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  • Daoism, Meditation, and the Wonders of Serenity: From the Latter Han Dynasty (25–220) to the Tang Dynasty (618–907) by Stephen Eskildsen
  • James D. Sellmann (bio)
Stephen Eskildsen. Daoism, Meditation, and the Wonders of Serenity: From the Latter Han Dynasty (25–220) to the Tang Dynasty (618–907). Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 2015. vii, 387 pp. Hardcover $85.00, isbn 978-1-4384-5823-6.

By way of introduction, allow me to being with a few contrasts between Daoism and the other great world religions, especially the monotheistic ones. Because most scholars of the history of religions or the scientific study of religions (Religionswissenschaft) were raised under, and, then, extensively studied the monotheistic traditions that clearly advocate for a transcendent, other-worldly realm of existence, that is a Heaven, ruled over by a transcendent ultimate reality, God, who creates the material realm, and humans who live in the Earthly world till their final salvation, these scholars are somewhat biased, then, to interpret other traditions, especially Buddhism and Daoism in a similar fashion as somehow advocating for salvation in an otherworldly transcendent Heaven. This is not the case. Especially Theravada and later Chan (Zen) Buddhism and Daoism are not salvation-orientated religions, rather they focus on personal effort or effortless, non-action, to attain liberation or awakening. In Daoism the practitioner has to learn how to control the gods within one's physical body and in the material world. In other religions the God or gods control the world and humans. Daoism reverses this relationship. I suggest that the student of Daoism consider the possibility that the description of the Daoist gods is a metaphor or symbolic attempt to describe unseen and yet experienced biological-chemical processes or forces of nature in the body and in the universe that are merely presented in personified "divine" form partly as teaching tools and partly because of the limitations of their language and understanding of a pre-scientific worldview. Daoism is easily misunderstood to be advancing a transcendent, other-worldly form of existence, but upon a careful reading of the texts, this is not the case. The [End Page 234] immortals that attain heavenly immortality are in the stars, not another-world, or transcendent realm that is totally beyond this universe such as the Muslim or Christian Heaven. They dwell, in this world, in the sky in distant galaxies, stars, and planets. The practitioner achieves the state of immortality by controlling the gods that dwell within one's body. If a person or practitioner cannot control them, then these positive, life-giving forces, and other degenerative forces, such as lust, greed, and anger, which are presented as personified gods, demons, or worms that rot the body, take control and usher in illness, death, and decay.

Furthermore, the monotheistic religions have a fairly common logic of creation, proposing that existence cannot come from absolute nothing without a creator god. The old saying was that "nothing comes from nothing." The idea that the transcendent God creates the world from nothing, creatio ex nihilo, maintains that God must exist to be the first cause, the efficient reason or prime mover to get creation started; that is, there is a God out of which or through which creation is made possible, although the God does not need any other material to build the world. Something, God, must exist to begin the creation process. The Buddhist and Daoist propose, similar to modern physics, that the void or plenum-void is both empty and yet the generative force of existence and this unfolding is a continuous process, not a one time, in the beginning, phenomenon. This view that "form is empty" or that "what is empty can generate material form" is often seen as a paradox from the perspective of two-valued (true/false) logic. However, from the perspective of non-dual logic also called correlative thinking, the alleged paradox is merely an alternative, and a more accurate, ontological description of what reality, this-here-now-material-world, really is. For Daoism and much of Buddhism, the world in its energy-matter, empty-form, manifestation is miraculous in-itself, and there is...