Many people I meet say that they are Daoist, “practicing Daoism” or “studying Daoism.” But “Daoist” and “Daoism” mean different things to different people. Today I’d like to talk a little about what then mean to me.
There are many different types of activities that Daoists involve themselves in:
- Reading Daoist texts
- Ritual and devotion
- Meditation & qigong
- Seclusion from society
There are also activities compatible with Daoist practice, such as Chinese medicine and martial arts.
If do these things, we say we are practicing Daoism. This not wrong. But it is only part of the picture.
So, what is the Dao? What does it mean to be Daoist?
First, let’s talk about what it is not:
1. It is not a practice or lifestyle. I have met many people in Daoist temples in China who entered the temple as a form of escapism, because they were unhappy with their lives. But, in the temple, they are still unhappy. They have changed their lifestyle and changed the setting, but nothing else has changed.
2. Second, it is not just a philosophy. In Cui Zi’en’s documentary about young gay male prostitutes in China called Feeding Boys Ai Ya Ya, one of the main characters says that he is following the teachings of Laozi’s Dao De Jing by being like water and embracing the dirtiest, lowest parts of human existence. According to his reductive philosophy, he is following the Dao. I think we can agree he was not.
3. Here in the United States, people say that the Dao is being natural, or “going with the flow”. This is also an incomplete understanding.
Ask an old master in a temple, and chances are they will say the Dao can not be described in words.
Turn to the Daoist texts, and you get another vague description. One of my favorite Daoist texts, the Scripture of Clarity and Stillness, says:
The Great Dao has no form; it brings forth and raises heaven and earth.
The Great Dao has no feelings; it regulates the course of the sun and moon.
The Great Dao has no name; it raises and nourishes the myriad beings.
I do not know its name, so the name I give it is Dao.
(Livia Kohn translation)
What are we talking about here?
To help answer that question, we need to take a look at Chinese language. In Daoism, we do not say that we are “practicing” Daoism. The verb we use is the character 修 “xiu”.
In Chinese, a character has more than one meaning. Like people, it can be different things in different contexts. Here are some of the meanings of 修:
“To fix” in Chinese does not mean something is broken. If your village needs a road to the neighboring village, you “fix” a road. In Daoist practice, you are “fixing” your Dao.
You are building a path between who you are, and who you want to be. Like building a road, this is more than “going with the flow”. There is learning, planning, and effort.
When thought of in this way, the steps to practice also become clear:
- First, learn about your subject (in this case, roads). Understand the process involved, and identify any resources you have or need.
- Second, determine your destination. Where do you want to be when you are done?
- Third, start the process. As you work, self-reflection is critical. You need to reflect on your actions and 修 (fix) any mistakes you make.
In Daoism, we say that there are different paths you can build. They will lead you to different places:
First, there is the 人道 (the way of humans). If you are building this path, your goal is to achieve your full human potential. You live a healthy lifestyle, have positive relationships with the people in your life, and are contributing to society in a useful way.
Next, there is the 仙道 (the way of immortals). This is the path that many Daoist priests are building. The goal is to transcend the human condition and move to a higher plane of existence.
The Daoist practices listed at the beginning of this article are some of the tools we use to do this.
Whichever path you choose, your life is an opportunity for building and fixing… a chance to 修 (xiu).