Using the reading, how would you describe the major ways Daoism differs from Confucianism? What about the philosophy was most interesting to you? Reference the reading in your answer.Chapter Eight
The Way of Flourishing
Modern life is purpose-driven. Though much of it is conducted in an office
chair, it is nonetheless about speed and efficiency—“galloping by
sitting.”1 Wandering, by contrast, is slow, unproductive, and open to
surprises. If you have a destination, or even a plan, you aren’t on a wander.
Purposeless by design, wandering is closer to play than to work. It lets
circumstance and desire take you where they will, and it doesn’t sweat the
The Western monotheisms portray wandering as punishment—
something you get after you bite the apple (Adam and Eve) or kill your
brother (Cain). In Daoism (or Taoism2), however, wandering is
opportunity rather than punishment. The Daoist hero Lu Dongbin was
working his way toward marriage, employment, and success when, during
a nap, he caught a glimpse of the future prison he was making for himself.
He dreamed he was a rich and respected government official with many
children and grandchildren until a scandal stole everything from him,
scattering his family and leaving him a broken man. When he woke up, Lu
decided to climb out of his hamster cage. After flunking China’s imperial
examinations, he made for the mountains instead. Eventually this dropout
became one of Daoism’s beloved Eight Immortals.
Whereas Christians and Muslims tend to view this world as a dress
rehearsal for the world to come, “This is it!” is the Daoist mantra. Socially,
Daoism represents a revolt of the land against the city, of China’s rural
south against its urban north. We are at home on earth, and in our bodies.
We are least ourselves when those bodies are stuck in the concrete of a city
sidewalk. We are most ourselves when walking through the mountains. So
it should not be surprising that Daoist scriptures portray wandering as
freedom. To be lost in the maze of social conventions and ritual propriety,
led around by the noose of norms and “the normal,” is to be alienated from
yourself, from other people, and from the environment. To lose yourself in
mountains or valleys is to return to the origin of things, including your
own nature. To “roam in company with the Dao,” led only by intuition and
desire and the innate curiosity of the child, is to discover who you really
are—your natural spontaneity, vitality, and freedom.3
The first chapter of the Daoist classic the Zhuangzi (or Chuang-Tzu) is
called “Free and Easy Wandering.” It speaks of a sage who “could ride
upon the wind wherever he pleased, drifting marvelously” for days at a
time; another who could “go wandering in infinity”; another who “rides on
the clouds, drives a flying dragon, and wanders beyond the four seas”; and
yet another who “can roam in nonaction.” Later chapters describe the sage
as someone who “wanders beyond the dust of the mundane world” and
speak of the wanders of emperors and even Confucius himself. According
to Sinologist Victor Mair, who titled his Zhuangzi translation Wandering
on the Way, wandering is “probably the single most important and
quintessential concept” in this text. Mair adds that yu, which is usually
translated as “wandering” but also means “playing,” is a “term for that
transcendental sort of free movement which is the mark of an enlightened
being.” This movement can be of the mind as well as the body. “Just ride
along with things as you let your mind wander,” writes Zhuangzi. “That is
the ultimate course.”4
The Zhuangzi itself is a ramble into the unexpected, the unpredictable,
and the unknown—a piñata of paradox and parody and parable and wit,
just waiting to be cracked open by childlike joy. Its lines tramp
whimsically from this story to that without a care in the world about
continuity, organization, or narrative arc. Having no way, it seems to
chuckle, may take you to the Way itself.
This may seem impossible, irrelevant, and silly. How can a wander be
purposeless on purpose? How can the archer hit her target without taking
aim? Yet we know that too much aiming of a baseball, say, leads a pitcher
to throw balls rather than strikes. As any Little League coach can tell you,
a pitcher needs to throw without aiming. He needs to let go.
The Dao of Everything
Daoism is the least known in the West of Asia’s great religions, yet in
some respects it is the most widespread. Daoism is popular not only in its
homeland of China, where it stands alongside Confucianism and
Buddhism as one of the Three Teachings, but also across East and
Southeast Asia—in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, Singapore, and
Vietnam. It has also made its way via immigration and popular culture to
Australia, Europe, and the United States. In times of global warming and
environmental degradation, Westerners are particularly attracted to the
Daoist value of naturalness, which urges human beings to act in harmony
with the natural world. The Daoist love of nature, and of mountains, is
reflected in Chinese landscape painting, and its themes of simplicity,
change, and nonconformity echo throughout Chinese poetry. Daoism has
also had a profound impact on acupuncture, Chinese medicine, and Taiji
(Tai Chi).
The Daoist classic the Daodejing (or Tao Te Ching)—also known as
the Laozi (Lao-Tzu) after its reputed author—is the most widely translated
book after the Bible and the second most influential book in Chinese
history after the Analects of Confucius. Given the complexity of this text,
it is hard to account for its popularity, though the fact that it is both brief
and ambiguous means, as Mair writes, that “everybody can not only find in
it what they want, they can find what they’re looking for quickly.”5
More than any of the other great religions, Daoism has benefited from
a recent renaissance of scholarship by Chinese, Europeans, and Americans
alike. But Daoist immortals have ridden to the West on the wings of
popular rather than academic culture. The Buddhist Bible (1932) that the
Beat icon Jack Kerouac—the Lu Dongbin of 1950s America (Lu, too, had
a weakness for women and alcohol)—carried around in his back pocket as
he went “on the road” contained not only Buddhist but also Daoist texts.
And Kerouac’s Beat friends and the hippies that traipsed after them were
influenced at least as much by Daoist commitments to naturalness,
simplicity, spontaneity, and freedom as they were by Buddhism’s Four
Noble Truths. So while his fellow travelers were, in Kerouac’s phrase,
“Dharma Bums” they were also Daoist wanderers who through various
techniques mimicked the ecstasies of ancient Chinese shamans, traveling
to other worlds and coming back with wisdom (and stories) from spirits
and gods.
Getting your fill of Daoism is even easier in your living room and at
the movies than it is at your local bookstore. On the animated television
comedy The Simpsons, Lisa helps her brother Bart compete in a miniature
golf tournament by hopping him up with a cocktail of Daoist and Zen
wisdom and wit. This same combination is on display in the Kung Fu
television series (1972–75) and in popular films such as The Karate Kid
(1984), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), and Crouching Tiger,
Hidden Dragon (2000). Daoism also informs feng shui (literally “wind and
water”) and the “biospiritual” breathing exercises known as qigong.6 Feng
shui, which was originally used to position graves in keeping with the yin
(“shady”) and yang (“sunny”) sides of cemetery hills, is now used in
architecture and interior decoration in both East Asia and the West. The
best known of Daoist qigong practices, Falun Gong, was banned in China
in 1999.
The most important vehicles for the diffusion of Daoism worldwide are
the thousands upon thousands of martial arts schools scattered throughout
Asia and almost every town and city in Europe and the United States. In
classes on Taiji, for example, children, adults, and senior citizens alike
learn of key Daoist concepts such as qi (chi) and the complementarity of
the feminine yin and the masculine yang. More important, they come to
embody them.
The West’s infatuation with Daoism is most visible in the titles of
hundreds of books, including many bestsellers, that begin with the magic
words “Tao of” and cover almost every aspect of human life. There are
“Tao of” books on cooking, eating, dishwashing, teaching, coaching,
dating, dreaming, computing, writing, bathing, being, dying, and letting
go. Sports-related books include Tao of Surfing, The Tao of Golf, The Tao
of the Jump Shot, Tao of Baseball, The Tao of Poker, and The Tao of
Chess. For academics, there are “Tao of” books on anthropology,
psychology, politics, and statistics, as well as Fritjof Capra’s hit, The Tao
of Physics. For the spiritual or religious (or both), there is The Tao of
Islam, The Tao of Zen, The Tao of Jesus, The Tao of Christ, and even a
book (on Jewish mystic Martin Buber) called I and Tao. On such perennial
subjects as sex and money and love and business, “Tao of” books abound.
Elvis, Emerson, Muhammad Ali, Warren Buffet, Bruce Lee, and Willie
Nelson all have “Tao of” books devoted to them. For animal lovers, there
is The Tao of Bow Wow, The Tao of Meow, and even The Tao of Cow.
