Home » Publications » Books » Religions of the World and Ecology Book Series » Here

Daoism Introduction

Center for the Study of World Religions
Harvard Divinity School
Religions of the World and Ecology Series
Daoism and Ecology Volume
N. J. Girardot, James Miller, and Liu Xiaogan, eds.


N. J. Girardot, James Miller, and Liu Xiaogan

  As for the Dao, the Way that can be spoken of is not the constant Way;
As for names, the name that can be named is not the constant name.
The nameless is the beginning of the ten thousand things;
The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.
Therefore, those constantly without desires, by this means will perceive its subtlety.
Those constantly with desires, by this means will see only that which they yearn for and seek.
These two together emerge;
They have different names yet they’re called the same;
That which is even more profound than the profound—
The gateway of all subtleties.
—Daode jing/Dedao jing (Mawangdui B), chap. 1 (amended Henricks)

The Named and the Nameless
Daoism and ecology are often invoked as natural partners in contemporary discussions of environmental issues in the West. When looking to the religious and intellectual resources provided by various “world religions,” it has therefore been a commonplace assumption that the Chinese tradition conventionally known as “Daoism/Taoism” reveals an obvious and particularly compelling affinity with global ecological concerns.1 For most Western commentators until recently, Daoism primarily referred to the “mystical wisdom” found in several ancient “classical” texts (especially the Daode jing and Zhuangzi) and was seen to be fundamentally in tune with heightened contemporary fears about the increasingly fractured relations between humanity and the natural world. Popular testimony would even whimsically suggest that Pooh Bear and Piglet affirmed the profound ecological sensibility of the ancient Chinese Daoists.2

Unfortunately there has been very little serious discussion of this beguiling equation of Daoism and ecology. Too much has been simply, and sometimes fantastically, taken for granted about what is finally quite elusive and problematic—both concerning the wonderfully “mysterious” tradition known as Daoism and, in this case, the “natural” confluence of Daoism and contemporary ecological concerns. Among the shelves of Western Books and articles written in the past twenty-five years about the religious, ethical, and philosophical implications of a worldwide “environmental crisis,” there have been many passing allusions to a kind of Daoist ecological wisdom (often associated with Native American and other tribal-aboriginal perspectives, as well as with Pooh-like themes and the free-floating and universalized “Suzuki-Zen” of an earlier generation).3 However, there is still no single work that is grounded in a scholarly understanding of the real complexities of the Daoist tradition and is also devoted to a critical exploration of the tradition’s potential for informing current ecological issues.

Even in works generally well informed about various religions and ecological issues, a certain kind of romantic infatuation with a “classically pure” and timelessly essential Daoism (embedded within one or two ancient texts and connected with a few key themes) has tended to shape the overall discussion of how this tradition can be “applied” to the problems of the contemporary world. The question remains whether there is anything to be learned beyond various vague appeals to Laozi’s enigmatic little treatise “The Way and Its Ecological Power,” to Zhuangzi’s playfully insightful parables about “useless” trees and gourds, or to popular visions of a Yoda-like Chinese sage wandering amidst a mist-laden cosmic landscape of craggy mountains, swaying bamboo, and lofty waterfalls. Despite these ongoing reveries, Daoism is increasingly being recognized as an exceedingly rich religious tradition with an immense textual and historical lore that defies any attempt to reduce its meaning to a few ancient texts or Forrest Gump platitudes. It is clear that many popular assumptions about Daoism say less about the real significance of the tradition for ecological concerns than they say about the desire and dominion of Western regimes of both scholarly and popular understanding which, in the words of the Daode jing, tend to “see only that which they yearn for and seek.”4The difficult truth is that there is much that has not been named or known either about Daoism itself or about its possible contribution to recent environmental problems.

