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?
Thank you very much, Manyul. Here are some links to the Center for Daoist Studies — http://www.daoistcenter.org/basic.html — and and some articles from that site (which can be very slow in responding) summarizing their arguments.
“THE TAOISM OF THE WESTERN IMAGINATION AND THE TAOISM OF CHINA: DE-COLONIALIZING THE EXOTIC TEACHINGS OF THE EAST,” by Russell Kirkland, presented at the University of Tenneessee, 20 October 1997
“COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS CONCERNING DAOISM (TAOISM)” by Louis Komjathy 康思奇, Ph.D., Univ. San Diego
“THE HISTORY OF TAOISM,” Russell Kirkland, University of Georgia, 2002
“BASIC INFORMATION SHEET ON DAOISM (TAOISM),” by Louis Komjathy 康思奇, Ph.D., Univ. San Diego
The popular works most discussed here are Ursula Le Guin’s “Lao Tzu : Tao Te Ching : A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way,” Thomas Merton’s “Chuang Tzu,” Benjamin Hoff’s “Tao of Pooh,” and RZA’s “Tao of Wu.”
“Is Daoism an esoteric religion, a mystery cult or a philosophy?”
A lot of these questions are about whether a Westerner can ever “get” Daoism. I will say that in terms of the language, there’s no reason a Westerner can’t grasp classical Chinese as well as or better than a native Mandarin speaker. It’s been two millennia since the DDJ and Zhuangzi were first beginning to be written. Modern standard Mandarin is a completely different language than classical Chinese and in many ways acts as a handicap when trying to understand the classics, since the meaning of words has gone through so many changes in the intervening years leading to a persistent problem with false friends and invalid glosses. If you study hard enough, you can read classical Chinese as well as anybody else alive in approximately five to ten years.
I won’t claim that this means anyone can “get” Lao-Zhuang thought, but the issue has nothing to do with language, just the fact that it’s been centuries, and not everyone understood it at the time either.
Mark, do you know Paul Goldin’s “Those Who Know Do Not Speak: translations of the Daode jing by people who do not know Chinese” (Asian Philosophy 12.3, 183–195)? Worth reading, if you haven’t already.
Dan: Great pointer, I did not know of that article but will certainly read it. Thanks.
Carl #1 — Can you please tell me all the 17th level Masonic Daoist secrets so I don’t have to get initiated. thx much
Carl #2 — Very interesting. Can’t tell if you’re entirely serious. How would one go about learning classical Chinese (outside of a university)? I lived in China for about 8 months, and found spoken Mandarin relatively easy, at least for traveler’s needs, and written Chinese a fascinating puzzle.
The interesting question to me is, by analogy could one say the same thing about Classical Chinese that you are saying about modern? In other words, since no one really speaks the original language that the DDJ and ZZ were written in, is it possible to read a good English translation or version (whichever that is) and intuit the underlying internal logic of Dao from it, knowing that the words you read are an imperfect take on it (in any language)?
OR — should some scholar who does know classical Chinese and English quite well develop a course or book teaching just that subset of classical Chinese necessary to understand these texts? I would buy that book in a second, and it seems like there might be a real market for such a work. I was fortunate enough to get some informal live tutoring along these lines by a fellow teacher at Shenzhen Dashue some 25 years ago, going character by character through the DDJ, but the memory has faded a bit and we didn’t get that far into it, or read Zhuangzi at all.
Plus I remember a many times her pointing to a character and saying “No meaning.” I still don’t know if she was teasing me, saying it was untranslatable, or saying it was the second part of a two-character construction she had already explained.
I said “Yes” in #3, because the question is a false dichotomy. Classical Chinese had no word for philosophy or religion, so it’s hardly surprising that the early Daoists didn’t feel constrained to put themselves into one box or the other. The philosophy-or-religion problem is our problem, not theirs.
I don’t know how to learn Classical Chinese outside of a university, because there aren’t many good textbooks for it. Usually, you need to study under a professor who already knows it to master it. That said, check out Edwin Pulleyblank’s Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar if you can already read hanzi.
The reason why the DDJ is so often translated is that the language is, for the most part, really simple, and the book itself is fairly short. The problem is that even after you know what it says, you still can’t tell what it means. I have a similar problem when reading, say Whitehead or Peirce.
For example, DDJ 1:
The meanings of the four character is pretty straightforward:
道 dao, n. way, v. making a way or explaining a way
可 ke, able
非 fei not (used to negate nouns)
常 chang always
Grammar-wise, it pretty much has to be [[n [v n]] v [adj n]]. (I’m sure someone has suggested some other more creative interpretation, but that’s the most obvious way to parse it.)
This gives you: way which is able to make/explain way is not constant way. Then to make it real English, you have to add in some articles and whatnot. But you also have to make choices about the meaning. What is “chang”? Is it eternal? Or just reliable? When dao is used as a verb, does it mean speaking in general or explaining ways to do things? Or does it perhaps mean creating a path or following a path? Is ke really “able” as in potential ability, or is it a normative “shouldn’t” (e.g. “you can’t park here” means “you physically can park here, but you shouldn’t because it’s illegal”).
Knowing Classical Chinese helps you read the DDJ, because it’s a pretty punny document and it has a lot of rhymes and wordplay, but for the most part, the problems all come after you know what it says and you want to know what it means.
Thanks, v. interesting. Is it fair to say, then, that the originally is wonderfully open-ended, and that one of the biggest difficulties of translation is that you have to reduce the many possibilities by choosing one or two in your destination language? ie, The DDJ that can be specified in English is not the complete DDJ?
I’m curious which English translations you like, too. Thanks again.
Thanks for your comments–they got me stimulated(!). I think I agree with you (and Kirkland et al) that the 家-教 distinction is not a philosophy-religion distinction and that the latter is a product of Western intellectual culture. I’m not clear how it follows from that however that (a) the dichotomy is false (i.e. not a good or useful one) and consequently that (b) we cannot distinguish those parts of Lao-Zhuang writings that are philosophical from those that are not (or perhaps more accurately, more or less philosophical, philosophically interesting and insipid etc.). Of course doing that would involve taking a meta-philosophy position and defending it. I’m rather of the view that a number of respectable meta-philosophical principles would coincide in their classification of huge chunks of Mohism, Later Mohism and consequently Zhuangzi, Hui Shi, and Xunzi as reasonably good philosophy. So while you’re right that “it’s our problem,” its not an insoluble or meaningless one.
And the last thing such an observation could do is validate the work of religious theorists telling us what the terms and formulations in such works is doing while invalidating what philosophically careful and rigorous analytic theorists want to say about the meaning of those philosophically interesting parts of the texts. Nothing in the observation that the philosophy-religion distinction is one made by modern Westerners makes religion scholars the arbiters of which term does and and does not apply to writings identified as Daoist by the likes of Sima Tan.
We do have theories about Classical Chinese (semantic and syntactic) and you can learn these from their advocates. What we don’t have is what we have in the case of living languages, natural speakers whose linguistic intuitions can become the “data” against which to test these theories. If Henry Rosemont is correct ( and I think he *may* be) there never were such “native speakers” and classical was always a written lingua franca of the diverse linguistic empire of ancient China, then there never was such data. The classical situation, thus, would still be be unlike its modern mandarin parallel in that there was a region of native mandarin speakers since it took native Beijing dialect as its source of syntactic intuitions. (Nowadays it could be treated as a more “common” national language properly called 普通話.) Interpretive semantic-syntactic theories can still be better or worse (have better or worse reasons for them, be grounded in better or worse philosophical accounts of semantic meaning etc.).
