Updated: Dec 10, 2021
July was coming to a close,
opening into August. My 28th Birthday was only a few weeks away, the year of preparation for my Saturn Return - a major turning point in people’s lives. I was a fews days away from finishing my 35th week (give or take) in the field, approaching Senior 2 and about 2.5 years as a full-time wilderness therapy field guide.
It was mid-summer at Colorado Base Camp. My co-guide and I were working in an adolescent boys team - Kudu. We woke up early with the sun, taking our time to enjoy our breakfast, coffee, meditation, and some leisurely reading before waking up the students. A welcome reprieve after a particularly stressful shift working with a stuck student who hijacked the team by refusing to move, eat, drink, or talk for a few days.
We made it back to base. Everyone was safe. Everyone learned a little more about themselves that week. Mission accomplished. Then, I noted the title of a pocket-sized book my co-guide was reading: “Tao Te Ching.” I’d never heard of it, but I recognized “Ching” from the “I Ching,” another pocket-sized ancient Chinese oracle book I’d been toting around for years already.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s…the Tao Te Ching.” He struggled to explain more than that plain fact.
“Can I see it?”
I read through the intro and some of the first few poems before finally waking up the students. “Can I borrow this until we leave?”
“Sure.” He smiled, seemingly pleased that someone would be so interested.
I consumed it voraciously, gripped by its paradox, its wisdom, and the infinite provocation of thoughts expressed through such minimal words.
“This is incredible.” I returned the palm-sized document.
“Yeah, I like it. I read it from time to time, especially when I meditate.”
That was 2 years ago. I ordered my own copy online as soon as we left the field. It became my daily back pocket companion that I read to myself and my students. I eventually wrapped the spine in pink duct tape to keep it together. Its cover accrued a film of wilder-grime. I’m 30 now. No longer a field guide. Still yet bewitched by the incantations printed on those 3.5 x 5-inch pages.
Today, I write through the ethers, to you, about my inner-conflict concerning whether or not to call myself a Daoist.
But first, let’s clear a few things up:
What is Daoism?
As far as the word implies, Daoism is like any other “ism,” subscribing to a particular system of beliefs or values. Thus, “believing in Dao.” And herein lies the first problem. It’s not very clear. In fact, scholars debate this fundamental question to this very day. However, I see it as a belief in things like the pre-creationist force of Dao, allowing that pre-destined force to move through you, minimalism, inherent goodness, unlearning, and the paradox of existence.
As it stands today, most of us Westerners understand Daoism to be founded on the Dao De Jing and the Change Tzu as the definitive “bibles” of Daoism, and there are two branches: Contemplative Doaism (straight-up just thinking-or not thinking- about Dao) and Hsien Daoism (The Way to Immortality), which uses ritualized alchemy in the pursuit of immortality (in one sense of another) and perhaps gaining some extraordinary powers from the unseen beyond. Let me just say, Russel Kirkland has a big problem with this, explaining in excruciating detail the myriad traditions of antiquity and their importance. Either way, the organization of Daoism is nebulous at best and the views set-forth by the Dao De Jing are steeped in allegory and paradox.
What is the Dao De Jing?
The Dao De Jing, formerly the Daodejing, formerly the Tao Te Ching, formerly the Tao Teh King—well, you get the idea, the English spelling is evolving— translates to The Book of The Way and its Virtue. It is a 2,500-year-old classic book of poems on the art of living written by Lao Tzu (pronounced Lah-oo Tzuh, meaning Old Master or Old Boy). Why Dao and not Tao? Why Jing and not King? Aside from Dao De Jing seeming to gain credibility as the most contemporary spelling, these newer and truer anglicized pronunciations help us English Speakers feel less hesitant to…name the unnamable. Though I do admit, while the D’s and J’s do provide phonetic relief, something about those T’s and Ch’s is so aesthetically alluring. Maybe it’s just resistance to change…
The ambiguous nature of the Dao De Jing leaves it—in so many ways— “open to interpretation.” Lao Tzu is daring us to employ our creativity, rationale, morality, curiosity, and mysticism to uncover deeper meaning as we continually revisit his text.
It is important to understand that most of what we know about early Daoist figures and their writing is basically hearsay. That’s just how it goes when things were seldom documented, and any rare records were subject to surviving millennia of whichever temperament befit the ruler of an era. There’s also the issue that ancient Chinese literature is often steeped in allegory. Those writings that did survive, who’s to say whether they’re records of actual events and people or if they’re works of fiction meant to portray some lesson or ideal person? Russel Kirkland asserts that, “[The Dao De Jing] can better be compared to works of “wisdom literature” …as the collective wisdom of the [Daoist] community itself.” (Kirkland 2004). While authorship and accuracy may be uncertain, the captivating lessons within these classic texts are unquestionably timeless and relevant.
What is the Change Tzu?
The Chuang Tzu is a book named after its–at least partial–author, a common practice back in those days (as the Dao De Jing is also the Lao Tzu). Chuang Tzu was a Chinese philosopher whose commentary amidst “the Hundred Schools of Thought” breathed narrative life into the Dao De Jing such that it became a foundational Daoist text. He is famously quoted, “I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly or if I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man.”
