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Interview with Livia Kohn

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This is a two part interview with Livia Kohn.


One was focused more on her life vs her works.   I have moved around the discussion to be more linear as we did recorded calls and we tended to wander in discussion quite a bit despite my attempts to have an outline.  I take full responsibility if I have changed her meaning or words as I have shortened our very long talk into readable print.   I will apologize in advance if she or someone finds something I write is not correct.   I would encourage everyone to look at her publications on Daoism and realize she was a moving force the west needed to understand asian history.   I know there are a few others we could say that about, but for now, let's thank her for being open to discuss her life and works. 


She is the most fascinating person I have ever talked to and I could talk to her for years on end about such topics.    She is a maverick in Daoist studies and it was much greater than even I expected.  I hope you will see her profound influence on the scholarly Daoist community and more particularly to those who follow such things.   

Edited by dawei
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I will put my words in red to help distinguish our discussion



Part I:   Interview with Livia Kohn with questions on her early life


Professor, it is a great privilege to talk with you….  Thank you for sending me a 39 page resume.


The more I review for our talk, the more I want to talk about.  I’m at loosely four topic areas:

1. Early life and influences towards Asian culture

2. Post-Secondary Education to Retirement

3. Published Works

4. Mixed bag of thoughts



I’d like to first start with life before the resume years, is that ok ?





What is your earliest memory of affinity towards eastern ways?


I’m not sure I was thinking so much about eastern ways but had questions of origin and/or purposes of life.   At age 13, a close relative died, and I started reading books that asked questions on life and death.  My grandmother was a devout Christian but I was not. The book that really struck me was Eric Fromm’s You Should Be As Gods.   It is an interpretation of Genesis story whereby you should use the world to become more god-like.   It was a more metaphysical and spiritual interpretation that really stuck me as being a key question, and later on it became a question of what they heck is immortality… why are we on this planet and how can we use our lives to be more god-like.  So it was a religious question.


Livia Kohn Early Period:

- 1976: 2 years at Göttingen University (Germany)

- 2 years at Cal Berkeley

- 3 at Bonn University to complete your doctorate.



I grew up in Germany as you may know, where the high school is high level and an extra year so that at age 18 you go to graduate school, not a four year undergraduate where you might get some humanities base and pick and choose a major.  I was sixteen and the question came up, what should this child study [for graduate school].  My uncle who is a professor asked what I was interested in and I said languages; I had Latin and Russian and was good at it and interested in how language changes perception and how you look at the world differently.  I didn’t want to do European languages as I didn’t want to be a school teacher.  He asked about northern European or Asian, suggesting Chinese or Japanese, or Arabic.  This sounded interesting so I took a class in Chinese and read some Asian books and decided to specialize in Chinese for when I turned 18.   It took a few years to learn the Chinese culture, history and religion, then I went to California Berkeley in my 3rd year of the university.  I was there in 1976-1977 and Edward Schaffer was there as professor of Daoism and taught a year on Daoism his entire last year.  I took various classes including ancient Chinese with David Keightley, a really important sinologist.  Here my main questions of living a more god-like life and the Daoist concept of immortality coalesced.


Thanks for that overview and want to talk more about some of the education.   But First,  there are biographical stories about you, you started Taiji in the 70s, meditated for decades, have several certifications, a shoulder bursitis  issue lead you to yoga… was this a common path in the at the time, a westerner to pursue eastern things, were others supporting you or were you going it alone ?


For me, it was an intellectual decision because I liked languages, chinese was an interesting and weird language.   In Germany, there is some pressure to enter a job market you can truly earn a living in.   Not necessarily like the US where you might pick a job you are simply interested in.   But while at Berkeley, I found lots of literature and contacts on these practices.   I really wanted to learn about meditation but didn’t want to shave my head and be in a cult and wear funny clothes.   There was an introductory session T-M (transcendental meditation) but they wanted to charge for it, which I thought was not proper to do; such things should be free with a donation.  I didn’t get into meditation until after my PH.D in 1981.   But I could not of done all of this without my time and experience at Berkeley.


Your resume showed an interesting phase of work in Japan.  Can you talk about that ?


By the time I finished at Berkeley, I knew I wanted to pursue Daoist studies.   After I was done there, I went back to Germany but resources on China were scarce, religion was a dirty word.  The best two places to go to pursue this was Paris and Japan, and Japan it was.   Through some contacts, a professor in Japan agreed to sponsor me and I received a 2 year grant to go to Kyoto.


Cal Berkeley was clearly a pivotal point, how do you characterize the time in Japan?