One of the problems with your interpretation of the first line of the DDJ is that most syntactical theories of classical Chinese and every dialect of modern Chinese I know of would render it a right-branching language (i.e. one where modifiers precede their head-nouns). So it’s hard to find a grammatical justification for treating 可道 as modifying a subject term 道. (on a side note–since 可 is an auxiliary verb which marks the verb following as passive and assigns a permissive modality, the structure cannot be verb+noun, but aux+passive verb-can be dao-ed by someone/something). So that’s only the obvious way to parse it if you want to get the familiar translations–in other words it takes the accuracy of such conventional translations for granted, rather than confirming them.
You are still correct that after deciding how to parse the string syntactically, it remains to offer good arguments for semantic analyses of the lexical items in those roles and for a way of understanding the resulting string. If its meaning is inaccessible to readers and writers of English, then no one getting this far in our blog can possibly know that. So anyone who asserts it (in English, at least) is . . . well, you can draw your own conclusion.
It is certainly (perhaps deliberately) laconic and vague but vague statements can be translated and are correctly translated as similarly vague or ambiguous English statements. The routine failure in translating it into readable English is typically adding too much and eliminating the vagueness in the poetic form. It is often necessary for readable English (e.g. having a tense or number).
So it’s hard to find a grammatical justification for treating 可道 as modifying a subject term 道. … [But] that’s the only obvious way to parse it if you want to get the familiar translations
How about this parsing: “[If] a dao can be daoed, [it] is not the constant dao.”
It’s been a long time for me, I know, but I thought I should chime in right here.
//Grammar-wise, it pretty much has to be [[n [v n]] v [adj n]]. (I’m sure someone has suggested some other more creative interpretation, but that’s the most obvious way to parse it.)//
That’s not how at least a handful of Chinese scholars parse it:
From p.1 of the 《新譯老子讀本》 (italics mine)：
Also, since punctuations work as coordinators in modern Mandarin, what you get from them is often of this sort:
N AUX V，非常N。
N AUX V，非 V/ADJ N。(Verbs and adjectives are not exactly well-defined classes, even in modern Mandarin, because the copula [often ‘是’] has some disputable features. I’m using the ‘/’ to allow for that ambiguity.)
N AUX V COORD AUX 常 N。
N AUX V，X/AUX V/ADJ N。(where x is a negator)
I can empathize with your position, though. I used to think that they fixed each individual Hanzi to an individual lexical/syntactic class, too, which was at least the root of one frustration when un-learning my armchair Chinese.
I developed and taught such a course at Vermont, Stanford, UCLA, HKU and Singapore (NUS) most recently. Sigh. But I’m retired now so you’re too late. I called the course “Philosophical Chinese” and did a too-quick survey of philosophical semantics (with Sellars/Brandom at the apex) and a fragment of a Chomsky-inspired phrase-structure for Classical Chinese (8 recursive rewrite rules) then had students analyze, produce and defend analysis trees with interpretive glosses for lexical items and the whole chapter for their selected chapters in the DDJ. I loved and miss teaching it. …give me half a reason…
Hi Mark, Carl, etc – I’m no expert on these things, and I haven’t taken the trouble to read the pieces Mark linked, but I have a few thoughts.
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?
There might be accessible truths (or valuable thoughts) in Daoism, or in each of its ancient versions, even if those truths aren’t, or aren’t all, about a unifying metaphysical object. A good source on this is the posts by Stephen Walker on this blog over the last couple of years or so.
I suppose the real issue about culture isn’t so much whether one has to be brought up in China, but rather whether one can understand or legitimately publish on Daoism if one hasn’t gone to the trouble of familiarizing oneself at least to a moderate degree with early Chinese language etc., and with recent academic arguments about how the early Chinese basic working visions of the nature of language and thought might differ from what passes for common sense on those topics today in one or another branch of academia or popular lit.
Michael LaFargue’s translation/discussion of the DDJ, I think I recall, stresses that much of the text is addressing other philosophical positions of the time. He goes into lots of (occasionally speculative) detail about this. Which is not to say that those other positions are hard to understand. But the intended meaning of lines in the DDJ may be narrower than one would have guessed.
The idea of trying to shut people up on a topic because they’re not experts is to my mind really yucky, and also a pretty poor way to make progress. At the very least we can all use some brainstorming help. Let’s hear the ideas. And as Carl points out, the study of Daoism is an area where general philosophical imagination seems especially important.
On the other hand I imagine many writers in anglophone pop daoism speak as though with authority when in fact they don’t have a clue, and that’s yucky too.
We might distinguish two reasons for reading a pop daoist: historical and philosophical. That is, we might be trying to find out about Daoism (what it says about X, Y, and Z); or we may be looking for help in thinking about X, Y, and Z (etc.). For the latter purpose what matters may be rather the wisdom of the writer than her knowledge of early texts. I mean, we don’t even know whether the DDJ was agglomerated by an intelligent process. Maybe LeGuin is wiser than the original DDJ was. Seriously. And even if she wasn’t, she can still be worth hearing out.
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?
I suspect that “academic authority” as we understand it was not an idea on the Lao-Zhuang radar.
Mice don’t respect academic authority, but we can publish about them. The difficulty would be in writing-as-with-authority in a tradition that essentially disparages that. Another difficulty would be in justifying the interpretive view that certain texts are opposed to texts in general.
I gather the Zhuangzi and the DDJ each reflect some worry about whether they are doing what they oppose.
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?
I suppose their e.g. Catholicism is interesting and might help orient one to the discussion. Obviously it doesn’t prove anything (unless it shows they are in violation of some methodological principle they’re insisting on). Marking people by religion can make your audience stupid about them, and one wants to avoid that; but I guess that’s a judgment call about your audience.
Does it matter that Le Guin had JP Seaton work with her on her version?
Assuming that Seaton was up on the early language and recent scholarship, I think it matters.
I agree with what Carl says above about the nature of the text, except: There are lots of important characters whose range of meaning at the relevant time period is hard to judge, because our sources are few. Also very hard to specify briefly, with the necessary nuance. One wants a scholar’s help there. Further, there are passages where the grammatical structure is importantly ambiguous. For example, a few characters further on we find:
Scholars differ over whether this is roughly “The nameless is …” or “non-existence is the way to characterize …”. It matters.
Maybe one can uncover the basic alternatives by reading various translations, and comparing the character-by-character “translations” available. The problem is that the text is so demanding of a translator that translators commonly take all sorts of liberties. There’s lots of static. At least one would have to limit carefully which translations one pays close attention to.
“I agree with what Carl says above about the nature of the text, except: There are lots of important characters whose range of meaning at the relevant time period is hard to judge, because our sources are few. Also very hard to specify briefly, with the necessary nuance. One wants a scholar’s help there. Further, there are passages where the grammatical structure is importantly ambiguous.”
