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Daoism: An Introduction

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183 PAGES, ISBN: 978-1845116392, 2009

Reviewed by Hal W. French

The author succinctly defines his approach by initially stating, “Daoism is no single thing. It is the living tangled vines of teacher-practitioner lineages”(3). He traces these vines in more intricate detail than we might have expected from a book entitled An Introduction. This is a sophisticated work, and while it might challenge a beginning student of Chinese thought, it will reward the particularly interested student or teacher with its comprehensive treatment of the subject.

It is often difficult to separate one tradition from other cultural elements, and Littlejohn recognizes this. “Daoism is wound around and over, and integrated with the Chinese calendar, traditional medicine, national artifacts and treasures, and even its holidays and festivities”(5). He might have added, and even discusses in a number of passages, its interweaving with Buddhism. This interweaving is characterized at times by rivalries and at other times by borrowing back and forth, even blending, and at still others, by ascendancies and declines caused by the vagaries of imperial favor. During the Yuan period, for instance, Littlejohn records how a Buddhist monk complained to the Mongol court that Complete Perfection Masters had seized Buddhist temples and were distributing a fraudulent document that taught that Laozi had converted the Buddha.

In response to these complaints, the emperor (Kublai Khan) ordered a series of debates to be held, with the result that the emperor as arbiter not only sided with the Buddhists, but ordered that all Daoist books except the Daodejing be burned! Despite this disaster, Daoism’s resilience was evidenced in the presence of certain Celestial Masters— leaders who made themselves favored in the Mongol Court, even as the Complete Perfection influence was in disarray and somewhat blending with Buddhist centers, perhaps for protective coloration (156, 157). In fact, the Complete Perfection branch did have much in common with Buddhist monasteries in practicing celibacy and vegetarianism in their communities (155). In still other texts, as in one by Taishang entitled Tract of the Most Exalted on Action and Response, there is a blending of the three teachings of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism in a way that might resemble the institutionalized Cao Dai religion in Viêt Nam (149).

If the Complete Perfection vine seemed stringent in its moral dictates, the moral element was certainly not absent in earlier schools. Ge Hong, for instance, from the fourth century CE, believed that anyone could obtain immortality. “Wealth and position, and even education, were not relevant. One’s moral life was, however, quite important” (118).

The pervasive quest for immortality, then, was not simply to be pursued magically through external means such as rituals employing cinnabar and certain medicinal herbs, but through internal alchemy, in which meditation practices refine one’s true nature. In addition to the quest for immortality, the goalless goal of merely living simply, following the dictates of wu-wei (action without action), is extolled.

Most casual students and scholars of Chinese philosophy will know two names—Laozi and Zhuangzi—and the two texts associated with them, the Daodejing and the work simply titled by the author’s name, the Zuangzi. The former, Littlejohn states, is “not arranged to develop any systematic argument. In this sense, the Daodejing is more like an anthology than a book with an overarching theme” (11). Thus, we may assume, this “trunk of Daoism” naturally spreads divergent branches, as they develop beyond its “Composite Trunk” (the Zhuangzi and other early texts in Littlejohn’s terminology). There is no doctrinal core that would lead to a natural self-pruning of different schools and practices. They spread out, in the author’s analogy, like the entwining branches of a kudzu plant.1

While it is beyond the province of this review to discuss the treatment of all of the schools listed here, the influence of Daoism might also be seen in directions, which the author does not explore. These might include Chinese martial arts, especially Tai Chi Chuan, or the poetry of Han Shan, whose hermetic life style might be as reflective of Daoist models as those of Buddhism.

But an introduction has understandable limitations, and this work transcends any legitimate expectations in so many ways. The author is very conversant with other works, and he establishes his own niche with a book that is highly satisfying to a student of The Way.


1. I am not sure that the analogy is altogether felicitous. While the kudzu plant does branch out voraciously, in the American South it is viewed as biologically malevolent in its invasive and pervasive nature!