My time in Japan was essential and spent six years there.  A time of great freedom; I had the grant money and the culture was phenomenal.  There is a lot of China there.  Here was a form of China I could relate to.  It felt like recovering parts of China long lost.  I translated a lot of stuff and a foundation for some publications.  At that time, Kyoto was place to be, or at least pass through at some point, for anyone in Chinese studies.  Many top-notch professors in the field of Daoism I meet in Kyoto.   [Several names were mentioned during the conversation].


By 1987, six years since your doctorate and already having an impressive, diverse set of international locations as a researcher, visiting and adjunct professor… by that time, did you have your sights or goal on a specific place to settle down to work?


I had planned to return to Germany and be a professor, like you would here [in the US].  I had an offer before I went to Japan but declined it as I wanted to study Daoism, then two years at Japan I had a letter offer from Germany but I said I’m not ready yet.  Also, in Germany the focus is less on religion but literature.   After Japan, I applied for a grant to Univ. of Michigan and was there two years.  There was a job posting at Boston University where I was interview and then hired.


In your special appointment section, there is an impressive and diverse set of international locations as a visiting and adjunct professor.   But one really caught my eye… Middelsex Community College in 2017.  How did that come about ?


I wanted to get back to Japan and hike, which I love to do, and in 2004 a friend was dean of international studies there and she wanted my Japanese tour, which I was running, to be a class, and she made it happen.  I’m doing it again this year.    I take students for two weeks and it is essentially a semeter’s worth of information including excursions.


After BU [2006], there is about, 12 years in ‘retirement’.  Looking at your resume, it is busier than the previous 30 years…. your energy seems boundless…  Was there unfinished business, areas to research, mountains to climb…


I started teaching in 1986, if we include Univ. of Michigan… I am very good at it but don’t necessarily enjoy it.  I prefer to teach in small groups to those who really want to hear what I have to say and have some background, like a dialogue, like this interview.  This is enriching.   Hugh rooms of students checking on their cell phones, and explaining why they got a ‘B’, year after year (20 years), I got one tired of teaching. I’m more a research or seminar person or traveling together.   I went freelance, and had Three Pines Press.  I had a british graduate student who approached me, who was very internet and computer savvy, I took the liberty to reserve a domain name,,  as I think we need a place that puts Daoist Studies on the map.   That is still active.    He suggested we needed something to draw Daoist Scholars together and suggested a journal but I didn’t want to get involved in something like that…. That’s too much trouble, etc.  Although I ended up doing the journal later…  Then he said, why don’t we put together an publication series on daoism, and I agreed and said I’d start something on the history of Daoism (she continued to talk about some others who could contribute).


If you were to write an autobiography, what would  you title it? 


I don’t know… life in Dao… Guidance by Dao… Dao is like something ready to be downloaded, I just have to get my head around whatever I’m working on or doing.  I have an interesting story, you remember the book, The Sourcebook in Chinese Longevity that came out in 2012… I had studied yoga and asked, ‘where the heck is yoga in china’… so I studied that in china.  My Daoyin book [Chinese Healing Exercises] came out in 2008 but there is only so much you can put in and I had lots of material left.   So I decided to do the Source Book and it would be thematic,  exercises, breathing, meditation, etc.  I had an outline created but it was like a gate falling, a draw bridge going down… I couldn’t do it.  That was about 2006 or 2007.  But years later in 2011 I’m on an airplane with nothing to do and a thought comes to me:  you’ve got the Source Book wrong, it can’t be thematic it has to be chronological.      It was like the Dao was talking to me, and I had it done in three months.


As you may of noticed, I’ve not even asked you to define Dao… there has been so much ink spilled on it and I tend to check ‘all of the above’ for any reason(s) given. 


Right, right… it is the universal… it speaks… it is the combination of all the energies around us… you’re kind of connecting to the super-conscious energy… like you’re guided by something higher than yourself.


How did you get the nickname, “Professor Dao” ?


[laughs very hard]… I never heard that…


For the record… here is a source for the idea:

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Part II:   Interview with Livia Kohn with questions on her works



You have written on a wide variety of topics on Daoism:  Meditation, Longevity, Immortality, health, ancient times, monasticism…


Due to the number of books on mysticism and meditation, including the titled phrased, sitting in Oblivion,  it appears you may connection more with Zhaungzi than Laozi.


In the first 10 years of post-doctorate, 1981-1991, you published three interesting texts:


Chen Tuan: Self-Cultivation.  900, Song Dynasty,   Dissertation


I was interested in the idea of immortality.  Something in their life, activity that makes them deemed immortal.