That’s true, but being Chinese won’t help you know what a hapax legomenon means or enable you to definitely parse an ambiguous grammar. That’s why I said, “you can read classical Chinese as well as anybody else alive in approximately five to ten years.” I didn’t say that anybody else alive can read it correctly, just that you can catch up to their level with a decade of hard work. 🙂
Thanks. To Bill’s point, I know that Le Guin did compare the character-by-character translations available. She grew up with the 1898 side-by-side English and Chinese translation (Legge? I forget)m, which inspired the project, and compared many other translations through that method. It was a multi-decade project that started as a hobby, and later drew JP Seaton in for backup. He’s a professor of Chinese at UNC- Chapel Hill and has translated a lot of Chinese poetry, going back to the Shih Ching.
Mark, I think that was Paul Carus (La Salle: Open Court Press). And I seem to recall that he too used the assistance of a Gunga Din who was actually familiar with classical Chinese.
Mark and Carl, are there really people saying the important thing is whether or not you’re Chinese – not: the important thing is whether one has familiarized oneself with the pre-Qin language and milieu?!!
I think there are many who argue that one needs a Chinese teacher, or someone “ordained” by a Chinese teacher.
The striking thing to me about the Culturalists is their tendency to exclude on various criteria. Generally speaking they favor lineage traditions; they acknowledge some in the West and list them with varying degrees of snideness (which may or may not be appropriate, I don’t know.) I’ve read that Saso doesn’t consider anyone a Daoist who’s not an ordained priest in Zhengyi or Quanzhen. Russell Kirkland doesn’t quite say you have to be Chinese, but here’s a quote from his 2004 book “Daoism: The Enduring Tradition” that’s not far from that. (I haven’t read it, but got this off a blog.)
“There may also be individuals in Birmingham and Boston who self-identify as Taoists. But very few of them were born to parents who self-identified as Taoists. Very few of them have ever even spoken with someone who had Taoists among their ancestors. Very few of them are capable of communicating with such a person—virtually all of whom speak Chinese as their native tongue. Very few of them are capable of reading what such people from age to age, have written to express or explain their beliefs and practices—virtually all such texts are written in Chinese, mostly classical. Very few of them have ever made any personal investment in trying to find out what such people have ever said or done in their practice of Taoism, e.g. by going to live in a long-established community where self-identifying Taoists have practiced together for generations, within their traditional social and cultural setting. To the extent that any individual in Boston or Birmingham meets such criteria, he or she might well be considered “a Taoist”. And we may also reasonably extend consideration to individuals who meet some, but not all, such criteria; an Englishman who goes to China, enters a traditional Taoist community, and adjusts his own life to their teachings and practices might arguably be included as “a Taoist,” as might a person of Chinese ancestry born in the worldwide diaspora, who may not be fluent in Chinese, and may have been inculcated with cultural traditions that have no connection with Taoism, but who makes efforts to learn the traditions of Taoism that flourished in traditional China, some of which are still flourishing in China today. (footnote number 15 for Chapter 1, “Understanding Taoism”)”
Bill, you’re exactly right — she says in her notes that it was the Carus. Which I think was the first or second (after Legge?) English translation ever. I also found a rather positive review of her version by Jonathan Herman of Georgia State U. It’s striking to me that Russell Kirkland and Komjathy often put her down generically, but I have yet to find any specific criticism of the text of her Daodejing. It’s like she is a symbol to them — but why criticize her and not, say, “The Tao of Meow” (a cat book)?
Hi Mark and all,
One thought that resonated here with me is Bill’s “On the other hand I imagine many writers in anglophone pop daoism speak as though with authority when in fact they don’t have a clue, and that’s yucky too.” Roughly, one can approach a text like the Dao De Jing in two ways: try to figure out what it has meant to some prior community of readers (and, perhaps, evaluate/learn from those ideas), or just react to whatever meaning it has for you today, without the quasi-archeological work required by the first approach.
If someone says “Here is what it means to me; take it or leave it!”, then I don’t see any problem with that. If the author is someone whom we might have reason to respect or be intrigued by (say, LeGuin), then finding out what she finds in the text might be worthwhile. A comparison: I’d say this is the approach of Yu Dan to the Analects, and thus she doesn’t deserve criticism for shoddy scholarship.
To be a “scholar,” then, is just to hold oneself to a different set of standards: one is making a responsible attempt to figure out what the text has meant to some particular audience of readers, based on various tools. In this case classical Chinese is pretty important, obviously, but there are lots of other sorts of knowledge and skills that can also be relevant.
Let a hundred flowers bloom, I say, and a hundred editions line the shelves of bookstores. When an edition is put forward as “authoritative,” though, it had better be based on some scholarship. All too often they are not, and that’s what much of the fuss is about.
Agreed Steve. This is basically what LaFargue says in the link I gave below.
Steve — I agree, and that’s one reason I’m surprised at the focus on Le Guin. She is very humble in her approach, stating straight out that it is not a translation and that she does not speak Chinese, that she is not a scholar (though she is a Harvard graduate who grew up surrounded by leading figures of anthropology, including her father Alfred Kroeber). Rather than assuaging, this seems to anger Russell Kirkland even more. He writes:
“Careful readers of her book will find that Le Guin openly admits that her
book is “a rendition, not a translation” (107); that she omitted lines that she believed to “weaken” the message that
she wished the Tao te ching to express, and that such ommisions were “strictly personal and aesthetic” (112); and
that her explanations of individual passages “are idiosyncratic and unscholarly, and are to be ignored if not found
helpful” (x). The last-mentioned sentiment seems tantamount to a parent spewing forth the contents of her/his
psyche on an innocent and unsuspecting child, and then, in a near-secret footnote, asking the child not to be affected
by anything the parent says that may turn out to have been irrational or counterproductive. Such rhetorical games
seek to deflect all claims of responsibility, turning the book into nothing more than expressionism falsely labled as a
representation of an external reality. It is true that Le Guin is not the first, or the worst, example of narcissistic
abuse of a text appropriated from an alien culture. But the commonness of a misdeed (and one might, for instance,
consider domestic abuse) provides no justification for any individual to indulge in such shameful activity.”
Though I find it hard to imagine being angry at someone whose writing is so gentle, I think RK has a point. The publisher currently identifies the book on the back cover (in the blurb Amazon quotes) as “faithful to the original Chinese,” and the back cover also quotes a reviewer who identifies the piece as a “translation.” If LeGuin’s disavowal appears only after the hundredth page, then the case seems rather like that of an audiobook not identified as “abridged” in any place one will see before buying it. One wonders why she permitted this.
Which edition do you have? I have the Shambhala 1997 hardback. The back cover is a single paragraph from the introduction by Le Guin which praises Laozi and doesn’t mention her work. The front cover says “A New English Version”, and I have never seen her use the word translation — she’s very insistent on correcting anyone who does. Her notes literally begin: “This is a rendition, not a translation. I do not know any Chinese.”
Now that I look though, the inside jacket says she produced a version, and working together with JP Seaton, “Together they have created a translation that is unlike any seen before.” Perhaps that is what Amazon quoted.
Her ellisions are certainly the most controversial part of her version, though she is not really abridging the way the Merton (and nearly all translators, really) selected a subsection of Chuang-Tzu. Here is what she writes: “Certain obscure passages and verses that change or obstruct the sense of the poems may be seen as errors or interpolations by copyists.I decided to eject them. My authority for doing so is nil — a poet’s judgment that “this doesn’t belong here.” It takes nerve to drop a line that Waley left in. My version is openly dependent on the judgment of the scholars. … Anyway, rejects are discussed and printed in the commentary on the page with the poem [chapter], or in the Notes.”
