Saturday, December 26, 2015

Whither Daoism?

I've often had comments from people about why I call this blog "Diary of a Daoist Hermit". First, they ask how someone who lives in a city, is married, and obviously is involved in the life of his community could call himself a "hermit". Second, they ask how someone who isn't Chinese can call himself a "Daoist". And, third, they ask why I even bother to keep the title of this blog, seeing as it "obviously" has nothing at all to do with "Daoism". I've written about this before, but sometimes repetition is a good thing, so here goes.


I started calling myself a "hermit" as a result of something that a Roman Catholic hermit said to me. I was at the time visiting him for spiritual direction, and we were talking about his vocation. He lived in a suburban house, led retreats at a local spiritual centre, drove a car, and lived what appeared to be a pretty normal life. He said that the essence of being a religious hermit isn't about being isolated from human society, it is instead about being isolated from religious institutions. He had lived in religious communities, indeed, he was the cook at a Benedictine community a few miles from the Daoist retreat centre that I spent a summer at years ago. But he had decided to go out on his own.

I have always had a hard time with religious institutions because I routinely ask "hard questions" that make others feel tremendously uncomfortable. I have tried out various religious organizations, but always found something about them that I either found repulsive or so irritating that I couldn't be a member. I have spent time with Roman Catholics, Buddhists, I even joined a Unitarian community once. But nothing "fit". Indeed, I spent so much time as a spiritual "tourist", that when I decided to simply call myself a "Daoist", I took on the name of "Cloudwalking Owl" because I had read once that a spiritual practice of some Daoists was to travel from religious community to religious community seeking wisdom. This was called "CloudWalking". (My surname is from Welsh and says that I am a member of the "Owl Clan".)

As for the "Daoist" bit, at one point in this search I came across a website that brought together practitioners and academics who were interested in religious Daoism. They had a "question and answer" part of the website where people could ask an expert. I had been a member of the Daoist Tai Chi Association and had been asked by the "big cheese", Moy Lin Shin, if I wanted to "join the

Here's a nice photo of the Fung Loy Kok in Orangeville---NOT where I was initiated. That was a tiny temple upstairs in downtown Toronto. 

Temple". It worked out that I did and this involved a ceremony in a Temple above the training hall. I thought it was like taking first communion for a Roman Catholic or "signing the book" for a Unitarian. (I eventually saw stuff I didn't like, so I left the group.) But someone had asked this
Mr. Moy, cool suit!
website about whether or not someone could be "baptized" as a Daoist. The academics said that this was totally impossible. Puzzled, I wrote in, described the ritual I'd gone through, and asked what it was if it wasn't something like a baptism. The response was that this was more like an ordination.

The main thing about this "ordination" wasn't that it gave me any sort of standing over other people, but rather that it recognized me as someone who had started on some sort of path. The other thing is that it was more than a little exclusive. I found out that very few people either in or out of China are asked to be initiated the way I was.  So, in actual fact, I do have at least a little bit of "cred" when it comes to calling myself a Daoist. It isn't that much, though. I was initiated into a minor Temple that was an offshoot of a sort of odd "reformed" version of Quanzhen Daoism (the Yuen Yuen Institute.)

Here's a nice shot of part of the Yuen-Yuen Institute---I've never been there

So why call myself a "Daoist" instead of a Catholic, Buddhist or Unitarian? Mostly, I use the title "Daoist" because I have found that I am attracted to the teachings of people like Laozi, Zhuangzi, the Celestial Master, the Masters of Huainan, and so on. Mostly, however, it is because the everyday spiritual practices that I have followed for decades---taijiquan, holding onto the One, merging with the Dao---all come from a Daoist sensibility.


Having done away with the bits about who I am, I now move onto the main thing I want to discuss in this post---what exactly is "Daoism" and what is its role in the 21rst century?