How are they described in literature, etc.  Spiritual, highly evolved meditation practices, fortune teller; called to the court to tell fortunes.


Taoist Mystical Philosophy: The Scripture of Western Ascension. The Scripture of Western Ascension is a central text of medieval Taoist mysticism, you date as late 5th century.




Seven Steps to the Tao.  Sima Chengzhen: 700, Tang Dynasty, ShangQing period of Daoism.


Regarding your 1987 book, Seven Steps to Tao, it seems                to be a unique interpretation and application of the Discourse on Sitting in Oblivion.     One reviewer noted that there were certain lapses, or having gone too far in translation, or mis-translation of words or phrases…  he finishes it with saying he hoped future translations had corrections.


I’m not sure if you read that review before, but you published (30 years later) in 2017, Sitting in Oblivion and noted there were many years of additional research and this version contains minor changes, and additional material.


In Germany, there is a second level thesis after PH.D, so this was a more technical work.   Text with lot of research and annotations.  



Early Chinese Mysticism 1991:   a survey from the Laozi to the Tang period.


When doing the book on Chen Tuan, he came across to me as a mystic but that word was not applied in such a way at that time of my writing.   Mysticism was considered in the west as arising with Christianity and a transcendent God; In East, Dao was immanent.   So there was a lot of conflict in my usage of mysticism.  IN the end, I had re-defined A new definition of mysticism for religious studies community.  So it was very controversial when the book released but it brought people forward to start discussions on mysticism.    Opened up other books and religious studies on Asian. 


Do you see LZ more as a philosopher and ZZ as a mystic?


I don’t see the difference.  They are both thinkers and think on spirituality; they are both mystical types.   In ancient china, there were really no pure philosophers they all wanted social reform and had spiritual practices too.   In modern times they might look like a cult but they were all trying to give some expression to their particular way they think society should work.  Like nobody would call Buddha a philosopher ?  


None were strictly philosophers. All had practices.  Philosophy doesn’t apply.




In your 1992 book, Early Chinese Mysticism, which was published before the Guodian bamboo version of the Laozi (discovered in 1993), says that the Laozi was compiled around 250 BC.   Your 1993 book, The Taoist Experience also states the same.

In 2001, Daoism and Chinese Culture you said the person (Laozi) and text arose around 500 BC. 

In your 2009 book, Introducing Daoism, you cite A.C. Graham as mentioning a coherent text arising around 250 BC. 

Can you clarify these dates?


Rhythm schemes suggest the first transmissions may date to 500 BC.  Its rhythm scheme is similar to the Shi Jing (Book of Poetry) which dates back to 800 BC.   It is definitely a southern style (ie: Chu) as all evidence points there, but not necessarily more similar to another well know Chu writing, Songs of Chu, than say the Book of Poetry.    I don’t know enough about that to give any more detailed comparison to being a southern style.    There was of course Shamanism with spiritual connections to nature where it is not as cold in the south that influenced the political thinking



Guodian version likely 320 BC


The writing style of the finished version suggests around 250 BC


I won’t be surprised if something turns up later that changes some of this. 





God of the Dao: Lord Lao in History and Myth.  1998.   


was he a real person ?   Did he elevate to a deity in reality?    Do you regard Laozi as having become a deity?


Whether he was real or not doesn’t matter to me, I’m neutral on that.  Chinese are generally invested in him being real.   The point is, by the time of the unification in 221 BC under Qin, these factions were organizing under a brutal central government.  TO survive you either get out and hide in the mountains or have some form of official recognition, so Laozi emerges as an interesting figure with stories to be put at the head of movement (ie: Daoism).   There was a Li family who wanted to ingratiate themselves to the Huang ruler and they are in proximity to the ruler’s birthplace.     There may have been a wise person in the Zhou court whom others referred to as ‘old guy’  (ie: Lao Zi).   But it seems he is not in any serious standing until the political climate required it.


You must be tracing his elevation to a deity in this book?


Yes, like Confucius is the patron saint of Education but you need some level of divination along with it, so in that same way, Laozi becomes a cosmic deity.


I noticed that between 2008-2010 you published 7 books, why was this so busy?


Often it has to do with a publisher’s speed, some books were written years before.  If I publish it through my company I can get them out much faster.


Books through 2008 include monastic life, meditation, Health and exercise.   What was the draw back to these topics, was it new material and insights or your interest?


Meditation Works, 2008


This book looks at Hindu, Buddhist and Taoist traditions.  You spent years also practicing meditation but did anything completely new come to you doing this book?


