A Western Daoist Manifesto

Along the Way

A Western Daoist Manifesto

Solala Towler

I belong to a number of Daoist forums on Linkedin and an amazing amount of time is spent arguing who is a “Daoist” and who is not. Buddhism has many different sects and flavors — including such disparate forms such as Zen, Chan, Pure Land, Mahayana, Theravada, Hinayana, and Tibetan — yet those who follow any of them consider themselves Buddhists. But among followers of Daoism, there is always a lot of contention as to who is a real Daoist and who is not.

My teacher, Hua-Ching Ni, says,

To learn the Way is more important than talking about what is the Way. (1)

I am sure that Laozi and certainly Zhuangzi, would agree.

I have spoken before about the two forms or streams of Daoism. Modern scholars in China, and increasingly in the West (though, of course, there is a lot of arguing about this as well), call these two streams daojia and daojiao.

Daojia or “philosophical Daoism,” is the title used since the Han dynasty for the school founded by Laozi and Zuangzi. (2)

Eva Wong, another contemporary Daoist master, puts it this way.

There are basically two main traditions in the transmission of Taoist teachings. One is called the lay transmission, which is essentially a non-monastic or non-sectarian type of teaching. There’s also what is called the lineage transmission. The monastic transmission is one part of the lineage. (3)

Daojia is considered the form of Daoism that Laozi, Zhuangzi and Liehzi were speaking about in the earliest writings of what today is called Daoism. Of course, there was no such thing as “Daoism” when these ancient teachers were writing. The Daoist religion did not come until almost 700 years later. This form is also sometimes called HuangLao Daoism, after the great cultural hero The Yellow Emperor and of course, Laozi.

Contrary to what some people in the West think, Laozi did not invent Daoism. As I just mentioned, there was nothing called Daoism in his time. And whether or not there was a historical figure called Laozi or Lao Tan, doesn’t really change the importance of the text bearing his name. The teachings and practices contained in the Daode Jing are just as important and powerful, whoever wrote it.

Many of the beliefs and practices of Daoism were already long established when Laozi wrote the Daode Jing. They originated in the ancient shamanic roots (wu) of Chinese civilization. For centuries what today we call Daoism was an informal way of life, a way followed by peasant, farmer and gentleman philosopher and artist. It was a way of deep reflection and of learning from nature, considered the highest teacher. Followers of the Way studied the stars in the heavens and the energy that lies deep within the earth. They meditated upon the energy flow within their own bodies and mapped out the roads and paths it traveled upon.

You will find very little about reincarnation, karma, or immortals in these books. Most of these ideas were added on much later, when Daoism was heavily influenced by Buddhism.

But the original ideas such as wu wei (not forcing), the watercourse way (going with the flow), meditation (described numerous times in the Daode Jing), not exalting the high over the low, taking it one step at a time (a famous passage from Laozi), being flexible (like the young plant), not building up riches, letting go of intellectual knowledge, the soft overcoming the hard, keeping quiet about one’s attainments, being humble and concealing one’s light, leading from behind, not struggling, not arguing, not being afraid of death — these are all ideas contained in the early writings of Laozi, Zhuangzi, and Liehzi.

Dao jiao, on the other hand, is often thought of as Daoist religious practice. This was started quite a bit later than Laozi’s work. It wasn’t until 142 CE that this form of Daoism came into being, with a revelation by Zhang Daoling. He had a vision of Laozi himself coming to him while he meditated high in the mountains outside of Chengdu. He named his form of Daoist religion Tian Shi or Heavenly Masters.

I have visited there in the mountain range called Qingcheng Shan. When I stood in Zhang Daoling’s meditation cave I felt the incredibly strong energy of this man who came up here so long ago and meditating with such fierceness in this place until he drew to him the spirit of the ancient sage.

Thereafter followed a whole school of monasticism, something new to Daoism in China at that time. A liturgy and priestly function was created, which included many practices such as divination, exorcism and large community rituals of absolution, petitions to the spirit world or even weather magic.

Much of the organization and liturgy were heavily influenced by Buddhism, which became quite popular in the second century CE. A community of celibate, vegetarian monks and nuns was established, also not something the original Daoist thinkers like Laozi and Zhuangzi had ever written about.

