A scene from the Luo Tian Da Jiao ritual in Hong Kong, 2007
A scene from the Luo Tian Da Jiao ritual in Hong Kong, 2007

The bulk of my research focuses on Daoism, aka Taoism, China’s indigenous, organized religion. I began my study of Daoism at Boston University, where I studied with Livia Kohn, one of the West’s leading scholars of this relatively unknown religious tradition.

Most scholars of Daoism are trained principally as Sinologists, and are interested in Daoism for what it can tell them about Chinese history and society. My approach, to the study of Daoism, however, has been to understand it first and foremost as one of the world’s great religious traditions. This leads me to ask questions such as what do Daoists believe about the human condition? How do they envisage the body in relation to its cosmic environment? How does Daoism compare to other major world religions? How does Daoism contribute to or challenge the modern world? I want to understand Daoism as a religious sensibility and as a profound achievement of human civilization.

The major application of this approach for me now is to develop a Daoist environmental ethics. Given that Daoists understand the functioning of the human body in terms of the vast cosmic processes of the Dao, it is possible to apply this type of thinking to develop a normative understanding of the relationship between the human body and the natural environment. Such an ecological axiology asks what values should govern human life and social relationships when considered from an ecological perspective.

At the same time as conducting this normative / constructive work, I have conducted fieldwork research into contemporary Daoism in the People’s Republic of China, North and South America. In particular my recent fieldwork on Daoism in Brazil sheds light on the ways that contemporary non-Chinese societies are embracing and engaging Daoist philosophy and religion.