Of all the “Tao of” books, the one with the most jolting (and revolting)
title is The Tao of Poop, though it may be of some comfort to know that
this book’s subtitle is Keeping Your Sanity (and Your Soul) While Raising
a Baby. The most famous is Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh (1982),
which puts Daoist truths on the lips of Winnie the Pooh and his friends.
While introducing China’s Three Teachings, Hoff tells his readers about a
scroll depicting Confucius, the Buddha, and Laozi, all tasting vinegar.
Confucius has a sour face, the Buddha has a bitter one, but Laozi is
smiling, because life to him is as sweet as Pooh’s beloved honey.7 Much
of this is silliness, of course. The movie Tao of Steve includes the immoral
line, “I’m not looking for enlightenment, I’m just looking for a girlfriend.”
But the silliness is fitting, since Daoist sages seem to laugh far more often,
and more lustily, than, say, Jesus or Paul did.
One reason Daoism is popular in the West is that Westerners know so
little about it. This ignorance allows us to make it over in our own image,
and because there are few card-carrying Daoists in Europe and the United
States, these makeovers are hardly ever corrected by Daoists themselves.
To be fair, Daoists have never really tried to systematize their thought.
They have never banished their heretics or even identified them. Their
canon of scriptures is both encyclopedic (well in excess of a thousand
volumes) and contradictory. And they have never frozen their fluid
teachings into dogma—fitting for a tradition that stands by change and
creativity. Again like Hindus, Daoists are forever absorbing rather than
repelling new influences. Their tradition is an endlessly elusive grab bag of
philosophical observations, moral guidelines, body exercises, medicinal
theories, supernatural stories, funerary rites, and longevity techniques that,
more than any of the other great religions, defies definition. Daoism is, to
be sure, a tradition of books, both holy and humorous. But it is also a
tradition of sacred mountains and pilgrimages and festivals and wine and
incense and hymns and sexual practices and alternative medicine and
martial arts and meandering conversations and immortals who “wander in
the mists” and “dance in the Infinite.”8
Just how many of these wanderers and dancers there are is as elusive
as Daoism itself. Because Daoism is one of China’s Three Teachings, most
Chinese feel free to do Daoist, Buddhist, and Confucian things without
aligning themselves exclusively with any one tradition. Those who identify
largely with Daoism typically refer only to priests and sages as “Daoists.”
Moreover, Daoist practitioners do not usually gather in congregations in
which they can line up and be counted. So the accounting here is about as
impossible as the defining. (The World Religion Database, which keeps
tabs on adherents of other major religions, does not even try in this case.)
Taiwan, which since the 1960s has seen a Daoist renaissance, has about
ten thousand Daoist temples and perhaps six million Daoist practitioners.9
The number of Daoists in China, where Daoism is also staging a
comeback, is anyone’s guess, since official government statistics count
only clerics. Though Daoism is often associated with hermits and rebels,
the tradition’s folkways have long attracted all social classes, including
government officials, so most Chinese are influenced in some way by its
teachings. This tradition is stronger, however, in China’s rural south than
in its urban north. A plausible estimate is 50 million in mainland China
alone, though that figure could rise to well over 100 million if you count
people who climb Daoist mountains, patronize Daoist temples, or light
incense to Daoist immortals in their homes.10
Still, it must be said that Daoism’s contemporary impact lies less in its
numbers than in the power and diffusion of its ideas. Daoist influence can
be found outside of Daoism per se in Neo-Confucianism and Zen
Buddhism, but Daoism has not exerted the influence over East Asian
civilization that Confucianism and Buddhism have. Its power has almost
always been countercultural, and its influence today continues to be more
in literature and the arts than in politics and economics. For this reason, it
ranks well below both Confucianism and Buddhism in terms of
contemporary impact.
Nurturing Life
Daoists have always been more attracted to the fluid than to the fixed, so
Daoists disagree about almost everything, including the goal of their
tradition. Some Daoists accept death as part of the natural order of things,
while others seek to defy death by questing after immortality. Nonetheless,
most Daoists agree that the highest value is life, so the highest practice is
the art of nurturing life. The problem is that we let life slip away, either by
not living it fully or by not living it for long. We wear ourselves down by
selling ourselves into the servitude of customary ways of thinking and
acting. The Daoist solution is to live life to the fullest—to enjoy good
health in a vital body for a long life. So there are echoes here of the
thisworldly orientation of Israelite religion, in which patriarchs such as
Abraham and Moses sought not heaven but to live a long life, die of
natural causes, and be buried by their kin.
For some Daoists, this goal of human flourishing extends to a loftier
goal: physical immortality. They seek to become immortals who feed on
the wind, drink the dew, mount the clouds, and ride on dragons to the end
of the earth (and beyond). But even these Daoists do not hope for (or fear)
an afterlife. While the philosophers of ancient Greece affirmed a
disembodied immortality of the soul after death, Daoists say that whatever
immortality is available to us is to be found on earth and in this body.
Philosopher Grace Jantzen asserts that the great mystery at the heart of
the great religions is not mortality but natality.11 This certainly applies to
Daoism, which is more about nourishing life than defeating death. For
Daoists, flourishing is built into the nature of things. Like trees that are
made to grow, humans are made to flourish. But this is only possible if we
live in harmony with the natural rhythms of the Dao. Unfortunately, most
of us live in accordance with the dictates of social conventions, moral
rules, formal education, and ritual prescriptions. Such civilization is a
vampire. Its artifice sucks the life out of us, depleting our qi (vital energy)
and taking us to an early grave. We act intentionally, from the will rather
than the heart. We think too much and intuit too little. We commit
ourselves to dichotomies that are really distinctions without a difference,
distinguishing between what we like and dislike, what is right and wrong,
what is beautiful and ugly. And so we die a little each day.
All this attention to conventional thought and morals doesn’t just kill
individuals, however. It destroys social harmony, which is possible only
when everyone does what they naturally do. While Confucians see
etiquette and rituals as solutions to the world’s ills, Daoists see both as
causes of the human problem of lifelessness. The Dao has created things to
change spontaneously and without warning. But the stuff of society—
etiquette and ritual, language and thought—molds us, constrains us,
freezes us. We build barriers, in our individual and our social lives, that
chop what was once a unified cosmos into smaller and smaller parts,
separating us from one another and restricting “the free movement of the
Dao.” This fragmentation seduces human beings into seeing themselves as
isolated atoms, distinct from one another and from the Dao. So we become
foreigners in our own land, frenetic creators of a civilization that with
every so-called advance cuts us off from the original harmony of the
“pristine Dao.”12
In other words, the Confucian project of actively cultivating such
virtues as ren (human-heartedness) and li (ritual/etiquette/propriety) isn’t
just ineffectual; it is harmful, both to individual flourishing and to social
harmony. What the Confucians see as self-cultivation is actually selfdestruction. No wonder so many of the students of Confucius came to
early ends: “Yan Hui died early, Ji Lu was dismembered and pickled in
Wei, Zi Xia was blinded, and Ran Boniu contracted leprosy.” Each
sacrificed his nature—and his life—at the altar of the false god of social
Into all this trouble rides the sage. While the stuffy junzi (“profound
person”) served as the Confucian model, the spontaneous sage—also
known as the “genuine person” (zhenren)—functions as the exemplar in
the Daoist tradition. Unrestrained by social shackles, the sage acts
authentically and spontaneously, without expectation or goal. His reliance
on intuitive wisdom over book learning may make him seem foolish to
outsiders. But by freely flouting social norms, he is able to crash through
the life-sucking barriers that accrete around artifice and allow the lifegiving Dao to move where it will. Only this Dao can nurture us back to
life. And the sage embodies it, combining in his own body the vitality of
the child and the potency of the mother.
