The Daoist Monastic Manual

Submitted by James Miller on Thu, 02/12/2009 - 20:29
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The Daoist Monastic Manual: A Translation of the Fengdao Kejie. By Livia Kohn. AAR Texts and Translations Series.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2004.  Pp. 200; glossary. Cloth, $65.00,. ISBN 0-19-517070-9.


Livia Kohn’s fascinating and useful new book, The Daoist Monastic Manual: A Translation of the Fengdao Kejie, is the first complete English translation of the rules and precepts for Daoist monastics. This work should be of great interest to Sinologists, students of Daoism or religious history, and monastics.  The present volume may be seen as a primary-source companion to her Monastic Life in Medieval Daoism: A Cross-Cultural Perspective (University of Hawai’i, 2003), backing up many of that work’s general discussions with specific textual evidence.  Some readers might like to compare the Chinese text of the Fengdao kejie (Rules and Precepts for Worshipping the Dao, DZ 1125) with Professor Kohn’s translation.  They will find the Chinese text in volume 41, pages 33061 – 33099 of the widely used edition of the Daozang published in 1976 by the Yiwen Press in Taiwan.


Before the translation proper, Kohn provides three introductory chapters that cover the development and nature of Daoist monastic institutions, the authorship and textual history of the Fengdao kejie, and some important related texts and relevant terminology.  Chapter one explains the development of Daoist monastic regulations in their social and political context, narrating the basics of Daoist institutional history and making comparisons with the Buddhist Vinaya (Monastic Regulations). The Daoist church in medieval China was always close to the imperial Chinese state and in competition with the Buddhist church. The reader obtains a vivid picture of the economic foundations and material contexts of Daoist practice. Kohn briefly describes the contents of each of the eighteen sections contained in the six scrolls of the Fengdao kejie. These include discussions of Daoist interpretations of karma and retribution (sections 1-3), physical aspects of the monastery (4-6 and 8-10), requirements for ordination (7), and rituals (11-18).


Chapter two delves into issues of dating and textual history. The issues are complex, and the scholarly debates intense. Kohn lays out her evidence and argues convincingly that the Fengdao kejie contains materials related to the southern Daoist church in the mid-sixth to early seventh centuries. The work was expanded during the high Tang to make a more elaborate and complete set of regulations, and then later contracted to create the current text. This part of the argument relies on a mastery of texts and philology that is quite dazzling. Although scholars disagree about the exact dating of the work, all agree that it is essential for our understanding of medieval Daoism as the oldest and most detailed text to describe the concrete organization of Daoist monasticism. 


The third introductory chapter explains related texts and important terminology.  Here the author draws upon supplementary sources such as behavioral manuals, precursors, later supplements, technical works, and ritual collections to illuminate aspects of the Fengdao kejie, such as its worldview, soteriological paths, and physical setting.  The unpretentious but precise language is helpful for Sinologists and general readers alike. The section on terms is so useful that I plan to follow her example and include an explanation of important words and expressions in the introduction to my next book.  


The translation that follows is of the highest quality. Kohn supports her work with just enough notation and explanation to answer the questions that come up in the mind of experts in Daoism and readers of medieval Chinese without making the reading cumbersome for others.


With the publication of this translation, Daoist monastic rules can finally take their rightful place alongside the Buddhist Vinaya within the study of Chinese religious and social history. Perhaps even more important, here Daoist monastic regulations are made available for comparative religionists and students of Western religions.  There is no longer any excuse for scholars of medieval Christian monastic rules and practices, for example, to ignore the Chinese Daoist case.


Suzanne Cahill

University of California, San Diego

February 9, 2005