Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Missouri, Not China

Trey Smith

I was born in Missouri. I have lived my entire life within the bounds of the continental United States. With one 2 or 3 hour exception, I have not set foot outside of our national borders.

I mention these facts because of an ongoing discussion that the Baroness and I have been having in this space. It is her perspective that a person should (must?) have a clear understanding of the Chinese worldview in order really to "get" Taoism. I have granted that she makes an excellent point -- and I sincerely thank her for pushing me to expand my horizons -- but, where I quibble a tad is that I think the position she has staked out is too extreme.

This is not to say that I disagree with her central premise. Without possessing a better understanding of Chinese history and culture, one could easily misunderstand much of the Taoist philosophy. Consequently, I have taken up her respectful challenge to better educate myself in this regard.

And yet, no matter how much I study, I will not become Chinese! I think the chances are about nil that I will ever see life completely through Chinese eyes. I think the reason is patently obvious. I am an American and my life experiences are tied to where I live.

So, does this mean that my embracing of the Taoist philosophy is less authentic?

Sometimes -- and I know she will correct me if I'm incorrect -- it seems as if the Baroness might suggest just that. She has stated on record here that she finds "no serious worth in popular western Daoism." It would seem that we western Taoists are being penalized for not being Chinese!

If we look at almost every religious or philosophic belief system, they tend to change somewhat as they cross borders. Buddhism, for example, originated in India and it took a while before it migrated to China, Japan and beyond. When the Indian version took hold in China, it changed because the Chinese people had somewhat different life experiences and culture than their Indian counterparts. When it moved to Japan, it again changed a bit for the very same reasons.

Look at Christianity. It takes on a multitude of forms and some of the differences are based upon geography and culture.

My point here is that, while I agree with the Baroness that a better understanding of the Chinese worldview is of importance really to grasp the central concepts of Taoist thought, a westernized version of Taoism shouldn't be construed as any less authentic.

Will it be the same as Chinese Taoism? No, it won't. But no one would expect it to be exactly the same anyway.


  1. I didn't think there was a "Western" version of Taoism. Taoists (even just the "philosophical" ones), are few in number outside of China, and most those outsiders are probably ethnic Chinese. The fact is Taoism is an inescapable part of Chinese culture. Many Chinese cultural practices incorporate Taoist beliefs, even among Chinese who don't explicitly identify themselves as Taoist

  2. I'm Scotch-Irish and a philosophical Taoist. Though not large in number, there are several westerners who have embraced the overall philosophy. If Buddhism can originate in India and flourish in Japan, why can't Taoism originate in China and be embrace by those in the West?

  3. it can, it's just Baroness' ego getting in the way. the central premise of daoism is not ethnically based. and why would it be? it's available to everyone because it's impartial. i'm sure there are many people who walk the path of the dao, who know nothing of daoism, or chinese culture and/or history.

  4. Missouri...the "Show Me" state.

    There are scholars and practitioners, with whom I have come to agree to various degrees, who maintain there is what is called by one, "Popular Western Taoism," interpretations and readings of the Tao Te Ching and other texts, that miss the point, ignore the key concepts, and disregard the heritage and history, water down and shape the ideas into a warm and fuzzy self-help doctrine that would embarrass any serious practitioner. I recently heard a little presentation on "Taoism" that never mentioned yin and yang; jing, qi and shen; ziran or wu wei. Meditation? Energy practices? Nope. Without grasping these concepts and, I believe, having some sort of practice beyond the intellectual (indeed without the intellectualizing) one has not fully embraced the philosophy. "Philosophical Taoism" is an incomplete embrace. Not inauthentic, exactly, just incomplete.

    I am not penalizing anyone for not being Chinese (the Chinese will do that for us in time, I'm sure)...I am saying that to play traditional Chinese music, you might want a guqin, not a banjo. You can't do Chinese painting with western brushes. Chop suey is not really Chinese food. If you do these things, you might think it's authentic, it may even be interesting, (General Tso's chicken is tasty, but it didn't originate in China), but it will only ever be an approximation of the real thing. By the same token, just because you have a guqin, a nice wolf brush and a well-seasoned wok, you may also fail miserably. And just because you know some tai chi moves and a breathing technique, cast a hexagram now and then, or consult a feng shui calendar doesn't make you a Taoist either.

    1. you're using western subjectivity to criticise western subjectivity. oh the irony

    2. This is why, while I have an interest in Taoism and strive to expand my understanding of it, I don't call myself a Taoist.

  5. No 1thing/part can be balanced by itself. It is always balanced/grounded/rooted by/in "an-other" eg similar, only different to you flying a kite.

    The polarity gives purpose; "free & unfettered wandering" (? philosophizing) without balance/grounding/rooting is akin to purposelessness. Cultivation of Philosophy without Nutrition (Mind without Body) is Lifeless.

    "embrace" as an English language word means hold closely, include/contain, accept/support. Taoism embraces the whole - it respects the "dot" in the half & the Cycle of Balance.


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