A Chinese perspective on Daoism and the Daoist priest
Ken Sun has given me permission to reprint his side of a discussion he engaged in on the internet in June 2001. I have not obtained permission from the other participants to reprint their statements, but you will be able to guess the substance of their line of questioning.
Mr. Sun's remarks give us a rare opportunity to begin to understand
the approach that the Daoist priest takes toward his endeavor.
May 12 01
I'm not sure that I agree with the usage of "faith" in the discussions on this board. I was taught that faith is not important to Daoism. Before I continue allow me to provide a disclaimer; my understanding may be sectarian, and may not apply to Quanzhen for example. I don't claim to be a daoshi nor even a scholar so I cannot represent any sect or lineage. What I learned I learned from my family and much of that from my great uncle and his eldest son, both of whom were ordained daoshi. Hopefully I won't embarrass my family with any misunderstandings or misstatements.
What I recall is that a daoshi's faith is completely unimportant. His belief has nothing to do with the effectiveness of a ritual, the existence of a god, or the value of a text. It's seen as extraneous. While it's not considered important it's also not discouraged, but it's not discouraged because there's no value seen in spending the qi to suppress it. Instead the emphasis is on experience. So; discover the value of a text by living its message, confirm the existence of a god through direct contact, discover the effectiveness of a ritual through participation. Even when you first approach a ritual, god, or text you don't need any faith or belief, just an open mind, sincere conduct, and proper instruction. It doesn't guarantee any experience but it does help to prevent fanciful imaginings.
May 12 01
Thank you, it's nice to be welcomed. Let me see if I can reply sensibly to your questions. I'll address the question of prayer last as I think my explanation might benefit from the other things I write.
Truths that can be experienced but are not verifiable by others? It sounds to me that if faith is somehow required here it's required by those outside the experience. It's very modern to believe that a truth isn't real until you've experienced it, or had it "proven" to you. It's also modern to believe that faith is required when the experience is lacking. Suppose for a moment that it's not important to verify or refute someone else's experience. What would be left? Perhaps the tolerance and acceptance of religious experience. Not to mention the qi and time to focus on your own life. Maybe it's natural to be curious about what others do but perhaps it's only helpful in the context of your own experience. There's no need for verification.
I don't have any experience with energy healing so I can't comment on that, but if by energy work you mean qigong I would say no, the effectiveness of qigong is not dependent on the practitioner's belief (unless they doubt it to the extent that they don't practice :). However, the qigong needs to be in line with the underlying teachings. For example, you wouldn't practice qigong in order to ascend to the Christian heaven - this is because the practice is to be an expression of the teaching and Christianity has it's own, no doubt, proper practices. If a qigong practitioner was concerned about the state of their belief in their practice then they may miss out on the experience of truth (also expressed by the teachings). No need to have some assumption stand in the way of what actually is.
The question of Daoist prayer seems easily confused here in the States. However, it's not confusing if you can see the difference between inner and outer understanding. There are many, many Daoist gods. Any temple will have any number statues or paintings where the community makes offerings. Families may very well have a long standing relationship with one or more deities. There are rites, both public and private, that involve them, in fact require them. There are endless stories and histories about them. As a result, many people are very devoted to them. Personal requests are made, and sometimes results are expected. This is the outer understanding, one of devotion.
The inner understanding clarifies our relationship to gods. We are not subservient to deities. Certainly gods are more potent and have better connections than humans but they are seen as beings that live and die and have their own fate that plays an important role in the continuity of heaven and earth. Prayer is a respectful acknowledgement of their place and fate and ability. It does not exalt them or debase the daoshi. Prayer is just a way of acknowledging what is. It doesn't require belief. Belief won't carry a petition to the right place, it won't execute a rite properly. Again, if an emphasis on belief is present then the focus is not on what is actually happening. No one is required to do something based on belief.
Quickly, some words about my family. Both my great-uncle and uncle were blackhead daoshi in Taiwan. My family was initially from Sichuan, near Chengdu. When my great-uncle was young he was a troublemaker. The family asked the daoshi for advice and was told that he should spend time with him (the daoshi). He was later initiated (Tianshi sect) by the daoshi. He spent some years in Zhengyi hermitages in Sichuan and Jiangxi. During the Cultural Revolution he fled with his family to Taiwan. There he taught and initiated his son who later spent time in a hermitage near Taibei and later a temple in the city. My great-uncle died two years ago and my uncle "retired" as a daoshi some years before. And my family came from Taiwan to the US in 1981.