The techniques Daoists employ toward this goal of nurturing life are
meant to ensure not only that we are healthy and long-lived but also that
the life we live is vital and genuine. Typically these techniques work by
preserving and circulating our qi, balancing our yin and yang, and
otherwise returning us to the creativity of the Dao. These techniques
include “sitting and forgetting,” “fasting of the mind,” and “free and easy
wandering.” They also include dietary regimens, breath control,
visualization exercises, purification rites, sexual practices, meditation
techniques, and various physical exercises modeled after the movements of
long-lived animals (“bear strides and bird stretches”).14 In outer alchemy,
ancient Daoists experimented with metals such as cinnabar to create elixirs
of immortality along the lines of the immortality plant sought by the title
character in the Mesopotamian epic Gilgamesh. In inner alchemy,
developed around the eleventh century C.E., the human body itself became
the laboratory, and sages-to-be sought to create an “embryo of
immortality” inside themselves by manipulating the “three treasures” of
the human body: qi (vital energy), jing (sexual essence), and shen
All these techniques work by fostering union with the life-giving Dao,
since vitality, longevity, and even immortality come only by living in
harmony with the natural rhythms of things. I may be a father, a son, and a
professor, but from the Daoist perspective none of these social roles
captures who I really am. That is because I am a natural rather than a
social being. So when I say this meeting is killing me or this party is death,
I am speaking literally rather than metaphorically. The rituals and etiquette
so prized by Confucians drain our vital energies and shorten our lives.
Wandering in the mountains liberates us from the death-dealing details of
everyday social life, infusing us with strength for the journey. Only by
“getting the Dao” can we achieve the freedom and vitality of the sage.
As this goal of enriching and extending life implies, the experiential
dimension is Daoism’s forte. Rather than asking after truth, as did the
Greeks, Daoism asks about where to go: what is the way to the Way? In
fact, of all the great religions, Daoism may be the most allergic to doctrine.
Whatever wisdom it holds it disseminates in parables and paradox and
often in secret. Its core intuition is that there is a natural way, called the
Dao, which at any given moment we can work with or against. To be fully
human is to dance with this Dao, moving in rhythm with its core values of
naturalness, equanimity, spontaneity, and freedom.
From Profound Primordiality to Deviant Belief
The influence of Daoism has waxed and waned throughout Chinese
history, but it has almost always played second fiddle to its doppelganger
of Confucianism. Daoism emerged in the midst of Confucian civilization,
so Daoist jazz has from the beginning been contrasted with the classical
music of Confucianism. Whereas Confucians argue that human beings
become fully human by becoming social, Daoists say that we become fully
human by becoming natural. Because the “pristine Dao” is within us, all
we need to do is be ourselves.16 While this approach may sound thrilling
to those among us who feel caged in by society, it has repeatedly sounded
alarms of rebellion and anarchy to Chinese rulers. So bureaucrats have
typically applauded Confucian philosophers and their prose more than
Daoist hermits and their poetry.
Most Chinese, however, see these two traditions as complementary,
not contradictory. From the start, Daoists adopted Confucius as one of
their own (though his main function in Daoist texts seems to be to exhibit
his dullardism and then to bow and scrape before his Daoist betters).
Meanwhile, Confucians took up many of Daoism’s spiritual disciplines. So
throughout Chinese history Confucians and Daoists have not only
coexisted but complemented one another—Confucianism’s
communitarianism and Daoism’s individualism, Confucianism’s
formalism and Daoism’s flow, the hard yang of Confucianism and the soft
yin of Daoism.
Daoism briefly penetrated corridors of power in the second century
B.C.E., but its niche has typically been subjects rather than rulers. Popular
support for Daoism rose in the fourth and fifth centuries C.E., about the
same time Daoists started to gather their massive corpus of sacred texts
into a canon of over 1,200 works divided (after the manner of the
Buddhists Tripitaka, or “three baskets”) into “three caverns.” Particularly
in the countryside, where Daoism absorbed local festivals and popular
deities, Daoists positioned their tradition at the front of the class of the
Three Teachings, boldly portraying the Buddha as a reincarnation of the
Daoist sage Laozi and Confucius as his humble (and sometimes bumbling)
Daoism’s glory years came in the Tang dynasty (618–907) when the
imperial family, which shared a surname with Laozi, enhanced their status
by enhancing his. Declaring Laozi “Most High August Sovereign of
Profound Primordiality,” they proclaimed his birthday a national holiday
and added the Daodejing to their list of required reading for civil-service
exams.17 They also threw so much money at Daoist monasteries and
temples that by the middle of the eighth century there were 1,687 Daoist
institutions (550 of them for nuns) registered with the state.18
The thirteenth century saw the burning of Daoist books. In the
seventeenth century, Daoism was denounced by Christian missionaries as
“deviant belief,” and Chinese officials came to see it as unscientific,
superstitious, and hyperritualized.19 During the Taiping Rebellion (1851–
64), led by a visionary who fancied himself the brother of Jesus, Daoist
priests were killed and their monasteries destroyed wherever the rebels
held power. When communists came to power in 1949, Daoism was
suppressed as a degenerate relic of feudalisms past. Under Mao Zedong,
ordinations stopped, festivals were forbidden, and temples and monasteries
were either shuttered or recommissioned as factories or government
offices. Under Deng Xiaoping, who ascended to leadership in 1978,
religious persecution was relaxed and Daoism was recognized as one of
five official religions.
Today Daoism has fewer religious professionals than any of China’s
other official religions (Buddhism, Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and
Islam), but ordinations are now going forward once again.20 Thanks to a
combination of spiritually motivated foreign money and tourism-motivated
government support, over a thousand Daoist temples have been restored
and reopened. Over one hundred thousand worshippers attend the most
popular Daoist festivals. Both the Mount Wudang temple complex in
Hubei province and the Mount Mao temple in Jiangsu province draw
hundreds of thousands of pilgrims and tourists each year. Some of the
funds visitors pumped into the Mount Mao temple were used to build the
world’s largest bronze statue of Laozi, unveiled at this site in 1998.
Daoism is represented in China today chiefly by two institutions: the
earlier Celestial Masters sect popular in the south, and the later Complete
Perfection sect popular in the north. Westerners keen on dividing these two
sects along Protestant/Catholic lines have ended up tying themselves in
knots. While Celestial Masters’ leaders have been called “Daoist popes,”
they do not follow the Catholic practice of requiring clerical celibacy. And
while the Complete Perfection sect has followed the Protestants in
rebelling against the magical thinking and ritual preoccupations of their
Celestial Masters predecessors, they follow Catholics in emphasizing
monasticism and requiring their priests to take a vow of celibacy.
Laozi and the Daodejing
Daoists trace their lineage to Laozi and the enigmatic classic attributed to
him, the Daodejing (Tao Te Ching). Dao means “way,” de means power or
virtue, and jing means “classic.” So the Daodejing is “The Classic of the
Way and Its Power” or “The Classic of the Way and Its Virtue.” This text
used to be dated to the sixth century B.C.E., which would make Laozi a
contemporary of the Buddha. But just as new discoveries have pushed
forward the Buddha’s dates, the Daodejing is now typically dated to the
third or fourth century B.C.E., though many of its key concepts are much
older. Unlike the Jewish and Christian scriptures, which glory in names
and dates and the verisimilitude of historical accuracy, the Daodejing
“contains no dates and mentions no proper names, nothing that would tie it
to history.”21 Its home ground is the timeless aphorism. Its core concept,
the Dao, floats above and beyond the vicissitudes of historical time. As for
Laozi himself, there is some chance that he never lived, so the Daodejing
may well be the work of multiple authors. In either case, stories about
Laozi sparring with Confucius (and winning) are probably the stuff of
legend. Nonetheless, the legends endure, so at least in this sense Laozi not
only lived, but lives on.
The term Laozi means “old master,” or “old child.” Legend has it that,
like the title character played by Brad Pitt in the film The Curious Case of
Benjamin Button, Laozi was born old. As a young man, he worked as an
archivist in the state of Zhou. It was a good job, but one day, convinced
that civilization was in freefall, he quit. Climbing onto a water buffalo, he
followed the advice later immortalized by the American newspaperman
Horace Greeley to “Go west, young man.” In this case, west meant the
border dividing the Chinese from the barbarians. Before he lit out for that
terra incognita, a border guard aware of his reputation as a sage asked him
to write something down before crossing. Laozi responded with a brief
book of about five thousand characters known today as the Daodejing. He
then rambled toward the western mountains, never to be heard from again.
Or perhaps he made his way to India, where he was known as the Buddha.
Or perhaps he went to Persia where, as Mani, he inspired the Christian
heresy of Manichaeism. Or perhaps he ascended to the heavens. In any
case, he would eventually come to be worshipped as Lord Lao, an
incarnation of the Dao itself.
