Louis Komjathy 康思奇, Ph.D. Assistant Professor of Chinese Religions and Comparative Religious Studies Department of Theology and Religious Studies University of San Diego Popular misconceptions concerning Daoism are numerous and increasingly influential in the modern world. All of these perspectives fail to understand the religious tradition which is Daoism, a religious tradition that is complex, multifaceted, and rooted in Chinese culture. These misconceptions have their origins in traditional Confucian prejudices, European colonialism, and Christian missionary sensibilities, especially as expressed by late nineteenth-century Protestants. Most of these views are located in American designer hybrid (“New Age”) spirituality, Orientalism, Perennial Philosophy, and spiritual capitalism. They domesticate, sterilize and misrepresent Daoism. In their most developed expressions, they may best be understood as part of a new religious movement (NRM) called “Popular Western Taoism” (PWT), with Taoism pronounced with a hard “t” sound. The current state of Daoism in American may thus be compared to that of Zen Buddhism in the 1950s and 1960s (cf. Dharma Bums and Alan Watts with the Mountains and Rivers Order), although some have suggested that it more closely resembles the Euro-American understanding of Buddhism in the 1890s. Popular Misconception
Dao (Tao) is a trans-religious and universal name for the sacred, and there are “Dao-ists” (“Tao-ists”) who transcend the limitations of the Daoist religious tradition

Informed View

道 , romanized as dao or tao, is a Chinese character utilized by Daoists to identify that which they believe is sacred. There are specific, foundational Daoist views concerning the Dao, which originate in the earliest Daoist communities of the Warring States period (480-222 BCE). distinction between so-called Daoism consists of two forms, “philosophical The ∗ “philosophical Daoism” and “religious Daoism” and “religious Daoism” Daoism” is a modern Western fiction, which reflects colonialist and missionary agendas and sensibilities. From its beginnings in the Warring States period (480-222 BCE), “Daoism” consisted of religious practitioners and communities. Considered as a whole, Daoism is a complex and diverse religious tradition. It consists of various adherents, communities and movements, which cannot be reduced to a simplistic bifurcation. Its complexity may be mapped in terms of historical periodization as well as models of practice and attainment

These characterizations require reflection on the category of “religion,” including the ways in which Daoists have constructed and understood their own tradition.


k. with its meaning changing in different contexts.” “philosophical Daoism” fails to consider the centrality of embodied practice (way of being). His received “biography. daojia referred to the Daoist religious community in general and the Daoist priesthood in particular Laozi 老 子 (Lao-tzu. in the fifth century. is a Master/Old Child) is the founder of Daoism pseudo-historical figure. and place in Daoism. among others Daojia 道家 and daojiao 道教 correspond to Daojia 道家. Daoism. a. If Laozi existed. has multiple source-points. It is a multi-vocal anthology that contains material from different early Daoist lineages and historical periods.“Philosophical Daoism” is the original form of Outside of the modern world. in turn. combines information about a variety of people from various sources. There is.” Daoism” and “religious Daoism.k. literally “Family of the Dao.” respectively are indigenous Chinese categories with no correspondence to the Western constructs of “philosophical Daoism” and “religious Daoism. no “founder” of Daoism. both human and divine.a. Laozi 老子 (Book of ching. there is no form Daoism and is best understood as “philosophy” of Daoism that is not “religious. is a composite text. especially in “classical Daoism. a.a.” as contained in Sima Qian’s 司馬 遷 (ca. 11. a.” Although there are aspects of Daoism that are (disembodied thinking/way of thought) “philosophical. Scripture on the Dao and Inner Power) Venerable Masters).a. Master Lao/Old Laozi. community. 7. For example. 33) 2 . A variety of figures. chs. Laozi wrote the Daode jing 道德經 (Tao-te The Daode jing. literally “Teachings of the Dao.” is best understood as a place-holder for the early inner cultivation lineages.k. the Laozi (Lao-tzu. we do not know anything about him. 21. 145-86 BCE) Shiji 史記 (Records of the Historian). 25.” Each term has a complex history. 12. 5.” and the Western categories of “philosophical daojiao 道教. 3.” It is based on a systematic mischaracterization of the inner cultivation lineages of Warring States Daoism and a misreading of the earliest Daoist texts. 23. are identified as important with respect to the formation of the Daoist tradition. “Laozi.” translatable as “venerable masters. 27. Some of these historical and textual layers may have come from the oral teachings of the shadowy figure Lao Dan (see Zhuangzi. Daode jing) and Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu). 13. Lao Dan 老聃 and Li Er 李耳. namely. in turn. 14.

