American Daoist Cultivation is a website designed to facilitate learning about the transformation of Daoism in contemporary North America. The website consists of twelve brief video interviews with prominent American Daoist practitioners. These interviews have been arranged into four sections based around four common themes: healing, the body, cultivation and transcendence. Each section has its own introduction and each interview is accompanied by its own commentary.
The transmission and cultural adaptation of Daoism in contemporary North America is complex and controversial. The practitioners interviewed in this website are representative of one aspect of this cultural phenomenon, an aspect rooted in the popularization of Qi cultivation exercises in 20th century China and which have now been transmitted across the world. It is through the lens of these cultivation practices, not philosophical or priestly religion, that American Daoist cultivation is being construed and represented.
The central questions that this website raises are:
Useful essays by Louis Komjathy, Russell Kirkland and Elijah Siegler concerning these issues of representation, authority, tradition and authenticity can be found in the bibliography.
In May 2001, a group of leading North American Daoist practitioners and academics convened at a secluded retreat center on Vashon Island in the Puget Sound, off the coast of Seattle. The conference was organized by Louis Komjathy and Livia Kohn from Boston University, and was groundbreaking not only in the recent history of Western Daoism but also methodologically within Daoist Studies.
Traditionally, Daoism has been understood as a Chinese religion, and has been studied in the west by sinologists who have focused on classical texts and ideas, or by anthropologists who focus on popular religion in China and Taiwan. But as Daoist Studies develops in the west and evolves in new directions, it has begun to be studied as a modern Western religious phenomenon in its own right. This new phase in the transformation of Daoist cultivation has been fostered by the expansion of Chinese cultural space throughout the word, and by the fascination of Westerners with the "orient," frequently as the negative or inverse image of Western civilization.
The conference was groundbreaking for a second reason. Rarely do academics and practitioners get together to discuss the same topics. Often when academics and practitioners get together, the relationship is that of subject and object: practioners provide data to be interpreted by academics in the way that they see fit. In this way academics maintain power over the interpretive discourse. In this case, however, academics and practitioners met as equals, with both sides presuming that they could learn from each other. Moreover by combining academic conversation and experiential practice, the cultivation practices were treated as modes of knowledge as well as things to be known.
On this website you can meet contemporary North American Daoist practitioners and see them recount their experiences as practitioners, popularizers and healers in 21st century North America. Accompanying the video clips are commentary and questions. The object of the commentary is to help you understand the important features of contemporary North American Daoism. The object of the questions is to facilitate an online discussion about the representation, tradition and transmission of Daoism in the West. The questions will ask you to consider:
The following bibliography is adapted from "The consumption of Chinese traditions in contemporary Euro-American society" by Elijah Siegler in Chinese Religions in Contemporary Societies edited by James Miller (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2006).
Primary Sources: Books Introducing Daoism to America
Blofeld, John. 1968 . I Ching. New York: E.P Dutton.
Bynner, Witter.1944. The Way of Life According to Laotzu: An American Version. New York: John Day.
Carus, Paul. 1898. Lao-tze’s Tao-Te-King. Chicago: Open Court Publishing.
Cheng Man-ch’ing and Robert K. Smith. 1967. T’ai Chi: The Supreme Ultimate Exercise for Health, Sport, and Self-Defense. Rutland, Vermont: Tuttle.
Chia, Mantak and Maneewan Chia. 1993. Awaken Healing Light of the Tao. Huntington, N.Y.: Healing Tao Books.
Delza, Sophia. 1961. Body and Mind in Harmony: T’ai Chi Ch’uan (Wu Style): An Ancient Chinese Way of Exercise. New York: David McKay.
Dhiegh, Khigh Alx. 1973. The Eleventh Wing: An Exposition of the Dynamics of the I Ching for Now. New York: Dell Books.
Feng, Gia-fu. 1970. Tai Chi a Way of Centering and I Ching. London: Collier.
Healing Tao. 2001. Chi Newsletter. Huntington, NY: Healing Tao Books.
Hoff, Benjamin. 1982. Tao of Pooh. New York: Dutton.
