University of Hawai'i Press

Quite a few popular books that explain Dao, such as certain translations of the Daode jing and The Tao of Pooh, have been heavily criticized by Western scholars as colonialist appropriations of Chinese culture, and thus as examples of a "false" Dao. However, such critiques are presented without considering the view in China, after all the birthplace of the concept of Dao. This paper aims to add a Chinese perspective to this discussion.

First, I analyze the high-frequency words and contents of these popular texts, showing that Dao in these books not only possesses similarities with its Chinese counterpart, but also does not conflict with the serious Dao as defined in Western academics. Next, I suggest that Western scholars declare popular Dao as false, because they judge it based on their own ideas and Western religious conceptions. They ignore the special manifestations of Dao in China, such as its infiltration into daily life, where it does not necessarily manifest as religious practices or rites. Last, combining the manifestation of Dao in the Chinese tradition and its contemporary Chinese understanding with the American Dao, I conclude that the popular Dao is in fact worthy of recognition as Dao and deserves to be studied further. After all, Dao by definition has no rigid form or fixed boundaries and must be inclusive.

During the second half of the last century, the Chinese notion of Dao or Tao spread from academic circles to the Western public, and a special form of Western popular Daoism formed. For example, in the United States, besides spiritual seekers who travel to Chinese sacred mountains, there are also Daoists who practice in America having never been to [End Page 106] China. Both groups have already been studied in Western academic circles (Palmer and Siegler 2017; Miller 2007; Siegler 2003; Siegler 2010). Beyond this, there is what Russell Kirkland (1997) calls "Pooh Tao," generally more popular than the works of actual Daoists and evident from the broad engagement with Daode jing translations. According to Lucas Carmichael, since 2010 an average eighteen translated versions have been published each year (2017, 5-7). But Daoism already penetrated many Western societies before that. Books like The Tao of Physics (Capra 1975) and The Tao of Pooh (Hoff 1982) gave rise to a flourishing culture, expressed in many books with titles like The Tao of…, Tao or Dao at that point became a term for living wisdom among ordinary people.

What is Popular Daoism?

To understand the nature of popular Daoism in the West, we must consider the basic viewpoints of this community's most popular books, such as Stephen Mitchell's Tao Te Ching, Wayne W. Dyer's Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life, and John Heider's The Tao of Leadership, all bestsellers in the United States.

A bestselling spiritual writer, Stephen Mitchell was asked to translate the Daode jing by the American Times Publishing House in 1984. Without any training in Chinese, he drew inspiration from previous English translations and managed to create a thoughtful vision of Daoism. For example, he differentiates between Dao and God, "Although Dao is the basis for all things, it is not a dominator: All things are born from it, yet it does not create them" (1999, ch. 34). The manner, in which Dao creates things, is different from that of artisans who shape form according to their own subjective will. Dao creates things as a mother would a child. It is the origin, but not the explicit cause of every aspect of that child or its life. Everything created by Dao, therefore, has its own way and its own vitality instead of being entirely dependent on God.

According to Mitchell, this vitality should be freely released. He says, "Can you deal with the most vital matters by letting events take their course?" (ch. 10); "See the world as your self. Have faith in the way things are." (ch.13). He asserts that Laozi teaches how everything in the universe is in harmony as a whole, and how the person who pursues Dao becomes one with his opponents instead of conquering them. As he [End Page 107] notes, "The master has mastered nature; not in the sense of conquering it, but of becoming it." He also cites a variety of lifestyles that "follow the Dao," emphasizing a holistic view of the universe and the practice of nonaction as the core nature of Daoism (see also Cai 2014).

Similar ideas also appear in Wayne W. Dyer's rendition and commentary, Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life. Having also gained his understanding of the Daode jing from previous translations, he focuses on the core of Dao as a spiritual power. To him, "being born from nonbeing" means that the invisible nonbeing of the spirit of being is the root of all beings with visible shape and color (2009, 197). He also says, "Commentaries on the Daode jing generally interpret Dao as 'the Way' and de as 'shape and power'" (2009, xiii). For him, Dao is characterized by naturalness, which allows things to naturally exist instead of operating compulsively under the domination of God. As Dao is the origin and basis of human beings, they should not deviate from Dao to satisfy material desire. Even people who have fallen into materialism can still be happy if they return to the root of Dao. This interpretation is reminiscent of the notion of clarity and stillness (qingjing 清静) in the Chinese tradition.

Both books emphasize overall harmony, naturalness, and nonaction. Is their idea of Dao representative of other popular books? To answer this question, I compare the frequency of certain key words in Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life (Dyer 2009), The Tao of Leadership (Heider 1985), and 365 Tao: Daily Meditations (Deng 1992). Although The Tao of Leadership is not a professional academic book, it has been cited in more than 400 articles. The author says

There are tens of thousands of Daoist saying and beliefs that extend to practically all areas of live itself. A list includes the practice of moderation, yielding, following, reflection, facilitation, silence, non-intervention, organizing, simplicity, inclusion, awareness, integrity, encounters, opportunities, rigidity, helpfulness and letting go.

(1986, 197)

Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life, in its table of contents that presents all eighty-one chapters of the Daode jing, has a number of key catch phrases expressing ideas of "whole" or "balanced," including paradoxical unity, contentment, impartially, wholeness, without excess, creatively, in the flow, oneness, cooperating, and without enemies. It also [End Page 108] uses terms indicating "calm" or "harmony," like harmony with constancy, calmly, melting into harmony, and without resentments. It refers variously to "nature" by mentioning concepts such as natural law, own nature, without rules, knowing when to stop, letting go, and without difficulties. Further words indicate an emphasis on "compliance," like without striving, flexibility, without force, humility, returning and yielding, peaceful, remaining low, awe and acceptance, and bending.

Beyond that, the table of contents has expressions indicating personal independence, such as beyond ego, by your inner light, beyond life, enlightened leader, independent mind, without attachment, with inner conviction, and our own utopia. It also uses various terms for lessening judgment, including decreasing, being here now, staying simple-hearted, without authoritarianism, as well as untroubled by good or bad fortune. Other phrases go beyond different categories, such as elusive paradox, greatness, virtuously, simplicity, beyond appearances, and more.

