The Conference

Submitted by James Miller on Sat, 02/21/2009 - 12:54
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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:

  • What picture of Daoism is conveyed by these practitioners?
    How do they represent their understanding of the Daoist body and spiritual cultivation?
  • How does this picture of Daoism conform to contemporary popular understandings of personal spiritualty?
  • From where do these practitioners derive their authority?

If you haven't read the teachers' guide or the students' guide, now would be a good time to do so, or else go to the first section of the website, all about healing.