“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
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.