There don’t seem to be a lot; at a quick glance, she leaves off the last two lines of chapter 5. Her version would have been “Mere talk runs dry. / Best keep to the center.” She follows Henricks in moving the first two lines of ch. 20 to the end of ch. 19. In ch. 31 she cuts the lines about honoring the left and the right in the second stanza, and the parallel lines at the start of the last stanza. In chapter 36 she cut the third stanza (“Fish should stay underwater”). That’s all I found in Book 1, don’t have time right now to go through book 2.
Went through Book 2 – only one cut that I found, ch. 61, the fourth verse: “A big country needs more people. / A small one needs more room. / Each can get what it needs, / But the big one needs to lie low.” Also, in ch. 41, she moved one line down to create a parallel construction.
I don’t have any copy; I just looked at what Amazon is showing.
Hi Mark, a couple posts plus an excerpt from a piece by Michael LaFargue on my blog seem to address some of your questions. LaFargue: http://baopu81.wordpress.com/2011/02/12/michael-lafargue-on-the-laozi/
Classical (philosophical) Daoism: http://baopu81.wordpress.com/2011/10/16/classical-daoism-is-there-really-such-a-thing-part-1/ and http://baopu81.wordpress.com/2011/10/21/classical-daoism-is-there-really-such-a-thing-part-2/
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?
This all depends on what what means by “Daoism,” and this question applies to all of your questions, really. To understand the Laozi/Zhuangzi stuff, one benefits from understanding the (ancient) language and culture. As Carl has said, the religion/philosophy dichotomy didn’t really exist back then, though I’ve noticed that scholars today interpret the texts through the lense they know best.
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?
I suspect that the Laoist/Zhuangist authors felt that book-learning left an awful lot out, which perhaps today is an unremarkable statement. I think that a number of the writing techniques they used help facilitate an understanding that goes beyond the literal (though we must be careful in asserting our views on what really was going on in their heads).
Are lineage transmission, physical practice or meditation superior (or even exclusive) means of grasping Dao?
I don’t know. Superior to what?
Should the religious faith of scholars matter, or even be discussed?
It can matter.
Must a scholar practice Daoism, or join a lineage tradition, to truly understand it? Must they NOT do so, ethically, to remain scholarly?
It depends. I am reminded of the scholar Jordan Paper, who wrote in the introduction to his book The Mystic Experience that the fact that he had had mystical experiences would help him write about it, though this confession would likely be frowned upon by “serious scholars.” As for Daoism, again it depends what one means by Daoism.
Are Westerners who “practice” various traditions based on or related to Daoism (Qi Gong, traditional Chinese medicine, etc.) more authentic, more Orientalist, or both?
They may have some insights that others would not.
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?
See my links above.
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?
I don’t know of any really good non-scholarly books on Laozi/Zhuangzi. Perhaps Alan Watts. Maybe my own writings fall into this category? 😉
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?
I haven’t read Le Guin, though Merton was not too bad. I’m not sure there are qualifications to writing a version/interpretation. Bejamin Hoff’s “The Te of Piglet” seems to me to have little to do with Laozi/Zhuangzi, though some of the stuff he writes in helpful or inspiring on a personal level. He perhaps is fooling himself that his philosophy is that of Laozi, but I don’t care too much. I must admit that it bothers me a bit that some people might also be deceived.
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.”)
I suppose so, but if one doesn’t grasp the concepts very well, why write about them?
If Daoism reflects an underlying ultimate reality, doesn’t that imply that it is accessible outside of cultural constraints?
Yes, although I’m not sure I understand what you mean by “Daoism” and what you mean by “reflecting an underlying ultimate reality.”
>I suppose so, but if one doesn’t grasp the concepts very well, why write about them?
That’s what I told my professor, but I still got a B on the paper.
The theory is, Thomas Merton grasps 70% of Zhuangzi and can communicate 80% of that back, so the American reader gets more than half of the meaning. Smarty McScholar grasps 95% of Zhuangzi, but can only express 40% of it in English, so the reader is down to 38%.
>>Are lineage transmission, physical practice or meditation superior (or even exclusive) means of grasping Dao?
>I don’t know. Superior to what?
To contemplation of and study of foundational texts such as Lieh Tzu and the big 2.
>>good non-scholarly books on Laozi/Zhuangzi. Perhaps Alan Watts. Maybe my own writings fall into this category?
I would love a pointer to your work. I got the URL of Bao Pu from your signature and will start there — it looks very interesting.
Alan Watt’s “Tao: The Watercourse Way” is a bit of a mess, not a surprise since he died before finishing it and Al Chung-liang Huang finished it. But once I got past some of the California early-70s cruft, there were several passages I found very illuminating and penetrating, as a non-scholar.
By the way, Mark, to me the phrase “popular Daoism” suggests “Daoism the popular religion” [in China] – which is not at all what you mean. The phrase “pop Daoism” might be clearer.
(The post title was my choice, not Mark’s. You have a point, Bill.)
Thank you all so much for the input. I haven’t had time to read all your pointers, but I want to get to perhaps the key issue, as Scott observes: what does “Daoism” mean in this context?
It’s tempting to say “the religion of Daoism as practiced in China today or historically,” as that is what I would expect it to mean to Komjathy, Kirkland and other professors of religious studies. But that makes little sense; why then criticize Merton, or Le Guin, or the Tao of Pooh, none of which claim to describe Chinese religious communities?
It must be something like Lao-Zhuang thought, or the “true meaning” that the DDJ & ZZ are trying to encapsulate or express or at least point toward.
Here is a somewhat glib theory; please dissect it. Let’s say that the DDJ & ZZ are pointing toward a deep vein of wisdom that, by its nature, is not directly accessible through the otherwise very powerful tools of language and analysis. The first two lines of the DDJ are warning the reader, “This is at best a crude map that can get you in the rough vicinity of your destination.The last stretch, you’re on your own, but if you pay careful attention and avoid the following mistakes, you might just be able to find it.”
So — even a first edition Daodejing read by Zhuangzi’s brother the day it was published requires him, the reader, to contemplate, or act a certain way, to recognize Dao, but once they find it, they can follow its internal logic and you can “throw away the words.”
So the theory of Philosophical Daoism would be, an English translation may be a rough copy of an already rough map, but with enough time and contemplation, a Thomas Merton say might find the destination directly, at which point he would grasp the meaning as well or better than any scholar carefully analysing the characters words could do.
Daoism in this story is that destination, whatever you want to call it.
The risk is you become a Stephen Mitchell, who — some might argue — thinks he has found the Rosetta Stone of contemplation and now has the power to translate any mystical work from any culture without knowing the language involved.
Mitchell is a curious one. He’s received accolades for legitimate translations of poetry from Hebrew (Book of Psalms, Book of Job, and poetry by Dan Pagis — a Holocaust survivor) and from German (mostly Rilke). Does that give him good positioning and ability to do the quasi-“translations” or “renderings” of the Daodejing, Zhuangzi, Bhagavad Gita, etc? It is at least interesting that someone who is as invested in sound translation of Hebrew and German would not have qualms about the other sort of project (lucre from being on best-selling lists notwithstanding).
