Transfiguration, Spirituality and Embodiment: Perspectives from Christian and Daoist Scriptures

变容、属灵与体认: 基督教及道教经典的观点

James Miller. 2016. “Transfiguration, Spirituality and Embodiment: Perspectives from Christian and Daoist Scriptures.” Bijiao jingxue 比较经学 (Journal of Comparative Scripture), 7:9-33.


Biblical and Daoist narratives bear witness a tradition of transfiguration, in which spiritual transformation is revealed through the appearance of the religious practitioner. In the Biblical tradition this occurs in the context of encounters with God, especially on mountains, in which the change in physical appearance appears to be a reflection of the proximity of the practitioner to divine power. In the case of Jesus this transformation prefigures his final apotheosis and ascension into heaven. In the case of the Esoteric Biography of Perfected Purple Yang (紫阳真人内传,Ziyang zhenren neizhuan), his spiritual life is marked by moments of physical transfiguration that culminate in his vision of three resplendent immortal beings who pave the way for his final ascension into heaven in a dragon-pulled chariot. Comparative theological reflection on these narratives involves a discussion of the role of the physical body in the religious life, and invites discussion of themes such as disability and transgender identity.

Keywords: Comparative theology, narratives, transfiguration, Bible, Daoist, physical role, religious life

圣经与道教的叙事均见证了一种变容的传统,在其中,属灵转 化能够通过宗教践行者之外貌的变化而体现出来。在圣经传统中, 其发生在与上帝相遇的语境中,特别是在山上,身体外貌的变化成 为宗教践行者与神圣力量接近的反映。在耶稣的例子中,这种转化 预示了他的神化以及升天。而在《紫阳真人内传》中,他的属灵生 活则以身体变容的时刻为特征,这些时刻在他关于三位永生者驾着 龙拉的战车为他最终成仙而开路的异象中而达到顶点。比较神学对 这些叙事的反思包含了一种对身体在宗教生活中之角色的讨论,并 且引发了对诸如残疾及跨性别身份等主题的讨论。

关键词:比较神学、叙事、变容、圣经、道教、身体角色、宗 教生活

《比较经学》二〇一六年 第七辑 Journal of Comparative Scripture, 7 (2016) 9-33

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China’s Green Religion: Daoism and the Quest for a Sustainable Future

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As the world reaches a population of nearly 10 billion people in 2050, as climate change provokes unexpected transformations in weather patterns, as sea levels rise, and as water and food security become paramount concerns for nations, the question of how China manages these challenges are ones that have serious implications across the world. No one wants China’s vast economic, political and environmental experiment to fail. At the same time, it is evident that the way that contemporary Western and Chinese societies are structured together in a system of global finance, trade and economic exploitation is ultimately unsustainable and will lead to the drastic reordering of the fundamental relationships between the planetary biosphere and the species that inhabit it.

The source of this unsustainability is the inability of modern neoliberal ideology and its attendant cultural forms to conceptualize and operationalize a way of being in the world that inscribes human prosperity within the prosperity of planetary life. Rather we have come to conceptualize human prosperity in a way that is alienated from the ecological systems that make such prosperity possible. As a result, the modes by which we pursue human prosperity serve only to diminish its long term viability by destroying the ultimate foundations for prosperity, that of the capacity of the natural order to produce of its own accord the creative vitality that can support the flourishing and wellbeing of all species. Such a capacity I term the subjectivity of nature. By denying nature’s subjectivity and arrogating subjectivity and agency to itself alone, modern human culture has sowed the seeds of its own destruction.

China’s Green Religion develops a normative critique of this aspect of modernity from an ecocritical analysis of ideas and values found within Daoism, China’s indigenous religious tradition. It also aims to produce an alternative vision for a culture of sustainability that is of relevance to China and the world in the mid twenty-first century.

The book will be available from Columbia University Press in May 2017 and is available for pre-order now.

Learn more at

China: Landscapes, Cultures, Ecologies, Religions

Routledge Handbook of Religion and Ecology

Routledge Handbook of Religion and Ecology 

James Miller

Prepublication draft from Routledge Handbook of Religion and Ecology edited by Willis Jenkins, Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, New York: Routledge 2016, 181-189

As the third largest country in the world, China has a vast geographic diversity: arid deserts and snow-capped mountains of Xinjiang in the far West; the unique landscape of the Qinghai–Tibetan plateau, source of the Mekong, Yangzi and Yellow rivers; the rich alluvial plains of Sichuan that provide much of China’s food; the northern grasslands of Inner Mongolia; the stunning, golden hues of the Loess plateau, source of much of China’s coal and minerals; the central province of Henan, which harbors a vast treasure trove of China’s ancient civilization, and is now home to over 96 million people; the densely populated coastal regions of Zhejiang, Fujian and Guangdong, now the base of much of China’s manufacturing wealth; and the southwestern province of Yunnan, bordering Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar, home to much of China’s biodiversity and as well as 26 of China’s 55 recognized ethnic minorities.

In addition to its geographic size, China is also the world’s largest country by population, currently standing at 1.37 billion, approximately 19% of the world’s total. Of these, approximately 91% belong to the dominant Han ethnic group, with the remaining 9% divided among China’s official minority nationalities. China’s religious diversity matches its physical and ethnic diversity: China currently recognizes five official religions: Daoism, Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism. This administrative classification depends chiefly on an understanding of religion imported from the West via Japan in the late-nineteenth century. In this view, religions are distinguished in terms of people’s affiliation to institutional organizations, a model of religion derived from the European experience of ecclesial belonging. While it is common for Christians to distinguish themselves in terms of the church they “belong to,” this model of religious adherence is far from the norm in China’s religious history. Religious life in China has often centered on local temples owned collectively by village communities, or on Buddhist or Daoist pilgrimage sites operated by monastic lineages. Attempts to organize these activities into formal religions have usually been sponsored by the state in an attempt to organize, classify and monitor religious activities. After the Communist revolution in 1949, for instance, the multiplicity of Daoist lineages, city temples and mountain retreats were brought under the administrative oversight of a single, overarching body, the Daoist Association of China. Similarly, all Protestant denominations were forcibly “ecumenized” into a single “patriotic” association. These social-organizational dynamics were not motivated by internal religious demands to unify, but were the result of political demands of the modern nation state.

Such demands did not originate with the Communist party, but had begun earlier in the Republican period (1912–1949), during which leaders sought to unify China as a single, modern, nation state in part by replacing the diverse, diffuse and local local networks of social power with national, patriotic associations (Duara 1991). In this way, local religions that had formed around ancestral veneration, local gods and goddesses were deprecated as “cultural relics,” or reclassified and absorbed into the formal, state organizations of Buddhism and Daoism. At the same time practices associated with China’s Confucian heritage were not included as part of this classification scheme. Consequently “Confucianism” and the widespread practices of ancestral veneration, including annual tomb-sweeping are not commonly understood as belonging to a “religion.” Indeed Confucianism is not officially part of China’s “religious” landscape despite the fact that, from an anthropological point of view, many aspects of Confucianism can be understood as religious.

Rather than understanding religion administratively, this chapter presents an overview of China’s religious scene from the perspective of its diversity of the geographic spaces in which it takes place, with an understanding that the result is meant to be illustrative, rather than comprehensive. Five key spaces function as this chapter’s organizing themes: the Middle Kingdom; rivers; coasts; mountains; and margins.

The Middle Kingdom 

The Chinese word for China, Zhongguo 中國, is commonly translated as the “middle kingdom,” though in all likelihood this term was originally understood in the plural, referring to the kingdoms that occupied central China in the period of disunity known as the Warring States (475–221 BCE). The term has come to represent a key feature of imperial China’s social imagination of itself as occupying the central space within a cosmic frame, bounded on each side by “barbarian” nations, a square earth sitting under a rotating circular canopy of stars, spread out like an umbrella held up by a central axis mundi. The imaginative scheme of centre versus periphery functions as a key organizing principle not only of early Chinese geography, but also in terms of religion and culture. From within this scheme, the world’s peoples are divided into two basic categories: “Zhongguoren 中國人,” or people from the central kingdom(s); and “waiguoren 外國人,” people from the outer kingdoms. The earth is imaged as a three by three square, with China occupying the central location. This imagery is repeated throughout Chinese art, architecture and city planning, with the three by three or nine by nine squares symbolizing the full extent of the cosmos and China’s central place within it. The capital cities of Beijing, Xi’an and Nanjing, for instance, were laid out as square, walled cities. In Beijing, the imperial palace complex sits at the centre, and at the centre of this lies the “purple forbidden city” (zijincheng 紫禁城), and at the centre of this the Hall of Supreme Harmony with the imperial throne.

In this scheme, the king or emperor occupied the key location at the apex of the society of people from the middle kingdom, and therefore possessed the sacred duty of uniting heaven, earth and and all humanity. The Chinese character for king 王 is three horizontal lines one above the other, bisected vertically by a single line. According to traditional interpretation, the three horizontal lines represent the earth at the bottom, the heavens at the top and humanity in the middle. These three realms are united in the person of the king, the single vertical line that touches all three. In this way the king, or emperor, functioned so as to produce the “unity of heaven and earth” (tianren heyi 天人合一), the state of optimal flourishing among the three realms of the cosmos, thus bringing about wealth and prosperity for all.

This geographic schema was thus also the foundation for the state religion, which refers to the official religious life of the emperor conducted on behalf of the people. Tourists today can see the vestiges of this in Beijing’s most recognizable landmark, the Temple of Heaven, where the emperor traditionally conducted animal sacrifices on behalf of the state. The architecture of the site symbolizes the traditional conception of the universe, with the circular temple, signifying heaven, located on a square platform, signifying earth. Only the emperor was able to undertake such sacrifices on behalf of the people, and this ritual performance was the chief way in which the sacred geography of heaven, earth and humanity underwrote the divine authority of the emperor himself.

The cosmic pattern of heaven, earth and emperor concretely symbolized in the imperial architecture of the capital city was also reproduced in the social imagination of the nation’s geography itself. Five sacred mountains, also known as marchmounts, were designated as marking the boundary points of China’s north, south, east, west and center. These mountains were the location of further imperially sponsored rites to promote the harmony of heaven, earth and humanity. In this way the state religion functioned as a kind of religious ecological mechanism, focussed on the body of the emperor himself. This system was fully set out in a grand, unified cosmology synthesized by Dong Zhongshu (179–104 BCE), which became the basis of state Confucianism.

In this view, the emperor functioned as the sacred linchpin of the social, agricultural and cosmic order, ensuring that all three realms work together. Such a system also imposed an obligation upon the emperor’s person to constantly bring the three realms into harmony. Since the natural world was in constant transformation according to the seasons, the emperor also made corresponding changes to his life, wearing certain colors, and undertaking certain seasonal activities (see Miller 2012).

In this way the sacred geography of central capital and compass-point marchmounts was also paralleled by a sacred seasonality, east corresponding to spring, west corresponding to fall, and so on. Space and time were co-ordinated together in a single overarching cosmology focused on the body of the emperor himself. The geography of the traditional Chinese empire cannot therefore be fully understood without reference to the inner landscape of the body in which the solid yang structures of bones, sinews, flesh and organs correspond to mountains; and the fluid yin dynamics of qi (subtle breath or vital force) corresponded correspond to the flow of water through China’s landscape.


China’s five sacred mountains are usually known in English as the five marchmounts, or mountains in the “marches” or border regions of China. They occupy key positions in the sacred cosmography that underpinned the imperial order. Corresponding to the four directions, plus the centre, the marchmounts symbolized and marked out the cosmic limits of the empire. They also functioned as tutelary deities who protected the Middle Kingdom from external threats (Verellen 1995). They originated in an earlier set of four marchmounts associated in the Zuozhuan with “barbarian” tribes, and more specifically their leaders who acted as a buffer between the Chinese ruling house and foreign powers (Kleeman 1994: 227). By the Han dynasty, this scheme of four mountains was absorbed into the cosmological system of five phases, colours, direction, etc., with the addition of a fifth, central mountain, Mt Song in Henan. The four mountains that previously marked the borders of the empire by now lay well within Han territory and, during the reign of Emperor Wu of the Han, came under the direct patronage of the Emperor (Kleeman 1994). In so doing the mountains were fully integrated into the Han cosmology with the body of the emperor as the supreme node joining heaven, earth and human beings in a single, coherent, system. The Han empire, constructed on the subjugation and pacification of marginal peoples thus fully incorporated these border lands into Middle Kingdom by incorporating the sacred marchmounts into the sacred space governed by the emperor himself.

The emperor’s duty was to offer blood sacrifices at the mountains in order to propitiate the tutelary deities, ensuring success and prosperity for the dynasty. The trouble and expense of such rites meant that the most elaborate and sumptuous, the Feng and Shan sacrifices, were performed only five times in the Han Dynasty (Bokenkamp 1998: 384). These rituals were performed  at the foot of Mt Tai, the sacred mountain of the East, in present-day Shandong province. Due to this imperial patronage, the Eastern marchmount achieved pre-eminence among the five marchmounts, and to this day temples in its honour exist across China.

The religious traditions of Daoism and Buddhism also vied with state Confucianism for a claim over these spaces in an attempt to strengthen their relative position within the empire. Sometimes these traditions occupied the same space at the same time; at other times as the fortunes of religions rose and fell. The mountain spaces inscribed by one religious tradition would be overlaid by a new one in a complex rewriting of ritual space. For example, in his study of the Southern marchmount (Nanyue 南越), known as Mt Heng 恆山 in Hunan, James Robson (1995: 230) writes that “the sacredness of Nanyue was continually produced and reproduced throughout history by different religious traditions whose discourses and attempts to define the sacredness of the mountain were at times in direct competition.” The Daoist intellectual Sima Chengzhen, for instance, persuaded the Tang emperor Xuanzong to recognize the five marchmounts as the “terrestrial abodes of Daoist ‘perfected ones’ (zhenren 真人).” In so doing the emperor recognized the Daoist claim to imperial sites, thereby strengthening its position vis-à-vis Buddhism. This imperial recognition led to the gradual imprint of Daoist religious activity on the five marchmounts, and vied with a competing Buddhist layer that had been established on Nanyue since the mid-sixth century CE.

Mountains were not only significant in China’s religious heritage as contested sites of Imperial, Buddhist or Daoist patronage. They were also the residences of gods, recluses and unusual fauna, and the source of rare flora sought by alchemists in their quest for transcendence or “immortality.” Campany (2001: 127) notes in his study of the alchemist Ge Hong (283–343) that such seekers valued natural materials that were “hard to obtain, and located in barely accessible places;” and secondly, materials that had an unusual appearances, being “visually and morphologically anomalous, straddling taxonomic boundaries” (128). The combination of difficulty of access and strange appearance went hand in hand with their numinous qualities. In this way it can be said that the natural world is not in some way “flat” or “democratic” (see Miller 2008: 32), but rather possesses a hierarchy of power, accessibility and strangeness. Alchemists such as Ge Hong emphasized the value of these rare and powerful materials, believing they contained the power of transcendence when ingested. Just as the mountain has a roughly pyramid shape, the natural world itself can be understood by analogy as a pyramid in which the rare and valuable substances are the hardest to reach and fewest in number.

