One Heretic Taoist’s reflection on Taoism in the West: Or, I know what you did last summer.

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This is a pieace I wrote awhile ago that I thought you worthy Bums might enjoy....


In the course of its long history, Daoism has been transmitted and adapted variously beyond China. Deeply embedded in Chinese language and culture, its ritual and communal practices have generally been less adaptable, but Daode jing thought, tales of immortals, and the various longevity and meditation techniques have found eager audiences. Especially Daoist thought and long life practices have spread in several East Asian countries, notably Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.
In the West, too, the best known and most widespread aspect is Daoist thought; many concepts and maxims of the Daode jing have made their way into American and European culture. Much less well known and embedded in a different social milieu is the transmission of Daoist temples and ritual structures. Many remain within the framework of Chinese immigrants, but some organizations also attract Western devotees.
Most recent is the Western adaptation of Daoist-inspired health practices and meditations. Following in the wake of increased health awareness and the popularity of yoga and Buddhist meditation, Daoist associations, centers, and masters are becoming popular. However, not all of them are properly speaking Daoist; rather, they often focus on qigong and taijiquan in exclusion of Mystical and Magical Practices.

Just as different aspects of Daoism have attracted different audiences in East Asia over the
millennia, so the modern transmission of the religion to the West matches a variety of interests and works in multiple social contexts. Most generally one can say that philosophical or literati Daoism was attractive first of all to missionaries and later to the intellectual elite. It offered a different way of looking at the world, proposed new principles of life, and encouraged a change of attitude toward the world. Today it is seen as opening a balance to the American (and Western) tendencies toward uncontrolled growth, environmental exploitation, corporate greed, and political corruption. Small is beautiful, and most happiness can be found in a simple life.
Organized Daoism with its priestly hierarchy, religious scriptures, and devotional practices, on the other hand, fosters a sense of connection to the gods, community integration, as well as ritual services of protection, purification, blessings, and exorcism. It came to the West with Chinese immigrants and in close connection with Chinese popular religion and has remained for the most part an ethnically based organization, housed in inner-city temples and supported by local residents.

Longevity Daoism, with its exercises, meditations, diets, and fengshui, has only been available in the West for a few decades. It appeals to well-situated, health-conscious people who are concerned with personal well-being, business success, and environmental protection( you know, Those People 😉 ). They often come to the practices for health reasons—be it recovery after an accident, weakness due to chronic disease, increased signs of aging, or the wish to reduce body stress exerted by contact sports, hard martial arts, or power yoga. Typically practitioners begin by looking for merely physical benefits, but then develop a sense of qi flowing in the body and gain an empowerment of a completely different sort. While many stop there, some move on to inquire more deeply into the conceptual and historical background of the practices and thus encounter Daoism.
From there, some go on to advanced training in internal alchemy and more spiritual techniques whose ultimate goal is complete health leading to immortality.

Daoist thought in the West is represented first and foremost in the Daode jing, the best-known representative of Daoism wherever it appears. In the West, it attracted first attention through a translation into Latin by Jesuit missionaries, presented to the British Royal Society in 1788. This rendition hoped to show that the mysteries of the Christian faith were known to the ancient Chinese, matching Dao with God, like logos conveying the triple sense of supreme being,reason, and word ( a mistake to say the lest, and has muddied the waters about trying to give a grasp on what in the nine hells the Dao is, ever since).
The first English translation by James Legge (1831-1905) appeared in 1891. It, too, attempted to impose Christian theology onto the Chinese text. This changed in the course of the twentieth century, so that by the end of World War II a number of translations and interpretation had appeared that attempted to read the text in its own right and do justice to Chinese thinking. By now, there are over 300 English translations of the text and its concepts have made major inroads into Western societies. The dominant mode of apperception is individual and personal; people appreciate the philosophy as it helps them to change their own thinking and their way of being in the world. Unlike in China, where the text has always also had a strong public dimension, there are very few political concerns associated with the Daode jing in the West( I believe this could change the face of our current political arena, if a few candidates running for the highest office in the land adopted some of the wisdom found in the lines).