The eighty-one short chapters of the Daodejing, also called the Laozi
(or the Lao-Tzu), can be read on a longish coffee break, but they have
delighted and perplexed readers for millennia. This cryptic classic, part
poetry and part prose, is divided into two parts: a more mystical opening
section on the Dao, and a more political closing section on de. Although
Confucians have long interpreted the Daodejing as a philosophical text,
and Western Sinologists have generally followed their lead, a new
generation of interpreters is coming to reckon with its spiritual and
religious elements, including its roots in ancient Chinese traditions of
shamanism and divination.
Usually translated as “the Way,” the term dao also refers to a “path” or
“road.” All the great Chinese schools have wrestled with this keyword, but
Daoists, as their name suggests, puzzled over its profundities, poking and
prodding it to see where it might lead. And where it led was back to the
source, to the subtle force that creates all things, sustains all things, and
pervades all things, which is to say to the Dao itself. Both transcendent and
immanent, both perfection and potential, the beginningless and endless
Dao is at least as theological as it is philosophical. Everything comes out
of it (originally) and returns to it (eventually). So while it represents
ultimate reality, it also permeates everything, including our blood and
bones. “The Tao is not far off,” Daoist sages say, “it is here in my
According to Laozi (or whoever wrote the Daodejing) this impersonal
Dao lies beyond ordinary language and the ordinary mind, so it can never
be fully understood or fully described. To try to capture it is to feel it slip
through your fingers. So while Daoists use language to depict the Dao,
they typically do so with humor and humility. The Dao is the way of
untamed nature, the way of authentic human life, and the harmonious
union of the two. But it is also the social harmony so prized by
Confucians, because when everyone acts authentically and without artifice
the natural result is social order.
Reversal and Return
The central verb in the Daodejing, and the term that gives the text
momentum, is return. And where Laozi wants us to return is to the
primordial unity of the Dao itself. “Tranquility is returning,” the
Daodejing reads, so “return to the state of infancy,” “return to the state of
the uncarved block.”23 One of the great themes of the Italian Renaissance
was to return ad fontes—to the fountainhead. In this text the movement is
back to nature and to the endlessly fertile waters out of which everything
natural first emerged. “The movement of the Tao,” writes Laozi, “is to
return.”24 And the fruits of this homecoming are revitalization and
This returning is necessary only because human beings have left
behind the natural rhythms of the country for the artificial syncopations of
civilization. At birth, human beings are in full possession of the Dao. We
are, in a famous metaphor from the Daodejing, uncarved blocks—
simplicity itself. But Confucians and other civilizers insist on carving these
blocks into useful parents and subjects, husbands and wives. Laozi sees
each cut as a little death, with each shaving stealing from us our natural
vitality, wearing us down, and shortening our lives. As Henry David
Thoreau and Huck Finn can attest, however, this custom also steals from
us our uniqueness. How can we be free to become ourselves if society is
forever conspiring to turn us into something else? Must a government’s
need for good citizens and a family’s need for filial children come before
our own individual desires to flourish in our own way and on our own
Laozi is responding here to Confucians who are convinced that both
humanity and society are at their best when they are most intricately
intertwined. For Laozi, however, the rituals and etiquette of polite society
are a trap. The way back—and it is a returning—is to reverse the
socialization process. The way to freedom leads through nature, which far
more than society embodies the unity and harmony of the Dao. It is social
beings who force things, who fight the way things are, who swim against
the tide. Natural beings accept what is. If they find themselves in a riptide,
they float with it until it is safe to swim to shore.
Closely related to this theme of return is the theme of reversal. Like a
good wander, the Dao will surprise you. In fact, this sometimes seems to
be its full-time job. In the New Testament parables of Jesus, the kingdom
of God is about reversals—overturning our expectations by putting the rich
before the poor and the last before the first. In the Daodejing it is the Dao
that plays fast and loose with our expectations. We are to yield rather than
pursue, to let go rather than grasp. We are to prefer the valley, which
safeguards us in a storm; the female, which outlives the male; and the
infant, whose freedom and vitality are unbound. Like James Agee, whose
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) glories in the everyday lives of
“nobodies,” Daoism roots for the underdogs. In the endless dance of the
passive yin and the active yang, we are to partner with the soft and the
supple, the weak and the quiet. We are to let things come to us rather than
pursuing what we think we want and need. And why? Because yielding
will make us free, and freedom will make us flourish.
The goal of human life, therefore, is to merge with the Dao, to mimic
its flourishing, and thereby to flourish ourselves. And the best metaphor
for the Dao, which is ultimately indescribable and therefore can only be
approached via metaphor (and not without trepidation) is nature itself. So
when Laozi wants to know how to act, he looks at the natural world, which
has been neither socialized nor acculturated. He looks at the infant, who is
innocent of learning and pretense. He looks at water running from
mountain to valley without a thought in the world of doing otherwise.
Both infant and water embody wu wei, another key concept in the
Daodejing. Wu wei literally means “no action,” and in Daoist writing it can
refer to not acting and to reducing one’s actions to a minimum. More
often, however, it refers to acting as nature does, which is to say
spontaneously and effortlessly and out of the core of one’s being—to do
this or that because it seems right in the moment, not because it is
prescribed by this law or decreed by that god. So the opposite of wu wei is
not action but artificial or contrived action. To act in the spirit of
“noninterference,” as wu wei is sometimes translated, is to submit with
equanimity to what is rather than resisting it in the name of what ought to
Someone once explained wu wei to me in terms of the choices that
present themselves to a surfer. Bobbing up and down in the ocean, she has
three ways to proceed. She can force things by paddling to shore
(intentional action). She can sit there and drift (nonaction). Or she can
catch a wave (wu wei). My colleague David Eckel tells me that the best
metaphor for wu wei is water that effortlessly runs downhill. Falling water
exhibits the Daoist virtue of ziran, which literally means “self-so” but
typically refers to acting spontaneously or letting things take their natural
course. The Daodejing refers to water as an example of the paradoxical
power of weakness. Laozi admonishes us to be as flexible and yielding as
water, which wears down rock not by smashing through it but by flowing
around it. “There is nothing in the world more soft and weak than water,”
writes Laozi, “yet for attacking things that are hard and strong there is
nothing that surpasses it.”25
Ground of Becoming
Passages such as this one may convey the impression that the Daodejing is
crusading for the superiority of the passive yin over the active yang.
“Know the male,” Laozi writes, “but keep to the female.”26 However, the
goal of all this talk of valley and void, simplicity and tranquility is balance.
In Daoist thought, yin and yang are opposing yet complementary (and
interpenetrating) principles, with each containing a bit of and forever
evolving into the other. So what Daoists seek is a harmonious union of the
two. At the time the Daodejing was written, however, the yang energy of
Confucianism was running amok. So an infusion of yin was needed to
balance things out.
The Western monotheisms, drawing on Zoroastrianism, speak of a
cosmic battle between two opposing principles and pray for the total
victory of light over darkness. Even Hollywood movies drink deep from
this well. In the Daodejing, however, the Dao is neither good nor bad.
Confucians may go to great lengths to distinguish between beautiful and
ugly, superior and inferior, strong and weak, but Laozi sees such
judgments as both false and dangerous. The Daodejing is replete with all
sorts of pairs that most of us would regard as opposites. In every case,
however, what seem to be opposites are actually complementary pairs,
ever melting into one another. So any effort to take sides is both futile and
frustrating. The hope instead is for balance, accompanied by acquiescence
to the way things are always changing—from day to night, summer to
winter, and back again.
The Daodejing opens with two enigmatic lines that have vexed and
delighted interpreters for millennia. These lines are typically translated,
“The Dao that can be spoken is not the eternal Dao. The name that can be
named is not the eternal name.” This rendition suggests a mystical reading:
the Dao is as ineffable as Allah for Sufis and God for Kabbalists. But my
colleague Thomas Michael has suggested a different reading. These two
lines are about change and creativity, he says. Rather than an assertion of
mysticism, they are an observation about change and justification for
creativity. The key to each sentence lies not in its subject but in its object,
which is to say that the key words are not and eternal, or, in Michael’s
translation constant: “Daos can lead, but these are not constant daos.