The table of contents in The Tao of Leadership similarly uses terms meaning whole and balance, including unity, integrity, and equity; expressions relating to calmness and harmony, like fight, helping, and inclusion; words meaning natural, such as natural, flow, flowing, letting go, non-intervention, simplicity, slow down, intervention, selfishness, and water; phrases indicating compliance, for example, progress, process, soft, understanding, push, resistance, rigidity, and yielding; words relating to personal independence, such as being oneself, selfishness, and ego; and phrases beyond specific categories, like answer, argument, awareness, discerning, efficiency, encounters, leadership, and so on.

The connection between the two books is obvious. They both emphasize ideas relating to holistic, harmonious, natural, non-active, and compliant, along with balance, unity, flow, ego, and yielding. Counting the high frequency words in other books of a similar ilk, it emerges that they also emphasize the same ideas. Many even have them right in their titles, such as Everyday Tao: Living with Balance and Harmony (Deng 1996), The Tao of Stress: How to Calm, Balance, and Simplify Your Life (Smith 2013), and The Tao of Relationships: A Balancing of Man and Woman (Grigg 2011).

The same also holds true for other popular books in this area that have reached a high sales volume over the past several years. Here, too, certain high-frequency words such as harmony, love, balance, whole, and yin-yang occur frequently as they emphasize nonaction and the removal [End Page 109] of self-ego. Below is a chart of the high frequency words in two other books, where I list the number of times these words appeared.

Book Love/Harmony Balance/Oneness Self / Ego Accept / Nonaction God Way / Wisdom
Lin 2007 13 / 12 3 / 8 11 / 14 14 / 3 6 13 / 32
Dyer 2009 75 / 84 13 / 46 81 / 68 9 / 11 43 75 / 131
Deng 1992 25 / 20 18 / 26 28 / 21 42 / 1 10 24 / 114

Beyond these, there are many other terms used frequently that are essentially synonymous. For example, "cooperation," another way to express harmony and balance, appears most frequently in The Tao of Leadership, emphasizing that companies should pay attention to the internal collaboration of the group. In The Tao of Pooh, "knowledge" is commonly used, as the author articulates the non-rational concept of intuition and favors wisdom (Hoff 1982).

Since popular books are not academically precise, their presentation of Dao is not fully standardized and tends to match to common understanding, obviously relating it closely to Western culture. Thus, the word God appears quite often in certain books, such as Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life.

Does all this mean that popular Western readings of Dao are entirely arbitrary? To me, the Daoism they articulate and that found in academic research are not very different. For example, the outstanding sinologist Roger T. Ames and the contemporary comparative philosopher David L Hall in their translation of the Daode jing emphasize correlative cosmology and recognize the complementary relationship between opposites. According to them, the formation of complementary and harmonious relations is inseparable from the spontaneous nature of the universe, as the universe and beings in the world are spontaneous, natural, and self-so-ing (2003, 23, 39, 68, 211). These are ideas also presented in popular books, as is the emphasis Ames and Hall place on change, expressed in terms of progress and flow in popular readings.

Other Western academic works, too, apply Dao in practical ways and relate it to cooperation, harmony, and balance (see Ely 2009; Du et al. 2011; Flowers 1998). The reasons why Dao is popular among Westerners [End Page 110] in general and in academia are fundamentally similar. The Dao the author of a best-selling book who does not know Chinese describes is not as distorted as Western scholars suggest in their criticism. The public's understanding of Daoism is the same as that of academic scholars as regard notions of overall balance, nonaction, harmony between yin and yang, and the power that flows naturally through the universe.

Other scholars, too, share the same views as popular authors. Although they do not directly affirm and endorse popular Daoism, their understanding of Dao is quite similar. Why is this?

A Life of Dao

The research undertaken by Roger Ames on the differences between Eastern and Western philosophy may help to explain it. Traditional Chinese have a subtle and complex way of thinking in their worldview and cosmology that applies fruitfully to the ongoing critique of transcendence as a core notion of European-centered Western philosophy. The increasingly growing interest in philosophers like Alfred North Whitehead, especially within American pragmatism, encourages Western philosophers to draw on Chinese traditions as they mature within their own philosophical culture of self-criticism (Ames 2006, 6).

The cosmological articulation of Dao in translations and popular books emphasizes wholeness and balance, completely in line with Chinese notions of Dao. However, the emphasis in academic books is on theoretical understanding and interpretation while popular authors focus on the lifestyle created by following Dao in actual practice. As books like of Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life document, it is such a beneficial lifestyle that their authors become widely popular for many years. Rather than a fundamental shift in reading, it is this practical focus that has caused academic scholars to accuse popular authors of removing the "true" tradition of Dao. The key question remains: Can the way of life expressed in popular works be called the life of following true Dao? Let us look at certain key characteristics of this life of Dao.

First, such a life of Dao is "oblivious" (wang 忘) of the ego as determined by the social value system that only honors the conquest of the outside world and the pursuit of self as the embodiment of human power and rationality. However, when this value system is pushed to the [End Page 111] extreme, people will mistake the self polluted by the social as the real self and try to satisfy that false self's desire for wealth, reputation, and status, not knowing how to return to the true self that takes Dao as its root. Facing such a condition, when the person who follows Dao proposes to be oblivious of everything, which is not forgetting in the biological sense, but the transcendence of self-consciousness that elevates one to a higher level. The most direct embodiment of being oblivious is to be oblivious of all the aspirations for wealth and fame:

In the process of being oblivious, we suppress desire, expel selfishness, and cast off bondage. We are oblivious of the liver and gallbladder, oblivious of time and righteousness, oblivious of what we receive, oblivious of heaven, oblivious of everything, and thus oblivious of all unrelated things. This is actually a process of continuously seeking truth.

The sage following Dao as represented in popular Western works similarly is aware of his unlimited self and resists the drive for material possessions and fame. He avoids being corrupted and returns to the root.

The more powerful manifestation of "self" is the "consciousness of self" The rationalism of "I think, therefore I am" is indispensable to modernity; however, the human whose mind is completely occupied by metaphysics or reason can no longer perceive the real, authentic spirit, or life in the living world. The idea of negating rationalism is resonant with postmodernism, which manifests as the denial of self-awareness and the thought that people have been proud of because of our identification of ourselves with the ego, what we ordinarily call action, or doing, cuts us off from the complete reception of conscious energy in our bodies and actions.

(Feng 1989, xxii).

