Ideas

Q&A

A Harvard professor explains Daoism, with help from RZA

James Robson’s new collection of key texts from a great world religion draws on unexpected sources

A statue of Laozi, often spelled Lao Tzu, is credited with writing “The Scripture of the Way and Its Virtue” (“Tao Te Ching” or, more correctly, “Daode jing”).
Li junfeng/Imaginechina
A statue of Laozi, often spelled Lao Tzu, is credited with writing “The Scripture of the Way and Its Virtue” (“Tao Te Ching” or, more correctly, “Daode jing”).

For anyone just glancingly familiar with Daoism, it might come as a surprise to see that the prodigious, two-volume Norton Anthology of World Religions, published earlier this month, includes it as one of its six major living world religions. Right up there with Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism is the “go-with-the-flow” philosophy beloved of self-help authors, Timothy Leary, and Ursula K. Le Guin.

Daoism—or Taoism, as it’s often written (and mispronounced) in English—is a Chinese belief tradition known to most people in the West through the slim book “The Scripture of the Way and Its Virtue” (“Tao Te Ching” or, more correctly, “Daode jing”). Attributed to a sage in the 6th century BC named Laozi (often spelled Lao Tzu), the “Daode jing” has been called the most widely translated book after the Bible. It teaches an enigmatic philosophy of living in harmony with nature and achieving a kind of effortless success in life by following the Dao, or the “way.”

Its sensibility has infused pop culture, from the Force in “Star Wars” to the best-selling “The Tao of Pooh.” But it’s just one early work associated with Daoism, a far broader tradition that includes teachings on celestial deities, alchemy, meditation, bodily self-cultivation, and monasticism. Western thinkers have historically focused more on Daoism’s philosophical than its religious side; in China and other East Asian countries, however, Daoist ceremonies and rituals are still important, though they were suppressed to some extent by the Chinese Communist Party.

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James Robson, a scholar of East Asian religions at Harvard, was tapped to edit the Daoism section of the new Norton anthology, which meant collecting a set of readings to define a tradition that has been notably hard to pin down. He was able to draw on a recent resurgence of interest among scholars who are translating and studying the surprisingly vast Daoist religious canon, much which had been lost and then rediscovered in the 20th century.

Rod Searcey
James Robson.
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Some might expect that a Harvard professor would enforce a purist version of historical Daoism, but Robson took quite the opposite approach. It includes religious texts, and also embraces writings by Westerners intrigued by Daoist thought, including Carl Jung, Oscar Wilde, and RZA, leader of the hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan. Robson spoke to Ideas from his office at Harvard.

IDEAS: Why should Daoism be considered a major living religion?

ROBSON: I think most general readers would assume that Daoism and most religion had died in China after the Cultural Revolution, because it had been critiqued and dismantled and attacked. But in fact, what we find is that it survived, and there’s been an incredible resurgence of the tradition in China, and that it never actually went anywhere despite all that it suffered.

IDEAS: What it did suffer?

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ROBSON: The persecutions of religion go all the way back to the late 19th century....China had gone through tumultuous times historically, was perceived to be weak in relation to other parts of the world, and had seen the success of science developing in other places, and therefore anything that was religious or superstitious was considered to keep China behind....They basically started to transform Daoist schools and temples, and they dismantled the religious institutions, defrocked the priests.

IDEAS: What about Daoism as a religion now?

ROBSON: Daoism has always knit together communities; it’s always been the glue that’s held together local society, and it still does that today....[In addition], you have this huge influx now of capital coming back from wealthy overseas Chinese businesses that have led to the revival and rebuilding of temples in China.

IDEAS: Westerners seem to have a fairly narrow view of Daoism, if they think about it at all.

ROBSON: One of the reasons Daoism was less well known to people around the world, in comparison to, say, Buddhism and Hinduism in Asia, is that the scholarship on Daoism is very new. It really only began in earnest around the 1950s. There are two reasons. One is ideological; The religious forms of Daoism were always perceived to be something less than its philosophy....The other one is something more particular, that the main body of Daoist texts, something like 60 major volumes that constitute the Daoist canon, had gone almost completely out of existence. There were one or two surviving copies in China, and those were only rediscovered and printed in 1926.

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IDEAS: In addition to these religious texts, you include an excerpt from “The Wu-Tang Manual” and “The Tao of Physics,” among other surprises.

ROBSON: It’s a world religion, in the sense that it spread to Korea, Japan, to peninsular Malaysia, and then to Europe, the US, and elsewhere. I’ve tried to track that with a few key examples. I include a fair amount of material on the Jesuits, who were the first ones to really export knowledge of Daoism during the 17th and 18th centuries. But then why stop there? So I include Alfred, Lord Tennyson...and Oscar Wilde, who read a review of a translation of a Daoist text and was excited about it. I include the Beatles, who took one chapter of the “Daode jing” that was translated and put it to music. And the more recent one is RZA’s own interaction with Daoism, where he read the “Daode jing” and was incredibly moved by it, and that became an inspiration for him going to China and also using the Wu-Tang—it should be pronounced “Wudang,” because it’s the name of a Daoist sacred mountain that he took for their band name.

IDEAS: But doesn’t that risk just becoming a collection of misinterpretations by outsiders? Where do you draw the line?

ROBSON: I don’t think there is one authentic Daoism; Daoism is many different things to many different people over time, and what I tried to do is explore the range of what that name has been applied to.

IDEAS: It’s fascinating that the “Daode jing” is so widely translated, but you point out that many “translations” are by people who don’t even read Chinese.

ROBSON: The “Daode jing” is a strange text in many ways....Everybody thinks that Daoism has this transcultural nature to it that you can tap into, and that if you read different English or French translations of it, you can discern the meaning behind the text and write an “inspired version.”...The occultist Aleister Crowley in the early 1900s did a very bizarre thing where he retreated to this island in the middle of the Hudson River, and then had a celestial vision where deities came down to him and spoke the “Daode jing” to him...and that was his translation. He basically said that Jewish Kabbalists gave him the key to understanding the meaning of the “Daode jing.” And then Timothy Leary did [a] “psychedelic translation” of the “Daode jing.”...People have this notion that they can just sort of be in touch with the text and discern its deepest meaning.

The irony is that some of those translations have been the best-selling ones, and some of the most academically rigorous ones have not sold anything. And the one that I would say is the most philologically precise is absolutely unreadable.

Robson will be speaking about Daoism at Boston University School of Theology on Dec. 3 at 5 p.m. (745 Commonwealth Ave., Room 325).

Courtney Humphries is a freelance writer in Boston. 

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