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The Philosophical and Religious Dimensions of Daoism

Updated on November 12, 2011
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Justin Aptaker graduated summa cum laude from the University of Tennessee, earning a BA in psychology and a minor in religious studies.

Daoist "Symbol of the Great Ultimate"
Daoist "Symbol of the Great Ultimate"

In attempting to analyze the philosophical and religious aspects of Daoism, I'll begin by looking at some of the more standardized definitions of the terms “philosophy” and “religion”. I will then examine philosophical Daoism and religious Daoism, to identify ways in which they do or do not line up with those standard definitions, and I will conclude by addressing the question of whether or not we should make a distinction between “philosophical” and “religious” Daoism.

Webster's dictionary provides the following definition, among others, of “philosophy”: “a discipline comprising as its core logic, aesthetics, ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology” ( This definition points to the academic discipline of philosophy, as it has been practiced in a western context. There are myriad competing definitions of religion, but I think that for the purposes of this discussion, the definition put forth by Emile Durkheim will suffice: “Religion is a system of beliefs, symbols, and rituals, based on some sacred or supernatural realm, that guides human behavior, gives meaning to life, and unites believers into a community” (Quoted in Sociology in Our Times, Diana Kendall, 2007, 365). This definition, I think, identifies some of the most salient aspects of most religions: beliefs, symbolism, ritual, norms, the sacred, community, and life-meaning/purpose. At the same time, it doesn't too narrowly define religion by, for example, including the belief in gods or an afterlife.

I believe that philosophical Daoism can be shown to conform much more than religious Daoism to the definition of philosophy in the western academic sense. For example, the Daode jing is replete with ontological—Webster's apparently refers to the domain of ontology with the term “metaphysics”—propositions. Speaking of being and non-being, it says, “The two are the same” (Chinese Religion 73). The Daode jing also addresses ethics, differentiating between “the man of superior virtue” and “the man of inferior virtue” (Chinese Religion 75). The Daode jing even touches on aesthetics, saying, “True words are not beautiful; Beautiful words are not true” (Chinese Religion 75). Epistemology is also explored within the philosophical Daoist tradition. Zhuangzi, for example, illustrates how reality is perceived, interpreted, and constructed at a cognitive level with his story of the butterfly dream (Chinese Religion 81). This story raises the question of how we can achieve epistemological certainty concerning the nature of reality, considering that our experience is filtered through varying modes of consciousness.

Particularly intriguing in the analysis of Daoism from the perspective of western philosophy is the issue of logic. While western philosophy had long depended heavily on Aristotelian logic, and more recently on other novel systems of logic, philosophical Daoism subverts the veryassumptions that underlie these logical frameworks. For example, the assertion that being and non-being are “the same” could be construed as tantamount to the following two statements: “being is being” and “being is not being”. This clearly violates the law of non-contradiction. So if we define philosophy as “a discipline that depends on and conforms to traditional forms of western logic”, then philosophical Daoism may be conceived to be the very antithesis of philosophy, as it sometimes appears to constitute an all-out attack on the most basic assumptions of such logic. However, I will explain later why such a conception is ill-advised.

While philosophical Daoism doesn't rely on formal logic to come to its conclusions, neither does it rely on the supernatural for revelation. Here is one of philosophical Daoism's most notable points of departure from religious Daoism, which does conform to Durkheim's definition of religion. Religious Daoism often relied explicitly on supernatural revelation as the source of its beliefs, beginning with the Way of the Celestial Masters in 142 CE, and extending throughthe Lingbao and Shangqing traditions (Poceski 72, 84, 87). Ironically, this transition to supernatural revelation was instigated by a vision of a deified Laozi, who during his own lifetime had neither written about gods/spirits, nor written at the prompting of a divine revelator(Poceski 72).