Whew. I came to read and listen. I never expected to write so much. Hopefully this posting has at least been interesting.
May 13 01
Cassandra and Dharmajim,
I'm happy to hear that my post was so well received. Thank you both for your kind words. Cassandra, you ask a couple new questions regarding belief and faith. Let me see if I can try a different explanation than the one I sent yesterday...
It's important to consider that Daoists begin from a place of unity and acceptance. This isn't some universalist notion of acceptance through marginalizing other traditions. Instead it's based on central teachings that assume a common ground among people of whatever background because all human beings constitute a key place between heaven and earth. Someone's religion, politics, experience, etc cannot change this common ground, this unity. Experiences are expected to be different from person to person but this is like changing your clothes; you appear different but in reality there's no difference underneath.
So what then is important? If you tell me that Ge Hong has visited you what could I emphasize? My ability to believe that such an event took place? What teachings he passed to you? Or the unity between us? In truth I can never really know your experience no matter how close mine might be to yours. Perhaps Ge has visited me a dozen times but never passed on any teachings. In this case I have the experience of the visit but not of the transmission. Shared experiences make it easier to communicate but it's not what makes us human. We are human by nature. I've heard several stories over the years of how daoshi of the same lineage at the same hermitage had no idea what some of the other daoshi were practicing let alone experiencing. But always the assumption among them was of this unity and acceptance. Nothing more was required.
Let try another example. Let's say that you come to me and tell me that you've become an immortal. Let's also say that my first response is a concern that I don't have a similar experience so questions of belief arise. Does my inexperience or confusion have any impact on the teachings or realization of immortality? Do they have any impact on the truth of your experience? No. Are they instead clouding the truth of your experience, our unity, and my potential to experience the same thing through my own practice? Probably. Questions of belief and faith are unimportant. When approaching something that may seem daunting like immortality set belief aside. Set faith aside. Instead approach it with a clean slate, an openness. The fact is that your notions are probably completely unlike the truth (of something like immortality). What is important are sincerity, proper practice, and unity.
You write that belief is required by someone who's interested but not experienced in the tradition. I take this to mean that in order to maintain interest or enthusiasm some amount of belief is necessary. Perhaps. Maybe it seems that way, but maybe what's drawn you to the tradition is fate or a genuine tendency to pursue the teachings. Maybe belief is extraneous once again. I'd suggest to anyone pursuing an interest in religion to look to the heart of the matter. If you set your belief aside would you still be here? Isn't there something deeper than your beliefs at work?
Back to my family, but quickly. I have received instruction over the years on texts and meditation from both my great-uncle and uncle. This wasn't formal training, they were simply being generous with an interested relative. I did consider formal training once but decided not to pursue it. Training to be a daoshi isn't to be taken lightly and I couldn't, in all sincerity, say that my intention was to follow the training through to its conclusion. Despite this I keep in touch with my uncle and pester him with questions from time to time. He's very accommodating with me to this day.
May 14 01
First my apologies for not replying to all of you individually. Everyone has participated so earnestly that I would like to write each of you but the number of responses surprised, even overwhelmed me. Also, I'm a bit tired tonight and I don't think I could manage to reply in the way that everyone deserves. Still I hope that I can manage one or two posts.
Cassandra mentioned that she felt that we hadn't quite gotten to the bottom of the issue of faith. I suppose that's true. Honestly I didn't think that it would be so difficult to express my understanding. It turns out that I may not have been as clear as possible. I am, however, willing to give it another try.
Central to my posts on belief has been that belief is unnecessary. It's not bad or evil. Yes, I did write that belief can impede experience but despite this belief isn't something to be eradicated. As I mentioned early on, it's seen as unimportant, so unimportant that no effort is encouraged to suppress it. Instead, experience is emphasized. The reason why belief is seen as unnecessary is that it adds nothing to reality. Belief is a personal notion about what was, what is, or what will be. It is not what was, what is, or what will be. And it does not create what was, what is, or what will be. It's a projection of some sort onto a situation (a time and place). Remove the projection and you're left with what always was. Reality.