Sorry for the typos; I hope the meaning was clear though. I’m assuming everyone knows that Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk famed for his contemplative writing. (BTW, it’s interesting that he is not criticized by the Culturalist scholars, even though his credentials are no better than Ursula Le Guin’s. I have to wonder if his Catholicism is a factor. Also btw, I was raised Catholic myself, altar boy, 12 years of Catholic education, etc. Since I raised the issue earlier.)
re: >>Are lineage transmission, physical practice or meditation superior (or even exclusive) means of grasping Dao?
>I don’t know. Superior to what?
>>To contemplation of and study of foundational texts such as Lieh Tzu and the big 2.
I gather by “lineage transmisison” you mean something like “indoctrination” rather than access to texts to study freely on one’s own. There are merits to having a teacher. It can save one alot of time barking up the wrong tree. I assume too that by “physical practice” you mean things like Taijiquan, Qigong and Gongfu (martial arts), though I think many physical exercises (e.g., butchering oxen, carving bell-stands, or perhaps hand-gliding and surfing) might be just as good. However, it depends what you mean by “grasping Dao.” Grasping a dao? Grasping the Dao? I think there are many (valid) conceptions and uses of the word Dao.
I favour contemplation of the ancient texts, and though this might result in an excellent understanding of what the ancient authors were writing about, this might not mean I have “grasped Dao.”
John Blofeld might be another non-scholar worth reading. I’ve only read a little bit by him though.
re: It’s tempting to say “the religion of Daoism as practiced in China today or historically,” as that is what I would expect it to mean to Komjathy, Kirkland and other professors of religious studies. But that makes little sense; why then criticize Merton, or Le Guin, or the Tao of Pooh, none of which claim to describe Chinese religious communities?
The reason, I believe, is that Merton/Le Guin/Hoff are describing a fictional entity.
re: It must be something like Lao-Zhuang thought, or the “true meaning” that the DDJ & ZZ are trying to encapsulate or express or at least point toward.
Well, as I’m discovering, the Laozi and Zhuangzi are texts written by many people over many years. Some authors (of the Zhuangzi) had some exposure to the Laozi (textually- or orally-transmitted) but that doesn’t really warrant lumping them together. There are some common threads, but I think there are more uncommon ones. Stephen Walker has made a number of posts here on WW&W about the different notions of “Dao” in the two texts, for example. From what I can tell, there isn’t so much of inconsistencies between the two texts as there are addressing different things. Scholars have recently been trying to answer the question of what makes a text “Daoist.” Harold Roth suggests it is breathing exercises (to over-simplify) but Chad Hansen thinks it is a “meta-discussion” of the notion of dao. Less scholarly types would probably answer: “I know it when I see it,” but that begs the question.
Again, there is more written on this topic at the links I included at the beginning of reply # 9.
>>why then criticize Merton, or Le Guin, or the Tao of Pooh, none of which claim to describe Chinese religious communities? >The reason, I believe, is that Merton/Le Guin/Hoff are describing a fictional entity.
By which you mean Philosophical Daoism? I’m not sure I follow. Putting aside Hoff, who I don’t really know much about, Merton and Le Guin merely provide English versions of Zhuangzi and the Daodejing, respectively. They don’t describe the practice of Daoism in China at all, to speak of.
>>I assume too that by “physical practice” you mean things like Taijiquan, Qigong and Gongfu (martial arts), though I think
>>many physical exercises (e.g., butchering oxen, carving bell-stands, or perhaps hand-gliding and surfing) might be just as good.
Yes to both. Kirkland, Komjathy, Saso, Kohn etc. seem to favor the former, favoring practice in China but also discussing it in the U.S. Komjathy and Saso are initiates into Quanzhen and Zhongyi Daoism respectively. My personal bias is that any activity done right can lead you there, with surfing being an obvious example. My article “Comedians as Daoist Missionaries” was a perhaps clumsy attempt at a case study.
One principle I see in Daoism is to stay close to one’s reality (ch. 47, DDJ) and not mediate experience. Thus it seems ironic that these Culturalist scholars decry Western appropriation of Chinese culture, then go from the US to China, jump into a Chinese traditional group and write books in English about it. Not only does that seem less likely to be effective, like reading a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy, but it seems more rather than less Orientalist, or at least, exoticizing.
It seems to me there are at least four ways of approaching the text with some claim to authority:
1. Historical. What did it mean to the people who wrote it?
2. Religious studies. How has this affected the development of various sects over time?
3. Religious experience. What do I need to do to incorporate this into my practices as a follower of a certain religious tradition?
4. Philosophical. Nevermind what it meant to people in the past, what bits of truth can we dredge out this thing today?
The philosophical approach can be further divided into 4a. the theological approach in which we assume the text is true and 4b. the skeptical approach in which we assume that the text is only as true as the arguments it successfully defends.
Again, it seems to me that this is our problem, not the text’s and we can’t really ask the text to solve it for us without begging the question.
Excellent framework, thank you. Perhaps #1 and #2 could be combined; the development of various sects seems like a subset of history, assuming one looks at this all dispassionately.
A paradox of this controversy that fascinates me is the relation of knowledge to belief. Kirkland, Komjathy, Saso et. al. champion the surviving Quanzhen and Zhongyi sects, and the “downstream” developments in their doctrine (such as inner alchemy and the divination of Laozi) even as their scholarship, for example, denies that Laozi ever actually existed. Yet Komjathy and Saso (and perhaps Livia Kohn) have actually been initiated into these sects. Komjathy describes himself as “participant/observer.”
I can certainly understand accepting whatever is currently practiced as Daoism in China as valid by definition, from a religious studies (not to mention a compassionate human) perspective, but I can’t see being initiated into a sect without “believing” it to be true. It seems cynical and redolent of the Orientalism and appropriation these scholars are so quick to see in popular writers — or perhaps a cynical tool for claiming exclusive authority to speak on behalf of Daoism.
A little late to the party here but thought I’d chime in.
“To attempt to understand religion in China as several systems of doctrine is to read Western experience into a quite different set of circumstances.” (Thompson, Chinese Religion: An Introduction)
You can be initiated because you want to discover what happens when you are initiated. And without knowing that, you can’t understand certain things. That isn’t “cynical”, and although things are never as simple as a purist would have you believe, Komjathy’s ten volumes of handbooks for actual practice are nothing if not sincere IMO.
Must a scholar practice Daoism, or join a lineage tradition, to truly understand it?
Analogies: look at what Peter Kingsley is doing to the Presocratics. They aren’t philosophers any more, they are iatromantes (a category quite resonant with the Taoist shengren), healer-prophets, and you can’t ignore and be embarrassed by the myths in Plato, the OBEs in Plutarch, or the late Platonists any more because it was never philosophy in the modern sense. I think he’s right. I think that when Empedocles talks about becoming an immortal he means it, like Ge Hong.
People used to say that the late Platonists were “superstitious fallings off” from philosophical Platonism, the way shangqing Taoism looked like a “superstitious falling off” from Laozi. No way.
I think you need to be initiated in something at least, to grasp the actual status of what’s being discussed. You cannot understand Patanjali if you’ve never even meditated. Mircea Eliade wrote a great book on Kundalini and Yoga that holds up because he went and practiced for six months. Jung’s take on the psychology of Kundalini yoga is probably good analytic psychology — but it’s nothing to do with Kundalini yoga.
