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Foreigners flock to Taoism for natural balance

China Daily, December 26, 2014 Adjust font size:

Harmonious relation

The Taoist philosophy, based on respect for nature and the promotion of a harmonious relationship between humanity and nature, has enabled the religion to play a bigger role in environmental affairs.

Representatives from Taoist associations in Belgium and China share interpretations of Taoist culture during a visit to Belgium in 2013. YE PINGFAN/XINHUA

Representatives from Taoist associations in Belgium and China share interpretations of Taoist culture during a visit to Belgium in 2013. YE PINGFAN/XINHUA

"There is huge interest in Taoism right now because of the global economic collapse and the environmental crisis. People are looking for other ways to understand who we are, our place in the universe, and our relationship with the rest of nature," Palmer said.

Zhao Yanxia, director of the Center for Taoist Studies at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David in the United Kingdom, said Taoist philosophy has inspired a growing number of environmentalists around he world. "Other groups, including feminists and hippies, are also turning to Taoism for inspiration," she said.

According to Palmer, one of the reasons Taoist thought becoming increasingly popular is that it offers a life philosophy to people who don't want to belong to an established Western religion: "They find wisdom, and poetic and beautiful descriptions of our relationship with nature. That does not require a God, but it does require a compassionate heart.

"In Taoism, a lot of people find a kind of spiritual and philosophical way of thinking about the world that offers a real alternative. This is influencing artists, influencing musicians, and influencing people who write stories and novels," he said.

Shannon echoed Palmer's view, saying that many of his students are atheists: "After a few years of studying qigong, they are feeling the earth and energy in their body. And then they believe there must be something."

Yam Kahkean, a professor at the Department of Chinese Studies at the University of Malaysia who is also the president of the Malaysian Taoist Association, said the fact that some Taoist classics are open to interpretation can also give rise to inaccuracies.

"In Malaysia, for instance, the Chinese community will go to a temple and worship the Taoist gods, if they are not already members of another religion," he said. "Sometimes, people just build an altar or a temple quite casually, but these are really just dedicated to Chinese folklore religions, rather than Taoism," he said.

Yam said the rise of new media has facilitated the spread of Taoism because it enables easy exchanges, but it can also result in practices that may harm the religion's reputation. "It's much easier to access Taoist classics now than ever before. That means anybody can learn some of the classics online and claim to be a Taoist master," he said.

Palmer said the challenge for the Chinese Taoist Association lies in accepting that Taoism is no wan international religion. "I would say that in China there's still a slight feeling that Taoism is a Chinese religion, but they (practitioners) are very happy if Westerners want to come and look at it," he said.

"I think it's too early for the China Taoist Association to know how to deal with the fact that Taoism is now an international philosophy, rather than an international religion," he said.

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