Cosmos and Community

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COSMOS AND COMMUNITY: THE ETHICAL DIMENSION OF DAOISM. By Livia Kohn. Cambridge, Mass.: Three Pines Press, 2004. Pp. 291. Supplement in Electronic Publication. Paperback, $29.95, ISBN 1-932483-02-7


With the publication of Cosmos and Community, Livia Kohn has confirmed her status as the preeminent Western scholar of Daoism. Her work is noteworthy not only because of its analysis of Daoist texts and practices, but also because she is a careful and respected translator of texts from the Daozang. Accordingly, Cosmos and Community is a microcosm of her contribution to Daoist scholarship.


The common view of Daoism, often still held even by scholars of the tradition, is that Daoists practiced “nonaction” (wuwei) and emptied themselves of the distinctions made in morality. So, it is often assumed that Daoists did not form an ethical system at all. Kohn’s work should remove this misunderstanding once and for all, and confirm the need for revision of such teaching and interpretation.


Kohn focuses on the Daoist precepts (jie), and Cosmos and Community falls into two major sections. In the first section, Kohn identifies four types of Daoist rules: prohibitions (bude); admonitions using the term “should” (dang) or “should always” (chang dang); injunctions that deal with concrete daily behavior; and resolutions, often phrased in the first person and usually containing expressions such as “pray” (yuan), “ be mindful” (nian), or “bring forth [the good] intention” (faxin). After a survey of these different categories in chapter one, she deals with prohibitions in chapters two and three. The second chapter principally covers the five recurring prohibitions of Daoism from the fifth century onward: no killing, no stealing, no lying, no debauchery, or no intoxication. But the chapter also mentions sets of universal rules created by Daoist communities. In chapter three, Kohn reminds us that an important part of the Daoist enterprise was not merely to slow down the process of loss of vital essence (jing), but to stop and reverse it. Efforts to control jing-loss lie behind the rules on food, wine, and sex described in this chapter. Chapters four and five focus on admonitions that sometimes occur in connection with the five precepts. In chapter four, Kohn argues that the ten virtues (paramita) and ten bodhisattva stages (bhumi) of Mahayana had a major impact on Daoism, and texts in the Lingbao (Numinous Treasure) canon show the closest parallels to Buddhism (64). In chapter five, she considers other precept texts and their admonitions, including those originating in the Tianshi (Celestial Masters) community and dating from as early as the late second century C.E. Chapter six sets out monastic injunctions and their intended transformations of daily behavior. Finally, chapter seven identifies mental resolutions and other guidelines that were designed to create “a cosmic mind.” 


In the second part of the work, Kohn provides for the first time a complete list of the seventy-three texts in the Daoist Canon and its supplements having to do with moral instruction (123-135). In the print volume she translates eleven of these texts from the original sources, while in the electronic supplement (see she makes available translations of nineteen other texts. Cosmos and Community contains translations of all or part of the following texts: (1) Laojun yibai bashi jie (180 Precepts of Lord Lao; DZ 786, 4a-12b); (2) Taishang Laojun jiejing (Precepts of the Highest Lord Lao; DZ 784); (3) Chisongzi zhongjie jing (Essential Precepts of Master Redpine; DZ 185); (4) Shangpin dajie (Great Precepts of the Highest Ranks; DZ 177); (5) Shijie jing (Scripture of the Ten Precepts; DZ 459); (6) Sanyuan pinjie (Precepts of the Three Primes; DZ 452); (7) Taiqing wushiba yuanwen (Fifty-eight Precepts of Great Clarity; DZ 187); (8) Guanshen dajie (Great Precepts of Self-observation; DZ 1364); (9) Jinjie jing (Scripture of Prohibitions and Precepts; DH 35); (10) Shishi weiyi (Ten Items of Dignified Observances; DZ 792); (11) Chuzhen jie (Precepts of Initial Perfection; JY 278; JY 292; ZW 404). 


Kohn is a careful scholar who is particularly skillful in interpreting Daoist/Buddhist interaction and this turns out to be the major thrust of her work in this book. And yet, she is well aware of the texts and lineages which are not as directly influenced by Buddhism as those she studies. The one text she translates and includes in the print edition of the book that stands as a clear representative of indigenous Daoism free of Buddhist influence is the Chisongzi zhongjie jing (Essential Precepts of Master Redpine) (154). This tradition is often overlooked because of the ascendancy and the sheer force of the number of texts produced in the lineages which interacted and imitated Buddhism in their monastic ways. This more silent and subterranean tradition still requires a more robust history and interpretation. For the time being, Kohn’s work is very helpful for working with those Daoist sub-traditions that interacted with Buddhism.


In this work, Kohn’s most significant contribution is to make available those extant texts that aid us in working on Daoist morality. The book is highly recommended for scholars and students alike who are interested in Daoist ethical practice. It would make an excellent required text for courses in the Philosophies of China, Daoism, Comparative Philosophy, and even Global Ethics. Teacher-scholars who depend on texts in translation will find the work indispensable for advancing their own interpretations of Daoism. 


Ronnie Littlejohn

Belmont University

December 2, 2004