The purism is being overdone as it often is, and so is the anger, and so too is the Catholic thing (the Catholic mysticism of something like Poulain’s Graces of Interior Prayer certainly isn’t a million miles from nei dan, and the BVM and Lady Wei can play similar roles). But “philosophical Taoism”, like Schopenhauer’s upanishads, is Western philosophy inspired by exotic texts.
(Oh, and Neiye isn’t “ur-text”, and Roth wouldn’t say it is — I love his book! — just that it’s the oldest text. There can’t be an ur-text because Taoist texts are the results of Taoist practices, not the source of them.)
Is it me, or am I always dead last to these forums?
Mark, I’m currently in Taipei and working toward the Chinese language proficiency that will qualify me to enter into Chinese philosophy graduate programs here. I get a lot of support online here, and the real, paycheck-earning pros have been very gracious in enduring my non-expertise in this area. Steve Angle even let me tag along and participate in their moral luck conference at Soochow University (東吳大學) some months ago.
I fit Carl’s 4b-type reading methodology, so I think my answers will reflect that approach.
1. 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?
My experience in Taipei has told me that native speakers of Chinese don’t have tremendous insight into the arguments or viewpoints of Confucianism, Daoism, etc. unless they have deliberately supplemented their lack of knowledge with relevant reading and reflection. Most don’t even know what makes Mozi so different from Mengzi, for instance. They have one added benefit that we Westerners do not get, which is that they are given many more resources to gain an understanding of the fundamentals, starting from children’s comic books (e.g. you can get the Lunyu, Zhuangzi, and Sunzibingfa in glossly animated prints) and reaching to full 白話 (ancient-to-modern Chinese translations) and phrase-by-phrase text analyses.
Specifically, many Taiwanese women are receptive to criticisms of major areas of Chinese thought as I describe them, as they believe such (mostly Confucian or Buddhist) views are impractical or oppressive.
Your second sub-question is tricky. If you add the divination and quests for immortality into Daoism, then it’s a religion. However, if you believe that certain Daoist texts are posing reasoned defenses and counters to certain views, then it’s philosophy. Philosophy is just argument. Philosophers themselves are archivists of arguments and arguers on the arguments that they have acquired. Literally anything that argues on a topic, but does not aim to prepare and perform an empirical test to confirm or falsify a claim, is philosophy. Certainly many passages in ancient Chinese texts qualify.
Chad Hansen makes good work of undoing the claim that the ancient Chinese scholars were not philosophizing. He says something to the effect: “There’s nothing in Laozi which says, ‘Don’t really take me seriously. I’m just trying to be poetic.'”
2. 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?
I think that the lesson in Daoism is similar to the lesson of the map-territory distinction. Abstracting and theorizing in written prose on Dao is fine, so long as one does not confuse that abstraction with actual experience or understanding of the thing itself. Language is an effort to communicate such things to other people, and it does not substitute for the lived experience.
3. 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?
From either direction, It sounds like ad hominem, circumstantial to me. Is Francisco Ayala wrong about his discoveries in evolutionary biology because he was a priest? Should he stop practicing Catholicism to remain scholarly?
4. Are Westerners who “practice” various traditions based on or related to Daoism (Qi Gong, traditional Chinese medicine, etc.) more authentic, more Orientalist, or both?
I was a massage therapist following my high school graduation and through my early college years. Knowledge of ancient folk-medicinal practices doesn’t sophisticate practitioners’ philosophical knowledge or rigorous reasoning on philosophical topics. I still remember massive chunks of neigong, but it really doesn’t help me to understand much more about Liezi, for instance.
6. 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?
Institutional, professional degrees are relevant to institutions (universities, businesses, etc.), and intelligence and wisdom are not institutional. I know high school dropouts whose philosophical opinions I value over some lionized philosophers. I think “The Tao of Steve” makes a more interesting case against Laozi (that we can’t take the “go-with-the-flow,” “people-as-straw-dogs” attitude and expect to feel the warmth and happiness of intimate companionship) than any scholarship that I’ve read does. In “墨攻” (“A Battle of Wits”) Yiyue makes a significant attack on Mohist doctrine: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EwPSG4OBOc4&t=5m20s . The sources of the arguments aren’t so important, so long as they’re fair.
Conversely, I worry very much about gleaning arguments from fiction, since many fiction authors, screenplay writers, et al. write their beliefs into their characters, and then they vindicate their mouthpieces’ views by plopping them into self-fulfilling scenarios in which their views are only challenged by straw-man opponents. I have similar reservations about historical arguments.
Joshua — Thanks for a lot of interesting ideas, and no worries on timing. I could dance all night…
Lots of interesting points here. For now, I’ll focus on your #3. I certainly don’t intend an ad hominem attack, and (other than Saso) I have no idea whether any of the Culturalists profess any Christian faith(s). Saso, Komjathy and Livia Kohn all clearly tout their personal Daoist practice as a credential though, which is certainly consistent with Daoist thought as I read it, but seems to challenge the central academic premise that all work should be publishable and reproducible.
The analogy to Catholicism vs. Protestant religion is a common, if not obsessive, theme in these scholars’ work. I’m struck by published comments like these:
“such a conception of the spiritual life does not actually reflect the ideals of any form of “Taoism.” Rather, it reflects the Protestant Christian ideals of Martin Luther, sanitized, of course, of all the hateful dross of Christianity. ” – Kirkland
“Here [Julian] Pas makes the (historically inaccurate and philosophically unconvincing) argument that Daoism is best understood in terms of a “Daoist philosophy” (“philosophical Daoism”; read “Protestant Daoism”) and “Daoist religion” (“religious Daoism”; read “Catholic Daoism”) dichotomy.” — Komjathy
“Lao-Chuang soteriology is generalized, cosmicized, and internalized. To moderns, such a soteriology is highly attractive, in part, at least, because it mirrors so much of the modern sentiment, particularly in religious terms: the Taoist mystic is alone with the Tao — quite divorced from the “external” realities of his family and community — just as the Protestant Christian is alone with God, in no need of priest or liturgy. Moderns — Chinese and Westerners alike — generally exult in the self-esteem generated by the romantic conceit that the individual is free from all external constraints, and can achieve for her- or himself whatever he or she chooses.
In other words, I suggest that mystical Taoism has achieved the respect and affection of Westerners because it seems delightfully Protestant, whereas liturgical Taoism has frequently been dismissed and disparaged because, unconsciously, it has often seemed painfully reminiscent of Catholicism.” — Russell Kirkland
“The “Taoism” of such writers as Huff and Le Guin constitutes precisely such a fantasy. And not only does such a fantasy have nothing to do with the actual facts of Taoism, but it would never have existed had it not been for the Protestant revolt against church authority in matters of truth…” — Russell Kirkland
Bold statements demand bold arguments. Your quoted material, by itself, doesn’t really satisfy that latter condition (or if they are supposed to be arguments, they are quite flimsy), and in my estimation, isn’t really philosophy.
Argument by analogy is a fishy method because it involves deliberately searching for common features, which has a tendency to lead people to find commonalities even when they’re absent. The claim that two distinct claims are analogous really demands argument for that analogy.
Also, analogies are often taken too far. It may be convenient to relate the Confucian-Daoist discord with the Catholic-Protestant discord, but those common traits only provide a gloss and introduction to the topic, and they further presuppose familiarity with both areas. Philosophers and readers alike often overgeneralize on analogy and begin to treat their analogies like proofs of equivalence, which corrupts at least one belief system as they try to cram the claims of one system into a bijection with the beliefs of another system. I could attempt the same with Molière’s plays and Shakespeare’s plays, but that wouldn’t make them identical.
