Overview Essay

Daoism and Ecology

James Miller, Duke Kunshan University


The Western understanding of Daoism has been rooted chiefly in the classical philosophical tradition of Laozi (Lao Tzu) and Zhuangzi (Chuang tzu). This tradition, replete with organic metaphors and distrustful of the complexities of civilization, is immediately appealing to those who are tempted to still the Western rage for order with the natural harmonies of Eastern philosophy. These early texts, however, present us not only with the bearded wisdom of kindly sages but with evidence of meditational theories and religious disciplines that were systematized in the flourishing of Daoist religion after the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). This religious tradition is emphasized here because it manifests clearly the ecological sensibility that is latent in those early texts.

Daoism, as the indigenous religion of China, is profoundly ecological in its theoretical disposition, but in practice does not conform easily to Western notions of what this should entail. This is because Daoist cosmology forms a metaphysical framework by which to realize the transformation of the individual as a celestial being who is fully translucent to the cosmic environment in which she or he is situated. Such a perfected person is thus able to penetrate beyond the gross physicality of ordinary existence and, as a celestial immortal, be in attentive harmony with the subtle and mysterious transformations of the Dao (the ever-changing flow of cosmic processes) at its root, primordial level. A dynamic ecological system at a cosmic level is therefore the presupposition of all higher Daoist thought and practice.

Worldview Cosmic Ecology

The Daoist universe is one, but infinitely diverse. 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 (ch’i) 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.

It is not quite correct, therefore, to speak of an ecology, as though there were an intellectual principle (logos) for comprehending one’s cosmic environment (oikos). The Dao de jing (Tao Te Ching) warns that if we speak of the Dao (Tao), such speaking must be in-constant, unusual, or extra-ordinary. This has led, on the one hand, to an intense skepticism of the ability of human rationality properly to grasp 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 (and August academic conferences in particular) have borne the rhetorical brunt of criticism: the transformations of the universe are especially beyond the grasp of elderly men who pool together 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.

The Ecology of the Body

The hermeneutical principle on which Daoist religious practice rests, however, is that of the mutual interpenetration of all dimensions of being, with the body as the most important field for the interaction of cosmic forces. Properly visualized within the body, gods 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 embryonic immortal body is generated and the adept is eventually reborn as a celestial immortal.

This biospiritual practice is dependent upon traditional Chinese medical theory that views the body as a complex system of interacting energy circuits. Illness, broadly speaking, is symptomatic of some defect of circulation, perhaps a blockage or a seepage or an excess. Religion therefore is not the denial or the overcoming of physical existence, but its gradual refinement to an infinitesimal point.

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 Shangqing revelations (“Highest Clarity,” the name given to these initial texts of the emerging Daoist canon), 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 Buddhist-influenced 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 which, 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 kairos—moment that requires a decision of apocalyptic consequence. Human civilization and all life is inscribed within cycles far greater than it can comprehend.

Strategies: 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 environment, from feng shui, the strategy of arranging one’s immediate area to take full advantage of its natural environment to taijiquan (t’ai-chi-ch’an), 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 an end in itself, but as a strategy. The advice of the Dao de 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 advanced methods.

Reversion and Spontaneity

The goal of all higher Daoist 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 towards pure spontaneity thus consists always in reversion or undoing. This reversion can occur mentally, through sitting in oblivion, physically, through the generation of an immortal embryo, and even cosmogonically, through alchemical practices founded on the principle that degenerative natural processes can be reversed and restored to their pure essential state.

Constructing Nature

Daoism proposes a comprehensive and radical restructuring of the way in which we conceive of our relationship to nature and our cosmic environment. This imaginative act does not readily lend itself to the solution of the problems of modern society except inasmuch as it challenges the very foundations of our economic, political, scientific, and intellectual structures. At the same time, however, as Daoism becomes more influential in the West, even as it is misunderstood, it surely exerts a positive influence with respect to understanding what it means to be embedded in a cosmic ecology.

In such an understanding nature is not something outside of us to be dealt with after the fashion of a mechanic repairing a car, but is both a mental attitude to be carefully cultivated and the true condition of one’s body that contains the infinite dimensions of cosmic reality within itself. Ultimately, therefore, nature is to be constructed and visualized time and again. Its destiny lies more than anything else in the human powers of imagination.

About this Author

James Miller, a member of the Forum Advisory Group, is Professor of Humanities, Associate Dean for Interdisciplinary Strategy, and co-director of the Humanities Research Center at Duke Kunshan University. Dr. Miller’s research is based in the study of Chinese philosophy, theology, and religion, with an emphasis on philosophy of nature, environmental ethics, and the intersection of religion and ecology in China. He has published six books including China’s Green Religion: Daoism and the Quest for a Sustainable Future (2017). He was co-editor of Daoism and Ecology: Ways Within a Cosmic Landscape (2001).  Read more.

Header photo credit: Louguan Temple, Courtesy of ARC