Religious Daoism also comes closer than philosophical Daoism to Durkheim's definition with its emphasis on both praxis and community. While Zhuangzi and the Daode jing provide much in way of abstract theorizing, they do little to suggest how a practical outworking of such theory ought to develop. Religious Daoism, however, emphasizes various concrete techniques and rituals for attaining its goals. These range from the contemplative practices of the Shangqing, to the communal chanting and controversial sexual rites of the Way of the Celestial Masters, to the zhai and jiao of the Lingbao Daoists (Poceski 74, 86, 90). Moreover, for the Lingbao and the Way of the Celestial Masters, many of these rituals were communal in nature (Poceski 74, 90).

Many of the rituals of religious Daoism undoubtedly involved another element of Durkheim's definition of religion: symbolism. The Lingbao, for example, utilized dance, music, and ceremonial paraphernalia in rituals characterized by “multidimensionality”, which “simultaneously operated at three different levels: the heavens, the earthly realm, and the individual person”(Poceski 90-91). Such rituals would have relied on multivalent gestures and objects to symbolize the connections between heaven, earth, and the individual.

Finally, Durkheim's definition also describes religion as something which guides human behavior and provides a context for life-meaning. The establishment of norms can be seen in the public confession rituals of the Way of the Celestial Masters and the school ofLingbao (Poceski 74, 90). By making such confessions in a ritualistic, communal setting, the individual acknowledged the validity of the religiously/communally established guides for behavior. Ritual thus provided the warp and woof upon which life-meaning was framed in relation to both the community, through such rituals as the public confessions, and to the Ultimate, functioning as “potent vehicles . . . in which the faithful arrive at union with the Dao” (Poceski 91).

It should be noted that I have focused my discussion of religious Daoism solely on organized forms, ignoring many of the informal practices that could be subsumed within the larger edifice of religious Daoism. Poceski frames the external alchemy of Ge Hong, for example, in terms of “Daoist belief and practice [that] circulated outside . . . organized religion”(Poceski 75, 78). This distinction between organized religious Daoism and informal religious Daoism should serve well to introduce some of the problems inherent in defining “religions” or “philosophies”. By mostly ignoring informal Daoism throughout this discussion, I've illustrated our tendency to be drawn towards things that can be neatly categorized, with clear lines of demarcation. By remembering the larger network of movements and individual agents involved in the ongoing story of religious Daoism, we may better appreciate that a religion is not a self-contained, substantively existent thing. As Robert Campany observes in his criticism of religious holism, modes of a particular religion may bear more resemblance to modes of other religions than they do to elements within ostensibly the same religious tradition (Campany 291-293). To apply this to the distinction between religious Daoism and philosophical Daoism, we might imagine a group of Lingbao Daoists who, although engaging in the rituals associated with that tradition, are well-acquainted with the more abstract teachings in the Daode jing, and perceive themselves to be enacting through ritual the means for pursuing unity with the vague and elusive Dao of the Daode jing. Such individuals might have more in common with the philosophical Daoists, and less in common with Lingbao Daoists who participate in the rituals to attainprosaic goals.

We must remember that premodern China had no terms that were exactly equivalent to “religion” or “philosophy”; that any given religious or philosophical tradition is not an actually existent and self-contained entity; and that individuals, not traditions themselves, are the agents at work within any tradition (Campany 319). However, I agree with Campany that the usefulness of our categories is not degraded by the lack of those exact categories in the target culture (Campany 289-290). There are clear differences between the “philosophical” and “religious” trends in Daoism, and those categories prove to be useful tools for conceptualizing and describing those differences. Therefore, while we should be constantly aware of the artificiality of the distinction between religious Daoism and philosophical Daoism, and on guard against the ways that such a distinction can obscure important facets of what we are observing, we can and should utilize the distinction for the purposes of getting what we can from the level of analysis that this distinction enables. Moreover, we should be open to ways that Daoism can inform or expand our own categories. For example, by labeling certain elements of Daoism as “philosophical”, we might expand our notions of “philosophy” to include forms of philosophy that don’t adhere to traditional western rules of logic. This kind of give-and-take, whereby we use our categories to enable deeper analysis of Daoism, and use Daoism to expand our understanding of our categories, should illustrate one way that intercultural exchange can advance human understanding for the benefit of all involved.


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