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Ecology and Religion: Ecology and Daoism


The study of Daoism and ecology has undergone rapid revision and expansion in the past ten years but is still in its infancy. The most important reason for the transformation of this field is the dramatic advance in Daoist studies since 1980. Whereas the focus of Daoist studies had previously been fixed on proto-Daoist wisdom literature such as the Zhuangzi (c. third century bce) and the Dao de jing (c. fourth century bce), scholars now understand Daoism to include a wide range of priestly, communal, and monastic traditions that began in 142 ce with the Way of the Celestial Masters under Zhang Daoling and continue to the present day in China, East Asia, and across the world. As knowledge of these traditions has broadened and deepened, so has the ability to make connections between Daoism and ecology, but despite the many possible areas of engagement that have opened up, the field of Daoism and ecology remains relatively unexplored, at least in comparison to such traditions as Christianity and Buddhism.

Cosmology and Environment

The starting point for any discussion on Daoism and ecology is the Dao itself. Daoist cosmology regards the Dao as the principle of vital creativity inherent within the diversity of phenomena within the universe. The Dao is transcendent in that it is regarded as the supreme wellspring of creativity for heaven, earth, and humanity. The Dao is also immanent within all life as the vital power (de ) that informs the nature (xing ) of each of the myriad beings (wanwu ). Daoist religion can be regarded as ecological in its theoretical structure because it is based on the continuous negotiation between individuals and their cosmological environment or creative matrix (dao ). Life is thus neither absolutely fated nor a matter of individual will but inscribed in a complex ecology of engagement with family, ancestors, deities, the seasons, the sun and moon, and even the Dao itself.

This ecological understanding of religion does not mean, however, that Daoists have always exhibited romantic views of nature or modern environmentalist sensibilities. More frequently, Daoists are concerned with the flow of vital fluid (qi) in their bodies and the cultivation of a divine (shen ) or immortal (xian ) body that transcends the conventional limits of time and space. Although this focus on self-cultivation has frequently taken the form of detachment from ordinary life and meditative internal visualization, the focus on the inner body is itself predicated on an understanding of the body as the world and the world as the body. This microcosm-macrocosm correspondence indicates an ecological resonance between the vitality of Daoist practitioners and the vitality of the cosmological matrix in which they exist.

Daoists thus came to imagine the body as a cosmic landscape incorporating stars, mountains, streams, vegetation, and other natural phenomena. The nineteenth-century Neijing tu (Chart of the inner passageways), for example, depicts organs of the body as groves of trees, and qi meridians as streams. Altogether it depicts the body, like the world, as an ecology of living beings that function together to create an integral life form. Other charts depict the body as a single solid mountain with an abundance of fountains, springs, and waterfalls. The implication is that the environment provides a natural analogy for understanding the functioning of the body.

Other more abstract schemes for mapping the connections between the body and the environment are also prevalent. The most widespread is the common Chinese system of the five phases (earth, metal, water, wood, and fire), which is correlated with the seasons of the year, directions, colors, the organs of the body, the emotions, tastes, and so on. The accompanying theory of impulse and resonance (ganying ) provides a holistic scheme of synchronic correlation in which a change in one domain entails a corresponding change in another domain. This theory, which forms an integral part of the diagnostic scheme of Chinese medicine, is also central to the Daoist worldview, and it functions, for instance, to coordinate the directions, times, and colors of Daoist liturgies.

Views of Nature

The resonance between human bodies and the Dao may be traced back as far as the Dao de jing and its seminal statement that "Dao follows [its] nature" (dao fa ziran ; Dao de jing, chap. 25). Interpretations of this phrase vary but two themes predominate. The first interpretation is that this phrase indicates the Dao's transcendence: the Dao follows no principle other than its own so-being. The second interpretation points to the Dao's immanence: the Dao is inscribed in the patterns of nature, and thus the path to be followed is the natural path. This implies a core value of "naturalness" at the heart of Daoist ethics and leads to the formulation of the Daoist principle of nonaction (wuwei ), that is, action that is so harmonious with the flow of the Dao that it seems as though it is no action (see Liu, 2001).

Daoist thinking regards the transcendent and immanent aspects of the Dao as complementary, not opposed. On the one hand, Dao transcends nature, and humans who follow the Dao aim for a transcendent state of unity with the Dao; on the other hand, Dao is implicated within nature, and humans must follow a natural path. A failure to understand the complementarity of these principles has led to the tendency to separate Daoism into a natural philosophy on the one hand, and a mystical-religious tradition on the other. If, however, we understand nature in the Daoist sense as pregnant with the capacity for self-transcendence it becomes easier to understand how Daoism can be both "natural" and "religious." This recursive, self-transcending view of nature is evident in two places in the Dao de jing. It is most clearly expressed in the cosmogony of Dao de jing chapter 42, in which "Dao gives birth to One; One gives birth to Two; Two gives birth to Three; Three gives birth to the ten thousand things." At each stage of this cosmogonic process, nature becomes, as it were, pregnant with itself, in a process of creative emergence and evolution. Secondly, we can look to the Daoist view of transformation (bianhua ) according to which natural phenomena are in a process of constant change and creativity. This is not only a descriptive statement about the nature of nature but implies, prescriptively, an ethic of nonattachment to things. Although this Daoist view of nonattachment is not implicated, as in Buddhism, with a theory of unsatisfactoriness (dukkha ) or impermanence, it does entail a similar set of negative ethical prescriptions rooted in the value of nonaction (wuwei), that is, noninterference in the creative process of the Way.