This view is also reflected in the emphasis on letting go and being without attachment in Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life, indicating a way of not interfering with the natural development of things, not obsessing over the self-subjective will. Following Dao, then, means realizing that everything has its own intrinsic nature and respecting the inherent law of the development of things.

Other books, too, place acceptance and letting go side by side, because only by sincerely accepting the way things are can we successfully [End Page 112] let go. In this way, people can lead a life of peace and calm, that is, a life of Dao, a life of balance and harmony. The proponents of Dao in this sense in all cases advocate understanding and adapting to the current situation instead of direct confrontation or domination. As Gia-Fu Feng notes,

Accept what is in front of you without wanting the situation to be other than it is. Study the natural order of things and work with it rather than against it, for to try to change what is only sets up resistance…We will come to appreciate the original meaning of the word "understand," which means "stand under."

(1989, ix-x)

Accepting whatever is happening, Dao can lead to inner peace as Diane Dreher explains,

Peace, Lao Tzu realized, is an inside job. Only when we find peace within ourselves can we see more clearly, act more effectively, cooperating with the energies within and around us to build a more peaceful world…Seeing beyond the shifting tides of circumstance, we recognize the patterns of ebb and flow underlying all of nature. …

If we look beneath the clamor and clutter of our lives, we recognize our own inner rhythms, which are part of the overarching rhythms of nature. By following these rhythms, we can find greater peace for ourselves.

(2000, xiv)

Realizing this, people following Dao will be happy to withdraw from confrontation with the outside world.

Second, the life of Dao destroys the self of secular society while constructing a true self resting in Dao, positive and relaxed. Stephen Mitchell interprets this as "satisfying with all of you and accepting the natural development of things happily" (1989, 47). Being oblivious of everything, people who follow Dao are not static or dead, but better understand Dao that lies in the life of the world.

Stephen Mitchell's wife, Byron Katie, notes she likes Dao without knowing the ultimate reality. She says, "I don't understand concepts like ultimate. For me, reality is simple. There's nothing behind it or above it, and it holds no secrets. It's whatever is in front of you, whatever is happening. When you argue with it, you lose" (2008, xii). [End Page 113]

People transcending the obstacles of thought resonate harmoniously in their communication with the other in Dao and in nature; they feel the rhythm of life. As RZA says, "So in that sense, we are all Wu-Tang. You are Wu-Tang. If you ever stood on a mountain or by an ocean and felt a deep connection, a vast infinite presence inside you, you felt it: what Daoists call Oneness" (2010, vii). When experiencing harmony with Dao, life is a scroll painting that slowly unrolls, full of fascinating vistas.

Following Dao, people draw back from the pursuit of the transcendent realm of the world to come; instead, they turn to the life of this world here and now. It is precisely because Dao is not some distant transcendent God, but exists in the hearts of individuals in the world that they can and should follow their own unique way, which also adapts to the needs of postmodern individuals. "A true generation-Xer establishes his or her self-identity clearly and strongly, knowing exactly who s/he is so that s/he can stand on his or her own feet without bothering about anyone else's opinions." (Kim 2014, p.5). The Dao's negation of the self is much the same as the negation of the new individualism of the modern alienated self. As a new way of life, being natural and resting in nonaction do not result in negative regression.

For the public, the Daode jing does not contain abstract and impractical ideas, but presents a worldly wisdom and advocates a specific lifestyle, a way of self-realization. This is clear in The Tao of Leadership and its widespread popularity among academics. Following Dao is to follow and accept. It means to never look at the world pessimistically, but to believe that things have their own inner strength, to accept the natural state of things while maintaining a keen observation of things, so that the inner energy of all can be fully released and brought to fruition. Everyone who likes Dao can see the wisdom of conforming to it.

Many works accordingly affirm the centrality of wisdom, such as The Wisdom of the Tao (Deng 2018) and The Tao of Teaching (Nagel 1998). As a method and way of life, Dao—as described in popular books—is in line with the Chinese understanding, making people turn attention away from the world and focus on life in the here and now. To live a life of Dao means to emphasize the organic overall view of the universe, the balance in yin and yang, the wisdom of life, and the true self. However, in the academic world, certain scholars have degraded this way of looking at Dao as inauthentic. Why is this? [End Page 114]

The Academic Take

Popular books on Dao and the accompanying rise of popular Daoism have not escaped the notice of Western scholars. Some reject this, most importantly Erik Zürcher, Karl-Heinz Pohl, Russell Kirkland, and Louis Komjathy. Others speak highly of it, including Julia Hardy and J. J. Clarke. For example, Hardy says that "bad" translations often form the foundation of "good" religion, meaning the translations of Daoist texts by those without direct access to the original may be technically bad translations, but produce a form of worthwhile religion (1998, 171). Clarke thinks this phenomenon contributes to the transmission of Dao and benefits the development of Western thought (2000, 194–211). In addition, some scholars hold a more neutral and objective view, such as Norman Girardot, who engaged in two different stages of Daoist studies, and David A. Palmer and James Miller who maintain a more sociological perspective, studying various forms of American Daoism and translations of the Daode jing.

Why do scholars oppose popular Daoism? Among Europeans, the well-known Buddhist scholar Erik Zürcher believes that the most important and essential aspect of the Daode jing is specialist religious practice and accordingly does not appreciate its popularity among ordinary people. He thinks the idea that the sage Laozi's Dao is practiced by managers and industrial capitalists is laughable (1992, 302-03).

The German sinologist Karl-Heinz Pohl thinks that Dao is a panacea for Western society's mental illnesses, such as excessive material desire and spiritual emptiness. For him, popular books on Dao are only vulgarized Daoist teachings combining a mixture of mysticism, wisdom of life, and ultimate truth with the ambiguity and openness of the ancient mysterious text. In his view, the spread of Daoism to the masses is a plaything of the times, and its influence is developing from the ideological level to religious behavior (2003, 18).

In spite of many similarities, the difference between the two stances comes from divergent starting points. As a religious scholar, Zürcher stresses the role of religious cultivation related to the Daode jing he thinks is not present in popular books, while Pohl rejects popular books because of their lack of academic rigor. As a result, Zürcher speaks highly of popular translations as they often align with religious practice, while [End Page 115] Pohl believes that the "creative misreading" of popular works could be conducive to the development of Western thought, but Westerners cannot really understand Dao. Although the specific attitudes of the two scholars differ, both are consistent in the attitude of refusing to consider popular books as authentic.

