Bridging the Gap Between
“Philosophical” &“Religious” Daoism

Essay 1
The Unity/Diversity of Daoism
The term “Daoism” can be applied to a diverse group of traditions, including early texts (Neiye, Daodejing, and Zhuangzi) that emphasize the principle of wuwei and organized sects (Celestial Masters/Tianshidao, Supreme Clarity/Shangqing, Numinous Treasure/Lingbao, Orthodox Unity/Zhengyidao, and Complete Reality/Quanzhen) that focus on the pursuit of immortality through inner/outer alchemy and ritual. While some (such as H. G. Creel) have argued that these two approaches are so fundamentally different that they should be thought of as completely distinct traditions (i.e. “philosophical” vs. “religious” Daoism), others (such as Russell Kirkland, Ronnie Littlejohn, and Isabelle Robinet) emphasize their similarities, seeing them as organically connected traditions that share a common root.1 Based on the “folk novel Seven Taoist Masters as well as the material that was covered in class and any additional research that is required, develop your own position on the relationship between the various strands of Daoist thought and practice.

1 For a summary of the debate, see Mario Poceski, Introducing Chinese Religions (London: Routledge, 2009), 61-3. For the individual positions listed above, see Herlee G. Creel, What is Taoism? And Other Studies in Chinese Cultural History (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1970), 1-24; Russell Kirkland, Taoism: The Enduring Tradition (New York: Routledge, 2004), 172-210; Ronnie Littlejohn, Daoism: An IntroductionTaoism: Growth of a Religion, trans. Phyllis Brooks (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997), 1-23 (London: I. B. Tauris, 2009), 1-5; and Isabelle Robinet, Taoism: Growth of a Religion, trans. Phyllis Brooks (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997), 1-23.
One of the most difficult issues in the effort to understand Taoism involves how we understand the final goal of the Taoist life, and the relationship of that goal to the conclusion of natural life processes, i.e., death. ... Speaking simply, Taoist attitudes towards death have never been reducible to any clear, unequivocal proposition. ... On another level, of course, the issue of how Taoists have understood the nature and significance of death has been obfuscated not by insufficient research, or by the murkiness or disparity of the data, but rather by the interpretive lenses through which both specialists and non-specialists have viewed the issue. For generations, most writers — both Asian and Western — maintained, often quite dogmatically, that the so-called philosophical Taoists of antiquity were — and logically must be — distinguished from the so-called religious Taoists of later times on the basis of the alleged fact that the latter were devoted to achieving “physical immortality.” That illusionary dichotomization derives from a cultural narrative intended to discredit the Taoists of imperial times, to show them as foolish, deluded, and simply the inverse of the real or imagined Taoist philosophers of antiquity. Indeed, for some writers, the only reason to examine Taoist ideas about death has simply been to show that the Taoists of imperial times were really not the “legitimate heirs” of the classical Taoists, but rather a motley gang of charlatans and fools. [Taoism: The Enduring Tradition, 172-3]
Confusion regarding Taoist views on life and death has been aggravated by a sometimes uncritical use of the term hsien [xian] as the common referent to the supposed goal of life in “religious Taoism.” ... The influential H. G. Creel, for instance, proclaimed, This kind of Taoism, in its varying manifestations, is marked by one constant aim: the achievement of immortality. ... The immortality in question was a perpetuation of the physical body.” Sinologists such as Creel vehemently insisted that the very notion of hsien-hood was ipso facto contrary to the essential truths” presented in the classical texts [such as the principle of wuwei (nonaction)] that, in Creel’s mind, represented pure Taoism.” ... [However,] it is now quite clear that a serious reading of Taoist texts over the ages demonstrates that the term hsien was not, as Creel insisted, central or fundamental to all the varying manifestations” of Taoism; and that Creel was utterly wrong in his claim that all post-Han forms of Taoism were marked by one constant aim: the achievement of immortality [defined as] a perpetuation of the physical body.” [Taoism: The Enduring Tradition, 182-4]

Is the pursuit of immortality (physical or otherwise) fundamentally inconsistent with the principles of so-called philosophical Daoism?