one also finds various forms of spiritual appropriation and spiritual capitalism Correlative cosmology. based on yin 陰-yang These concepts are not Daoist. with a seventeenth century supplement. there were Daoist adherents and communities before the Celestial Masters.400 texts. Moreover. The received version was compiled in the fifteenth century. The Daoist tradition consists.” In pre-modern China. The primary textual collection in the Daoist tradition is called the Daozang 道 藏 (Daoist Canon). These involve different degrees of commitment and responsibility. They are part of 陽. The first version was compiled in the fifth century CE. This requires training under Daoist teachers and community elders with formal affiliation with the Daoist religious community and tradition. with new additions having been made throughout Daoist history. While the Tianshi movement was formative in the establishment of Daoism as an organized religious tradition and represents one of the most important movements in Daoist history. of ordained priests and monastics and lay supporters. worldview. Daoist texts that matter because they are the Although the Daode jing is probably the most “essence” and “original teachings” of Daoism central and influential scripture in Daoist history. texts that come from every major period and movement of Daoist history. or Dao-ists. are those who love the From a Daoist perspective. there are various Dao and go with the flow. and qi 氣 what is best understood as “traditional Chinese cosmology” and a “traditional Chinese (ch’i). It is an open textual collection.The Daode jing and Zhuangzi are the only There is no principal Daoist scripture. the Five Elements (wuxing 五行). Daoists. Lineage and ordination are primary dimensions of Daoist identity and religious affiliation. Daoism began with a revelation from Laojun (Lord Lao) to Zhang Daoling in 142 CE. first and foremost. types of religious adherence and affiliation. This was the beginning of the Tianshi (Celestial Masters) movement. different Daoist adherents. Like other aspects of 3 . not every subsequent Daoist movement recognized Zhang Daoling and the Celestial Masters as the source of their tradition. communities and movements revere different scriptures. A distinction may in turn be may between Daoist adherents and Daoist sympathizers. It consists of roughly 1. In the case of Daoism in the West. these concepts formed the foundation of a panChinese worldview. is Daoist.

it is not Daoist in origin or essence. including the search for multiple The place of sexuality in Daoism is complex. or Fengshui is not Daoist. Sexual yoga. They were Daoists and. Most of the practices identified as “Daoist is Daoist. it is part of what is best understood Chinese geomancy. and martial.. Using Fengshui thus does not indicate Daoist religious affiliation or identity. including Buddhist. Sun Simiao. Chinese medical practitioners Fengshui 風 水 (lit. There are also many different types of Qigong. Thus.” most often comes from a conflation of correlative cosmology (see above) with Daoism. they formed part of the foundational Daoist worldview. sexual practices” originated in non-Daoist contexts.” While some Daoists have utilized Fenshui throughout Chinese history. In terms of classical Chinese medicine. Like correlative cosmology. there is some overlap between the two traditions. that Daoists such as Ge Hong. correlative cosmology is not Daoist in origin or essence Chinese medicine is Daoist and/or there is Chinese medicine is not Daoist. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is. This some form of Chinese medicine called “Daoist misidentification. in imperial court circles in particular. We do know. a modern form of Chinese medicine created by the Chinese communist government and influenced by Western biomedicine and a scientific paradigm. While some Daoists have practiced “paired” or “partnered practice. and the construct of “Daoist medicine” medicine. Qi Exercises) is Qigong is not Daoist.Chinese culture. orgasms and the practice of sexual vampirism. however. is Daoist as “traditional Chinese culture. Qigong 氣 功 (Ch’i-kung. in fact. Most Daoist Qigong incorporates internal alchemy (neidan 内丹) methods. medical. Some of these derive from earlier Daoist Yangsheng 養生 (Nourishing Life) practices.” often referred to as “dual cultivation. and Tao Hongjing made major contributions to Chinese medicine. It combines traditional Chinese health and longevity practices with modern Chinese concerns and a Western scientific paradigm. in the case of Sun and Tao.” a different conception of sexual 4 . but little research has been done on this topic. Qigong refers to a modern Chinese health and longevity Daoist movement aimed at national upbuilding. “Wind and Water). Daoist.