Since popular stereotypes are not easily dispelled, it is worth underscoring some of the more pervasive Western distortions about Daoism at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Thus it has been said—both seriously and flippantly—that Daoism is as Daoism does.5Daoism in the West at times seems to be a sitcom religion about “nothing” at all, a situation compounded by its resolute reliance on “non-action” or wuwei. As we know in this age of global MTV and the World Wide Web, such pop fabulations are often more mesmerizing and influential than the revisionary constructions by scholarly specialists, sinologists, and historians of religion in Paris, Kyoto, Beijing, or Boston. Daoism is, however, about nothing and something; and it takes the silly and the serious to tell the fullness of the Daoist story in China and in its contemporary manifestations throughout the world. At the very least, a heightened awareness of these difficulties will help to establish some imaginative footing for slowly walking a path back to the actual historical and cultural complexities of the tradition. Returning to these as yet unnamed aspects of Daoism at the same time provides the crucial pretext and context for naming some of the tradition’s implications for ecological thought and practice.

While both popular misconceptions and scholarly “perplexities” abound concerning Daoism,6similar difficulties can be found in contemporary Western discussions of ecology, especially those harboring various apocalyptic emotions. The salvational urge for a definitive bio-spiritual reformation of life on earth to some extent represents a discursive artifact of an Enlightenment and liberal Protestant “postmillennialist” missionary agenda hidden within the authoritative structures of knowledge in the West.7 In this sense, things are decidedly deep and ominously foreboding during these days of millennial passage. There is, consequently, much overly portentous talk about the special spiritual gravitas of both Daoism and ecology—that is, the mystical ecoprofundities of the Daode jing along with deep ecology, a deeper socioecology and ecofeminism, and an even deeper bio-religiosity of Gaia-Earth.8 Needless to say, the real life-and-death issues of environmental concern are not well served by too quickly conflating a romantic fantasy about Daoism with a certain kind of evangelical passion for ecological damnation and salvation.

Finally, we need to remember that throughout the long Chinese (and now Western) history of the tradition, individual Daoists have often resisted overly hasty and sentimentalized presumptions about the Ways taken and not taken. Buddhists and Buddhologists, for example, have been considerably more “engaged” with contemporary ecological issues than Daoist practitioners and scholars in either Asia or the West.9This situation no doubt reflects the more developed nature of Buddhist scholarship and the presence of a substantial tradition of acculturated self-reflection on the part of Western Buddhists, but it also hints at a wuwei-inspired caution among Daoists in the past and present regarding interventionist forms of crisis management and overly assertive forms of social engagement. While today some living Daoist masters are recommending the need for concerted social action to combat the accelerated destruction of China’s sacred mountains (see Zhang Jiyu’s “Declaration of the Chinese Daoist Association on Global Ecology” in this volume), a few contemporary Daoists still seem to prefer a more muddled and less meddlesome methodology (e.g., in this volume, the comments of the American Daoist Liu Ming in “Change Starts Small”).10This kind of instinctive wariness, though sometimes simply contrarian and polemical, has both a historical and an ethical rationale in Daoist tradition. Ever since the time of the Zhuangzi, some Daoists have avoided “huffing and puffing” after an overly instrumental form of virtue—not an unimportant consideration during morally ambiguous periods such as our own, when “charity” has often become a corporate commodity.

The Ecological Landscape in China
Regardless of a wuwei-ish prudence among some Daoists and the evangelical simplifications in certain aspects of the Western rhetoric of immediacy and profundity, there are real and pressing ecological problems affecting the world today.11Moreover, the complex synergistic issues of life on this fragile biosphere, issues which are always relational and ecological in nature, certainly have important scientific, moral, and religious implications for every nation on earth. The truth is that China, the ancestral homeland of Daoism, constitutes a dramatically disturbing case of ecological neglect.12 Indeed, a balanced appraisal of the ecological condition in China today is difficult and often discouraging. While the destruction of the natural environment, especially involving deforestation and desertification, has a long and sad history, it cannot be denied that there has been an accelerated deterioration of the ecological situation in China during the last half of the twentieth century, particularly following the rapid economic expansion since the early 1980s.