From Laozi’s famous statement that the true Dao cannot be put into words, there evolved a Daoist canon comprising of over 5400 scrolls! The first religious Daoists emphasized mass rituals of public confessions of moral transgressions over medical practices.

In this system, as Michel Stickman, in his fascinating study of Chinese Magical Medicine tells us,

The presence of disease was thought to indicate some moral failing. Conversely, the faithful were kept in order by the threat of illness, which would attack them should they ever transgress the rules. Physical health was consequently a function of moral or spiritual health, and the priest was necessarily the arbiter. Should a believer fall ill, he had first to be isolated from the community in a “chamber of quietness” to ponder and repent his moral failings. Subsequently, a priest would write out a formal document, the affiliated person’s confession of guilt. (4)

The use of sacred scriptures was emphasized over material medica. Sometimes just the chanting of the names of the medical formulas was emphasized over ingesting them. In this system the patient would isolate themselves and chant the scripture three thousand times in order to be healed. Eventually it was believed that just owning Daoist scriptures themselves provided protection from illness or demon attacks.

There were also large gatherings where people offered public confessions of their moral transgressions. In these great rituals the priests would petition the spirits to cleanse people of their “sins.” There was also a great belief in demon possession, ghost and even corpse attacks.

Ge Hong, the famous Daoist alchemist of the fourth century also lists various kinds of demons and corpse attacks that would also result in serious health problems. He mentions “corpse demons”, “reclusive corpses”, “wind corpses” and “sinking corpses” – all causing a host of serious illnesses. (4)

I mention these just to give my readers a taste of the various beliefs associated with ancient Daoist religious movements. Many people in the West have never heard of these kinds of things. But it is common even today in China for Daoist priests to conduct exorcisms of people afflicted with a variety of demons or evil spirits.

Many Westerners, impressed by the culture and history of the East, are drawn to its thought, art, music, food, medicine and philosophies. But Daoism is not just some ancient, foreign, mystical path. Its practices work on many levels — physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual. It can be applied to political action, environmental concerns, economic interests, emotional clearing, health problems, business enterprises, psychological balance, sexuality and spiritual fulfillment. It works well for highly individualized Westerners and can be approached on any level, from the rank beginner to the evolved aspirant.

Of course, what we are talking about here is something I call Western Daoism. Just as Buddhism came to the West and was influenced and reshaped into something often quite different than the way it is practiced in Japan or Tibet, so too will Daoism be shaped into something much different than what is practiced in the temples of China and Taiwan. (A great book about Buddhism coming to the West and how it was reshaped and at time, reformed is How the Swans Came to the Lake by Rick Fields.)

Daoism is still too new in the West for us to imagine what shape it will take but, just as most followers of Buddhism in the West are lay practitioners, I feel that will also be the case with Daoism. Few Westerners are interested in becoming ordained Daoist priests or nuns and few Western students of Daoism are interested in the formal religious Daoism one finds in the temples of China. I do not mean to denigrate religious Daoism here as I have much respect for its long and rich tradition and the role it has in both history and modern culture in China.

I have had certain ordained Western Daoists and scholars tell me that no one can use the term Daoist unless they are an ordained priest. But this is like Christians not being able to call themselves as such unless they are a priest or a nun. Buddhism is the same way. There has always been a lay version of these spiritual traditions.

Perhaps a new term needs to be discovered for us Western Daoists. Sometimes I like to use the term “Dao People (dao ren)”. This takes the “ism” part out of the equation. As my friend Chungliang Al Huang says,

With all respect for the “ism,” we need to label, we need to call it Taoism to give it a framework. But we know that Tao defies “ism.” If Tao gets stuck with “ism” then it would be separated from the rest of life. . . . . My favorite translation of the first line of the Tao The Ching is: “The Tao that can be “ismed” is not the Tao. The Tao student of life who becomes an “ist” misses a big chunk of Tao and becomes a small “t” Taoist. The Tao cannot be “ismed”. If we only see the term Taoism as a concept, it can be very confining. We need to open it up, and allow ourselves to grow in and fulfill Tao. ([5])

Laozi says this about seekers of the Way (Dao):

My words are easy to understand

and easy to put into practice.

Yet, under heaven, no one seems to understand them

or can put them into practice.

My words have an ancient source

and my deeds have their masters.

