“The Seduction of Daoist Philosophy: What Was Lost on the Way to Understanding the Daoist Religion?” James Robson (Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Harvard University), Wednesday, December 3, 2014

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December 5th, 2014

Abstract:  Daoism is one of the better known—but least understood—religions of the world. Ideas about Daoism spread primarily through translations and interpretations of texts considered to be its sacred books: The Scripture of the Way and Its Virtue (Daode jing) and the Book of Master Zhuang (Zhuangzi)­, which generated tremendous transcultural appeal. Those texts have been connected with thinkers as diverse as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Aleister Crowley, Martin Buber and Martin Heidegger, and literary figures like Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Oscar Wilde.  The Western imagination of Daoism has influenced the perception of Daoism down to the present day. It has essentially created two Daoisms, imposing an artificial distinction between the “pure” (philosophy) and the “impure” (Daoist religious practices) in a process similar to the European fashioning of Buddhism as a philosophy rather than a religion. Although modern scholarship has shown that such a stark division of religion and philosophy is inaccurate and untenable, it has resulted in widespread confusion about Chinese religions in general and Daoism in particular. This talk intends to explore the troubling questions surrounding this divide and reveal some of the lesser known facets of the Daoist tradition that have been occluded by the appeal and myopic focus on texts like the Daode jing.

3 Comments on “The Seduction of Daoist Philosophy: What Was Lost on the Way to Understanding the Daoist Religion?” James Robson (Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Harvard University), Wednesday, December 3, 2014

  • I found Professor Robson’s lecture insightful. However, I could not help but contemplate on the true meaning of Daoism- before the influence of Western civilization that is. It seems as though Daoism is recognized to be a type of philosophy rather a religion.
    Now, I am not familiar with Daoism as a type of philosophy but it confuses me how Daoism’s future is relied on its philosophy when, discussed in the lecture, very few understand its philosophy. If this is the case, why does Daoism lean more on its philosophy rather its religious practice?
    Now, in the beginning of this lecture, the purity and impurity characteristics of Daoism did not sit well with me- philosophy being pure and religious practices being impure. This presents a division in what Daoism is. It seems as though Daoism has been quite westernized and perhaps to the point where there is an unnecessary separation. There is no grand separation between the idea of philosophy and religion in Asian traditions. I think the western civilization has greatly changed the meaning of what Daoism truly is.

  • The issue of narrative was prominent and a focal point of Prof. Robson’s lecture. It seems that he was objecting to the Western, Jesuit-missionary and Confucionist narrative of Daoism, which was apparently heavily-biased and manipulative, thus alienating Daoist philosophy from Daoist religion. But it could be argued that he is just reconstructing a new Western narrative. Is this new story meant to be regarded as objective, or is it just a countering force to the early “imperialist” narrative? What narrative do modern Chinese thinkers construct? Is the sterile aim of objectivity really relevant when it comes to such a dynamic thing as philosophy and religion? This brings to mind Prof. Eckel’s example of the traditional dance to the music of “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer”. Is it a problem for the “purity” of the tradition, or is it just a lesson that purity and objective representation are problematic values to uphold?

  • Professor Robman’s insightful lecture on Daoism introduced me to a side of Daoism that I never knew of before. Never having been familiar with Daoism as a philosophy, I have always thought of Daoism as a mainly religious and ritualistic tradition. The Daoism known in the west that Professor Robman described sounds to be an ever-evolving way of life, including not just a religious aspect that provides consolation, but also a way of life, in certain cultures a sense of community, an awareness of well-being, etc. He talked about the westernization of Daoism that might have been unfairly skewed through the then better-known lens of Confusionism. Although it certainly seems that the form of Daoism the known today might not be the same one practiced in Asia before Daoism reached the west, I can’t help but think that the different forms of Daoism (both the “pure” and “impure”) is what make it adaptable in the west, an entirely different culture. If the focus on philosophy over religious practice had not been made, would Daoism have been more likely to become unadaptable and eventually obsolete?

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