Huang, Al Chung-liang. 1984 . Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain: the Essence of T’ai Chi. Moab, Utah: Real People Press.
Jung, C.G. 1962 . ‘Commentary,’ in The Secret of the Golden Flower, translated by Richard Wilhelm. New York: Harcourt, Brace.
Kotzsch, Ronald E. 1985. Macrobiotics: Yesterday and Today. New York: Japan Publications.
Kushi, Michio. 1977. The Book of Macrobiotics: The Universal way of Health and Happiness. Tokyo: Japan Publications.
Liu Ming, 1998. The Collected Frost Bell. Santa Cruz, Calif.: Orthodox Daoism in America, 2 vols.
Maisel, Edward. 1963. Tai Chi for Health. New York: Holt, Rinehart.
Seven Star Communications, n.d. Ageless Wisdom for Modern Life. Santa Monica.
Siou, Lily. 1973. Chi Kung. Hong Kong: Lily Siou’s School of the Six Chinese Arts.
Siu, R.G.H. 1968. The Man of Many Qualities: A Legacy of the I Ching. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.
Towler, Solala. 1997. Embarking on the Way: A Guide to Western Taoism. Eugene, Ore.: Abode of the Eternal Tao.
Van Gulik, Robert. 1961. Sexual Life in Ancient China. Leiden: E. J. Brill.
Watts, Alan. 1975. Tao: The Watercourse Way. New York: Pantheon Books.
Wilhem, Richard. 1951. The I Ching or The Book of Changes. Trans. by Cary F. Baynes. London: Routledge.
Wong, Eva. 1990. Seven Taoist Masters. Boston: Shambhala, 1990.
Wong, Eva. 1997. The Shambhala Guide to Taoism. Boston: Shambhala.
Wong, Eva. 2001. A Master Course in Feng Shui. Boston: Shambhala.
Yang Jwing-Ming. 1989. The Root of Chinese Chi Kung: The Secrets of Chi Kung Training. Jamaica Plain, Mass: Yang’s Martial Arts Association.
Secondary Sources: Critical Studies of American Daoism
Clarke, J. J. 2000. The Tao of the West. London: Routledge.
Kirkland, Russell. 1999. ‘Teaching Taoism in the 1990s.’ Teaching Theology and Religion 1: 111-119.
Kirkland, Russell 1997. "The Taoism of the Western Imagination and the Taoism of China: De-Colonializing the Exotic Teachings of the East." Paper presented at the University of Tennessee 20 October 1997.
Komjathy, Louis. 2003. Daoist Organizations in North America. Internet: posted on September 15, 2003. Updated on August 10, 2004
Komjathy, Louis. 2004. "Tracing the Contours of Daoism in North America." Nova Religio 8.2 (Nov. 2004): 5-27.
Melton, J. Gordon. ed. 1990. New Age Encyclopedia. Detroit: Gale.
Seager, Richard Hughes, ed. 1993. The Dawn of Religious Pluralism: Voices from the World’s Parliament of Religion, 1893. LaSalle: Open Court Press.
Yang, Fenggang. 1999. Chinese Christians in America: Conversion, Assimilation, and Adhesive Identities. University Park, Penn.: Pennsylvania State University Press.
Yang, Jeff, Dina Gan and Terry Hong, eds. 1997. Eastern Standard Time: A Guide to Asian Influence on American Culture. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
On this website you can meet contemporary North American Daoist practitioners and see them recount their experiences as practitioners, popularizers and healers in 21st century North America. Accompanying the video clips are commentary and questions. The object of the commentary is to help you understand the important features of contemporary North American Daoism. The object of the questions is to facilitate an online discussion about the representation, tradition and transmission of Daoism in the West. The questions will ask you to consider
Your teacher may also have asked you to consider specific questions or contribute to particular threads on the discussion pages. Through the discussion pages you can contribute to an ongoing academic dialogue about American Daoist Cultivation, and you can respond to questions posed by others or start new threads. You don't need to log in or register to make a post, but you're free to do so if you want to use a unique identifier.