Yet people do not understand me

and so do not understand my teaching.

Because those who do understand me are few

those who follow me are precious.

This is why the sage dresses himself in coarse clothing

while hiding precious jade in his heart.


High in the mountains of China at the ancient Taiqing Temple on Lao Shan my friends and I met with the temple abbot. As we drank cup after cup of the flavorsome green tea that is grown on the mountain, we listened as Abbot Liu told us that, “Daoism is all based on the study of nature. Study the ways of nature and you can’t go wrong.

“We have common points, you and I,” he continued, “American people love nature. American people love peace. They pursue good health. They have many common points with Daoism, so it is very natural for them to study Daoism. American people also have a lot of scientific achievement. I think that if they combine Daoist ideas and scientific achievement they will be very strong. Study Daoism bit by bit, one thing or aspect at a time. I know that American people love freedom, freedom of the individual. Develop Daoism in America according to the reality of America.”

High in the Wudang mountains I have visited with a Daoist hermit who has lived in a cave for twenty years. And when I say cave I do not mean a cave that has been turned into a house, but a real cave. He goes by the name Jiaye, old grandfather. You can see some wonderful footage of him on Youtube under “bee daoist.”

Once, when I asked him what his cultivation practice was (imagining all sorts of esoteric cave practices) he said meditation. Then he said the other thing was, “It’s very important to cultivate a loving heart.” His wonderful toothless grin always captivates the people on my tour.

There has always been a strain of Daoism that had little to do with priestly affairs. This form of Daoism was practiced by artists, poets, musicians, herbal doctors and the educated class of the literati. These men were often retired political figures who spent their declining years studying the energetic/spiritual practices called yang sheng or cultivating life practices, today sometimes called nei dan, or internal alchemy.

One of the most famous poets of Chinese history, Li Bo, so beloved by the Chinese people, was not only a lay Daoist (many of his poems have Daoist themes) but also a drunken poet knight errant who, in his youth, used his sword to protect the helpless. Many of his poems also speak about a great deal of wine drinking. This can be taken two ways, one that he was a great wine drinker or that the wine he speaks so much about is a metaphor for tapping into the sacred (as do the great poems by the Muslim ecstatic poets Rumi and Kabir), or into the wild free open spaces beyond the reach of “society” and “culture.”

There are also the famous Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. This was a group of seven men who wrote Daoist poems as well as poems criticizing the court and the administration. They also wrote manuals on Daoist mysticism and alchemy. Because they were not interested in the political intrigues of the court they gathered in a bamboo grove where they drank wine and recited poetry, which stressed their enjoyment of wine, personal freedom, spontaneity and love of nature. One of them is even said to have had his personal servant follow behind him with a spade. The idea was if he suddenly dropped dead there in the bamboo grove he could be buried where he fell.

I mention these figures to give you some idea of just what kind of lay Daoists there have been. Historically, it was the freethinking Daoists that were looked down upon by the ruling class. (There were a few times in Chinese history when the ruling elite supported Daoism, such as the Tang dynasty, when the emperor considered himself a direct descendent of Laozi). These people did not toe the Gongfuzi (Confucian) line that was so beloved by the rulers and so were not trusted by the powers that be. They often ended up in the mountains, where they could live close to heaven and nature and far away from the emperor. The word for sage in Chinese is xianren, which combines the characters for person and mountain. It was in the mountains that they could find a combination of good qi (vital energy) as well as good de (spiritual vitality) that they needed for their cultivation practices. It also helped that they were far away from the tawdry affairs of a society that did not always appreciate those who tread on their own path

Many modern people’s first introduction to Daoism is through Laozi’s work, the Daode Jing. Today it is the most widely translated book in the world, after the Bible — a best seller for over 2500 years! As Laozi tells us in the very first lines of the Daode Jing, to try and put into words all that is Dao is impossible. For words cannot hold what Dao truly is. They can only give us glimpses, as if we were seeing it deep within a bank of clouds or a thick mist. Words can only approximate what the experience of Dao is.

Yet his gift to the world was to use these few words in such a way as to give us guidance and food for thought as well as practices to live a full, thoughtful and graceful life. Though often thought of as a book of philosophy, there are actually many instructions for various meditation and energy (qi) practices in its pages.