Popular Daode jing ideas in the west tend to involve four distinct areas of application: the Western tendency toward action and progress (Work,Work,Work till you drop!); the importance of reducing stress(Fuck I need a vacation); the reversal of come common cultural and ethical values(If I get Tattoo 35, does it still pissoff my parents?); and concerns for the environment and social harmony (Peace, Pot and Microdot). Balancing the Western push for increased consumption, the need to always have more, always get new things, and always acquire bigger objects, is the essential idea of the text to “know when it is enough.” This means that there is a level of material wealth and internal satisfaction that requires one to go along with the present and let go of advancement and progress.

Having reached this point, an increase in consumption, a rise in position, or a multiplication of wealth will add nothing further to one’s community status or internal well-being. On the contrary, it will create complications and various kinds of difficulties that are entirely unnecessary and make one feel worse, not better. This latter concept in the Daode jing is expressed as the “continuous alternation of yin and yang.” Understanding the world as moving in an ongoing flow of rise and fall, increase and decline, people can make wise decisions. Too much growth will result in reduction; a period of calmness and apparent stagnation is the beginning of a new surge of energy. There cannot always be nothing but growth; nature requires moves in all directions, up and down, rise and decline, come and go.

Even Aleister Crowley threw his hat in the ring when it came to the study of Taoism…

“From 1908 to 1918, the Tao Teh King was my continual study. I constantly
recommended it to my friends as the supreme masterpiece of initiated wisdom,
and I was as constantly disappointed when they declared that it did not impress
them, especially as my preliminary descriptions of the book had aroused their
keenest interest. I thus came to see that the fault lay with Legge’s
translation, and I felt myself impelled to undertake the task of
presenting Lao Tze in language informed by the sympathetic understanding which
initiation and spiritual experience had conferred on me. During my Great
Magical Retirement on Aesopus Island in the Hudson River during the summer of
1918, I set myself to this work, but I discovered immediately that I was
totally incompetent. I therefore appealed to an Adept named Amalantrah, with
whom I was at that time in almost daily communion.( Amalantrah
appears to be an astral being. Crowley’s Amalantrah working with Rodey Minor
and others does not settle the question of Amalantrah being physical or
incorporeal. This consultation took the form of ritual questioning of a spirit,
and attendant visions of which the ‘codex’ would be one.) He came readily to
my aid and exhibited to me a codex of the original, which conveyed to me with
absolute certitude the exact significance of the text.I was able to divine
without hesitation or doubt the precise manner in which Legge had been
deceived. He had translated the Chinese with singular fidelity, yet in almost
every verse the interpretation was altogether misleading. There was no need to
refer to the text from the point of view of scholarship. I had merely to
paraphrase his translation in the light of actual knowledge of the true
significance of the terms employed. Anyone who cares to take the trouble to
compare the two versions will be astounded to see how slight a remodeling of a
paragraph is sufficient to disperse the obstinate obscurity of prejudice,
and let loose a fountain and a flood of living light, to kindle the gnarled
prose of stolid scholarship into the burgeoning blossom of lyrical flame.”- (THE TAO TEH KING (LIBER CLVII) A New Translation By KO YUEN (ALEISTER CROWLEY) THE EQUINOX (Volume III, No. VIII.)

I will talk more on Taoism’s influence on Western thought and occultism as time permits, but I believe this is a good enough start for now.

Stay gold folks.

Sources: Clarke, J. J. 2000. The Tao of the West: Western Transformation of Taoist Thought.

Komjathy, Louis. 2004. “Tracing the Contours of Daoism in North America.”

livia Kohn,1999. “Introducing Daoism”

Crowley,-The Equinox Vol III

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Problems of the attitude of the western mind towards Daoism (and Buddhism and Yoga etc.):


1.  It is exotic and mysterious

2.  It consists of the cultural trappings, art, language and so on

3.  It is designed to benefit me - through health, relaxation, mindfulness etc.

4.  It will fit all my personal biases and prejudices

5.  I can step easily into to it with all my Judeo-Christian baggage





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