Change Yourself…Change The World.

Daosim in Taiwan
October 1, 2008, 2:46 am
Filed under: Taiwan


This is originally a reflection paper I did while attending Global College’s CRC Program. This post was not originally associated with this blog, but I have put it up here around the estimated date written. I thought readers would find these informational, educational, and entertaining. Please note that these posts are much longer than the usual ones, since they are papers.

A summarization of this reflection: Daoism has different forms and meanings in the United States versus Taiwan.

My good friend Max is a dual literature and philosophy major at Lafayette University. He’s one of the smartest people I know, and he’s taken a lot of classes in religion and religious literature at Lafayette. One thing that really drew me to him in high school was how centered he seemed, mostly because of his vast knowledge of religion, particularly Taoism. It was Max who told me to read “The Tao of Pooh,” which equates basic concepts of Taoism into Winnie the Pooh. I remember reading it and coming out with basic knowledge of Taoism- that Tao meant “The Way,” that Taoism was about being ‘an un-carved block.’ So when Max heard that I was abroad studying religion, he was really happy (and jealous) that I would be focusing on Taoism in Taiwan. “I really think Taoism is it, it’s the path,” he very recently told me.

But after today’s discussion with our teacher John, I think there is a whole different side to Taoism that Max hasn’t even heard about; and just realizing that concept blew me out of the water. Even in “Chinese Religious Traditions,” Taoism (which I will now refer to as ‘Daoism’ because of the change it has brought for me) delves straight into dissecting the texts- Laozi and Zhuangzi are discussed in great length and leaves no room for the religious side in Daoism, but rather the philosophy. However, what John stressed today in class is that less than 1% of Chinese and Taiwanese have read these texts.

This was immediately confusing to me. Coming from a Western perspective, if you don’t read the texts then where do you have a basis for religion? I immediately thought: Bible. When I think of Christianity, I think of the Bible. When I think of Islam, I think of the Qur’an. Even Confucianism has its’ analects. These religions- in my experience- seem to depend on these texts as a basis for what their religion is about. Yet so many in Asia that are Daoist have not even read the texts that have made them famous. Why?

According to John, Daoism has two very different meanings: one by a philosophical point of view, and one from a religious point of view. Westerners have focused on the philosophical point of view of Daoism, “the way” or looked to the DaodeJing to “unlock the secrets of Asian thought.” But Daoism in the East is mostly about praying to their Gods and then going home and worshipping their ancestor shrine- an entirely different concept than what we Westerners have come to associate with Daoism.
Why is it like this way?

The way that Westerners first came in contact with Daoism was in the 19th century, when missionaries came to Taiwan to try to convert Taiwanese people to Christianity. “Well, what do they believe? What is their religion?” These missionaries asked, hoping that by having a basis for what their religion was, they could find paradoxes in it and therefore convert the masses to Christianity. However, when they came in contact with Daoism, there was no text for them to study. The missionaries wondered where was their Daoist ‘bible,’ was. Well, the only true concept of religious Daoism is in the Daoist scriptures. In the early 19th century, in order to have access to these scriptures you had to be a Daoist priest. Since these missionaries had no desire to convert to Daoism but rather were looking to convert others, the closest text they could find to Daoism were the Laozi and Shuangzi texts. So when they took these back to Europe and the United States, these books were widely accepted as what Daoism meant. This is why, in John’s opinion, Westerners have latched onto this concept of Dao meaning “The Way.” However, in mainstream culture over in the East, people don’t even associate “The Way” with Daoism (with the exception that the literal translation of Dao means “the crossing of roads- a path”).

So this is the basis for why so many Westerners see the Dao as more of a philosophy than a religion, even though it has an extensive religious back round, such as having different levels of Gods and forms of worship. I personally assume that before this program I had a bit more knowledge of Daoism than the general American, and I didn’t even come in contact with these religious concepts until today. Moreover, as time progresses Westerners have taken Daoism to an entirely new level and started to skew its’ contents. John has pointed out that many Westerners who don’t even read Chinese have looked at translated versions of Zhuangzi and Laozi to come up with their own ‘interpretations’ of what Daoism is (such as Wayne Dyre and Stephen Mitchell). Even “The Tao of Pooh,” which I took to be in essence the simplest definition of Daoism, is influenced by this Western concept.
As I have very recently come to realize, Daoism is not just a philosophy but has deep groundings in religious life. But this notion is rarely discussed in even the most viable Western resources, such as our book “Chinese Religious Traditions.” When defining Daoism, the text says “The goal of individual life… is to live the longest possible natural life by giving in harmony with one’s social and natural environment.” While this is true, it comes from the “Laozi” and addresses the philosophical point of view. In the religious sense, the goal of Daoist life is more about being saved from the impending apocalypse. Daoists believe that our time here on earth goes in waves, from creation to an Apex, to destruction, and repeat. The way to be saved from this impending apocalypse is to achieve one of the following three stages: Transcendent stage, Perfected Being, or Seed People. By achieving one of these terms you are ‘saved’ from the apocalypse and regenerate into the new creation. As you can see, these two terms of life as a Daoist are VASTLY different from one another.

So the most jarring concept this week for me was that upon inspection, Daoism has an entirely different side of religious connotation, and many Westerners are not aware of it. It makes me extremely grateful to be out here studying it, rather than in a classroom in America learning about Daoism through the ‘classic texts’ and thinking this is the only approach. Max is a much smarter person than I am and has delved more into Daoism than I had, but has no concept of this religious side of Daoism. Even more, what was most shocking about this revelation was that it made me question how much Western thought was like this- how many things have been misunderstood about the East and brought back to America, whether it be religion or even their way of life. I felt a little betrayed by Western thought, like I wasn’t getting the real knowledge or full-rounded experience that I should be understanding from these concepts. This realization is more evidence for me that if you’re learning about different cultures, experiential education is the best way to study these concepts.

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