Despite such misrepresentations, the idea of the hsien is actually rooted in the classics” of Taoism, where it is used to denote an exemplar of spiritual qualities on a level sufficient to allow a transcendence of human mortality. [Taoism: The Enduring Tradition, 184]
Sages in the Zhuangzi
Chien Wu said to Lien Shu, I was listening to Chieh YŁ’s talk — big and nothing to back it up, going on and on without turning around. I was completely dumbfounded at his words — no more end than the Milky Way, wild and wide of the mark, never coming near human affairs!
What were his words like?” asked Lien Shu.
       “He said that there is a Holy Man living on faraway Ku-she Mountain, with skin like ice or snow, and gentle and shy like a young girl. He doesn’t eat the five grains, but sucks the wind, drinks the dew, climbs up on the clouds and mist, rides a flying dragon, and wanders beyond the four seas. By concentrating his spirit, he can protect creatures from sickness and plague and make the harvest plentiful. I thought this was all insane and refused to believe it.”
You would!” said Lien Shu. We can’t expect a blind man to appreciate beautiful patterns or a deaf man to listen to bells and drums. And blindness and deafness are not confined to the body alone — the understanding has them too, as your words just now have shown. This man, with this virtue [de] of his, is about to embrace the ten thousand things and roll them into one. Though the age calls for reform, why should he wear himself out over the affairs of the world? There is nothing that can harm this man. Though flood waters pile up to the sky, he will not drown. Though a great drought melts metal and stone and scorches the earth and hills, he will not be burned. From his dust and leavings alone you could mold a Yao or a Shun! Why should he consent to bother about mere things? [The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, 33-4 (Chapter 1)]
The Perfect Man is godlike. Though the great swamps blaze, they cannot burn him; though the great rivers freeze, they cannot chill him; though swift lightning splits the hills and howling gales shake the sea, they cannot frighten him. A man like this rides the clouds and mist, straddles the sun and moon, and wanders beyond the four seas. Even life and death have no effect on him, much less the rules of profit and loss! [The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, 46 (Chapter 2)]

Nan-po Tzu-k’uei said to the Woman Crookback, You are old in years and yet your complexion is that of a child. Why is this?”
I have heard the Way!”
  “Can the Way be learned?” asked Nan-po Tzu-k’uei.
Goodness, how could that be? Anyway, you aren’t the man to do it. Now there’s Pu-liang Yi — he has the talent of a sage but not the Way of a sage, whereas I have the Way of a sage but not the talent of a sage. I thought I would try to teach him and see if I could really get anywhere near to making him a sage. It’s easier to explain the Way of a sage to someone who has the talent of a sage, you know. So I began explaining and kept at him for three days, and after that he was able to put the world outside himself. When he had put the world outside himself, I kept at him for seven days more, and after that he was able to put things outside himself. When he had put things outside himself, I kept at him for nine days more, and after that he was able to put life outside himself. After he had put life outside himself, he was able to achieve the brightness of dawn, and when he had achieved the brightness of dawn, he could see his own aloneness. After he had managed to see his own aloneness, he could do away with past and present, and after he had done away with past and present, he was able to enter where there is no life and no death. That which kills life does not die; that which gives life to life does not live.” [The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, 82-83 (Chapter 6)]

[Bill Porter/Red Pine] Q: What’s the goal of Taoist practice?

Jen: Man’s nature is the same as the nature of heaven. Heaven gives birth to all creatures, and they all go different directions. But sooner or later they return to the same place. The goal of this universe, its highest goal, is nothingness. Nothingness means return. Nothingness is the body of the Tao. Not only man, but plants and animals and all living things are part of this body, are made of this body, this body of nothingness. Everything is one with nothingness. There aren’t two things in this universe. To realize this is the goal not only of Taoism but also of Buddhism. Everything in this world changes. Taoists and Buddhists seek that which doesn’t change. This is why they don’t seek fame or fortune. They seek only the Tao, which is the nothingness of which we are all created and to which we all return. Our goal is to be one with this natural process.

Q: How does a person reach this goal?

Jen: ... The goal is to become immortal, to return to the body of the Tao. ... Taoist practice involves the creation of an immortal body that separates from this mortal body at death. You can visit Lao-tzu’s grave. He left his bones there when he became an immortal. Our goal is the same as his, to become one with the Tao.

Q: Have the forms of practice changed today?

Jen: No, they’re the same now as they were for Lao-tzu. People haven’t changed; neither has the Tao. The way we live our lives, the way we meditate, the way we cultivate our life force is still the same.