From a traditional Chinese perspective.intercourse was involved. Yoga is a Sanskrit technical term related to indigenous Indian practices aimed at union (yuj) with the divine. such practices almost always occurred within a larger system of alchemical transformation in which the sublimation of sexual energy was a preliminary and foundational step. Book of Changes) is a The Yiing 易經 (Book of Changes) is not a Daoist text. indigenous derive from it. Moreover. practicing Taiji quan does not make one a Daoist. aka Flow Yoga or Yin Yoga. Most so-called “Taoist Yoga” is either modified Hatha Yoga or derives from Chinese Wushu 武術 (martial arts) practices. some Daoists have studied the cosmology of the Yiing and utilized the trigrams and hexagrams as a symbol system. Zhang Sanfeng is pseudohistorical. the patron saint of Mount Wudang. especially for external and internal alchemy. it is one of the so-called “Five Classics” of classical Confucianism. Yin-yang Taiji quan is not Daoist.. “guided stretching”) or internal alchemy (neidan 内丹) practices. Zhang Sanfeng. Taiji quan 太極拳 (Tai-chi ch’üan. Throughout Chinese history. It pre-dates distinct. a mistaken Daoist. is the creator of Taiji quan Chinese “internal style” (neijia 内家) martial arts are not Daoist and do not originate in a Daoist text. As the trigrams and hexagrams Daoist text. a martial art that is not Daoist in origin or essence Taoist Yoga. It was a nativist response aimed at national upbuilding. It is. and Xingyi quan. it originated in non-Daoist circles. such as Taiji quan. Like Bagua zhang 八卦掌(Eight Trigram Boxing) is Daoist Palm) and Xingyi quan 形意拳 (Form-Intent Boxing). category with no correlation to indigenous Chinese categories. Mount Wudang 武當 is the birthplace of the soft or internal martial arts. which are the indigenous Daoist categories. While some Daoists practice Taiji quan. Current research indicates that Wudang style martial arts represent a modern synthesis of Bagua zhang. However. is “Taoist Yoga” is a misnomer. interest in the 5 . It is a Chinese martial art. Current research suggests that little if any so-called “Taoist Yoga” derives from Daoist Daoyin 導 引 (lit. Taiji quan. The Yiing 易經 (I-ching. they also are Daoist symbols cultural traditions like Confucianism and Daoism. first and foremost.

2008. London and New York: Routledge. Such works have no place in a serious inquiry into and an accurate understanding of the Daoism. and Richard King. 29-41. “My Way: Teaching the Daode jing at the Beginning of a New Millennium. The Victorian Translation of China: James Legge’s Oriental Pilgrimage. Paulino.” In Encyclopedia of Religion. there are various Daoist views about the origin. 6 . Moreover. Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion. Honolulu: East-West Center. Norman. 105-130. such popular Western cultural productions are popular exactly because they expunge all of the culturally specific and religious dimensions of the text. nature and meaning of such texts. 2005. in fact. Steve. Ursula LeGuin. 2176-2192.” International Review of Chinese Religion and Philosophy 5: 245-89. They are part of popular Western culture. _____.). New Age spirituality. 2004. as well as selfhelp and pop psychology. That movement has little to no connection with the religious tradition which is Daoism.Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. Translation East and West: A Cross-cultural Approach. FURTHER READING Belamide. Mitchell and LeGuin do not know classical Chinese. Stephen R.. “Daoism: An Overview. “Taoism and Healing in North America: The Healing Tao of Mantak Chia. They are part of “spiritual capitalism” and a new form of alternative spirituality best understood as “Popular Western Taoism” (PWT). and other popularizers are accurate and provide direct access to the original teachings of Daoism Such “translations” are not. Berkeley: University of California Press. edited by Lindsay Jones. volume 14. “The American Conquest of Philosophical Taoism. 2002. J.” In Cornelia Moore and Lucy Lower (eds. Carrette.Yijing and hexagrams/trigrams does not make one a Daoist. Translations of the Tao-te-ching by Stephen Mitchell. 2000. Popular publications like The Tao of Pooh (Benjamin Hoff) as well as Change Your Thoughts and Living the Wisdom of the Tao (Wayne Dyer) provide accurate glimpses into Daoist beliefs and concerns.” In Gary DeAngelis and Warren Frisina (eds. Daoist scriptures (jing 經) are texts written in classical Chinese. For example. Girardot.). translations. Bokenkamp. 1992. Bradbury. Teaching the Daode jing. with “Taoism” pronounced with a “t” sound. New York and London: MacMillan. Moreover.