Many scholars in America show little regard for popular Daoism. For example, Steve Bradbury notes that Dao in the United States is an "American conquest of philosophical Daoism" for its own use and believes that Witter Bynner injected the individualism of Ralph Waldo Emerson into the Daode jing (1992, 35). His view is mirrored by that of Russell Kirkland, who sharply criticizes the translations of Stephen Mitchell (1988) and Ursula K. Le Guin (1997) and books like The Tao of Pooh, arguing that the American interpretation of Dao is cultural colonization. He describes the Dao of popular books as "there is no God; there is no true moral authority outside of myself; truth is whatever I say it is" (1997). Louis Komjathy similarly compares the popular Dao to the Zen of the 1950s and 60s, claiming that it is full of misconceptions. He says,

These misconceptions have their origins in traditional Confucian prejudices, European colonialism, and Christian missionary sensibilities, especially as expressed by late nineteenth-century Protestants. Most of these views are located in American designer hybrid (New Age) spirituality, Orientalism, Perennial Philosophy, and spiritual capitalism. They domesticate, sterilize, and misrepresent Daoism, and disempower actual Daoists and Daoist communities. In their most developed expressions, they may best be understood as part of a new religious movement (NRM) called popular Western Taoism (PWT), with Taoism pronounced with a hard "t."


His conclusion about these popular works is that "such works have no place in a serious inquiry into an accurate understanding of Daoism. They are part of popular Western culture, New Age spirituality as well as self-help and pop psychology" (2014, 56). He believes that they are not related to Daoism as a religious tradition.

Both Kirkland and Komjathy are professional Daoist scholars, and Komjathy is also an initiated priest of the Complete Perfection school. Their research has enabled them to gain a deeper understanding of Chinese Daoism, but it has also caused them to present their ideas as the pinnacle of all its forms. Inferring from the fact that early Western Daoism [End Page 116] was rooted in various Orientalist misunderstandings, they assert that the contemporary perception is also incorrect. They judge Dao in popular books based on what they consider to be the real and true Dao, and compare the American Daoism of ordinary people with what they teach as the genuine tradition, thus denying the pure spiritual and emotional pursuits of Dao found in popular books. They do not completely deny American Daoism, but they assert that the Daoism in their own minds is the only authentic and true version.

Other scholars tend to criticize the particular translations offered in popular books. For example, Paul R. Goldin criticizes the reading by Thomas H. Miles (1992) because he translates ju 居 as "claim credit" in keeping with Wing-tsit Chan's translation (1963). In Goldin's view, ju should be translated as "dwell" or "reside," even though this makes little sense in this context and the term is best read as "claim credit" and not "dwell." He is also displeased at their uncritical adoption of the term and that they they did not notice the usage of ju within the text: "It is evident that both Miles and Mitchell have read Wing-tsit Chan and helped themselves to his phrasing as it suits them" (2012, 185). While Goldin's perspective on the technique of translation is quite right, he ignores the heavily contextual characteristics of ancient Chinese and the flexibility needed to do justice to complex works such as the Daode jing.

Other Views

In contrast, Norman Girardot is more understanding of popular Daoism. A scholar with two distinct research phases in his career, he not only emphasizes cultivation and rituals but also pays attention to philosophical texts that dominated the discussion before Daoist studies expanded into the Daoist Canon. He first used both The Tao of Pooh and Stephen Mitchell's translation to get his students to engage with Dao, then also came to realize the importance of religious practice (De Angelis and Frisina 2008, 106). He called on everyone to face up the phenomenon of popular Daoism instead of only denouncing its representatives. Similarly, Livia Kohn proposes that teachers of the Daode jing "take seriously their responsibility to help move students from a singular image of the Daode jing as an Americanized version of the 'go-with-the-flow philosophy of life' to an appreciation of the multifarious history and ongoing reception [End Page 117] of this text and the traditions it has helped spawn" (Kohn 2008, x).

Most of these experts express their views on popular Daoist books without presenting extensive research on the phenomenon. This is remedied by David A. Palmer, Elijah Siegler, and James Miller who focus their studies on Americans who love Dao—some are serious cultivation practitioners while others content themselves with philosophy and literature. However, many Daoists they investigate are readers of popular books; they live and work and practice in the context of American Daoism.

Elijah Siegler specializes in the formation of popular Daoism. A large portion of his research focuses on Western Daoist masters who have no training in cultivation. They only have read some Daoist philosophers or popular books like The Tao of Pooh before they "claim they follow the Dao." Although lacking knowledge of the history and cultivation of Daoism, they self-identify as people knowing Dao. On the other hand, they do not like the identity of being Daoist, which they regard as a form of limitation, and reject any association with religious Daoism.

Elijah Siegler uses the theory of the sociologist Vad Krakroff that in the past few decades, religion has become more and more a personal matter, traditional religious organizations have weakened, and beliefs have become personal choices and individual experiences rather than communal affairs. This accords with modern identity formation theory, which explains that people form identities from a series of choices (Siegler 2010, 52). Citing sociologist Anthony Giddens, he notes that self-identification must be created and reordered continuously in the context of the transformation of everyday life experiences and modern institutional divisions (2010, 53).

In this context, the Daoists of contemporary America present a new kind of self-identity. Some he interviewed explain how they received natural wisdom from reading various Daode jing translations, which closely matches the vision conveyed in popular books. One American Daoist says, "The Integral Way Society serves the modern world through sharing the natural wisdom of the tradition of Lao Tzu and the ancient Daoist sages, as transmitted by Hua-Ching Ni. We cultivate balance, health, harmony and virtue within our lives and all society" (Siegler 2010, 56). [End Page 118]

It is worth noting that when Kirkland denies the priestly status of these people for their lack of "religious rites and knowledge," they actually concur, as they generally oppose the type of folk or religious Daoism marked by such activities. As Hua-Ching Ni notes, "I have clearly stated on many occasions that I do not teach Daoism in the religious sense. If religion is your interest, then you need a different teacher" (Siegler 2010, 58). It is obvious that they are opposed to equating themselves with religion, and only think that they engage with the natural wisdom of the tradition of Laozi and the ancient Daoist sages.