In the proto-Daoist Zhuangzi, the theory of transformation implies a skepticism with regard to the traditions of Confucian behavior and the conventions of logical philosophy. Since the natural world is constantly changing, human patterns of thinking and habits of action can never be adequate to orient humans towards nature. This attitude further implies an ethic of deference or respect for the spontaneity of nature's transformations. Some scholars infer from this an attitude of stoic, even mystical, passivity in regards to natural transformation that does not sit well with modern notions of environmental activism. According to this interpretation, even though Daoists may deplore the extinction of a species, they must not let themselves be moved to action by such a natural phenomenon. Other scholars infer from this concept of natural transformation not an ethic of passivity, but a more sophisticated Daoist form of "noninterventionist" action. Such nonaction is neither crassly heroic nor wildly precipitate, but functions mystically to create a harmonious balance within the natural order.

Historical Survey

The earliest two Daoist religious traditions were the Way of the Celestial Masters and the Way of Great Peace. Of the two, only the former is in some form extant, but scholars have investigated both in terms of their environmental and ecological orientation. Chi-tim Lai in Taiping jing (The Daoist concept of central harmony, the scripture of great peace) advocates a view of central harmony (zhonghe ) between heaven, earth, and humankind: the role of humans is thus to achieve an optimal organic harmony between the three fundamental cosmological processes of heaven, earth, and humanity. This implies that although these early Daoists may not have been environmentalists in the modern sense, their religious worldview was founded on a cosmic ecology whose ideal state was a dynamic homeostatic equilibrium. This organismic, physiological worldview may be compared to James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis, according to which the earth is understood as a unitary self-regulating organism. Unlike Lovelock, Daoists have generally regarded humans as the apex of creation with an active role to play in maintaining the creative harmony of heaven and earth.

The Way of the Celestial Masters codified specific measures for promoting this cosmic harmony, as evidenced in the One Hundred and Eighty Precepts of Lord Lao, its chief ethical code before the Tang dynasty (618907). Central to this movement was the network of twenty-four "places of order" (zhi ), all situated in the mountains or other natural spaces of the kingdom of Shu (present-day Sichuan province), which functioned as the religion's spiritual centers where assemblies were held and scriptures were kept. In "Daoist Ecology: The Inner Transformation," Kristofer Schipper writes that nature functioned as a sanctuary in the dual sense of a sacred space and as a refuge for the community.

This view of nature as sacred space continued in the Daoist alchemical movements that flourished in pre-Tang China. Here nature functioned as the alchemist's storehouse, an immense repository of numinous substances, particularly rare minerals and fungi, that were used for the decoction of elixirs of immortality. In these alchemical traditions the final goal was not the extension or nourishing of life as seen in China's ancient longevity (yangsheng ) traditions, but rather the transcendence of ordinary human nature and the attainment of a celestial life. As Robert Campany writes in "Ingesting the Marvelous," nature is both the realm to be transcended and at the same time the means of transcendence.

As the Daoist alchemical vision became thoroughly interiorized in the Shangqing dao (Way of highest clarity) and subsequent meditative traditions, this led to an increasing emphasis on the inner landscape of the body. In the inner alchemy tradition, which continues to the present day, the marvelous substances previously sought in nature's bosom are instead found within the energetic systems of the body. Similarly, the alchemical reactions are carried out by an internal process of energy manipulation. Both the inner and outer forms of alchemy are predicated on a cosmology of transformation delineated in terms of the sixty-four hexagrams of the Yi jing (Book of changes).

Caverns and Mountains

Of particular importance in the cosmic landscape is the concept of caverns or grottoes (dong ). In keeping with the polyvalent character of Daoist symbology, caverns have multiple meanings. Firstly, Daoist hermits often withdraw to mountain caves to engage in cultivation practices. Caverns are thus natural sacred environments in which Daoists have lived and cultivated the Dao and are the dwelling places of immortal beings. Secondly, caverns are understood as nodes in a network of sacred spaces that extend throughout the earth and are mirrored in a network of ten major and thirty-six minor grotto-heavens (dongtian ). Daoist traditions grew up in and around these natural spaces, and became associated with the sacred mountains in which these grottoes are located. For this reason Daoist traditions may be classified not only by the lineage of their founders but by various sacred mountains around which they formed, for example, Maoshan (Mount Mao) Daoism. The term cavern, moreover, was used by Lu Xiujing (406477) to denote the three major subdivisions of the Daoist canon. According to this bibliographical cosmology, caverns are understood to be celestial repositories of sacred texts, cosmic libraries formed of the fabric of the Dao. A further religious function of the earthly caves is thus to be a place where the revelation of sacred texts can take place. Texts are said to inscribe themselves on the walls of caves or at least become visible to adepts after years of meditation in caves.