I was thinking again, what is meditation; what does it do and how does it work.  I had read a lot in the 1980s already, but things were coming together in new ways.    This book came out of a class I taught, and it covers various meditation modalities.   Years before, the scholarly community was trying to define meditation, like turn your focus inward to the subconscious.  two basic forms come out of the Buddhist tradition are Concentration or Inside.   But some practices don’t fit that… like some Yoga practices, you’re not closing your eyes but moving your body… or Channeling (ie: Reiki) or visualizing or Chinese stuff like Taiji.  So I said [to myself], I had to create a new theoretical framework of what meditation is and how it works.   The book describes these modalities but also kind of re-defines what is inside meditation.




Readings in Chinese Mysticism 2009


You often get approached for something, so someone at a university wanted a course for comparative mysticism.   Over the years, you end up with lots of materials that are unpublished.  So I pulled together articles and unpublished stuff to create this book.



Sitting in Oblivion 2010   The Heart of Daoist Meditation

The original expression comes from Zhuangzi.  The book in two parts as a discussion and translation of 8 writings.   The Titled work along with seven others, some that have never been translated before.    These meditation methods may of not been in the direction that Zhuangzi intended though as these works have buddhist influences.


I see you wrote two books using a similar title on Zhuangzi.   Chaung Tzu in 2011 and Zhuangzi in 2014.   For those who like reading about Zhuangzi, how would you describe each book ?


They are completely different but the first one is a fun book to produce with a fixed template and layout.  I use the inner chapters but I started with chapter 18 and what is happiness.  Then systematically look at what that is like in real life.    


Chuang Tzu 2011  - The Tao of Perfect Happiness

 This was a very different approach than anyone has done with ZZ.   My translation is more modernized than literal.  Very happy with this.  I taught this as a class in Singapore.   Then I was asked to come back to teach more on Zhuangzi.


Zhuangzi 2014 – Text and Context

I had studied him in the 1980s and did the Oblivion book and articles but realized I really never came totally to grips with ZZ.   I took two trajectories:  Text and commentaries/translations vs Topics.   There are 24 short chapters that skip back and forth across the two paths.



After you retired, you seemed to first return to favorite topics of meditation, Daoism, mysticism… but then in 2016-2017: Science and the Dao, From the Big Bang to Lived Perfection and Pristine Affluence, Daoist Roots In the Stone Age.  What can you share about how these books come to be published?



Science and the Dao.   2016


I was asking myself questions on Sitting in Oblivion / meditation and got into a science mode of explanation like astrophysics, cell biology, physical growth, psychology, etc.    Once you open yourself to all of this, topics present itself.



Pristine Affluence: Daoist Roots in the Stone Age.    2017


This came out of the Science book, there was chapter and passage where I talk about the evolution of human consciousness.   In ZZ he talks of four stages of consciousness that is a very similar pattern as described by psychologists.    I looked at the science behind them:


Know as nothing

Know as knowing or as perceiving

Know as boundaries/divisions/distinctions

Know right vs wrong  (ZZ found deplorable because you evaluate or judge)


So one needs to go back to the Neolithic times when community and sharing start.   For the Daoist community it was all about sharing.   But you can see science has done this, to go back and show this in ancient times where there is a basic, instinctual stage then to gestures to communicate then to oral to discrimination consciousness.    Daoism has some affinity to returning to this simple life.    Look at how they treat the idea of food and a sharing community.   Look at how women are treated in that time vs how Daoism views gender issues.  Leadership is another topic of comparison.   Even look at American Indian’s elder council and the role of the Chief who does not have absolute power but is bound by the structure.    Daoist structures are somewhat similar.



You wrote two books calling out Daoism in China, what did you want to say?


Daoism in Chinese Culture 2001



Daoist China 2018

It has become very commercialize in modern times and what are they really contributing or are they more like ponzi schemes… so it is very critical of the current state of Daoism.



Are you interested the Cosmology side of ancient works like Tai Yi Sheng Shui and Heng Xian?


Yes but have a look at Daoism Excavated.  The author is a Peking University scholar who studied these texts and I published it with a translation.   He looks at how it works and the terminology and is a bit technical but looks at social issues and questions. It’s a very good book.   Its fascinating stuff.


Is there any Daoist text that sits closest to you ?


Sitting in Oblivion is a beautiful text and I really like ZZ.



How about the future, new books or unpublished stuff you are thinking about ?


I will get next to a work called Daoism: A Contemporary Philosophical Investigation.  And there is the Conference in Los Angeles next year.  


Is it ok for me to publish these notices on our website?


Yes, please give the links and what info you can.    I plan to do more tours to Japan.




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