According to Zhang Kunmin, secretary-general of the Chinese Council for International Cooperation on the Environment and Development, there are five major problems concerning the protection and conservation of the environment in contemporary China. The first of these issues involves the immense Chinese population which, even with stringent birth policies, has a net yearly growth of more than thirteen million people (a number nearly equal to half of the Canadian population). Second, there is the incredible rate of urbanization in China where the population in the cities has increased by 180 million from 1978 to 1995, plus an additional 50 million or so of a kind of “floating” population. This is a growth which is accompanied by an exponential escalation of pollution, waste, sewage, and transportation problems. A third major difficulty is the rapid, and often unbalanced and uncontrolled, economic expansion since the 1980s. There has been, for example, a disproportionate development of heavy and chemical industries, which produce a tremendous amount of pollutants. Moreover, burning coal is the major source of energy in China, a situation which seriously aggravates the overall quality of air. A fourth and related consideration involves the inadequate Chinese investment in organizations and equipment concerned with environmental protection and improvement. Finally, and this is where the traditional religions have a clear role, there has been a general lack of public consciousness regarding ecological problems and a failure to develop comprehensive national policies of environmental control.13

The facts concerning ecological deterioration in contemporary China are grim and have obvious global implications. A study by the Washington-based World Resources Institute has concluded that nine of the ten worst air-polluted cities in the world are found in China.14 Other statistics concerning deforestation, desertification, and water pollution are equally alarming.15 There are, however, some promising signs that go back to 1972 when the Chinese government sent a delegation to the First United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. Then, in 1979, China promulgated the Environmental Protection Law for “trial implementation,” finally adopting it as law in 1989. The upgrading of the Chinese National Environmental Protection Agency to the State Environmental Protection Administration in March 1998 represents an important recent development and an attempt to put more managerial authority into environmental planning.

Nevertheless, it must be said that there is still a low level of governmental action on environmental issues in China.16 More encouraging than these sporadic and halfhearted official efforts is the emergence and growth of an environmental consciousness among the general public in China. In the past few decades, an increasing number of journalists, writers, scholars, religious leaders, workers, and farmers have begun to speak out on the ecological situation. It has been in this grassroots context that modern Daoists have started, in a small way, to contribute to the protection and renewal of natural resources, especially to projects concerning reforestation. Thus, under the leadership of the abbot Yang Chenquan, the Daoist priests of Mt. Wudang temple in Qinghai Province have since 1982 grown 1.73 million trees and have recultivated many acres of grassland. Likewise Fan Gaode, the old abbot of the Huashiyan Daoist temple in Gansu Province, is said to have made the “barren hills” green again.17

These actions by Daoists in China are noteworthy, but at the same time they are quite modest and were influenced directly or indirectly by various Western environmental movements. Furthermore, if Daoism somehow has a special ecological wisdom going back to the very foundations of the tradition, why has there been such a woeful record of environmental concern throughout Chinese history, and why, for that matter, have the actions of contemporary Daoists been so meager and relatively restricted? While these questions are tentatively addressed by several of the papers in this book, they remain problems that touch upon the general history of Chinese civilization and have no easy answers. In terms of China’s immediate problems, it must also be specifically asked how and in what way Daoism, or any of the other traditional religions and philosophies, can make a greater and more systemic contribution to the environmental situation. Part of the answer no doubt involves various Western-influenced, short-term “techno-fix” methods for tempering and recycling aspects of rampant economic development.18 However, it would seem that the long-term regeneration and sustainable care of the overall environment in China will even more depend on a broad national “sino-ecological” commitment that draws upon traditional values creatively reinterpreted and reappropriated by contemporary religious leaders and scholars both in China and in the West.19 In the intensely pluralistic context of the postmodern world, effective environmental efforts in particular countries will require a global consciousness and cooperative methodologies informed by the distinctive cultural insights of individual traditions (such as Daoism within the Chinese context).