The Daoist fascinations with mountains as repositories of rare and precious substances also gave rise to the association between mountains, recluses and the revelation of religious texts. Daoists travelled to sacred mountains in search of techniques of meditation, teachings from Daoist masters and the transmission of Daoist texts revealing secret traditions of meditation and self-transformation. The Chinese term for mountain cave or grotto (dong 洞) also became the word we roughly translate as “canon” meaning a selection of religious texts. Mountain grottoes can thus be understood as locations for the revelation of sacred mysteries, whether through the intense meditation of the recluse, the transmission of oral teachings from a Daoist transcendent, or the initiation into an esoteric text. As Verellen (1995: 271) notes, the grotto can be understood by means of a close homophone tong 通, meaning to penetrate or connect, and Daoist cosmography came to envision an interconnected network of  “grotto heavens and blessed places” (dongtian fudi 洞天福地) that were deemed particularly auspicious sites for engaging in Daoist cultivation.

In addition, the altar space erected by the Daoist priest for the performance of rituals is also envisaged as a cosmic space bounded by the five marchmounts, with the priest at the middle. The image of the mountain is replicated over and again: the cosmic space of Daoist ritual is bounded by mountains; the body of the priest is imaged as a mountain; inside his body in the grotto-chambers of his organs dwell the spirits of the cosmos (Schipper 1993: 91–93). The network of mountains within mountains and grottoes connecting to grottoes functions as the basis for an economy of cosmic power in which the vital breath or qi flourishes and circulates, pervading the myriad dimensions of the cosmos, interpenetrating organs, caves, bodies and mountains in the ceaseless exchange of energy: life begetting life, inner begetting outer, physiology and geography interwoven in a dazzling, mysterious and endless overflowing of vitality.


China’s physical landscape is defined by its hydrological cycle in which waters emerge from the Qinghai–Tibet plateau in the West, flow East through the three great rivers, Yangzi, Mekong and Yellow, and pour into the sea. This West to East flow can be understood through the Chinese term “Dao” meaning Way or Path, but also denoting a fluid vector by which the processes of life are never static but always in motion. These processes of life, or “ten thousand things” (wanwu 萬物) include all things, human, animal, vegetable and mineral. All are composed of or shaped by the flow of water, the streaming Dao that is the basic vector of the Chinese landscape (Miller 2006). As the Daodejing notes (ch. 4):

The Dao is empty [empties], yet using does not need to be refilled.

A deep spring (yuan)—it seems like the ancestor of the myriad living things. (Quoted in Allan 1997: 76)

Here Dao is envisaged as the flood of liquid vitality from which all phenomena emerge. As the first chapter of the Daodejing mentions, this Dao is not a thing with a name or form, but acts generatively to give birth to all the phenomena of the natural environment. In Wittfogel’s (1957) thesis of the “hydraulic state,” taming this flood of life was tantamount to gaining political power. Indeed, there is no doubt that one of China’s major early technological achievements was the construction of the Dujiangyan irrigation system (267–256 BCE) in present-day Sichuan province. A weir across the Min river regulates the flow during the spring floods, directing the flow into a network of irrigation channels that to this day provides water for 50 cities and irrigates 672,000 hectares of farmland (Miller 2013). Today this dam is regarded as a feat of “Daoist” engineering in which the flow of water is not blocked completely but productively distributed to promote the fertility of the landscape. As Miller (2013) notes the weir constitutes a concrete expression of the Daoist concept of wuwei 無為variously translated as “non-aggressive” or “effortless” action because “rather than damming the river completely the site employs a weir and irrigation system to channel and regulate water’s natural power.” A Daoist temple on the site to this day memorializes the architect Li Bin.

The second sense in which water functions as a category of religio-cultural life in China is in the concept of fengshui, literally “wind and water,” the cultural practice by which houses, tombs and other human structures are located to take advantage of the nature’s fluid powers, channelling good fortune, health and happiness to the earth’s human inhabitants, both living and deceased. The natural ecology of plants and trees is here directly connected to the religious ecology of spirits, ancestors and descendants. When the land flourishes, the ancestral spirits will be at peace and this economy of cosmic power will contribute to the flourishing of the family lineage and the future prosperity of the clan.

According to Coggins (2014), although the dominant method of Han Chinese expansion was the deforestation and reconfiguration of the landscape to support agriculture, fengshui forests and temple forests emerged as protected wilderness spaces valued by monastic leaders and local village communities for non-economic reasons. He writes (2014: 15): “Corporate groups in lineage villages had additional reasons to preserve certain forests and groves, reasons that transcended immediate economic concerns and reflected a profound regard for their own long-term viability.” This concern he traces to a seminal fengshui text, the Book of Burial by Guo Pu (276–324). The text notes:

The Classic says, qi rides the wind and scatters, but is retained when encountering water. The ancients collected it to prevent its dissipation, and guided it to assure its retention. Thus it was called feng shui (wind/water). According to the laws of feng shui, the site that attracts water is optimal, followed by the site that catches wind …  Terrain resembling a palatial mansion with luxuriant vegetation and towering trees will engender the founder of a state or prefecture. (Trans. Field 2001: 190)

“Attracting water” and “catching wind” may be understood as taking advantage of the natural fluid dynamics of physical and subtle energies, or qi, which animate the landscape and the body. The construction of water channels and preservation of “fengshui forests” may thus be understood as part of the Chinese attempt to take advantage of, without using up, the physical and subtle qi of the natural landscape. This would produce not only natural, biological fertility, but also socio-cultural fertility in the continuity of lineage from deceased ancestors to the as-yet unborn descendants. This “continuity of qi” functioned not only ecologically to bring the human world into dynamic correlation with the natural ecosystems and hydrological cycles, but also historically in the production of genealogical narratives by which Chinese communities are traditionally organized.


Traditional scholarship on Chinese religions divides gods into local and national categories. Local gods have their specific tutelary domains and are worshipped only by people living in those particular geographic areas. National gods, such as Guan Di, the Jade Emperor, or the God of Wealth, can be found throughout the country. Local gods, conversely, are worshipped only in specific regions. Prominent among these regional deities is Mazu 媽祖 (Matsu) a goddess associated with the South China sea whose temples are found throughout the coastal provinces of Fujian and Guangdong, and also Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. According to tradition, Mazu was a girl who lived in the late-tenth century who was renowned for her assistance to seafarers. She was posthumously deified and attracted a wide cult throughout the southern China coastal area in the Ming dynasty. Over the past few centuries she has become one of the most popular local deities in China.

Devotion to Mazu is widespread throughout South East China’s coastal areas because of her association with seafarers and fishermen. She can be thought of in bioregional terms, corresponding to the Southern China Marine Ecoregion as identified by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), that is, the sea area between Taiwan, mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau. Her worship emerges from the engagement of peoples with fish, coastlines, tides and the sea. Out of this complex of social, economic and ecological interaction developed a powerful bioregional religious tradition. Typically, Mazu temples are located in strategic coastal sites, and her statues watch over the marine activities of local seafarers. Indeed, residents of Macau attributed the fact that they escaped the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrom (SARS )crisis that gripped Hong Kong to the prophylactic powers of the enormous Mazu statue that they had recently erected. Now Mazu is beginning to take on new political responsibilities as a symbol of harmonious relations between Taiwan and the mainland. A huge emerald statue of Mazu, valued at US$28.25 million, arrived in Taiwan from the mainland in December 2011. Both religious and political dignitaries attended the reception ceremony for the Mazu statue (Taipei Times 2011). Mazu’s bioregionalism thus opens her up to the possibility of being exploited for political ambitions, as a symbol of the unity of people on both sides of the Taiwan straits. Mazu’s significance thus demands analysis from a complex of religious, ecological and political perspectives.


The Chinese religious imaginations of nature in mountains, rivers and coasts may alternatively be understood in terms of center and periphery, or valleys and hills (see Weller 2014). This figure of center and edge is replicated throughout the multiple imaginations of nature in Chinese tradition, from food practices, garden design, to urban planning and even China’s Great Wall. Of particular interest in the contemporary period is the multiple imaginations of nature that take place at the borders of China’s land mass, home to extraordinary cultural and ecological diversity.

In the southern province of Yunnan, for instance, the concept of “holy hills” among the Dai ethnic minority has preserved fragments of old-growth rainforests from massive deforestation and replacement with rubber plantations (see Zeng 2012). At the same time, the traditional complex of religion and ecology among the Blang people is being rewritten as the people transform their indigenous agricultural practices through the development of a cash economy based on growing highly lucrative Pu-er tea (see Miller and An 2013).

More significant from the point of view of securing China’s continued access to water is the fate of China’s nomadic Tibetan people in the area of the Qinghai–Tibetan plateau, the source for China’s three major rivers systems. Since 2005 these herders have been subject to forcible resettlement, known euphemistically as “ecological migration” (Qi 2014). The reason for this resettlement was to create a national nature preserve in this area so as to help preserve water supply downstream. Alarm bells rang in spring 1996 when for the first time in thirty years the water supply in the upper reaches of the Yellow River was cut off. In 1997 the interruption lasted 226 days and no water flowed along 706 km of the river (Qi 2014, 182). As a result of the drastic measures undertaken by the central government, the culture and religion of these nomadic peoples has been changed forever, attracting widespread criticism in the Western media (Jacobs 2015). Ecologists are uncertain as to whether the resettlement will have any positive effect upon preserving the water supply. Nonetheless it is clear that at the margins of China’s fragile environment the stakes are enormous. Without Tibet’s pristine waters, the lives of millions of ordinary Chinese people may be at severe risk. As a result of China’s massive modernization and development, the traditional complex of ecology, culture and religion that has persisted for centuries at China’s margins will likely soon disappear.


China’s central government recently announced plans to create a new megaregion “Jing-Ji-Jin” by comprising the previous cities of Beijing and Tianjin and the less-developed regions of Hebei province in between. The new region will be approximately the size of Kansas and will have a population of over 100 million people (Johnson 2015). Similar long-term plans are under way for the Pearl River Delta region, combining the cities of Hong Kong, Macau, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Dongguan. As China builds hyper-dense megacities in order to house, feed and provide employment for its massive urbanizing population, it is clear that the traditional networks of religion, landscape, ecology and environment will undergo unprecedented transformation. As President Xi Jinping builds China’s connections westwards in a new Silk Road stretching towards central and southern Asia, this transformation will encompass China’s traditionally poorer, more marginal and ethnically diverse regions and religions just as much as its rich eastern coastal provinces.


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A Sociedade Taoísta do Brasil e a globalização do Daoismo da Ortodoxia Unitária

RelegateReligare, ISSN: 19826605, v.12, n.2, dezembro de 2015, p.315-343.
The Daoist Society of Brazil and the Globalization of Orthodox Unity Daoism
Daniel M. Murray e James Miller
Tradução de Matheus Costa e Fábio Stern


Fora de contexto cultural chinês, o Daoísmo é frequentemente associado a práticas de cultivo físico, tais como qìgōng ou tàijí quán, em vez de linhagens tradicionais de Quánzhēn ou Zhèngyī e como uma religião hierarquicamente organizada. A Sociedade Taoísta do Brasil, no entanto, é um exemplo de prática daoísta não chinesa associada à tradição Zhèngyī (Ortodoxia Unitária). Os Sacerdotes brasileiros ordDaoismoenados pela Sociedade realizam rituais diante de uma congregação majoritariamente leiga e não chinesa. O resultado é uma forma cultural híbrida de prática daoísta que fornece uma visão sobre como o Daoísmo está se transformando através da globalização.

Palavras-chave: Daoismo, Globalização, Cultura híbrida.


苗建时(James Miller) 加拿大女王大学


道教是中国本土的有系统的宗教体系。道家重点关注获得“道”(作为不断变化的宇宙中的生命力不可名状的源头)。在道教2000多年的历史上,实现这一目标的方法虽然经过修正和调整,但大体可以理解为在身体的流体能量、社群和宇宙三者之间进行调整。道教关注内在身体的微妙能量,并且从事于冥想修炼的活动,旨在恢复和增强身体的机能,以获得长寿和精神超越。道家还崇拜等级复杂的神圣权力,包括最高层的三清(道本身的自然化体现)以及许多个人神(曾经是人,但在其生命的轨迹中实现了超越,有时也被理解为不朽)。 (More…)

Time, and Again, and Forever: The Somatic Experience of Time in Daoist Philosophy and Religion

KronoScopeMiller, James. 2015. “Time, and Again, and Forever: The Somatic Experience of Time in Daoist Philosophy and Religion.” KronoScope 15.1 (Spring 2015). In Press.


Rather than considering time from a comparative philosophical perspective, the essay discusses the lived experience of time in the Esoteric Biography of Perfected Purple Yang, a Daoist hagiography associated with the 4th century CE Daoist movement that came to be known as the Way of Highest Clarity. This interpretation reveals three modes of time as experienced by the Daoist practitioner: singular time; repeated time; and forever time. Unlike the Biblical concept of time, ordained by God and calculated by the rotation of the stars, the hagiography points towards a Daoist experience of time that is experienced somatically through the individual’s metabolism.


Time, eternity, repetition, Daoism, Christianity, metabolism

1 Time, Creation and Creativity

The experience of time, inasmuch as it is the experience of both new things arising and old things passing away, is deeply related to ideas of creation and creativity. In the first biblical story of creation, commonly attributed to the Priestly class, God creates the cosmos by a process of division, separating light from darkness and separating water from dry land. The Hebrew verb that is emphasized in this Priestly account of creation is badal, meaning to separate. It is used in the causative mood, giving the sense that God caused the various dimensions of the cosmos to be divided from each other. The use of this ritual term emphasizes the notion that God’s creative act is not chiefly that of procreation or “genesis” but rather separation, hierarchy, order, division, clarification and classification. That is to say, the main creative act of the first story of creation in the bible is not actually the creation of matter but rather the causation of division or separation.

This process of dividing day from night, land from water, humans from non-humans, and ultimately creation from creator is, in this account, a creative process that is decisively established by divine fiat. As a result, the calculation of times––the observation of the stars, the sun, and the moon––can be understood as in effect the deduction of the objective reality of time, an objectivity grounded in the divine process of creation ex nihilo. God separates out the form of things in the world, and, in doing so, creates time as objective reality that constitutes the world in which human beings experience life and death. Time and change are marks of creatureliness and finitude, of being other-than-God. As the theological program of the Jewish-Christian-Islamic world unfolded, it established the transcendence of time and change, the transcendence of the finitude of the created world as one of the supreme expressions of the religious quest. In the Book of Revelation (21:22) at the end of the Christian Bible, we note that in the New Jerusalem there is no temple and therefore no religion to mediate between the finite world of humankind and the infinite majesty of God. Instead, humans “will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads” (Rev. 21:4). The mediating function of religion will no longer be necessary, and humans and God will be fully and intimately reconciled to each other immediately and therefore eternally. The Jewish-Christian-Islamic story is, from this perspective, a story about the ultimate collapsing of time and change into an eternal immediate in which God and his creation are reconciled to each other and are simultaneous in eternity.

There’s no doubt that that in the Chinese philosophical world the experience of time and change are equally bound up with the idea of nature and creativity. But the process of creation is quite different from that in the first account in the Bible, and therefore the experience of time and change come to be received differently, especially in the traditions of Daoist philosophy and religion.

