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Daoism: A Beginner’s Guide

By: James Miller

Daoism: A Beginner's Guide by James Miller
Daoism: A Beginner’s Guide by James Miller

Daoism: A Beginner’s Guide (Oxford: Oneworld Publications 2008). 192pp. ISBN-13: 978-1851685660. US$14.95

This is a republication of my earlier book, Daoism A Short Introduction(Oxford: Oneworld Publications 2003). Pp. xviii+174. ISBN 1-85168-315-1, US$17.95

Italian translation by M. Ghilardi. Daoismo: una introduzione. (Roma: Fazi editore 2005). xiv+234. ISBN 8-88112-604-4. €13

Farsi translation مقدمه ای کوتاه بر آیین دائو  (Adyan Publications, 2016).

From the Preface

Daoism is an organised religious tradition that has been continuously developing and transforming itself through China Korea and Japan for over two thousand years. Now it has spread around the globe from Sidney to Toronto and includes among its followers people from a whole range of ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. Day by day, Daoism is truly becoming a world religion, but as it does so, it seems to resist being pinned down in neat categories. Not many people know what Daoism is, and when people do have an understanding of it, often it is quite different from someone else’s. One reason for this is that the history of Daoism is a marvellous history of continuous change rather than a linear progress or development. Daoism has no single founder, such as Jesus or the Buddha, nor does it have a single key message, such as the gospel or the four noble truths. Rather Daoism bears witness to a history of continuous self-invention within a vast diversity of environmental contexts.

In fact the human experience of change or transformation in our bodies and in the world around us lies at the heart of the Daoist experience in much the same way that faith in an eternal, unchanging deity lies at the heart of the Jewish-Christian-Islamic religious system. Whereas Western religionists seek to place their trust in an unchanging and invisible stability that somehow transcends the fleeting experience of time, Daoists recognize and celebrate the profound and mysterious creativity within the very fabric of time and space itself.

The most influential Daoist text, Daode jing (Scripture of the Way and its Power, c. 4th century B.C.E.) names this mysterious creativity “Dao”, which can be translated quite straightforwardly as “way” or “path.” The first line of the standard version of the text enigmatically warns, however, that “Dao can be spoken of, [but it is] not the constant Dao.” No wonder, then, that Daoism has taken a vast array of forms within the East Asian cultural context. This book is a short introduction to Daoism that takes seriously the task of naming the Dao, all the while acknowledging the constant change that continues to take place within Daoism. The way I have chosen to do this is to settle on eight keywords or fundamental themes that I believe lie at the heart of Daoism in its various cultural and historical forms. In each chapter I focus on one of these themes using it as a lens or a spotlight to illuminate a key aspect of the Daoist tradition.

daoismo una introduzioneTable of Contents

  • Historical Introduction
    Proto Daoism
    Classical Daoism
    Contemporary Daoism
  1. Identity
    Daoism as Chinese religion
    Daoism as lineages of transmission
    Daoism as universal path
  2. Way
  3. Body
    Qi: The breath of life
    Correlation, synchronicity and resonance
    Longevity practices
    Transcendent bodies
  4. Power
    Daoism millenarianism
    Daoist messianism
    Daoism in contemporary China
    Negotiating with destiny
  5. Light
    The development of Shangqing Daoism
    Light practices
    Contemporary visualization practices
  6. Alchemy
    Alchemy and the quest for immortality
    Laboratory alchemy
    Internal alchemy
    The Way of Complete Perfection
  7. Text
    The religious origins and functions of Daoist texts
    Transformations of meaning in Daoist texts
  8. Nature
    Natural space as sacred space
    Marvellous nature
    Caverns and texts
    A Daoist aesthetic of spontaneity
  • Glossary of Chinese Terms
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Daoism: A Short IntroductionReviews of Daoism: A Short Introduction

“The author is consistently thoughtful about how to reach undergraduates: “To understand what Daoism means, then, it is instructive to pay attention to our own cultural milieu, the values and concepts that we take for granted in our day-to-day lives. But on the other hand we must also look for the ways in which the various Daoist traditions operate quite differently than the cultures we are familiar with” (x-xi). This approach is likely to encourage vigorous class discussion.

The book is not at all professorial in tone, and is knowledgeable about Daoism today in the Occident (with interest- ing examples from Canada). Its organization is thematic, and, I believe, serviceable. Its chapters on identity, Way, body, power (political connections of Daoist movements), light (its centrality in meditative Daoism), alchemy, text (scriptures and revelations), and nature (the role of the envi- ronment) are an excellent choice, likely to engage the inter- ests of most readers. One may read them in any order. I found the book intriguing and open-minded, generous with fresh insights.” Nathan Sivin, University of Pennsylvania, Religious Studies Review 2010, vol. 36 (1) pp. 31-50.

“As the preface explains, the book is intended largely for college students, and Miller’s presentation is clearly shaped by the author’s classroom experience regarding questions and concerns raised by students encountering Daoism for the first time. For example, Miller observes that “Daoists construct their ways of being religious in quite different ways than we might expect” (x). The work is filled with useful heuristic generalizations regarding such differences, such as the following: “the human experience of change or transformation in our bodies and in the world around us lies at the heart of the Daoist experience in much the same way that faith in an eternal, unchanging deity lies at the heart of the Jewish-Christian-Islamic religious system” (ix). Teachers and students of comparative religion will thus find here an excellent starting point for looking at Daoism as today’s scholars now understand it. … [A]s a comprehensive “short introduction,” this nuanced and well-informed book succeeds extremely well.” Russell Kirkland, University of Georgia, in Daoist Studies(Internet: December 2, 2004).

“His stated goal is not only to introduce Daoism generally, but “specifically to introduce what it means to someone, like myself, who lives in the twenty-first century Western cultural context” (p. x). Indeed, one of the strengths of this work is its discussion of the interplay between the history of Daoism and contemporary Western attempts to make use of Daoist ideas and practices. … The structure of the book makes it relatively easy to use as a classroom text. It does not have to be read in a linear fashion, and so it will work well as a supplement to primary texts and lectures regardless of the order in which various themes are discussed. It will also be a good tool for leading students away from popular one-dimensional views of Daoism.” Erin Cline, Baylor University, in Journal of Chinese Philosophy 31.4 (December 2004): 547-9.

“This book has a host of strengths, not the least being its combination of brevity and thoroughness. Writing such a book is not easy and Miller has done us all a great favor. Although he eschews an historical approach to his subject, Miller’s “Historical Introduction” (just over fourteen pages) is excellent by itself and I can easily see instructors using it when covering Daoism in “world religions” surveys…. Overall Miller’s Daoism: A Short Introduction is excellent and I am eager to try it out. Reading it has also stimulated new ideas for my own scholarly explorations – something I did not expect from an introductory text.” John M. Thompson, Christopher Newport University, inTeaching Theology and Religion 8.2: 123-4.

Daoism: A Beginner’s Guide (Oxford: Oneworld Publications 2008). 192pp. ISBN-13: 978-1851685660. US$14.95

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