Off to Paris without a Definition of Daoism

On my last day here in Israel, I’m pondering what it means to be Jewish-Israeli. I think the best defining quality is our openness to deep discussion. I've been staying with Gili, a wonderful puppet maker and her husband Eric Kozen who is a student of Meir Shahar working on a Qing Dynasty religious document that includes martial arts, talismans, ritual invocations and the like. I've met lots of people and will report on them soon, including an expert on the tattoos of Song Dynasty general Yue Fei, and someone working on the Baguajiao cult! I also met Kang Xiaofei, who wrote the book, The Cult of the Fox, which I loved and I will have to review soon. 

Anyway, that openness to deep discussion has been reason enough for our friends to try and kill us off, so many times. Everyone here is connected by love or friendship to survivors of the Holocaust. It is paradoxically a great source of vitality, a regular reminder to love life.

Where else can you be surrounded by people who can keep multiple ideas going in a conversation? I could exaggerate the situation by saying that people here are willing to yield their ideas to new information, that happens more here than anywhere else I’ve ever been, but it is more common for people to listen and remember what you said for consideration later.  It is common for people to recognize that something specific needs to be reconciled and therefore needs to be tabled for the conversation to continue. To me, all this is a characteristic of the Jewish religion. Being Jewish isn’t usually defined this way, but when we get down to it, no definition of religion actually works for more than a single religion, even definitions of "Christian," crack under Protestant and Catholic scrutiny. 

As I pick myself up and head to Paris for the 11th International Daoist Studies Conference, definitions of religion are even harder to get at. We have this net called Daoism which stretches or shrinks depending on who is using it, it even splits sometimes. Especially problematic is trying to place Daoism inside of, or outside of, culture. Often posed as—is it still Daoism when it moves to a new culture? Many would say it can’t move, because it is too complex, deeply intertwined, and embedded to make the jump. That argument often comes down to what is an essential experience of Chinese culture. For example, Daoism was created in a world where everyone's ancestors were ritually fed. One argument is that for Daoism to make the jump, some form of feeding the ancestors would need to come with it. I suppose I would counter that if Daoism were to make the jump it would take with it the concept that all of our actions effect and are effected by our ancestors in simultaneous multi-dimensional space. And we wouldn’t necessarily need to ritualize the offerings we make. But we would probably have to do some sort of activity to regularly acknowledge that notion.  

Another problem is the "time net." Time is always shrinking and expanding around Daoism. Practices which are outside of Daoism have been incorporated into it while others have been peeled off. So over time a practice could be denounced by Daoists, then practiced by them, then 500 years later practiced by groups that are not Daoist, but in a totally different context which is heavily influenced by Daoism. There are also practices which were created to differentiate Daoists from other groups, but over time these practices got adopted by those groups, and so some Daoists dropped them, but some didn't. All of this uncertainty about practice is rarely experienced as uncertainty by practitioners themselves, it is a consequence of attempting to draw lines and establish categories from the outside. Still, Daoists have tried to draw these lines themselves many, many times. The early 21st century probably isn’t one of those times. it is a time of recovery and expansion, of openness and sharing. But this moment won’t go on forever. 

Attempts to know what Daoism is, to define its key ideas or anti-ideas--to say what is, or what is not--Daoism; have tended to refer to the idea/experience/practice/event called wuwei, roughly translated: not doing. One particularly strong definition for instance, defines Daoism as not-performing blood sacrifice. And another: not getting in the way of the peoples’ relationship to heaven. It can be defined by the registers or ordination of the Daoist priesthood, or by lists of precepts based on the writings of Laozi.  None of this is enough. The efficacy of Daoist ritual is probably the most important issue from a continuous historic "inside.” Yet the ritual mastery of not-doing has always, and will always, be subject to some level of mystery. It is as if at its very core, Daoism accepts that there is more incoherence in the cosmos than there is coherence. 

Thus I head to Paris to present a three hour slideshow in 15 minutes. Just a taste of what has become an entire book on the cultural history of Baguazhang. I am not able to convincingly answer whether the subject I’m discussing is Daoist. There will be scholars there who will almost certainly come down strongly on either side of the argument. The best I can do is say that under certain definitions it might be, or might not be. Yet looking over the abstracts of other presenters at the conference, I’m probably on the conservative end of definitions. That is, if we decide that historic Baguazhang was not Daoist, we could say that certain robust elements of it are Daoist. Perhaps we could even point out specific lines of action, like miming self-flaying, which would make it un-Daoist. But nearly half of the papers being presented at the conference are less Daoist than mine. On my panel, the other papers seem less Daoist than mine. The panel I’m chairing, judging by the abstracts, seem barely anchored in Daoism at all, yet I have hope that they will contain treasures none-the-less. As Zhuangzi said about twenty-four-hundred years ago, “If you do something good, avoid the fame, if you do something bad, dodge the punishment; hold to the center and care for the source of your vitality."