If we turn to the Daodejing, we discover that the dominant motif of creation is not that of separation or hierarchy but that of reproduction or generation. The Dao is imaged as a mother who gives birth to the One, the One gives birth to the two, the two give birth to the three, and the three give birth to the ten thousand things. This recursive, recombinatory, fractal-like process depicts the emergence of the ten thousand things of the cosmos as the result of a fertile, agglutinative process in which the one pregnant with itself, gives birth to an even more pregnant two, and this process of gestation and birth continues irrepressibly until we have the flood of beings, processes, and events that constitute the known world. Creation is here imaged as a process of unstoppable fecundity rather than a process of clarification and separation.

From this key cosmological detail we arrive at a core motif that has dominated Daoist philosophy and religion throughout the ages. The basic condition of nature is that of transformation, or change. The Chinese term is bianhua. From this perspective, the basic condition of things is not to stay the same but to transform. And from this basic approach to nature, we can say that the experience of time, from the Chinese perspective, is precisely the experience of transformation of things. Without transformation there could be no time, and indeed we can say that the process of transformation of things in the world constitutes the experience of time.

The question that arises from this motif is where is this transformation produced? Why is it that things transform? The Daoist answer to this question is that ultimately the transformation of things is, ultimately, inherent within things themselves. The Chinese term for this is ziran, meaning spontaneity or self-generating power. That is to say, the process of time is not established by some external measure, as in the first account of creation in the book of Genesis. In that story, time was established objectively by divine command. Rather from the Daoist perspective, time emerges in the spontaneous transformation of things.

This concept of spontaneous transformation (ziran bianhua) has been much commented upon within the realm of Daoist philosophical study. Here two points bear repeating. The first is that of Cheng Chung-ying, who writes: “One important aspect of tzu-jan (ziran) is that the movement of things must come from the internal life of things and never results from engineering or conditioning by an external power” (Cheng 1986, 356). From this perspective, the key characteristic of spontaneity is that of autopoiesis, or self-generation.[1] That is to say, it is the internal vitality of a thing that constitutes its functioning as a thing independent of its environment or circumstances. A thing is truly alive, and truly a thing in itself, inasmuch as it possesses the capacity to spontaneously transform. When a thing succumbs to or depends upon its external circumstances or environment, it is no longer truly a thing in itself but rather an element of some other larger organism.

This leads to the second point, which is that the idea of spontaneity is the opposite of the idea commonly attributed to Daoism of “following nature,” where nature is understood as environment, rather than self. The point here is that to be “natural” or “spontaneous” in the Daoist sense requires that one does not depend upon or “follow” some reality external to the self (Lai 2007, 30). Though the Daoist term ziran came to be extended in modern Chinese to refer to the natural world (ziranjie) as a whole, its original sense in fact implies something of the opposite, the irreducibly particular vitality that constitutes a thing as a thing in itself, independent from its environment. If the nature of Dao is to “follow its own spontaneity,” it is hard to infer from this that Dao is in some sense synonymous with “nature” as an abstract metaphysical entity. The Way is thus to be experienced in the self-creating autonomous reality of one’s own vitality, and this means focusing on the body as a single organism that can maintain its own internal cohesion independent from its environing context. In other words, the Dao functions as an immanent and subjective vital power, rather than as a transcendent or metaphysical reality.

In contrast to the Biblical view of time as a function of divine creation, the Daoist view proposes that time be understood as subjective somatic experience. In the famous story of the Daoist immortal Lü Dongbin, Lü falls asleep while cooking a pot of yellow millet. He then dreams that he ascends to power and becomes prime minister before falling from grace, being accused of crimes, and losing his wife, his children and his money. As he lies dying on the street, he wakes up just as the millet finishes cooking. The dream that had seemed to last eighteen years in fact had taken place in just a few minutes. This is a common leitmotiv in Daoist texts: time is not completely defined by the objective chronology of the rotation of the heavens, but it is also constituted internally through the subjective experience of the practitioner. In this sense, time emerges out of the interaction between the practitioner and his environment and is something that can be controlled and ideally slowed down.

2 Time and Hagiography

In order to understand the Daoist experience of time, therefore, it is helpful to move away from the rather abstract considerations of philosophical texts and consider the way the experience of time is presented in the many hagiographies that Daoists preserved. Hagiographies are a vital element of Daoist literature because they preserve what practitioners thought was important about the Daoist experience and function as evidence that Daoist practice can be successful, especially when it comes to the idea that life can be extended and transformed and ultimately obtain immortality. The Way of Highest Clarity, a Daoist religious movement that originates in a set of texts revealed in the late fourth century CE, had developed a sophisticated hierarchy of immortality in which immortality was conferred, like a title, upon those whose practices were deemed meritorious or successful in some way. Of the many stories of Daoist immortals, I have focused here on the religious biography of Perfected Purple Yang, born Zhou Yishan in 80 B.C.E (trans. Miller 2008).

The hagiography relates how, as a young man, Zhou engages in works of private charity and shies away from dealings with traditional social circles. Instead, he recognizes a local artisan as someone with Daoist training, who goes on to be his first teacher. The artisan turns out to be named Su Lin, and in the Daoist hierarchy of immortality has been given the title Immortal of the Central Sacred Mountain (Zhongyue xianren). Su Lin then proceeds to narrate his own life story, in which he studied from a middle-rank immortal (zhongxianren) and got as far as learning the methods of becoming an earthly immortal (dixianren 地仙人). Su Lin’s methods enabled him to acquire a long life, but not attain the high rank of becoming a flying immortal (feixian).

Zhou studies under Su Lin for five years, after which he is ready to embark on the second stage of his life, which involves touring around China’s famous mountains meeting new teachers who will be able to take him further in his own Daoist practice. His quest begins at Mt. Song the central of China’s five sacred mountains where he meets the Yellow Venerable Lord of the Center (Zhongyang huanglao jun), who questions him about the figures that he has encountered in his internal meditations and tells him that he will be able to achieve the high rank of Perfected Person once he is able to visualize Lord Wuying and the White Prime Lord (Baiyuan jun) in his internal meditations. Zhou sets off on an extended pilgrimage across twenty-four of China’s famous mountains, in which he encounters a variety of teachers, methods and scriptures. Eventually, Zhou is successful in his encounters and enters into a final phase of practice where he meditates for ninety years before being presented with the most important scripture of the Way of Highest Clarity, known as the Perfect Scripture of the Great Grotto (Dadong zhenjing; DZ 6). He practices the instructions contained in the text for eleven years before finally ascending to . This marks his spiritual apotheosis, and the biography concludes with a sermon preached by the newly ennobled Perfected Purple Yang.

In my 2008 book The Way of Highest Clarity, I analyzed this text (along with two others related to this Daoist movement) from the perspective of ideas of nature, vision, and revelation in medieval Chinese religion. What follows is an analysis from the perspective of the experience of time. I think this analysis can shed important light on Chinese understandings of longevity and immortality.

The framework that I have chosen for this analysis is captured in the title of my article: “Time, and Again, and Forever.” By these terms I hope to indicate three modalities of the religious experience of time that can be detected in this hagiography. The first of these refers to singular events or unique moments that have some one-off decisive effect upon the religious narrative. The second refers to repeated events or ritualized moments that through constant rehearsal accumulate to form a second kind of religious experience, one constituted by the experience of repetition. The third refers to the experience of immortality or transcendence, which constitutes the ultimate goal of the Daoist religious quest. Altogether these three modes of the experience of time combine to shape the narrative of the protagonist and give something of a clue to understanding Daoist approaches to time, transformation, and eternity.

3 Singular Time

The first of these three experiences we can understand as singular time, or one-off time, a constellation of events experienced as unique and transformative because of their singularity.

In the story of Zhou Ziyang, this kind of experience can be found in the initial encounter that set Zhou along the way to becoming a perfected being.

The Revelation of Su Lin

There was, moreover, a certain Huang Tai who lived in Chenliu. He had no wife or child, lived alone and was utterly without relatives. No one even knew where he came from. He usually wore raw hide pants and a worn-out hide coat. He was always selling straw sandals in Chenliu market.

Lord Zhou often walked incognito. When he was passing through the market, he noticed that Tai’s clothes were raggedy and all in tatters. Whenever Lord Zhou had heard about the methods of immortality, he had been told that immortals’ pupils were square; and although Huang Tai’s external appearance was threadbare, his eyes were square and his face was bright. [Lord Zhou] secretly marveled at him and in his heart he was elated.

When he returned home, he sent someone to buy straw sandals [from Huang Tai] and through him placed [gifts of] gold, silver cash or silk among [Huang Tai’s] things. He did things like this many times, not just the once. As a result, Huang Tai came to visit Lord Zhou. Lord Zhou bowed down in welcome and led him into his meditation chamber. In fact he was the Immortal of the Central Sacred Mountain. [Huang] Tai said:

“I have heard that you love the Way, practice virtue in secret and think about subtle and wondrous [phenomena]. This genuinely moves me, which is why I am paying you a visit. I am Su Lin, with the courtesy title Child Mystery, the Immortal of the Central Sacred Mountain. I am originally from Wei, born in the last year of Duke Ling [544 B.C.E.]. From a young age I loved the way and its power and I received instruction from Master Qin. He handed on to me Daoist arts of refining the body and eliminating disasters.” (Trans. Miller 2008, 114)

The story of the strange encounter with a Daoist immortal is a common feature of many Daoist hagiographies. Here the singularity of the event is emphasized in the way that Huang Tai (Su Lin) is described in ways that set him apart from ordinary people: his unusual eyes, his disguised appearance, his extraordinary age (some 600 years at the time of the story) all mark him as being fundamentally strange or abnormal. This emphasis on abnormality is a common feature of esoteric Daoist stories. They are keen to emphasize that entry into the Daoist path is not something that is common, not something for everyone, and that few will have this opportunity. In contrast to the teachings of mass religions that emphasize the common features of human experience such as suffering, sin, or delusion, the esoteric Daoist studies emphasizes the rarity and uniqueness of the Daoist’s encounter with the immortal being Su Lin. From this perspective. esoteric Daoism is grounded in the peculiarity or strangeness of its teachings. The revelation of Daoist teachings is not something that is made available to the masses but rather takes place in the uniqueness and singularity of the encounter between the master and the adept, the teacher and the disciple. While the normal experience of human beings is bound up with the routine activities and habits of life, the esoteric Daoist experience is forged in irregularity and strangeness. It is deliberately eccentric, mysterious, and abnormal.

In this sense we can see the operation of time grounded in the spontaneous transformation of states and events in multiple dimensions of experience as producing both regular patterns—days, months and years—and also peculiar combinations of circumstances forged unpredictably from the nexus of circumstances that are continuously arising and transforming. In this sense we can point towards an experience of time as individual and unpredictable moments constituted in the flux of myriad interlocking circumstances. Such moments are singular, unrepeatable and uncontrollable.

One common way for conceptualizing such occurrences is to describe them as “by chance” (ouran in modern standard Chinese). When Buddhist notions of karma thoroughly inflected Chinese cosmology, the notion of chance became replaced by karmic predestination. That is to say such happy encounters were not simply random or for no reason but the outworking of karmic consequences in perhaps a long chain of causes and effects that perhaps remain mysterious to the individuals in question. The modern Chinese term for this is yuanfen, a kind of karmic allotment that people commonly invoke in unexpected encounters that prove to be surprisingly beneficial.

No such term is invoked in the Daoist hagiography in question. The doctrine of karma had not yet been absorbed into the Daoist worldview. In a cosmos that is constituted by myriad self-generating, self-transforming processes, the encounter in this Daoist hagiography is simply the product of the disposition of things. It is, if you will, an arrangement of circumstances and events that emerged so as to produce a single moment, a single, unrepeatable, moment in which knowledge could be transmitted and revelation could take place. As a result, our hero sets out on his spiritual quest to become a perfected being.

4 Repeated Time

The next kind of time or occasion that features in our story is that of repetition. Of course this is perhaps one of the most familiar features of ritual experience and meditative practice. In this case, the transformative effect is encountered not in the uniqueness and absurdity of the chance encounter but in the deliberate revisiting and rehearsal of experience. In this case the passing of time is something that is to be recaptured, re-embodied and reinforced through the habits of religious practice.

In our story, this kind of time can be seen in the main section of the text which describes the progress of our hero through 24 mountains of China. In each place he encounters a Daoist immortal, receives further teachings and makes progress along the way.

This section of the text is quite formulaic. Here is an example

Next he climbed Mt. Heming. He met Lord Yang’an and received the Scripture of the Elixir made from Liquid Gold and the Diagram of the Divine Nine Tripod Elixir.

Next he climbed Mt. Meng. He met Master Azure Essence and received the Commentaries written on Yellow Silk.

Next he climbed Mt. Luhun. He took the hidden entrance to the Yi stream grotto-chamber and met Li Zi’er. He received the Eight Arts for being Concealed in the Earth.

Next he climbed Mt. Rong. He met Zhao Boxuan and received the Pure Sayings of the Three and Nine. (Trans. Miller 2008, 140)

In this section of the text, the repeated formula serves to emphasize the accumulation of knowledge and power through these encounters. In each case, a new layer of knowledge is being given to our hero, building him up for the climactic events that will herald his transformation into a perfected being. Here, although each encounter is unique in that it occurs in a unique place with a unique teacher and involves a unique text, the formulaic telling of the story downplays the individual significance of each encounter. Instead the text emphasizes their repeated, ritualized nature. Once more he climbs and mountain, and once more and once more. The effect of such a telling is to reinforce upon the reader the continuous, relentless nature of the hero’s quest to obtain Daoist teachings. It is not that the circumstances of the cosmos conspire to produce a rare and unique encounter that set him on the path towards Daoist wisdom. Rather it is the constant application of a learned formula, the desire to recapture the encounter that comes to the fore. This section of the text speaks to that mode of religious life that is encapsulated by ritual, by the repeated application of a formula, the power of which comes not from each moment’s individuality, but from the deep etching of repeated moments into the individual’s consciousness.

A further example of this kind of repetition can be found in Highest Clarity visualization texts in which the adept is counselled to engage in a specific practice at certain days and times. These religious practices thus depend not on the particular constellation of events that conspire to produce marvellous or strange encounters, but rather on the regular patterns of time and change that can be detected in the cyclical rhythms of the cosmos. A particular example of this can be found in the Central Scripture of the Nine Perfected, a Highest Clarity visualization text (see also Miller 2008 for a complete translation). The text details nine methods of visualizing gods entering the various organs of the body, producing various colored energies with the effect of transfiguring the body of the adept into that of an immortal being. One example can be seen in the Method of the Fourth Perfected:

In the sixth month on the jiachen day and on your fate day and on the wuyin day, at the noon hours, the Five Spirits, the Imperial Lord and Supreme Unity combine into one great spirit which enters the liver. His title is the Lord of Azure Radiance, his courtesy title, the Lad of the Wheel of Light. When this day comes, at noon you should enter your oratory, clasp your hands together on your knees, keep your breath enclosed, shut your eyes. Visualize inside yourself the Great Lord of Azure Radiance entering to sit in your liver. Make azure qi spit forth from his mouth to coil around your liver in nine layers. When this is done, clack your teeth nine times, swallow saliva nine times, then recite this prayer:

Great Lord of Azure Radiance,
Come into my liver.
Your body is wrapped in azure garb;
Your head is covered with a jade-green cap.

On your left you wear the [talisman of the] tiger emblem;
On your right you carry the [talisman of the] dragon writ.
Your courtesy title is “the Lad,”
“Treasure of Perfection, Wheel of Light.”

