In Memoriam Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin

In memory of Ursula K. Le Guin who sadly passed away on Monday, I reproduce below her Dao Song, which she kindly contributed to Daoism and Ecology: Ways within a Cosmic Landscape (Harvard 2001). The book emerged out of a conference at Harvard in 1998, which she also attended as part of a forum that invited contemporary American practitioners and interpreters of Daoism to join in the scholarly conversation.

Acutely aware of her status as a non-Sinologist, and of the defensiveness of Sinologists towards popular American “versions” of Daoism, Ms. Le Guin wrote,

Defensiveness against cheapening and trivializing Daoism thus seems to me an inevitable, essential part of your work as scholars; and yet, like the ecologist, the conservationist, you don’t have the luxury of being absolutely defensive. Compromise is also inevitable. People will use the river and the desert. Daoist texts are popular. The barbarians are inside the gates – here I am.

Far from a barbarian, Ms. Le Guin was one of the most imaginative and sensitive interpreters of Daoist thought in the contemporary West. I am deeply saddened by her passing, and grateful to have met her, if only fleetingly, in Cambridge nearly 20 years ago.

Dao Song

O slow fish
show me the way
O green weed
grow me the way

The way you go
the way you grow
is the way

O bright Sun
light me the way
the right way
the one
no one can say

If one can choose it
it is wrong
Sing me the way
O song:

No one can lose it
for long


China in climate driver’s seat after Trump rejects Paris

File 20170605 16909 1qu1wo1
Protesters gather outside the White House in Washington D.C. after President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the Unites States from the Paris climate change accord.
(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

James Miller, Queen’s University, Ontario

With President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the Paris climate change accords, it’s now clear to the world that action on climate change will rest increasingly in the hands of China, not America or the European Union.

Given the global nature of the climate crisis, the decisions that China’s leaders make over the next decade will have a profound impact around the world. Shockingly, as sea levels rise, the fate of America’s coastal cities, from Palm Beach to Boston, will increasingly be determined in Beijing, not Washington, D.C. One can only imagine Trump sitting like King Canute on a lawn chair at Mar-A-Lago as it slowly disappears beneath the sea.

Since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, global trade liberalization has made China the factory of the world, bringing wealth to corporate America and lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. But as China rode the trade winds of globalization to become the world’s second largest economy, its coal-fired power stations and lower environmental standards combined to produce searing smog that now reduces life expectancy by up to 5.5 years in the country’s industrial north. The rapid increase in fossil fuels also propelled China to become the world’s leading emitter of greenhouse gases, the chief cause of global warming.

China morphing into clean energy champ

The good news is that China is in the midst of engineering a massive transition to an “ecological civilization,” one that transcends Western industrial modernity and emphasizes clean energy, sustainable cities and circular economies. China’s 13th five-year plan (2015-2020) envisions bringing the country’s installed solar capacity to 140 gigawatts to help cut greenhouse gas emissions. Its plan for rapid urbanization is also being accompanied by the development of over 200 new eco-cities that are already functioning as test labs for urban planners.

China’s economic rise and its environmental challenges are also being accompanied by an equally important third factor: the increasing significance of China’s traditional culture and religion in its social and political discourse. Most significant here is the positioning of Confucius as the patriarch par excellence of Chinese culture, and a bulwark against liberal Western values.

A Chinese migrant worker listens to radio on his tricycle cart parked next to a Beijing billboard promoting environmental protection. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

Confucian values emphasize filial piety, deference to authority and the priority of family relationships over the individual. President Xi Jinping has deftly deployed these values in his anti-corruption drive. As China assumes the leadership of the global environmental movement, the question that arises now is how future climate change language and policy will be increasingly shaped by Chinese, not Western, values.

Over 2,000 years ago, China’s rulers embarked on two spectacular engineering projects. The better known of the two is the Great Wall, a vast and costly fortification against the barbarians of the north.

Walls or water? China opting for water

The second, lesser known, is the Dujiangyan irrigation system in Sichuan province, a UNESCO world heritage site. Still in use today, it uses a system of weirs and levees to regulate the spring floods along the Min river and provide water to over 5,300 square kilometres of land, producing some of China’s most fertile agricultural land. When I interviewed local officials during my fieldwork in China, they lauded it as a marvel of Daoist engineering for harnessing nature’s power instead of working against it.

The choice between walls and water is an apt metaphor for the decisions facing world leaders today. Trump campaigned on a wall with Mexico. President Xi, meantime, has strengthened China’s great firewall, which limits the choices and freedoms of Chinese citizens. While China’s leaders feared America’s power, it was only natural that they should seek to limit its influence.

But in the end, as China’s rulers discovered, walls ultimately crumble, while the power of water is eternal. The Dujiangyan irrigation system continues to this day and is an essential component in China’s food security system. As China’s Daoist philosophers wrote more than 2,000 years ago: “Nothing in the world is as soft and weak as water. But when attacking the hard and strong nothing can conquer so easily.” In the end, nature wins.

The ConversationJames Miller is the author of China’s Green Religion: Daoism and the Quest for a Sustainable Future (New York: Columbia University Press)

James Miller, Professor of Chinese Religions, Queen’s University, Ontario

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


james miller 00301083677_bdf1d56d

1月1日上午,由公共经济研究会中国乡村文明研究中心、中国人民大学乡村建设中心等单位主办,国家行政学院、中美后现代发展研究院等单位协办的第三届中国乡村文明发展论坛在北京国家行政学院会议中心盛大举行。本次论坛以 “乡村文化复兴开启文化为王新时代”为主题,来自世界各地的专家学者、地方领导、村支书、农民代表等共400多人参加了开幕式。 (More…)


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…)

video lecture: james miller speaks on china’s green religion at the university of southern california’s us-china institute

The monumental task that China faces in the 21st century is to create a way of development that does not destroy the ecological foundations for the life and livelihood of its 1.4 billion citizens. This requires a creative leap beyond the Enlightenment mentality and the Western model of industrialization. Can China’s cultural traditions, its religious values, ideals and ways of life, play a role in building a sustainable China?

The following video was recorded at the University of Southern California’s US-China Institute on November 19, 2014.

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

The monumental task that China faces in the 21st century is to create a way of development that does not destroy the ecological foundations for the life and livelihood of its 1.4 billion citizens. This requires a creative leap beyond the Enlightenment mentality and the Western model of industrialization. Can China’s cultural traditions, its religious values, ideals and ways of life, play a role in building a sustainable China?

The following video was recorded at the University of Southern California’s US-China Institute on November 19, 2014.

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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