The first thing to get out of the way is any idea that what I am concerned about is Chinese, religious Daoism.  At one time I was interested in exploring the Daoism of Temples, robes, ceremonies, Gods and so forth. Not any more. I don't particularly care for most religious institutions or the people who are attracted to them. For various historical and other reasons, these things exist, but they have very little meaning for me. Moreover, I am not of Asian descent, don't speak or read Chinese, have never been to China, and since I left the Fung Loy Kok I have very little to do with anyone who is any of the above. I am a Westerner with a graduate degree in philosophy who is very much a product of the late 20th and early 21rst century.

Remove these things and there are residual elements to Daoism that I find tremendously appealing. There are books in the Daoist canon that I do not like. I don't read them. But there are others that are admittedly poetic and obscure, but seem to be based on the observations and insights from wise people who are talking about what it means to be a real human being. These include the Laozi, the Zhuangzi, the Liezi , the Taipingjing and the Nei-Yeh, amongst others.  These aren't books that were written by a religion, they are books that a religion grew up around.  In so far as I believe that Daoism has a future, I believe that it comes from people who are inspired to live their lives in accordance with the insights as revealed in these texts.


What I find appealing about Daoism is that it offers a useful set of "rules of thumb" that allow me to make sense of a fundamentally absurd state of affairs. I've codified these Daoist rules as follows. They are the foundation that I build my life around.

  • Our understanding is limited, so limited that we often don't even understand how limited. As a result, it is important to be humble in our assumptions about how the world operates.
  • It is generally a good idea to avoid unnecessary effort---more harm is done by doing too much than by doing not enough.
  • The world operates by various laws or general principles. Someone who understands these laws and principles can accomplish a great deal by working in harmony with them.
  • Conversely, people who try to do things by fighting against these laws, tend to fail.
  • A great deal of the ability that comes from working with these principles and laws comes spontaneously from within the individual who often cannot explain why he does what he or she does, or why it works.
  • Having said that, the way to develop these spontaneous abilities usually seems to come from sustained, dedicated practice.
  • While sometimes violence is necessary, it is inherently a bad thing.
  • Emptiness and passivity are of at least equal value---if not more---than substance and action.
  • What passes for convention wisdom is usually of very little value when it comes to making important life choices.

These ideas are all my own way of saying stuff that I have originally read about in books like the Zhuangzi, the Liezi, the Laozi, and so on. I use my own words because I am not interested in appealing to authority when I make statements. Just because something comes from an old book doesn't mean anything at all to me---there are lots of old books full of errant nonsense. Even if the book isn't full of nonsense, if a person cannot explain the idea using his own language and examples, odds are that he really doesn't completely understand it.

 “The purpose of a fish trap is to catch fish, and when the fish are caught the trap is forgotten. The purpose of a rabbit snare is to catch rabbits. When the rabbits are caught, the snare is forgotten. The purpose of the word is to convey ideas. When the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words? He is the one I would like to talk to.”---Zhuangzi
In my writing, I try to be like Zhuangzi and remember the ideas while forgetting the words. That's why I don't make a big deal of saying "Daoism is such and such" or "Daoists do this sort of thing" or "the wise Daoist said blah, blah, blah".

Because I don't use the word "Daoism" a lot or make a lot of quotes from Daoist scriptures, people sometimes think that the ideas that I am attempting to convey are not informed or inspired by a Daoist way of looking at the world. Well, that's too bad. The ideas and viewpoint are what matters, using old texts to support my point of view is not only besides the point, it is down-right counter productive. I grew up in a community that was lousy with Fundamentalist Christians and at a young age became heartily sick of prooftexting". That is when you quote some text from the Bible in order to support some point of view in an argument. It is simply an appeal to authority and it lets someone off the hook of having to come up with something like a logical argument or evidence to support their claims. If someone expects to find Daoist prooftexting in this blog, I would suggest that they go somewhere else for a regular dose of saccharine-sweet fortune cookie quotes.  
Zhuangzi's Butterfly Dream


OK, that's where I'm at with regard to Daoism. How about Daoism and society?