May azure qi gush forth from the mouth,
To nourish my liver and guide my spirit.
As my azure organ spontaneously regenerates,
On high may I become a celestial immortal.

O Supreme Unity protect my essence!
Embrace my earth souls and gather up my heaven souls!
O Lord, I respectfully beseech you: Grant that I may attain perfection.

When this is done, at midnight, when qi is being generated, repeat one more time. (Trans. Miller 2008, 140–41).

In this case the important thing to note is that the visualization ritual must be performed at specific times in the calendar, with reference to specific gods, specific organs of the body, specific colors, etc. The technique, in effect, depends for its effectiveness on knowing when all the various interlocking cycles of the cosmos and the body come together so as to unleash a moment of transformation. Such moments are not unique, chance encounters. Rather they are the product of regular, observable cycles of time that come together at certain times and places to facilitate transformation. The view of the cosmos here is something like a combination lock with many independent wheels that need to be aligned in order to become unlocked.

In both cases, that of the biography of Zhou Ziyang, and that of the Central Scripture of the Nine Perfected, the transformative effect of each encounter is built up out of the repeated cycles of experience. Time transforms through its being repeated and correlated with the multiple cyclical processes of the cosmos.

5 Forever Time

The final point I wish to make derives from the the culmination of these various Daoist practices in which the adept is finally transformed into a perfected being.

In the case of the esoteric biography of Perfected Purple Yang, the moment of apotheosis is marked by a sermon in which the newly ennobled perfected being declares his mastery of the whole cosmos. He proclaims

The [part of] heaven [where there is] nothing is called space. The [part of] a mountain [where there is] nothing is called a grotto. The [part of] a human [body where there is] nothing is called a [grotto] chamber. The empty spaces in the mountains and organs of the body are called grotto courts. The empty spaces in human heads are called grotto chambers. This is how the perfected take up residence in the heavens, the mountains and human beings. When they enter the place of nothingness, a grain of rice could contain Mt. Penglai, and embrace the sixfold harmony [of the cosmos], yet heaven and earth would not be able to contain it. (Trans. Miller 2008, 152)

In this case the Daoist proclaims that the organs of his body, the caves of the mountains and the outer space of the heavens are all constituted by the same nothingness. By means of this nothingness the perfected being is able to simultaneously inhabit all realms of the cosmos, the earth and the body. From this “place of nothingness” a grain of rice could enfold a mountain, but heaven and earth would not be able to contain it. This cosmology defined by space rather than matter is typical of Daoist philosophy in which the origin of all things is understood as nonbeing or nonaction. Precisely because the nothing of the body is the same as the nothing of the earth and the nothing of the heavens, all three dimensions of the cosmos can be contained in each other.

This experience is described in the more temporal terms of death and resurrection in the closing section of the Central Scripture of the Nine Perfected.

If you constantly practice the Way of the Nine Perfected the hundred spirits will bow down to you and the myriad ghosts will be at your service. Even if you pass through the Great Yin [death], your body and bones will not decay and your five organs will spontaneously be regenerated. Count twenty-four years and then you will be reborn: you will be intelligent; you will be enlightened and awake. You will clearly remember the day of old when you entered the Great Yin. It will seem as though you slept but a single night. Joyously, you will already be outside your coffin. Brightly, you will already be sitting on the peaks of hills and mountains. This is [brought about by] the abstruse marvels of the Nine Perfected and the ultimate spirit of the Imperial Lord. (Trans. Miller 2008, 192)

In this case the experience of transcendence is not described in terms of embracing all the realms of the cosmos within one’s body but rather as a transfigured experience of time. “Count twenty four years and you will be reborn … it will seem as though you slept but a single night.” The perfected person’s experience of time is not that of the ordinary human being. Like the Zhou Ziyang’s ability to embrace the cosmos within his body, here the perfected experiences vast ages of time as a single night.

This then gives a clue as to the Daoist understanding of immortality. For those who manage to survive five or six hundred years, it is as though the passage of time has little effect upon their bodies. They appear younger than their years, and they count centuries as we might count years. 

6 Somatic Time

Ultimately the Daoist experience of time, I believe, is about metabolism: the rate at which our bodies process our experience and encounters with the world around. Those with fast metabolisms die quickly. Those with slow metabolisms experience time at a different rate. For them forever is not such a long time as it is for us.

The Daoist experience of time in the end points us away from metaphysical understandings about the circular time, linear time, and the spontaneous emergence of change and transformation in the myriad processes of the cosmos. All this is important, but what truly counts is the way this is physiologically experienced, the way it transforms human bodies, and the effect that it has on the subjective experience of aging. The ultimate effects of time are thus to be measured not by the stars, the moon, and the sun, but by the lines etched upon the face, upon the heart, the liver, the spleen, and all the organs of our body. Time is not so much metaphysical but somatic.

The leitmotiv of Daoist practice can be summed up in this popular refrain: My fate lies within me and not within the heavens (see Schipper 2001). To put it another way: Time, and in particular the time of my death, is not ordained by the stars. It is a function of my somatic, embodied subjectivity. To understand time as something that humans produce within their bodies rather than something that happens to them externally is is one of the major spiritual goals of the Daoist tradition. It demands a reorientation of perceptions, and a deeper engagement with the experience of the inner life of the body.


Cheng, Chung-ying. 1986. “On the Environmental Ethics of the Tao and the Ch’i.” Environmental Ethics 8: 351–70.

Lai, Karyn. 2007. “Ziran and Wuwei in the Daodejing: An Ethical Assessment.” Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy 6: 325–337

Luhmann, Niklas. 1995. Social Systems. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Humberto R. 1980. “Introduction.” Pp. xi–xxx in Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living, edited by H. R. Maturana and F. J. Varela. Dordrecht, D. Reed Publishing Company.

Miller, James. 2008. The Way of Highest Clarity: Nature, Vision and Revelation in Medieval Chinese Religion. Magdalena, NM: Three Pines Press.


[1] Autopoeisis is a term created by Maturana (1980, xvii) to refer to the way that biological systems function as self-referential, autonomous organizations. In this regard, the “life” of an organism is constituted by its ability to maintain its internal organization independently of its engagement with its environment. This idea was extended to social systems by the German theorist Niklas Luhmann (1995). As Luhmann writes, “What distinguishes autopoietic systems from machines and the closed systems of classical equilibrium thermodynamics is the recursivity of their operations: they ‘not only produce and change their own structures’ but ‘everything that is used as a unit by the system is produced as a unit by the system itself’” (1995, xx).

Ecology, Aesthetics and Daoist Body Cultivation

Environmental Philosophy in Asian Traditions of ThoughtJames Miller. 2014. “Ecology, Aesthetics and Daoist Body Cultivation.” Pp. 225–244 in Environmental Philosophy in Asian Traditions of Thought edited by J. Baird Callicott and James McRae. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Please note that the text below is the uncorrected draft. 



The Daoist religious tradition offers a wide repertoire of body cultivation practices that focus on generating a phenomenological sensitivity to the inner body and its location within the world. These practices can be understood from the contemporary Western theoretical perspectives developed by Merleau-Ponty and Richard Shusterman. Merleau-Ponty proposed that the body constitutes the basis for phenomenological experience but did not develop the idea of the experience of the inner body that is so vital to Indian and Chinese body cultivation traditions. Richard Shusterman proposed the concept of “somaesthetics” or methods of training the body’s experience of the world, but did not consider the value of this from an ecophenomenological point of view. Extending these theoretical perspectives to interpret Daoist cultivation methods reveals that Daoists aim to dissolve the experiential boundary between the body and the world and create an experience of the mutual interpenetration of the body and the world. Such an experience can form the aesthetic basis for cultivating ecological sensitivity.


Despite the best efforts of Habermas and others, the project of modernity, grounded in the values of the European Enlightenment has been undergoing severe internal and external challenges. The source of those criticisms lies in the way that the project of modernity grasped the disembodied concept of autonomous reason formulated in the Enlightenment period in such a way that it became the sole source of authority and value in the social and cultural sphere. The Korean-American philosopher Hwa Jol Jung wrote:

European modernity is set to prejudge truth-claims by the criterion of Enlightenment. While privileging and valorizing the authority and autonomy of reason for allegedly human (material) progress and emancipation, it marginalizes, disenfranchises, and denigrates the (reason’s) Other whether it be (1) body, (2) woman, (3) nature, or (4) non-West which happen to be four central postmodern landmarks and subversive possibilities. While its protagonists insist on modernity as an unfinished project, its postmodern antagonists consider it as a failure and are determined to unpack and audit it.[1]

The most interesting and useful approach of late modern intellectuals to this problem has been the attempt to rethink the foundational dualism which underpins this whole project, namely the Cartesian dualism between the disembodied mind, the res cogitans, and the res extensa, the body that occupies space and time and houses our mental functioning. In my view, the most profound problem engendered by this way of thinking about thinking is that it divorces reasoning from the biological and evolutionary matrix that has made it possible. If reason can be reinscribed within the body and, ultimately, within the fifteen billion years of cosmic evolution, then this will go a long way to bridging the divide between humanity and nature. The body, then, should be the site par excellence for environmentalism as a social movement. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the failure of the environmental movement can be attributed largely to the way it perpetuates the type of dichotomous reasoning that precipitated humankind’s divorce from nature in the first place. So long as environmentalists urge others to respect, heal, or value nature as an object beyond the hermetically-sealed walls of their bodies, they subtly and unconsciously reinforce the absolute separation of the mind from the world.

To rewrite environmentalism thus requires rewriting the discourse so as no longer to perpetuate the false reification of nature as a thing outside the body, and the false reification of the mind as a wholly abstract and non-material central processing unit within human bodies. This is by no means unheard of in the West. The French philosopher of science, Gaston Bachelard, developed a theoretical understanding of the way that the human imagination is implicated in the materiality of human experience. Merleau-Ponty’s concept of “limbed experience” also drew attention to the somatic character of experience. Contemporary neuroscience is also beginning to understand the mind as a function of the whole body, not just the brain. Despite this, the Western tradition is not particularly known for its deep insight into the notion of “bodily experience” and in many ways lags behind the insights generated in Indian and Chinese cultures and religions. Hindu, Buddhist and Daoist traditions, for instance, have focussed for centuries on systematically cultivating an experience of the inner body and on understanding this experience in terms of broader cosmological concepts. In so doing they connect the lived experience of the body with the broader contexts of space, time and the fabric of the natural world. While contemporary environmentalists may not live in the same metaphysical world as these religious practitioners, they do inhabit the same bodies. The premise of this essay derives from this principle: rather than focussing on worldview and cosmology as a point of contact between religion and ecology, it would be better to foucs on somatic experiences as a way to overcome the dichotomy between body and world. What follows thus focusses on Chinese somatic traditions, specifically Daoist body cultivation, as non-discursive techniques for reinscribing the body within the world and the world within the body.


The French philosopher of science, Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962), developed a theory of the “material imagination,” which drew on the earliest foundations of Western science, namely, the four elements known to Greek natural philosophy: earth, air, fire and water. According to Bachelard the human imagination invests these elements with a poetic quality that elicits a “passionate liaison” between humans and their objects.[2] These affective bonds evoke what he termed the “intimate beauty of materials; their mass of hidden attraction, all that affective space concentrated inside things.”[3] Bachelard’s concept of the “material imagination” thus signifies the way in which human imagination is grounded in the very materiality of nature: the imagination engages the material character of the world; and it does so not in intellectual or disembodied way but through the affective, poetic character. He writes:

It is not knowledge of the real which makes us passionately love it. It is rather feeling which is the fundamental value. One starts by loving nature without knowing it, by seeing it well, while actualizing in things a love which is grounded elsewhere. Then, one seeks in it detail because one loves it on the whole, without knowing why.[4]

For Bachelard, then, the foundation for the connection between the mind and the world lies in the affect, the feelings and sensations that the natural world evokes in us. This affective bond precedes epistemology and ontology, and it has the power to shape our imagination and our creativity. It is because humans do not simply perceive nature but imbue it with value (even “over-rating” it) that we have the capacity to engage in the creative transformation of the world.[5]

The seductive power of the material imagination was viewed by Bachelard as the initial foundation for the human understanding of nature, a phenomenon that could give rise to science, but which science in its objectivity had to overcome. In fact science, to Bachelard, seemed increasingly incapable of understanding the natural phenomena that were most evocative for the human imagination. Take for example his discussion of fire:

Contemporary science has almost completely neglected the truly primordial problem that the phenomena of fire pose for the untutored mind. In the course of time the chapters on fire in chemistry textbooks have become shorter and shorter. There are, indeed, a good many modern books on chemistry in which it is impossible to find any mention of flame or fire. Fire is no longer a reality for science.[6]

Bachelard’s analysis suggests to me that science’s objectivity impels it to overlook the psychic affect of natural processes with the result that societies become increasingly blind to affective dimension of material experience. The process of modernization, therefore, entails a loss of the “affective space” that mediates between humans subjects and their lived environments. Though firmly committed to the principles of materialism and science, Bachelard was one of the first modern scientists to recognize and understand the precise nature of this loss. He laments, for instance, the loss of phenomenological depth that occurred in the transition from oil lamps to electric lighting turned on with the flick of a switch.[7] Electric light does not have the nearly as much capacity to evoke the material imagination as a flickering flame. The “administrative light” of an electric bulb, bound up in processes of bureaucracy and mechanization was typical of the modern condition. The spaces inhabited by humans thus become increasingly abstracted spaces, homogenized, geometrized and quantified.

This theme is picked up by later French thinkers. Baudrillard, for instance, noted how bodily engagement with labour and tools in traditional societies became replaced by mere “gestures of control.”[8] Heating houses becomes no longer an effort of collecting wood and lighting fires but regulating the thermostat in the hallway.[9] The post-modern condition, moreover, is characterized by technological forms that aim to simulate (and stimulate) the affective bonds that were lost in the transition to modernity. Thus, we have electric fires that look like real log fires, and online social networks that compensate for the loss of community in the abstract space of modernity.  Such simulations and virtualizations are testament to the deep-seated poetic power of the material imagination, rooted in millennia of physical engagement of human bodies in their physical contexts. The psychological power of such phenomena cannot be underestimated.

If we are to take Bachelard seriously, then poetry is as important as physics for understanding the human experience of the world. Indeed, this is the reason why in his Psychoanalysis of Fire, Bachelard undertakes a survey of the poetic rather than the physical ways in which fire has sparked the human imagination. The consequence of this way thinking about experience and imagination is of particular importance for environmentalists. It suggests that human imagination is driven at a fundamental level by aesthetics. Those who are concerned about the human relationship with the natural world should be concerned with discourse about the aesthetic experience of nature, as much as moral and legal issues, or indeed scientific issues. If Bachelard is right, then aesthesis, or feelings about nature underlie, our imagination and perception of the world. So long as the enlightenment mentality and the processes of modernization overlook the aesthetic realm as foundational for the human engagement with the natural world, then they will be incapable of addressing the ecological crisis in any seriously meaningful way.