The website is designed principally to complement undergraduate courses in religious studies at the 200-300 level. Each section poses questions that are designed to stimulate discussion, and viewers are invited to respond to those and other questions on the website's discussion boards. Viewers are invited to progress systematically through the twelve interviews in the order set out on the menu at the right, but are free also to browse the website in any order.
This website is designed principally to function as a collaborative web-based learning tool to help facilitate discussion about contemporary American Daoist cultivation. It makes available video clips, commentary and discussion and enables students and teachers at across multiple institutions to collaborate in an online learning experiment. You are invited to integrate this website into your own teaching in any way you think appropriate, but I do offer some suggestions based on the original concept for the website. The key to the successful use of the website is (1) to prepare your students before they come to the website and (2) to bring the students' experiences with the website back into the classroom discussion.
The website first of all makes available content that would otherwise be difficult for students to find. The video interviews allows students and teachers to hear directly from leading North American Daoist practitioners. The website was not, however, designed principally to convey information, though it does that through the clips and the commentary. Rather, the website is designed to facilitate critical discussions about the topic. Thus it will be necessary for students to have some background knowledge about Daoism and Daoist cultivation before they come to the site. You may need to supplement the commentaries and introductions so as to integrate the site well in to your own course.
The website discussion are designed to be integrated into a traditional classroom situation. If there is a particular question you want to discuss, register with the discussion board and create a new thread that the students can easily locate. Then ask the students to go through the website in their own time and respond to your questions before the next class. Then in an web-accessible classroom you can pull up their discussion postings and faciliate a conventional classroom discussion based around their postings. If you don't have a web accessible classroom then you will have to review your students' postings before the class and perhaps print some of them out to facilitate a classroom discussion.
The commentary and questions have been designed for 200-300 level courses but you can pose your own more advanced questions and start new discussion threads on each of the four bulletin boards on this website.
Your feedback is welcome and will be integrated into future versions of this website.
Bill Frazier began practicing sacred movement in the early 1970s while living in an intentional community studying the teaching of George Gurdjieff. In the early 1980's Bill lived for a time in an Ashram in India where dancing darshans were one of the main practices. In 1984 he began studying Chinese systems of movement including Yang style Taijiquan, and many different qigong systems. In 1994 he began practicing Jinjing qigong. He has a Masters degree in Acupuncture from the Academy for Five Element Acupuncture and studied with J.R. Worseley, the founder of that style of acupuncture. He has spent many summer months in China studying with Dr. Wang Qingyu, the lineage holder of the Jinjing qigong system.
Roger Jahnke is a doctor of oriental medicine and founder of the Institute of Integral Qigong and Tai Chi (Website: www.feeltheqi.com). He is a prominent Qigong teacher, speaker and workshop leader. His books include The Healer Within and The Healing Promise of Qi. Roger lives in Santa Barbara, California.
Jeff Nagel is a licensed acupuncturist and has trained in Daoist Healing and Internal Martial Arts since 1969. He studied with swell-known teachers including Share K. Lew, Nobu Asano and Richard Tan. Jeff teaches classes in acupuncture, Chinese medicine and internal Qigong throughout the USA.
Solala Towler is editor of The Empty Vessel, A Journal of Contemporary Taoism, a national magazine with readers all over the world. He is also author of "A Gathering of Cranes: Bringing the Tao to the West" and "Embarking on the Way: A Guide to Western Taoism" and is the founder of Abode of the Eternal Tao which publishes books on the Taoist arts. He has been practicing the Taoist arts for over twelve years and is an instructor of Soaring Crane Qigong, Essence Qigong, Wuji Gong as well as Taoist meditation. In addition, he is a board member of the National Qigong Association * USA. Solala leads yearly tours to China to study qigong and visit temples and the acclaimed Yellow Mountains.
Michael Winn studied with Mantak Chia before establishing his own organization, Healing Tao USA (www.healingdao.com). He is a well-known author, retreat leader and has produced numerous instructional videos on Qigong, focussing especially on internal alchemy.
A common thread that runs through conversations with Daoist practitioners is the healing of the body, and a common way into Daoism for many people is through the personal experience of the benefits of traditional Chinese medicine. Often these personal experiences lead people to investigate Daoism, because it shares many common elements with traditional Chinese medicine, such as an emphasis on balance, on the healthy circulation of vital energy (Qi) throughout the body, and the personal experience of the transformation of the body.
