Mark Saltveit, professional comedian and author, guest-posted last year on comedy and Daoism. Subsequently, he published his thoughts on that topic with MeFiMag (available for download). Mark is back with some questions that he has about popular Daoism, to get some discussion and opinion from members of our forum. He plans to publish an article about this topic as well (note Mark’s comments below about seeking permission to quote or cite from those who comment in this forum). Please address all comments or questions directly to Mark.
Hello. I’m working on a feature article (for an intelligent general audience) about criticism of popular Daoist authors (particularly Ursula K. Le Guin and Benjamin Hoff) by certain academics of Eastern religion who are centered around the University of San Diego and the Center for Daoist Studies (http://www.daoistcenter.org/homepage.html).
Some of this criticism seems rather polemical, rooted in an anti-Orientalist critique of the concept of Philosophical Daoism as a Western (and arguably Protestant) gloss. (I’m using the term “Culturalists” as shorthand for this group, and positing Michael Saso as its founder.) Russell Kirkland calls Le Guin a “fraud” and Louis Komjathy won’t even write “Philosophical Daoism” without applying strikethrough to the words to show his disapproval. Kirkland goes so far as to argue that the Daodejing itself distorts Daoism, “sanitized” by its 3rd Century BCE redactor in a “marketing ploy” designed to strip it of “cultural baggage” and make it more presentable to Northern Chinese courts.
As a non-scholar, I’m looking for perspective on several interesting issues that this controversy raises. I won’t quote anyone on this blog without asking for, and receiving, specific permission, and I’m open to off-the-record comments, but I want to be clear that I plan to publish an article and draw on the discussion here to inform my writing.
- Is there an ultimate reality underlying Daoism that modern, non-Chinese people can access directly, or is it a cultural tradition that can’t be grasped without a deep understanding of Chinese language and culture? Is Daoism an esoteric religion, a mystery cult or a philosophy?
- Is it fair to say that Daoism, or Lao-Zhuang thought, rejects academic authority and book learning itself? How can you “publish or perish” about a tradition that arguably disparages words, writing and received authorities (such as scholars) as tools for understanding it? Are lineage transmission, physical practice or meditation superior (or even exclusive) means of grasping Dao?
- Should the religious faith of scholars matter, or even be discussed? Must a scholar practice Daoism, or join a lineage tradition, to truly understand it? Must they NOT do so, ethically, to remain scholarly? Does it matter that the University of San Diego is Catholic, and that Culturalists critique Philosophical Daoism as a Protestant gloss? Are Saso, Komjathy, et. al. recreating Daoism in the image of the Catholic Church? Michael Saso has been initiated/ordained as a Jesuit priest, a Tendai Buddhist monk, a Zhengyi Daoist priest, and again as a Jesuit, which is certainly unusual. Is our desire for “sincere belief” — which this path seems to offend — just a Western peculiarity, a hangover of Romanticism?
- Are Westerners who “practice” various traditions based on or related to Daoism (Qi Gong, traditional Chinese medicine, etc.) more authentic, more Orientalist, or both?
- Is there truly such a thing as Philosophical Daoism, or was it a mistaken notion by 19th and 20th century Western scholars? Is it part of the Chinese tradition, or, does it exist only in the modern West, as a distorted Protestant gloss on true Daoism?
- What are valid sources of authority to write on Daoism, especially to a general audience? Granting that there are atrocious pop interpretations of Daoism out there, are there (can there be) any valid or even important works by non-scholars? Is anyone down with “The Tao of Wu” by RZA of Wu Tang Clan?
- Two of the many English versions of Daoist texts were written by contemplative writers who did not claim to speak Chinese – Thomas Merton’s Zhuangzi, and Le Guin’s Daodejing. (I personally consider these the best of the non-academic works.) Is it wrong or “fraudulent” for them to write these volumes? Can decades of meditation or practice based on English translations of these works qualify one to write a version? Does it matter that Le Guin had JP Seaton work with her on her version? What do you all think of these two books?
- It seems to me that every translation or version has 2 steps: 1) grasping the original concepts, and 2) rendering them in the destination language. Can skilled writers offset any deficiencies in step 1 with greater skill in step 2? (To quote a college professor of mine, “It doesn’t matter how good your insights are, or might be, if I can’t figure out what they are because of your writing.”)
- Is academia itself a sort of mystery cult, with esoteric language, master-disciple relationships, apprenticeship and arbitrary tests for advancement to higher levels?
- Most generally, can Westerners ever truly grasp Daoism, and if so, how? If the goal of a scholar or an adherent is cultural authenticity, then why write in English? Why write at all?
- If Daoism reflects an underlying ultimate reality, doesn’t that imply that it is accessible outside of cultural constraints? (We don’t say that DNA is British because the first paper describing it came out of England.) Conversely, does positing that Daoism can’t be understood outside of Chinese tradition (and without a deep immersion in it) necessarily imply that it isn’t “true”? If so, why go to the trouble of joining a lineage tradition, etc.? Isn’t that especially condescending or cynical?