Names can name, but these are not constant names.”27
The second line is somewhat easier to parse. The name “professor” can
name me in one context (when I am teaching a class, for example) but it
will not do in other contexts (when I am “coach” of my daughter’s soccer
team or “son” at my parents’ Thanksgiving table). The first line is trickier
but can also be made plain. There are many daos in the sense of “ways” to
do things. And following them can lead you where you want to go. But
these daos do not stay constant, because the circumstances in which they
are employed are ever changing. So, to take Michael’s example of
basketball, there was a dao for playing basketball at the time James
Naismith invented the game, and this way could lead you to victory in the
1890s. But it wouldn’t do for Michael Jordan or Larry Bird in the National
Basketball Association of the 1990s. Why? Because circumstances change.
Because players get bigger and faster and (among other things) trade in the
set shot for the jump shot and learn to dunk.
The desire to grab onto what does not change is typically only
amplified by religious institutions. The Daodejing, by contrast, tells us to
glory in transformation. The Daoist tradition includes a creation story that
reverses the American motto, “E Pluribus Unum,” by affirming “out of
one, many.” In the beginning was the Dao, which is changeless, formless,
and indivisible, but also generative, transforming, and fertile—the mother
of all that is to come. Out of this primordial unity comes qi, the life force
present in all matter, human and otherwise. This vital energy then gives
birth to yin/yang, which gives birth to the three realms of Heaven, Human,
and Earth, the Five Phases of water, metal, fire, wood, and earth, and the
ten thousand things, which is to say everything else. Everything, including
human beings, is made of qi in some combination of yin and yang. The
endless interaction of yin qi and yang qi is forever creating new things and
transforming the old. So this cosmology of one and two and ten thousand
answers not only the question, “How do things come into being?” but also,
“How do things change?”
The German theologian Paul Tillich famously defined God as “the
ground of being.”28 The impersonal Dao is that, too, but more
fundamentally it is the ground of becoming—the natural process
undergirding all generativity and change. This creative transformation is
on view in the natural world, where every day light yields to darkness,
every year courses through spring, summer, fall, and winter, and every life
sees both birth and death. And so it goes with wealth and poverty, order
and chaos, war and peace. The nature of things is not stasis but change.
And the Dao is the ground of this becoming.
Soft Power
If the Daodejing is a mystical, metaphysical, and mythological text, it is
also a manual for life, including political life. So the second half of this
classic is devoted to de, or power/virtue. And here Laozi’s divergence
from his Confucian friends becomes most plain. Confucius had argued that
the problem of social chaos would yield to the solution of social harmony
only when rulers and subjects alike educated themselves in the classics and
cultivated virtues such as ren (benevolence). Laozi’s advice is just the
opposite. He tells rulers to “throw out knowledge” and “stop
benevolence,” adding that if they do, “the people will be a hundred times
better off.”29 In their Book of Common Prayer, Anglicans confess sins
both done and left undone. For Laozi, things left undone are far less
The Daodejing is said to have been written as Laozi was withdrawing
to the mountains, and it obviously commends the natural life of the recluse
he is becoming over the artificial life of the clerk he had been. It is
inhuman, Laozi says, to live under the thumb of the dictates of ruler or
father or husband; to be human is to be free. Unlike the seventeenthcentury Englishman Thomas Hobbes, who famously argued that human
life in the state of nature would be “nasty, brutish, and short,” Laozi is
convinced that human life in a society where everyone acts naturally and
spontaneously would be pleasant, humane, and long. But Laozi is no
anarchist. His vision favors “soft power” rather than no power. It imagines
small-scale, noncompetitive communities that are harmonious because
their governments, in keeping with wu wei, do as little as possible and
leave the rest to nature. The great U.S. Supreme Court justice Louis
Brandeis was channeling Laozi when he said of America’s highest court
that “the most important thing we do is not doing.”30
Zhuangzi and the Zhuangzi
The next Daoist classic, second in influence only to the Daodejing, is the
Zhuangzi (Chuang-Tzu), which takes its name from Zhuangzi (369–286
B.C.E.), a follower of Laozi and contemporary of the Confucian thinker
Mencius. Although we know more about Zhuangzi than we do about
Laozi, we don’t know much. A biographical account from the first or
second century B.C.E. portrays him as a writer of anti-Confucian allegories
who laughs in the face of an offer to become a prime minister’s chief of
staff. “I’d rather enjoy myself playing around in a fetid ditch,” Zhuangzi
says, “than be held in bondage by the ruler of a kingdom.”31
Widely recognized as a masterpiece of world literature, the Zhuangzi,
which likely came together between the fourth and second centuries B.C.E.,
consists of seven “inner chapters” probably written by Zhuangzi himself
plus fifteen “outer chapters” and eleven “miscellaneous chapters” probably
written by his followers. This classic had a major impact not only on
Daoism but also on Chan Buddhism, which in Japan would come to be
known as Zen. Like Zen, the Zhuangzi uses language to call language into
question. It also shares with Zen the conviction that what matters most can
be found wherever we look. A famous Zen exchange goes, “What is the
Buddha?” “Dried shit.” The Zhuangzi informs us that the Dao can be
found even in excrement.
As this observation implies, the Zhuangzi is a mischievous text. Its
reputed author has been described as “a mystic, a satirist, a nihilist, a
hedonist, a romantic,” and “a profound and brilliant jester who demolishes
our confounded seriousness.”32 The words attributed to him run in all
these directions, often at the same time. Long before American poet Walt
Whitman wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well I contradict myself,”
Zhuangzi was arguing (no doubt with a sly grin) that arguing is a dead end.
While his contemporaries in the Confucian, Mohist, and Legalist schools
were using logic and rhetoric to advance arguments, Zhuangzi told stories.
In the face of a society that championed usefulness, the Zhuangzi
championed uselessness, singing the praises of a tree so bent and unkempt
that it can’t be used for anything other than shade for an afternoon nap.
Zhuangzi didn’t want the Dao to be useful for politics, or even philosophy.
He wanted it to be good for nothing. The same goes for each of us. Instead
of making ourselves useful, he advised, make yourself useless. Then
everyone will leave you alone.
The Zhuangzi includes chapter titles such as “Webbed Toes” and a
long cast of off-beat characters—“Master Timid Magpie,” “Nag the
Hump,” “Sir Sacrifice,” “Uncle Obscure Nobody,” “Princely Nag,” “Mad
Stammerer”—that seem to have sprung full-blown from a Flannery
O’Connor short story.33 If the Daodejing is a work of philosophy, this is a
work of literature, and of comedy. It uses fables and fantasy in the service
of satire and ranks as both the funniest and the most irreverent of the great
religions’ scriptures. One way to cope with death and degeneration, the
Zhuangzi suggests, is to step lively through laughter and play. If there had
been knives and forks at the time of Confucius, his starchy followers
would have used both to consume their noodles. Not Zhuangzi. He slurps.
Taking up many of the key themes of the Daodejing, the Zhuangzi
underscores the fact of change and the futility of resisting it. It glories in
simplicity, spontaneity, flexibility, and freedom. It observes that rules and
concepts get in the way of both individual happiness and social harmony.
(“Get rid of goodness,” reads the Zhuangzi, “and you will naturally be
good.”34) Zhuangzi is less interested than Laozi, however, in dispensing
political advice. Whereas Laozi had at least one foot in the Confucian
problem of social chaos, Zhuangzi frames the human predicament almost
entirely in individual terms. The problem is lifelessness, which is brought
on by the social customs so prized by Confucians. The solution is a life
well lived, which is to say health, longevity, and perhaps even bodily
immortality. But none of this is possible without freedom from lifesapping social conventions.
The Zhuangzi also differs from the Daodejing in its preference for the
story over the aphorism. One of its most poignant parables concerns a rare
seabird discovered far away from the ocean in the city of Lu. A
government official fetes it like an honored guest from some faraway land.
A great feast is prepared, music is played, and wine is offered. But the bird
is overwhelmed by the fuss and dies after three days.35
In Leaving Church (2006), memoirist Barbara Brown Taylor writes
about giving up a job as an Episcopal priest—a job that was killing her.