1998 (1986). ed. 1997a. Iwamura. 2010. Louis (Kang Siqi 康思奇). London and New York: Routledge. < 2001. and the Global Future. 1998. “Western Esotericism.).” In Daoism Handbook. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. Eastern Spirituality. 1995. eds. “The Origins of the Legend of Lao Tan. “Changing Perspectives on the Daoist Tradition. Lao-tzu and the Tao-te-ching. 1997c.” In Livia Kohn and Michael LaFargue (eds. “The Historical Contours of Taoism in China: Thoughts on Issues of Classification and Terminology.esoteric. Accessed January 15. The Tao of the West: Western Transformations of Taoist Thought. “Influential Western Interpretations of the Tao-te-ching.htm>. and Ritual. Accessed July 1. Kobayashi Masayoshi. 2002. and Michael LaFargue. 2004. “The Taoism of the Western Imagination and the Taoism of China: De-colonizing the Exotic Teachings of the East. Graham. J. Irwin. Religion and Popular Culture in America. Hardy. _____. and Emerging Perspectives. 2001. _____. eds. 2000. Livia. <http://www. Kohn. 1998. Mass.” In Livia Kohn and Michael LaFargue (eds. _____. 7 . Livia. Leiden: Brill. Julia. London and New York: Routledge. “The Establishment of the Taoist Religion (Tao-chiao) and Its Structure. Albany: State University of New York Press.4: 327-34. “Daoist Alchemy in the West: The Esoteric Paradigms. 2005.” Teaching Theology and Religion 1. “Explaining Daoism: Realities.” Journal of Chinese Religions 30: 177-93.J. Daoism Handbook. edited by Livia Kohn. Kohn. 2002.” Journal of Chinese Religions 25: 57-82. 2000a. Berkeley: University of California Press. _____. 2010. “The Oriental Monk in American Popular Culture.pdf>. Cultural Constructs. Livia.” Religious Studies Review 28.). Kohn. Lineage. 2002. “The History of Taoism: A New Outline. _____. _____.: Three Pines Press. Taoism: The Enduring Tradition. Lee. 23-40.2: 121-29. Accessed January 15.myweb. Cambridge.msu. 2004.” Acta Asiatica: Bulletin of the Institute of Eastern Culture 68: xi-xviii. 2007. Albany: State University of New York Press. 2000.esoteric. 25-43.). “Teaching Taoism in the 1990s.htm>. Komjathy.” Esoterica III: 1-47. Daoism and Chinese Culture. Kirkland.C. _____.” In Bruce Forbes and Jeffrey Mahan (eds. 1998.” Esoterica VI: 31-51. Lao-tzu and the Tao-te-ching. Jane. Lao-tzu and the Tao-te-ching. Albany: State University of New York Press. Leiden: Brill.msu. Daoist Identity: History. 165-88. and Harold Roth.” <http://kirkland. A.uga.

Berkeley: University of California Press.” <http://www. 2003b. Medicine in China: A History of Ideas. Posted on September 15. 1985. Paul. Hong Kong: Yuen Yuen Institute. Sivin. _____. 8 ._____. 2005. “Daoist Organizations in North America.daoistcenter. 2002 (posthumous). Seager. 2006. New York: Vintage Books.D. James. Handbooks for Daoist Practice. T’ai Chi’s Ancestors: The Making of an Internal Martial Art. New Age Capitalism: Making Money East of Eden.html>.” <http://www. Unschuld. Miller. “Taijiquan and Daoism: From Religion to Martial Art and Martial Art to Religion. Orientalism. Michel. Kimberly. _____. New York: Columbia University Press.daoistcenter. Accessed January 15. 2003c.” In Taoism and the Arts of China. Elijah. Richard.html>. 2003. Mass.2 (November 2004): 2000.: Three Pines Press. Chinese Magical Medicine. 2007. 2010.” <http://www.html>. Schipper. _____. “Chronology of Daoist History. University of California. Chicago/Berkeley: Art Institute/University of California Press. Edited by Bernard Faure.” History of Religions 17: 303-330. and Elijah Siegler. _____.2: 101-8.html>. 2000. 2003. 10 vols. _____. “Taoism: The Story of the Way. Accessed January 15.” Nova Religio 8. Cambridge. 2003. edited by Livia Kohn.” In Daoist Body Cultivation. Said. 1979. Edward W. “Of Alchemy and Authenticity: Teaching about Daoism Today. “Tracing the Contours of Daoism in North America. 1999. 1999. Posted on April “Daoist Teachers in North America.. 2010. 2007. Accessed January 15. Daoism: A Short Introduction. Buddhism in America. 2008 (2003). Wile. Posted on September 15. New City. “Qigong in America. diss. “Daoist Texts in Translation.” Journal of Asian Martial Arts 16. Santa Barbara. Strickmann. James. “On the Word ‘Taoist’ as a Source of Perplexity (With Special Reference to the Relation of Science and Religion in Traditional China). 2004. Posted on September 15. “The Dao of America: The History and Practice of American Daoism” Ph. Miller. 2003a. 2003. _____. Douglas.4: 8-45. Accessed January 15.daoistcenter. 2010.” <http://www. edited by Stephen Little. 203-35.daoistcenter. NY: Sweet Ch’i Press. Kristofer. Oxford: Oneworld. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2010. 33-55. 2005. 1978. Nathan.” Teaching Theology and Religion 10. 2003. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 2003. Siegler.