Now, again, I reflect a 4b approach. If I discover that two thinkers said identical things, then I don’t really care to investigate the matter further if one or the other is absurd, because philosophers are in the business of investigating and probing arguments, not the people who make them. To that effect, I’m only interested in analogies as long as one eventually gets to the point of outlining a difference between thinkers’ claims. If one is really going at lengths to prove that two people said entirely identical things (e.g. Barcan-Marcus vs. Saul Kripke), then it would face a much harder burden than I know any individual brain to successfully manage; and worse, it wouldn’t be particularly significant to establishing the soundness of the shared claim unless someone had already demonstrated the soundness or unsoundess of the claim earlier. That is, if P has a truth-value, and if P is equivalent to Q, then Q has the truth-value of P. As a 4b guy, my sole want for an analogy is the establishment of (a) what P they’re discussing, and (b) whether that P is identical to some Q.
One final aside: Hoyt Tillman (who works Zhuxi, Wang Yangming, and TCM) introduced me to Livia Kohn a couple of years ago, as I had read “The Taoist Experience” years before. In my recollection of our encounter, she wasn’t eager to flaunt credentials, but Tillman also introduced her through her qualifications, so she didn’t have to do so.
Of the scholars I’m looking at, Kohn seems to be the most established, eminent and reasonable (though I haven’t read any of James Miller.) I hope to get a chance to meet or correspond wih her. I’m not entirely sure it’s fair to group her together with the others.
In many ways, Kirkland and Komjathy seem more interested in the history of Daoist studies than Daoism itself. WIth Kirkland especially, I get the sense that his goal is an ideological shift in the field, and that learning about Daoism is mostly a tool to that end. Perhaps this is unfair but I read a palpable anger into his words, the references to Protestant thought especially.
Many of the Western Sinologists of the 19th century were indeed Protestants, if not missionaries. But leaping from there to imply that a focus on foundational texts of a religion or philosophy is invalid and based on personal religioius beliefs, seems like a wild haymaker of a punch. For one thing, in my experience on the West Coast of the U.S., the Catholics I know assign less authority to their clergy and liturgy than my Protestant friends.
As one scholar said in a private email, a lot of this just seems like the perspective of different scholarly disciplines. It’s natural that a religious studies professor would be concerned with the evolution of sects and practice while a scholar of philosophy might be more interested in foundational texts, with a skeptical eye toward later accretions. I don’t see any need for a Protestant conspiracy to explain that.
I still remember massive chunks of neigong, but it really doesn’t help me to understand much more about Liezi, for instance.
Part of Kirkland’s project is to elevate the Neiyeh to parity with the Daodejing and Zhuangzi as a foundational Daoist text; if not the original Daoist source:
“written in rhymed prose, a form close to that of the Daode jing. …
The Neiye had extremely profound effects on Taoism and Chinese culture. It seems to have
influenced (1) the form, and certain contents, of the Daode jing; (2) the self-cultivation beliefs
and practices of many later Taoists (from the Huainanzi and Taiping jing to the 20th-century);
and (3) certain fundamental concepts of traditional Chinese medicine.”
Though he eventually concedes that It sometimes echoes that text (DDJ) and the Zhuangzi, but it lacks many of the
concerns found in those works.”
I know what you mean about the anger in Kirkland’s work. It’s a shame. As I wrote back on my blog, although he’s a smart fellow, with lots of interesting information to share, I found his book a tiring tirade. One can find “twentieth-century misconceptions” repeated ad nauseam throughout his book. For him, classical/philosophical Daoism never existed and the Neiye is the most “Daoist” of classical-era texts (where “Daoist” refers to the religion). I don’t know if we can really say the Neiye had “profound effects on Daoism.” For all we know the practices we find vaguely described in it were just one expression, and later “Daoists” were exposed to these practices through other means/texts.
A more measured advocate for the Neiyeh as foundational document is Harold Roth at Princeton. For example, in “Evidence for Stages of Meditation in Early Taoism” (Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies,v60, n2 (1997), pp. 295-314 — jstor 620386 — he identifies 3 stages of early Daoism, The first is the Individualist phase, represented by the Neiyeh and Inner Chapters of Zhuangzi; the second (Primitivist) is the DDJ and ch. 8-11 and 16 of ZZ; and the third (Syncretist) is Huainanzi and others.
The language here too seems designed to press the point; the term “primitivist” is clearly dismissive, and a bit odd for a second phase. Similarly, James Miller of Queen’s college calls the DDJ, ZZ and Neiyeh “proto-Daoism” and refers to early Tianshi, Shangqing, Lingbao, and Tang Daoism as “Classical Daoism.”
This seems to be almost an attempt at sleight of hand, simply making Philosophical Daoism disappear through the clever use of definitions. If you define Daoism as a religion involving organized sects, liturgy and clergy, then its easy to argue there is no such thing as Philosophical Daoism. But I don’t think you’ve proved anything factual, and it feels to me like some clever high school debate trick more than an academic advance.
It seems clearly absurd to say that Daoism didn’t begin until its foundational texts were several hundred years old. Now the argument seems to be shifting toward “There were secret, undocumented religious groups all that time, and the Lao-Zhuang texts were distorted snapshots of them that somehow got preserved.” I know less about this stuff than any of you, but it sure seems like reaching for a foregone conclusion.
I should add that Roth’s book “Original Tao” — which I haven’t read — appears to be an explicit argument for the primacy of the Neiyeh as the ur-text of Daoism. I’m curious how, given the differences between it and the two other key texts, he rules out the alternative possibility that it is a related but somewhat tangential work rather than the primary text, like a tributary or fork of a river, rather than its main channel.
There is a very interesting interview with Roth at holosforum.org, where he talks about the traditional reluctance to include first person exploration of religious technique such as meditation. He takes the view that religious studies scholars should try religious techniques, without (necessarily) “believing”, as part of their investigation.
He returns to the anti-Protestant theme, too: the academic field of Religious Studies differentiated itself from Protestant theology relatively recently and with great difficulty. In fact, I would say that, in many ways, it has not extricated itself yet at all.
Is this a known and accepted fact, that Religious Studies was until recently under the thumb of Protestant theological bias? I have no idea, but it seems hard to believe.
re: I’m curious how, given the differences between it and the two other key texts, he rules out the alternative possibility that it is a related but somewhat tangential work rather than the primary text, like a tributary or fork of a river, rather than its main channel.
I can’t recall exactly, but I favour the alternative you describe.
I’ve read most of Roth’s work. It’s mostly pretty good stuff. Ted Slingerland has questioned Roth’s placement of the DDJ after the Neiye and “early” Zhuangzi chapters. For one thing, the DDJ does not use the terminology of those texts – a terminology which doesn’t seem to have existed at the time of the DDJ’s writing. The primitivist writer in the Zhuangzi did use the “newer” terminology/concepts. I don’t think the term “primitivist” is inherently dismissive but I think for some people is certainly is.
re: This seems to be almost an attempt at sleight of hand, simply making Philosophical Daoism disappear through the clever use of definitions. If you define Daoism as a religion involving organized sects, liturgy and clergy, then its easy to argue there is no such thing as Philosophical Daoism. But I don’t think you’ve proved anything factual, and it feels to me like some clever high school debate trick more than an academic advance. It seems clearly absurd to say that Daoism didn’t begin until its foundational texts were several hundred years old.