Michael Winn, the leader of Healing Dao USA and a senior disciple of Mantak Chia says along the same lines,

[American] Daoism is taking a different form, not necessarily a religious form, than it is taking in China, with temples and uniforms, and the state religion and all that stuff, that's its history. In the West it's taking more of the form of personal belief and identification with Dao and the structures of the Dao, kind of like getting back to early Daoism, before all that existed in China.

Both these American Daoists specifically indicate that they do not have a ritualized or religious form and possess neither temples nor uniforms. They believe that the genuine Dao is lost when organized Daoism appeared in China, that true Dao spirit disappeared. Therefore, they are now the real Daoists to restore Dao to the Chinese. At the same time, many other American Daoists make a similar distinction between religious (bad) and philosophical or esoteric (good) types. They emphasize that they are philosophical, so as to distinguish themselves from the bad religion.

It is worth noting that some scholars reject this view and claim that they do not fully understand Daoism. Louis Komjathy notes,

In the case of Daoism, North American popular discourse assumes that the distinction between philosophical Daoism and religious Daoism is true, as well as that the former is "real" Daoism. Thus, a greater percentage of Daoists in North America would identify themselves as Daoists simply because they find certain popular publications meaningful, and these individuals and groups would, in turn, have very little historical connection to the larger Chinese Daoist tradition.

(Komjathy 2004, 8) [End Page 119]

In his view, readers of popular books have nothing to do with the Chinese Daoist tradition. Elijah Siegler, whose point of view is similar, concludes:

It owes much to the discourse of restorationism,… a deeply American form of arguing religious authenticity—used by Puritans, Mormons, and Disciples of Christ, among others. Historian of American religion Richard Hughes defines restorationism as "the attempt to recover some important belief or practice from the time of pure beginnings that believers are convinced has been lost, defiled or corrupted."

(2010, 59)

The tendency is that practicing Daoists and certain scholars disagree about what it means to follow Dao. These scholars believe that only those who follow Dao on the basis of established lineage transmission or a particular tradition of religious rites are "true" Daoists and thus qualified to bear this name. Popular practitioners believe that established and formally sanctioned religious practices and rites bear the mark of falsehood and reject them as overly technical and not the real Dao. Although their views are opposite, they uphold the same distinction. Dao without religious practices and rites and Daoism as institutionalized tradition are seriously different and even stand in opposition.

That is to say, one side believes that where there are "actual teachings and… actual practices," there is Dao, while the other believes that so-called Daoism with religious practices and rites is really false. The two sides either scorn Dao without practices and rites, claiming it has no relation to Daoism, or declare that religious forms destroy the real Dao and limit the true life. This means that Kirkland's criticism of the misconception that "Daoists or Dao-ists are those who love Dao and go with the flow" is also a misunderstanding (Komjathy 2009)—and so is the popular believer's view that religious practices and rites are the mere shadow of real Dao.

Comparing the views of ordinary people and scholars, it becomes obvious that there is a hidden underlying opposition between Dao and Daoism, potentially present in the differences of exposure.

The potentially productive tension between popular and academic approaches to the Daode jing thus immediately relates to another, also potentially productive, tension that is perhaps most neatly captured by Michael [End Page 120] LaFargue's hermeneutical distinction between the attempt to reconstruct what the text "meant to its original authors and audience" and what it can mean to a contemporary reader.

Certain scholars pursue the original form of Daoism with Chinese traditional practices and rites, while contemporary readers aim more for an understanding of their own Dao, cleansed of the ritualized teachings and practices dictated by authoritative organizations that tend to suppress individuality. To them, this kind of Dao is truly original.

Philosophers have further additions to offer to this debate. For example, Paul Fischer believes that "there is no such thing as Daoism. While the terms 'Dao' and 'ism' exist in Chinese, there is no such Word as 'Daoism' in Chinese: it is a Western invention" (2018, 2). He believes that the Chinese categories of daojia 道家 and daojiao 道教 have something in common, such as meditation and health, but "the differences between philosophical and religious Daoism are far more numerous than mere longevity" (2018, 17). Besides, he proposes a view different from and even opposite to that of religious scholars. "Some religious scholars have sought to delegitimize philosophical Daoism. But the salient facts remain. Despite the unfortunate matter of the singularity of the Western word 'Daoism,' there has always only ever been daojia and, later, daojiao(s)" (2018, 19). He denies the claim that the religion of Daoism includes both the thought of Laozi and Zhuangzi along with later rituals. Instead, he affirms the status of daojia to which the Dao of the popular books belongs.

J. J. Clarke similarly praises the Dao of the West. He claims, "what is not always given full attention is the pervasive impact of this on the Western tradition and on the multifarious ways in which the Orient, albeit often gravely misrepresented, has become woven into and helped to shape the fabric of European thought and culture" (2000, 5). He also points to the special features of Chinese Daoism, especially the relationship between daojia and daojiao.

Thus for example, the daojia / daojiao distinction we have just encountered is by no means isomorphic with the Western distinction between philosophy and religion, and further, as the historian of religions Jordan Paper points out, the tendency in European studies to mark out a separation between religion [End Page 121] and culture and the terms familiar enough in the West proves to be artificial and misleading in the Chinese context. … Talk of "being" a Daoist or of "belonging" to one religion to the exclusion of others is a locution that needs to be used with great caution in the Chinese context.

(2000, 22)

This, to a certain extent, explains just why American Daoists are not willing to be treated as "Daoists."

Clark also reveals significant differences with religious scholars on other issues. For example, in his opinion Daoism takes on a subversive role since contemporary Daoists are inclined to believe that Daoists typically acts in opposition to government and authority when they have in fact been highly cooperative with imperial power and always sought to gain its approval. Such a disconnect relates to the fact that characteristics of Dao exist on a spectrum. On one side, there is the ideal of being natural as found in the thought of Laozi and Zhuangzi, which encourages resistance against authority and government. On the other side, nonaction and meditation may lead Daoists to avoid any form of outside oppression. Therefore, among those who claim to be fond of Dao, some have worked to get far away from imperial power, such as Kong Rong 孔 融, while others enthusiastically cooperated with the court, such as Kou Qianzhi 寇謙之.