When watching the following three clips on healing, note down your answers to the following questions. Not every question will be applicable to each clip. Your answers to these questions will be used as the basis for discussion at the end of this section:
This section of the website begins with Bill Frazier's account of how practicing Taiji quan helped to heal his back.
Bill Frazier introduces some of the most fundamental elements of Daoist cultivation, which he came to through practicing Taiji quan (Tai-chi). Originally a martial arts practice popularized throughout China in the nineteenth century, Taiji quan has come to represent the basics of Daoist cultivation in the slow, graceful form that it takes today. The basic principle of Taiji is that of a dynamic balance, a harmony of yin and yang that is maintained not by standing still but by maintaining a constant fluidity in the body. Chinese medicine explains the healing benefits of Taiji quan through the concept of Qi (vital energy), which flows throughout the body along specific pathways known as meridians. Bill went to acupuncture school to learn more about Qi; acupuncture aims to promote the healthy flow of Qi throughout the body by stimulating it at certain points where it flows close to the surface of the body, especially the ear lobes, the face, hands and feet. Traditional Chinese medicine forms, such as acupuncture, aim to heal the body through the flow of energy. Qi cultivation practices take this one step further by using the Qi to transform the body at a more psycho-energetic, spiritual level. All Daoist cultivation involves the cultivation of Qi, but not all Qi cultivation can be considered a spirtual or religious acitivity. However, this form of cultivation is popular in the west because of its emphasis on personal growth and transformation.
Jeff's experience is similar to Bill's: a severe physical injury was cured through a patient process of Taiji and other practices that aim to stimulate the flow of Qi. In Jeff's case what is interesting is that his problem took the form of a severe blockage that had to be forced to the surface and overcome. Traditional Chinese medicine, like Daoism, teaches that Qi must be permitted to circulate in order for a dynamic homeostatic equilibrium to be maintained in the body. When Qi stagnates, pathologies develop. An interesting footnote to Jeff's story is the fact that he encountered Chinese medicine through his Chinese girlfriend's family in Jamaica, a former British colony. The transmission of Chinese cultural traditions throughout the world largely bound up with the history of Western colonial powers in China. In the nineteenth century many Chinese people were dispersed throughout the British empire as the indentured servants of British colonial families. In the twentieth century Chinese emigration was fuelled largely by the establishment of the People's Republic under Chairman Mao Zedong in 1949, and the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997.
In this clip, Michael Winn speaks of Qi cultivation in social-psychological terms rather than physical terms. The inflexibility of the muscles and the skeleton that caused so much pain for Bill and Jeff is here understood in terms of the social rigidity that limits people's personal freedom and creativity. Michael understands Qi cultivation in terms of cultivating a fluid relationship with the whole of the Qi-field, that is the sum total of energy that forms around the body. He further speaks of this as an alchemical transformation in which the energies of the body and of the surrounding environment are refined and transformed into something more profound and mysterious than people ordinarily experience. For Michael, Daoist cultivation is fundamentally a form of energy communication that permits this deep transformation to take place.
The body is the pre-eminent space in which Daoist cultivation takes place, and Daoist cultivation aims to reshape the way in which energy flows within the body. The most popular type of Daoist energy practices is Qigong (Chi-kung) which became popularized in China in the 20th century. All Daoist energy practices, however, rely on an understanding of the body as a sacred space that is infinitely deep.
When watching the following four clips on the body, note down your answers to the following questions. Not every question will be applicable to each clip. Your answers to these questions will be used as the basis for discussion at the end of this section:
In the first clip, Solala Towler explains what he sees as the main difference between Daoism and other forms of cultivation.
In this clip, Solala Towler makes a clear distinction between Daoist cultivation and many other "new-age" cultivation practices that might commonly fall under the category of "self-help" or pop psychology." Daoism's insistence on the body as the central field of spiritual experience radically challenges the modern Western emphasis on the mind, rational knowledge and information technology. Perhaps this is one reason for the increasing popularity of Qigong in the modern West.