The path of Dao is one of complete freedom. It is a path that takes us outside the world of rules and regulations. It is a path that frees us from too much thinking, too much trying to fit into the ideas the world has about what constitutes a “spiritual person.” It is a path that grounds us in our bodies and roots us in the earth while opening us to the healing energy of the heavens. It is a path of joy and creativity and deep belly laughter. It is a path that reminds us, constantly and deeply, of our place in the world and of our connection to all other life forms on this earth — “the ten thousand beings.”

Maoshing Ni says,

The Tao is also very flexible, very adaptive. So it doesn’t matter if it’s even called the Tao ultimately. The most important thing is that people begin to see, understand and practice its principles so that their lives can become much more positive, much more creative, and much more gratifying. (6)

This path of Dao then, is one which takes into consideration all aspects of the spiritual path — physical, emotional, energetic, sexual, social, psychological — everything. It is not enough to just work with only one or two aspects of the Way. It is crucial to work on them all. A Dao Person is a well-balanced and well-rounded person. The path of a Dao Person is one of being deeply engaged with life and the world of the “ten thousand beings.”

It is not a path of renunciation and escape from life. That being said, there are times when it is good and even beneficial to take time away from the world of “red dust” and go on retreat. This can happen by spending time in the mountains, the seashore or even in one’s own home. Take the phone off the hook, unplug the computer, don’t speak to anyone, spend time in meditation and contemplation, eat lightly, drink lots of tea.

Of course this is not to denigrate religious Daoism, which has played and continues to play, an important role in the cultural life of Chinese Daoists. Daoist temples are being rebuilt or built totally new all over China today as the Chinese people renew their interest in spiritual matters. The last time I was at the Ba Xian Gong temple in Xian the place was packed with so many people burning incense is the giant incense burners outside that actual flames were shooting out of them! Of course, many of the worshipers there were praying for better jobs, better housing, a girl/boyfriend, or relief from some health problem.

Yet it has always been this way. Even in the temples there are only a handful of monks or nuns who are actually doing deep cultivation practices. Many of them, especially in the modern Communist age, are actually businessmen, running the temple and all of its financial aspects. Many more are there for a job, three meals and a bed. Throughout history there have always only been a handful of Taoists who “attained Dao.”

But, at the same time, the rituals that the Daoists do in the temples are an important part of the cultural life of its adherents — whether it is at funerals, exorcisms or times of great stress such as droughts etc. — they have brought people together in a way that only true ritual does.

What I speak of here is what I am called Western Daoism, which may be a totally new concept than historical Daoism in China. It is interesting to watch the transformation of Zen Buddhism in the West from a temple-centered practice in Japan to neighborhood zendos and people sitting in their own home. The first teachers of Zen who arrived in Japan, especially the ones that came in the tumultuous 60’s, found themselves teaching and practicing in much new ways than they had been trained in in Japan

I feel that so too, will Daoism take on new forms, new flavors, and new approaches to ancient thought and practice. Scholars will complain that this is not “real Daoism” at all. This is not important. Which is more valuable for people who are actually in the trenches of Daoist cultivation practices —making sure they adhere to historical ideas of Daoism or discovering ways to make these practices their own. in their own life. in their own country. in their own time?

I think this is an exciting time, this time of exploration and discovery of what Daoism will become in the West. Pay no attention to the scholars who argue that unless you are an ordained priest, you cannot call yourself a Daoist. (Actually, there is no need to call label yourself as anything other than a “student of the Way.”) Free yourself from the tyranny of the ideas and opinions of others and discover your own way upon the Way. Leave the world of “isms” and boldly strike out into the world of experience and self-cultivation.

Deng Ming Dao, author of the popular Wandering Taoist trilogy once told me,

There is a part of Taoism and a part of China that is very precious and very beautiful once you get that for yourself. That also is part of it. Sure we want to talk about how Taoism works in the West, how it’s good for health and spirituality. One thing that people don’t talk about very much is that there is something about it that is so precious, so special, something to really love and treasure. Once that opens for you there’s no doubt in your mind about it. There’s no end to the road you walk when you are on your path. That’s something that I hope people will remember, that the path of Tao is a path that is very special and it is a living path that will provide for you forever once you get on it. (7)

Daoist thought and practice has had a profound influence on Chinese culture — Chinese medicine, feng shui, astrology, painting, calligraphy, music, the art of “going with the flow”, a love and veneration of nature — all of these things have been strongly influenced by the Daoist worldview. Modern Chinese people may not consider these things “Daoist” or even know much about their Daoist origins. They just consider them as a part of Chinese culture. And while the practices of qigong, meditation, feng shui, Chinese medicine and taiji may not be of purely Daoist origin they have been heavily influenced by Daoist thought.

