei-Yeh and the three books usually described as the core books of Daoism (the Laozi, Zhuagzi and Liezi), or, the Nei-Yeh was a book that was known by the authors of them. Having said that, there are so many passages that are similar to the Nei-Yeh in them, that it is pretty obvious that there is some relationship between them.
And what the Nei-Yeh is about is a type of spiritual practice that Roth identifies as what Western religion would call "apothatic mysticism" or "contemplation". This is a practice where one stills the mind by aligning the body into a specific type of bodily posture and then focusing on the breathing to the exclusion of all other mental activity. Eventually, one will become aware of the "mind behind the mind" and develop a greater sense of awareness and wisdom than you had before.
If you can be aligned and be tranquil,
Only then can you be stable.
With a stable mind at your core,
With the eyes and ears acute and clear,
And with the four limbs firm and fixed,
You can thereby make a lodging place for the vital essence.
The vital essence: it is the essence of the vital energy.
When the vital energy is guided, it [the vital essence] is
But when it is generated, there is thought,
When there is thought, there is knowledge,
But when there is knowledge, then you must stop.
Whenever the forms of the mind have excessive knowledge,
You lose your vitality. (Chapter VIII, trans. Harold Roth)
It is the practice mentioned in the Nei-Yeh that is what was the basis of the Daoist lineages and communities that have existed and still do. And it is the practice of this form of contemplation that informed the people who wrote the other books of Daoism---such as the Laozi, Zhuangzi and Liezi. When people attempt to discuss these texts without understanding the contemplative practices that informed them, they end up moving off into all sorts of areas that take them away from that "enduring tradition that Kirkland" was talking about. As such, they cease to be "Daoists" as he understands them. To really get a handle on what it means to be a Daoist, therefore, a person needs to go through at least an introduction into the spiritual practice that is identified in the Nei-Yeh. I will devote a future post to what I believe that this entails.