Yes and no. A definition of philosophical Daoism is more difficult than you might imagine.
Re: Primitivist. By itself, fine, but following “Individualist” is odd — group primitivism? — and as opposed to “Syncretist” and “Classical”, it seems like it’s a very pointed use of terminology to make an argument against the DDJ.
Re: Roth. Yes, I read your recent two part-er on Classical Daoism, which I really enjoyed, and saw Roth there, lst night after I had written my comment.
He has a 2008 article that I found very interesting: “Against Cognitive Imperialism: A Call for a Non-Ethnocentric Approach to Cognitive Science and Religious Studies” http://www.drbu.org/iwr/rew/2008/rew-article-1
While he uses some of the ideological language of these Culturalist scholars, and has elsewhere argued against the existence of Philosophical Daoism in China, it looks ironically as if he is calling for modern scholars to create a Philosophical Daoism (or a pan-Buddhist/Daoist/Zen Philosophical Contemplatism) in the West today.
He discusses the need to integrate subjective yet empirical research into Religious Studies, and explicitly makes the argument that one can (and perhaps should) learn contemplative techniques of Daoism, Buddhism, etc. without believing in the attached doctrine or theology. But isn’t that exactly the kind of cultural appropriation that Culturalist scholars have been criticizing in popular authors?
Hello, if anyone is still reading this thread, I’m back after taking some time to compete in (and win!) the first World Palindrome Championship. But that’s not why we’re here.
To my eye, the crux of the issue concerning “Philosophical Daoism” in China is this; we don’t seem to have any evidence of organized Daoist sects before the creation of the Celestial Masters in 142 CE. So there are at least 500 years unaccounted for after the Zhuangzi and Daodejing were committed to paper.
Is this analogous to a church of Existentialism emerging four hundred years from now? Russell Kirkland and others posit a secret sect or sects to fill the gap, but that seems wildly speculative and it still doesn’t disprove a secular or philosophical following. There may be secret groups of Existentialogists now too, after all.
Even later to the party…
I’m enjoying the discussion here, and thought I might comment briefly about the distinction that Miller makes, which I agree with wholeheartedly. The idea of ‘Proto-Daoism’ makes much more sense than ‘Philosophical Daoism’ because there is no evidence to indicate that the writers and readers of the Neiye, Laozi, and Zhuangzi ever considered themselves “Daoist” in any sense of the word.
To name the period as ‘proto’ indicates that we think that the texts have influenced later people, but that the writers of the texts did not do anything recognizably ‘Daoist.’
On the other hand, to name the period ‘philosophical Daoism’ indicates an assumption that the text writers and users were doing something recognizably philosophical and Daoist. There isn’t any evidence for this interpretation.
The self-appellation of “Daoist” did indeed emerge with the emergence of institutionalized, organized groups such as the Celestial Masters.
Han historians labelled groups of people concerned with learning about the Dao as ‘Dao studiers’ or ‘School of the Dao’, (Daoxue), but people before Tianshi Dao did not seem to self-identify as “Daoists” in the way that we typically use the term, nor is there evidence of organized ritual activity, serious/long-term/official/widespread/established group interaction, or anything else we would expect to find if there were significant groups of people organized around these texts or their ideas about the Dao.
I teach my students about “Proto-Daoism” because it is too easy to read history backwards (i.e., when we see more recent ideas, look backwards to see their so-called antecedents, and conclude that they must be related). Just because books talk about the Dao does not mean that there are any kind of organized groups calling themselves Daoist, doing philosophy related to this Dao, or anything else. The texts sound philosophical to certain people, but I’ve not seen any evidence that the ancient Chinese understood these texts this way. They also contain clear mention of many different kinds of physical exercises and meditation practices (such as Holding the One) if you know where to look, so the texts were not ever *just* philosophy as some people might like to think. (This is the line of argument in the Kohn & LaFargue volume on Laozi that discusses the ‘philosophical’ vs. ‘mystical’ Daoism label, neither of which seems to be particularly useful.)
The whole ‘philosophical Daoism’ issue emerged with the Westerners who first encountered the Laozi, as they read Wang Bi’s commentary to better understand it – and he was a Confucian scholar who interpreted the text in a particularly philosophical way. Clearly, other commentators read the text in other ways, but this was the only information that early Western readers had to rely on when trying to make sense of the text.
We know that people shared and read the Laozi etc in various versions, but we don’t have evidence of what else they may have done with it – especially no evidence of reading, exercise, meditation, philosophy groups associated with them (until we get to folks associated with Huang-Lao thinking in the early Han).
I think Daoism is a religion. Reading later texts, going to temples in China, etc provide plenty of evidence for religious ideas and activities. However, I don’t see any of the same kinds of evidence related to the Laozi, Zhuangzi, and Neiye prior to their interpretation and usage by the Celestial Masters (such as in the Xiang’Er Commentary – see Bokenkamp, Early Daoist Scriptures). This is the major reason why I see these texts as ‘proto’-Daoism.
If you were to review the Tao Te Ching in any of its (Chinese)textual form, what would be your impression of this ancient work in terms of its message? Is there any?
It’s poetry. The message of a poem is the poem itself.
Nice post Shawn. All of these issues I’ve dealt with or am dealing with in a series of essays I’ve been publishing on my blog. The first one is HERE, and I will be putting up a new one within the next week (on Mysticism, Self-Cultivation and Longevity). A few comments …
re: “there is no evidence to indicate that the writers and readers of the Neiye, Laozi, and Zhuangzi ever considered themselves “Daoist” in any sense of the word.”
— Any sense? It would seem that the writers of those texts certainly did not associate themselves with other groups (e.g. Confucians, Mohists) and at the same time did share a number of ideas and practices amongst themselves. This might mean something.
re: “To name the period as ‘proto’ indicates that we think that the texts have influenced later people, but that the writers of the texts did not do anything recognizably ‘Daoist.’”
— Well, if “Daoist” is understood as/defined as Daojiao, then you have a point. Although, as you acknowledge, those early texts do contain references to meditation (and a similar understanding of the Dao). What if we understand Daoism (Daojia) as what Sima Tan described?
You observe that the early texts “also contain clear mention of many different kinds of physical exercises and meditation practices (such as Holding the One) if you know where to look, so the texts were not ever *just* philosophy as some people might like to think.”
— I agree that labeling them “philosophical” is leaving out alot. Physical exercises are mentioned in a few places, but are usually criticized. I think considering “Holding to the One” as a definite meditation practice may be considered “reading history backwards.”
re: “The whole ‘philosophical Daoism’ issue emerged with the Westerners who first encountered the Laozi, as they read Wang Bi’s commentary to better understand it – and he was a Confucian scholar who interpreted the text in a particularly philosophical way. Clearly, other commentators read the text in other ways, but this was the only information that early Western readers had to rely on when trying to make sense of the text.”
— Well, I think early Western readers also had access to the Heshanggong commentary. But it would seem they preferred the Wangbi interpretation. It is ridiculous that there isn’t a few English translations of the Heshanggong commentary available, as there are for the Wang Bi one.
“I will be putting up a new one within the next week (on Mysticism, Self-Cultivation and Longevity)”
LOL. Oh well, better late than never. It is up now.