Indiana University Research & Creative Activity April 1998 Volume XXI Number 1



Evolution of a Religion

The philosophy of Daoism has its basis in two texts that appeared in China centuries before the Common Era: the Daode jing (ascribed to the sage Laozi) and the Zhuangzi (named after its author). Dao, meaning literally 'way' or 'path,' was portrayed in the texts as the ineffable, absolute source and end of all things. The Way's early philosophers taught that an individual in harmony with Dao comprehends the course of nature's changes and that all things ultimately return to the purity of the Dao.

Daoism as a religion only surfaced later, in the first few centuries of the Common Era, as individual followers of the philosophy received revelations from Daoist deities. Stephen Bokenkamp, an associate professor of East Asian languages and cultures at Indiana University Bloomington, explains the timing: "The religious elements may have been around for a while, but their emergence was probably due to improved communications. In the Late Han period, the roads were good, people traveled more extensively, and the flow of ideas led to the formation of new ideologies."

Daoist burial practices included the interment of official documents addressed to the lords of the underworld. --credit

Bokenkamp has just published Early Daoist Scriptures (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1997), in which he translates and explains the sacred texts that supported the newborn religion. His carefully annotated book documents the evolution of these scriptures at a time the transformation of these philosophical works into religious texts had just begun. These early texts address the place of individuals in the cosmos and in society. They also come to terms with Daoism's two main rivals at that time, Confucianism and Buddhism.

An early Daoist religious text played a crucial role in the development of an organized community of believers. According to legend, in 142 C.E., a man named Zhang Ling, who had moved to the kingdom of Shu (the western part of modern Sichuan) to study Daoist philosophy, was visited by a deity: Lord Laozi, the author of the Daode jing. This avatar imparted to Zhang a commentary, or explanation, of his masterpiece, which Zhang named the Xiang'er (roughly translated as "concerned for you"). The deified Laozi also granted to Zhang the title of Celestial Master. Within a few years, a sizable group under the leadership of Celestial Master Zhang was carrying out practices associated with organized religion: curing illness through confession, purification, and talismans; converting nonbelievers; paying a tithe to the church; organizing into parishes, each headed by a priest; and establishing charity houses to feed travelers and spread the faith.

The Xiang'er text revealed to Zhang stressed good deeds and their relation to physical health. According to the scripture, the Dao binds all elements together, and only good deeds allow nature to function unimpeded; bad deeds bring illness to the physical body. On this point, the Xiang'er states:

The essences [bodily spirits] might be compared to the waters of a pond. . . . If the heart does not fix itself on goodness, then the pond lacks embankments and the water will run out. If one does not accumulate good deeds, the pond is cut off at its source and the water will dry up.

This Daoist talisman, drawn during the Song period (950­1279, C.E.), is in the shape of a protective deity. --credit

Daoism continually faced rivalry from Confucianism, which emphasized respect for hierarchy and family loyalty. In Admonitions, a Celestial Masters text from a time the Zhang family and their followers served as officials in the Wei Dynasty, it is clear that Confucian principles have found accommodation in Daoism: "All of our households should transform one another through loyalty and filiality, so that fathers are magnanimous and sons filial, husbands faithful and wives chaste, elder brothers respectful and the younger obedient."

By the fifth century of the Common Era, the Celestial Masters faced a different rival, a religion imported from abroad. Buddhism was then becoming hugely successful in China. The Scripture of the Inner Explanations of the Three Heavens emerged in Daoist circles at the same time, in part to support the Liu-Song Dynasty, and in part to meet the challenge of Buddhism by pre-empting its traditions. In the passage below, we see how Daoism maneuvers to prove its precedence over Buddhism by implying that Lord Laozi had manifested himself as the historical Buddha:

The Dao saw that the barbarians of the west were extremely stubborn and difficult to convert, so together with Yin Xi, Laozi traveled west to Kashmir. . . . He made for the king Buddhist scriptures of six hundred forty-thousand words. The king and his whole country came to revere and practice these scriptures.

The accommodation to Buddhist thought extended, in a later text, even to the legitimization of reincarnation, a distinctly Indo-Buddhist notion. Bokenkamp's book shows not only this accommodation of rival religious thought, but also the evolution of a cosmography, the sharpening of moral codes, and the establishment of rites and ritual practices. In time Chinese culture found a place for the "three schools" (san chiao)--Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism--each seen as complementing the others.

Not too many decades ago dismissed by a Western scholar as "a clutter of superstitions founded on ignorance and fear," Daoism is now receiving scholarly attention as a worthy subject of research, thanks in part to Bokenkamp's work. "In China and Taiwan," notes Bokenkamp, "academic study of Daoism is slowly gaining respect. After a long period of neglect, that's great to see."--William Rozycki


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