The creative application of traditional Daoist values (values that, as this volume shows, cannot be restricted to a few classical texts) to contemporary problems will perhaps only be determined in relation to a hermeneutical strategy that understands the whole environmental problem in its specific and practical interrelationship with each of the “ten thousand things” making up the natural world. Such an awareness may be called a kind of latter-day Daoist perspective if we keep in mind Roger Ames’s distinction between the “local and focal” in ecological questions and David Hall’s observation that the ancient Lao-Zhuang texts “celebrate the insistent particularity of items comprising the totality of things.”20 So also does James Miller, in the spirit of the Highest Clarity texts, call for an imaginative realization of a “Daoist ecotheology” that fosters “respect” for the totality of the cosmic environment.21 What is needed to conjoin an emergent “Eco-Daoism” with the meaningful passions of “Deep Ecology” is a more insistent concern for the reciprocal interrelationship of all the constituent parts of the Dao as a cosmic body or landscape.

Remembering the Zhuangzi’s meditation on the relativity of understanding and behavior, the Dao is always to be found in the large and the small, in the gigantic peng bird and the lowly “piss and shit” of the world, in the snow leopard and the snail darter. The nameless is known only in and through the named, in the recalcitrant details of all the myriad life-forms that are subject to both regeneration and degradation. This perspective applies theoretically and pragmatically both to our own appreciation of the full historical complexity and cultural intertextuality of the Daoist tradition and to a contemporary “Daoist” response to any disruptions in the delicate balance and incredible biodiversity of things. In a way that interestingly (and sometimes esoterically) expands on the Laozi and the Zhuangzi, this concern for the dynamic interaction of all forms of life is also envisioned by the loosely organized Daoist religious tradition, which was ritually concerned with how particular human persons, concrete local communities, and regional natural environments comprise the corporate and constantly transforming Body of the Dao. In this regard, it is noteworthy that practicing Daoist masters in China have recently emphasized the “symbiotic mutuality” of “Heaven, Earth, and humankind” and have issued an ecological statement stressing Daoism’s “unique sense of value,” which judges human affluence in terms of the preservation of the many different species of life (see in this volume the articles “Stealing among the Three Powers” and “A Declaration of the Chinese Daoist Association,” both involving Zhang Jiyu; Zhang is a sixty-fifth generation descendant of Zhang Daoling, the founder of the Celestial Masters tradition, and a vice president of the Chinese Daoist Association).22

Particular Parts of the Way
The particular contribution this book makes to an embryonic Daoist perspective on contemporary ecological problems is its concern for the fullness of the Daoist tradition—that is, the incredible corpus of “revealed” texts, the complex ritual and meditational practices, composite sociological forms, practical eclectic ethics, and soaring cosmic vision associated with the eighteen-hundred-year history of the living Daoist religion. It is this exceptionally luxuriant but little understood tradition comprising thousands of scriptures and dozens of sectarian movements that is still sorely neglected in popular Western discussions about Daoism. Rather than what was often called only a vulgar degeneration of the “pure” philosophy enunciated in the classic texts, the Daoist religion “names” an amorphous amalgamation of cultural phenomena that equals the sociological and intellectual complexity of medieval and reformation Christianity in Europe. Fortunately, given advances in recent Daoist scholarship—including the increasing availability of accurate translations of significant Daoist religious scriptures, various new interpretive perspectives coming from the comparative history of religions and other disciplines, and a revived scholarship by native scholars and practicing Daoists in China and the West—a significant revision of our understanding of Daoism is now possible.23 In like manner, the study of the organized Daoist religion in the past and present is also leading to new insights concerning the meaning and use of the Daode jing and Zhuangzi (see especially the papers in section four of this volume).

What is found in the pages that follow offers no simple or straightforward conclusions regarding a Daoist approach (or approaches) to current environmental issues. This book, nonetheless, does constitute the only collection of articles discussing the ecological implications of both the earliest “classical” texts and the fascinating yet often bewildering Daoist religious scriptures. This is a work that not only challenges many popular assumptions about the earliest Daoist texts (especially the difficulties of too quickly reading a Western-style ecological consciousness into the early “philosophical” writings associated with Laozi and Zhuangzi; see, for example, the positions argued by Russell Kirkland and Lisa Raphals in this volume), but also embraces a contextualized approach to the complex cultural significance of Daoist religious thought and social practice in the Chinese past and in the more pluralistic present. To some degree, therefore, this book marks a new stage within the evolution of Daoist studies because it shows that Daoist scholars (both in the West and in Asia) have reached a stage of confluent hermeneutical sophistication that for the first time allows for a project of contemporary global discourse. Buddhologists could have done this fifty years ago, but it would not have been possible in Daoist studies even five to ten years ago.