Q: What exactly is the status of Lao-tzu in Taoism? Many people think of him as a philosopher, not as the founder of a religion.

Jen: That’s the modern view. But Lao-tzu can’t be separated from religion. The Chinese people have always believed in the Tao, and this belief has led them to cultivate various forms of religious practice. Do you think Lao-tzu talked about the Tao but didn’t believe or cultivate it? He knew that everything in the universe comes from the Tao and that it’s impossible to leave the Tao. There wasn’t an organized religion then, but it was the same Tao. [R2H, 56-9]

Cultivating Tranquillity
[Master] Hsueh: The Tao isn’t something that can be put into words. You have to practice it before you can understand. Lao-tzu teaches us to be natural. You can’t force things, including practice. Understanding is something that happens naturally. It’s different for everyone. The main thing is to reduce your desires and quiet your mind. Practice takes a long time, and you have to stay healthy. If you have a lot of thoughts and desires, you won’t live long enough to reach the end. [R2H, 82]

[Master] Hsieh: Lao-tzu said to cultivate tranquillity and detachment. To be natural. To be natural means not to force things. When you act natural, you get what you need. But to know what’s natural, you have to cultivate tranquillity. Huashan has long been famous as a center of Taoism because it’s quiet. There used to be a lot hermits here. But now the mountain has been developed for tourism. The tranquillity is gone, and so are the hermits.

Q: Where did they go?

Hsieh: That’s hard to say. Hermits want to be left alone, so they’re not easy to find. They prefer isolation. Some of them returned to the cities. Others moved deeper into the Chungnan Mountains, where it’s still quiet. But even if you found them, they probably wouldn’t talk to you. They don’t like to be disturbed. They prefer to meditate. They’re not interested in conversation. They mights say a few words to you then close their door and not come out again. [R2H, 64-6]

Q: If people can’t learn Taoism from hermits, can they learn from monks in temples?

Hsieh: You can’t learn just by visiting a temple. You have to live there for at least three years and help with the daily work. If you can stand the hardship and privation, after three years you can ask one of the monks to be your teacher. It’s not easy. You have to have a clear head and a quiet mind. As I said before, it takes at least three years of physical training before your mind is quiet enough to understand the Tao. [R2H, 66]

On balance, it would seem accurate to say that Taoists of nearly every stripe — from those who penned lines now found in the Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu, to practitioners of the many later forms of Taoism — believed that death cannot be avoided, and yet death can certainly be transcended. [Taoism: The Enduring Tradition, 187]

The ultimate distinction may be that, among practicing Taoists, the goal was never simply to find a means of preventing the death event. Rather, the Taoist goal — from the Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu throughout most later forms of Taoism — was to attain an exalted state of existence through diligent cultivation of the world’s deeper realities. Such attainments were generally predicated upon a process of personal purification and an enhanced awareness of reality — i.e., a process of moral, spiritual, and cognitive growth. Once one has fully completed that process, one is believed to have somehow reached a state that will not be extinguished, even when the physical body ceases to be one’s form. [Taoism: The Enduring Tradition, 189]
Those who were attracted to Taoism seem to have been those who were not interested in laboring to determine better or worse, much less “correct,” ways of conceptualizing the Taoist life. Rather, they seem to have been those who would gladly draw upon any combination of traditional and contemporary cultural elements to facilitate their efforts to live the Taoist life as fully as possible. ... What the tradition did, from the fifth century onward, was to collect and preserve all the models of and for the spiritual life that anyone had ever suggested. Practitioners would then follow the model that held the most appeal to them. ... Yet, it would be wrong to surmise that all those many models of and for the spiritual life had no underlying commonalities, or that they shared no fundamental perspectives regarding what life is and how one should live it. ... At the most basic level, one assumption common to Taoists of most periods is that most people live fundamentally unaware of the true nature of the reality within which their lives take place. As a consequence, most people live their lives on terms that are not in accord with the true nature of their own reality. ... Likewise, Taoists did not find value in the Buddhist assumption that spiritual transformation could take place merely as a change in one’s consciousness, without any real reference to one’s physical life or to the subtle processes at work in the world around us. Taoists typically believed that personal transformation must be a holistic transformation, a transformation of all their being — including what other traditions have often distinguished as mind, body, and spirit — in accord with the most subtle and sublime processes at work in the world within which we live. [Taoism: The Enduring Tradition, 190-2]