Old-School or New-School Daoism?

I was recently asked whether I consider our tradition to be old-school or new-school Daoism.  Interesting question.  Here’s my response.

One of the names I’ve taken for our school is “Original Root Order” (源根派).  Let there be no mistake: we trace our lineage-inspiration to the old-school original Daoist teaching as expressed by Laozi.  And yet, as we enter into Laozi’s teaching, we come to realize there is in fact no authentic Daoist expression except that which spontaneously arises moment-by-moment.

What is often referred to as old-school Daoism can also be referred to as Daoist traditionalism.  Traditionalist schools may be brimming with millennia of accoutrements that may deeply inspire and support or, from the perspective of our tradition, may in fact weigh us down and inhibit authentic cultivation, depending on how we engage them.

On the other hand, a casual, free-wheeling approach to Daoism (which, beware, lends itself to the individualistic and self-assured nature of the Western mind), may in fact be nothing but a branch broken from its root – destined to wither and die before it bears fruit.

As it turns out, “Laozi” translates as “old-new”.  Lao (老) means elder – those who have come before us.  Laoshi means teacher.  Dao (道) itself is the ultimate lao – “that which precedes the gods”.  Zi (子) means baby or child – that which recently emerged, or perhaps that which is arising this very moment – fresh, with no accumulated merit or baggage.  We use the term De (德) to denote the moment-to-moment expression of Dao.  So Laozi means Dao-De.

The authentic Daoist experience is rooted in the unborn Dao and spontaneously expresses itself moment-by-moment.  To the extent that we lose touch with this experience, let’s take a cue from Confucius and bow to those ancients who wrote down guidelines and passed along methods to return us to this experience.  As we bow, we give reverence and receive inspiration.  But let’s not overly rely on provisional teachings and methods and thus overlook the direct, uncontrived experience of our own nature.

The training I received from my root-Daoist teacher was centered on Daoist “view” and the proper method of contemplative non-conceptual meditation (zuowang, 坐忘).  This approach was present in both the early Tian-Shi and Quan-Zhen traditions and has continued alongside various ritual and alchemy traditions throughout Daoist history.  Its presence however always tends to be overshadowed by the more remarkable aspects of those traditions.

Daoism is steeped in numerous cultural elements and social dynamics that may or may not be inspired by wuweidao.  There were few accoutrements in my training.  My teacher actively discouraged Westerners from taking on the cultural elements of Chinese Daoism.  He focused on view-transmission and playfully and adeptly shared his extensive knowledge of numerous Daoist arts – always emphasizing the essence of the art above the form.  There may be something contrived about Westerners adopting too much Chinese tradition.  We need to attend to our own ancestors.  Wuweidao is the way things are – our tradition is to stay with reality as it is and not necessarily hold to traditional forms of expression.

When his teacher, “old Master Liu”, fled from northern China during the Japanese invasion, he wasn’t able to bring much with him.  His family had perished; his temple had been destroyed.  Eventually he made his way into a cave outside Taipei, where he stayed on retreat for 20 years until he was visited by a young Euro-American savant.  After a year of training, he passed on his thousand-year old family lineage, trusting that the root of his tradition of “wuweidao” would effectively transmit to the West without the old cultural accoutrements.

Daoism in general suffered severely during the 20th century – in the civil war, the Japanese invasion, and the Cultural Revolution.  In the past 25 years, the traditions have been opening up quite a bit, and now Daoism is becoming robust once again.  That’s wonderful – it’s tempting to rejoice, but nothing in Laozi’s teaching supports us getting too excited about the waxing or waning of traditions.  Just continue.

As far as our tradition, we are carrying forward the fundamental view & method of Laozi’s wuweidao.  We’re exploring different elements of Chinese hygiene, alchemy, ritual, and more, but we are centered totally on Laozi’s non-conceptual meditation and a thorough steeping in the Dao De Jing.  My teacher opened up this text for me, as old Master Liu did for him.

So are we old-school or new-school?  All I know is: we’re keeping the cauldron warm, and sweet dew falls from above.

I hope you have enjoyed this blog.  Please contact me with any questions or if you would like to discuss.