The new perspectives coming from recent scholarship on the “real” religious Daoism of the Chinese people do not necessarily invalidate everything we thought we knew about the sage sayings in the Laozi and Zhuangzi (the ancient texts have, after all, always inspired and influenced the organized religious tradition—as, for example, Kristofer Schipper’s “Study of the Precepts of the Early Daoist Ecclesia” and Zhang’s “Declaration” demonstrate). They do, however, strongly suggest that we will have to expand our horizons concerning Daoism’s “philosophical,” “religious,” “theological,” and “ethical” understandings of the dynamic interconnectedness of human and cosmic life. In the most basic sense, Daoism—whether associated with the early texts or the later organized religion—does have something important to say regarding many ecological questions. What it suggests, however, is almost always more contradictory and provocative than we could ever have imagined when constrained by the neatly polarized categories of an early “mystical” philosophy (daojia) and a corruptly superstitious and ritualistic later religion (daojiao). In the best sense of the postmodernist critique of Western scholarship, essentializing definitions of Daoism must be replaced by the messy particularity of various “Daoisms” interacting with all aspects of Chinese tradition.

The Daoist religious tradition consists of numerous schools and syncretistic sectarian movements that cannot be easily categorized or summarized.24 Nevertheless, it may be helpful to indicate that, as distinct from the discursive “protohistory” of the tradition associated with ancient texts like the Laozi and Zhuangzi, the history of Daoism as a self-consciously organized religion goes back to movements at the breakup of the Han dynasty (second and third centuries CE, especially the Tianshi, or Celestial Masters, tradition affiliated with the revelations to Zhang Daoling (traditional dates, 34–156 CE). Two other important revelatory textual traditions followed the Celestial Masters movement in the fourth and fifth centuries. One of these was known as the Shangqing, or Highest Clarity, tradition, which stressed visionary experience and practice; the other came to be called the Lingbao, or Numinous Treasure, tradition and emphasized ritual practices. Both of these amorphous traditions not only drew upon indigenous aspects of Chinese religious tradition but also incorporated significant aspects of Buddhism. All subsequent movements were influenced by these early forms of revealed Daoism. From the fifth to the tenth century, the various Daoist sectarian religious groups were loosely organized, and their scriptures were systematized in an open-ended “canon” that came to be known as the Daozang, or Treasury of the Dao. New reformist types of Daoist religion emerged from the tenth through the fourteenth century—among which were the schools of “internal alchemy” (neidan), new liturgical traditions, and several syncretistic schools that accented a morality combining Daoist, Buddhist, and Confucian values. Of the Daoist movements developing after the eleventh century, two traditions continue to the present day. The first of these is the Southern, or Zhengyi (Orthodox Unity), form of Daoism, which was traditionally centered at Mt. Longhu in south China and claims to continue the ritualistic and priestly traditions of the ancient Celestial Masters.25 The second tradition is the Northern, or Quanzhen (Complete Perfection), Daoism, which is today nominally based at the White Cloud Abbey in Beijing. It continues the meditation tradition of “inner alchemy” and shows strong affinities with Chan Buddhism and Neo-Confucianism.26 Finally, it must be noted that in recent years various forms of transplanted and acculturated Daoism have sprung up in North America and Europe.27

