Daoism as a Living Tradition
Daoism is a tradition that has developed and evolved in countless ways over the course of its history. In the west we would generally think of Daoism as a strand of philosophy whereas in many parts of Asia Daoism is seen as a fully-fledged religion complete with temples, gods and ritualised forms of prayer. In truth, there are many different ways to approach and understand Daoism; some would argue that only one form of Daoism is correct whereas others acknowledge the flexible nature of the tradition and its practices. We can summarise the main forms of Daoism into three key categories:
- Dao Jiao (道家) or ‘philosophical Daoism’. This is the form of Daoism most commonly encountered in the West. Based primarily on the writings of Laozi (老子) and his seminal texts the Dao De Jing (道德經), philosophical Daoism looks as the nature of life and practice with its ultimate goal being unification with a higher state of being known simply as Dao (道) or ‘that which cannot be defined’.
- Dao Jiao (道敎) or ‘religious Daoism’. Common in the Far East and increasingly becoming more widespread in the West are the practices of religious Daoism. This form of devotion to Dao (道) takes a similar format to other religious traditions. Religious Daoism includes monks, priests and the same kind of religious hierarchy present within any of the major religions of the world.
- Jin Dan Dao (金丹道) or ‘alchemical Daoism’. Is said to have been develop during the Tang (唐) dynasty through an amalgamation of Daoist methods and shamanic practices of the Wu (巫) people. Alchemical Daoism has both internal and external forms with the basis of the practice being meditative study. The original aim of Daoist alchemy was pursuit of spiritual immortality though at a later stage in its development Buddhist concepts begun to influence Daoism and so the direction of the practice was altered somewhat.
Whether or not the various types of Daoism were originally separable from one another it is certainly the case in modern times that a division between these three key ways of approaching Daoism exists. On top of this we could maybe add that a fourth type of Daoism, ‘New-Age Daoism’, exists as well. People with little understanding of the tradition created this type of Daoism in the west and sadly it can be quite difficult to extract the new-age from the authentic when encountering many schools and writings in the west.
Within the School
Although Damo Mitchell has studied Daoism in many different formats during his decades of study he primarily teaches according to the philosophical and alchemical strands of the tradition. Religious Daoism is the least emphasised of Daoism’s forms within the school.
Numerous arts and practices have become associated with Daoism. In many cases the creation of these arts is 100% attributed to Daoism or mythical Daoist sages. In truth, many of these arts were developed independent of Daoism and instead absorbed many of the principles and teachings of Dao (道) at a later stage in their evolution. Daoists have also always been a pragmatic bunch and if a practice can help a person to understand ‘the way’ then it was readily absorbed into the repertoire of the Daoists study. For many people who encounter Daoism in their life it is through study of one of these arts which is now associated with the tradition. In the majority of cases a person will practice their art with only a vague knowledge of Daoism as a form of personal cultivation but in some cases the tradition itself becomes the focus. In these instances it is normal for the practice to lead to further exploration of associated subjects. This was certainly the case for Damo Mitchell who was led into Daoism originally through a study of the martial arts. With time, the philosophy he was casually studying alongside his arts began to absorb more and more of his time. Martial arts led into medicine and then further than this into the other ‘Daoist’ arts that form a part of the Lotus Nei Gong school. These arts include:
- Martial Arts – Arts such as Taijiquan (太極拳), Baguazhang (八卦掌) and Xingyiquan (形意拳) are widely taught by Damo and his senior students in various locations around the world. The study of martial arts is deep, especially in the case of the internal styles. More than just a tool for self defence or exercise, the martial arts build inner strength and fluidity of spirit.
- Chinese Medicine – Chinese medicine classically includes various forms of massage and bodywork, acupuncture, herbs and Qi (氣) emission. The aim of Chinese medicine was obviously to improve a persons’ health but on top of this is a form of personal cultivation for both the practitioner and patient.
- Qi Gong (氣功) and Nei Gong (內功) – The energetic internal practices of Daoism which are the mainstay of the schools public syllabus. The differences between these two terms are explored elsewhere on the site. Incorporating medicine, alchemy and internal bodywork, these practices are a life study in their own right.
- Alchemy – The meditative practice of Daoism which leads a person towards the highest goals of the tradition. Alchemy is a complex seated practice for the consciousness which is seldom understood to any level of depth in the West. Most other arts within Daoism are ultimately used to help prepare a person for engagement with alchemical training.
- Feng Shui (風水), Yi Jing (易經) and Fang Zhong Shu (房中術) are three aspects of Daoism which are occasionally taught on a theoretical basis within the school. Feng Shui (風水) is the study of ‘time and location’ as a form of medicine and spiritual development. Yi Jing (易經) helps a person to develop an understanding of the unfolding of Ming (命) or ‘life’ within a particular unfolding event. Fang Zhong Shu (房中術) or the ‘bedroom arts’ are a paired system of internal practice for couples involved in Nei Gong (內功) training. In contrast to the overblown and massively misunderstood forms of sexual practice often taught within the West, Fang Zhong Shu (房中術) is a sensible and down to earth study of how two cultivators may maintain a healthy intimate relationship whilst engaging in the more demanding aspects of internal training.
The above listed arts are studied and taught by Damo Mitchell as a way to understanding Dao (道) in its wider context. Though each art can be studied individually many members of the school have absorbed many of these teachings into their lives in order to more fully align themselves with the esoteric tradition of Daoism. This is the flexible nature of Daoism, practices and elements of the tradition can be picked up or ignored by the practitioner as they see fit. Ultimately the goal of any and all of these arts is to help a person nourish the spirit and enrich their life; an ethos labelled as cultivating Xing (性) and Ming (命) within alchemical texts.