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July 6, 2013

GLOBAL FAITHS: Daoism often seen as a philosophy rather than religion

China produced another religion besides Confucianism: Daoism, however, like Confucianism, it is sometimes called a philosophy of life rather than a religion. But again, like Confucianism, it developed the features and the coloration of a religion. Dao means quite simply, “Way.”

Daoism (which used to be written as Taoism, but pronounced Daoism) claims a founder, Laozi (“master Lao”), who lived about 500 years before the time of Jesus. Legend has it that he left the Chinese kingdom riding a water buffalo, and a western border official asked him to write down his wisdom before he left, which is alleged to be the Dao te Ching, the Daoist Canon.

Some Daoists divinized Laozi and introduced rites of incense and food offerings to him. Laozi was followed by a disciple or successor called Zhuangzi, whose explications of Daoist teachings are easier to grasp.

At the heart of Daoism is “wu wei,” meaning non-action, or effortless action, naturalness. Its classic illustration is grass bowing before the blowing wind. If the grass resisted, it would risk breaking off. Since it yields, it survives and thrives. Daoist philosophy influenced Chinese martial arts, as in judo, where the adept practitioner uses his opponent’s striving to his own advantage. It’s like the expression we have of “rolling with the punch.”

Daoism is far from violent, however. In fact, some describe it as a way to survive. As a Chinese friend wrote me, it is the usefulness of being useless. It is the crooked tree that escapes the ax of the carpenter looking for good wood for furniture. Or it is the bird that stays perched in a tree, hidden, that escapes the hunter. So it was, said my friend, that his father tried to keep a low profile during China’s Cultural Revolution.

Zhuangzi reportedly was offered a position as minister by King Wei of Chu but declined it, pointing out that a special ox is chosen to be fattened and garlanded, only to be a victim of a sacrifice in the end.

It is from illustrations such as this that we begin to grasp Daoist philosophy. For another example, one of its aphorisms says, “We turn clay to make a vessel, but it is in the space where there’s nothing that the usefulness of the vessel depends.”

Daoism’s appeal to naturalness also shows up the relativism and artificiality of many of society’s values. People may admire the beauty of a woman, but if fish saw her they would dive to the bottom of the stream. Or if birds saw her they would fly away.

Centuries after its beginning Daoism developed some superstitions. One involved alchemy – the search for the elixir of immortality. Some Daoists actually poisoned themselves by experimenting with what they hoped would be the medicine of immortality. Another superstition held that Daoism could protect its adherents from the bullets of modern guns.

One book on Chinese religion I read years ago described an exorcism performed by a Daoist priest. It involved a labor of many hours in which the spirit or spirits controlling the demon possessed man resisted. But the Daoist priest eventually prevailed, though totally exhausted from his task.

A Chinese Daoist Association was formed in 1956, indicating that Daoism was still around, even after the communist revolution. The Association was disbanded during the Cultural Revolution but reestablished in 1980.

Researchers estimate the adherents of Daoism may be around 400 million, and there are Daoist temples in China, Taiwan, and California. However, Chinese people do not feel the pressure of exclusive allegiance to one faith the way Christians or Muslims might.

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