The views of religious scholars, ordinary people who claim to follow Dao, and philosophers are in conflict yet intersect closely with each other. Specific religious teachings, practices, and rites are common concerns: religious scholars see them as the mark of true Daoism while popular cultivators understand them as symbols of the false, desiring to relate directly to Dao and get away from Daoism as a religion. Religious scholars and philosophers also show contradictions in the relationship between both Laozi and Zhuangzi and Daoism as a religion. Religious scholars understand Laozi and Zhuangzi as Daoist but without independent functioning and separate from ritual life. When defined thus, Dao in popular books has nothing to do with Daoism, nor with true Dao in Western guise.

In contrast, philosophers think that Dao in Laozi and Zhuangzi reflects a particular type of thought, and some even think that Daoism as a religion is later than daojia, reflecting the view of early sinologists. Discussing the question of whether American Daoism is true or not, Elijah [End Page 122] Siegler laments that there are no real speakers, because no one can speak for Dao. Then, how do people view the behavior of readers who do not follow specific religious teachings, practices, and rites, but only read popular books? Is Dao free of religious forms fake? Can Dao be transplanted from Chinese culture?

The Spectrum of Dao Culture

In the eyes of Western scholars, Daoism is a product of Chinese culture. They emphasize that true Dao is inherently of China. What, then, is Dao for the Chinese?

To begin, is Dao without religious practices and rites necessarily fake? The religious scholar C. K. Yang, notes that China has no religion in the Western sense and suggests that the ideology and values of the Chinese are different from those common to Western religions (1961, 2-6). In China, most ideas and values are not necessarily expressed as specific beliefs, rituals, and forms, but rather infiltrate daily life. His views aroused great interest within Chinese academic circles and are generally accepted today.

Next, is there a Dao with a clear ideological boundary? Can we say what is Dao and what is not? In fact, Dao in China includes a spectrum, similar to what Kirkland suspects of Daoism in North America and what Clarke describes when he says, "Daoism has begun to penetrate Western consciousness. Daoism's rising profile in the West is evident across a whole spectrum of domains ranging from the popular to the scholarly, from the spiritual to the philosophical" (2000, 3).

Consisting of an entire spectrum means that there is more emphasis on ideas and beliefs at one end of Dao and more emphasis on religious practices and rites at the other. They share the same characteristic of being natural and resting in nonaction, even if these principles are understood and practiced differently. Diverging interpretations create fundamental differences with regard to the understanding of Dao. As a result, some people think that desires should be curbed because they cause joy and sorrow that prevent people from calmly following Dao while others believe that one should openly release emotions and satisfy desires as they form part of being human. [End Page 123]

This is an age-old division. Already in the Chinese middle ages, the Buddhist thinker Liu Xie proposed three levels of Dao, "The superior advocates Laozi, the medium promotes immortality, and the inferior follows [Zhang] Daoling."

This reflects the value judgment of his time, that Dao as represented in the Daode jing is nobler than that pursued in the self-cultvation of immortality seekers, which in turn ranks above communal rituals represented by the Celestial Masters under the leadership of Zhang Daoling. The ritual element in the latter makes this form of Dao more open to degeneration, because people who are not really familiar with Dao can declare themselves Daoist just because they can hold religious ceremonies. This historical record shows that the idea of Dao declining and appearing on different levels to explain the difference between daojia and daojiao is not in fact due to the depreciation by Confucians as claimed by scholars like Komjathy, but has deep and age-old cultural reasons.

Practicing Dao in China does not necessarily require one to engage with religious practices and rites as would be if one were to practice any of the major Western religions. This is made clear in many historical sources. For example, the famous Song scholar Su Shi, although not a Daoist in his early years, wrote a letter to his brother saying that he had a special affinity for Zhuangzi and thus adopted certain Daoist views. The same holds true for many other literati, such as the famous poet Xin Qiji or the novelist Pu Songling. Many Chinese who never engaged in religious practices and rites still believed in Dao and cultivated it after their own fashion. This shows that the tangible form of Daoism is not an inevitable configuration of Dao.

This notion is also reflected in more organized forms of Daoism. For example, the early Ming-dynasty master Zhang Sanfeng 張三丰 promoted the Unity the Three Teachings, placing Daoism first among equals. However, at the core of this kind of traditional Dao are not rituals, but the classical Confucian virtues of benevolence and righteousness. According to him, Daoists acting immorally will fail no matter how powerful his spells or his rites. The spell might have power, but it is never equal to that of Dao.

According to Zhang Sanfeng's biography in the Liexian quanzhuan 列仙全傳 (Many Immortals' Biographies), a certain Mr. Binghu wanted [End Page 124] to teach him spells. Zhang replied with a smile, "I want to give you Dao, why should you show me spells?" In his essay Daofa huitong shu 道法会 通疏 (Notes on the Interconnection of Dao and Spells), he says,

Without spells, Dao cannot manifest; without Dao, spells lose their root. Only when both Dao and spells simultaneously exist, can you have both, substance and function… The combination of Dao and spells is the best, just like rubber and paint once mixed can never be separated.

Dao and spells or methods here are complementary, but differ in importance: "Dao can incorporate spells, but spells cannot include Dao." Not only that, but the author also emphasizes that in the practice of "cultivating and refining," the most precious is outcome is the "golden elixir of goodness and morality."

In his Xuanji zhijiang 玄機直講 (Explications of the Core Mechanism of the Mystery), Zhang Sanfeng further states that "the first step in practice is to eliminate attachment to emotions, eliminate the adoption of chaos, and lay the foundation for cultivation." In his Xuanyao pian 玄要篇 (Essentials of the Mystery), he says, "We must cultivate nature before practicing alchemy, and we must cultivate our state of mind of our own soul before making the medicine." And in the Daoyan qianjin shuo 道言淺 近說 (Clear and Simple Explanations of Dao), he points out,

The most important step in the cultivation of Dao is to cultivate the nature… When there are no emotions and desires to disturb people, no thoughts and considerations, then mood and character will be safe, without troubles. This is the most important practice. This is the golden elixir.

This elixir, moreover, is based on eliminating desires and doing good works. In the Dadao lun 大道論 (On the Great Dao), Zhang further notes, "If you do not cultivate these things, and just work on your body and breathing techniques or eat herbs to maintain health, although you can avoid being sick for a while, you cannot escape the fate of becoming old, and you will only be laughed at."