If Bachelard is right about the primordial psychic power of material phenomena, then this should lead us to develop a philosophical account of the nature of lived experience as a psychosomatic unity rather than the Cartesian account of a res cogitans and a res extensa. Indeed this has been the major project of Merleau-Ponty and other philosophers who were convinced that the Heideggerian emphasis on lived experience should point us in the direction of the body not simply as the container for experience but as the generative matrix of those experiences. Indeed, it is not simply that the body functionally generates an “experience” of an external “world” but rather that the body provides the spatial location that is necessary for the perception of a phenomenological world. Without a body there could be no experience of the world as it is given to us, and without a world there could be no body. He writes:

My body is not an object, but a means, an organization. In perception I organize with my body an association with the world. With my body and through my body, I inhabit the world. The body is the field in which perceptions localize themselves.[10]

The emphasis here on the carnal unity of the body and the world is particularly significant for ecological discourse. Of particular note is the famous statement that the body as

flesh is not matter, is not mind, is not substance. To designate it, we should need the old term ‘element,’ in the sense it was used to speak of water, air, earth, and fire, that is, in the sense of a general thing, midway between the spatio-temporal individual and the idea, a sort of incarnate principle that brings a style of being wherever there is a fragment of being. The flesh is in this sense an element of Being.[11]

Merleau-Ponty regards the body akin to Bachelard’s elements, that is to say, as the fundamental building block of our lived experience of the world.

In The Visible and the Invisible, Merleau-Ponty develops his understanding of perception with the notion of reversibility, that when perception is understood as being constituted in the flesh, then to perceive the world is also to be perceived by the world: one cannot touch without being touched; one cannot see without simultaneously presenting oneself to be seen by the world. In contrast to Descartes’s cogito, we can say tango et tangor (I touch and I am touched). Whatever we touch, perceive and even think, we do so from within a world, not from outside it.

This approach to phenomenology has been instrumental in generating what has been termed the “enactive approach” of embodied cognitive science.[12] According to Colombetti and Thompson, this “dynamical systems approach has challenged the idea that cognition is the manipulation of abstract representations according to syntactic rules, and has proposed instead that cognition emerges from the coupled interactions of the brain, body, and environment.”[13] This approach is, moreover, challenging the dominant tradition of cognitive science that draws on Cartesian understandings of the mind/body dualism. Colombetti and Thompson summarize this field as follows:

In summary, according to the enactive approach, the human mind is embodied in our entire organism and embedded in the world, and hence is not reducible to structures inside the head. Meaning and experience are created by, or enacted through, the continuous reciprocal interaction of the brain, the body, and the world.[14]

But Merleau-Ponty’s work has been significant not simply for rethinking the process of embodied cognition, but also on the other side of the coin, for thinking about the lived world that is generated through the process of cognition. Indeed his work has been instrumental for a new line of ecological phenomenology that seeks to explore the value of phenomenology for contributing to a holistic, ecological, systemic view of the relationship between the body and the world. One of chief protagonists of this movement is David Abram. In an early essay, published in 1988, Abram first alludes to the ecological possibilities of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology. He writes:

His work suggests a rigorous way to approach and to speak of the myriad ecosystems without positing our immediate selves outside of them. Unlike the language of information processing and cybernetics, Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of the flesh provides a way to describe and disclose the living fields of integration from our experienced place within them. The convergence of Merleau-Ponty’s aims with those of a genuine philosophical ecology cannot be too greatly stressed.[15]

Despite the work that has been undertaken in Western philosophy to recuperate the body as the foundation for the human experience of the world, such work remains remarkably abstract given that its focus is on the body. Two criticisms are readily apparent. The first is that made by the American pragmatist philosopher Richard Shusterman who criticizes Merleau-Ponty for emphasizing the way in which somatic perception operates spontaneously. Most of us most of the time do not need to think about or reflect upon how precisely we are constructing our bodily experiences of the lived world. The great marvel of perception is that we do not have to consciously think about how to navigate a crowded party without bumping into a waiter carrying a trayful of cocktails: we just do it. But Shusterman wants more than simply being able to be successful in ordinary pursuits. He advocates what he calls “somaesthetics” that is training the body’s perceptual engagement with the world so as to achieve greater pragmatic benefits. He writes:

While I share Merleau-Ponty’s appreciation of our inexplicit, unreflective somatic perception, I think we should also recognize that it is often painfully inaccurate and dysfunctional. I may think I am keeping my head down when swinging a golf club, though an observer will easily see I do not. Disciplines of somatic education deploy exercises of representational awareness to treat such problems of mis-perception and misuse of our bodies in the spontaneous and habitual behavior that Merleau-Ponty identifies as primal and celebrates as miraculously flawless in normal performance.[16]

The problem, as Shusterman sees it, is that if perception is somatic, then it can and should be trained somatically so as to create pragmatically better representations of our place in the world. The value of such representations, however, may extend beyond purely physical activities such as tennis and golf. Theoretically at least it should be possible to engage in training so as to overcome the false reification of self and world so as to arrive at a perception of the self within the world and not outside of it. In short why not use somaesthetic disciplines—the training of the habits of bodily perceptions—so as to bring about an ecological sensitivity?

I mentioned earlier that two major criticisms have emerged of Merleau-Ponty’s abstract discussion of the phenomenology of the body. The first was Shusterman’s criticism that Merleau-Ponty emphasized the spontaneous nature of perception and neglected to consider the way perception and experiences can be shaped through somatic disciplines. The second criticism focuses on Merleau-Ponty’s reluctance to speak about the depth of the inner body. While his philosophy makes it perfectly clear that perception depends upon a depth of field for experience, he does not consider that this depth, or experience of dimensionality, can also be applied to the perception of the inner body. The Indian philosopher Sundar Sarukkai commented on this in a 2002 essay published in Philosophy East & West. Discussing Merleau-Ponty and his interpreters he writes:

But nowhere in these discussions do we find any detailed attempt to explicate the idea of the ‘inner’ body. The lack of such a discussion suggests that these writers view the body as a homogeneous entity, because of which there is little possibility of articulating a phenomenology of the inner body. I believe that the most important reason for this continued ambiguity regarding the notion of inner with respect to the body is to be found in the absence of a tradition of lived experience of the inner body in the West, one that could have been used by Merleau-Ponty in a manner similar to the case histories of Schneider.[17] In contrast, the phenomenological experiences of yoga strongly suggest the possibility of a lived experience of the inner body.[18]

Before discussing yoga, Sarukkai gives the example of eating in order to argue for the phenomenological experience of dimensionality or depth within the inner body. He writes:

The body experience of eating is equivalent to the phenomenological experience of dimensionality and thus is intertwined with the notion of ‘inside.’ The process of eating is never visible to us. Further actions related to eating, such as mashing the food, swallowing, and so on, are all events in the ‘dark side’ of the body. We can never ‘see’ ourselves eating, but we experience it all the time. We experience swallowing the food; we experience its passage through the food pipe into the region of the stomach. These experiences all constitute an experience of dimensionality, an expression of the ‘inside’ of the boy. We are usually unaware of these processes except in times of pain and distress of the inner body. But practices like yoga allow us a continuous, conscious grasp of the inner body.[19]

Sarukkai’s approach is instructive in that it opens up a new dimension to the question of embodied experience, one that embodied traditions such as Yoga, Tantra or Daoist body cultivation can function as interlocutors, and not mere as data to be studied. In the second half of this paper I analyze the depiction of the inner body that emerges in Daoist body cultivation, and I suggest that this depiction can be instructive not simply for Shusterman’s project of understanding somaesthetic disciplines, but also for Abram’s project of eco-phenomenology.

Somatic Disciplines

The argument, put briefly, is that the traditions of Daoist body cultivation can be understood as non-discursive somatic disciplines that inscribe the body within the world and the world within the body. As such they may be fruitfully illuminated by Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of the reversibility of phenomenal perception. Secondly, I wish to advance the hypothesis that training in these somatic disciplines can overcome the experience of the world as other, and can provide the aesthetic or sensory foundation for ecologically responsible patterns of behavior. In short, the visual and sensual experience of the body inside the world and the world inside the body can constitute the proper aesthetic grounds for ecologically sensitivity praxis.

To those who are familiar with early Daoist philosophy, such a project might seem rather surprising. In comparison to the deep attention paid to the body’s inner workings in Yoga, early Daoist texts emphasize spontaneity and unreflective skill when it comes to the body’s engagement with the world.[20] In describing the meditation technique known as “sitting and forgetting” (zuowang), the Zhuangzi ch. 6 puts the following words in the mouth of Confucius’s favourite student Yan Hui:


I smash up my limbs and body, drive out perception and intellect, cast off form, do away with understanding, and make myself identical with the Great Thoroughfare. This is what I mean by sitting down and forgetting everything.[21]

At first glance it might seem that this passage advocates an understanding of perception that goes against Merleau-Ponty’s limbed and lived experience of the world. “Do away with limbs and body” says Yan Hui. The key to understanding such a passage, however, is to recognize that zuo wang or “sitting and forgetting” is actually somatic discipline the aim of which is to “forget” or discard conventional phenomenal perception in order to arrive at a state of equivalence (tong) with the Way. The foundation of this method of somatic discipline lies in paying attention to the limbed experience of reality, even if the ultimate goal is somehow to move beyond such an experience. But as Merleau-Ponty would surely agree, the only way to there is from here. The foundation for many Daoist practice lies first of all in becoming sensitive to the way that our body conditions our experience of the world, that is to say, paying attention first of all to the “here” rather than the “there.” If the Daoist is to attain some kind of all-pervading unity with the Way, this cannot be done except from within the bodily experience of the world.

It would be a mistake, therefore, to spiritualize one’s interpretation of the Zhuangzi in the manner of perennial philosophy. Making oneself identical with the “Great Thoroughfare” should not be interpreted as a kind of neo-Platonic mystical intellection of Being-Itself. At least, that is not how the Daoist tradition came to understand unity with the Way. We know this because the Daoist tradition developed an extraordinary repertoire of physical cultivation practices that focus, like Yoga, upon the inner body. Daoists, however, tend to express the goal of cultivation slightly differently from Yoga: the aim is not so much liberation from the world, that is, the realm of phenomenal experience; but rather dissolving the boundaries between the lived body and its lived environment. To put it more bluntly, the goal is not transcendence, but translucence, that is to say the body thoroughly pervading and being pervaded by the world. Before I go on to explain this idea of pervasion 通 more fully, it is worth while focusing briefly on some of the methods by which Daoists have cultivated their bodies.

The Way of Highest Clarity

The Way of Highest Clarity (上情道) which existed as a distinct tradition for about 1,000 years from the 4th century onwards. This tradition advocated and refined a tradition of internal visual meditation, in which the body was perceived as a rich and splendid cosmos inhabited by gods. This meditative practice was generally known as cun 存 which is normally translated in textbooks as “visualization” since the goal of such a practice was to bring about a vision of a god inside the body. The term 存 however has a rich web of meanings that deserves careful explication. In modern Chinese it is combined with 在 to form the binome 存在, commonly translated as “existence.” More accurately, however, this binome might be translated as “to persist in a particular location” for it refers not to an abstract concept—existence as such—but to the haecceity or “this-ness” of some discrete particular. The metaphysical presupposition is that to exist means to assume a particular temporal and spatial condition. To exist temporally means to have the quality of persistence that occupies a temporal duration that has a beginning and an end. To exist spatially means to occupy a particular finite space. Such an view coheres with the Heideggerian insight into the givenness of Dasein: existence is irreducibly locative.

In his analysis of the term cun the Sinologist Edward Schafer notes:

Here ts’un is used as a transitive verb, taking the divine being whose appearance is desired as its object. It would be inadequate to translate this word as ‘visualize’: the adept’s efforts produce more than a mental picture. The word means ‘to make sensibly present,’ ‘to give existence to’—almost ‘to materialize.’[22]

In Highest Clarity cultivation, therefore, adepts are seeking to materialize the perception of cosmic powers within the inner space of their bodies.

A typical example is as follows:

以正月本命日甲子甲戌日平旦帝,君太一五神壹共混 合,變為一大神,在心之內。號曰天 精君,字飛生上 英,貌如嬰兒始生 之狀。是其日平 旦,當入室接手於兩膝上,閉氣冥目,內視存天精君 坐在心中,號曰大 神,使大神口出紫氣,鬱然以繞我心外九重氣,上銜泥 丸中,內外如一。

In the first month, on your fate day, the jiazi day, and the jiaxu day at dawn the Five Spirits, the Imperial Lord and Supreme Unity merge together into one great spirit which rests in your heart. His title is the Lord of Celestial Essence, his courtesy title Highest Hero of Soaring Birth, and his appearance is like an infant immediately after birth. On this day at dawn, enter your chamber, clasp your hands together on your knees, keep your breath enclosed and shut your eyes. Look inside and visualize the Lord of Celestial Essence sitting in your heart. He is called a great spirit. Make him spew forth purple qi to coil thickly around one’s heart in nine layers, and let it rush up into the niwan. Inner and outer [dimensions] are as one.[23]

As this brief but highly typical passage makes clear, Highest Clarity meditation is characterized by generating rich perceptual experiences in the inner body, described in terms of gods spewing forth energy which floods the various organs of the adept. The cryptic statement at the end indicates the overall goal: 內外如一 the inside and the outside are the same. I interpret this statement as an experience of the translucence of the body. Whereas Merleau-Ponty focused on the way the phenomenon of depth constructs an experience of the world as existing as a horizon surrounding the body of the individual, the goal of Daoist cultivation seems to be to attempt to dissolve the boundary between the body and its environment so that the inner and outer dimensions are perceptively and sensually experienced as a unity.

The metaphor of translucence is even thematized in certain Daoist hagiographies as a quality that applies to the body of the adept. In the Esoteric Biography of Perfected Purple Yang 紫陽真人內傳 the protagonist, Zhou Ziyang 周紫陽 concocts a recipe for conquering the three death-bringing worms that were thought to inhabit the mortal body. The result of ingesting the herbal concoction for five years was that Zhou’s body “produced a glossy sheen so that it was possible to see right through to his five organs 身生光澤,徹視內見五臟”.[24] In this case the theme of translucence is even applied to the materiality of the Daoist’s body.

Adepts who attained this level of translucence were also though to be able to travel great distances in an instant, hear what was taking place far away, and make themselves visible and invisible at will.[25] It is intriguing that these “magical” powers are all concerned at some level with perception. They suggest that the perceptual world of the successful Daoist practitioner is bounded by a much further horizon than that of the ordinary human. Whereas ordinary people have limited vision and hearing, the empirical sensitivity of the Daoist adept is much greater.

I am not arguing here that such Daoist practices were undertaken for purposes that could be considered remotely akin to today’s environmentalism. What I am saying is that Daoist tradition exhibits a range of practices that depend upon what we can anachronistically refer to as an ecological sense of self, a sense of the body and its environing context being inextricably embedded in each other. Such practices are of interest to the project of rewriting environmentalism because they suggest that non-discursive modes of somatic discipline can bring about an experiential awareness of the body in the world and the world in the body.