Lastly, we want to emphasize that, for all of the advances in Daoist scholarship, there are still many aspects of the tradition that have not yet been adequately studied. Related to these historical and textual gaps in our understanding are also the larger methodological issues having to do with the definition of the tradition, the nature and significance of the ancient “classical” texts, the complex dynamics of Han and Six Dynasties religious history as it relates to the origins of the organized religious tradition, the important interaction with Buddhism and the imperial state, and so on. It was never our intention to resolve all of these scholarly difficulties in this book. Suffice it to say, therefore, that we have deliberately operated with a broadly inclusive understanding of “Daoism,” one that honors the sociological and religious distinctiveness of the organized Daoist sectarian movements, but one that also allows for the inspirational role played by the ancient “classical” texts and for the diffuse interaction of Daoist movements (however defined) with all sorts of eclectic ideas and practices associated with the traditional yin-yang/wu-xing cosmology (e.g., as seen in this volume in sections three and four, such things as geomancy [fengshui], traditional medical practices, qigong, and martial arts—none of which are specifically “Daoist”). Given the current state of our knowledge, it has seemed best to proceed with an assemblage that incorporates a broad range of historical and cultural phenomena that in some fashion were “named” in Chinese sources as having “Daoist” affinities. Such a strategy largely begs the definitional problem of “Daoism,” but at the same time it does honestly reflect the real confusion surrounding many of these issues. In this way, also, we purposely insisted on an approach that would encompass some interesting Western literary redactions of certain Daoist themes—most prominently, in this case, the work of Ursula K. Le Guin.

The Ecological Landscape of Religious Daoism
The Daoist religion that emerged during the third through fifth centuries is profoundly ecological in its theoretical disposition, but in practice does not conform easily to Western notions of what this should entail.28 This is because some of the most prominent forms of Daoist religious cosmology recommend the transformation of the individual as a celestial being who is fully translucent to the cosmic environment in which he or she is situated. While some Daoist schools emphasize the collective and institutionalized ritual regeneration of the society and the cosmos, many forms of the Daoist religion, especially those influenced by the Highest Clarity scriptures, are typically and ideally concerned with “perfected persons” (zhenren). Such “immortals” or “transcendent beings” (xian) are able to penetrate beyond the gross physicality of ordinary existence to achieve an attentive harmony with the subtle and mysterious (“alchemical”) transformations of the Dao (the everchanging flow of cosmic processes) at its root, primordial level.29 A dynamic ecological system that transparently links the “lower-outer-physical,” or earthly, and the “higher-inner-spiritual,” or cosmic, levels of human life is therefore the presupposition behind much of Daoist religious thought and practice. From this kind of cosmological perspective, the interpenetrating “bodies” of individuals, society, the natural world, and the infernal and celestial spheres truly constitute a cosmic landscape pulsating with life.

Cosmic Ecology
The Daoist universe is one and nameless, but infinitely diverse and particular. Its unity is implied by the fact that all dimensions of existence, from the budding of a flower to the orbit of the stars, may be denominated in terms of qi, the fundamental energy-matter of the universe whose dynamic pattern is a cosmic heartbeat of expansion (yang) and contraction (yin). Its diversity is a function of the complex interaction of the myriad cosmic processes, both light and fluid and heavy and dense. The universe is a single, vital organism, not created according to some fixed principle, but spontaneously regenerating itself from the primal empty-potency lodged within all organic forms of life.

It is not quite correct, therefore, to speak theoretically of an “eco-logy,” as though there were an intellectual principle (logos) for comprehending one’s cosmic environment (oikos). The Daode jing warns that if we speak of the Dao, such speaking must be inconstant, unusual, or extraordinary. This has led, on the one hand, to an intense skepticism about the ability of human rationality to grasp properly its situation within the universe, and, on the other hand, to the flowering of a religious tradition dependent upon revelations from supreme celestial beings, those most attentive to the subtle workings of the primordial Dao. In the former case, human institutions (including this scholarly compendium) must bear the rhetorical brunt of criticism: the transformations of the universe are especially beyond the grasp of those who rely upon their long years of learning. In the latter case, it is only by being initiated into the sacred texts and proper lineages of transmission that one is able to comprehend and thereby transcend the ordinary dimensions of human existence. Knowing in the Daoist sense is always alchemical and ecological in nature since it depends on the revelatory experience and practice that comes in and through the transformation of the human body in corporate relation with all other particular bodies.

