Daoism and Ecology
Eight Ideas Worth Considering
Selected Quotations from James Miller
Daoism begins with a new mental attitude and a new approach to our bodies.
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.
Environmentalism too often suggests a dualism.
"The language of 'environment' continues the false notion that nature constitutes an objective reality extrinsic to human subjectivity, accessible through science, transformable through engineering. This paradigm gives us the sense that the environment is something outside us that we can save or preserve through science and technology or other modes of intervention. The reality from a Daoist perspective is that there is no such thing as an 'environment' upon which humans individually or collectively act. Conversely there is no 'environment' to be 'saved' or 'preserved.' Daoist thought posits multiple, co-creative subjectivities rather than a discourse of subjective agents who act on passive objects. This correlational agency is visualized in terms of the interdependence of landscape and body. Each is mapped upon the other. Qi flows through the landscape just as it does through human bodies. Both are mutually implicated, and mutually co-constituting."
The universe is a single, vital organism -- and we are inside this organism, not outside it.
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.
Everything is always changing.
If we turn to the Daodejing, we discover that the dominant motif of creation is not that of separation or hierarchy but that of reproduction or generation. The Dao is imaged as a mother who gives birth to the One, the One gives birth to the two, the two give birth to the three, and the three give birth to the ten thousand things. This recursive, recombinatory, fractal-like process depicts the emergence of the ten thousand things of the cosmos as the result of a fertile, agglutinative process in which the one pregnant with itself, gives birth to an even more pregnant two, and this process of gestation and birth continues irrepressibly until we have the flood of beings, processes, and events that constitute the known world. Creation is here imaged as a process of unstoppable fecundity rather than a process of clarification and separation.
Everything is breathing.
Traditional Chinese culture views the body not as a discrete object set apart from its environment, but as a dynamic system in which vital fluids are exchanged between the inner body and their environment. Central to this view is the concept of Qi (Ch’i) 气 a complex term sometimes translated as vital breath, spirit, or pneuma. The most fundamental form of Qi is the air we breathe that gives us life.
The world outside our body is a world inside our body.
The Daoist religious tradition offers a wide repertoire of body cultivation practices that focus on generating a phenomenological sensitivity to the inner body and its location within the world. These practices can be understood from the contemporary Western theoretical perspectives developed by Merleau-Ponty and Richard Shusterman. Merleau-Ponty proposed that the body constitutes the basis for phenomenological experience but did not develop the idea of the experience of the inner body that is so vital to Indian and Chinese body cultivation traditions. Richard Shusterman proposed the concept of “somaesthetics” or methods of training the body’s experience of the world, but did not consider the value of this from an ecophenomenological point of view. Extending these theoretical perspectives to interpret Daoist cultivation methods reveals that Daoists aim to dissolve the experiential boundary between the body and the world and create an experience of the mutual interpenetration of the body and the world. Such an experience can form the aesthetic basis for cultivating ecological sensitivity.
Ordinary modes of perception need to be broken down.
So long as people urge others to respect, heal, or value nature as an object beyond the hermetically-sealed walls of their bodies, they subtly and unconsciously reinforce the absolute separation of the mind from the world. Such an approach to environmentalism is doomed to failure. Embodied traditions such as Daoist cultivation could play an important role in teaching people how to overcome this dualism, and how to create alternative experiences of the world not as external to body, but within the body. The Daoist experience of pervasion is predicated on the possibility of the world flooding into the body and the body flooding into the world. Such transgressive experiences may serve to break down the ordinary perception of a world disconnected from the body of the individual. In their place such experiences could generate an ecological aesthesis, a psychosomatic sensitivity to the mutual implication of the lived body and the lived world. Such a sensitivity could serve as a much-needed complement to discursive modes of environmental action, such as earth charters, policies, ethics and legislation.
The ideal is to become translucent to the environment without losing our individuality.
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.
James Miller is Professor of Chinese Studies in the School of Religion at Queens University in Canada. If we want to think about the relationship of Daoism to climate change and sustainable community, his writings can be a point of departure. He explains that, from a Daoist perspective, there can be a problem with the language of environmentalism. The word "environment" can too easily suggest a passive object upon which we gaze, extrinsic to our subjectivity, when in fact (1) the hills and rivers, the biosphere and atmosphere are active, filled with self-creativity, (2) we ourselves are part of, not apart from, this larger web of creativity, and (3) the energies of the web of creativity are within our bodies, even as they are also beyond our bodies. It follows (4) that traditional Daoist practices of body awareness, amid which we explore sensations within our bodies, can contribute to our overall ecological sensitivity, as complementary to more discursive practices such as reading books and listening to talks. As we seek to live in harmony with the more than human world and with one another, we can turn to written texts and oral speech (Miller calls them discursive approaches) but we can also turn to the wisdom of our own bodies as accessed with help from traditional Daoist practices.
-- Jay McDaniel
Connections with Process Philosophy and Theology
For a scholarly bibliography on Process Philosophy and Chinese Philosophy, click here.
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James Miller at University of Southern California’s US-China Institute on November 19, 2014.
The monumental task that China faces in the 21st century is to create a way of development that does not destroy the ecological foundations for the life and livelihood of its 1.4 billion citizens. This requires a creative leap beyond the Enlightenment mentality and the Western model of industrialization. Can China’s cultural traditions, its religious values, ideals and ways of life, play a role in building a sustainable China?
James Miller offers a thirty minute interview on the state of religion in China