In the next clip Roger Jahnke describes the physical sensations associated with Qigong.
Roger Jahnke explains the Daoist body on two levels: the physical and the psychological. Daoism treats both these aspects of the body holistically: the one cannot be separated from the other. Thus the phsyical cultivation practices that comprise a set of Qigong movements lead, over a period of time, to certain emotional and pschological experiences. The cultivation practices that were developed by Daoist monks in the 11th century and onwards place an equal emphasis on body and mind, referring to this as the dual cultivation of inner nature (heart-mind) and life (body). Thus the Daoist body should not be viewed as a purely physical or physiological entity, though it certainly has that aspect to it. The Daoist body simply refers to the totality of energy that constitutes a person, whether that energy takes what we could call a more physical form--breath and blood--or whether it takes a more ethereal form--feelings and spirit. Both are to be understood as aspects of the dynamic energy-system of the body.
In this clip, Solala Towler explains his view of the body is a microcosm of the universe. The organs are understood as "heavenly orbs", i.e., planets and stars, or nodes in a vast cosmic network that is available to us through our own internal somatic experience. This view resonates with, and builds upon Roger Jahnke's discussion in the previous clip about the depth of physical and psychological experience available in the body "without traveling to the Himalayas." The views of the Daoist body as expressed by Roger and Solala clearly pose a challenge to conventional Western views that have exalted the mind and the spirit over the body seen chiefly as a vehicle or a container. But according to Roger and Solala, Daoists propose that the body is much more than a container for the soul, but rather the means by which Daoists can engage in spiritual cultivation.
In these clips, Solala Towler and Roger Jahnke discuss the experience of Qi--the foundation of Daoist cultivation and contrast this with other systems of knowledge and experience. They further discuss the notion of cultivating Qi that goes beyond healing and enters into a process of spiritual discovery.
Daoist tradition, unlike Buddhism or Christianity, only rarely developed systematic theologies or religious philosophies to explain this experience of cultivation. The first line of the traditional version of the Daode jing (Scripture of the Way and its Power) asserts that "The Dao that can be spoken is not the constant Dao," and philosophers ever since have questioned the ability of language or mental concepts to express the thoroughly physical and yet spiritual experience that Daoist practice aims to offer.
Daoism instead offers what might be termed a hermeneutics of the body. That is to say, the body--not just the mind--is the vehicle for constructing and interpreting experience.
When watching the following four clips on Qi cultivation, note down your answers to the following questions. Not every question will be applicable to each clip. Your answers to these questions will be used as the basis for discussion at the end of this section:
In this first clip, Roger Jahnke introduces the basics of Qigong cultivation, which involve opening the pathways to allow Qi to flow more freely. The feeling that this engenders is quickly apparent and perhaps even seductive. But as practitioners become more adept they beeomce increasingly aware of the subtleties of the flow of Qi. This awareness leads to a deepening of the process of cultivation that places it on a spiritual path. It moves out of the realm of health and medicine and into the realm of spiritual discipline.
The Daoist tradition, unlike Buddhism or Christianity, only rarely developed systematic theologies or religious philosophies to explain the Daoist experience. The first line of the traditional version of the Daode jing (Scripture of the Way and its Power) asserts that "The Dao that can be spoken is not the constant Dao," and philosophers ever since have questioned the ability of language or mental concepts to express the thoroughly physical and yet spiritual experience that Daoist practice aims to offer.
In this clip Solala makes the distinction between theoretical or intellectual knowledge, and the type of wisdom that emerges through engaging in Daoist practice. Wisdom is thus something that can be "grown" or "cultivated" through these body disciplines. This type of body wisdom is not generally a part of the Western tradition, which has tended to emphasize intellectual reasoning and moral wisdom.
In the final clip of this section, Roger Jahnke distinguishes between Daoist transformation and traditional Chinese healing. He views Daoist cultivation as an ongoing process of transformation, at a deeper and more spiritaual level than either Chinese medicine or practices such as Qigong or Tai Chi.