The Ecology of the Body
The hermeneutical principle on which much Daoist religious practice rests is that of the mutual interpenetration of all dimensions of being (all of which represent various gravid, liquid, and ethereal manifestations of qi), with the body as the most important field for the interaction of cosmic forces. Properly visualized within the body, gods (i.e., personified or psychologized nodal centers of spiritualized energy) dwell in their palaces, the constellations of the heavens are made manifest, and a pure and refined qi comes to flow. From this mysterious energy the alchemical embryo or immortal body is generated, and the adept is eventually reborn as a celestial immortal. This “biospiritual” practice is dependent upon traditional Chinese medical theory, which views the body as a complex system of interacting energy circuits. Illness, broadly speaking, is symptomatic of some defect of circulation, perhaps a blockage, a seepage, excess, or desiccation. “Religion” therefore is not the denial or the overcoming of physical existence, but its gradual refinement to an infinitesimal point of astral translucence. The idea of “salvation” that is suggested in the Daoist religion is fundamentally medicinal—that is, concerned with the “healing” regeneration and rejuvenation of the organic matrix of life.

The Ecology of Time
Time is a function of the calendar: days and years are not numbered but named according to the interaction of two zodiacal cycles of twelve and ten. The Jiuzhen zhongjing (Central Scripture of the Nine Perfections), an important text of the Highest Clarity revelations, for example, details the correlation of cycles of colors, bodily organs, and divinities with days of the year and times of day. When all the cycles mesh, the possibility for radical transformation reaches its zenith. On a much larger scale, the Buddhistinfluenced Zuigen pin (The Roots of Sin) speaks in terms of millions of cycles of kalpa revolutions, and outlines the degeneration of human culture from a simple organic community to complex civilizations based on law codes where corruption and vice are prevalent. Each kalpa cycle ends with the total destruction of the cosmos and then begins again. In either case Daoism encourages us to take a radical perspective on our temporal situation. Time is not something that passes and is then irretrievably lost. There is no kairosmoment that requires a decision of apocalyptic consequence. Human civilization and all life is inscribed within cycles far greater than can be comprehended.

Local Ecology
Because of the vast comprehensiveness of the Daoist cosmic ecology, and not in spite of it, the arena for all human action is the immediate environment. Only by paying attention to the minute details of one’s local context is one able to penetrate to the deep roots of the Dao. Popular Chinese culture is full of ways for human beings to micro-manage their particular environment, from fengshui (the strategy of arranging one’s immediate area to take full advantage of its natural environment) to taijiquan (t’aichich’üan; the embodiment of cosmic patterns to properly attune the self in the world). Daoism has particularly emphasized the importance of small beginnings and local perspectives not as ends in themselves, but as a strategy. The advice of the Daode jing is to be low, soft, weak, and nonassertive. The Zhuangzi praises the spontaneous skillfulness of craftspeople that cannot be easily taught in words, but is achieved only by the repeated practice of an individual in a highly particular context. Religious practices begin with the purification of mind and body and take for granted the respect for all living beings in one’s immediate environment. Religious communities enshrine such attitudes in precepts that are the precondition for more proscriptive methods (see in this volume Kristofer Schipper’s discussion of the “one hundred and eighty precepts” associated with the Celestial Masters tradition). Caring about the extinction of the snow leopard or panda is like the concern among contemporary Daoist masters today for the pollution and gross commercialization of pilgrimage mountains in China; the whole is effected only by means of a profound respect for all the particular manifestations of life.

Reversion and Spontaneity
The ecoreligious goal of Daoist meditational and ritual practice is to mirror unobtrusively the dynamic spontaneity of one’s environment, to become imperceptible and transparent as though one were not at all. This goal is made all the more remote by the complex web of social and intellectual structures layered throughout history that form the cultural flux in which human life is trapped. The path toward pure spontaneity thus consists always in a “healing” reversion or undoing. This reversion can occur mentally through “sitting in oblivion” (zuowang), physically through the generation of an immortal embryo, collectively through communal ritual, and even cosmogonically through alchemical practices founded on the principle that degenerative natural processes can be reversed and restored to their original pristine state (hundun).