The cave where Zhang Daoling, the first celestial master, is said to have meditated in the second century ce is now part of the monastery known as the Tianshi dong (Grotto of the Celestial Master), on Mount Qingcheng near Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. In the precincts of the monastery there is also a double gingko tree with two trunks joined together that Zhang Daoling is alleged to have planted nearly two thousand years ago. It is feted with a red sash. Since areas of outstanding natural beauty form the environments in which important Daoist figures have received religious revelations, it is not surprising that monasteries were established around these sites and continue today to mark out the sacred character of specific natural environments.

Daoist Precepts

Daoist communities formulated environmental ethical precepts that aimed to codify the relationship between humans and nature. The most important set of precepts for the early Celestial Masters community in Sichuan was known as the Yibaibashi jie (One hundred and eighty precepts). Community elders known as libationers were required to live by the code and thus set an example for the rest of the community. Approximately twenty of these precepts are injunctions against the wanton destruction of the natural environment. Members of the community were not to dry wet marshes, poison lakes, disturb birds, pick flowers, make lakes, or chop down trees without good reason. These precepts do not indicate a modern environmentalist concern with preserving nature but rather are there for the benefit of the libationers themselves. The admonition that "you should not light fires in the plains" contains the implication that this act will result in harm not only to the environment but to the community. These precepts can thus be regarded as a type of ecological ethics based on the notion that human fate is inextricably implicated in the natural environment. Although we can be sure that it was the fate of humans and not the environment that concerned the Celestial Masters, there was no concept of a human morality that somehow stood apart from the natural environment.

This ancient sentiment has been echoed in a recent statement on global ecology issued by the Chinese Daoist Association. This declaration points to an inflated image of the human self and subjective will as causes of the split between humans and nature in modern industrial and technological society. The text, written by Zhang Jiyu, argues that humans must nurture spontaneity and nonassertive action (wuwei ) in order to restore the ecological balance between humans and nature. The practical effect of this declaration has been the attention to the local environments surrounding Daoist monasteries, where Daoists have been involved in planting trees and conserving rare plant species.

Contemporary Issues

The situation of Daoist monastic environments in China is precarious. On the one hand Daoist monasteries located in scenic locales are lauded for their environmental aesthetic and for actively promoting an environmental consciousness among China's people. The message that "Dao follows nature" receives a high profile in many temple inscriptions, and the Daoist complex on Mount Qingcheng contains many signs written in Chinese and English that make the connection between Daoism and environmental protection. The message is that China's cultural and religious traditions contain the wisdom that will help China succeed in creating economic development with ecological sustainability. But on the other hand these same Daoist mountains, precisely because of their natural beauty, are becoming local economic engines attracting significant numbers of tourists and infrastructure investment from local governments. The monasteries' economic success brings the danger of too many tourists and the possibility of environmental degradation. In this way the development of Daoist sites in China precisely mirrors the economic success and environmental problems of China's overall development.

See Also

Daoism, overview article; Qi.


The most comprehensive single-volume European-language work on Daoism and ecology is Daoism and Ecology: Ways within a Cosmic Landscape, edited by N. J. Girardot, James Miller, and Liu Xiaogan (Cambridge, Mass., 2001). This book, which contains the essays mentioned above, includes the "Declaration of the Chinese Daoist Association on Global Ecology" by Zhang Jiyu, pp. 361372; Chi-tim Lai's "The Daoist Concept of Central Harmony (zhonghe ) in the Scripture of Great Peace (Taiping jing ): Human Responsibility for the Maladies of Nature," pp. 95111; Liu Xiaogan's "Non-action and the Environment Today," pp. 315339; Robert Ford Campany's "Investigating the Marvelous" pp. 125147, and Kristofer Schipper's essay on the One Hundred and Eighty Precepts entitled "Daoist Ecology: The Inner Transformation, A Study of the Precepts of the Early Daoist Ecclesia," pp. 7994. Robert Ford Campany's work on the idea of nature in the alchemy of Ge Hong can be found in his To Live as Long as Heaven and Earth: A Translation and Study of Ge Hong's Traditions of Divine Transcendents (Berkeley, 2002), and for theoretical treatments of alchemy see Fabrizio Pregadio's "Elixirs and Alchemy," in Daoism Handbook, edited by Livia Kohn, pp. 165195 (Leiden, 2000). Sarah Allen's The Way of Water and Sprouts of Virtue (Albany, N.Y., 1997) contains an excellent discussion of how early Chinese philosophical concepts are rooted in images from nature; this philosophical inquiry is also treated in the set of essays in Nature in Asian Traditions of Thought: Essays in Environmental Philosophy, edited by J. Baird Callicott and Roger T. Ames (Albany, N.Y., 1989). E. N. Anderson's Ecologies of the Heart: Emotion, Belief, and the Environment (New York, 1996) discusses a wide range of Chinese folk traditions, such as feng-shui and diet, in terms of their ecology and culture. For an up-to-date annotated bibliography of works related to Daoism and ecology, consult the website of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at

James Miller (2005)

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