The Daoist tradition contains various famous images of the body as a landscape, the most widely known of which is the 內經圖 or Diagram of the Internal Pathways, a late nineteenth-century stone stele housed at the White Cloud Monastery in Beijing. The stele depicts the human body as a landscape of streams, mountains, stars, human figures and deities. Broadly speaking these represent the energetic pathways, the meridians of qi which flow through the body, and also specific energy points within the body. As Louis Komjathy writes:

The Neijing tu is an illustration not only of the meridians of qi running through the body, but also of the Daoist body as terrestrial and cosmological landscape and as the dwelling‐place of inner luminosities or effulgences. From a Daoist perspective, the human body corresponds to, embodies, various “external” presences—mountains, altars, colors, rivers, constellations, temples, spirits, forests, and so forth. The Neijing tu maps the landscape which is the human self. … The Neijing tu may be understood as the “Internal Landscape Map.”[26]

In his analysis of the Neijing tu, Komjathy is clear that its purpose is to depict the internal landscape of the body as revealed through the traditions of body cultivation practiced within the Dragon Gate (Longmen 龍門) lineage of the Way of Complete Perfection (Quanzhen dao 全真道), the major sect of monastic Daoism that exists in present-day China. The map in fact draws on a long tradition of representing the “internal” body using images from the “external” world. Such imagery at its heart transgresses the intuitive psychology that is based on strict categories of inside and outside. As we saw earlier, the Daoist tradition has an interest in breaking this default conception of the way the body is related to the world, and in positing a psychosomatic unity of the “internal body” and the “external world.”

It is my contention that the transgressive emphasis on the unity of inner and outer experience can be used as the basis for developing an aesthetic sensitivity to environmental concerns. Consider for instance, the problem of moral proximity, that moral reasoning does not easily extend to situations that are beyond the perceptual horizon of the moral agent. For instance, it is easier to kill an enemy soldier by pressing a button on a computer and launching a missile across the world than it is to walk up to someone and strangle them to death. Similarly it is easy to be offended by someone dumping litter on the street in your hometown than by the environmental and social effects of waste being transported across the world to be dumped into landfills or picked over by child laborers in desperate poverty. Equally, it is difficult for some people to be concerned by the rapid extinction of species in distant places. The issue here is that because of the limits to our senses, and the limited range of our aesthetic powers, we are unable to formulate the necessary moral vigor to bring about a change in behavior. What we put beyond the horizon of our perception, we condemn to aesthetic and moral irrelevance.

If we are serious about cultivating an environmental ethic that can pay attention to the globalized nature of environmental issues, then we also need a method of cultivating the aesthetic sensitivity to ecological devastation that seems to be beyond the horizon of our ordinary experience. Paradoxically, the Daoist tradition seems to work on expanding the horizon of experience not by encouraging people to travel across the world or by “expanding their minds” but by developing disciplines for experiencing the depth of the lived world within the depth of the living body. This is an extremely valuable insight for developing an eco-aesthetic sensitivity. I am not suggesting that this is what Daoists have historically done, but I am suggesting that this is what the tradition is capable of.

Qi Cultivation

The Neo-Confucian tradition of course pursued such insights with a great deal of philosophical force, focused on understanding the relationship between vital force (qi 氣) and principle (li 理) in shaping the dynamics of the cosmos. While I have a great deal of respect for the metaphysical speculations of Confucian philosophy, I would contend that eco-aesthetic sensitivity is generated in the realm of practice rather than theory. I would like to conclude by giving one example of how this can take place. This example is found in an autoethnographic study written by Denver Nixon of the effects of practicing Qigong, a type of moving meditation, under the instruction of a Daoist master in China. In his account of this practice, Nixon compares his own experience of practicing Qigong with accounts of how those suffering from chronic illnesses can develop an internal dialogue with their own bodies. He writes:

Kathy Charmaz (1991) describes the manner in which those suffering from chronic illness tend to develop a dialectic self, comprised of the physical self and the monitoring self. By going through the ordeal of illness, people develop a heightened sense of awareness of their own bodies, and can thus respond to their body’s needs. This monitoring self, once created, usually remains after the illness has subsided. Regarding her ill body, Sara Shaw explained, “I got to know it; I got to understand it. … I got to respect it. … [I got to know] how my body was doing, how my body was feeling” (Charmaz 1991: 70-72). In the case of illness, the process of sensitive self-monitoring typically requires a level of self-objectification or personification; “dialogue” with one’s sick kidney, for example, may demonstrate this type of “split”.[27]

Nixon goes on to use this as a comparison for explaining how the practice of qigong affected his own perceptual sensitivity:

During my research, it seemed that qigong also cultivated sensitivity and awareness, but in a way that did not objectify and thereby bifurcate experience along an inward/outward fracture. That is, the awareness generated through the practice of qigong does not stop at the skin, but rather “knows” the body as whole and part of its environment.[28]

Nixon seems to be suggesting, therefore, that even basic Qi movement practices can have the effect of reshaping the mode of awareness of our bodies within their lived environments. He concludes that this practice may even be considered an alternative epistemology, one that complements normative approaches that privilege discursive knowing over practical knowing. Nixon’s interest in this approach is similar to my own, that is to say, attempting to assess the extent to which somatic disciplines can not merely improve your golf swing, but contribute to your ecological sensitivity. According to Nixon:

Substituting or complementing normative epistemic approaches with those less privileged may facilitate different, if not more comprehensive, environmental understandings. It appears that qigong, by breaking the discursive mediation and bifurcation of reality and improving present, perceptive depth, sensitizes the practitioner to the emerging context within which they are increasingly undifferentiated, and thus allows them to engage with it “harmoniously.”[29]

In Nixon’s experience, therefore, Qigong led to an increased sensitivity to the emerging context of his lived world, and overcame the conventional bifurcation of reality into subject and object. It did so by improving “perceptive depth,” which we may interpret as reshaping the mode of bodily perception and engagement with the lived environment. This sense of the unity of the body with the emergent phenomena of the world is termed “pervasion” 通 in the Daoist tradition.

Pervasion (tong 通) and Eco-Aesthetics

Pervasion may be understood as the somatic experience of the mutual constitution of the lived body and its lived environment. The term appears in the quotation from Zhuangzi, cited above, in which the Yan Hui wishes to make himself “identical with the Great Thoroughfare” or Great Pervasiveness (tong yu da tong 同於大通). This experience is thematized in the Daoist with the metaphor of “translucence,” with depictions of the inner landscape of the body, and through the experience of qi as the psychophysical stuff that constitutes the vitality of the lived body and the lived world. While Confucian philosophy reflected deeply on the harmonious unity of nature and humanity (tian ren he yi 天人合一), it was the Daoist tradition that sought to enact such a unity through non-discursive somatic practices.

If the approach of embodied cognition is correct, then it would seem that the unity of the world and the lived body is predicated on the body as the system that enacts experience. The problem faced by environmentalists, however, is that this process of cognition takes place unconsciously so that our minds generate a perception of a world that is external to our bodies and a perception of our bodies as an invisible interior, fundamentally disconnected from the world that envelops them. Though embodied cognitive science and embodied religious traditions may perceive that this dualism is constructed as part of the process of cognition and not intrinsic to the reality of things, this does not accord with the ordinary experience of ordinary people. Only theoreticians in laboratories, philosophers in libraries, and monks in monasteries come close to understanding the ways that our bodies enact the world that we experience. Overcoming this fundamental dualism of self and other, body and world, is simply counterintuitive to conventional perceptions. And yet it is necessary for generating an aesthetic awareness that can be the foundation for ecologically responsible action.

I would like to conclude this essay by repeating the point that I made at the beginning of this: So long as people urge others to respect, heal, or value nature as an object beyond the hermetically-sealed walls of their bodies, they subtly and unconsciously reinforce the absolute separation of the mind from the world. Such an approach to environmentalism is doomed to failure. Embodied traditions such as Daoist cultivation could play an important role in teaching people how to overcome this dualism, and how to create alternative experiences of the world not as external to body, but within the body. The Daoist experience of pervasion is predicated on the possibility of the world flooding into the body and the body flooding into the world. Such transgressive experiences may serve to break down the ordinary perception of a world disconnected from the body of the individual. In their place such experiences could generate an ecological aesthesis, a psychosomatic sensitivity to the mutual implication of the lived body and the lived world. Such a sensitivity could serve as a much-needed complement to discursive modes of environmental action, such as earth charters, policies, ethics and legislation.


Abram, David. “Merleau Ponty and the Voice of the Earth.” Environmental Ethics 10.2 (1988).

Bachelard, Gaston. L’Eau et les rêves. Essai sur l’imagination de la matière. Paris: Corti, 1942.

______. The Psychoanalysis of Fire. Trans. Alan C. M. Ross. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1962.

Baudrillard, Jean. Le Système des objets. Paris: Gallimard, 1968.

Charmaz, Kathy. Good Days, Bad Days: The Self In Chronic Illness and Time. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1991.

Colombetti, Giovanna and Evan Thompson. 2007. “The feeling body: Towards an enactive approach to emotion”. In Developmental Perspectives on Embodiment and Consciousness edited by Willis F. Overton, Ulrich Müller, and Judith Newman, 45-68. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Jung, Hwa Jol.“Enlightenment and the Question of the Other: A Postmodern Audition.” Human Studies 25 (2002): 297–306.

______. 2007. “Merleau-Ponty’s Transversal Geophilosophy.” In Merleau-Ponty and environmental philosophy: dwelling on the landscapes of thought edited by Sue Cataldi and William Hamrick, 235-258. Albany: SUNY Press

Kaplan, Edward K. “Gaston Bachelard’s Philosophy of Imagination: An Introduction.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 33.1 (1972): 1-24

Komjathy, Louis. “Mapping the Daoist Body Part One: The Neijing tu in History.” Journal of Daoist Studies 1 (2008): 67–92

Lane, Jeremy F “Towards a Poetics of Consumerism: Gaston Bachelard’s ‘Material Imagination’ and Narratives of Post-War Modernisation.” French Cultural Studies 17.1 (2006): 19-34

Miller, James. The Way of Highest Clarity: Nature, Vision and Revelation in Medieval China. Magdalena, NM: Three Pines Press, 2008.

Nixon, Denver Vale. “The Environmental Resonance of Daoist Moving Meditations.” Worldviews: Environment, Culture, Religion 10.3 (2006): 380–403

Sarukkai, Sundar. “Inside/Outside: Merleau-Ponty/Yoga.” Philosophy East and West 52.4 (2002): 459-478

Schafer, Edward. “The Jade Woman of Greatest Mystery,” History of Religions 17:3/4 (1978): 387–398.

Shusterman, Richard. “Body Consciousness and Performance: Somaesthetics East and West.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 67.2 (2009):133–145

Varela, Francis. J., Evan Thompson, Evan, and E. Rosch, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991.

Watson, Burton, trans. 1968. The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu. New York: Columbia University Press



[1] Hwa-Jol Jung, “Enlightenment and the Question of the Other: A Postmodern Audition” Human Studies 25 (2002): 298

[2] Gaston Bachelard, La Poétique de l’espace, (Paris: PUF/Collection ‘Quadrige’, 7e édition, 1998 [1957]), 33; quoted in Jeremy F. Lane, “Towards a Poetics of Consumerism: Gaston Bachelard’s ‘Material Imagination’ and Narratives of Post-War Modernisation” French Cultural Studies 17.1 (2006): 21.

[3] Gaston Bachelard, La Terre et les rêveries de la volonté (Paris: José Corti, 1948), 9; quoted in Lane, “Poetics,” 20.

[4] Gaston Bachelard, L’Eau et les rêves. Essai sur l’imagination de la matière, (Paris: Corti 1942), 155; quoted in Edward K. Kaplan, “Gaston Bachelard’s Philosophy of Imagination: An Introduction,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 33.1 (1972), 4.

[5] Kaplan, “Gaston Bachelard,” 5.

[6] Gaston Bachelard, The Psychoanalysis of Fire, trans. Alan C. M. Ross, (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1964), 2.

[7] Lane, “Poetics,” 23

[8] Jean Baudrillard, Le Système des objets, (Paris: Gallimard, 1968), 77.

[9] Lane, “Poetics,” 28

[10] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Husserl et la Notion de Nature (Notes Prises au Cours de Maurice Merleau-Ponty)” Revue de Metaphysique et de Morale 70 (1965): 261; quoted in Hwa-Jol Jung, “Merleau-Ponty’s Transversal Geophilosophy,” in Merleau-Ponty and Environmental Philosophy: Dwelling on the Landscapes of Thought, ed. Sue Cataldi and William Hamrick, (Albany: SUNY Press, 2007), 241.

[11] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Le Visible et L’Invisible (Paris: Gallimard, 1964),139–140; quoted in Jung, “Transversal,” 242–243.

[12] See Varela et al., The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press,1997).

[13] Giovanna Colombetti and Evan Thompson, “The feeling body: Towards an enactive approach to emotion,” in Developmental Perspectives on Embodiment and Consciousness ed. Willis F. Overton, et al., (New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: 2007), 46.

[14] Colombetti and Thompson, “Feeling body,” 56.

[15] David Abram, “Merleau Ponty and the Voice of the Earth,” Environmental Ethics 10.2 (1988), 119.

[16] Richard Shusterman, “Body Consciousness and Performance: Somaesthetics East and West,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 67.2 (2009): 139.

[17] Schneider suffered head injuries and consequently many mental disorders. Merleau-Ponty used his case notes as evidence to refute empiricist and intellectualist theories of perception.

[18] Sundar Sarrukai, “Inside/Outside: Merleau-Ponty/Yoga,” Philosophy East and West 52.4 (2002): 462

[19] Sarukkai, “Inside/Outside,” 466.

[20] Shusterman, “Body,” 136.

[21] Burton Watson, trans., Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings, (New York: Columbia, 1964), 87.

[22] Edward Schafer, “The Jade Woman of Greatest Mystery,” History of Religions 17:3/4 (1978): 387–398.

[23] Central Scripture of the Nine Perfected (Jiu zhen zhong jing 九真中經) trans. adapted from James Miller, The Way of Highest Clarity: Nature, Vision and Revelation in Medieval China (Magdalena, NM: Three Pines Press, 2008), 173.

[24] Miller, The Way of Highest Clarity, 123.

[25] Miller, The Way of Highest Clarity, 65.

[26] Louis Komjathy, “Mapping the Daoist Body Part One: The Neijing tu in History,” Journal of Daoist Studies 1 (2008): 82–83.

[27]  Denver Vale Nixon, “The Environmental Resonance of Daoist Moving Meditations,” Worldviews: Environment, Culture, Religion 10.3 (2006): 389-90.

[28] Nixon, “Environmental,” 390.

[29] Nixon, “Environmental,” 395.

Is Green the New Red? The Role of Religion in Creating a Sustainable China

jnl_cover_ncJames Miller. 2013. “Is Green the New Red? The Role of Religion in Creating a Sustainable China.” Nature and Culture 8.3: 249-264.


The Chinese Daoist Association has embarked upon an ambitious agenda to promote Daoism as China’s “green religion”. This new construction of a “green Daoism” differs, however, from both traditional Chinese and modern Western interpretations of the affinity between Daoism and nature. In promoting Daoism as a green religion, the Chinese Daoist Association is not aiming to restore some mythical utopia of humans living in harmony with nature, but instead to support a nationalist agenda of patriotism and scientific development. At the same time, as I shall argue, this agenda may deliver positive benefits in the form of protecting the local environments around important sacred sites that are located in areas of outstanding natural beauty.