To refer to some examples given let's say that a small amount of belief or faith or trust is involved when I approach something new like French, Daoism, or a spoonful of sugar. That seems pretty innocuous right? I agree. Certainly little harm could come from it. Perhaps the belief is created from a little bit of fear or uncertainty and by holding it we feel it helps us carry through. Perhaps it's simply habit. Pretty common, pretty everyday, pretty tame. However, the teachings I received say that the experience wasn't as full as it could be because of the belief I entertained. This doesn't diminish the experience that I had nor does it mean that I am doomed to life as a ghost. It just means that the fullness of reality that is available to me was restricted by my beliefs. Now these examples are admittedly small in scale. I'm not sure if anyone is saying that strong beliefs and a focus on those beliefs are a necessity for a Daoist. I was never taught such a thing.
So, belief doesn't add anything to reality and it prevents us from experiencing the fullness of the moment. Yet you are not required to try to remove your beliefs from any situation. Instead you are asked to emphasize experience. What does that mean? It means to participate in wuwei. The openness or clean slate that I referred to in an earlier post was a poor reference to this. I admit that I was avoiding writing about another topic that can be difficult to penetrate (wuwei). The point I was making was not to replace one belief or faith with another but to live in a way that makes belief unimportant. The fundamental expression of your nature is without belief. Perhaps it's redundant for me to mention but wuwei by definition is unencumbered by belief, effort, even goals. This natural form of action, perfectly in tune with the movement of time and place, is available to everyone. It's here that we can find the ease of experience without the weight of belief.
I should point out that I, too, have these little beliefs pop up. I am not somehow immune. They seem to act as bridges between comfortable places. However, I notice that when I've entered something new and not been burdened by some belief my experience was without those familiar, little blind spots. I don't know if someday I'll be completely without these beliefs. It doesn't seem important either to eliminate them or believe that it can be done. Instead, I see participating in the core practices of Daoism, in order to be completely human and experience unity, as the sensible thing to do. From there let the chips fall as they may.
May 15, 2001
Frankly I think that this point is coming down to a matter of our (your and my) experience. I don't know anything about your training or experience except that it doesn't seem to be in the Zhengyi tradition. I offer these respectful comments and hope that you don't find them to be offensive.
If I was to play at being a Daoshi and you were to come to me with these questions I might ask you why you wanted to be an immortal and why you thought faith was so important. What do these desires bring you? If they only bring motivation then what does that serve? Is it important to force yourself into involvement? If so, then what is Daoism to you? Slavery? Masochism? While these questions may seem strange they are actually part of a traditional line of questioning. There's a long history of people coming to Daoism expecting something miraculous, and certainly this is not restricted to Americans. In the Zhengyi tradition these expectations are seen as simple misunderstandings, nothing more. In fact they're misunderstandings that should clear up through practice. Not that practice is magical but it offers direct experience that resolves these questions for you. I doubt that it would surprise anyone to hear that questions of belief (or doubts or assumptions) dissolve in the face of your own experience.
The enthusiasm of a beginner is both refreshing and troubling. It's fun to see so much spirited energy made available to their practice but it's unavoidable that it's accompanied by a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding. Still, I've never heard of a Daoshi that would try to force this out of someone. Instead the beginners are taught practices that allow them to see for themselves what these opinions of theirs actually are. Again, this is Daoism. Philosophical speculation always takes a back seat to experience.
Lastly, let me respond to your final point "Without that faith, I would not believe that my path is worthwhile, and I would quit." If your practice did not clarify your notions of faith and you decided that Daoism was not for you then you would be allowed to quit. And it's likely that you would not be discouraged from doing so. As you have written so often, Daoism isn't for everyone. A Daoshi would assume that your path lies elsewhere and would not want to stand in the way of you getting there.
Again, playing the Daoshi, I would make this assessment. You are a beginner. You don't yet understand the core teaching of Daoism. This "understanding" isn't intellectual; instead it's expressed in your behavior which is affected by your experience. I don't see in your behavior the result of basic practice. My directions to you would be to return to practice, make sure that you are consistent, check to see if you're approaching practice with sincerity, and be careful not to place intellectual debate over experience.
