Incorporation of Taoism Into Other Beliefs: A Critique

I’ve been seeing many threads of late on the Internet concerning the incorporation of Taoism into other belief systems. It seems to be a trend that has taken off in certain quarters and I grant that it has appeal in certain bizarre ways, but I’d like to express my viewpoints on the matter both to hear your thoughts and to hear my own.

My first qualifying act when someone tells me they’re a Catholic / Buddhist / Jewish / what-have-you Taoist is to inquire as to which form of Taoism they’re referring to. Although the topic itself brings up many discussions and arguments, I firmly believe that there is an opposing yet complementary (Yin Yang) relationship happening between religious and philosophical Taoism. Summed up in a very small nutshell, religious Taoism descended from philosophical Taoism. It embodies the trappings of most other religions – indeed it must, since it arose primarily in response to the influx of other religions into China.

The Trappings of Taoist Religion

What are the trappings? The festivals and holy days. The prayers. The priests, the temples and the incantations. The offerings of the aspirants to their favorite deities. (Yes, I know that the gods and goddesses in Taoism don’t exactly represent Gods, but they share the same metaphysical base.) Ceremonies for marriage, death, birth.

So in this sense, I can understand how religion “A” could claim to share dogma with religion “B”. But just because something smells like a duck and quacks like a duck doesn’t necessarily mean it IS a duck. It might just be a clever impersonator. It might be a goose that is envious of the duck’s lifestyle. Perhaps this goose is tired of its goose-y religion and wants something more. Perhaps it is gifted in mimicry and strives to show the form of the duck; unfortunately, while the goose is doing this it doesn’t quite understand the duck’s main function, or essence.

The New Age

I dread using the term, but I can find no other that would sufficiently depict what I’m thinking here – “New Age”. My apologies at this point to any self-professed New Agers who have embodied not only the appearance but the essence of Taoism on their spiritual journey – you know that it isn’t YOU I’m speaking of. I refer rather to the dilettantes, the seekers who jump from belief system to belief system without ever learning the core concepts of any of them. I suspect that many who claim dual beliefs are those who were raised in an atmosphere of “anything goes” liberalism – they never clung to one belief too tightly, never gave their all to it, and certainly won’t follow any single system to it’s ultimate fruition. They merely latch onto anything that feels good, and damn the consequences if they happen to distort it beyond all recognition to their own liking.

My second reaction is one of wondering whether this newly-proclaimed dualism is merely the result of Taoism’s growing popularity and media exposure. Over the past few decades we’ve been exposed to an avalanche of Tao-inspired works – everything from books and films to music and food. While I can certainly appreciate the acceptance of my belief system, I shudder when I think of how it is being McDonaldized into a one-size-fits-all niche. It’s chic to say you’re a Taoist these days – it’s a swell conversation starter at the country club and a great way to avoid being pinned down on your true beliefs – “well, I’m a Taoist, and they believe that anything goes”.

No. Uh-uhn. Sorry.

Once again, I hold no grudge against those of my fellow travelers who aspire to the teachings of the Old Man. What I DO find disquieting is the number of “me-too”’s that are suddenly swimming in the pool of Tao. The pendulum has begun to swing too far to one side, and we all know that can only mean it will soon swing through center to the opposite extreme. It might be a long time before things settle down in the middle where they belong.

Society | Religion | Taoism

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