China, culture, Daoism, environment, religion, sustainability


That religion might play a role in creating a sustainable future for the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases might seem at best to be hopelessly idealistic, and at worst a category mistake. Though the ideological frameworks espoused by China’s modernizers over the past century have undergone remarkable reforms and revolutions, they have remained consistent in relegating religion to the arena of reactionary forces that hinder China’s quest for political and economic autonomy. Religion, like global warming, the energy crisis, or social unrest, is just one more problem that China’s leaders have to grapple with in steering the Chinese economy toward a peaceful and sustain- able future. Despite the recent resurgence of interest in traditional Chinese culture, religion has not been emphasized. In elevating Con- fucius to the status of national hero, for example, China’s rulers are hoping that the spiritual crisis afflicting China’s people, endlessly tossed about in a swirling sea of social transformation, will be resolved by the nontheistic, nonreligious, and ultimately nonthreatening values of filial piety, social responsibility, and educational self-improvement. The government’s uncharitable and ideologically charged view of religion is, unsurprisingly, not shared by China’s religious organizations. The Chinese Daoist Association, in particular, is working to construct an image of Daoism as China’s green religion and to position Daoism as a source of ecological wisdom that can make a positive contribution in China’s transition to an ecologically sustainable economy. In doing so they are drawing on a wealth of philosophical insight, moral values, and historical practice that are particularly relevant to the way the contemporary ecological crisis is culturally construed and represented in China. These values are oriented toward a nationalist agenda aimed at preserving elements of Chinese heritage and contributing to the future success of the Chinese nation.

Cultural Frames for the Ecological Crisis

Before examining the current activities of the Chinese Daoist Association with respect to nature and the environment, it is helpful to consider the cultural frames that shape the way that Daoism and nature are seen to be related, both in China and the West. This is because the ecological crisis is not simply amenable to scientific analysis and technological remediation, but has also been consistently construed by Western social science and humanities theorists such as Plum- wood (2002) as a philosophical, cultural, and even spiritual crisis: it is a crisis in the way that human beings envision themselves in rela- tion to their natural environments; and it is a crisis that has a specific cultural genealogy and normative taxonomy. In terms of genealogy, the ecological crisis has been associated most clearly with the values of instrumental rationality that arose in the European Enlightenment era. The worldview that regards nature as having only an instrumental value in relation to human goals—and not having any intrinsic value in and of itself—is, according to this analysis, a uniquely modern, Western view. Viewed from this perspective, the ecological crisis has become identified on the cultural level not as a universal problem confronting human beings everywhere and always, but as a problem identified in particular with Western intellectual history, colonial ag- gression, and industrial development.

Given this dominant cultural framing of the ecological crisis, it is hardly surprising that modern Western devotees of “environmentalism” should look beyond the West for sources of wisdom and value in addition to critically engaging their own traditions. In fact, the cultural genealogy of the ecological crisis lends itself to a normative taxonomy of ecological wisdom that privileges modernity’s others. It is commonly assumed by my students, for instance, that Lynn T. White Jr.’s famous essay (1967) is an indictment of Christianity as a whole: they tend to overlook White’s positive framing of Franciscan Christianity because it does not fit into their normative expectations regard- ing the Western tradition. Conversely, they are often positively pre- disposed toward Asian values to be found in Buddhism or Daoism for the simple reason that they view these traditions as “others”, opposed to the dominant discourse of modernity.

The identification of the ecological crisis with Western philoso- phy and history entails a corresponding cultural taxonomy of non- Western marginalized “others”, such as women, indigenous societies, and colonized peoples. In the normative taxonomy of the ecological crisis adopted by environmentally concerned cultural commentators in the West, these “others” become identified as possessing an eco- logical wisdom and living “closer to nature”, often without any con- crete evidence one way or the other. (As regards women’s supposed affinity to nature, see Ortner [1974].) Indeed, there exists a distinct body of research that questions the extent to which indigenous soci- eties have exhibited cultures that can be construed as “environmen- tally friendly” by today’s standards (e.g., Pine 1982). This in itself is evidence of the power of the cultural framing of non-Western others in relation to the natural world. As regards Daoism, for instance, Goldin (2005) takes pains to explain “Why Daoism Is Not Environ- mentalism.” Although this mistitled article focuses narrowly on the philosopher Zhuangzi, who cannot properly be said to represent Daoism as a whole, its significance, like others of its type referring to non-Western traditions, is that it reveals the normative cultural frame by which such traditions have come uncritically to be associated with ecology and environment.

This reverse-Orientalist prejudice is one reason for the role Dao- ism could play in China’s quest for a sustainable future. Take, for in- stance, the way Daoism has been framed by Doris LaChapelle:

Now after all these years of gradual, deepening understanding of the [D]aoist way, I can state categorically that all these frantic last-minute efforts of our Western world to latch on to some “new idea” for saving the earth are un- necessary. It’s been done for us already—thousands of years ago—by the [D]aoists. We can drop all that frantic effort and begin following the way of Lao Tzu [Laozi] and Chuang Tzu [Zhuangzi]. (1988: 349, quoted in Paper 2001: 10)

As Paper (2001) notes, this is a hopelessly simplistic view of Daoism, conflating over two thousand years of tradition with just two Daoist texts. But on the other hand, it would be wrong to dismiss the cultural power that LaChapelle’s view may have in the West, or even, for that matter, in China. Indeed, the views of academic scholars such as Pa- per may pale in significance when faced with a dominant cultural paradigm, ill-informed and uncritical though it may be. If Daoism and ecology are identified in the public imagination simply because they are viewed as opposed to the dominant discourse of Western moder- nity, the disapproval of historically sophisticated scholars such as Pa- per may be relatively unimportant. Note here that I am not arguing in favor of a kind of expedient ignorance with respect to China’s tradi- tions. I am simply noting that one reason for the possibility of Dao- ism’s role in China’s quest for sustainability may simply be the fact that it is identified, rightly or wrongly, as an Other to the cultural hegemony of instrumental rationality.

While the views of LaChapelle may seem far from the contemporary Chinese scene, contemporary Chinese intellectuals such as Tu Weiming have made a similar move in positing a sharp distinction between the Enlightenment mentality and “traditional Chinese philosophy”:

The modern West’s dichotomous world view (spirit/matter, mind/body, phys- ical/mental, sacred/profane, creator/creature, God/man, subject/object) is diametrically opposed to the Chinese holistic mode of thinking … Informed by Bacon’s knowledge as power and Darwin’s survival through competitive- ness, the Enlightenment mentality is so radically different from any style of thought familiar to the Chinese mind that it challenges all dimensions of the Sinic world. (2000: 201)

In this argument, Tu is explaining why Chinese modernizers paradoxically embraced Western values in their quest for national autonomy: it was, he argues, a strategic necessity. As such, the rejection of Chinese tradition is not, as it were, an ontological necessity for modern China, but simply an expedient necessity that may be reversed. As China experiences the downside of Western-style industrial modernization, it is no surprise that it should once again return to its traditions, in a kind of “back to the future” moment: since modernization and Westernization were conflated in the politically expedient cultural sleight of hand of China’s modernizers, logic would dictate that a questioning of those values should create cultural space for the reassessment and reemergence of China’s traditions.

This is not to say, however, that the resurgence of tradition in con- temporary China does not have its critics. He Zuoxiu, a noted theoretical physicist closely allied to the Communist Party, sparked a debate about the unscientific nature of Chinese medicine, and in 2005 engaged in a debate with environmentalists over whether or not the concept of “revering nature” (jingwei ziran, 敬畏自然) was anti- scientific. He wrote:

I want to challenge the contention that people ought to respect and hold na- ture in awe, advanced by one professor. He asserts that mankind should not use science and technology to transform nature, but maintain an attitude of respect and awe. Such an attitude is “anti-science”, especially when we are confronting natural disasters like the tsunami or epidemic outbreaks. I hold the opposite view. We human beings should try our best to prevent and re- duce losses incurred in natural disasters. Reverence and awe make no sense. (2005: 20).

As this excerpt notes, science is associated with humanistic progress; conversely, being “antiscience” is regarded as a kind of reactionary nonsense. This is, in fact, an argument that goes back to the early days of China’s modernization. In 1915, Chen Duxiu, one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party, published a famous essay in his jour- nal New Youth (Xin qingnian, 新青年) in which he called for a new kind of leader to help modernize China: someone who was inde- pendent, not servile; progressive, not conservative; aggressive, not re- tiring; and cosmopolitan, not isolationist (see Lawrance 2004: 2–3; Miller 2006: 31). This value system was used in particular to attack China’s traditional monastic forms of religion. Chen writes that “it is our natural obligation in life to advance in spite of numerous difficul- ties” (quoted in Lawrance 2004: 3). This meant that now was not the time to live in hermitages on remote mountainsides. In the worldview of China’s modernizers, informed by Marx’s theory of religion as a narcotic, to treat nature with reverent awe, or to introduce “spiritual- ity” into environmental issues, could only be a step backward. From such a theoretical perspective, religion cannot possibly do anything constructive in terms of dealing with environmental issues.

In responding to He Zuoxiu’s charge, however, Liang Congjie, the head of Friends of Nature, China’s leading environmental nongovern- mental organization, criticized He’s humanistic, anthropocentric val- ues. Of particular interest here is the fact that Liang saw no reason to shy away from associating reverence for nature with China’s tradi- tional values. “Numerous Chinese classical works,” he writes, “have shown that we have always placed great value on nature, far more than just being a tool” (2005: 14). This theme was also invoked by Vice Minister Pan Yue of the State Environmental Protection Agency as early as 2003. In an essay on “Environmental Culture and National Revival,” he wrote that “China’s environmental culture is an inheritance from and further development of traditional Chinese culture,” and went on to cite numerous examples of environmental values in Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism (2007: 6–7).

It would be a mistake, however, to interpret the association of tra- ditional Chinese culture and environmentalism as a romantic return to some premodern idyll. Notwithstanding the fact that there is no clear historical evidence that traditional China was any more environ- mentally “reverent” than premodern Europe (see von Glahn 1987; Elvin 2004), the invocation of traditional Chinese values should rather be seen as a patriotic argument consistent with the development of Chinese national identity. As Pan Yue makes clear at the start of his essay:

The rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is a century-old dream—the un- remitting pursuit of Chinese people living all over the world. A key founda- tion of national revival is cultural revival. The rise in the culture of environ- mentalism in the world creates a great opportunity for the revival of Chinese culture. The development of a socialist environmental culture with Chinese characteristics is to strive for the revival of Chinese culture and the rejuve- nation of the Chinese nation. (2007: 1)

The association of environmental values with traditional Chinese cul- ture is thus presented as part and parcel of China’s quest for self- determination. To be an environmentalist is to be a patriotic Chinese citizen and an advocate of Chinese values.

In the present ideological climate, therefore, while there is space in the cultural imagination within China and beyond for religion to play a constructive role in how humans come to envision themselves in relation to the wider environment, this space is ideologically charged—and by no means uncontested—in China in ways that are different from the West. In particular it seems that foreign religions, notably Christianity, will have little role to play; and there will be more space for Daoism to assert itself as a “green religion” not sim- ply because of the normative taxonomy of “environmentalism” in a Western sense, but because Daoism is the indigenous religion of China. Rarely does Daoism appear in the Chinese press without the epithet Zhongguo (Chinese) attached to it. In the pluralist context of modern China, Daoism’s unique identifier is that it is the only truly “Chinese” religion.

Daoism and Ecology

Until recently, the main way of assessing the possible contribution of Daoism to the fostering of an ecological consciousness in China was either historical or theoretical. Indeed, the volume of essays produced in the Harvard University series (Girardot et al. 2001), which I co- edited, aimed to provide evidence that the affinity between Daoism and ecology was more than a romantic wish of contemporary envi- ronmentalists for an exotic non-Western Other. Rather, environmen- tal values were actually grounded in the worldview of Daoist religion and concretely manifested in Daoist history.

This worldview is founded on the understanding of the “Way”, or Dao, a spontaneously emerging principle of cosmic creativity. This principle is manifested in the transformative powers of the natural world, leading to a core value of naturalness (ziran), and an ethic of nonassertive action (wuwei). Liu Xiaogan explains the philosophical foundations of this ethic as follows:

Dao represents forever the unknown final reason of the world surrounding us, reminding human beings of their limitations. As average members of the ten thousand things in the universe, humans have no power to do what they wish without facing unexpected consequences. Therefore, prudent behavior and action, namely, wuwei, are important and beneficial. (2001: 324)

The counterintuitive insight preserved in the Daoist tradition is that awareness of a fundamental mystery grounding the world should impel humans not toward technological dominance but toward creative engagement. In Liu’s terms, the ethic of nonaction means “better re-sults, not pure negating of all actions” (2001: 332).

It is also instructive to consider the application of wuwei in Daoist history. Take, for example, the early Daoist religious movement known as the Way of the Celestial Masters (Tianshi dao), founded in 142 CE, which constitutes one of the two main lineages of Daoism to- day. In its early days, this movement functioned through a text the Celestial Masters adopted and transmitted, known as the One Hundred and Eighty Precepts (Yibai bashi jie, 百八十戒). In his study of this text,

Kristofer Schipper (2001: 82–83) notes that not less than twenty [of the precepts] are directly concerned with the preservation of the nat- ural environment, and many others indirectly:

14. You should not burn [the vegetation] of uncultivated or culti- vated fields, nor of mountains and forests.

18. You should not wantonly fell trees.

19. You should not wantonly pick herbs or flowers.

36. You should not throw poisonous substances into lakes, rivers, and seas.

47. You should not wantonly dig holes in the ground and thereby destroy the earth.

53. You should not dry up wet marshes.

79. You should not fish or hunt and thereby harm and kill living beings.

95. You should not in winter dig up hibernating animals and insects.

97. You should not wantonly climb in trees to look for nests and destroy eggs.

98. You should not use cages to trap birds and [other] animals.

100. You should not throw dirty things in wells.

101. You should not seal off pools and wells.

109. You should not light fires in the plains.

116. You should not defecate or urinate on living plants or in water that people will drink.

121. You should not wantonly or lightly take baths in rivers or seas.

125. You should not fabricate poisons and keep them in vessels.

132. You should not disturb birds and [other] animals.

134. You should not wantonly make lakes.

In answer to the question of why the earliest Daoist communities were concerned with the state of the natural environment, Schipper draws the conclusion that the natural environment functioned as a kind of sanctuary, in the sense of a sacred space and in the sense of a place of refuge from the human world. There is also, he argues, a more fundamental point at stake here, which is evident in the language used: the precepts are directed at members of the community, and in fact we know that they were adopted as the code of practice for the heads of the Celestial Masters community, known as libationers (jijiu 祭酒). The precepts, thus, are to be understood not as abstract laws (“it is illegal to light fires in the plains”), but rather as admonitions di- rected at the community leaders (“you should not light fires in the plains”). The implication of the imperative “you should not” is that the libationer himself, and by extension the community as a whole, will suffer the consequences of failing to abide by the precepts.

Concern for the natural landscape in which Daoist sites were lo- cated even became a matter of national pride for sites that were the subject of imperial patronage. Mt. Wudang, for instance, attained national prominence in the Ming Dynasty when it came under the pa- tronage and protection of the imperial court. The court even issued edicts in 1417 and 1428 to prevent deforestation in the area and to protect the aesthetic balance of religious architecture and natural environment (Yang 2010). Even if the imperial court was motivated nar- rowly by the desire to preserve a site in which it had invested much religious and financial capital, it cannot be denied that the designa- tion of a particular space as sacred motivated concrete measures to protect the environment.