May 17 01
The questions (and answers) of faith certainly seem to be heavily influenced by tradition and training. It's not easy to digest another perspective, especially when it runs counter to the teaching and culture that you've received. Certainly if you were to instruct me on the importance of faith in Buddhism I'd stumble and trip and struggle with it. Naturally the "answers" are more complex than we might imagine. One thing that I've learned by posting here is how much I take for granted in my own views. I'm not used to having to carefully and clearly express myself and a little reflection has shown that the answers to seemingly simple questions are actually quite complex. There really aren't any simple answers. When we finally have that experience of "how simple!" we've disguised the fact that we've woven together a complex fabric that would be nearly impossible to disassemble. Even the things that we threw away to come to our understanding are part of that fabric. That said, I have another Zhengyi explanation (really just another part of the weave) that's inspired by some of the recent postings.
Again, the premise is that faith is unimportant. The definition of faith or belief isn't important. Some discussion on the board has regarded the scale or breadth of the definition. That's really not important either. I understand that that's a broad statement, please bare with me. The assumption in some posts has been that faith brings you to a tradition or inspires you to continue. Indeed, faith may bring you to religion and inspire you further. This isn't seen as a problem. In fact, it's all right (to a point, see below and other posts). However other circumstances can bring you to Daoism that don't involve faith. You may go to the Daoist monastery because the Buddhist monastery was full (and Daoism was "good enough" for your purposes) or because your parents were nearing retirement and you didn't want to run the noodle shop. Don't laugh, it happens. Assuming that they're let through the door, it's pretty clear that these people have not approached Daoism from faith (in Daoism) and yet would be considered as no different from those that do. Why is that? Because faith is seen as just another misconception that someone new to the tradition might have. It's not assumed that faith/belief will eventually and completely disappear, but it is assumed that the insistence on them will (through practices).
I very much like Scott's example likening faith to indigestion. What I would add is that indigestion (faith) isn't considered serious because it will pass on its own (through proper practice = rest and eating correctly). However, if you were to practice indigestion (by always eating poorly) then it can become a real health problem. The analogy with faith would be that if you were to practice the insistence of faith then you would cause yourself unnecessary difficulty (see other posts and below). This "practice" is likely to be unconscious in both cases. It's likely to seem innocuous. For example, eating the wrong foods for seemingly right reasons (love of spices, wanting no fat in your diet, etc) or insisting on faith because it seems like it should be part of the tradition (desire to be an immortal, belief in the correctness of a sectarian view, etc). This is what I mean when I say that faith/belief is okay, to a point. Eventually it can develop into a problem.
Scott wrote earlier that faith or belief is inappropriate. I agree except in the case of the beginner. For the Daoshi or the initiate the problem is actually practical. Yes, it can impede practice and study but ultimately there's a larger consequence. Continued insistence of faith or belief can result in becoming a ghost when you die. Just as faith/belief is treated the same as other desires or misconceptions when you enter into Daoism it's also viewed the same as other desires when you leave, as any of them (desire for power, money, etc, etc) can create the same situation at death. So, for example, you can actually wind up a ghost if you're overly concerned with becoming immortal. No, there's no guarantee that this will occur, but I doubt that a Daoshi would be willing to entertain the possibility.
Let's see if we can bring this back around to practice. To the best of my experience notions of belief don't go away. Perhaps it's different for a Daoshi or someone with more experience but not for me. So for the sake of our discussion let's assume that little notions of belief come and go all the time, right through to the end of our lives. Notice that I wrote "little notions". The idea here is that there's no insistence on them. Instead they come and go freely. We don't stomp them out or encourage them. As a beginner we'd probably have many, even some that take awhile to shake, but through practice the insistence fades. Why? Because we discover through experience that our beliefs stand between us and reality and we opt for reality instead of our opinions of it.
What then of the "bigger" beliefs, those that seemingly take a long time to realize, say perhaps immortality? The first thing that I'd suggest is that something like immortality is probably nothing like you conceive it to be. What it is, how it can be achieved, even that it can be achieved, all of these are purely conceptual guesses. Yes you could be well read and heard many stories but an intellectual understanding doesn't equate to experience. My advice would be to let things like this go. Let your life unfold naturally (wuwei) and don't be a slave to your ideas of reality no matter how grand or beneficial they seem. Otherwise, who knows, you might even miss out on immortality while you were busy insisting on it. :)