Likewise, in the West we may also be influenced by these ideas and concepts and not formally recognize ourselves as “Daoists” or even Dao People. But by allowing ourselves to have open mind/heart to these ideas and practices that come from the world of Dao, we cannot help but be benefited and made more whole and well-balanced people because of it.

Eva Wong, when I asked her if the practices and traditions do well when transplanted to the West, answered,

I think they do. I think that any wisdom tradition does, because the wisdom itself timeless and it’s the application that we need to work with to make them relevant to the times that we are living in. I think that’s really what makes these wisdom traditions great, they have been preserved throughout history, they are not frozen in time, so that the message is timeless. (8)

Let us work (and play) together to see what this new birth of Dao in the West might look and feel like. It is an exciting and challenging time and we have the wonderful teachings and support of all the ancient achieved masters as well as modern teachers and guides.

It is not necessary to travel to China to learn about these things. There are many wonderful teachers here in the West. We have access to so many wonderful and helpful books and dvds. As Maoshing Ni says,

I think students today are much more privileged, in that the information is so much more readily available to them. They don’t realized how difficult it was to gather and preserve this knowledge over the years. Now we suddenly have the availability of it all at our fingertips, this time-tested wisdom of thousands of years. This is an exciting era when we can indeed make this available because people are open and they are ready to make a commitment to change their lives for the better, and help us make a better world. (9)

Please join me in this historical endeavor. Let me know how you are working (and playing) to bring these ancient yet up-to-date ideas and practices to fruition in your own life and community. As Dao People we remain open to new as well as ancient ideas and practices. Our bodies and energy systems are basically the same as in ancient times. Our environment is more challenging — the pace of modern life is much faster and more unhealthy; our food, water and air is more polluted, whether we live in China or the West, the stresses on our immune and nervous system are stronger — but all of this can and will be overcome if we are persistent enough in our practice, as we become ever more graceful with being able to apply the teachings and ideas of Dao to our own lives. If practiced diligently and deeply enough, the practices of meditation, qigong, taiji and internal alchemy (nei dan) will themselves become our teachers.

I look forward to hearing from you about your own explorations and experiences with Western Daoism and how they are impacting your life in various ways. Send me an email or letter and I will share them with our readers, both through our journal and our new website at www.communityawake.com. Please join me there in “cyber Dao” with your questions, your answers, your experiences, your teachings, realizations, struggles, openings and your journeys, both inner and outer into this amazing world of Dao.

To use the words of the Old Boy (Laozi):

Yield and become whole.

Bend and become straight.

Empty yourself and become filled.

Grow old yet become renewed.

Have little yet acquire much.

Have much yet become confused.

The sage “embraces the one”

And becomes a model

For all under heaven.

She is not aggressive

and so she is able to achieve greatness.

She does not boast

and so she is recognized by all.

She does not contend

And so no one under heaven

contends with her.

The ancients said “Yield and become whole.”

Is this an empty saying?

Become whole and you will be restored to Dao.

             Chapter 22

[1] Strength From Movement: Mastering Chi, by Hua-Ching Ni, SevenStar Communications Group Inc., 1994.

2 Daoism in China: An Introduction by Wang Y’ie, Floating World Editions, 2006.

3 A Gathering of Cranes: Bringing the Tao to the West by Solala Towler, Abode of the Eternal Tao, 1996.

4 Chinese Magical Medicine by Michel Strickmann, Stanford University Press,

5 A Gathering of Cranes: Bringing the Tao to the West by Solala Towler, Abode of the Eternal Tao, 1996.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

Solala Towler is editor/pubisher of The Empty Vessel: The Journal of Daoist Philosophy and Practice and author of fourteen books on the Daoist arts. He has studied Daoist cultivation with teachers in the U.S. and China. More information on his upcoming China tour go to his websites at www.CommunityAwake or www.abodetao.com.