A second example can be seen at Mt. Qingcheng, now a UN- ESCO World Heritage Site. During a field visit in 2002, I noted that one of the several signs along the path that leads up the mountain recorded the actions of the abbot Peng Chunxian in the Republican era of the early twentieth century. Abbot Peng decreed that all who would visit him “should plant a tree along the mountain path.” This, declares the sign, demonstrates the essence of Daoism’s “return to na- ture.” Although, according to Elvin (2004: 470–471), such instances were historically the exception rather than the rule, they nonetheless provide a historical basis upon which contemporary efforts to associ- ate Daoism and ecology can be founded.

Such official efforts by the Chinese Daoist Association (CDA) go back at least to 1995, the date of their Declaration on Global Ecology. On the final page, the declaration summarizes the ecological aims of the CDA in three bullet points:

  • We shall spread the ecological teachings of Daoism, lead all Daoist followers to abide in the teachings of self-so or non-action, observe the injunction against killing for amusement pur- poses, preserve and protect the harmonious relationship of all things with Nature, establish paradises of immortals on Earth, and pursue the practice of our beliefs …
  • We shall continue the Daoist ecological tradition by planting trees and cultivating forests. Using traditional hermitages as an organizational base, Daoists will conscientiously plant trees and build forests, thereby making the natural environment beautiful and transforming our hermitages into the paradise worlds of the immortals.
  • We shall select some famous Daoist mountains as exemplars of the systematic task of environmental engineering. We expect to reach this goal by the early years of the new century. (Zhang 2001: 370)

This statement is instructive for understanding the contemporary engagement of Daoism and ecology because it locates this engagement not principally in an abstract theoretical statement about the Way of nature, but rather in terms of a practical concern for “environmental engineering,” which is to say, creating a particular type of environmental space that is conducive to Daoist practice. It is worth considering, then, that particular environments might have a topographical as well as historical significance in terms of the practice of Daoist religion.

Although the Daoist priestly tradition is one in which portable al- tars can be erected at any time and place to meet the liturgical desires of the community, the tradition has also favored specific locations and features for meditation. According to the Tang Dynasty patriarch Sima Chengzhen, Daoists should meditate in chambers where light and darkness are in balance, and should sleep in rooms with their bodies facing south and their faces turned to the east (see Kohn 1987). The attention paid to the physical space in which meditation should take place, in this case the meditation chamber, gives a clue as to one rea- son why Daoists were anxious to preserve the natural environments in which monasteries were located. Such locations might be valuable not simply for historical reasons—that they were “sanctuaries” or “sa- cred spaces” inhabited by Daoists over the centuries—but because of their particular environments and topographies. Caves, for instance, are of particular importance as meditation sites because they provide a controlled environment that enables the practitioner to focus more readily on the meditative discipline of inner observation. Indeed, one might even make the argument that the urban Daoist’s “chamber of seclusion” was in fact modeled on the cave as the ideal space for Daoist meditation. Following this line of interpretation, it can also be argued that trees on mountains are desirable not only for aesthetic reasons, but because of their filtering effects on the sunlight: ample fo- liage creates a balance of yin (shade) and yang (sunlight) in the prac- titioner’s environment and thus lends itself to successful meditation. From this perspective, Daoism can be understood as a religion that demands the preservation of very specific environmental features for the continuance of its traditions. This denotes a religious sensibility that is not always present in other religious traditions and gives a spe- cific reason for why Daoists have historically engaged in the protec- tion of their immediate environments. In this regard it may not have been concern for nature in and of itself that motivated Daoist environ- mental protection efforts, but rather a concern to preserve those fea- tures of the landscape that were relevant to their religious activities.

In 2008 the CDA outlined its ecological agenda when it published the Maoshan Declaration along with an accompanying Eight- Year Plan. Together these represent the CDA’s most recent attempt to systematize and oversee the practical engagement of Daoists with their local environments, and in so doing represents Daoist organizations and temples not simply as religious institutions but also as places of environmental education, demonstration sites of green technology, and spaces that are practically engaged with China’s future well-being. It is instructive to note that the focus of these plans is not to create sustainable environments in China’s rapidly expanding urban conglomerations, but to preserve a certain experience of nature in mountain Daoism. The association of Daoism and ecology is not general, but particular: it is focused on specific sites and specific environments.

A field visit to Maoshan in 2010 gave significant insight into the way Daoism and nature are represented together in contemporary Chinese culture. The evidence suggests that just as Daoist organiza- tions are competing and also collaborating with local governments and other enterprises for control of the natural spaces in which monasteries are located, they are also engaged in ideological conflict over the meaning of these spaces. The battle over administrative con- trol over natural spaces where Daoist sites are located is, like the de- bate between He Zuoxiu and Liang Congjie, an ideological contest over the meaning of nature. This suggests that in contemporary China, as in the West, the meaning of nature is contested in part by means of its association with concepts such as “the sacred” (see Szerzynski [2005] for discussion of this in the West). However, the precise mean- ings invoked in the conflict over nature and religion are somewhat different in China.

Evidence of ideological conflict can be seen in the use of signs that aim to offer visitors to Maoshan the “correct interpretation” of the natural spaces through which they are traveling. Two examples of this can be found in the Huayang Cave and the Feichang Path. The Hua- yang Cave was a site for Daoist meditation, associated in particular with the Highest Clarity Patriarch, Tao Hongjing (456–536 CE), who took as his epithet “Hermit of Huayang” (Huayang yinju, 华阳隐居).

The main entrance to the Huayang Cave, however, makes no refer- ence to the religious significance of this sacred space, noting it only as a cultural relic famous for its wall carvings dating from the Tang (608–906 CE) to the Qing (1644–1911 CE) dynasties. It no longer functions as a living sacred space, but as a “cultural relic” under the “protection” of the Jiangsu Province Cultural Relics Protection Unit. Another sign close by gives a geological explanation for how the cave came to be formed. The uninformed observer will thus be educated solely as to the secular, scientific value of the space, whose sacred quality exists only as a cultural memory.

A slightly different story can be found along the Feichang Path. The term “Feichang Way” or “Feichang Dao” comes from the first line of the Daode jing, which states: “The Way that can be told is not the constant Way.” In Chinese, “not constant” is feichang (非常), and the Feichang Path is a newly resurfaced, twisting footpath that leads from the base of the mountain to the temple on top. At regular intervals along the path, verses from the Daode jing are carved onto wooden panels, beginning with chapter 1 at the bottom and ending with chap- ter 81, the last, at the top. As climbers make their way to the summit, they are thus engaged in a meditative encounter with the text of the Daode jing, reputed to have been authored by Laozi, the mythical sage of Daoism, later revered as a high god. The space through which the traveler passes is thus textualized and sacralized and, through the encounter with the text, a firm association between the natural beauty of the mountain and the traditions of Daoism is established in the visitor’s experience.

This association is, however, not entirely unambiguous. Along the way it is possible to see evidence of earlier texts carved in rock that have not been restored and are difficult to read. Moreover, there are several small shrines along the path that appear to have fallen into disrepair, whether through deliberate neglect or otherwise. Although the mountain path is a sacred path, its sacred quality comes not from the maintenance of tradition, but rather from the presentation of a modernized form of Daoism, one that deemphasizes concrete, mate- rial religion in favor of the more mystical and abstract verses of Daoist literature. Although Daoism and nature are represented and experi- enced together, it is a particularly modern, “Protestant” version of Daoism that is emphasized, a version that finds authenticity in a sin- gle founding text in particular, rather than in the complex layers of in- stitutional history.

Two further themes are in evidence at the Maoshan site and exist in intriguing juxtaposition to the nexus of religion and nature. The first theme to be noted is a deliberate attempt to educate people about en- vironmental issues. Again, this is through the use of signs in Chinese and English, which urge people to take care of the environment and respect the plants and animals that live in the space through which they are traveling. Such education also extends beyond the open space into the temple, where recycling bins exist side by side with regular bins, and injunctions to conserve water appear by the taps. Such small efforts at environmental education further reinforce the sense that the mountain space and the temple space are particularly deserving of careful respect. Indeed, the paved road up to the top is lit at night by lamps that are charged by solar panels during the day. This sense of environmental care, however, stands in stark contrast to the festive spirit of the many visitors, whose principal objective in coming to the mountain peak is to participate in the spectacular and ostentatious offering of enormous sticks of incense. For people who do not get many opportunities to participate in traditional rituals in sa- cred natural spaces, it would seem particularly strange not to make as grand and joyous an offering as possible. In this sense, the “official” culture of conservation proclaimed throughout the site is studiously ignored by those for whom the site is chiefly a space for conspicuous ritual celebration.

The second theme that is juxtaposed alongside that of religion and nature is that of nationalism. The Maoshan site is significant in modern history not for its Daoist religious associations, but as a site that is sacred to the Fourth Army in its battle against the Japanese, who invaded China in 1937. During my field visit, a school of army cadets was also visiting the site, which, as well as featuring temples and cultural relics, is the location for a patriotic monument and grand museum dedicated to the army. An informant told me, in fact, that the renovation of the entire site had been carried out by the People’s Lib- eration Army, including the building of an excellent road to the monastery on the peak. As a result, the entire mountain complex is designated by the Chinese government as an AAAA tourism site (only one step lower than the highest AAAAA designation), and it is a site for “red tourism”, a program established by the central government in 2004 to emphasize the “ideological essence” of “communist ideology, traditional Chinese virtues, and patriotism” (Li and Hu 2008: 158).


Historical evidence as well as contemporary fieldwork reveal a complex set of issues when it comes to the relationship of Daoism and ecology in China. These issues, furthermore, are somewhat different from what one might expect based on the normative taxonomy of “environmentalism” in relation to non-Western others, which struc- tures popular cultural (mis)understandings in the West. Far from Dao- ism being construed as a premodern “worldview” sympathetic to a romantic feeling for wilderness spaces, Daoists have engaged in prac- tical works to preserve specific natural spaces for specific religious reasons. Moreover, under the patronage of the state, whether in the Ming Dynasty or today, sacred sites and their environments can also be protected for nationalistic and patriotic reasons. In these cases, the impetus to preserve the landscape of sacred sites may not derive from a particular “respect for nature” except inasmuch as the nature in question is unequivocally identified with a uniquely Chinese heritage. This would be similar to the way in which pandas are protected by the state because of their status as national icons.

Under this complex of cultural meanings, the meaning of “green” spaces such as Maoshan is quite ambiguous. On the one hand, “green” is associated with Chinese tradition and Daoist respect for life and the flourishing of nature. On the other hand, “green” is also as- sociated with a patriotic agenda and with modern technology such as solar panels. The Chinese Daoist Association, in allying itself with a green agenda, is clearly aligning itself with the values of modern Chi- nese nationalism as well as technological development. In this sense, one could argue that “green is the new red:” it is a symbol for Chi- nese national identity and the technological development that will ensure China’s survival in a resource-hungry world. If Daoism has something to offer to the greening of China, it is not in the sense of fostering a worldview of a universal ecological consciousness or “sav- ing the planet”. That is a trope that owes its origins to Christian mil- lenarian theology and has little relevance in traditional Chinese culture (Kohn 2001: 379).

Rather, Daoism and ecology engage most clearly in the particular spaces in which Daoists have sought to engage in meditative cultiva- tion. In this regard, Daoist ecology is thoroughly implicated in Chi- nese national identity. While the abstract modernity of urban living is seamlessly replicated from Shanghai to Stockholm, “nature”, it would seem, constitutes, by contrast, the particular differences associated with various nations and their cultural identities. While it may be pos- sible to build replicas of Venice in Las Vegas or Macau, the majesty of the Alps or the Himalayas retain a particularity of experience that can- not be so easily copied. Here nature is a source of experience that de- fies the banality of modern urban life. The particularity of meaning that emanates from unique natural spaces aligns well with the Chinese Daoist Association’s agenda to preserve features of Daoist spaces in contemporary China. As John Lagerwey (2010) notes, the history of religion in China has been one of continuous contractual negotiation between the state and local society. As much as the green agenda of the Chinese Daoist Association may rhetorically serve the ideologies of nationalism and modernization, it may yet hold out the prospect of protecting marginal, local, and natural spaces.


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Nature, Impersonality, and Absence in the Theology of Highest Clarity Daoism

Models of God James Miller. 2013. Nature, Impersonality, and Absence in the Theology of Highest Clarity Daoism. Pp. 665-676 in Models of God and Alternative Ultimate Realities, edited by J. Diller and A. Kasher. Dordrecht: Springer.

Excerpted and slightly adapted with the author’s permission from The Way of Highest Clarity: Nature, Vision and Revelation in Medieval China (Magdalena, NM: Three Pines Press, 2008).

The Way of Highest Clarity (Shangqing dao 上清道) flourished for 1,000 years in medieval China from the fourth to the fourteenth centuries. It was a distinct branch of the Daoist religion formed around its own scriptural revelation transmitted under the authority of a lineage of 45 patriarchs. Although it no longer exists in any overt institutional form, its practices were absorbed into the mainstream Daoist traditions that continue to this day. It thus constitutes an important link between the earliest organized religious traditions that emerged in the latter Han (25–220) and the modern forms of Daoism that were developed from the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) onwards.

It originated in a series of revelations from a variety of “perfected persons,” former human beings who had been transfigured into powerful celestial gods. The revelations from these gods were written down in texts which describe lush celestial paradises inhabited by a vast panoply of divine personages served by “jade maidens” and “lads,” and who lived a life of sumptuous luxury and ease. The texts also explain that the way to this Heaven of Highest Clarity consists in repeating the process by which these perfected beings were revealed in the first place: namely, by mentally visualizing their descent from heaven and their entry into the body of the individual. This can occur at the specific times and places when the vast and obscure operations of the cosmos make this contact possible. Through this process of visualization, the transformative powers of the gods are once again revealed, and the body of the adept is transfigured into the same type of perfected being who revealed these celestial worlds in the first place. The adept’s body then avoids death completely and, while still alive but in a transfigured state, ascends to heaven in broad daylight, leaving behind no earthly token. Those who do not manage to achieve this transfiguration die but, through the intervention of perfected beings, may be reborn in paradise as “immortals.”  Such persons obtain a position within the celestial hierarchy inferior to that of the perfected beings, but nonetheless avoid much of the trauma experienced by those condemned to a postmortem existence in the underworld. Those unfortunates are tortured, tried and punished by sadistic officials in the three bureaux of heaven, earth and water in order to work off the accumulated guilt of their misdeeds, and they are separated from their friends and family. Such a fate is to be avoided at all costs.

The Way of Highest Clarity thus regards humans as living in a space between the biological process of earth and the constellated spiritual powers of the heavens. Within the hierarchy of the cosmos, humans rank above the animal world, but below the heavenly world. But because natural law is understood as a law of transformation, Highest Clarity Daoists believe that it is possible to change one’s fundamental nature in an act of cosmic transfiguration and, as it were, metamorphose from one’s earthly status to that of a celestial being. Again it is important to understand that although this involves transcending the ordinary givenness of human life in a literal and metaphorical ascension to the stars, this is not, strictly speaking, a supernatural process, because the heavens are governed by the same laws of nature as every other part of the created order. Bodily ascension, though rare and wondrous, is understood as a wholly natural transformation of the body that is open to anyone who had been initiated into the scriptures and who has the dedication to pursue the methods they detail.

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