Along the way, she challenges readers to ask what in their lives is killing
them and what is giving them life. Daoism poses the same challenge. In
one of the Zhuangzi’s oft-told tales, a ruler sends his officials to convince
Zhuangzi to accept a prestigious government appointment. But Zhuangzi,
who is fishing, doesn’t even give them a glance. As he continues his
casting, he speaks of the dry bones of an ancient tortoise kept by the ruler
in a temple and trotted out on special ritual occasions. “What would you
say that the tortoise would have preferred: to die and leave its shell to be
venerated or to live and keep on dragging its tail over the mud?” Zhuangzi
asks. “It would have preferred to live and drag its tail over the mud,” the
officials answer. “Go your ways,” Zhuangzi says, “I will keep on dragging
my tail over the mud.”36
The Zhuangzi speaks of a variety of techniques that can take us from
the problem of lifelessness to the solution of flourishing. Each aims to
redirect us from social death to natural life. For example, Zhuangzi
advocates “sitting and forgetting,” a method for emptying the mind of socalled learning. In a passage that upends both the Confucian hierarchy of
teacher over student and Confucian confidence in education, Confucius is
speaking with his favorite student Yan Hui. Yan Hui proudly reports that
he has forgotten all sorts of core Confucian virtues. “I sit and forget
everything,” Yan Hui says. “I leave behind my body, perception and
knowledge. Detached from both material form and mind, I become one
with that which penetrates all things.”37 This story ends when Confucius,
rather than rebuking Yan Hui, asks to become his student. So while
education, so highly prized by Confucians, may help us get ahead in the
Chinese bureaucracy, it does not foster life or make us human. Only the
spontaneity and surprise of the Dao can do that.
In passages that have captured the attention of Western philosophers of
language, the Zhuangzi also takes aim at the Confucians’ tendency (and
our own) to chop up the world into quick-and-easy dualisms. “Out beyond
ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing / there is a field. I’ll meet you there,”
writes the Sufi mystic Rumi.38 Except for the meeting part, that is vintage
Zhuangzi. For him, dichotomies of right and wrong, life and death, large
and small work only inside our limited conventions of thought and
language. From the wider perspective of the Dao, so-called opposites
logically depend on one another and are forever melting into one another.
To grasp after any one side of these dualisms is to bring on lifelessness.
Why fixate on success when, as Bob Dylan once put it, “there’s no success
like failure” and “failure’s no success at all”?39
It is sometimes said that Daoists believe that human beings are born
good. And it is true that Daoists see virtues such as naturalness and
simplicity in abundance in infants, who have the additional merit of an
equal balance of yin and yang. But from the Daoist perspective human
nature is neither inherently good, as Mencius argued, nor inherently evil,
as many of his opponents insisted. It is, as the German philosopher
Friedrich Nietzsche would later argue, “beyond good and evil.”
As in the Daodejing, the exemplary human being in the Zhuangzi is the
sage, described here as a “genuine person.” The Zhuangzi also includes a
tantalizing glimpse into a figure that will become central in later Daoism:
the immortal who is indifferent to politics, uninterested in fame, unmoved
by profit or loss, and unafraid of death.
Popular Daoism and Superhero Immortals
Around the time of the emergence of Christianity, rabbinic Judaism,
devotional Hinduism, and Mahayana Buddhism, which is to say at the
dawn of the first millennium, Daoism began to take on many of the
characteristics of other organized religions. Spurred by Buddhists, who
upon their arrival in China in the first century C.E. organized themselves
around monasteries and temples, Daoism took institutional shape. Daoists
wrote thousands of scriptures and gathered them into a massive canon.
They turned their heroes into gods. They developed a full range of
festivals, rituals, and self-cultivation practices. They integrated into their
tradition Buddhist notions of karma and rebirth, Confucian commitments
to filial piety, and elements from ancient Chinese religion such as
shamanism, divination, sacred mountains, pilgrimage, and sacrifice. They
institutionalized their tradition, founding new sects and building and
maintaining temples and monasteries. They invited a vast pantheon of
gods to inhabit these institutions and ordained priests to oversee them.
Some Daoist priests followed Laozi’s example by living apart from
society. Others were married with children, performing life-cycle rituals in
the midst of the hubbub of social and sexual life.
Drawing on ancient beliefs in ghosts and demons and practices such as
ancestor veneration and shamanism, Daoism added to its goal of
nourishing life an ambitious corollary: physical immortality. Whereas
Laozi and Zhuangzi had cultivated an air of indifference toward life and
death alike, Daoists now sought after not only vitality and longevity but
also the immortality of the body. As Buddhism gained in popularity,
Daoists started to treat Laozi like a religious founder, a revealer, and even
a deity who demonstrated that it was possible for ordinary human beings to
live forever. While Buddhists sought to become bodhisattvas or Buddhas,
Daoists now sought to become immortals (aka “transcendents” 40), who
according to legend distinguished themselves from the rest of us through
all sorts of astonishing powers.
In keeping with the Daoist romance of reclusion, these exemplars were
said to live on high mountains, in secluded grottoes, or on faraway islands.
According to Dutch Sinologist Kristopher Schipper, the Chinese word for
immortal (hsien, or xian) is made out of the characters for “human being”
and “mountain,” so immortals were human beings who traded in stale
society for the vital rhythms of the natural world.41 As wanderers, they
abstained from the five grains of settled agricultural life, on the theory that
these grains nourished the “three worms” that sucked life out of the human
body. Immortals subsisted instead on a special diet of roots, nuts, herbs,
and other foods that could be gathered in the mountains, including resin
and needles from pine trees whose evergreen properties were thought to be
particularly conducive to immortality. In exceptional cases, immortals
existed on no food at all. These exemplars were particularly adept at
augmenting and retaining their qi. In a sort of “sexual vampirism,” males
and females alike would take in qi from their partners and keep their own
by steering clear of qi-depleting orgasms.42 Thanks to their vast
storehouses of qi and their ability to balance their bodies’ yin and yang
energies, immortals were said to defy not only mortality but also physical
degeneration. They enjoyed youthful bodies with jet black hair, perfect
teeth, and unblemished complexions. Their breathing was deep. They were
impervious not only to heat and cold but also to the ravages of old age.
Stories about Daoist immortals read like superhero comics or tales of
the extraordinary siddhis (supernatural powers) of Tibetan lamas.
Immortals could run great distances at top speeds, disappear, shrink
themselves, and shape-shift. They could change one object into another,
heal wounds, fix broken bones, neutralize snake venom, exorcise demons,
predict the future, and resurrect the dead. Though they exemplified the key
Daoist virtue of naturalness, they were able to defy nature too. Water did
not make them wet. Ice did not make them cold. Fire could not burn them.
They lived in a Harry Potter sort of world, wielding swords of invisibility
and able to apparate at will. And like Superman, they could fly. Their
bodies were not only youthful, they were as light as birds.
Daoists used many techniques to achieve these powers, including
special diets, sexual practices, breathing regimens, and meditative
strategies. They avoided foods rich in heavy yin qi and ate foods rich in
light yang qi. In a sexual practice called the “art of the bedchamber,” men
and women exchanged qi during sexual intercourse but tried to avoid qi253
depleting orgasms. While Roman Catholic teaching says that the husband
should ejaculate only inside his wife’s vagina, these Daoists contended
that the man should not spill his sperm at all but absorb its energies into
his body instead. The point of this sexual practice was neither conception
nor sexual stimulation but increased vitality. Meanwhile, women were
encouraged to absorb their qi-rich menstrual fluids, and some succeeded in
staunching their menstrual flows altogether.
The most controversial technique for immortality was outer alchemy,
which sought to mix rare metals into elixirs of eternal life. Daoists
believed that cinnabar, a reddish mineral thought to be particularly rich in
yang qi, would bring vitality, longevity, and even immortality if mixed and
imbibed in just the right manner. Many of these potions turned out to be
dangerous. Cinnabar, which contains high levels of mercury, can kill you,
and it doubtless killed many practitioners of outer alchemy, including
some emperors. So roughly a millennium ago, Daoists reset their sites to
inner alchemy, which sought to purify the body’s own flows and fluids
into immortality elixirs. Now the body itself, so highly prized in Daoist
thought and practice, became the laboratory. Instead of trying to mix an
elixir of immortality with mortar and pestle, Daoists sought through a
variety of self-cultivation practices to create an “immortal embryo” inside
their own bodies.