Daoism holds an odd place in Western society. Just about everyone has heard about the Dao De Jing and Zhuangzi's dream about the butterfly.  But that is generally the beginning and end of it. The only Western writer that I can think of who has really had a Daoist sensibility soak into her work is Ursula Le Guin. Mind you, that's a pretty good example to have if you are only going to have one!

Ursula Le Guin
Her books make references to Daoism in various ways. In her novel City of Illusions, the Dao De Jing is a significant plot device as it is something of a holy text that is universally revered. Another novel, Lathe of Heaven, takes its title from a quote from Zhuangzi "To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven." It deals with a man who's dreams come true and his therapist who attempts to use this power to change the world---with disastrous consequences. Another novel, Always Coming Home, attempts to envision a Daoist Utopia, as understood by the Dao De Jing, set in California in the far distant future.

Other than Le Guin, I am hard pressed to think of any voices at all in contemporary Western society that express a Daoist viewpoint. But I do think that this is changing. Just as Buddhism took a long time coming and was first spread by academics and monks, so I think that there is a lot of interest in Daoism too. But it will take a long time to come because people will reject what they do not understand, and I think that what people will expect to see will be fancy priests in funny robes. And, to be honest, until that sort of thing arrives, I don't think anyone will be willing to accept it. And sad to say, almost all of those fancy dress Daoists will probably be confidence tricksters out to separate money and other things from the "rubes". Eventually the dust will settle, perhaps in a hundred years or so, and something worthwhile will remain.

In the meantime, I personally think that those "rules of thumb" I posted above could do a lot of good in our society. We have a lot of problems in our culture with a sort of aggressive, macho, belligerent, self-importance. We assume that we know a lot more than what we really do and we create a lot of problems by bustling around doing far too much when we would be much better served humbly waiting to see what will happen on its own accord. We could also use with a lot more reverence to the natural world. This blog is my attempt to subtly influence the world by letting people see how it looks to someone informed by the Daoist sensibility. Maybe it will help at least a few people to be a little more in harmony with the Dao. If so, it will have served its purpose.


Herbal Panda said...

As a fellow religious - but not social - hermit myself, I can really relate to your sensibility here.

I'm fortunate enough to have a true Daoist Master as my taijiquan instructor - although he doesn't wear robes or have any formal title, he embodies the same principles that you listed effortlessly in his practice and his life, and has a lot of familiarity with the Dao De Jing, Zhuangzi, Huangdi Neijing, etc. He leads a quiet, almost invisible existence but is willing to share the depths of his knowledge with anyone who is sincere.

There do seem to be some formal Daoist institutions that are cropping up in North America, although they are few and far between The Daoist Foundation is one of them. In the US at least I think there is a fair amount of Sinophobia and general ignorance of East Asian culture that has kept interest in Daoism relatively low (Yoga and Tibetan Buddhism still seem to dominate the "exotic" and "alternative" spiritual scene). It will be interesting to see if that changes as China takes on a more prominent geopolitical role in the coming decades. I also think the relatively closed, esoteric nature of many Daoist lineages has kept it from being widely transplanted in the West the way that, say, Buddhism has spread.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

Greetings Herbal Panda:

Yes, I've been following Louis Komjathy for a while and have seen his website before. I hope it is a good thing. I try to keep aware of this sort of thing, to the point of subscribing to the journal of the British Daoist Association, Orthodox Daoism in America's journals, Livia Kohn's "Journal of Daoist Studies", "Tongren" (Canadian taijiquan journal), and others at various times. Alas, I am a hermit through and through, and always eventually walk away from groups. ;-)

I do believe that there are various types of people. Some like organizations and groups, others do not. Daoism---unlike all the other world traditions---seems to attract the latter more than the former. This, I suspect, puts it at a disadvantage when it comes to building institutions. So be it.

I bow to a fellow traveler on the Way!