Just recently, I received an e-mail asking an interesting question:
“How do you know if someone calling himself a Daoist priest is genuinely a Daoist priest. Is there any way to check?”
As Daoism grows in popularity, some people may call themselves a Daoist priest as a way of marketing their business. So how can you tell if their claim is true?
Actually, the qualities that you should look for in a Daoist priest are the same as other teachers.
If you wanted to learn medicine, who would you want as your teacher?
1. Someone who has a relationship with hospitals and other doctors.
2. Someone who is still practicing medicine, or practiced medicine for a very long time.
3. Someone who believes in their craft and works to improve.
These three characteristics can be summed up as lineage, practice, and faith.
Since ancient China, Daoism has been a temple-based tradition. A Daoist’s temple is their home and their lineage is their family. Many Daoists receive official documentation from their lineages, such as Registers (籙), Precept Certificates (戒牒), or a government issued Daoist License (道士证).
While a temple or high-ranking Daoist may ask another Daoist about their documentation, it is considered rude for lay-people to ask. It is more useful to talk with someone from the same lineage. Someone from the same Daoist lineage would know which temple a person has lived in, who their master is, what skills they studied, and what their relationship with the temple is like today. Here is a story:
Last year I traveled back to Wudang Mountain with my students. After dinner in the meal hall, I was strolling around the temple. An older man in Daoist robes came up the stairs. He looked like a Daoist from the movies, with a white topknot and beard. He had two foreign students with him. We started to chat and I asked where he was from. He said he was from Wudang. An older Daoist nun was walking by and overheard. She scolded him, “Who are you tricking? I’ve been here for decades and never seen you.” She pointed at me, “You, you grew up here.” Unfortunately, the conversation was lost on the man’s foreign students.
It is also helpful to understand a bit of lineage history. For example, the Wudang Daoist lineage was all but destroyed during the decade of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and no disciples were trained during that time.
Practice & Faith
Some Daoists choose to live outside the temple system. They may live alone in a small temple or hermitage. Although they may lack the connections to the Daoist community that other Daoists have, they can be identified by the depth of their practice and faith. Likewise, it is possible for a person to have credentials, experience living in a temple, and a master-disciple relationship and still have no practice or faith.
During my time as a wandering monk, I traveled to temples all over China. I heard many older Daoists say the same thing. They feel that the younger generation of Daoists is too concerned with fame and wealth. Temples in China are government property, but often they are contracted out by individuals who see the temple as a profitable business. This is the case for some temples in China, both Buddhist and Daoist. Many Daoists see their priesthood as a profession, not a spiritual calling.
If I were looking for a new master, I would look for someone who was actively practicing the Daoist arts (ritual, divination, chanting, and internal alchemy). I would want their practice to reflect a deep understanding of Daoism, its history, and theory. I am lucky to have met many great Daoist teachers, including my master, Li Guangfu. Although these teachers differed greatly in age, gender, and physical appearance, they also had many things in common. Each of them was filled with a great love and respect for the Dao. This manifested in everything they did. After spending time with them I would feel calmer and more connected. I could see the teachings in how they lived their lives, and how they treated those around them.
Determining whether a person is a “fake Daoist priest” is a difficult task, but there are some qualities that most Daoists share. They are lineage, practice, and faith.