Of course, few Daoists read immortality stories as blueprints for their
own lives. Although the official line was usually that anyone can become
an immortal, few ordinary Daoists imagined flying from mountaintop to
mountaintop themselves. Rather than the ultimate goal of physical
immortality, they hoped for the proximate goal of human flourishing: good
health, long life, and vitality. Happily, many of the techniques utilized by
aspiring immortals also advanced practitioners toward these more
attainable goals. So they were by no means restricted to those who hoped
to ride dragons to the moon.
The Jade Emperor and the Queen Mother of the West
Like the pantheon of Yoruba orishas, the society of Daoist deities is
fabulously unwieldy, extending to deified human beings and divinized
forces of nature who in this case act very much like China’s imperial
Sitting atop this pantheon is a heavenly analog to the Chinese ruler
known as the Jade Emperor (aka “Lord Heaven”). There is also a Daoist
trinity of sorts that takes on different names in different periods and is
associated with the three vital forces and the three vital centers in the
human body. The most popular Daoist deities are divinized human beings
known as the Eight Immortals, who are remembered today not only in
Daoist temples but also in popular Chinese plays and folk tales. As
bringers of good luck, their images are everywhere in China—“on the
hems of women’s clothes, on bed curtains, on temple gates and roofs, on
children’s bonnets.” 43 They also appear in films, television shows, comic
books, and video games. Again like Catholic saints and Yoruba orishas,
each of these Eight Immortals is seen as a patron of a different group of
people: Iron-Crutch Li, for pharmacists; Cao, for actors; Lan, for florists;
Old Man Zhang, for the elderly; Immortal Woman He, for storekeepers;
Lu Dongbin, for barbers; Philosopher Han, for musicians; and Zhongli
Quan, for soldiers. Also popular are a variety of household gods, many of
whom were revered in ancient China. The most important of these, the
stove god Zao Jun, was immortalized in the West in The Kitchen God’s
Wife (1991), a novel by the Chinese-American writer Amy Tan.
In sharp contrast to patriarchal Confucianism, this pantheon also
includes a range of goddesses matched among the great religions only by
Hinduism. Chief among these goddesses is the Queen Mother of the West,
who embodies the mysterious feminine so highly prized among Daoists.
This goddess assists in creation, mediates between Heaven and Earth,
clears the path to immortality, serves as a matchmaker for marriages, aids
women and recluses, and is intimate with both creation and destruction.
Other goddesses include: Laozi’s mother, also known as Holy Mother
Goddess; Doumu, who like Guanyin in Buddhism exemplifies and
embodies unending compassion; a tenth-century woman later deified into
Mazu the patroness of sailors, fishermen, and merchants; and Immortal
Woman He, the only female among Daoism’s ubiquitous Eight Immortals.
The Orthodox and Unity Way
In the story of the rise of the gods and goddesses of popular Daoism, the
key date is 142 C.E., the place is a cave in the Sichuan mountains, and the
person is a Confucian named Zhang Daoling (Chang Tao-ling) (34–156).
As a young man Zhang Daoling had read the Confucian classics, but as he
grew older he was drawn to study a topic those classics ignored: longevity.
So like any self-respecting Daoist, he moved to a mountain, where he
immersed himself in the Daoist classics instead. One day Lord Lao, a
deification of Laozi and of the Dao itself, appeared to him in a mountain
cave. In Islam’s iconic cave moment, Allah spoke to Muhammad through
an intermediary: the angel Gabriel. Here Lord Lao spoke directly to Zhang
Daoling. He taught him the Way of the Celestial Masters, instructed him in
morality, meditation, and medicine, and tapped him as the first Celestial
Master. This initiation empowered him to heal. It convinced him that
virtue is an essential ingredient in the recipe for longevity and that
traditional blood sacrifices to ancestral spirits should give way to offerings
of vegetables. It prompted him to write his own scripture, a commentary
on the Daodejing. And it showed him that Laozi was not only divine but
the Way itself. In this way the Dao was transformed from an impersonal
principle to a personal divinity, and the textual Daoism of Laozi and
Zhuangzi began to merge with the gods and goddesses of Chinese popular
Through a series of political and military maneuvers, this sect, which
survives today as the Way of Orthodox Unity (Zhengyi dao), was officially
recognized in 215 C.E. Its traditional headquarters is on Dragon-Tiger
Mountain in Jiangxi province, but many of its members have lived in
Taiwan since fleeing from the mainland in 1949. Today this group is led
by the sixty-fifth Celestial Master, who is sometimes referred to as the
“Daoist pope.” Although Orthodox Unity Daoists allow female clerics, the
role of the Celestial Master is hereditary, passing from male heir to male
heir. Because early followers of this sect were required to tithe five pecks
of rice, it has also been known as the Five Pecks of Rice sect.
Complete Perfection Sect
The second main branch in this tradition is Quanzhen (Chuan-chen),
which is usually translated as “Complete Perfection” or “Perfect
Realization” Daoism. Founded in the twelfth century by a soldier-turnedascetic named Wang Chongyang (1113–70), this tradition is now the
official, state-sponsored monastic order on the mainland and China’s
largest Daoist school.
Complete Perfection Daoism began when Wang, while wandering
around in a drunken stupor at the age of forty-eight, received revelation
from two immortals who led him to a new synthesis of Daoism, Chan
Buddhism, Neo-Confucianism, and old-fashioned asceticism. Wang styled
himself a madman and proved it by digging a grave for himself and living
in it for three years. Convinced that family life was a prison and the
husband-wife bond a chain, he lived in seclusion for a decade before
returning to the world to spread his message. Of all the Daoist ideals,
Wang valued simplicity most highly. But he disparaged as foolish both the
Daoist quest for physical immortality and the rituals they used to cultivate
it. Because Complete Perfection Daoists rejected the magical talismans
and laboratory elixirs others hoped would produce physical immortality,
they have been compared with the Protestant Reformers of sixteenthcentury Europe. The way to spiritual immortality, they argued, was not
through the external manipulation of objects but through inner alchemy
and self-cultivation.
Wang attracted seven disciples (six men and one woman), also known
as the “Seven Immortals,” each of whom founded his or her own lineage.
One of these followers, a female poet named Sun Buer, is now “the most
famous woman Daoist.”44 Another, Qiu Chuji, met with the Mongol
warlord Chinggis (Genghis) Khan and convinced him to give Complete
Perfection monasteries the imprimatur of tax exemption. All these
disciples and their lineages followed Wang in synthesizing Daoism with
Chan Buddhism and Neo-Confucianism. They revered Lord Lao as an
ancestor, the Buddha as a pathfinder, and Confucius as a sage. This sect is
centered today on the White Cloud Monastery in Beijing. Whereas priests
in the older Way of Orthodox Unity perform rituals at home altars,
Complete Perfection rituals typically occur in monasteries.
Popular Daoism
Although these two groups have been the main institutional vessels into
which Daoism has been poured, this tradition also spread throughout
China and Chinese enclaves worldwide through a variety of folk practices.
In fact, popular Daoism is so far-reaching that it is difficult to separate it
from the folkways of the Chinese people.
Because of their ethic of social withdrawal, Daoists have drawn the ire
of Confucians, who accuse them of being selfish, immature, anti-social,
and irresponsible. But this same ethic has drawn Daoists for millennia to
mountains, which they revere as particularly rich in qi. Some peaks are
allied with particular Daoist schools (for example, Mount Longhu with the
Celestial Masters and Mount Wutang with various martial arts). But all
Daoists, and in fact all Chinese, share the “Five Sacred Peaks” of Mount
Tai, Mount Hua, Mount Song, and two different Mount Hengs (one in
Shanxi and the other in Hunan province). For millennia, sages-to-be like
Laozi would withdraw to the mountains to seek vitality and perhaps
immortality. Today, ordinary people make brief pilgrimages to these
mountains, where they stop at temples that adorn them to pay homage to
Daoist immortals, Buddhist bodhisattvas, and Confucian sages.