Is that it?
Well…no…and yes. There is an incredible comprehensive collection of texts spanning the 2,500 years since the Dao De Jing (and some that perhaps pre-date it) called the “Daoist Canon” or the Daozang. Herein lies another problem: availability to Westerners. Nearly all of these texts have yet to be translated into English. Again, Russel Kirkland tries very hard to convey that there are dozens, if not hundreds of forms of Daoism that have come and gone over the millennia–nonetheless, Daoism has endured the test of time and; further, was not just a subculture of culty, low-class caste, but a thriving and integral part of Chinese governmental influence.
Now that we’ve cleared that up, I’m struggling.
I’m struggling to call myself a Daoist for the reasons stated above. It’s not a very black & white thing to easily adhere to or not adhere to (that’s a little yin-yang humor for you).
Problem #1: The Paradox
We are told by the ancient sages, like Lao Tzu, that the very nature of Dao is intangible, inexplicable, and by saying or claiming something––you lose it.
Dao De Jing #1
The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.
The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.
Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.
Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.
Trans. Stephen Mitchell, 1988
THAT is the paradox. That is the irony. Simply by saying I’m a Daoist, I am no longer a Daoist.
What did the Daoist say to the other Daoist?
Problem #2: Mastery
Admittedly, this is my own narrative. The Dao De Jing constantly speaks of “The Master,” “Mastery,” and “The Sage.” For me, it creates this idea that one must be a Master before laying claim to such ways of wisdom. But, who’s to say the process cannot be claimed as well? This would be like not claiming to be Christian unless you’re the Pope.
Problem #3: The Language Barrier
I acknowledge that I am not a Chinese speaker or reader. Consequently, I am not able to read the thousands of scrolls and texts collected into the Daoist Canon. It was only in September of 2019 that the Daoist Canon was indexed in English. Does that mean I am less Daoist? Am I at fault for such ignorance? Can I not claim Daoism while continuing to learn about it or is it wrong to claim to be part of something I don’t fully understand? Isn’t the whole point that as soon as you think you have it, you’ve lost it? Would reading all of those texts make me a better Daoist? Doesn’t Lao Tzu say that “In the pursuit of knowledge, every day something is gained. In the pursuit of Dao, every day something is lost. Lose and again lose”?
Problem #4: Just a Phase
It’s only been two years since my first encounter with the Dao De Jing on that summer morning in Colorado. In that short amount of time, I’ve been inspired and guided through working on LIFELONG patterns. Still, I can’t help but ask myself, is this just a phase? Will I become disillusioned in a few years when I learn some darker side or see or understand something previously unbeknownst to me? It’s hard to imagine. When, then, will I feel fully-committed and comfortable with this title? Do I like it only because it asks so little of me? Will I suddenly learn that to be a Daoist, one must lead a monastic life? Or does my relationship to this guiding force continue to suffice? I’ve believed in some higher power for most, if not all of my life. Am I ready to finally put my beliefs in a box?
Problem #5: Lack of Organization
THERE IS NO DAOIST CHURCH IN WHICH TO SIMPLY GET BAPTIZED OR AFFIRMED INTO. Sheesh. One of the problems with my Doaist beliefs (the more contemplative, less-Hsieny kind) is that it talks itself out of talking and organizes itself out of organization. Let me say here that my journey thus far has mostly involved reading translation after translation and Western interpretation after Western interpretation on my own, with little effort to hunt-down any supposed organizations. Perhaps that is another step in my journey. I could put more time an effort into exploring the more organized forms of Daoism to create a more informed opinion, but WHO HAS THE TIME? Well…I’ve got my whole life and there’s no rush to gather every possible bit of information and make a final decision.
Until then: there's this
Why I Want to Call Myself a Daoist
Daoism, at least the Dao De Jing, has been an incredible force in my life. It came to me during my guiding career and taught me how to be more flexible in my thinking and my way in the world, which was HUGE, because I spent so much of my life being so RIGID.
In the Dao De Jing, it speaks often of “Wu Wei,” or non-action. As I understand it, removing one’s force of will to allow the force of Dao.
For two years, I’ve read about Daoism religiously (pun intended). I’ve practiced surrendering, trusting, allowing. Daoism has helped me form a relationship with meaning, purpose, and destiny. It’s reshaped my world view. It brings a level of peace which was hitherto unknown to me. Is that not worth subscribing to? Is that not worth claiming? Is that not what belief is all about?
In my relationship with Dao, I often literally personify Dao, characterizing it into some consciousness I can interact with. I don’t actually believe it works that way, I believe its beyond any of that, but it’s much more fun to have it as a friend (especially more than some omnipotent force to be feared). I’m learning
more and more to play with the Universe. “Aaaahhhh! You got me there! That was a good one. This process sucks a lot but I know you’re taking me where I need to go, whether I like it or not.” I am more and more able to laugh at the cosmic joke.
Simply put: it works for me.