American Daoism in the 21st Century

During the early years of Daoism’sThe Daoist tradition incorporates a highly diverse range of philosophical, religious, and folk values and practices, all of which share a concern for realigning human life so that it is in better accord with the natural rhythms of the universe. Symbols of... formation, it quickly integrated several aspects of Chinese cosmology which were not necessarily an initial part of the religion. The most prominent of these were the concepts of yin and yang. Daoism’s ability to syncretize with its surrounding context continued throughout the tradition’s history. When BuddhismBuddhism is a multi-hued tradition of life, thought, and practice that has developed from the teaching and practice of Siddhartha Gautama (6th century BCE) who came to be called the Buddha, the awakened one. The three major streams of the tradition—Ther... entered China, DaoismThe Daoist tradition incorporates a highly diverse range of philosophical, religious, and folk values and practices, all of which share a concern for realigning human life so that it is in better accord with the natural rhythms of the universe. Symbols of... absorbed many elements still seen today, elements such as the presence of altarsAn altar is a raised platform or stand which bears the central symbols of a religious tradition—whether in a temple, church, shrine, or home—and at which offerings are made, worship is offered, or prayers are said. to the bodhisattvaA bodhisattva is one who has dedicated his or her life to the attainment of enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. The bodhisattva vows to postpone enlightenment in order to help all sentient beings realize liberation. In some cases, the bo... GuanyinAvalokiteshvara is the bodhisattva who looks down with compassion upon the suffering of all beings. In East Asia, this bodhisattva came to be popular in female form as Guanyin (China), Kannon (Japan) or Kwan Um (Korea), holding a willow branch and vase sy... in many DaoistThe Daoist tradition incorporates a highly diverse range of philosophical, religious, and folk values and practices, all of which share a concern for realigning human life so that it is in better accord with the natural rhythms of the universe. Symbols of... templesA temple is a house of worship, a sacred space housing the deity or central symbol of the tradition. The Temple in Jerusalem was the holy place of the Jewish people until its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE; now the term “temple” is used by th. Ref.... Since Daoism did not travel in the same manner as, and lacked the popularity of, Buddhism, its numbers in America have grown relatively slowly. Today, it is estimated there are around 30,000 practitioners living in the United States. Now that American Daoists are becoming a larger part of the religious landscape, this openness to change is shaping the religion in distinct ways and presenting unique issues.

One issue facing Daoism is the culture of religious syncretism in the United States. Many Americans may take an aspect of Daoism and incorporate it into their own spiritual practice. Practitioners of Healing TaoThe term dao (or tao) literally the “path,” or “way,” has been employed in Chinese religious and philosophical traditions, including Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity. In general usage, the Tao refers to the proper way to act... may belong to or identify with a different religious tradition and often do not consider themselves religious Daoists, even as they seek to enjoy the benefits of taijiTaijiquan, literally “the fist of the great ultimate,” refers to a method of calisthenics with roots in ancient Daoist longevity techniques. By following a series of slow, graceful movements, the practitioner attempts to stimulate and harmonize the ci... and qigongAccording to modern Daoist practitioners, the goal of qigong is to enhance a person’s health by maintaining the proper balance of qi (vital energy) and enhancing its free circulation throughout the body. Techniques for accomplishing this include. medita.... This trend leaves many American Daoists grappling with the question: Should such a practitioner be considered a “Daoist”? 

While Daoists may teach non-Daoist neighbors about their beliefs and practices, they often do not reach out to other Daoists. This could be due to several factors, including geographic distance and low numeric representation. Long-standing disagreements between groups in Asia may also ensure that Daoists interact less with each other than with people of other faiths.

Without large, visible Daoist communities, many Americans interact with Daoism solely through its scriptures. While the “founding” texts of Daoism, the DaodejingThe Daodejing, literally “The Scripture of the Way and its Power,” has been influential in the philosophical and religious traditions of Daoism. It is traditionally dated to the sixth century BCE, although most scholars believe it was written several ... and the ZhuangziZhuangzi (c.369-286 BCE), second perhaps only to Laozi, is considered one of the main founders of the Daoist tradition. Unlike Laozi, scholars are more certain Zhuangzi was a real historical figure. While the Daodejing was composed in poetry, Zhuangzi’s..., are de-emphasized in China, they have become the center of focus for many individual practitioners and small groups across America for whom the texts are philosophical and spiritual guides. These practitioners often consider themselves Daoists, but do not belong to a templeA temple is a house of worship, a sacred space housing the deity or central symbol of the tradition. The Temple in Jerusalem was the holy place of the Jewish people until its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE; now the term “temple” is used by th. Ref..., engage in rituals, or interact with monastics. Again, Daoists are dealing with the question of what it means to be a “Daoist” in the American context.

American Daoists are highly decentralized, a factor that contributes, at least in part, to their vastly divergent forms of practice. This decentralization can be traced back to China, where no official records track the number of Daoist lay practitioners, and where popular Daoist festivals and rituals are freely intermingled with Buddhist and Confucian practices without concern for sectarian differentiation or definition. There is also the sheer diversity of popular folk practice, the Celestial Masters, the Complete Perfection sect, Red-head Daoists, and Black-head Daoists to name just a few groups. This diversity is further compounded by regional differences—from the once-British colony of Hong Kong, to the mainland People’s Republic of China, to Taiwan—that make obvious the potential for Daoist decentralization. In short, Daoists brought a decentralized system to America, a land with its own rich history of decentralized individual engagements with religious practices. 

As is often the case in America, the experiences of convert Daoists and immigrant Daoists are different. Often Daoist immigrants, in contrast to converts, do not concern themselves with scriptures or individual practices but instead are content to attend important annual rituals. Daoist immigrants tend to preserve their local traditions, and only slowly–and to a lesser extent–experience change. Converts to Daoism, on the other hand, often do not make attempts to preserve traditions they find unfamiliar. While there naturally is overlap between the two categories, generally speaking the ritual devotion to deities and the creation of talismans found in a Daoist temple in San Francisco’s Chinatown will be much different than the scriptural studies and taiji groups scattered across American suburbia. 

Currently, American Daoism in the 21st century is undergoing a phase of self-definition as it grapples with issues of interfaith interaction, decentralization, and the contrasting practices of converts and immigrants. Some scholars have suggested that a specific form of “American Daoism,” will not form, rather the great diversity of practice within America will result in “American Daoisms.”


X
- Enter Your Location -
- or -