This shows that the cultivation of goodness and morality is far superior to bodily cultivation in traditional Daoism. Yet, what did cultivation mean in his time? Was it tangible religious practices and ritual or a [End Page 125] set of life values? An answer appears in the vernacular novel Sanyan erpai 三言二拍 (Stories Old and New, vol. 1: A Ming-Dynasty Collection). A work of popular fiction, it reflects the historical views of the Chinese people more objectively than scriptures written by Daoists. In the chapter, "Zhuangzi Completes the Great Dao by Drumming a Basin" (Zhuangzi gupen cheng dadao 莊子鼓盆成大道), the conclusion avoids condemning the wife's betrayal, instead revealing that there is no difference between the butterfly and Zhuangzi, the duke and the old man. Everything such as love, wealth, and status are just temporary manifestation of Dao in the world. The love between husband and wife is just an illusion of instant loss too.

Similarly, the collection Zhang Daoling qishi Zhao Sheng 張道陵七試 趙升 (Zhang Daoling's Seven Tests for Zhao Sheng), documents how Zhao Sheng has no regard for beautiful women or gold and was not afraid of tigers he encountered. These document that people truly following Dao would never harm their bodies by focusing on external things.

While some earlier sources show Daoist happiness as living in the enjoyment of material goods, such as palaces, beautiful women, and delicious food obtained through magical spells, Ming-dynasty fiction emphasizes that people who control their desires and practice internal alchemy gain inner peace and are overall more appreciated and highly esteemed.

This shows that in the traditional Chinese culture the life of Dao contains a whole spectrum, including both the ideal of giving up fame and fortune and also the practice of spells and rites. Dao in China is not only transmitted in tangible rituals but also integrated in daily life as part of a fundamental cultural modality. A farmer who raises pigs may not have read the philosophical works of Laozi and Zhuangzi, but his life style may be closer to Dao than that of a professor at the university. Daoist culture forms a set of special language (in both academic and everyday discourse), lifestyle, ideal figures, values, and practices; it subtly induces people to agree with its cultural paradigms. There is no specific tangible trace of this Dao as it runs through life, but it is everywhere.

Peng Kaiping has demonstrated how proverbs widely accepted by the Chinese reflect a dialectical mode of thinking (1999). For example: [End Page 126] "Flowers cannot last one hundred days; people cannot remain lucky for a thousand days;" "The same flowers bloom every year; people are different every year;" "A man residing on the east bank of the river for thirty years may spend his last thirty years on the west bank;" and "Flowers can bloom again, but old men can never return to youth." All these indicate dialectical thinking and a feeling for dynamic opposites and ongoing change. They are highly similar in outlook to Laozi and Zhuangzi.

Ancient Chinese poems, too, frequently contain verses such as, "Go back, there is no wind and rain and no fine weather," indicating the soothing of various frustrations of the outside world. They reflect an attitude of "take it as it comes," thus representing a particular cultural spirit. Daoist values and life conceptions such as these are not embodied in tangible form but form part and parcel of the national character of the Chinese people. Thus, Daoism functions as a complementary attitude to that of Confucianism, serving to bring peace of mind in the midst of a highly chaotic world. The two are like yin and yang, together offering a dynamic balance in life. Generally, when people are young they like Confucianism more, while in middle and old age they come to honor Daoism. They prefer Confucianism when successful and turn to Daoist ideas for consolation when frustrated. The proverb, "Trying one's best in worldly things while also listening to one's fate" reflects the two sides of this balance.

A Chinese Approach

Expressed in the subtleties of daily life, concepts and attitudes of Dao are hard to pinpoint with measurable certainty. To flush them out, and to forestall the criticism that this amorphous Dao without religious practices and rites is only in the imagination of scholars who have studied the ideas and texts of the tradition, I have developed a survey and conducted it in all mainland Chinese provinces except Qinghai and Xinjiang. About 1,000 people participated. Since some respondents had different educational backgrounds and levels of engagement with Daoism, I presented different sets of questions to different types of people. Here I list the questions plus the resulting data.

First are questions asked of people with lower educational levels, who might not understand the meaning of Daoism and Confucianism. [End Page 127]

  1. 1. Have you heard of "Daoism" and "Confucianism"?

    1. A. I have heard of Daoism, but never of Confucianism. 11.31%

    2. B. I have heard of Confucianism, but never of Daoism. 2.71%

    3. C. I have heard of both. 78.28%

    4. D. I have never heard of either. 7.69%

  2. 2. If you quarrel with someone, what will you do?

    1. A. Find out who is right and apologize. 15.38%

    2. B. We were both wrong and each will apologize. 23.53%

    3. C. No need to be so clear, as everyone is good and all can be wrong. 61.09%

  3. 3. Which is most important: prestige, wealth, knowledge, or life?

    1. A. Prestige. 11.76 %

    2. B. Wealth. 5.43%

    3. C. Knowledge. 10.41%

    4. D. Life. 72.40%

  4. 4. When I am doing something, I will:

    1. A. Make everything develop according to my will. 4.52%

    2. B. Let everything develop according to its own way. 5.43%

    3. C. First A. If can't, then B. 18.55%

    4. D. Observe the way how things develop then follow it. 71.49%

  5. 5. When things are not going well, I think:

    1. A. Life is life, and money and stuff do not matter; I can live without much money. 38.46%

    2. B. It's not good now, but may get better; everything changes. 33.48%

    3. C. As the Buddha fights for fragrant incense, I desperately want to be better than others. 17.19%

    4. D. I don't bother to think about it. 10.86%

Second are questions asked of people with higher education levels (university and above).

  1. 1. I am influenced by:

    1. A. Confucianism. 38.48%

    2. B. Daoism. 5.65%

    3. C. Both. 51.52%

    4. D. Neither. 4.35% [End Page 128]

  2. 2. Do you practice Confucianism or Daoism in your life? Is there ritual?

    1. A. I practice, but there is no ritual. 71.96%

    2. B. I practice, and there is ritual. 13.48%

    3. C. I do not practice, and there is no ritual. 11.74%

    4. D. I do not practice, but there is ritual. 2.83%

  3. 3. Do you think it is possible for foreigners to accept and practice Dao?