Having distinguished Daoist cultivation from Chinese medicine, he then goes on to make a further set of distinctions between Daoist cultivation, the academic study of Daoism and orthodox Daoist lineages of transmission. It is worth reflecting for a moment on this tripartite division of the Daoist experience. Many scholars, both Chinese and Western, have been interested in Daoism purely from the perspective of understanding its history and traditions, and in Chinese imperial times, Daoism sometimes functioned as a sort of intellectual antidote to the Confucian bureaucracy which ordered the lives of the scholar-officials who task it was to administer such a vast territory.
Next to this Daoist experience, Roger sets the experience of Daoist lineages, the transmission of Daoist texts and practices that passed from father to son over a period of many generations. This second form of Daoism, which we may call priestly or "orthodox" Daoism, is constructed along these lines of inheritance. In this case orthodoxy and authority is defined by one's location within a particlar lineage of transmission. The third form of Daoism, which Roger personally espouses, is the experience of personal transformation. For Roger, this transformation is premised upon the notion of personal potentiation, the limitless depths which human beings are capable of attaining (see Solala Towler's discussion of the spaciousness of the body).
It is not surprising, therefore, that this form of Daoism should be increasingly popular in the West, for it fits in very well with popular cultural attitudes about personal growth and individual sprituality. Here Roger is careful to acknowledge that this experience of personal potentiation is by no means free of tradition, but rather has led him into an investigation of Daoist history, texts and mythology.
The goal of Daoist cultivation has classically been understood as "immortality." More recently, however, scholars have realized that this is not the best English word to represent what was intended in the Chinese tradition, and have favoured other words such as "transcendence" or "transfiguration." In this final section of the website, we hear from contemporary American practitioners about their vision of Daoist cultivation. What does immortality mean? How do they understand the Daoist body that has been transformed through cultivation practice?
While watching these three clips, some questions to consider are:
We start with Michael Winn's interpretation of the meaning of immortality.
Here Michael Winn defines the classical Daoist understanding of immortality in very American terms: freedom of choice. But his notion of freedom is noticeably different from conventional popular culture. Freedom does not mean consumer choice but seems to operate at a deeper spiritual level that speaks to the authenticity of the person. He describes immortality as the freedom to change ones form, to transform oneself into another way of life, another form of being. This notion of transformation is certainly consonant with the themes of the classical Daoist tradition which has emphasized spontaneity or authenticity (ziran). Michael, however, speaks of it in terms of a theory about the evolution of the universe and the emergence of self-conscious forms of life that have the capacity to determine their own destinies. By so doing he grounds his view of Daoist immortality in the natural world.
In this clip, Roger Jahnke, speaks of his view of Daoist transcendence in both traditional Chinese and modern scientific terms. The traditional Chinese view he refers to is that of the Way of Highest Clarity or Shangqing Daoism, a medieval Daoist movement that is noted for its vision transcendence as a resplendent jewelled body of composed of light, color and radiance. The modern scientific view refers to an understanding of quantum physics and the various resonances between post-classical physics and mystical philosophies most famously developed by Fritjof Capra in hiss classic book The Tao of Physics. Finally, the level of radiance is understood as the goal of Daoist cultivation. Cultivation is understood as a process that moves from the physiological to the psychological and then to the spiritual. These three levels exist on a hierarchical continuum with radiance as the most refined, the highest and most spiritual level.
Solala Towler articulates his vision of Daoist cultivation in terms of a connection to the cosmos. He describes pursuing this connection in two important ways. The first is the "thinning of the envelope" or gradually dissolving the barrier between self and world to attain some sort of mystical unity with the universe. This unity or connection he views as the solution to the alienation or lack of connection felt by "mass America." The second metaphor Solala uses is that of the "astronaut" of "inner space" in which this connection to the universe is pursued, paradoxically, by entering into the depths of the self. This vision of connection is thus predicated on the Daoist view in which the inner depth of the body is equivalent to the broad expanse of the cosmos. Thus the inner body is imaged as mountains, streams, stars and planets. Cultivating connection thus does not involve a movement out of oneself but rather a deepening of the awareness of the reality within. The Daoist adept thus attains an internal translucence and connection to the cosmos.