Popular Daoism also involves an array of religious practices, including
celebrating the birthdays of deities and witnessing the inauguration of
temples and the ordination of priests. These priests in turn bless villages
and officiate at weddings and funerals. They also manipulate sacred
objects, such as talismans and registers of the gods, in an effort to chase
away demons or call down divine power. Daoist rituals vary from sect to
sect but often include a combination of singing, chanting, prayers,
sacrifices, offerings, and even dance.
Philosophical and Religious Daoism
Scholars have traditionally distinguished between two different Daoisms:
the philosophical Daoism (daojia) of the Daodejing and the Zhuangzi, and
the religious Daoism (daojiao) of the Celestial Masters and the Complete
Perfection sects. According to this view, philosophical Daoism, which
developed in the Warring States Period (403–221 B.C.E.) is about accepting
death, while religious Daoism, which developed in the later Han dynasty
(206 B.C.E.–220 C.E.), is about overcoming death via immortality. Unlike
philosophical Daoism, religious Daoism borrows heavily from both
Confucianism and Buddhism. It also takes on all sorts of trappings of
organized religion unknown to Laozi and Zhuangzi and their
contemporaries—from prayer to priests to polytheism. Religious Daoists
also develop a wide range of spiritual techniques for longevity and
immortality, including various contemplative practices and breathing
exercises. Like philosophical Hinduism, which is tailor-made for
renouncers, philosophical Daoism is for elites—mystics and recluses
withdrawn from the exigencies of everyday life. Religious Daoism, by
contrast, is for ordinary people.
Unfortunately, this typology is more useful for polemics than for
analysis. Christians, Confucians, and communists alike have used this
distinction to disparage contemporary Daoism as “superstition” for the
illiterate masses. Just as Protestants have caricatured Catholics as
corruptors of the true Christianity of the Bible, partisans of philosophical
Daoism have caricatured religious Daoists as corruptors of the true Daoism
of the ancient classics, bastard children of the Daodejing and the
The other major flaw of this typology is that it misses many
continuities between earlier and later Daoism. First, so-called
philosophical Daoism is not as secular as it may seem. Its concerns are at
least as mystical as they are political. And while the Dao in the Daodejing
is admittedly impersonal, it is nonetheless deeply spiritual—ineffable,
mysterious, nondual, and creative beyond imagining. Second, so-called
religious Daoism is not as religious as it may seem. Like philosophical
Daoism, it shows almost no interest in what many regard as the religious
challenge par excellence—the problem of life after death. Religious
Daoism also draws heavily on the early classics. Almost every key concept
from philosophical Daoism, including Dao, de, and wu wei, carries over
into religious Daoism. Religious Daoists also revere Laozi as both a
founder and god—“Saint Ancestor Great Tao Mysterious Primary
Emperor”—and regard not only the Daodejing but many subsequent
Daoist scriptures as revelations from him.46
Religious Daoists are often distinguished from philosophical Daoists
by their quest for physical immortality. But both the Daodejing and the
Zhuangzi speak of immortals. The first chapter of the Zhuangzi tells of
mountain-dwelling immortals overflowing with qi, which endows them
not only with long life but also with extraordinary powers. One such holy
man, as gentle as a virgin, lives on a faraway mountain, possesses the
power of healing, eschews the five grains of settled agricultural
communities, and drives flying dragons. The Zhuangzi’s next chapter tells
of an immortal who cannot be burned by fire or chilled by ice, is
unfrightened by the most frightful thunder and lightning, and “moves with
the clouds, soars above the sun and the moon and wanders beyond the four
Of course, Daoism changes over time. All religions do. It takes on
Confucian and Buddhist elements, making peace with Confucian ideals
such as filial piety, human-heartedness, and propriety, and adapting
Buddhist meditation techniques for its own purposes. All these
transformations, however, can be understood as developments inside a
religious tradition unafraid of change. In the end, there is far more
continuity than discontinuity between earlier and later Daoism.
Throughout its long history, from the Daodejing to The Tao of Pooh,
Daoism has seen lifelessness as its problem and flourishing as its goal.
Change and Disappearance
In my home on Cape Cod there is a small piece of paper taped to the
refrigerator with the word “Change.” I usually read this sign in the
imperative voice—as a command to make life anew. But that isn’t very wu
wei of me—to take aim at this change and to expend all sorts of energy to
make it happen. A more Daoist interpretation would read “Change” as an
observation. We live as if things are unchanging—our jobs, our families,
our loves, our bodies. But in fact all these things are changing every day.
One of the most famous stories in the Zhuangzi is also one of the most
vexing. It is set just after the death of Zhuangzi’s wife. When a friend
comes by to console him, he finds Zhuangzi beating a tub and singing with
joy. Jewish law explicitly prohibits the making of music for thirty days
after the death of a spouse, but Zhuangzi’s singing and playing is also an
affront to Confucian propriety, and to our own. We don’t mourn much in
the modern West. The things we cannot control are shrinking every day,
but death remains one of them. So we don’t want to linger over it. Still, for
most of us, the few hours that Zhuangzi gave over to grief seem a trifle.
When his friend criticized him, Zhuangzi replied coolly that change is
unavoidable and death nothing to fear. As the four seasons progress from
spring to summer to fall to winter, transformation comes to all things, he
said. Why should any of us be exempt from this natural process? So do not
be repelled from death or attracted to life, but treat both with equanimity
and indifference.48 And do not be afraid to respond to sickness and death
and fear itself with laughter and music and play.
For some practitioners, Daoism is about grasping after the brass ring of
physical immortality. But at the heart of this tradition is nothing more
magical than a life well lived. If we are confused about why such a goal is
religious, that is because we are confused about religion, which, as China’s
traditions teach us, does not cease to be religious when it refuses to
promise a changeless afterlife. After Laozi and Zhuangzi, Daoism
doubtless drinks deep of the gods and goddesses, scriptures and sects,
priests and prayers we recognize as the stuff of organized religion. In fact,
it dives into the deep end. But throughout its long evolution it remains
committed first and foremost to vitality—to human flourishing.
For Confucius, to be human is to be social. For Daoists, to be human is
to be natural. According to many Confucians, being human is not a
birthright but a hard-won accomplishment, and it is accomplished by the
labors of society. The Confucian thinker Xunzi (Mencius’s nemesis)
regularly resorted to metaphors from the trades—hammering, steaming,
and bending—to describe this arduous process of becoming something
other than what we once were. Daoists, by contrast, claim that we are born
human and are hammered out of our humanity through education. To
return to our true nature, we need only to return to the natural rhythms of
the Dao, accepting without resistance the flux and flow of everyday life—
summer to fall to winter to spring, morning to evening, mourning to birth.
Every year on Labor Day on Cape Cod visitors pull their boats out of
the water, pack up their things, and drive away (often in sweatshirts). I
have seen this happen almost every year since I was in kindergarten, but it
still has the power to upend me. I go to the ocean. I stay until almost
everyone has left, chatting with the locals, pretending it is just another
sunset. Before I make for home, I hear a childlike voice inside me wishing
I could jump through some magical hoop to the middle of June, skipping
over the nostalgia of fall and the slush of winter to another Cape Cod
summer. But there is another voice, younger and older at the same time,
that also speaks, reminding me that things change, that “the Dao that can
be spoken is not the constant Dao,” that summer here would not be
summer if it did not follow on the bone-chilling bluster of spring.
One of the grand motifs of Daoist stories is disappearance. An
immortal known as the Lady of Great Mystery can point at temples and
even entire cities and make them disappear. At the end of the biography
celebrating her life—a Daoist analog to the hagiographies of Catholic
saints—she is said to have ascended, Christlike, to the heavens in broad
daylight, never to be seen again.49 Laozi goes by land rather than air, but
he, too, wanders off. After depositing his wisdom with the border guard,
he enters into the undiscovered country, and, his biographer tells us, “No
one knows what became of him.”50
Daoism can be distilled into stories of the human problem and its
solution—stories of how lifelessness threatens but flourishing triumphs. Its
heart can be heard beating in exemplars known as sages and immortals
who have mastered techniques to nourish life and “roam in company with
the Dao.”51 But more than any other of the great religions, Daoism
possesses the power to vanish before our eyes, to get up and wander west,
drift high into the mountains, and disappear into the clouds.

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