    1. A. They can understand and practice it. 63.91%

    2. B. They can't understand, but can practice its rituals. 16.30%

    3. C. They can understand, but can't practice it. 10.00%

    4. D. They can neither understand nor practice it. 9.78%

Third, for ordained Daoists, there was one additional question that focuses on whether the behavior of the Western Daoist is part of to Dao.

  1. 1. In the United States, there is a group of people who read English translations of the Daode jing and books that promote Dao, advocate engaging in a free and natural lifestyle, paying attention to harmony and tranquility, and forming friendly relationships with others. These people do not know Chinese or practice Daoist rituals. Concerning this group, you believe:

    1. A. They are not part of Dao at all; only Chinese can understand Dao. 6%

    2. B. They are not part of Daoism; only Chinese can understand Daoism. 3%

    3. C. Daoism and Dao are both Chinese, but they have no rigid form. American Daoism can be regarded as Daoism and certainly is part of Dao. 15%

    4. D. Daoism and Dao are both Chinese, but Daoism in China has its own specific form. American Daoism is not the same as that, but it can be regarded as a kind of Dao. 24%

    5. E. Although Daoism and Dao are both Chinese, they can also be popularized in the world. They are not exclusively Chinese, but can be regarded as Daoism and Dao. 38%

    6. F. Other. 11%

According to the survey results, lesser educated people for the most part have heard of both Confucianism and Daoism, but their attitudes toward life reveal that they prefer a life of Dao rather than that of Confucianism. Among people with higher education over 50 percent are influenced by both Confucianism and Daoism, but up to 70 percent eschew rituals. For those who have rituals, further interviews uncovered that what they mean by that is just daily actions of formal etiquette, such as [End Page 129] respecting the elderly and their leaders. This makes it is obvious that there are not many religious-type rituals among ordinary Chinese. Among ordained Daoists, fewer than 10 percent believed that American Daoism is part of neither Dao nor Daoism, while most thought that it is acceptable as part of the Daoist community.

In further interviews, a Daoist priest indicated that there was a mistake in the language of my question. He pointed out that the wording of the statement, "Daoism and Dao are both Chinese," is not appropriate. While we can say that Daoism originated in China, it is inaccurate to say that Dao is Chinese, because Dao is the root source of the universe. It cannot possibly have national boundaries. Following this exchange, I then asked if we could say that the concept of Dao originated in China and from there can be popularized around the world. The Daoist liked this fomulation. In his view, Dao and Daoism are universal, and naturally can exist in other countries and in different forms. His statement is exactly the opposite of the misconception critique raised against American Daoists, which says that "Dao is a trans-religious and universal name for the sacred, and there are "Dao-ists" who transcend the limitations of the Daoist religious tradition" (Komjathy 2013).

In other words, the survey revealed that most Chinese believe that religious ritual in the form of specific teachings, practices, and rites is not necessary if and when a person today wishes to follow Dao, and Dao and Daoism are not limited to China. For most people and Daoists in China, American Daoists who read popular books but do not perform the religious rites of Chinese Daoism are fully accepted as being of Dao and Daoism, They belong within the overall spectrum of Dao.


Scholars in both West and East have changed the traditional view of the dual opposition between Dao and Daoism, but for different reasons. Some Western scholars believe that the Dao outlined in the Daode jing also forms an integral part of Daoism as a religion. As a result, those who believe they follow Dao are considered false because they do not practice specific religious practices and rites. However, many in contemporary Chinese academic circles, including famous scholars such as Liu Xiaogan (2006; 2007) and Zhan Shichuang (2015), believe that there is a certain [End Page 130] difference between daojia and daojiao, in terms of specific religious practices and rites but both belong to the culture of daoxue 道學. The two are neither the same nor opposites, but exist within the whole spectrum of Dao. This means there is a transitional zone between them that is neither black nor white but gray.

For example, some people following Dao as a lifestyle do not practice specific rites, but they reveal their engagement with Dao in a number of different ways. Some like seclusion in the mountains, walking beside rivers and lakes; others may set aside time for meditation; yet others eschew fame and fortune. The life of Dao and the life of participating in Daoism as a religion are not in opposition to each other, but belong on the same spectrum of Dao that gradually runs from one end to the other.

Thus, it may seem to be paradoxical that some American Daoists oppose religious forms but still "use the trappings of Chinese exoticism to present their teachings: Hua-Ching Ni, Solala Towler, Al Huang, Liu Ming, Carl Muller and others play the bamboo flute, dress in traditional Chinese tunics, or both" (Siegler 2010, 58). However, this is easily acceptable from the Chinese perspective. Playing the bamboo flute is a manifestation of following Dao, and although it is a more specific form of expression than pure Dao at one end of the spectrum, it is not as ritualized as a life according to monastic discipline at the other end. It is part of the gray transitional zone, adapted to fits the individual needs.

Seeing Daoist culture as a spectrum, we can understand the contradiction between popular books on Dao and the Daoism as defined by some Western academics. They think of the former as a false Dao, yet with some points of intersection with Daoism as recognized by the academic community and the people in China. Dao as spread in popular books is a common phenomenon in China and has been throughout Chinese history. There is no question about any of it being true or false, because any type forms part of the vast spectrum. It is not difficult to find scholars who originally were only fond of Laozi and Zhuangzi, but became ordained Daoists in later years. For the Chinese, any point in the spectrum can be described as Dao.

To sum up, American Daoism as a segment of popular culture actually evolved from the study of Dao by the elite, but has developed its own independent life in the popular realm. Noting the internal consistencies [End Page 131] between Laozi and Zhuangzi and Daoism in Chinese traditional culture and recognizing as well as respecting the diverse manifestations of Dao, we can accept that the Dao of Laozi and Zhuangzi, too, forms part of Daoism with its own independence and unique characteristics, however different they may be from the Daoism that centers on rites and ceremonies. We can acknowledge that Daoists who admire Laozi and Zhuangzi have their own legitimate identity without having to engage with the religious practices and rites that some Western scholars misconceive as the only authentic Dao. Ultimately the true or false Dao is not a question of East versus West, but of different phenomena within a wide and all-inclusive spectrum of Dao.

Cai Juemin

Cai Juemin obtained her Ph. D. in the Chinese Language Department of Peking University. A researcher of ancient Chinese literature, she currently teaches at Tianjin Foreign Studies University. Her studies range from Daoist literature including Laozi and Zhuangzi to American Daoist studies and popular Daoism in America. Email:


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